Terminology and Aesthetics
Reality and Fiction

'Reality is continually established, by common effort, and art is one of the highest forms of this process'

Raymond Williams, 1961 (Williams 315)

The principal referent of literary realism is, ostensibly, reality. On the surface, literary realism would appear to operate by rules set by the "real world", grounded in physical and social reality, and, significantly, outside of fiction. We tend to judge, as readers, a literary realist text as if it were "real life".

not a mirror to reality
It is a common perception that the aim and privilege of literary realism is to faithfully represent or mirror reality. Certainly, authors, past and present, have claimed to do just that.

So how do you hold up a mirror to reality? Is it even possible? As George Becker puts it, 'reality means all things to all men' (Becker 36). How do you express such multiplicity? It would appear impossible. How do literary realists do it?

The answer is they don't.

It would be a mistake to expect a direct correlation or make a direct comparison between the reality represented in a literary realist text and our external reality. Like any form of fiction, literary realism creates a reality; it is not a mirror to reality. As Pam Morris points out, 'realist novels never give us life or a slice of life nor do they reflect reality' (Morris 4).

Literary realism does not refer directly to reality, as that would be an act of imitation, and imitation is neither representation nor art. A representation is, in effect, a referent in itself; a portrayal or a sign of something else, once removed from its subject, and a copy is not art. There is no fiction "outside of fiction".

< Return

So how does it work? If literary realism doesn't refer directly to reality, how do reader and author agree on the parameters? The issue is that for successful reader-author-text interaction, everyone has to be on the same page, as it were. The reader has to be, at least in part, familiar with the conventions and references the author is using. Remove the main referent, reality, and what framework are we left with?

contemporary understanding of reality
It is generally accepted, today, that human comprehension and language cannot encompass reality in its entirety. We may have a partial understanding from our own perspective, our sensations, reflections on and experience of reality, but to grasp reality in its entirety, escapes us. Thus our understanding of reality as a whole is largely based in concepts.

the influence of fiction on reality
Wolfgang Iser argues that 'no literary text relates to contingent reality as such, but to models or concepts of reality, in which contingencies and complexities are reduced to meaningful structure' (Iser 70). That is, "conventions" of reality or, in some cases, re-inventions or discoveries. We have an idea of reality; an accepted reality we can reasonably agree on, and the parameters whereby it operates, partly informed by experience, but also by conceptual influence, including from literature.

Literature has arguably helped shape our idea of reality, which has led some to claim that everything is fiction. That the scope of accepted reality, the criteria by which we define it, are indeed dictated by fiction. This lays a heavy burden on fiction in general, literary realism in particular. Critics have argued that, because it presumes to represent reality, literary realism implies norms and standards that may effect a continuation and naturalization of detrimental fictions.

However, while literary realism, and fiction in general, may confirm existing norms of reality, it may also change them. Wolfgang Iser in a sense reverses the above argument; everything is not fiction, but rather everything is reality. Iser observes that 'the basic and misleading assumption is that fiction is an antonym of reality'. It is a source of 'a good deal of confusion … when one seeks to define the "reality" of literature' (Iser 53). All fiction is, he writes, 'a means of telling us something about reality' (Iser 53). Reality is both its raw material and its outcome. The interaction with a text amounts to a "real" experience (Iser 67) and has the potential of making 'the reader react to his own "reality", so that this same reality may then be reshaped' (Iser 85). In other words, all fiction draws on and addresses reality, regardless of genre, and, in providing an experience in itself, has the potential of changing our perception of reality.

Thus literary realism does not directly refer to or represent reality, but rather a perception of it, which it seeks to structure and communicate, and, like all fiction, draws on elements of reality, with the potential to either confirm us in our perception of it or alter it.

< Return

Notwithstanding, implied in many works of literary realism is the possibility of a identifiable, knowable and verifiable reality or truth which might be, at least, glimpsed through the arts. Within the genre of literary realism, several different attitudes to the representation of reality can be identified. It is here, within the attitudes to reality, humanity and truth, and their evolution, that we should further explore a better understanding of what is literary realism.

Works Cited

  • Becker, George J. Documents of Modern Literary Realism. Princeton, New Jersey : Princeton University Press, 1963
  • Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. London : The John Hopkins University Press, 1971.
  • Jakobson, Roman. "On Realism in Art". Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views. Ed. Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska. Cambridge : The MIT Press, 1971. 38-46.
  • Morris, Pam. Realism. London : Routledge, 2003.
Suggested Further Reading

  • Barthes, Roland. "The Reality Effect". French Literary Theory Today: A Reader. Ed. Tzvetan Todorov. Transl. R. Carter. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1982. 11-17.
  • Woolf, Virginia. "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown". Collected Essays. Vol. 1. London : Hogarth Press, 1966. 319-337.
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




Site Index