Difficulties of a Definition
Concerns and Problems

'Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must also change. Nothing comes from nothing; the new comes from the old, but that is why it is new'

Bertolt Brecht, 1938 (Brecht 82)
The definition, identification and appreciation of literary realism poses several difficulties :

The ways in which we interpret the term realism, and its associated adjectives real and realistic, not to mention reality, which literary realism ostensibly represents, are many and varied. The usage of these terms in both a general and critical sense is often vague, indiscriminate and contested. This is a common source of confusion.

non-static genre
No genre is fixed in stone. Literary realism is an ongoing project, as it were. It has evolved over the years, adapting and responding to, and indeed influencing, cultural and social changes, our understanding of the workings of the world, our evolving perception of humanity and human interrelations, and, of course, our perception of reality. This means, that while some manifestations of literary realism can be identified by their conventions, according to their period and contemporary school of thought, and while there are common denominators, there is much variety and experimentation within the genre and a definitive definition that encompasses all works of literary realism, stylistically and conceptually, invariably escapes us.

non-static conventions
In addition, because it is a versatile genre, the characteristics, traits and conventions of literary realism are in flux. This means that some conventions and attitudes of literary realism have evolved or been extended during the development of literary realism. This further adds to the difficulties of a definition.

The criticism of literary realism is, naturally, also an ongoing project. There have been many suggestions as to a definition of literary realism. Some are ideological, some formalist, some are aesthetic in focus, some negative, hostile even. Again, some common denominators can be found, but the definitions and criticisms are by no means definitive nor in agreement.

experimentation and renewal
Furthermore, texts can not necessarily be defined as belonging to a single genre. Texts may incorporate conventions from different sources. This is one of the ways by which literature evolves. It is a process of mixing and matching. Literary realism has developed through experimentation and by lending from outside its immediate stylistic and thematic field in order to renew itself. This means that border-line cases exist, not only within literary realism, but within other genres. Just as literary realism renews itself and lends from outside its conventional scope, so do other genres lend from realism. Conventions and stylistic modes are not exclusive to separate genres.

modes and sub-genres
Finally, certain sub-genres or modes have developed out of literary realism, such as naturalism and magical realism, characterized by their own set of conventions. Do we consider literary realism as the parent of these modes or do we identify them as separate genres? This is also a contested discussion.

Works Cited

  • Brecht, Bertolt. "Against Georg Lukács". Aesthetics and Politics. Ed. Ronald Taylor. London : Verso, 1980. 68-85.
Table of Contents


Difficulties of a Definition

Terminology and Aesthetics
- What is in a Word?
- the Real and the Realistic
- Reality and Fiction

a History of Literary Realism
- Introduction
- Early Literary Realism
- Late Literary Realism

What is Literary Realism?
- Approximating a Definition
- Attitudes
- Conventions

Critical Approaches
- Introduction
- Formalism
- Reader Response Theory
- Aesthetics
- Marxist Criticism
- Post-Structural Criticism
- Post-Modern Criticism

Practical Appreciation
- "Madame Bovary"
- "Everything is Illuminated"

Study Proposals




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