Study Proposals
'Did you know Joyce? … I remember one time he was feeling fairly gloomy and he asked me if I didnt't think that his books were too suburban. He said that was what got him down sometimes. Mrs. Joyce said, "Ah Jim could do with a spot of that lion hunting." And Joyce said, "The thing we must face is I couldn't see the lion." Mrs. Joyce said, "Hemingway'd describe him to you Jim and afterwards you could go up and touch him and smell of him. That's all you'd need." '

Hemingway, Ernest. Selected Letters 1917-1961. Edited by Carlos Baker, Granada, 1981, p. 789.
This is a selection of exercises, study questions and project proposals which may further enhance the understanding and appreciation of literary realism from different conceptual and critical angles.

Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary

These questions are in extension of the appreciation.

  • What is the significance of the blind beggar?
  • What is the significance of the character of M. Homais? What values do this character represent?
  • How does Flaubert treat a scientific approach to life?
  • Do Emma and Léon have a claim on an aesthetic appreciation of the world?
  • Explain Rodolphe's initial fascination with Emma.
  • How do the characters relate (or not) to their surroundings and to nature? What does this relationship suggest?
  • Compare Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary to Stendhal's Scarlet and Black. Pay particular attention to values and concepts.
Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated

These questions are in extension of the appreciation.

  • How is the theme of the loss of meaning treated?
  • How is the relationship to and representation of history represented?
  • What is the purpose of having two internal authors?
  • Why is the act of writing and recording so important?
  • What meanings can be understood by the phrase 'Everything is one world in distance from the real world'?
Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5

  • How does the book subvert existing perceptions of reality?
  • Does the book suggest the existence of eternal truths? In what light are they represented?
  • What is the book's stance on fiction?
  • What is the significance of the Tralfamadorians?
  • How are referents used?
  • How does the book renew the conventions of literary realism?
  • How and why is the truth represented as sublime?
Realist Women Writers

Examine Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters and George Eliot's Middlemarch.

  • In what way do these works subvert the perception of women in their contemporary age?
  • What values do these works express?
  • In what way are these works a critique of contemporary perceptions of reality?
  • In what way do these works portray human society and interrelations?
  • How do the novels treat idealisation/stereotyping?
Roman Jakobson's 'On Reality in Art'

  • What are the literary devices and techniques which, according to Jakobson, signal realism?
  • How is the realistic a premise for the poetic?
  • How does Jakobson regard the significance of "deformation" in the evolutions of literature?
  • Does Jakobson add to the confusion as to the understanding of realism?
Jakobson, Roman. 'On Realism in Art'. Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views, edited by Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska, The MIT Press, 1971, pp. 38-46.

Roland Barthes's 'The Reality Effect'

  • What does Barthes mean when he differentiates between "vraisemblance" and "realism"?
  • How does Barthes regard the presence of seemingly "insignificant details"?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of having reality as a referent?
  • How does realism "resist meaning"?
  • What is "the reality effect" and what is its purpose?
Barthes, Roland. 'The Reality Effect'. French Literary Theory Today: A Reader, edited by Tzvetan Todorov, translated by R. Carter, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 11-17.

Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf

Woolf's 'An Essay on Criticism' reviews Hemingway's works The Sun Also Rises and Men Without Women. She criticises the lack of depth in his characters and the severity of his style. She proclaims him "not a modernist" but rather sees him as a naturalist.

  • Compare Hemingway and Woolf as writers, aesthetically, stylistically, thematically and conceptually.
  • Examine Woolf's arguments in regards to Hemingway. Is he "not a modernist"? Is he a naturalist?
  • What reasons may lie behind Hemingway's choice of style?
Woolf, Virginia. 'An Essay in Criticism'. Collected Essays, vol. 2, Hogarth Press, 1966, pp. 252-258.

Marxist Appreciation of "Essence"

Georg Lukács names Shakespeare as one of the great realists. Examine Shakespeare's Othello as a literary realist work.

  • Examine the characters Othello and Desdemona, Emilia and Iago – do they share a collective understanding of reality or do they percieve it relatively?
  • How does Shakespeare challenge dominant perceptions of reality and humanity?
  • What is the attitude to humanity?
  • Which eternal truths are treated?
  • Which stylistic and conceptual characteristics indicate Othello as literary realist?
  • How is Othello not a literary realist work?
  • What aesthetic and human value does Georg Lukács credit Shakespeare?
Suggested reading : Lukács, Georg. 'Realism in the Balance'. Aesthetics and Politics, edited by Ronald Taylor, Verso, 1980, pp. 28-59.

Realism in Gothic Literature

Examine Bram Stoker's Dracula and E.T.A. Hoffmann's The Sandman.

  • How do these works utilize conventions of literary realism and to what effect and purpose?
  • How are these works a critique of the romantic?
  • How does the realistic subvert realism in these works?
  • How do these works subvert existing perceptions of reality?
  • In what way do these works subvert the perception of women in their contemporary age?
  • Why are these works not literary realist?
Realism in Film

Consider Sofia Coppola's film Somewhere and examine the conventions and attitudes of literary realism used and expressed in the film.

  • How are truth and reality represented?
  • What is the significance or effect of the long scenes?
  • How are relationships represented?
  • How do the characters relate to their surroundings?
  • What stylistic characteristics of literary realism are evident?
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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