Introduction to Realism
Yet every now and then I read a book with perfect comfort and much exhilaration, whose scenes the average Englishman would gasp in. Nothing happens; that is, nobody murders or debauches anybody else; there is no arson or pillage of any sort; there is not a ghost, or a ravening beast, or a hair-breadth escape, or a shipwreck, or a monster of self-sacrifice, or a lady five thousand years old in the whole course of the story…. Yet it is all alive with the keenest interest for those who enjoy the study of individual traits and general conditions as they make themselves known to American experience.
-William Dean Howells, 1886 (quoted in Campbell)
William Dean Howells, a long-time friend of Henry James, is best known today as a champion of literary Realism in America. In the passage quoted above, “nothing happens” is ironic. Realism was premised around the notion that the everyday lives of clerks, shopkeepers, and governesses could be just as rich and compelling as the lives of kings or mythical beings. Realism flourished between the 1860s and the beginning of the twentieth century, accompanied by parallel movements in painting and theatre. We will capitalize the word Realism when we’re referring to the literary and artistic movement, and use the lower-case form when we’re just referring to the quality of being “true to life.”
In order to understand the significance of Realism within literary history, it will be helpful to distinguish it from two other major movements or styles that preceded it: the romance and the sentimental novel.
When called upon to define Realism, Howells and his generation of writers usually started by saying what Realism was not, beginning with romance. However, by the late nineteenth century, the word romance was associated with so many disparate works of literature it was nearly meaningless. It could refer to heroic tales of knights and damsels in distress; tales laden with Christian moral symbolism; or Gothic tales of vampires and haunted castles. Only occasionally did it refer to major works of the Romantic period, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850). For our purposes, we can define the romance as an overtly fictional, highly imaginative narrative in which elements of the supernatural are intermingled with the everyday. Romances were often allegorical, meaning that a character might stand for an abstract idea, such as innocence, lust, or meaning itself. Realist writers avoided allegorical characterization, preferring to develop characters through “individual traits” (as
Howells puts it) and social relationships. Whereas the settings of romances tended toward the symbolic and the timeless, Realist novels usually took place in recognizable neighbourhoods, with authentic street names and characters speaking regional dialects.
Sentimentalism was another literary style Realism revolted against. Generally written by and for middle-class, white women, sentimental novels had a distinctive political agenda centered around a distinctive set of feelings. They were written to build sympathy for the poor, sick, and enslaved. In some cases, the strategy worked: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s wildly popular sentimental novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin: or, Life Among the Lowly (1852) is thought to have galvanized public opposition to slavery. Stowe and other sentimental writers believed that women held a strong moral influence on their husbands and sons. For that reason, they maintained that women should not enter politics, but should intervene in political causes indirectly, by spreading sympathy and Christian charity in the home.
As the century progressed, prominent Realist writers, including Howells and Mark Twain, took every opportunity to make fun of sentimental writing and the women who consumed it. While there are many valid critiques of sentimental fiction—farfetched plots, exaggerated displays of emotion, preachiness—it was also true that these male Realists were reacting against a perceived “feminization” of American culture. With the advent of feminist literary criticism in the 1970s, sentimentalism has been re-evaluated. Scholars have found that Realist writers, both male and female, had more in common with their sentimental predecessors than they cared to admit.
In contrast to the romantic and sentimental modes, Realist fiction rarely offers clearly defined heroes or villains. Characters do good things for selfish reasons and bad things for good reasons; kind people get taken advantage of and bad deeds go unpunished. Rather than positing an absolute authority (usually God) to make sense of people’s deeds, the responsibility for judgment falls upon corruptible human institutions: the church, the police, and so on. In short, Realism takes place in an imperfect, morally compromised world.
Realism’s rejection of moral absolutes has been attributed to a range of cultural changes. In the United States, the optimism that had characterized the first half of the nineteenth century faded with the outbreak of the Civil War, in which 620,000 men died, and, subsequently, the failure of nationwide reconstruction efforts to put an end to racial violence, segregation, and poverty in the Southern states. An increase in immigration from Europe and Asia gave rise to what we would now call cultural relativism. Philosophically, the novel is indebted to empiricism, the philosophical school which holds that one learns about the world through experience rather than by applying abstract laws. Many novelists were also influenced by social sciences such as sociology, psychology, and economics, which attempted to describe people and their environments in a neutral manner, or by photography, with its promise of rendering the world truthfully and without judgment. These intellectual currents also contributed to the development of Naturalism, which we will study in Units 2 and 3.
Underlying many Realist works is an ideology of liberal individualism. For Howells, Realism was the expression of “democracy in literature.” It was the literary form that matched what he saw as a land of equal opportunity and boundless potential. As he wrote to his fellow novelists, “Men are more like than unlike one another: let us make them know one another better, that they may be all humbled and strengthened with a sense of their fraternity” (Howells, ch. 27). In this liberal worldview, an individual cannot be understood apart from the circumstances of time, place, and the community he or she belongs to, and yet the individual is understood to be more than his or her social role. Realist characters are faced with the challenge of defining themselves in the eyes of others and in their own eyes. In the most insightful texts of the period, the character will have to face the limits and contradictions of the dream of self-making: For the narrator of “The Real Thing,” that means trying to reconcile two different versions of oneself, and for the protagonist of In the Cage, wondering if one could cast off one’s past and become an entirely different type of person.
Realism’s Formal Qualities
Henry James’s 1884 essay “The Art of Fiction” (in Tales of Henry James, 375–394) is one of the defining statements of literary Realism. The title itself was a provocation. At the height of the nineteenth century, prose fiction was not regarded as a “high” art form on par with poetry, music, or painting. Fiction was a form of mass culture whose position was roughly analogous to that of television in the twentieth century or video games in the twenty-first. Books and magazines were relatively cheap to print and purchase, and more and more Americans were able to read them. Just like TV and video games today, fiction had public opponents. Some doctors and clergymen argued that too much reading would distract young women from their duties in the home, encourage boys to take up a life of crime, or even stir married women to commit adultery. But most people simply viewed fiction as a form of mass entertainment, neither dangerous nor deserving of sustained attention. There were no university classes in English or creative writing. For James, then, an essay such as “The Art of Fiction” was an attempt to raise the status of fiction to that of a serious art.
The essay was written as a response to another essay called “The Art of Fiction,” that one published a few months earlier by British novelist Walter Besant. Besant had attempted to establish a set of criteria for a good novel. James, in contrast, argued that there was no recipe. A good book did not need “happy endings,” “sympathetic characters,” or a “conscious moral purpose,” and a writer did not need to favour dialogue over description or vice versa. The only requirement was that the novel be “interesting,” and, he said, there were as many ways for a novel to be interesting as there were differences between people. A novelist, no less than a painter, strives to create an impression of reality. That required a keen attention to detail: if one wanted to be a writer, one should “try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!” At the same time, James disagreed with Besant’s assertion that writers should only write about situations they had experienced personally. To insist that a writer was a mere transcriptionist of his or her own life was to deny the power of the imagination.
Even as James argued that the controlling vision of the artist was what made a work of fiction successful, it was widely held that the author of a Realist work was supposed to disappear from the text. (In contrast, the narrator of a sentimental novel would often tell her readers how to feel, imploring them to weep over the death of a character or to take up a political cause.) Some critics felt that the posture of objectivity adopted by Realists led to boring fiction. The satirical Devil’s Dictionary, from 1911, defined Realism as “the art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads…a landscape painted by a mole, or a story written by a measuring-worm” (Bierce “Realism”). A few decades later, French literary theorist Roland Barthes derided Realists for loading their work with “useless details” whose sole purpose was to shout at the reader, Look how realistic I am! (142).
But Realism was far more than a mechanical copy of reality (a theme we will explore further in our discussion of “The Real Thing”). Realist writers prized themselves on careful plotting, in contrast, again, with romances and sentimental novels. The Russian Realist Anton Chekhov famously instructed his fellow authors, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” Every event that took place unfolded plausibly based on what came before, and people acted in a manner consistent with their characters. Although one might argue that deliberate plotting makes Realist fiction less realistic, it does make it more enjoyable to read.
Dialogue in Realist fiction was supposed to be, well, realistic. No one spoke in Shakespearean blank verse or made the kind of biblical-sounding proclamations one would hear in Hawthorne or Melville. The richness of Realist dialogue lies in authors’ understanding that people do not always say exactly what they mean. Perhaps decorum forbids them from being direct, or perhaps they lack the self-awareness to know what they want to say. Accordingly, Realism demands that the reader be attuned to understatement and subtext. Instead of telling us outright that a character is having an affair or lying about their fortune, a Realist writer imparts this information through awkward silences, slips of the tongue, or details of dress and furniture. A reader is expected to understand the significance of these social codes on his or her own. This is another way that Realism participated in the individualist ethos of the late nineteenth century: Reading books about “ordinary” individuals was an occasion to measure oneself against the implicit standards of middle-class masculinity or femininity.