What is novella: definition, meaning, characteristics and famous examples

Originally a novella was a kind of short story, a narrative in prose of the genre developed by Boccaccio. His Decameron (c. 1349–51) was a collection of such stories. Later there appeared Tomassa Guardati’s Novellino (1467). In the 16th c. Bandello published a collection of 214 novelle. Tudor dramatists often used novelle as source books for plots. Thereafter, there was little sign of the novella developing for some time; unless one were to include in this category some of the narratives of Deloney and Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe’s Unfortunate Traveller (1594), Emanuel Ford’s Irnatus and Artesia (1634), Mrs. Behn’s Oroonoko (c. 1688) and William Congreve’s Incognita (1713). But such works may also be regarded as romances or embryonic novels. It was not until late in the 18th and early in the 19th c. that the novella was fashioned into a particular form according to certain precepts and rules. Then the Germans became the most active practitioners, and the Novelle has since flourished in Germany more than anywhere else.

Basically, the Novelle is a fictional narrative of indeterminate length (a few pages to two or three hundred), restricted to a single event, situation or conflict, which produces an element of suspense and leads to an unexpected turning point so that the conclusion surprises even while it is a logical outcome. Many Novelle contain a concrete symbol which is the steady point, as it were, at the heart of the narrative.

Goethe attempted to summarize the quiddity of the Novelle when he said: “What else is a Novelle about but an event which is unheard of but has taken place?’Or, more concisely, ‘an event without precedent’. The first of its kind, in all probability, was Goethe’s Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten (1795), derived from the novella form used by Boccaccio. It is a Novelle with a cyclic frame or Rahmen. There has been a good deal of debate and theory ever since as to what precisely a Novelle is or should be. August Schlegel theorized about it and stressed the importance of the Wendepunkt in the narrative. Tieck also stressed the importance of this. Later, Paul Heyse worked out his Falkentheorie in Deutscher Novellenschatz (1871–6). In 1828 Goethe had observed that the genre harboured ‘many a wonderful thing’.

Among the principal practitioners were Goethe, Heinrich von Kleist, Hoffmann, Tieck, Theodor Storm, Paul Heyse, Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. The viss writers Gottfried Keller and Conrad Meyer were also prolific; as were the Austrians Ferdinand Saar and Arthur Schnitzler.

Nowadays, the term is often used to distinguish a long short-story from a short story and a short novel from a full dress novel. Stories which might be placed in this middle-distance category are Leo Tolstoy’s The Cossacks (1852) and The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886); Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger and Tod in Venedig (1913); Aldous Huxley’s Two or Three Graces (1926); Alberto Moravia’s Conjugal Love (1951); Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952); and H. E. Bates’s trilogy The Nature of Love (1953). Some would also include Joseph Conrad’s three long short stories Youth, Heart of Darkness (1902) and Typhoon (1903).

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