The dominant paradigm in novel writing during the second half of the nineteenth century was no longer the Romantic idealism of the earlier part of the century. What took hold among the great novelists in Europe and America was a new approach to character and subject matter, a school of thought which later came to be known as Realism. On one level, Realism is precisely what it sounds like. It is attention to detail, and an effort to replicate the true nature of reality in a way that novelists had never attempted. There is the belief that the novel’s function is simply to report what happens, without comment or judgment. Seemingly inconsequential elements gain the attention of the novel functioning in the realist mode. From Henry James, for example, one gets a sense of being there in the moment, as a dense fabric of minute details and observations is constructed. This change in style meant that some of the traditional expectations about the novel’s form had to be pushed aside. In contrast to what came before, the realistic novel rests upon the strengths of its characters rather than plot or turn of phrase. The characters that the realistic school of novelists produced are some of the most famous in literary history, from James’s Daisy Miller to Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov. They are psychologically complicated, multifaceted, and with conflicting impulses and motivations that very nearly replicate the daily tribulations of being human.
Realism coincided with Victorianism, yet was a distinct collection of aesthetic principles in its own right. The realist novel was heavily informed by journalistic techniques, such as objectivity and fidelity to the facts of the matter. It is not a coincidence that many of the better known novelists of the time had concurrent occupations in the publishing industry. The idea of novel-writing as a “report” grew out of this marriage between literature and journalism. Another fair comparison would be to think of the realist novel as an early form of docudrama, in which fictional persons and events are intended to seamlessly reproduce the real world. The Victorian Period saw growing concern with the plight of the less fortunate in society, and the realistic novel likewise turned its attention on subjects that beforehand would not have warranted notice. The balancing act that the upwardly mobile middle class had to perform in order to retain their position in the world was a typical subject for realistic novels. There arose a subgenre of Realism called Social Realism, which in hindsight can be interpreted as Marxist and socialist ideas set forth in literature.
Advances in the field of human psychology also fed into the preoccupation with representing the inner workings of the mind, and the delicate play of emotions. William James, brother of novelist Henry James, was a gargantuan figure in the early history of human psychology. One can imagine that their conversations proved highly influential in Henry’s creative development. Psychologists were just beginning to understand that human consciousness was far more complicated and various than had previously been considered. Debates about nature versus nurture were as popular then as they are today. More than anything, the understanding that in the human mind there are very few absolutes was critical for the realist sensibility. To put it another way, Realism embraced the concept that people were neither completely good or completely bad, but somewhere on a spectrum.
The overriding concern of all realist fiction is with character. Specifically, novelists struggled to create intricate and layered characters who, as much as possible, felt as though they could be flesh and blood creatures. Much of this effect was achieved through internal monologues and a keen understanding of human psychology. Not surprisingly, the field of psychology was in the process of evolving from metaphysical quackery into a bona fide scientific pursuit. Students of the human mind were beginning to realize that an individual is composed of a network of motivations, interests, desires, and fears. How these forces interact and sometimes do battle with each other plays a large part in the development of personality. Realism, at its highest level, attempts to lay these internal struggles bare for all to see. In other words, most of the “action” of the realist novel is internalized. Changes in mood, in perceptions, in opinions and ideas constitute turning points or climaxes.
Realist novelists eschewed many of the novel’s established traditions, most notably in the form of plot structure. Typically, novels follow a definite arc of events, with an identifiable climax and resolution. They are self-contained and satisfying in their symmetry. Successful careers have been built on the scaffolding of a single story arc. The school of Realism observed that life did not follow such patterns, so for them, neither should the novel. Instead of grand happenings, tragedies, and epic turns of events, the realist novel plodded steadily over a track not greatly disturbed by external circumstances. Nothing truly earth shattering happens in James’s The Portrait of a Lady, despite it hundreds of pages. The same can be said of Dostoyevsky – He composed lengthy and weighty fiction where most, if not all of the action happened in the minds of the characters. Narrative style also changed with realistic fiction. Instead of an omniscient narrator calmly describing the persons and events, readers often confront unreliable narrators who do not have all the information. Often, the narrator’s perceptions are colored by their own prejudices and beliefs. A popular device for many realistic novelists was the frame narrative, or the story inside a story. This device compounds the unreliable narrator by placing the reader at a further remove from the events of the novel. The purpose of all of these innovations, as with the whole of Realism, was to more accurately simulate the nature of reality – unknowable, uncertain, and ever-shifting reality.
The beginnings of the realist narrative style can be attributed to French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac. His portraits of ordinary French life were remarkable in their careful attention to details. Balzac reportedly consulted with associates in order to learn more about specific subjects, so as to portray them in their fullness. He expressed the idea that characters come to life through the painstaking accumulation of environmental details. His methodology was a departure from the Romantic tradition which was near its zenith when he was crafting his stories. Balzac also put enormous emphasis on the settings of his stories. Whether urban or provincial, the locale almost becomes a character of its own. His most famous work, which was left unfinished, was The Human Comedy, an assortment of interwoven tales and novels which depict life in early nineteenth century France. The effect of the narrative buildup in The Human Comedy is the realization of an epic that is more than the sum of its parts. Like the realists who would follow in his footsteps, Balzac did not rely on profound or spectacular events to move his stories along. Instead, he paid attention to the small things, the nuances that made up the experience of typical French life.
In America, Samuel Clemens was the early pioneer of Realism. Writing under the pen name Mark Twain, he was noteworthy for his faithful reproduction of vernacular speech patterns and vocabulary. He more or less gave birth to “local color,” a sub-genre of the novel that still enjoys wide appeal today. Replicating natural speech required not just great listening skills, but a sense of how the written version sounds to the imagination. In addition to the use of vernacular, Twain was an innovator in focusing on middle and lower class characters. Previously, novels had concentrated on the experiences of the elite. Presumably, the upper crust enjoyed seeing their lives of privilege reflected back to them in art, while salt of the earth readers had something to aspire to and fantasize about. It was a revolutionary concept to incorporate unremarkable characters into an art form as serious as the novel. In a development that continues to bewilder, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the most frequently banned books in the public school system. One imagines that certain language is indeed offensive; however Twain was doing nothing other than representing honest speech. Huck Finn was in all reality an astonishing leap forward in racial awareness – Jim, the freed slave, is as fully realized a character as Tom or Huck.
A great friend of Mark Twain, and an eminent American realist in his own right, was the magazine editor William Dean Howells. In charge of the Atlantic Monthly for several years, Howells exercised a lot of authority over the currents of taste on his side of the ocean. In his role as editor, he was instrumental in promoting the fame of literary rising stars, such as Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, and Sarah Orne Jewett. Howells wrote copious volumes of fiction of his own, and was an unqualified success in that regard. For a time, he was widely considered the most accomplished of all American Realists. That reputation faded somewhat and today Howells’s work as an editor is held up as his most important contribution. That being said, several of his novels are in the first rank of American Realism. Published in 1885, the ironically titled The Rise of Silas Lapham tells the story of an ambitious businessman who tumbles out of fortune through his own mistakes and poor judgment. It is an anti-success story, and illustrates one of the central ideas of Realism, that of crafting honest narratives rather than feel-good sentimental fantasies. In short, there is a kind of grimness to Realism that many readers have found unappealing. A Modern Instance highlights this same principle in detailing the steady disintegration of a seemingly happy marriage.
Without a doubt, American expatriate Henry James represents the most skilled and accomplished practitioner of Realism in fiction. He was fascinated by encounters between representatives of the New World, America, with members of the Old World, or Europe. He observed a distinct set of traits that permeated each of these groups. With Americans, he witnessed vigor, innocence, and strict moral righteousness. Europeans, on the other hand, represented decadence, lax morality, and deviousness. With such seeming prejudices built into his aesthetics, one is surprised to learn that James renounced his American citizenship and became a British subject. Nevertheless, James made a cottage industry out of examining what happened when these two worlds collided. Arguably his most famous work was the novella Daisy Miller, which relates how a young and rich American girl touring Europe is victimized by sophisticated schemers, with no compunctions about right or wrong.
At the height of his powers, Henry James crafted intricate novels that featured completely realized characters. He was remarkable for his ability to dispense with commentary or subjectivity within his narratives. The reader sees the events through the eyes of the characters; James the author makes himself as invisible as possible. In terms of prose style, he was admired for the simplicity and directness of his language, a quality not generally noted during the Victorian Period. His most successful novel was The Portrait of a Lady, published as one volume in 1881. With Portrait he expands upon many of the themes one finds in Daisy Miller – greed, power, and the exploitation of the New World by the Old. Revealingly, film adaptations of the novel have generally not made good impressions. As with the bulk of fiction that earns the title of Realist, the narrative simply does not lend itself to visual reproduction.
Realism came under attack largely because it represented such a bold departure from what readers had come to expect from the novel. The fascination with things falling apart was unpleasant to many, and critics sometimes accused the practitioners of Realism of focusing only on the negative aspects of life. Additionally, the intense focus on the minutiae of character was seen as unwillingness to actually tell a story. Readers complained that very little happened in realistic fiction, that they were all talk and little payoff. Henry James in particular was criticized for his verbosity, especially in his later years. By the end of the nineteenth century, Realism in the pure sense had given way to another form called Naturalism. With Naturalism, authors looked to heredity and history to define character. Ironically, many of the qualities that people found distasteful in realism – the obsession with character, the superficially mundane plots – were all intensified in Naturalism.
This article is copyrighted © 2011 by Jalic Inc. Do not reprint it without permission. Written by Josh Rahn. Josh holds a Masters degree in English Literature from Morehead State University, and a Masters degree in Library Science from the University of Kentucky.
Major Realist Writers