a History of Literary Realism
Late Literary Realism

'When realism becomes false to itself, when it heaps up facts merely, and maps life, instead of picturing it, realism will perish too'

Howells, William Dean. 'On Truth and Fiction'. Documents of Modern Literary Realism, edited by George J. Becker, Princeton University Press, 1963, p. 136.

After the turn of the century, literary realism began to delve inwards and a shift from the external to the internal, surface to depth, occurred, and, once more, the subjective angle on reality came to the forefront in the understanding that, as Marcel Proust expressed it in Remembrance of Things Past (1913), 'only the subjective impression ... is a criterion of truth' (561).

changes in society
Virginia Woolf suggests the source of this shift, observing how all 'human relations have shifted ... And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature' ('Mr. Bennet' 321). We see here how humanity and its society and culture are understood as being interrelated and mutually influencing each other, in a constant state of change - an understanding established by the early literary realists.

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the modernists
Virginia Woolf was a modernist. Implied in the designation of modernist is the spirit of innovation, i.e. the desire to formulate and implement new forms of expression and suggest new ideas. The new literary generation were struggling against, what they perceived as, hardened literary traditions which did not suffice to address reality, humanity nor human experience any longer. Like William Dean Howells, half a century before them, they sought 'to escape from the paralysis of tradition' (136). This led the modernists into a process of experimentation where they renewed the concept of art and its expressions, including literary realism.

critique of externalisation
Virginia Woolf, in effect, writes the manifesto of modernist literary realism in the form of her essays Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown (1924) and Modern Fiction (1919). She criticises her predecessors in the genre for having lain 'an enormous stress upon the fabric of things' ('Mr. Bennett' 332), whilst ignoring the essential part of character; the self, the nature of the self, and of humanity, the expression of the human ('Mr. Bennett' 332). Both Marcel Proust and Woolf express the opinion that a 'literature that is satisfied merely to "describe things", to furnish a miserable listing of their lines and surfaces, is, notwithstanding its pretensions to realism, the farthest removed from reality, the one that most impoverishes and saddens us' (Proust 564).

the subjective experience
'Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged' ('Modern' 106), Woolf insists. The focus on the external does not do life justice. Rather than devote herself to external detail and present fictions as facts, Virginia Woolf recommends to chase the movements of inner consciousness; 'the mind receives a myriad impressions ... From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms ... Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit ... ?' (106).

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a new understanding of reality
One of the fundamental conceptual changes that the modernists introduced was the understanding that reality is relative; i.e. that it cannot be fully knowable or communicable, but can only be approached from a relative perspective and is not identical to all. This constituted a significant departure from the dominant perception of reality as both conceivable, knowable, verifiable and communicable.

This did not mean, however, that the modernists entirely abandoned knowledge as a principle nor the possibility of objective reality or truth, but rather they admitted to only partial understanding and that knowledge, when solely appropriated through reason, was inadequate.

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experimentation and renewal
Stylistically, the modernists exploded into unique, subjective expression. By means of multiple perspectives, speakers and angles, through characters, impressions, references and allusions, and de-familiarisation and experimental use of conventions, the modernists attempted to approach their new relative concept of reality and formulate a new concept of art.

Referents collapse; time and space blur and dissolve. The boundaries between author, character and reader all but dissipate. Facts are no longer reliable; truths are challenged and subverted. Perception is everything and nothing; impressionism prevails as the only remotely reliable source of knowledge of reality.

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Mrs Dalloway
Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway is an example of modernist experimentation. Mrs Dalloway tracks its namesake during a single day. Events transpire, all the while that impressions, partial memories, flashbacks, emotions, sensory experiences and thoughts travel through the minds of the characters which she encounters on her way. We move discontinuously from consciousness to consciousness, our understanding filtered through the characters' separate subjective impressions and perceptions. We doubt as to who is speaking; we doubt ourselves as we are consistently disappointed in our understanding. Woolf keeps us on our toes, always ready to lead us in a new direction, as thought patterns emerge, converge, split away or disperse.

There is no objective nor complete knowledge or truth to be had here. We will never fully understand Mrs Dalloway; she is a conundrum, always just out of reach, transmuting into a new form just as we think we comprehend her, just as we will never be able to appropriate a complete understanding of ourselves, each other and the world. Everything is one world in distance from the real world. And yet Mrs Dalloway expresses the desire to do just that, to understand and to capture a sense of 'life or spirit, truth or reality, this, the essential thing' (Modern 105) before it has escaped the inadequate confines of both reason and fiction.

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The Garden of Eden
In The Garden of Eden, among other themes, Ernest Hemingway addresses the relationship between writer and fiction and reality and fiction. There is a remarkable economy of description; we are given just exactly enough to form a mental image. We walk through one door and are in Cannes, sipping Perrier on the terrace; we walk through another, into the writer's study, and we are in Africa, tracking elephants. The shimmer of the French coastline evaporates into heat rising from the plains. He doesn't write this; it is implied. He doesn't provide us with impressions; he suggests them.

The boundaries between reality and fiction are blurred. It does not feel unnatural; the transitions are sometimes almost imperceptible, but there is always the awareness of that other world, be it the fictional reality or the reality of fiction, pulling or drawing you in. This effect is in part generated by Hemingway's continuous prose, emulating the flow of reality, his seeming directness, whilst only providing us with surface hints and impressions as to a deeper meaning.

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renewal of the genre
Both Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf can be seen as being among the foremost contributors of modernist techniques and concepts to the greater evolution of literary realism. Like the early realists, they do not just 'tell us a story, amuse us, or affect our emotions, but ... make us think' (Maupassant 247).

Unlike the early realists, however, they make use of a subjective approach and stylistic experimentation, rather than the objective and rational method of their predecessors, prefering to de-familiarise or deform reality, rather than present the illusion of a direct representation of reality. This, along with the understanding of a relative reality, signifies the principal differences between early literary realism and modernist literary realism.

The resistance to idealisation, the attitudes to humanity and its society, and the democratisation of subject-matter, however, remained part of the heritage that the modernists did embrace.

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Literary Realism in a Postmodern Context

Eventually, modernism would give way to the postmodern as the dominant literary expression and theory.

seemingly undermined
The postmodern's rejection of the meta-narrative and of objective knowledge and truth, its playful, ironic and floating attitude to style and its insistence on the concept of difference, along with the seeming absence of a norm, that a representation of reality might relate to, would make literary realism, seemingly, impossible in this day and age. The post-structural denial of the possibility of determinate communication only adds to this.

This does not mean, however, that literary realism is a thing of the past, and its stylistic and conceptual characteristics are still applied, renewed and re-adapted to our contemporary age. Jonathan Safran Foer and Kurt Vonnegut, among others, may be seen as doing this.

magical realism
In a postmodern context, literary realism has also found expression in the form of magical realism; a mode of literary realism in which folkloric or supernatural elements are represented as an integral and accepted part of a natural reality, i.e. not fantastic or unusual. Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, among others, are examples of authors who have applied this mode.

It has, in particular, served to voice post-colonial concerns, in that it challenges perceptions of what is real or not, acceptable or not, by allowing the interjection of cultural differences in the form of local folklore, myth and customs, and the de-familarisation of (Western) accepted reality, which challenge dominant representations and perceptions of reality.

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future of literary realism
What the future may bring, shall be interesting to witness. Implied in its main subject, reality, is the necessity that literary realism must continue to evolve. Not just because reality and the perception of it keeps changing, but because literary realism arguably is partially responsible for those perceptions.

In the following section, I present an overview of the conventions and conceptual attitudes of literary realism.

Works Cited

  • Hemingway, Ernest. The Garden of Eden. Grafton Books, 1988.
  • 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.
  • Proust, Marcel. 'On the Falsity of Realism'. Documents of Modern Literary Realism, edited by George J. Becker, Princeton University Press, 1963, pp. 549-564.
  • Woolf, Virginia. 'Modern Fiction". Collected Essays, vol. 2, Hogarth Press, 1966, pp. 103-110.
  • Woolf, Virginia. 'Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown'. Collected Essays, vol. 1, Hogarth Press, 1966, pp. 319-337.
  • Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway. Penguin Modern Classics, 1976.
Suggested Further Reading

  • Childs, Peter. Modernism. Routledge, 2008.
  • Docherty, Thomas, editor. Postmodernism : A Reader. Pearson Education, 1993.
  • Hemingway, Ernest. Selected Letters 1917-1961. Edited by Carlos Baker, Granada, 1981.
  • Joyce, James. Ulysses. Wordsworth Classics, 2010.
  • Woolf, Virginia. 'The Art of Fiction'. Collected Essays, vol. 2, Hogarth Press, 1966, pp. 51-55.
  • Woolf, Virginia. 'An Essay in Criticism'. Collected Essays, vol. 2, Hogarth Press, 1966, pp. 252-258.
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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