Realism can be defined as the accurate, detailed, unembellished depiction of nature or contemporary life. In its narrative form, realism attempts to portray the lives, appearance, problems, customs, ethics and mores, particularly of the middle and lower classes. Essentially, realism reveals. “Where romanticists transcend the immediate to find the ideal, and naturalists plumb the actual to find the scientific laws that control its actions, realists center [sic] their attention on the immediate, the here and now, the specific action and the verifiable consequence” (Harmon, 2005).
But is it as simple and as concise and as definitive as that? Terry Eagleton (2003) suggests realism is one of the most elusive of artistic terms:
‘Unrealistic’, for example, is not necessarily the same as ‘non-realist’. You can have a work of art which is non-realist in the sense of being non-representational, yet which paints a convincing picture of the world. Conversely, Jane Austen’s novels are realist, but you could claim that the spooky Gothic fiction she disliked so much reflects more of the anxiety and agitation of an Age of Revolution than Mansfield Park does … Walter Benjamin considered that Baudelaire’s poetry reflected the urban masses of Paris, even though those masses are nowhere actually present in his work.
If realism is viewed as any narrative claiming to reflect the ‘real’ world, then most mainstream fiction and cinema today can be described as realist texts. Historically, realism as a dominant literary convention emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century, in part, as a protest against the falseness and sentimentality evident in romantic fiction. Life lacked symmetry and plot, realist authors argued; fiction that truthfully reflected life should, therefore, avoid symmetry and plot. The stylistic result was a much greater emphasis on characterisation.
Additionally, this literary realist era can be seen as the natural development of an age forced to acknowledge a number of new ‘realities’. The industrial revolution of the late 18th century and thereafter had wrought swift and far-reaching changes on society. The pastoral, ‘cottage’ realm made way for the first wave of human urbanisation and worker alienation. With its factory system, the growth of cities, quick wealth to be had, keen competition, increased migration, and shifting of social classes, the industrial revolution and its aftermath gave a whole new body of material for writers to report and interpret. The pan-European socialist uprisings known as the 1848 Revolutions, although quickly put down, had far-reaching ramifications: “Society was cut in two: those who had nothing united in common envy, and those who had anything united in common terror” (Welch, 2006).
Into this milieu Charles Darwin published the Origin of the Species in 1859, thus encouraging people who, in the scientific and perhaps skeptical spirit of the day, were ready to accept only what could be observed and verified with the senses. Across the Atlantic Ocean, the American Civil War, which spurred a rapid growth in industrialism and urbanisation, and a relative rise in middle-class affluence, provided a fertile literary environment for both writers to depict, and for readers to embrace, the ‘faithful representation of reality’.
One of the earliest exponents of this deliberate representation of the ‘actual’ – at least in the Russian context – was Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852). According to literary critic James Wood (2000), because reality exists so fiercely in and for his [Gogol’s] characters, “they in turn exist fiercely for us”. Though Gogol’s characters are fantasists and their inner lives often entirely fictional, their world is thoroughly real to a reader because the author presents a world-view that corresponds to their [the readers’] own subject position, perpetuating, rather than simply reflecting, cultural meanings and norms (UTS, 2008).
However, for German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, realism was not as reflective of, or intrinsic to, a literary work, realism was not coded into it for all time like the genetic code in a living being. Rather, realism was a matter of a work’s effects, “a function of the role the work plays or can play in a given society at a particular historical moment” (Goring, 2001).
According to this theory, suggests Eagleton (2003), realism is a relationship between the artwork and its audience, “in which case your play can be realistic on Monday but not on Thursday. One person’s realism is another’s fantasy.” Realism, in this context, is a matter of what the audience or readers ‘get out of the thing’, not what an author might put into it. In this sense, a work in the ‘Brechtian’ tradition is realistic not once and for all, but by reference to its ability at a particular time and place to allow individuals to understand and to change the conditions of their existence. For Brecht, “reality changes and in order to represent reality, modes of representation must also change. His realism focuses not on questions of form or content, but on social function” (Goring, 2001). Does that mean we should not be bound by what the author said, or thought he was saying, but cede authority to the reader? Roland Barthes would.
For Hungarian philosopher and theorist, Georg Lukacs, realism placed a high premium on two things: Firstly, “portraying the totality of reality in some form or other and secondly, penetrating beneath the surface appearance of reality so as to be able to grasp the underlying laws of historical change” (Goring, 2001). Lukacs’s sense of realism, then, is cognitive and evaluative together. As Eagleton (2003) states: “The more a work of art succeeds in laying bare the hidden forces of history, the finer it will be. In fact, there is a sense in which this kind of art is more real than reality itself, since by bringing out its inner structure it reveals what is most essential about it.” According to this interpretation, it is his or her position in history that allows a writer to see into the heart of things, not talent or a way with words.
German philologist Erich Auerbach contends that realism in its broadest sense is a matter of the vernacular. Auerbach’s unique and scholarly approach in his magnum opus, Mimesis (written over three years at the height of World War II in Istanbul after fleeing Nazi Germany), was to forensically examine excerpts from longer texts to a close reading of their stylistic features (grammar, syntax, and diction) in an attempt to ascertain the broader questions of culture and society and ‘reality’ in their historical context. His subjects ranged from Homer to Virginia Woolf. Auerbach committed himself totally to historical perspectivism, which “holds that each epoch and civilization [sic] has its own possibilities of aesthetic perfection. The universally human [or ‘real’] is to be perceived in the finest works of each epoch, manifest in a form or style unique to it” (Calin, 1999). That is, to chart no less, the surfacing and submerging of popular realism over two millennia by fastening on to some stray passage or excerpt or phrase in order to unpack from it a wealth of historical and ‘real’ insight. For Auerbach, realism was always evident in the text, even as far back as antiquity.
Realism can also be very malleable, especially in the hands of satirists. Swift and Voltaire, for example, though they may indulge in some realistic effects for their own sake, arguably sacrifice realism whenever the situation suits. Conversely, many purely ‘mimetic’ writers, says Booth (1983), “writers for whom the allegation of didacticism would be distressing, also treat realism as subordinate and functionary to their special purposes … Much as Trollope and Thackeray may talk about their passion for truth to nature or the real, they are often willing … to sacrifice reality to tears or laughter”.
“Realism, then, can arguably be a technical, formal, epistemological or ontological affair. It can also be a historical term, describing the most enduring artistic mode of the modern age” (Eagleton, 2003). But there is no ‘realistic’ way to narrate the world, argues Roland Barthes (Wood, 2008): “Realism does not refer to reality; realism is not reality. Realism is a system of conventional codes, a grammar so ubiquitous that we do not notice the way it structures bourgeois story-telling.” What Barthes means, suggests Wood (2008), is that conventional novelists have pulled the wool over our eyes: “A smooth wall of [technically-acceptable] prose comes towards us and we rather lazily gasp out loud – ‘How did it all come about?’” Wood calls this more modern version commercial realism; a grammar of intelligent, stable, transparent story-telling, “itself derived from the more original grammar of Flaubert”, purporting to be real, but is not real, because few of the details are very alive.
Given then the rather ‘adaptable’ perception, definition and application of realism, it’s easy to appreciate Eagleton’s aforementioned sentiment of realism being an elusive term. American author William Dean Howell (1837-1920) says it is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material; George Lukacs likes to think a work is realistic or not depending on whether it portrays a socio-historical totality; Bertolt Brecht believes realism focuses not on questions of form or content, but of social function; Barthes says realism does not refer to reality at all; while for Auerbach, realism is a matter of the vernacular where it takes the lives of common people with supreme seriousness.
With so much ‘flexibility’ and conjecture, Wood (2008) rather facetiously suggests replacing the seemingly problematic word ‘realism’ with the much more problematic word ‘truth’. “Once we throw the term realism overboard, we can account for the ways in which Kafka’s Metamorphosis … is not a representation of likely or typical human activity, but is nonetheless, a harrowingly truthful text … This, we say to ourselves, is what it would feel like to be outcast from one’s family, like an insect.”
And so we come to Franz Kafka (1883-1924). ‘This is a very nice [segue] on my part to be treasured all your lives,” (after Nabokov, 1980). Kafka’s The Metamorphosis begins with a fantastical metaphor: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” The novel then proceeds to elicit a vast array of real, human emotions. Empathy, for example, when Gregor, in order to spare his sister Grete the repulsive sight of him, covers himself in a sheet while laid out on the couch – “it cost him four hours labour to hide himself”. As Nabokov (1980) says, “His utter unselfishness, his constant preoccupation with the needs of others against the backdrop of his hideous plight comes out in strong [and realistic] relief.” According to Kundera (2003), Kafka grasped concrete situations of human life … the images, the situations, and even the individual sentences of Kafka’s novels were part of life in Prague. So ‘real’ was his art, that is was once regarded “as a sociopolitical prophecy”. In The Metamorphosis, there is betrayal and deception, humiliation and rejection, misplaced generosity, defeat and resignation, alienation and estrangement, and notions of fear and aggression, just to name a few humanist traits littered amidst the narrative. Total despair is also explored. As Nabokov (1980) states, the interaction between the various middle-class characters charts the real ups and downs in the well-being of the Samsa family, “the subtle state of balance between their flourishing condition and Gregor’s desperate and pathetic condition”. This rendering of the everyday and the real by Kafka, kick-started with a metaphor of a human becoming an insect, combined with what Nabokov (1980) calls the limpidity of Kafka’s literary style highlights the dark and real richness of his fantasy: “Contrast and unity, style and matter, manner and plot are most perfectly integrated.”
It is within such exquisitely realised scenes (like those depicted by Kafka and others, including Henry James, Tolstoy, Flaubert and Eliot, to name but a few) that we often encounter perfectly placed ‘moments’ and words that strike us with their truth, which move and sustain us, which ‘reveal the real’, which shake habit’s house to its foundations. By extension, realism, when seen more broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot, asserts Wood (2008), “be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness or lifesameness, but what I call lifeness: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry … For realism of this kind – lifeness – is the origin.” Auerbach would likely agree. In schooling its own truants, Wood argues, lifeness “is what allows magical realism, hysterical realism, fantasy, science fiction, even thrillers, to exist”.
Booth, W.C. (1983) The Rhetoric of Fiction (Second edition), University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
Calin, W. (1999) Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis—’Tis Fifty Years Since: A Reassessment – Critical Essay: Available online at http://www.bnet.com/ (accessed April 2008).
Eagleton, T. (2003) Pork Chops and Pineapples, London Review of Books, October 2003: Available online at www.lrb.co.uk (accessed March 2008).
Goring, P. (Ed) (2001) Studying Literature, Arnold: London.
Harmon, W. (2005) A Handbook to Literature, Prentice Hall: Boston
Kundera, M. (2003) The Art of the Novel (Perennial Classics), HarperCollins: New York
Nabokov, V. (1980) Lectures on Literature, Harcourt and Brace: Florida
University of Technology (2008) Theory and Writing, Lecture 4 course notes: Sydney
Welch, C. (2006) The Cambridge Companion to Tocqueville, Cambridge University Press: New York.
Wood, J (2000) The Broken Estate, Essays on Literature and Belief, Random House: New York.
Wood, J (2008) How Fiction Works, Jonathan Cape: London.