Literary conventions are stylistic, thematic and/or conceptual markers, traits or characteristics,
in the form of literary devices, motifs, and aesthetic effects,
which serve as the rules whereby a text is constructed and received.
The conventions of literary realism serve the following functions :
Literary realism is a non-static genre which has evolved over the years. This means there is much variety and experimentation within the genre, including the conventions. In some manifestations of literary realism, some conventions are entirely absent or dismissed. It can therefore not be expected that all are present nor consistent.
It should be noted that the modes of naturalism and magical realism significantly deviate from the standard of literary realism in regards to conventions.
The conventions of literary realism may be identified as following :
In literary realism, all subject matter is valid subject-matter to be treated seriously in a literary context. This is a reliable convention which reflects the understanding that all things are beautiful and the focus of art.
Literary realist style is characterised by a resistance to the overtly lyrical, dramatic, tragic and comical and/or a mix of styles which combines both high and low, sublime and vulgar, tragic and comic, etc. into an array where none are predominant. This reflects the attitude that the focus on the ideal, extreme or simplistic, particularly at the expense of the less-than-ideal, does not adequately represent reality.
It may also express itself as :
Characters are frequently at the centre of literary realist works, but may also form the background, lending realism or providing thematic, historical or social context. The preference is often for so-called typical characters, i.e. not great figures of history or exceptional personalities, such as Madame Bovary. Virginia Woolf advocates the use of relate-able and recognisable characters, that they may better serve as a conduit for understanding a greater context ('Mr. Bennett' 325-326). However, while characters may be unexceptional this does not mean they cannot be remarkable or fascinating.
Social Background and Tapestry
A broad portrayal and experience of life covering many social layers and historical, cultural and social circumstances, representing the complexities of individual existence and human society and the correlation between society, history, culture, individuals and their relations. This reflects the attitude that man cannot be adequately represented 'otherwise than as embedded in a total reality, political, social, and economic' (Auerbach 463).
A referent is a versatile device which sets the tone, time and place, atmosphere, indeed, almost anything, directly or indirectly, in a text. The main purpose of a referent is to provide us with a frame of reference, a set of rules and a context when we are reading, so that we can interact successfully with the text. The most notable use of referents in literary realism is to place the text in relation to reality. This may be done by means of a wide range of devices, such as :
The absence or withdrawal of the author from the text in the form of personal feeling, bias or opinion or manipulation of facts and/or potential interpretation by the reader. The author offers no commentary or interpretation of the events, circumstances or characters presented in the text, and presumes that the reader draws his or her own conclusions.
This convention may reflect either the belief that the facts may stand and speak for themselves and that their meaning is apparent, or the attitude that the intervention by the author constitutes a limitation on the reception of meaning. Gustave Flaubert argues that impersonality and objectivity on the part of the author lends to the appearance of the real, by allowing the reader form his or her own meaning (94).
Characterised by causality, i.e. the principle that existence is subject to a system of cause and effect, continuity and chronology, emulating the "natural" flow of existence. This reflects the attitude that all things are causal and inter-related. The principle of causality frequently denies the occurrence of extreme coincidences or fantastic events, reflecting the resistance to the extreme and/or the presumption that reality is subject to verifiable, quantifiable rules. Causality dominates early literary realism.
However, generally speaking, from the modernist period and onward, fragmented and discontinuous structures appear, emulating the flow of thought and/or as an expression of the attitude that understanding and experience are fluid and not set in stone, subject to change.
A marked tendency to resisting 'sentimentality and gigantism' (Becker 30), happy endings and redemption, reflecting the resistance to the extreme or the ideal. In many ways, the plot in literary realist fiction assumes a secondary role to subject-matter, social background, style and characterisation.