Terminology and Aesthetics
What is in a Word?

'realism is not an object, to be identified, pinned down, and appropriated. It is, rather, a way of describing certain methods and attitudes, and the descriptions, quite naturally, have varied'

Williams, Raymond. The Long Revolution. Penguin, 1980, p. 300.

  • As a word and a term, realism is open to interpretation.
  • The uncritical use of the word realism in a literary context is a source of confusion.
  • Literary realism is so much more than its parts.
  • Certain popular definitions of literary realism disserve the genre.
  • Literary realism is more than a period phenomenon.
  • Literary realism does not mirror life.
  • Literary realism amounts to more than verisimilitude.
The word realism sees much usage. It covers a variety of terms in a variety of disciplines. The word alone poses difficulties and is open to interpretation. Depending on context, it may mean one thing or another.

critical use of the term
In a literary and critical context, the usage of the term realism is particularly problematic, being often vague, indiscriminate and contested. This is a common source of confusion.

In his essay 'On Realism in Art' (1921), Roman Jakobson addresses this problem. 'The uncritical use of this word [realism],' he writes, 'so very elusive in meaning, has had fateful consequences' (38). 'By failing to distinguish among a variety of concepts latent in the term "realism", theoreticians and historians of art … are acting as if the term were a bottomless sack into which everything and anything could be conveniently hidden away' (45).

Jakobson exemplifies this by identifying and differentiating between several different meanings of the word realism, each of which are referred to as realism, but which describe separate terms, mechanics and devices, including (these being abbreviated highlights) :

  • Realism may refer to the intention of the author, i.e. the author conceives the text as realistic.
  • Realism may refer to the reception of the text, i.e. the reader perceives the text as realistic.
  • Realism may refer to literature characteristic of the realistic movement of the nineteenth century.
  • Realism may refer to any number of literary techniques and devices which lend a sense of the real to a text.
Jakobson is not trying to over-complicate things, but rather point out how easily one can muddy the waters and/or over-simplify realism. He is appealing for a definition or set of criteria with both a wider and more critical and discriminate scope.

realism is more than its parts
What Jakobson's list makes apparent is, not only the many associations and implications of the word realism, but also the variety within realism itself in terms of aesthetic effects and mechanics. He is not identifying what realism is, or is not, but rather, not only. Not one of the circumstances or mechanics he identifies can be said to be the definitive trait of literary realism, but rather all are part of what makes the genre; a fraction of the whole, inter-related and dependent of one another. To identify a single definitive characteristic of realism is to depreciate the other elements which constitute realism and to deny its full potential. It is important not to confuse expressions of realism with the genre of literary realism. One must look at the big picture.

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popular definitions
Criteria are important for a comprehensive appreciation, but on the other hand, one can be too particular, too constrictive when defining a genre.

There is a tendency to sort and define realism in accordance to a single, unified principal. There are three perceptions that dominate in particular, all of which have been and are considered as defining of literary realism, but which ultimately disserve the genre and the appreciation of the same. They are as following :

• Realism is a period phenomenon, i.e. the realistic literature of the nineteenth century
• Realism is defined by maximum accuracy in the representation of reality
• Realism is defined by maximum verisimilitude, i.e. the appearance of the real

period phenomenon
One of the ways literary realism has been perceived is as a period phenomenon, i.e. the realistic literature of the nineteenth century which is held by many critics as the peak of literary realism in literature.

However, to regard literary realism as a period phenomenon, does little justice to the many examples of literary realism outside of the nineteenth century and the process of renewal, experimentation and evolution that is literary realism. While many of the conventions and attitudes of literary realism were formulated during this period or are informed by it, this cannot be called a definition. Literary realism is a genre which extends its scope and influence beyond the literature of the nineteenth century. It has adapted to, responded to and, indeed, influenced the changes in our relationship and attitudes to reality and, as those parameters have evolved, so has the genre. To say that a work is not realist, because it does not conform with 19th century conventions and attitudes, is to deny the genre's potential for change.

as "a mirror to reality"
In a much favoured quote from his essay 'On Realism in Art' (1921), Roman Jakobson describes the popular critical stance to realism of his day, i.e. that it is an artform 'which aims at conveying reality as closely as possible and strives for maximum verisimilitude. We call realistic those works which we feel accurately depict life by displaying verisimilitude' (38). Ironically, this quote has more than once been referred to as a "definition". It is not. To Jakobson this was NOT an adequate description, but one full of ambiguities and in serious need of revision, if not downright silly in a literary context (39). It does, however, reflect a prevailing perception of literary realism.

That the aim and privilege of literary realism is to "accurately" represent or mirror reality is not only far from being a definition, but misleading, as I explain on the page Reality and Fiction. While some authors have indeed claimed that they could, and should, mirror life, this is by no means the only attitude to the representation of reality.

appearance of the real
"Maximum verisimilitude" is also frequently referred to as the defining trait of the genre. It is, however, far from being a definition. Verisimilitude is an effect; and literary realism is so much more than effects. As I explain on the following page, where I address the mechanics of verisimilitude.

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Works Cited

  • 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.
Suggested Further Reading

  • Brecht, Bertolt. 'Against Georg Lukács'. Aesthetics and Politics, edited by Ronald Taylor, Verso, 1980, pp. 68-85.
  • Morris, Pam. Realism. Routledge, 2003.
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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