'You see I'm trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across - not to just depict life - or criticize it -
but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing.
You can't do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you can't believe in it.
Things aren't that way. It is only by showing both sides - 3 dimensions and if possible 4 that you can write the way I want to'
. Selected Letters 1917-1961
. Edited by Carlos Baker, Granada, 1981, p. 153.
The attitudes of literary realism represent the dominant concepts that define the genre.
As Raymond Williams observes, literary realism is primarily described by its 'attitudes to subjects' (301).
These subjects are reality, truth and humanity. The variety within these attitudes reflect how the genre of literary realism has
adapted to our evolving concepts of reality, humanity and truth, but also the diversity within the genre itself
in its treatment of these concepts.
It is somewhat difficult to disentangle these attitudes, as they do not necessarily exclude one another,
are often inextricably entwined and may co-exist in the same work, e.g. more than one attitude to reality, humanity or truth may be present in the same work.
Like the genre of literary realism, these attitudes are subject to expansion and alteration.
I have to stress that information provided here is provisional. Keep in mind that literary realism is a genre that has undergone,
and likely will continue to undergo, much change and experimentation.
Literary realism is characterised by certain conceptual attitudes, these being :
We may identify following attitudes to the representation of reality :
- Attitudes to the representation of reality.
- Attitudes to the representation of humanity.
- Attitudes to the representation of truth.
- The representation of observed reality, in the form of a structuring and presentation of facts.
This suggests that reality is both conceivable, knowable, verifiable, quantifiable and communicable.
This attitude dominates early literary realism.
- The representation of relative reality or multiple relative realities.
This suggests that an objective reality may be possible or conceivable, but that is not verifiable, ultimately unknowable
and can only be approached and communicated in part. This attitude dominates late literary realism.
- A representation which is characterised by a resistance to the ideal, extreme or simplistic,
i.e. the understanding that reality is not black and white,
but a complex structure; 'a mixed, entangled affair' (Eliot 113).
This does not mean that literary realism is in opposition to idealism, or beauty for that sake,
but rather that it identifies that the focus on the exceptional, extreme or ideal, particularly at the expense of the less than
exceptional, extreme or ideal, does not adequately represent reality.
- A representation which subverts existing perceptions of reality, by de-familiarising
or deforming those perceptions and/or offering one or more alternate perceptions which challenge them.
We may identify following attitudes to the representation of humanity :
- A representation which is characterised by a resistance to the ideal,
i.e. the understanding that man and the society of man is a complex mix of both the beautiful and the sordid, the sublime and the low, good and evil, etc.,
and every shade in between, and that the focus on one over the other does not adequately represent humanity.
- A representation which is characterised by a resistance to the extreme,
i.e. the understanding that the focus on the exceptional, extreme or unusual does not adequately represent humanity.
- A representation which emphasises an interrelational structure,
i.e. how individual and society, humanity and civilisation, and the ideas, concepts and conventions which determine them,
This reflects the understanding that man cannot be adequately represented 'otherwise than as embedded in a total reality' (Auerbach 463).
- A representation which is sympathetic, but avoids sentimentality,
in the understanding that an objective approach, as an expression and as an attitude, is superior to sentiment.
We may identify following attitudes to the representation of truth :
- Truth is Beauty, in the understanding that all things are beautiful and potential objects of art.
- Truth is Beauty, in the understanding that the truth, i.e. the stress on the real,
as opposed to the fantastic or ideal, is superior to all else.
- Truth is accessible through Beauty, i.e. it is hidden from us, but may be revealed through art.
- Truth is accessible through Knowledge, i.e. it is hidden from us, but may be revealed (and appropriated) through observation, analysis and reasoning.
This attitude dominates early literary realism.
- Truth is oppressed, i.e. the understanding that ruling concepts of reality, society and culture
are influenced by ideas, standards or ideals that deform reality, rather than reflect reality,
and which perpetrate potentially detrimental fictions.
- As a synonym to "essence"; i.e. the belief in the existence of enduring, eternal truths,
i.e. circumstances and concepts which have relevance for all mankind at all times.
- Truth is sublime, in the understanding that is unknowable and un-obtainable.
- Truth matters.
- Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis. Translated by Willard R. Trask, Princeton University Press, 1953.
- Eliot, George. 'On Realism'. Documents of Modern Literary Realism, edited by George J. Becker, Princeton University Press, 1963, pp. 112-116.
- Williams, Raymond. The Long Revolution. Penguin, 1980, pp. 300-316.
Table of Contents
Terminology and Aesthetics
a History of Literary Realism
What is Literary Realism?