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 principle referent of literary realism is, ostensibly, reality. Fantasy fiction, for example, is a form of deformation of reality which creates its own reality, whereas literary realism appears to be a representation of something concrete, something “real”, i.e. reality. On the surface, literary realism would appear to presume upon a set of rules supposedly related to real life, to reality, outside of fiction. We tend to judge, as readers, a literary realist text as if it were “real life”.

Literary realism is fiction, however, regardless of what referent it may suggest. Wolfgang 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).

the influence of fiction on reality
All fiction is, in effect, 'a means of telling us something about reality' (Iser 53), Wolfgang Iser insists. 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, fiction draws on, emulates and addresses reality, regardless of genre, and by virtue of its subject and in providing an experience in itself, has the potential of changing our perception of reality.

Literature has arguably helped shape our idea of reality, culturally as well as individually, which has led some to claim that everything is fiction. That the scope of accepted reality, the set of rules by which we identify reality, is, at least in part, dictated by fiction. This lays a heavy burden on fiction in general, literary realism in particular. Critics of literary realism have argued that it effects a continuation and naturalization of detrimental fictions about reality, by presuming a closer relationship than other genres.

not a mirror to reality
We would be mistaken, however, to expect a direct correlation or make a direct comparison between the reality represented in a literary realist text and our external reality. Like fantasy 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.

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So how do we define reality? Is it even possible? As George Becker puts it, 'reality means all things to all men' (Becker 36). How do you express this, let alone comprehend it? It would appear impossible. That doesn't mean that writers haven't tried.

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. 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).

Thus literary realism does not actually 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, and can potentially alter our perception of reality.

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Notwithstanding, authors have claimed to hold up a mirror to life. Implied in many works of literary realism is the possibility of an objective reality or objective truth which might be, at least, approached in a literary sense. Within the genre of literary realism, several different attitudes to the representation of reality can be identified. This adds to the difficulty of defining literary realism, but also adds to its potential appreciation.

Works Cited

  • 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.
  • Stendhal. Scarlet and Black. Trans. Margaret Shaw. London : Penguin Classics, 1953.
  • Woolf, Virginia. The Art of Fiction. Collected Essays. Vol. 2. London : Hogarth Press, 1966. 51-55.
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




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