Enlightenment Orientalism: Resisting the Rise of the Novel

Srinivas Aravamudan here reveals how Oriental tales, pseudo-ethnographies, sexual fantasies, and political satires took Europe by storm during the eighteenth century. Naming this body of fiction Enlightenment Orientalism, he poses a range of urgent questions that uncovers the interdependence of Oriental tales and domestic fiction, thereby challenging standard scholarly narratives about the rise of the novel.

More than mere exoticism, Oriental tales fascinated ordinary readers as well as intellectuals, taking the fancy of philosophers such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Diderot in France, and writers such as Defoe, Swift, and Goldsmith in Britain. Aravamudan shows that Enlightenment Orientalism was a significant movement that criticized irrational European practices even while sympathetically bridging differences among civilizations. A sophisticated reinterpretation of the history of the novel, Enlightenment Orientalism is sure to be welcomed as a landmark work in eighteenth-century studies.


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic
M.J. Emery, US (Cottey College; Choice)
“[An] ambitious, sophisticated study. . . . Those studying the European novel will be grappling with this book for the next decade.”

Kenshur Prize for the Center for Eighteenth-Century Studies at Indiana University
“Srinivas Aravamudan’s Enlightenment Orientalism: Resisting the Rise of the Novel is a big book. It offers a deeply revisionist take on some of the most fundamental questions of eighteenth-century literature and indeed of eighteenth-century studies tout court. On the one hand, it undertakes a vast project of recovery, drawing and highlighting largely neglected lines of influence from eighteenth-century oriental tales to the heart of the canon that underpins the standard “rise of the novel” narrative for this period. At the same time, the outcome of this multi-strand recovery project is a fundamentally different take on the “rise of the novel” narrative itself: if Aravamudan is right, we will never tell that story in the same way again. Some of course might claim that he is not right, or not quite right, or only half-right: this in the end is the greatest tribute to a prize-winning book – that it unsettles a field to the point that its very conceptual appartus will never be the same as before the book appeared. Nor will our understanding of Orientalism be able to retain its monochrome tones (derived from the work of Edward Said and his followers), given Aravamudan’s emphasis on the different, anti-foundationalist orientalism of the eighteenth century. For these reasons of breadth, originality, big claims and far-reaching relevance, we are delighted to reward the Kenshur Prize for 2012 to Enlightenment Orientalism.”
The International Society for the Study of Narrative’s George and Barbara Perkins Prize
“This book makes two very ambitious claims: (a) Orientalism in the 18th century was more complex, less imperialistic, and more open to otherness (even if inaccurately imagined) than in the 19th century, and (b) Watt’s influential notion of the “rise of the novel” overemphasizes British realism, at the expense of equally important texts, often neither British nor realistic, that are broadly “Orientalist.” Srinivas Aravamudan draws on a wide range of fiction from the long 18th century– analyzing authors as diverse as Behn, Bidpai, Defoe, Montesquieu, Prévost, Sheridan, Smollett and Voltaire—to name just a few, plus contemporary commentary, as well as theories from our day. He not only reminds us of but also helps us delight in now forgotten texts and genres that were once wildly popular, demonstrating among other things how closely French and English literatures were in contact with one another in that period. This book changes our ideas of the Enlightenment, the shapes and affects of Orientalism, and the history of narrative. For these reasons, I am happy on behalf of the International Society for the Study of Narrative to award it the Perkins Prize.”

Review Quotes

Homi K. Bhabha, US (Harvard University)
“With flair and fascination, Srinivas Aravamudan intervenes in a growing debate about the complex role played by the configuration of Orientalist ‘knowledges’—fictional, phantasmatic, political, moral—in the sage archive of the Enlightenment. At once an elaborate mise-en-scène and a form of mediation, the Orientalist text reveals the Enlightenment to be extravagantly caught up in the tendentious play of differences available to its social and cultural imaginary.”

Robert Markley, US (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)
“By destabilizing and, paradoxically, enlarging our understanding of the rise of the novel, Aravamudan makes an extraordinary contribution to eighteenth-century studies and to English and French literary history. This book is as exciting as it is useful, featuring truly excellent analyses of individual texts and writers. Without question, Enlightenment Orientalism is an illuminating, persuasive, and provocative revaluation of eighteenth-century fiction.”,
Suvir Kaul, US (University Of Pennsylvania, Research in African Literatures)
Thus, even as Enlightenment Orientalism will make it impossible for critics to ignore the diverse forms of prose fiction it rehabilitates, it will, perhaps even more importantly, make it possible for others to rethink the history of eighteenth-century prose fiction as a continuing and engaged dialogue between the national-realist novel and other forms of storytelling.
Ros Ballaster, UK (Oxford University; French Studies)
Aravamudan’s erudition, the depth and breadth of his knowledge, to pursue a challenging thesis is everywhere evident. . . . Especially gratifying throughout the book is the interwoven analysis of French and English sources uncovering a stimulating philosophical and creative traffic resistant to nationalist agendas.
Madeleine Dobie, US (Columbia University, Public Books)
[Marina] Warner’s view of the Nights resonates strongly with arguments made by the literary scholar Srinivas Aravamudan in his recent book Enlightenment Orientalism (2012). Arguing against a common tendency to see the “rise of the novel” as the main event of 18th- and 19th-century European literary history, Aravamudan makes the case that the oriental tale, whether imported or domestically manufactured, was a crucial genre: a vehicle of moral and scientific thought experiments as well as of cross-cultural encounters. Rather than follow Edward Said’s lead by focusing on the Orientalist implications of the European reception of oriental stories, Warner and Aravamudan take another direction by considering how seemingly frivolous stories were interwoven with key chapters in the history of European philosophy and science.
Zak Sitter, Iraq (University of Sulaymaniya; Eighteenth-Century Fiction)
In Enlightenment Orientalism, Srinivas Aravamudan focuses on the segment of Enlightenment thought that might seem most vulnerable to charges of complicity with the imperial project—but it is precisely in the unexpected site of Orientalism that his intriguing book finds an underexploited possibility for resistance. . . . Aravamudan reads a diverse, sometimes dizzying, range of texts of the French and English Enlightenment.
Farzad Boobani, Germany (University of Gessen; KULT Online)
Employing a playfully laconic prose style throughout the book, Aravamudan magisterially drives home his most significant point: the literary canon is an ideological construct that needs to be constantly exposed, dismantled, and reorganized if we wish to resist monologic historiographies.
Sunil Agnani, US (University of Illinois at Chicago; The Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry)
A conspiracy is afoot. Though you may not have noticed it until now, after reading Enlightenment Orientalism, it will be difficult for you to pick up another piece of literary criticism on the novel without the suspicion that a high degree of pre-selection has taken place to cover a heterogeneous and wild mass of texts that call to you with magic lamps and delirious trips to the moon and other planets. I overstate, of course, but this is the distinct sense that one is left with after working through the spirited polemic that unmasks what is shown to be a nationalist chauvinist bias in favor of the sober realist novel.
Daniel DeWispelare, US (George Washington University, Modern Philology)

It is worth saying that in the praiseworthy fashion of his previous monographs—Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688–1804 (1999) and Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language (2006)—Aravamudan artfully unpacks his sources with startling metaphors, unconventional turns of phrase, and a loving appreciation for academic writing’s dynamic potential. Intentional or not, the thematic and formal mirroring of argument and argumentative style is an added benefit of the work. The implicit message is that if our archive could stand to be made richer and more complex, so too could the way we write about it.

Jason H. Pearl, US (Florida International University, Eighteenth Century Life)
As a whole, Aravamudan’s book brims with insights on constructions of the Orient, and especially on the history of British and French fiction during the eighteenth century. One comes away with a clearer picture of English canon formation, as well as a better understanding of the parameters of novelistic realism and its concurrent alternatives and antitheses. Indeed, the book also provides new possibilities for future study.
Siraj Ahmed, US (Lehman College, City University of New York, Modern Language Quarterly)
The five chapters between Aravamudan’s introduction and conclusion demonstrate his dizzying knowledge of eighteenth-century fictional form and the countless traditions and discourses that influenced it.
David Adams, UK (The University of Manchester, The Modern Language Review)
[Aravamudan] rejects the traditional idea that the novel as a genre played any special role in the process, arguing that it should be seen as only one of many routes by which it was accomplished, alongside scientific popularizations, allegorical fiction, fables, etc. A striking corollary of this revisionist approach is that it calls into question the view that the novel is an eminently ‘realistic’ genre, since it shares characteristics with other forms of writing which give little, if any, space to realism in the sense of recognizably depicting the contemporary world.
Nicole Horejsi, US (Columbia University, Digital Defoe)
By encouraging readers to move beyond familiar narratives of the novel’s origins, Enlightenment Orientalism challenges scholars to confront their own expectations of the novel, prose fiction, and indeed the field of eighteenth-century studies, implicitly exhorting readers to join in the act of resistance suggested by the book’s title. Aravamudan makes plain: the story of the domestic realist novel and its putative “rise” is too comfortable and too easy. “From the perspective of Enlightenment Orientalism,” he states, “generic solutions in favor of a singular outcome eschew the harder task of making available a variety of perceptions about the relationships between particular national realisms, comparative externalities, and universal aspirations” (75). We must strive to evaluate eighteenth-century fiction on its own terms in order to guard against the wish fulfillment of revisionist history.
Humberto Garcia, US (Vanderbilt University, Comparative Literature)
Srinivas Aravamudan’s deft analysis of the sophisticated narrative techniques deployed by British and French oriental tales launches a polemical assault agains Ian Watt, Michael McKeon, Catherine Gallagher, and other critics who have seen in national realism the teleological unfolding of a singular modernity in which the rational bourgeois subject outgrows the childish pursuit of improbable romances. Aravamudan challenges this Whiggish history by drawing on a relatively unknown tradition of popular oriental tales. […] Such a rigorously historical and literary reassessment will interest scholars of intellectual history, comparative literature, and postcolonial studies.


List of Figures
Introduction: Enlightenment Orientalism

Part 1: Pseudoethnographies

1 Fiction/Translation/Transculturation
Marana, Behn, Galland, Defoe
2 Oriental Singularity
Montesquieu, Goldsmith, Hamilton

Part 2: Transcultural Allegories

3 Discoveries of New Worlds, Talking Animals, and Remote Nations
Fontenelle, Bidpai, Swift, Voltaire
4 Libertine Orientalism
Prévost, Crébillon, Diderot
5 The Oriental Tale as Transcultural Allegory
Manley, Haywood, Sheridan, Smollett

Conclusion: Sindbad and Scheherezade, or Benjamin and Joyce



Enlightenment Orientalism: Resisting the Rise of the Novel, University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Permanent link to this article: https://sites.duke.edu/srinivasaravamudan/2013/03/01/enlightenment-orientalism-resisting-the-rise-of-the-novel/