The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Deak Nabers

Realism served as the dominant mode of nineteenth-century novelistic discourse. Although the representation of reality has played at least some small role in many literary movements and projects, the term “literary realism” generally identifies a historically specific set of literary techniques and ambitions. Emerging in France in the 1830s in the work of Stendhal and Honoré de Balzac, realism received its first theoretical elaborations in the 1840s and 1850s in the work of French authors Champfleury and Louis Edmond Duranty and the English critic John Ruskin (1819—1900). The mode flowered across Europe from the 1850s through the 1880s: in France in the work of Gustave Flaubert; in England in the work of George Eliot and Anthony Trollope; in Russia in the work of Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev. By the late nineteenth century, literary debate in the U.S. revolved around realism, which heavily influenced the work of Mark Twain, Henry James, and William Dean Howells. “The great collective event in American letters during the 1890s and 1890s,” Walter Berthoff explains, “was the securing of ’realism’ as the dominant standard of value” (1). Constructed out of an awkward mix of paradoxically linked commitments and bearing a complicated and multivalent relationship to nineteenth-century social order, realism has invited a long history of critical speculation. Its exact specifications have repeatedly resisted simple definition.

Realism's Project

Realism's early practitioners tended to present the enterprise in disarmingly matter-of-fact terms. “Realism is nothing more and nothing less,” Howells claimed, “than the truthful treatment of material” (966). Revolving around “simple honesty and instinctive truth,” it could be “as unphilosophized as the light of common day” (966). The narrator of Eliot's Adam Bede (1859) announces, in chap. 17, that her “strongest effort” is simply “to give a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind.” If this meant that she would have to present an uninspired clergyman rather than a saint full of “truly spiritual advice,” then so be it. “I would not, even if I had the choice, be the clever novelist who could create a world so much better than this,” she explains. “I am content to tell my simple story...dreading nothing, indeed, but falsity.” In Mimesis, an extraordinarily influential mid-twentieth-century account of the “representation of reality in Western Literature,” the German philologist and literary historian Erich Auerbach identifies the “modern realism” of the nineteenth century as, quite simply, “the serious treatment of everyday reality” (491).

Of course, as Auerbach himself demonstrated in great detail, nineteenth-century realists were not the first authors to aspire to the “truthful treatment of the material” in their works. They were hardly unique in preferring “truth” to “falsity.” Authors had been representing reality as long as they had been producing literature. Nor was the realist suspicion of inherited cultural fictions like the infallibility of the local clergy especially unconventional, at least in formal literary terms. By the mid-nineteenth century the novel form itself had long been associated with what Fredric Jameson calls “the systematic undermining and demystification, the secular ’decoding,’ of those preexisting inherited traditional or sacred narrative paradigms which are its initial givens” (152). In order “to convince us of his essential veracity,” writes Harry Levin, “the novelist must always be disclaiming the fictitious and breaking through the encrustations of the literary” (71). So the distinctiveness of what Auerbach calls modern realism hinged less on the new realism's commitment to representing reality than on the particular kind of reality it represented. Realism's “truthful treatment” of the world was less decisive than its interest in reality in its everyday form.

The nineteenth-century realist's everyday reality was the social world of the bourgeoisie, and to treat it seriously was to focus, first, on the domestic intricacies that constituted the lived experience of middle-class life and, second, on the complicated interconnections between social practices and economic necessity which gave rise to bourgeois subjectivity. Auerbach contends:

The serious realism of modern times cannot represent man otherwise than as embedded in a total reality, political, social, and economic, which is concrete and constantly evolving....[The realist author] not only...places the human beings whose destiny he is seriously relating, in their precisely defined historical and social setting, but also conceives this connection as a necessary one: to him every milieu becomes a moral and physical atmosphere which impregnates the landscape, the dwelling, furniture, implements, clothing, physique, character, surroundings...and fates of men, and at the same time the general historical situation reappears as a total atmosphere which envelops all its several milieux. (463, 473)

The “necessary connection” between “furniture,” “implements,” and the like and the “fates of men” places a great deal of pressure on the emblems of everyday life in which the realist novelist tended to traffic. Eliot may well claim that she is content to depict “monotonous homely existence” so long as she can avoid falsity (chap. 17). But from Auerbach's perspective it is not enough for her accounts of “flower-pots,” “spinning wheels,” “stone jugs,” and “all those cheap common things which are the precious necessities of life” merely to be truthful (Eliot, chap. 17). They must also be suggestive.

Necessity is as important here as reality. The American author Ambrose Bierce once jokingly declared that realism is “the art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads. The charm suffusing a landscape painted by a mole, or a story written by a measuring-worm” (1911, Devil's Dictionary, 206). And Lionel Trilling once noted that in the cruder forms of realism, reality “is one and immutable, it is wholly external, it is irreducible....Reality being fixed and given, the artist has but to let it pass through him, he is the lens in the first diagram of an elementary book on optics” (4—5). But the realist's topical immersion in quotidian details generally occasioned a thematic elevation of those details to a higher plane of importance. According to George Parsons Lathrop, writing in 1874, realism “sets itself at work to consider characters and events which are apparently...most...uninteresting” only so as to “extract from these their full value and true meaning.” Realism “reveals,” he continued; “where we thought nothing worthy of notice, it shows everything to be rife with significance” (321—22).

It is for this reason that the Hungarian literary critic Georg lukács praises Balzac as much for his commitment to what Lukács calls “abstraction” as for his attentiveness to “material problems” (44, 51). One could treat “everyday reality” “seriously,” to return to Auerbach's terms, only by rendering it something more than the merely everyday, more than the simply immutable and irreducible external world. “The concrete presentation of social interconnections,” Lukács insists, “is rendered possible only by raising them to so high a level of abstraction that from it the concrete can be sought and found as a ’unity of diversity’” (44). For Lukács the “very depth of Balzac's realism” does not derive from his attention to the quotidian. It instead “removes his art...completely beyond the photographic reproduction of ’average’ reality” (60). The novelistic representation of Eliot's “vulgar details” depends, paradoxically, upon a “passionate striving for the essential and nothing but the essential”—upon, indeed, a “passionate contempt for all trivial realism” (69). Hence the structural ambivalence at the heart of the realist enterprise: simultaneously embracing and rejecting the trivial, the realist novel privileges the concrete over the abstract even as it derives the abstract from the concrete.

Despite all of its posturing against literary conventions, realism was itself quickly recognized as a set of conventions. As Michael Davitt Bell explains, “realism involves not a rejection of style (if such a thing were even possible) but a particular use of style” (20—21). Realism was a specific and historically inflected mode of writing as well as an impulse to tether writing more closely to the empirical world, and in many respects its status as a literary mode proved more commanding and durable than any of its actual representational powers. The “descriptive fabric” in Flaubert's fiction, French literary theorist Roland Barthes maintains, is significant not in its careful conformity to the actual facts of the worlds the fictions represent, or what Barthes calls “,” but rather in its conformity to the “cultural rules of representation” that allow certain details to stand in for the quotidian world and for that world's meaning in relation to bourgeois social life as a whole (144—45). Flaubertian realism, and realism more generally, thereby hinge on what Barthes calls a “referential illusion” (148). Those details that “are reputed to denote the real directly” in realist fiction instead merely imply or “signify” the real (148). Eliot's references to stone jugs do not reproduce stone jugs. Instead they enact a drama in which quotidian objects like stone jugs come to stand for reality. Such details, Barthes suggests, “say nothing but this: we are the real” (148). The “contingent contents” of reality constantly give way in realist fiction to their aesthetic “effect” (148). Realism's modesty and deference before the real merely mask its deeper ambitions and aggression: realism does not represent reality so much as redefine it.

Realism's Politics

If literary historians have generally agreed that realism is the preeminent literary mode of the bourgeoisie, they have come to widely divergent conclusions about what realism had to say about bourgeois social life and about how it participated in the various social developments it documented. Realist fiction would seem to give expression to all of the complications of the class most clearly identified with the capitalist marketplace and its processes of what the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter calls “creative destruction” (81). There is a straightforward sense at least in which realism casts itself as an oppositional and disruptive discourse. In substituting grimy details for exalted ideals, it cannot help but make the ideals look somewhat dishonest. When Eliot not only represents an uninspired clergyman but also goes so far as to identify the “precious quality of truthfulness” with such mediocrities, she raises the prospect that the virtues of the Victorian clergy might be largely illusory (chap. 17).

Even when realists set out to affirm social ideals rather than undermine them, moreover, literary historians detect crucial countervailing crosscurrents coursing through their work. Lukács acknowledges that Balzac was so politically conservative that the author could not properly understand the social and economic forces he represented in his novels: “Balzac did not see this dialectic of objective economic evolution and, as the legitimist extoller of the aristocratic large estate that he was, he could not possibly have seen it” (38). But for Lukács, Balzac's “deep understanding of real conditions” inevitably led him to a critical stance his own political sympathies would have precluded:

But as the inexorable observer of the social history of France he did see a great deal of the social movements and evolutionary trends produced by [the] economic dialectic of the smallholding. Balzac's greatness lies precisely in the fact that in spite of all of his political and ideological prejudices he observed with incorruptible eyes all contradictions as they arose, and faithfully described them. (38—39)

In this schema, insofar as realism is simply identified with the suspension of the ideological it is also simply identified with the cause of social transformation (see IDEOLOGY). To represent capitalism is to represent its contradictions, and to represent its contradictions is to point the way to a better future. Realism itself enlists its practitioners in the cause of a reform they need never outwardly endorse.

“Incorruptible eyes” mark an almost impossibly high standard for a social critic, needless to say, and the notion that the mere recognition of capitalism's contradictions will necessarily generate a brighter future might now seem unduly optimistic. But literary historians following in Lukács's wake have often located emancipatory tendencies in realism without needing to trace them to such suspect origins. For Jameson, realism's basic focus on the domain of the contingent detail, its dramatization of the relationship between the contingent and the necessary, leads it to challenge the notion that the bourgeois order is in any way inevitable. Jameson does not think that Balzac's representation of “social movements” and “evolutionary trends” itself entails a critique of the “economic dialectic of smallholding” (Lukács, 38). But he does think that the author's “narrative register” presents accounts of these movements and trends which “offer” them “to us as merely conditional history” (169). Balzac's narrative techniques “transform the indicative mode of historical ’fact’ into the less binding one of the cautionary tale and didactic lesson,” and what Jameson considers the “tragedy” of capitalist development is thereby “emptied of its finality, its irreversibility, its historical inevitability” (169). Noting capitalism's contingency might seem less immediately subversive than revealing its contradictions, but in both schemes, Lukács's and Jameson's alike, realism opens capitalist social order to the prospect of radical redefinition.

But, just as Schumpeter's famous formulation associates capitalism as much with centripetal creative authority as with centrifugal destructive effect, realism seems to offer a conservative tug to accompany its critical push. “The realist writer,” explains Leo Bersani, “is intensely aware of writing in a context of social fragmentation” (60). But for Bersani, realism does not expose this fragmentation or glory in the prospects for political transformation it might seem to offer; instead, it mitigates its effects. Social fragmentation appears in realism only against the backdrop of a deeper sense of order: “The realistic novel gives us an image of social fragmentation contained with the order of significant form—and it thereby suggests that the chaotic fragments are somehow socially viable and morally redeemable” (60). If Lukács's realism makes radicals even out of the ideologically conservative, Bersani's realism renders the seemingly radical nothing more than the agents of social order. The point is not that realist novels represent a conservative and staid social world; it is rather that they “serve” in the production and maintenance of that world, and that they do so even when they would seem to be dwelling on bourgeois society's least stable features. Realism's iconoclastic surface merely obscures a “secret complicity between the novelist and his society's illusions about its own order” (63).

Critics operating under the influence of the French historian Michel Foucault have extended this point. D. A. Miller notes that the realist novel often seems to take the maintenance of bourgeois social order as its explicit subject matter. As he puts it, “discipline” and the institutions through which it is disseminated—schools, police stations, courts, orphanages, and the like—provide the realist novel “with its essential ’content’” (18). But Miller also insists that the realist novel does not merely represent discipline in its various modes of nineteenth-century operation. It also “belongs to the disciplinary field that it portrays,” which means that the realist novel's thematic embrace of instability will always coincide with its formal resolution of the putative crises it addresses (21). The realist author “inflects ’the social problem novel,’” Miller explains, “so that any ’problem’ is already part of a more fundamental social solution: namely, the militant constitution and operation of the social field as such” (116). Realists may well tend to be skeptical about the value of this conservative process, but even when they go as far as to condemn militant efforts to maintain social order, they nonetheless participate in them: “Whenever the [realist] novel censures policing power, it has already reinvented it, in the very practice of novelistic representation” (20). For Bersani and Miller, the realist novel would seem to reaffirm social order in the act of challenging it, but for Lukács and Jameson it challenges the social order in the act of reaffirming it.

In one respect, this divergence of opinion simply marks yet another chapter in the longstanding and interminable critical battle over the extent and limit of art's critical relationship to the broader culture from which it emerges. But in another respect the two sides seem less to be arguing with one another than emphasizing different features of the same essentially double-edged structure: all four critics distill realism from a complicated play of fragmentation and retrenchment. We should hardly be surprised to find curious combinations of stability and subversion in a privileged representational form of a socioeconomic system whose “essential” mode of functioning, at least according to Schumpeter, depends upon “incessantly revolution[izing]...from within” (83).

Realism's Legacies

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, realism gradually fell from its preeminent position in the European and American novel, as it was displaced first by naturalism and later by modernism. The naturalism arising from the works of Émile Zola, Thomas Hardy, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Frank Norris was in many respects an evolutionary outgrowth of realism. However, there are important differences between the two projects. While the realist focused on what Lukács called “social interconnection” and the various forms of “necessity” to which it gave rise, the naturalist often seemed to dwell on more purely physical and scientific forms of connection and necessity. “We picture the world as thick with conquering and elate humanity,” explains the narrator of Crane's “The Blue Hotel” (1898), a story set in a Nebraskan blizzard, “but here, with the bugles of the tempest pealing, it was hard to imagine a peopled earth. One viewed the existence of man then as a marvel, and conceded a glamour of wonder to these lice which were caused to cling to a whirling, fire-smote, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb” (1984, Crane: Prose and Poetry, 822). The shift from realism's “defined historical and social setting” to naturalism's heavily marked biological world of disease and lice is significant. At worst, it might mark a departure from the various forms of contingency that so appeal to Jameson. If realism revealed that “evolutionary trends” had their origins in “social” developments over which persons might exert some control, naturalism might seem to restore to such developments their “finality,” “irreversibility,” and “historical inevitability.” As Lukács would make the point, insofar as Zola's “most sincere and courageous critique of society” proceeded from a “’scientific’ conception” that led him to “identify mechanically the human body and human society,” that critique remained “locked into the magic circle of progressive bourgeois narrow-mindedness” (86—87). Whether this is an entirely accurate account of the way in which naturalists addressed the relationship between biological and social forms remains an open question. The naturalist identification of social order with biological necessity is often highly provisional: when “The Blue Hotel” ends by raising the question of whether its events result from individual acts or a social “collaboration” (827), Crane represents that collaboration both as something like a social choice (“We, five of us, have collaborated in the murder of this Swede,” 827) and as a collective process so impersonal as to be almost wholly naturalized (the murder was merely “a culmination, the apex of a human movement,” 828). And in light of this uncertainty the continuities between naturalism and realism are likely to take on a greater salience. Naturalism may have complicated realism's resolutely social calculus with potentially extrapersonal factors, but it nonetheless retained, and indeed extended, realism's persistent interest in exploring the ways in which human subjects might be said to be “embedded,” to use Auerbach's term, in a “total reality” or “physical atmosphere” (463, 473).

If naturalism can be configured as an organic development of realist considerations and principles, however, modernism would initially seem to involve an outright rejection of them. Realism openly proclaims its dependence upon representational transparency. It is “done with the conviction,” writes Auerbach, “that every event, if one is able to express it purely and completely, interprets itself and the persons involved in it far better and more completely than any opinion or judgment appended to it could do” (486). Modernism would seem to hinge on more formal and self-referential considerations. “The positivist aesthetic of the twentieth century,” writes art and cultural critic Clement Greenberg, “refuses the individual art the right explicitly to refer to anything beyond its own realm of sensations” (274).

But there is a sense in which even modernist self-referentiality is little more than an extension of the simple realist premise that successful art consists in “the truthful treatment of material.” When Eliot claims to present life as it is and not as it “never [has] been and never will be,” she offers not the world itself but “men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind” (chap. 17). Art cannot offer the world. It can only offer art: images, pictures, representations. This is why Howells can find himself in the odd position of celebrating realism precisely because it sustains “the illusion in which alone the truth of art resides” (967). From this vantage, modernist formalism emerges as a way of avoiding the illusions of art, even, or especially, the illusions of realistic art. Presenting only itself, in its formal and material specificity, the modernist novel completes the realist project of avoiding deception as much as it abandons it. Greenberg would note that even as the formalist imperatives of modernist aesthetics seem to “override...nature almost entirely,” nature remains “indelibly” “stamped” even on the most abstract modernist works: “What was stamped was not the appearance of nature, however, but its logic” (272). The art that abandons realist representational ambitions, namely the appearance of nature, nonetheless carries out the realist aesthetic ambition of presenting reality in the logic of nature, or the reality of the aesthetic object itself. Perhaps this is why the realist considerations remain a vital part of the novelistic practice of many leading modernists, such as E. M. Forster, Joseph Conrad, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, and Willa Cather.

In the wake of modernist innovations, realism remains an important, if not central, feature of novelistic discourse. Realism may have ceased to be the hallmark of formally ambitious fiction, but it nonetheless served as something like the early twentieth-century novel's default form. In addition, the realist project would loom large in a number of important twentieth-century literary movements. A vigorous social realist movement emerged in the 1930s and 1940s among American writers, such as John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, William Attaway, Betty Smith, and Wright Morris. The 1920s saw the first theorizations, in the work of Franz Roh, of magical realism. Dedicated to the notion that a proper realism would discover seemingly supernatural or mysterious properties inhabiting the empirical world, or that, to use the terms of Alejo Carpentier, “the strange is commonplace, and always was commonplace,” magical realism flourished, among other places, in the Latin American novel of the second half of the twentieth century, shaping in various ways the work of such major novelists as Carpentier, Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, and Carlos Fuentes (104).

Realism survived even the mid-twentieth-century rise of postmodernist aesthetic ambitions. According to Tom Wolfe, “by the mid-1960s the conviction was not merely that the realistic novel was no longer possible but that [modern] life itself no longer deserved the term real” (1989, 49). But by the mid-1980s many leading American writers were associated with the practice of what editor Bill Buford calls “dirty realism.” His description of the fiction of writers like Tobias Wolff, Raymond Chandler, Richard Ford, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Frederick Barthelme almost directly follows Auerbach's account of “the modern realism” of the nineteenth century. What Auerbach called the “foundations” of modern realism—namely “the rise of more extensive and socially inferior human groups to the position of subject matter for problematic-existential representation, on the one hand; on the other, the embedding of random persons and events in the general course of contemporary history, the fluid historical background” (491)—remain foundational in Buford's dirty realism, comprising as it does “unadorned, unfurnished, low-rent tragedies about people who watch day-time television, read cheap romances, or listen to country and western music...drifters in a world cluttered with junk food and the oppressive details of modern consumerism” (4). All the same, by the end of the twentieth century it was very difficult to argue with the contention of Partisan Review editor William Phillips (1907—2002) that realism had become “just another formal device, not a permanent method for dealing with experience” (qtd. in Wolfe, 1989, 50). Wolfe may well have been right: “The introduction of detailed realism into English literature...was like the introduction of electricity into machine technology. It raised the state of the art to an entirely new magnitude” (Introduction, 1). But having lifted the state of the art to that new magnitude, it gradually ceased to define it.

SEE ALSO: Definitions of the Novel, Genre, History of the Novel, Marxist Theory, Novel Theory (19th Century), Novel Theory (20th Century).


1. Auerbach, E. (2003), Mimesis, 50th ed., trans. W.R. Trask.

2. Barthes, R. (1987), Rustle of Language.

3. Bell, M.D. (1993), Problem of American Realism.

4. Bersani, L. (1976), Future for Astyanax.

5. Berthoff, W. (1965), Ferment of Realism.

6. Buford, B. (1983), “Introduction,” in Granta 8.

7. Carpentier, A. (1995), “The Baroque and the Marvelous Real,” in Magical Realism, ed. L. Parkinson Zamore and W.B. Faris.

8. Eliot, G. (1859), Adam Bede.

9. Greenberg, C. (1949), “The Role of Nature in Modern Painting,” in Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 2, ed. J. O'Brian.

10. Howells, W.D. (1889), “Editor's Study,” Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Nov.: 962—67.

11. Jameson, F. (2002), Political Unconscious, 2nd ed.

12. Lathrop, G.P. (1874), “ The Novel and Its Future,” Atlantic Monthly 34: 313—24.

13. Levin, H. (1957), “What Is Realism?” in Contexts of Criticism.

14. Lukács, G. (1972), Studies in European Realism.

15. Miller, D.A. (1988), Novel and the Police.

16. Schumpeter, J.C. (1942, 2008), Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy.

17. Trilling, L. (1950), “Reality in America,” in Liberal Imagination.

18. Wolfe, T. (1973), “Introduction,” in New Journalism.

19. Wolfe, T. (1989), “ Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” Harper's Magazine, Nov.: 45—56.