3 From Social Realism to Psychological Realism


From Social Realism to Psychological Realism

Transforming Character

James’s writing career spanned half a century. Over that time, his work evolved from a “social” Realism (concerned with love, money, and manners) to something different: denser in its prose style, less conclusive in its endings, sometimes venturing into allegorical or supernatural territory. James was increasingly invested in psychological realism, a style of writing that emphasizes interiority (characters’ private thoughts and feelings) over outwardly visible behaviour. We are not capitalizing psychological realism because it is not a literary movement, but rather a set of techniques used, to different effects, in works of Realism, Naturalism, and Modernism.

Psychological realism emerged in part as a response to the same social changes that produced Realism in general. Men were no longer expected to work in the same trades as their fathers and grandfathers, and more and more people from small communities moved to large cities or travelled abroad. One’s identity could no longer be securely bound to external markers such as one’s family name or where one lived. Recall that in “The Real Thing,” Major Monarch’s identity as a gentleman and Mrs. Monarch’s identity as a lady no longer match their material circumstances. If external signs no longer pointed to the “truth” of a character, then perhaps the truth could be located in interior qualities such as character traits, thoughts, beliefs, and memories.

A distinction made by one of James’s admirers, the British novelist and critic E. M. Forster, shows how much prestige had come to be attached to psychological realist techniques by the early twentieth century. According to Forster, a “flat” character is “constructed around a single idea or quality” (e.g., wealth or drunkenness), whereas a “round” character develops and changes over the course of the text, and is “capable of surprising [the reader] in a convincing way” (Forster; see also Woloch). Not everyone finds that distinction useful, however. Stories with round characters are not necessarily more powerful than stories with flat ones. We prefer to think of characterization as a dialectic of surface and depth: While James’s writing became increasingly subjective and psychologically complex, he and his characters were still preoccupied with sorting people into “types.” This contradiction is one of the things that makes James fun to read.

Realists recognize that any individual’s view of the world is necessarily incomplete, circumscribed by biases and empirical limitations (in short, a person cannot know everything or be two places at once). For James, the inherent limitation of the individual perspective was a gift for the novelist. He explained why using the metaphor of the “house of fiction.” The following is from his preface to the 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady, which he added when he revised the novel in 1908:

The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million…. These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life. But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other. He and his neighbours are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine. And so on, and so on; there is fortunately no saying on what, for the particular pair of eyes, the window may not open; “fortunately” by reason, precisely, of this incalculability of range. The spreading field, the human scene, is the “choice of subject”; the pierced aperture, either broad or balconied or slit-like and low-browed, is the “literary form”; but they are, singly or together, as nothing without the posted presence of the watcher — without, in other words, the consciousness of the artist. (in Hale 69)

Perhaps you found yourself nodding along with James, as though to say, Yes, of course that’s how fiction works. If you did, it shows how psychological realism has come to dominate Western readers’ understanding of narrative. This was not always the case: Classical European writers (beginning with Aristotle, whose Poetics was written in 350 BCE) maintained that storytelling was driven by actions and that character was merely a vehicle for plot. James’s sense that perspective was just as interesting as plot is another outgrowth of a liberal-individualist belief system. Recognizing a multiplicity of viewpoints, a liberal reader would say, is essential to living ethically in a diverse society.

Realism was not the first literary movement to examine the psychology of its characters. What distinguished psychological realism was its focus on ordinary people in ordinary situations (meaning that murder and incest were kept to a minimum) and its grounding in a new scientific understanding of the mind.

Consciousness, Unconsciousness, and the “Stream of Thought”

The turn of the century was a golden age for the scientific study of perceptions, memories, and emotions. Henry James’s brother, William James, taught at Harvard University between 1873 and 1907. Trained abroad in medicine and neuroscience, William founded the first psychology laboratory in the U.S. before shifting his focus to philosophy. Before William James, most Western philosophers had claimed there was a core self, an “I” or cogito, that thought thoughts and possessed memories. But William argued that the core self did not exist. Since we’ve just told you that Realist writers try to create complex, authentic characters, William’s position may sound antithetical to their aim. But if we dig a bit deeper, we can see how his discoveries breathed new life into the art of literary characterization.

In The Principles of Psychology (1890), William James pointed out that most human activity was habitual, occurring below the threshold of consciousness—and that, he said, was a good thing. (Imagine how exhausted you would be if you had to make a decision about which foot to lift whenever you walk down the street.) For William, experience consisted of the small subset of actions, thoughts, and sensations the brain paid attention to. The personality, or “me,” was the connecting link between experiences. William made an analogy between individual experience and to the English language. Nouns and verbs represented objects and actions while the small, intangible words were the “stream” holding everything together:

There is not a conjunction or a preposition, and hardly an adverbial phrase, syntactic form, or inflection of voice, in human speech, that does not express some shading or other of relation which we at some moment actually feel to exist between the larger objects of our thought. If we speak objectively, it is the real relations that appear revealed; if we speak subjectively, it is the stream of consciousness that matches each of them by an inward coloring of its own. In either case the relations are numberless, and no existing language is capable of doing justice to all their shades.

We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of cold. Yet we do not: so inveterate has our habit become of recognizing the existence of the substantive parts alone, that language almost refuses to lend itself to any other use. (W. James, ch. 9)

We don’t know what “the feeling of by” is, either. We do know that William James’s work left many writers thinking about the inadequacy of older modes of characterization, both the Aristotelian reduction of character to plot and the Realist reduction of characters to social types. Those writers—Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and many more—brought the subjective qualities of experience to the forefront of their writing. They saw character as the product of small, fleeting moments and half-conscious routines.

Let’s look at an example from In the Cage. (If you haven’t read it yet, don’t worry.) Near the beginning of the novella, we are told that the main character “had a whimsical mind and wonderful nerves; she was subject, in short, to sudden flickers of antipathy and sympathy, red gleams in the grey, fitful needs to notice and to ‘care,’ odd caprices of curiosity” (ch. 2). James is attempting to capture the transitory, “flickering” quality of consciousness. Do those “red gleams” refer to the character’s changing mood, or to something in the environment (perhaps stained glass windows glimpsed through the fog)? There is no strict separation between the inner and outer world. Instead, there is a relation forged through “noticing and caring.” Here we see a line of continuity with “The Real Thing,” which argued, however ironically, for reading attentively and learning how to see—that is, for a habit of taking interest as constitutive of a type of person. Interest is a word that appears frequently in both Henry and William’s writing. It is by taking interest, by associating feelings with objects, that a disjointed series of neurological events coalesces into a self. (In In the Cage, taking interest also leads to a lot of undue suffering, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

Henry did not write In the Cage as a gloss on his brother’s scientific investigations, and it would be a mistake to treat their works as interchangeable. William, in fact, did not like most modern fiction. He even wrote to Henry in 1905: “[W]hy won’t you, just to please Brother, sit down and write a new book, with no twilight and mustiness in the plot, with great vigour and decisiveness in the action, no fencing in the dialogue, no psychological commentaries, and absolute straightness in the style!” (quoted in Jehlen 48). William’s disliking Henry’s prose for its indirectness is ironic, given that William had argued that new language was necessary to represent all of the “relations” and “shades” of experience.

Public and Private

At the same time that William James was asking his psychology students how they knew that their thoughts were not his thoughts, two American lawyers, Louis D. Brandeis and Samuel Warren, published the first legal defense of the “right to privacy.” (Brandeis went on to become the first Supreme Court justice of Jewish ancestry.) They worried about new “mechanical devices” that made it easier to intrude on strangers’ personal lives, such as the telegraph and the portable camera. Whenever the details of someone’s life were exposed to the public, Brandeis and Warren argued, it was a deeper violation than theft; it was a violation of the person’s “inviolate personality.”

What largely evaded Brandeis and Warren’s scrutiny was the power of the state to collect private data about its citizens, which was growing rapidly. School districts kept permanent records of students’ performance; social welfare organizations kept tabs on the living arrangements of the poor; psychiatrists and sexologists asked prying questions; and the police were armed with new forensic methods such as fingerprinting. Unlike the gossipy journalists and “peeping Toms” Brandeis and Warren warned against, all of these incursions into citizens’ private lives were legal and consensual, and generally regarded as signs of social progress. Many scholars believe it was not a coincidence that the expansion of these institutions of surveillance took place at the same time that psychological realism, which is all about characters’ hidden thoughts and desires, was growing in popularity.

Interestingly, Brandeis and Warren drew their understanding of the private self as much from literary sources as from literary ones. Brandeis admired the British Romantic poet William Wordsworth, who revelled in “that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude” and argued that a man was his truest self when he was apart from the crowd. And the novel has had a voyeuristic appeal since its inception. One of the most popular and scandalous novels of the eighteenth century was Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded (1740), written in the form of private letters from a maid being held against her will by her older, sexually aggressive master. James, writing much later, may have found Pamela’s sentimental plot unrealistic, but he too argued that the disparate points of view that made up a novel were held together by “the posted presence of the watcher” (in Hale 69). Reread James’s metaphorical description of the “house of fiction” from the beginning of Topic 3. Why are those people spying on each other?

Here is a case study in the mutual interaction of literature and culture: Fiction and poetry were partly responsible for privacy becoming increasingly important within Anglo-American law; then, the legal and cultural transformations of the late nineteenth century only further solidified the idea that fiction offers an immersive, intimate experience of someone else’s mind.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Modern American Fiction Copyright © by Thompson Rivers University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book