From its opening sentence, every novel is an argument for its own reality. — Mark Kamine, Times Literary Supplement (35 March 2010): 20

Decorative Initial Many of us use the word "realistic"to mean little more than we approve of something. For example, when your uncle from Topeka, Chicago, or the Bronx advises you to "do something realistic and take a course in accounting," he implies that such a course of action matches his notion of the way things are. Be careful that when you apply the term to a work of literature you refer to the nineteenth-century movement that believed novelists and painters should concentrate on describing the physical, material details of life.

Unlike Platonism and Philosophical Realism (or Idealism), Realism assumes that reality inheres in the here and now, in the everyday. It therefore emphasizes accurate descriptions of specific setting, dress, and character in ways that would have appeared entirely inappropriate to Neoclassical and earlier authors. Realism, which emphasizes the importance of the ordinary‹the ordinary person and the ordinary situation, tends to reject the heroic and the aristocratic and embrace the pedestrian, the comic, and the middle class.

According to George Levine, "Whatever else it means, it always implies an attempt to use language to get beyond language, to discover some nonverbal truth out there." Changing notions of what is out there obviously affect these essentially problematic notions of realism. Levine also points out that, unlike the movement in France, Realism in England does not focus on

the dregs of society [or] on the degradations and degenerations of humans in bondage to a social and cosmic determinism. It belongs . . . to a "middling" condition and defines itself against the excesses, both stylistic and narrative, of various kinds of romantic, exotic, or sensational literatures. [At the same time] what is unconventional and most exciting about the [English] tradition of realism is its pleasure in abundance, in energy, and the vivid engagement, through language, with the reality just beyond the reach of language. . . . Realistic novels contain more than they formally need. The antiliterary thrust of realism can be taken either as an assertion of the power of the real over the imagined, and hence of a determined world, or as an assertion of the variety and energy against the enclosing and determining forms of art.

Some aspects of fiction, such as description or dialogue, often appear more suited to Realism than do others, such as plot, whose beginning and ending reveals its artificiality. Take each novel you have read in the course and determine which elements seem adequately described by the terms "realist" or "realistic."

Suggested Readings

Gilmore, Jonathan. "Pictorial Realism." Encylopedia of Aesthetics. Ed. Michael Kelley. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. 4 vols. IV, 109-110.

Goldman, Alan. "Realism and Aesthetics." Encylopedia of Aesthetics. Ed. Michael Kelley. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. 4 vols. IV, 106-109. [Just what it says: Realism from the vantage point of the philosophy of aesthetics.]

Gombrich, E. H. Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. 2nd ed. Bollingen Series XXXV. New York: Pantheon, 1961. [An essential book for anyone interested in realism in literature and the arts.]

Levine, George. The Realistic Imagination: English fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterly. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981. [Start here: The best study for readers interested in Victorian fiction.]

Lukàcs, Georg. Realism in Our Time. Trans. John Mander and Necke Mander. New York: Harper, 1971.

Nochlin, Linda. Realism. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975. [The best introductory study of realism as a movement in nineteenth-century painting, though it holds to a conservative art-historical view that places French art at the center of the universe.]

Shaw, Harry E. Narrating Reality: Austen, Scott, Eliot. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1999. [Chapters 1-3 provide an excellent summary of contemporary theory of realism — and its fundamental flaws.]

Stern, J. P. On Realism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

Weisstein, Ulrich. "Realism [in poetry]." Princeton Enclopedia of Powetry and Poetics. Eds. Alex Preminger, Frank J. Warnke, and O. B. Hardison, Jr. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1965. p. 685.


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Last modified 11 (except for epigraph) February 2003