a History of Literary Realism
Early Literary Realism

the novelist's 'goal is not to tell us a story, amuse us, or affect our emotions, but to make us think, to make us understand the deep-seated and hidden meaning of events'

Maupassant, Guy de. 'The Lower Elements'. Documents of Modern Literary Realism, edited by George J. Becker, Princeton University Press, 1963, p. 247.

The first early literary realists made their presence known during what was still a predominantly Romantic age. Many were, initially, not well received, if not ignored. Their choice of subject and their style, characterised by a resistance to the ideal and the poetic, went contrary to contemporary perceptions of what art was and should be.

reception of Madame Bovary
It becomes apparent how new and different early literary realism was when one considers the reception of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary in 1857. The literary critic Charles Saint-Beuve gave it a lukewarm review, commenting on its 'severe and pitiless truthfulness' (Duranty 100) and vulgar characters. Where is the good?, he asks. Where are the noble and uplifting characters? There is nothing to console the reader (102), save for the exquisite descriptions of nature. Saint-Beuve understands, however, the turn that literature is taking and recognises its signs: 'science, spirit of observation, maturity, force, a bit of harshness' (103).

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an empirical imperative
The nineteenth century was characterised by constant and drastic change. The ever increasing industrialisation and rising consumer society caused powerful shifts throughout western society as a whole. The world was at the same time becoming more uniform and less stable, generating a need to understand it from a broader perspective. New social, economic and interrelational complexities emerged at an unprecedented rate, demanding constant adaptation. The necessity to grasp these changes, to predict their movements and comprehend their mechanics, became one of the central concerns of the early literary realists.

need for a new expression
In the attempt to address their changing reality, the early literary realists set about to formulate a new mode of expression. The Romantic perception of Beauty, with its stress on the subjective and unique perspective, and its preference for the exotic, the sublime and the esoteric, was dismissed as pretentious, selective and inadequate to address the complexities of a modern world. It did not provide the distance, the scope and the maturity that the new literary generation was looking for.

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Truth is Beauty
The early literary realists identified that Truth is Beauty, not Beauty Truth, in the understanding that the truth yields beauty in itself and needs no embellishments, distractions nor improvements. This re-definition constituted not only a reversal of the Romantic understanding of Beauty, but, as George Becker points out, went contrary to centuries of tradition where the reigning principle had been the perception that art was about Beauty and the pursuit of the ideal (6).

pursuit of an objective reality
As a consequence, the early literary realists turned away from the poetic, the sentimental and the uniquely subjective, in favour of 'the solid and positive' (Howells 130). The new approach was objective observation, not subjective feeling. The new focus was the visible, tangible and verifiable. The new purpose was not to entertain or weave images of impossible beauty, but to place people, changes and values in a contemporary reality that was solid, objective, collective.

inspired by science
The belief that society, humanity and reality could be appropriated and comprehended was in part inspired by contemporary break-throughs in science, such as Charles Darwin's work on evolution, The Origin of the Species (1859). These advances implied the prospect of an objective, knowable and verifiable reality. Fueled by this prospect, and their anxieties concerning the rapid changes in society, the early literary realists sought out a different truth, or, at least, sought truth in a different fashion, applying observation and reason in order to explore reality, human nature and society. As Erich Heller observes, what was really new about literary realism was the 'passion of understanding, the desire for rational appropriation, the driving force towards the expropriation of the mystery' (596).

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The resistance to the ideal was not a complete departure from Romanticism, but in part a reaction to and in part a development of the inheritance from Romanticism. Indeed, many early literary realists identified with the Romantics, such as William Dean Howells; 'The romantic of that day and the real of this are in certain degree the same. Romanticism then sought, as realism seeks now, to widen the bounds of sympathy, to level every barrier against aesthetic freedom, to escape from the paralysis of tradition' (136). Like the romantics, the early literary realists represented humanity with sympathy, but extended the scope of the representation of humanity in the understanding that truth does not lie in sentimentality or idealisation.

Rather than focus on single, unique individuals, who epitomised ideals or tragic extremes, the early literary realists addressed human nature in general in the attempt to place mankind, and themselves, in the greater context of changing reality, as men and women of the world, not the single self, who relate to and are part of the world, and not just the world of ideas.

rise of the novel
Concurrently, the novel was gaining ground. Previously considered inferior in comparison to, say, poetry, it quickly became the dominant literary form appealing to, and principally written by, members of the rising middle class. The natural consequence was that the novel addressed the concerns of that class, rather than focus on characters from the margins or the higher end of society.

democratisation of subject matter
In effect, the early literary realists expanded the focus of art by taking the Romantic view on subject-matter to a new level, addressing all aspects of humanity and all layers of human existence. Perhaps, the most revealing, and famous, statement which epitomises this idea is by Guy de Maupassant; 'I do not wish anything human to be alien to me' (250). Nothing, it would seem, was too "base", too common or too trivial to be addressed in a literary context.

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Stendhal, considered by many as the first "real" realist in a literary context, in many ways represents the transition from a Romantic to realist world-view and the contemporary desire to appropriate an empirical understanding of the movements of the 'incessantly changing forms and movements of life' (Auerbach 462) of his contemporary society.

representation of human society
While Stendhal makes use of romantic protagonists, he does something else that is entirely new. Erich Auerbach identifies Stendhal as the first author that implemented the understanding that man cannot be adequately represented 'otherwise than as embedded in a total reality, political, social, and economic, which is concrete and constantly evolving' (Auerbach 463). An attitude that has become standard, not only within literary realism, but within other genres as well.

Scarlet and Black
In Scarlet and Black (1830), Stendhal presents us with a society composed by multiple realities and world-views riddled with internal customs and values. The society is a complex, amorphous totality, moving, relentlessly, toward a future no-one can predict. Some struggle with adapting, torn between the values of yesterday and a world that is constant changing, Stendhal included. He cannot confirm a single unified society or a principle by which it can be understood, but he confirms the desire for it. There is a sense of nostalgia for the Romantic and at the same time an understanding that the established perceptions of life, Beauty and mankind are outdated and that to cling to them, as expressed by William Dean Howells, is to 'preserve an image of a smaller and cruder and emptier world than we now live in' (135).

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Adam Bede
In Adam Bede (1859), George Eliot expresses the attitudes and perceptions of her age and her genre and its resistance to the ideal.

Eliot refuses to 'improve the facts a little ... make them more accordant with those correct views which it is our privilege to possess. The world is not just what we like' (113). It is argued that the depiction of an ideal world does not further tolerance and fellow-feeling, but rather the opposite, inferring indifference or scorn upon the non-ideal (Eliot 114). 'It is so needful we should remember their existence, else we may happen to leave them quite out of our religion and philosophy, and frame lofty theories which only fit a world of extremes' (116). The world is not black and white and people are not exclusively all good and evil, moral or corrupt, but flawed and inconstant. 'These fellow-mortals, every one, must be accepted as they are' (113). 'Let us love that other beauty too, which lies in no secret of proportion, but in the secret of deep human sympathy' (115).

The attitudes toward humanity, the resistance of the ideal, and the democratisation of subject-matter, would remain part of the greater heritage of literary realism and survive the onslaught of modernism and the postmodern.

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representation of truth
George Eliot admitted in Adam Bede that her representation was a perception, the mirroring of 'men and things' in her mind, and that her perception was potentially flawed (113), but had faith in her intentions and the truth of the facts she had observed, relying on her readers to assemble a similar truth based on her representation and her ability to communicate that truth.

Other literary realists, in particular the naturalists, would claim not only faithful diligence to the facts observed, but the ability to give 'an exact image of life' (Maupassant 247). And the presumption that this was actually possible, that reality is both knowable, quantifiable and communicable in full, remained a dominant idea until the modernist period.

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It was during the nineteenth century that naturalism made its appearance. From the 1860s into the twentieth century it enjoyed a period of popularity. Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary is generally identified as the first example of this mode of literary realism. Flaubert would later be dismayed by the literary trend that he had set in motion. Flaubert felt that later naturalists took realism to the extreme; 'Reality, as I see it, should only be a springboard. Our friends [Daudet and Zola] are convinced that by itself it is the whole State' (96). Notwithstanding, the principles he had lain down in Madame Bovary became the bread and butter of the naturalist movement.

style and method
The naturalists would develop the perception that truth, scientifically observed and communicated through style, was their main concern. This led to increasingly stricter criteria, based in stylistic, analytical and scientific method, Émile Zola being perhaps the culmination of this process. The naturalists took the stylistic and conceptual characteristics of literary realism to a new level. Causality and the importance of milieu and heritage became central concerns. What makes us who we are?, the naturalists asked themselves. This methodology would result in critique from modernist and the Marxist quarters. However, when naturalism first appeared, it was a revelation.

The stylistic rigour and the insistence on scientific method constitute the significant differences between literary realism and naturalism. As Raymond Williams observes, naturalism is characterised by technique, whereas literary realism is defined and described by its 'attitudes to subjects' (301).

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On the following page, I address the principle changes and developments within the genre during late literary realism.

Works Cited

  • Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis. Translaed by Willard R. Trask, Princeton University Press, 1953.
  • Becker, George J. 'Introduction'. Documents of Modern Literary Realism, edited by George J. Becker, Princeton University Press, 1963, pp. 1-38.
  • Eliot, George. 'On Realism'. Documents of Modern Literary Realism, edited by George J. Becker, Princeton University Press, 1963, pp. 112-116.
  • Duranty, Edmond and Charles Sainte-Beauve. 'Two Views on Madame Bovary'. Documents of Modern Literary Realism, edited by George J. Becker, Princeton University Press, 1963, pp. 97-104.
  • Flaubert, Gustave. 'On Realism'. Documents of Modern Literary Realism, edited by George J. Becker, Princeton University Press, 1963, pp. 112-116.
  • Heller, Erich. 'The Realistic Fallacy'. Documents of Modern Literary Realism, edited by George J. Becker, Princeton University Press, 1963, pp. 591-598.
  • Howells, William Dean. 'On Truth and Fiction'. Documents of Modern Literary Realism, edited by George J. Becker, Princeton University Press, 1963, pp. 129-136.
  • Maupassant, Guy de. 'The Lower Elements'. Documents of Modern Literary Realism, edited by George J. Becker, Princeton University Press, 1963, pp. 247-250.
  • Williams, Raymond. The Long Revolution. Penguin, 1980, pp. 300-316.
Suggested Further Reading

  • Eliot, George. Middlemarch. Wordsworth Classics, 1998.
  • Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders. Wordsworth Classics, 1995.
  • Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Translated by Russell, Penguin Popular Classics, 1995.
  • Gaskell, Elizabeth. Wives and Daughters. Wordsworth Classics, 1999.
  • Gosse, Edmond. 'The Limits of Realism in Fiction'. Documents of Modern Literary Realism, edited by George J. Becker, Princeton University Press, 1963, pp. 383-393.
  • Lukács, Georg. Studies in European Realism. Translated by Edith Bone, The Merlin Press, 1972.
  • Stendhal. Scarlet and Black. Translated by Margaret Shaw, Penguin Classics, 1953.
  • Swann, Brian. 'Middlemarch : Realism and Symbolic Form'. ELH, vol. 39, no. 2, 1972, pp. 279-308.
  • Zola, Émilemile. 'The Experimental Novel'. Documents of Modern Literary Realism, edited by George J. Becker, Princeton University Press, 1963, pp. 161-198.
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
- Postmodern Criticism
- Postmodern Anti-Realism

Practical Appreciation
- Madame Bovary
- Everything is Illuminated

Study Proposals




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