The novel is a popular branch of literature. A lot of people are fond of reading novels. And they judge a novel from their likes and dislikes. Such judgement or criticism depends on their special bias. And from this point of view, some like a romantic novel; some seek thrillers; some like complex social plots, and some other historic novels. In broad categories, some want romance, some want reality. Thus each class of novel has its special admirers. However, this kind of judgement is purely personal. It cannot express the exact quality or merit of a novel.
Another way of judging a novel is impersonal criticism. It is guided strictly by some uniform literary principles. It includes the evaluation of elements of a novel, i.e., its plot, characters, conflicts, ending, form and theme and the writer’s attitude and philosophy of life.
The plot of a good novel must be rooted in the realities of life. However, it is different from a biography. A biography cannot deviate from facts. But in a novel, there is ample scope of fantasy, though it should have the colour of reality. In a historical novel, facts and fictions may be mixed, but the principal data must be factual and it may be supplemented by some fictional side roles, and that too should be according to the spirit of the age in which it is written and the character of the characters.
The episodes that make up a plot may have variety but must be held together by some central unifying purpose and motive. A good novel would not allow any episode for mere padding up the novel. The real purpose of weaving the episodes in a novel is to introduce some intrinsic complications and thus lead to the conflict of the ego of characters. The identity of the characters, especially the hero and heroine, is best expressed through such conflicts. The interesting motive of a good novel is to tie and untie the knots and to draw out the conflicts to bring them to a finish.
The ending of a novel must bear the force of inevitability. A novel may sometimes be open-ended with various possibilities, but it does not bear any unplanned loose end. The ultimate solution need not be expressed openly, but it must suggest itself convincingly.
A great novelist deals life in a wide front. His canvas is large in comparison to a short story. Hence there is the scope of progress and evolution of the characters through a lot of complexities. If the novelist adds insight and varieties into the characters of his novel, it becomes definitely a masterpiece. And so in judging a novel we have to take into account the characters and their contributions to the purpose of the novel.
In recent times, we see a tendency in some of the novelists to pack up their novels with more and more sex and violence to get them more popular. But if sex and violence do not suit the intrinsic purpose of the novel, they may create a craze and bring name and fame and money to the writer for a time, but it must be a failure to be a masterpiece.
Finally, we should judge the novelist’s viewpoint or the attitude and philosophy of life. The status of a novel rests on the purpose that it serves. If we place Walter Scott against Charles Dickens, we see that nowadays few read Scott except literary specialists, while Dickens’ readers are many. It is
because Scott seeks to create a respect for feudal values which tie us down to the past, but Dickens inspires the hope that the world is moving forward to a newer and better condition of life. In great novels, we want to see the influence of social environment on human character, and through it, we want to realise the dynamic urge of life. And for that Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Gorkyy’s Mother or Dickens’ A Tale of two cities or Tagore’s Gora or Saratchandra’s Srikanta are great novels. And thus there are two lines of novels—good and bad—up to the treatment.
The criticism of a novel cannot be complete if we do not judge the theme and the form or the style of a novel, as what is told is not enough, it should be viewed how it is told. There must be harmony between the two in any masterpiece.