The earliest examples date back to the 1950s, and they are still written today, although the term “campus novel” is less well-known than the number of novels would suggest. Many campus novels use satire or comic elements. They are likely to point out human weaknesses and spend time on group dynamics. Most of these novels are told from the point of view of a faculty member and focus on the students’ actions and lives.
Explore Campus Novel
Definition of Campus Novel
A campus novel is a book that mainly takes place on a university campus. These novels can be comic in nature or more serious. There are numerous examples of both kinds of campus novels. Usually, a faculty member serves as the narrator or the main character. But, it’s the students’ lives that are of the greatest importance to the plot.
In addition to the traditional campus novel, there are the subgenera of the campus murder mystery. These novels focus on a crime committed in a closed setting and the characters’ attempts to figure out who committed it. Examples of this genre include the Gervase Fen mysteries by Edmund Crispin and The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn by Colin Dexter.
Examples of Campus Novels
The Secret History by Donna Tart
The Secret History is one of the best-known contemporary campus novels. It was published in 1992 and is set in New England. It tells the story of six students at Hampden College. It’s narrated by one student who is looking back on the events that led to the murder of Edmund Corcoran. The effects of the student’s death are also explored. Since its publication, it’s become a best-seller. Here is one of the best quotes from the novel that demonstrates Tart’s skill with language:
It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown I back, throat to the stars, “more like deer than human being.” To be absolutely free! One is quite capable, of course, of working out these destructive passions in more vulgar and less efficient ways. But how glorious to release them in a single burst! To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal!
The book received positive reviews when it was published but not so many as to predict its later popularity.
Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov
Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov was the author’s 13h novel and only the fourth written in English. It was with this novel that the author’s success came to a head in the United States. The title character teaches Russian at Waindell College, inspired by Cornell University. (Interestingly, where Nabokov himself taught.) He was exiled by the Russian Revolution. Here are a few lines:
I do not know if it has ever been noted before that one of the main characteristics of life is discreteness. Unless a film of flesh envelopes us, we die. Man exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings. The cranium is a space-traveler’s helmet. Stay inside or you perish. Death is divestment, death is communion. It may be wonderful to mix with the landscape, but to do so is the end of the tender ego.
It was this novel, rather than Nabokov’s best-known novel, Lolita, that popularized the author in the United States. It had a wide readership and received rave reviews. Furthermore, it was one of the “funniest” novels published in the United States at the time, some reviewers claimed.
Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
Gaudy Night is a mystery novel published in 1935. The protagonist, Harriet Vane, is invited back to Shrewsberry College, her alma mater. There, she’s warmly welcomed despite her history with the school. Previous novels explored a murder trial that she was a part of. She’s asked to investigate an outbreak of vandalism at the school and works to narrow down a list of suspects. Here are a few lines from the novel:
The only ethical principle which has made science possible is that the truth shall be told all the time. If we do not penalize false statements made in error, we open up the way for false statements by intention. And a false statement of fact, made deliberately, is the most serious crime a scientist can commit.
The novel resolves with the protagonist accepting a marriage proposal and her being subject to a physical assault that almost costs her her life.
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
A classic example of a campus novel and one of the best in the English language. It’s a humorous and amusing book that was first published in 1954. It was Amis’ first novel, and it was the Somerset Maugham Award for fiction. It follows Jim, a university lecturer at an English University. He struggles with job-related issues and his attempts to get a paper published. The book also describes his relationship troubles and his botched public lecture. Here are a few lines from the novel:
A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.
When the novel was first published, it received great reviews, and it helped to solidify Amis’ reputation in the decades that followed.
Campus novels are an important and often overlooked genre of literature. They provide readers with an understanding of a specific place and time and the influences on young peoples’ lives.
The themes explored in these novels are life struggles, coming of age, mystery, and the future. These, among many others, can be found in campus novels.
The characters in these novels are usually students and faculty members. For example, in Lucky Jim, the main character is a professor. His narration provides readers with a specific understanding of his world.
These novels are confined to a university and its surroundings, use students and faculty as the main characters and often involve a mystery of some kind. Many authors were inspired by their own experiences teaching or attending university when writing these books.
Related Literary Terms
- Adventure Story: tells the tale of a protagonist’s journey. They go on an adventure or quest: one that could be personal or geographical.
- Autobiography: an account of one’s life written by the subject.
- Drama: a mode of storytelling that uses dialogue and performance. It’s one of several important literary genres that authors engage with.
- Melodrama: a work of literature or a theatrical performance that uses exaggerated events and characters.
- Picaresque Novel: a genre of prose fiction that depicts a roughish hero who experiences episodic adventures.
- Listen: Campus Novel Recommendations
- Listen: Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov Review
- Watch: Know Your Tropes Mystery Genre