Our definition of the novel depends on our dating of the novel, and our dating of the novel depends on the definition of the novel. According to this circular way of thinking, it appears as though the definition of the novel will be doomed to a pattern of constant change and adaptation, just like every other topic that is unrelated to mathematics or topics of mechanical explanation and fact. Anything uncertain will join this cyclical way of thinking. But perhaps this is to be expected. Realism is an important aspect of the novel, and humanity also follows a cyclical life style: birth, life, death, rebirth.
Yet, there is a divide when it comes to thinking about the nature of life and reality. Many Eastern traditions and religions tend to focus more on the cyclical as natural. In Buddhism and Hinduism there is a tradition of reincarnation and rebirth. Life follows a circle, with no designated beginning or middle or end. It would be very interesting to find definitions of the novel from an Eastern viewpoint. It would be interesting to discover if the need for origin is even a dominant concern. Western tradition tends to follow a more linear pattern. Every life has a beginning, a middle and an end, but there is a particular concern with beginnings. And origins.
Who invented the novel? Where did it come from? How did it evolve? As with many things, our society tends to strive for answers to beginnings.
But defining the novel is a subjective endeavor. It is an open debate for varying opinions, and a literary device that I believe will never concretely be defined due to the personal aspect involved. We date according to what we want to be the first novel. If one believes that Homer’s epic the Odyssey should be viewed as a novel, then the novel’s origins begin during the ancient Greek civilization, and has a history longer then the 17th century, which many consider the era the novel emerged from. (Think Don Quixote)However, there are some who view the epic as merely a recounting of oral tradition, and create definitions of the novel based on different structures.
The novel today has so many styles, so many genres; I think this also plays a role in pinpointing origin. Yet personally, I myself am not too concerned with creating an exact definition or finding an exact origin because I follow the subjective line of thought. I have a personal view of what a novel consists of, and thus I date the novel according to my opinion.