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Post by Rachid Amri on Fri Feb 22, 2008 10:55 pm


After the great wave of the international romantic movement had spent its force in the fourth decade of the nineteenth century, European literature moved in the direction of what is usually called realism. Realism was not a coherent general movement which established itself unchallenged for a long period of time, as classicism had succeeded in doing during the eighteenth century. There were many authors in the nineteenth century who continued to practice a substantially romantic art (Tennyson and Hugo, for example, Hermann Hesse [sometimes called the “last knight of German Romanticism"], etc.); there were even movements which upheld a definitely romantic “escapist,” antirealist program such as that of the Pre-Raphaelites in England, the Parnassians in France, the later Jugendstil in Germany. But, with whatever exceptions and reservations, in retrospect the nineteenth century appears as the period of the great realistic writers: Balzac and Flaubert in France, Mann in Germany, Dostoevski and Tolstoy in Russia, Dickens in England, Ibsen and Hamsun in Norway.

What is meant by realism? The term, in literary use (there is a much older philosophical use), apparently dates back to the Germans at the turn of the century--to Schiller and the Schlegels. It cropped up in France as early as 1826 but became a commonly accepted literary and artistic slogan only in the 1850’s. Since then the word has been bandied about, discussed, analyzed, and abused as all slogans are. It is frequently confused with naturalism, a term which also has old philosophical uses, but seems, in France, at least, to have been applied first to painting and to have become a literary slogan only about 1880, when Emile Zola began to employ it to describe his art.

The program of the groups of writers and critics who used these terms can easily be summarized. The realists wanted a truthful representation in literature of reality—that is, of contemporary life and manners. They thought of their method as inductive, observational, and hence “objective.” The personality of the author was to be suppressed, or was at least to recede into the background, since reality was to be seen “as it is.” The naturalistic program, as formulated by Zola, was substantially the same except that Zola put greater stress on the analogies to science, considering the procedure of the novelist as identical with that of the experimenting scientist. He also more definitely and exclusively embraced the philosophy of scientific materialism, with its deterministic implications, its stress on heredity and environment, while the older realists were not always so clear in drawing the philosophical consequences.

The slogans “realism” and “naturalism” were thus new in the nineteenth century. They served as effective formulas directed against the romantic creed. Truth, contemporaneity, and objectivity were the obvious counterparts of romantic imagination, of romantic historicism and its glorification of the past, and of romantic subjectivity, the exaltation of the ego and the individual. But, of course, the emphasis on truth and objectivity was not really new; these qualities had been demanded by many older, classical theories of imitation, and in the eighteenth century there were great writers such as Diderot who wanted a literal “imitation of life” even on the stage.

The practice of realism, it could be argued, is very old indeed. There are realistic scenes in the Odyssey, and there is plenty of realism in ancient comedy and satire, in medieval stories (fabliaux) like some of Chaucer’s and Boccaccio’s, in many Elizabethan plays, in the Spanish rogue novels, in the English eighteenth-century novel beginning with Defoe, and so on almost ad infinitum. But while it would be easy to find in early literature anticipations of almost every single element of modern realism, still the systematic description of contemporary society, with a serious purpose, often even with a tragic tone as well, and with sympathy for heroes drawn from the middle and lower classes, was a real innovation of the nineteenth century.

The program of realism, while defensible enough as a reaction against romanticism, raises critical questions which were not answered theoretically by its defenders. What is meant by “truth” of representation? Photographic copying? This seems the implication of many famous pronouncements. “A novel is a mirror walking along the road,” said Stendhal as early as 1830. But such statements can hardly be taken literally. All art must select and represent; it cannot be and has never been a simple transcript of reality. What such analogies are intended to con-vey is rather a claim for an all-inclusiveness of subject matter, a protest against the exclusion of themes which before were considered “low,” “sordid,” or “trivial” (like the puddles along the road the mirror walks). Chekhov formulated this protest with the usual parallel between the scientist and the writer: “To a chemist nothing on earth is unclean. A writer must be as objective as a chemist; he must abandon the subjective line: he must know that dungheaps play a very respectable part in a landscape, and that evil passions are as inherent in life as good ones.” Thus, the “truth” of realistic art includes the sordid, the low, the disgusting, and the evil; and, the implication is, the subject is treated objectively, without interference and falsification by the artist’s personality and his own desires.

The realistic program, while it has made innumerable new subjects available to art, also implies a narrowing of its themes and methods—a condemnation of the fantastic, the historical, the remote, the idealized, the “unsullied,” the idyllic. Realism professes to present us with a “slice of life.”

When we observe the actual practice of the great realistic writers of the nineteenth century, we notice a sharp contrast between theory and practice, and an independent evolution of the art of the novel which is obscured for us if we pay too much attention to the theories and slogans of the time, even those that the authors themselves propounded. Balzac, one of the originators of the realistic novel, who created a vast panorama of French society and thought of himself as its faithful chronicler, was, if we examine his actual works, a writer of powerful, almost visionary imagination, whose books are full of survivals of romanticism and an intricate occult view of the world. Flaubert, the high priest of a cult of “art for art’s sake,” the most consistent propounder of absolute objectivity, was actually, at least in a good half of his work, a writer of romantic fantasies of blood and gold, flesh and jewels. There is some truth in his saying that Madame Bovary is himself, for in the drab story of a provincial adulteress he castigated his own romanticism and romantic dreams.

So too with Dostoevski. Although some of his settings resemble those of the “grime novel,” he is actually a writer of high tragedy, of a drama of ideas in which ordinary reality is transformed into a symbol of the spiritual world. His technique is closely associated with Balzac’s (it is significant that his first publication was a translation of Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet) and thus with many devices of the sensational melodramatic novel of French romanticism. Tolstoy’s art is more concretely real than that of any of the other great masters mentioned, yet he is, at the same time, the most personal and even literally autobiographical author in the history of the novel—a writer, besides, who knows nothing of detachment toward social and religious problems, but frankly preaches his own very peculiar religion. And if we turn to Dickens and Ibsen, we find essentially the same situation. Dickens incorporated into his novels a variety of elements drawn from the fairy tale or the melodramatic stage. His method is frequently that of caricature and burlesque; his atmosphere that of a dream or a nightmare. Ibsen began as a writer of historical and fantastic dramas and slowly returned to a style which is fundamentally symbolist. All his later plays are organized by symbols, from the duck of The Wild Duck (1884) to the white horses in Rosmersholm (1886) and the tower in The Master Builder (1892). Even Zola, the propounder of the most scientific theory, was in practice a novelist who used the most extreme devices of melodrama and symbolism. In Germinal (1885), his novel of mining, the mine is the central symbol, alive as an animal, heaving, breathing. It would be an odd reader who could find literal truth in the final catastrophe of the cave-in or even in such “naturalistic” scenes as a dance where the beer oozes from the nostrils of the drinkers.

One could assert, in short, that all the great realists were at bottom romanticists, but it is probably wiser to conclude that they were simply artists who created worlds of imagination and knew (at least instinctively) that in art one can say something about reality only through symbols. The attempts at documentary art, at mere reporting and transcribing, are today forgotten.

In Summary

Realism was an artistic creed which held that the purpose of art was to depict life with complete and objective honest—to show things “as they really are.” To this end, it valued concrete, verifiable details more than sweeping generalizations, and impersonal photographic accuracy more than the artist’s individual interpretation of experience. As a recognizable literary creed, realism begins in the 18th century with the novels of Defoe and Fielding, but its triumph as a literary “school” came in the 19th and early 20th centuries under the double influence of 1) the growth of science and philosophical rationalism, and 2) the revolt against the emotional and stylistic excesses of the romantic movement. Because the realist sought to avoid idealism and romantic prettifying of his subjects, he often seemed to stress either the commonplace and trivial or the sordid and brutal aspects of life. As a consequence, realism is often misinterpreted as naturalism, which minutely examines the same sort of activities but with a more clinical, scientific approach to cause and effect. Fiction and painting were the artistic activities in which realism found its greatest scope and most systematic exploitation.

Realistic characters are not dreamers; they are practical, everyday people whose “dreams” (if they have them) are generated by practical, everyday situations. They are ordinary, often middle-class folks, the poor, farmers, laborers. Their language is that of ordinary, everyday language. The conflicts in which they find themselves involved are equally mundane. There are disputes between lovers, problems of job and family, marriage, raising children, money difficulties, social/ class problems. The generation gap is a prominent theme: we see it, for example, in Balzac’s Pere Goriot (Father Goriot), which presents a father who obsessively loves his grown, uncaring daughters and is ruined by them (love vs. practicality), in Gottfried Keller’s Romeo and Julia auf dem Dorfe (A Village Romeo and Juliet), in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, in Dostoevski’s Brothers Karamazov, in almost everything written by Hermann Hesse, and so on, on and on. Thus, human nature is best understood by observing experiences common to all human beings. We probably have or will experience these things in the course of our everyday lives, or at least we will know someone who has.

Realistic settings are usually cities, towns, homes, places of business. If they take place in the “woods,” the situation is quite ordinary and involves people who “belong” in the woods. The here and now is what is important, not subjectivism or dreams. Narrators can be first person, but are most often third person limited omniscient to enhance objective, realistic reporting. The narrator usually tries not to project his feelings onto the action. Narrators can be omniscient, but the purpose here is not to provide subjective generalizations, but to provide objective psycho-logical analyses of character motivation, etc., that are clearly reinforced by characters’ behavior. In structure, realistic prose have logical, realistic endings based on the realistic development of plot and character.

Naturalism was a literary method and school of the later 19th century, stemming historically from Balzac and developed by the Goncourt brothers and Zola, who formulated its principles and objectives. Its purpose was to dispel superstitions and idealization. Its method was to apply scientific objectivity to literary subjects: to observe closely, to put no limitation on choice of subject, andto be more widely inclusive of details than were the realists. It wished to “tell everything,” to show the environment exactly, to present its “slice of life,” to “experiment” with the characters as if in a laboratory and trace their development as it is dictated by their heredity and environment, for the basic assumption is a determinism in which free will becomes almost nonexistent. The naturalists stressed the fatalistic, mechanistic aspects of the universe, the materialism of men’s motives, the power of instinct and sexuality the commonplace and coarser forms of their lives. Many used the novel as a study in sociology or social problems.

Realism primarily dominated the 1850’s and 1860’s, while naturalism was prominent during the 1870’s and 1880’s. Naturalism is not merely an extreme form of realism; it is informed by a very different philosophical view—a post-Darwinian form of scientific determinism in which people are the prisoners of their biological inheritance and social environment. Naturalists often abandoned the middle-class settings of the realists for the “lower depths,” for working-class settings where the impact of environment was especially clear, and for violent, animalistic characters, whose inherited drives, especially hunger and sex, are particularly vivid (a good American example of this tendency is Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets). Naturalism, for its claims of objectivity, was an even better stick with which to beat the middle-class than realism had been. In most cases, the observant reader will see characters in situations over which they seem to have no control, where they seem to be at the mercy of powers outside of themselves. American readers will be familiar with the concept through such devices as Nature in Crane’s “The Open Boat,” through social/class issues in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, and we will, of course, see glimpses of it through the power of sexuality and disease in the excerpt from Zola’s Nana.

Rachid Amri

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