The First Novel in Literature: Don Quixote and Exploring Early Candidate

The realm of literature is enriched by numerous remarkable works that have contributed to its evolution and diversification. One such iconic masterpiece is "Don Quixote," penned by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, a Spanish novelist born in 1547. This monumental creation, titled "The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha," holds a profound place within the Spanish Golden Age and the broader scope of the Spanish literary canon. With its publication spanning two volumes in 1605 and 1615, "Don Quixote" stands as an exemplary representation of the earliest canonical novels and a foundational work in modern Western literature.

The Unveiling of Don Quixote

"Don Quixote" has consistently occupied a prominent position on lists cataloging the greatest literary works ever published. The Bokklubben World Library collection, for instance, commends "Don Quixote" as the authors' choice for the "best literary work ever written." Such accolades underscore its profound impact and lasting legacy in the literary world.

The Quest for the First English Novel

The journey to ascertain the inception of the first novel in English literature is a voyage laden with intrigue and debate. Numerous contenders have emerged over time, each vying for recognition as the trailblazing English novel. Among these contenders are illustrious names, each contributing unique perspectives to the discussion.

Candidacy of Notable Works

Thomas Malory: Le Morte d’Arthur

Thomas Malory's "Le Morte d’Arthur," composed in 1470 and published in 1485, presents a captivating tale that often enters the discourse of the earliest English novels. However, some critics challenge its eligibility as a novel due to its retelling nature.

William Baldwin: Beware the Cat

William Baldwin's "Beware the Cat," written in 1553 and published later in 1570 and 1584, adds to the intrigue. This early work raises questions about the definition of a novel and whether certain elements exclude it from the novel category.

John Lyly: Euphues Series

John Lyly's "Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit" (1578) and "Euphues and his England" (1580) showcase a unique writing style that attracts consideration. These works delve into themes of wit and anatomy, providing a distinct contribution to the evolving genre.

Philip Sidney: The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia

Philip Sidney's "The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia" (1581) presents a narrative with elements of romance and adventure, inviting discussions about the interplay between these genres and the novel.

Margaret Cavendish: The Blazing World

Margaret Cavendish's "The Blazing World" (1666) enriches the discussion with its imaginative elements, prompting reflections on the boundaries of novels and their fantastical dimensions.

John Bunyan: The Pilgrim’s Progress

John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim’s Progress" (1678) introduces allegorical elements that raise debates about the distinction between novels and allegorical works, like whether they can coexist within the same category.

Aphra Behn: Oroonoko

Aphra Behn's "Oroonoko" (1688) sparks conversations about novellas and their classification in relation to novels, raising questions about the role of length in defining the form.

Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders

Daniel Defoe's works, including "Robinson Crusoe" (1719) and "Moll Flanders" (1722), gained significant acclaim in the journey to identify the first English novel. Their unity of structure and narrative impact set them apart.

Samuel Richardson: Pamela

Samuel Richardson's "Pamela" (1740) contributes to the discourse with its epistolary format and exploration of social themes, inviting scrutiny of the novel's evolving forms.

Defoe's Dominance

Within this dynamic panorama of candidates, the influence of Ian Watt's seminal study "The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding" (1957) has led to the widespread acknowledgment of Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe" (1719) as the inaugural English novel. Defoe's pioneering narrative structure and thematic exploration have solidified its place in literary history.


As the literary landscape continues to evolve, the pursuit of identifying the first novel in English remains an ever-engaging scholarly endeavor. The contenders presented here, each laden with distinctive qualities, collectively contribute to the rich tapestry of literature's evolution, ensuring that the conversation about the origins of the novel remains a captivating pursuit.

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