What Is Realism? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Realism definition.

Realism  (REEL-iz-um), or literary realism, is an era of literary technique in which authors described things as they are without embellishment or fantastical plots. Works of literary realism shun flowery language, exotic settings and characters, and epic stories of love and heroism. Instead, they focus on everyday lives and people in ordinary times and places.

Realism is also a style of visual art that focuses on producing a photographic quality through realistic lighting, color palettes, and subject matter.

The History of Realism

The advent of literary realism was a direct response to the over-the-top stories typical of  romanticism , an extremely popular movement in European literature and art between the late 18th century and the mid-19th century.

France was at the epicenter of realism. The writer Stendhal created pioneering works that realistically portrayed French life. He and others drew on the then-emerging fields of biology and psychology—as well as history, sociology, and the advancing Industrial Age—to craft stories and characters with whom the average reader could identify. Author Honoré de Balzac became a French realism icon with the publication of  La Comédie humaine , a series of more than 100 interconnected novels showing the reality of French life from 1815 to 1848. Novelist Gustave Flaubert was also highly influential with novels like  Madame Bovary , establishing a quintessential narrative  voice  for literary realism.

Realism did not remain a uniquely French phenomenon. It spread throughout Europe, with works like British author George Eliot’s  Middlemarch , and eventually the United States. William Dean Howells’s  The Rise of Silas Lapham , Mark Twain’s  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , Stephen Crane’s  The Red Badge of Courage , and Horatio Alger, Jr.’s  Ragged Dick  all depict realistic characters from various pockets of American life as they grapple with war, racism, materialism, and upward mobility. Other American realist authors include John Steinbeck, Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, and Upton Sinclair.

The impact of these early realist authors’ works shifted the larger literary focus away from explicitly romantic literature. They made realistic components essential to most genres of writing, even those that don’t meet the strictest definition of realism. Though literary realism as a movement died down around the mid-20th century, its impact lives on. Most modern writers seek to create characters and stories with which readers can, to some extent, relate.

But realism is not without its detractors. Critics say it is not possible to portray reality in literature because some amount of imagination and creative license is always necessary. Others argue that all literature—to one degree or another—has realist elements and can thus fall under the definition of  realism . Finally, there are those who think reality is subjective, which would make a definitive label of realism virtually impossible.

The Components of Realism

Works of realism aim to represent a specific reality. They accomplish this goal by incorporating various components into the narrative, including:

  • Realistic characters:  Realist writers create characters who are rarely as black and white as the more cookie-cutter protagonists and antagonists of romanticism. In realism, characters are neither entirely righteous or totally corrupt—they are complex, with both positive and negative traits.
  • Labor:  This concept plays a prominent role in many kinds of literary realism. The protagonist’s job is a significant aspect of their identity, whether for good or ill. Matters of heart and acts of monumental courage take a backseat to the more pressing demands of earning a living.
  • Internal motivations:  In realist works, characters’ actions come less from external forces—for instance, honor, chivalry, or a noble effort to right a wrong—and more from internal needs like curiosity, desire, or greed.
  • Genuine settings:  Writers of realism zero in on specific environments and the impact they have on the story. Their settings lean toward the sobering or the stark, and they tend to be more focused on smaller locations.
  • Society:  This goes beyond a mere aspect of setting. Societies usually play a significant role in characters’ fates. Choices and events are dictated not by a grand idea of personal virtue and valor but by the conditioning imposed by society.
  • Straightforward speech:  Dialogue is not lofty or overtly cultured. Instead, it reflects the  vernacular  of the characters of the specific time and place in which the story is set.
  • Verisimilitude:  This is a philosophy that lends greater credibility and believability to the narrative. It concentrates on the details that accurately reflect human behavior and psychology.

Subgenres of Realism

A writer of literary realism might present their story through any of several subgenres.

  • Magical Realism

In magical realism, the author integrates mystical or fantastical elements into a realistic  setting  and worldview. These elements don’t significantly alter the story’s logic and rationality, but they do add another dimension that gently pushes the boundaries of the possible. As a result, works of magical realism unearth magic in the everyday and celebrate the potential for transcendence amid the ordinary. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s  One Hundred Years of Solitude  is a classic example of a magical realist work.

Naturalism  utilizes scientific thought, especially the theories of Charles Darwin, to illustrate the inescapable influences that shape characters and their experiences. At the heart of all works of literary naturalism is the belief that science explains the conditions of reality and that metaphorical and supernatural elements have no credibility or presence in a story’s trajectory.  The Grapes of Wrath  by John Steinbeck is a popular naturalist work.

Psychological Realism

Works of this genre take an interest in characters’ motivation. Rooted in psychological thought, authors examine characters’ interior lives—their thoughts, emotions, and mental processes—to provide a fuller understanding of human behavior. One of the best-known works is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s  Crime and Punishment .

Social Realism

This era of literary technique involves telling stories about the poor and working classes. Social realism delves into the socioeconomic and political conditions to which these groups are subjected daily. This emphasis allows the author to comment on the political and social power structures that manufacture the challenges unique to characters’ demographics. An example of this subgenre is Arthur Miller’s  The Crucible .

Socialist Realism

These works venerate the struggles of the working classes to support larger socialist ideals. In fact, it was the official literary style in the socialist Soviet Union. An important work in this subgenre is  How the Steel Was Tempered  by Nikolai Ostrovsky.

Theatrical Realism

Theatrical realism applies to dramatic works written for the stage. Plays in this style aim to make theatrical stories truer to life. Theatrical realism might employ any of the aforementioned subgenres to provide a more authentic grounding for the drama, the characters, and their choices. One prominent play in the theatrical realist style is  A Doll’s House  by Henrik Ibsen.

Realism’s Relationship to Other Literary Eras

There are two prominent eras of literary technique that oppose or intersect with realism: romanticism and idealism.

Realism vs. Romanticism

Romanticism  is realism’s polar opposite. Romantic works tell stories of larger-than-life characters who embark on ambitious adventures, pursue passionate love affairs, discover new worlds, conquer fearsome enemies, or otherwise make themselves paragons of virtue and nobility. Conversely, literary realism tells stories as truthfully and authentically as possible, without glamorizing or sentimentalizing key details. Jane Austen and Herman Melville are prominent romantic authors.

Realism vs. Idealism

Idealist literature spotlights characters who place substantial importance on pursuing their values and principles—whether moral, philosophical, or political. They will persist at the expense of all else, including practical behavior. In fact, a hallmark of idealism is imagining things not as they currently are but as they would be in a perfect world.

In this way, idealism is a separate, antithetical idea to realism. At the same time, idealistic tendencies can make their way into works of literary realism. In socialist realism, for instance, there is heavy-handed idealism; by integrating it, the authors extol the benefits of socialism to persuade the masses.

The Function of Realism

Literary realism presents an accurate depiction of reality to the reader. Consequently, the reader may better identify with the characters or situations because they’re seeing aspects of themselves or their own experiences in the work. Representation is important to readers, especially marginalized populations who don’t always see characters who look, act, think, or in any significant way mirror themselves or their lives. In this sense, realism can help readers find community and remind them they are not alone.

Realism also sheds light on important social and political issues that are frequently ignored. By presenting reality as it is, readers see the struggles others deal with, creating awareness, empathy, and understanding.

Notable Realist Authors

  • Isabelle Allende,  The House of the Spirits
  • Anton Chekhov,  The Seagull ,  The Cherry Orchard
  • Theodore Dreiser,  Sister Carrie
  • George Eliot,  Adam Bede ,  Middlemarch
  • Gabriel García Márquez,  One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Alexander Pope, “The Rape of the Lock”
  • Leo Tolstoy,  War and Peace
  • Ivan Turgenev,  Fathers and Sons
  • Edith Wharton,  The Age of Innocence ,  Ethan Frome
  • Émile Zola,  Germinal

Examples of Realist Literature

1. Frank Norris,  McTeague: A Story of San Francisco

A prominent work of American literary realism,  McTeague: A Story of San Francisco  chronicles the moral descent of a young dentist, McTeague, and his wife, Trina. On the eve of their wedding, Trina wins $15,000 in the lottery. The couple settles into married life, but each partner spirals down a pit of greed and despair. McTeague grows abusive, and Trina increasingly fixates on money. In the end, McTeague kills Trina, as well as his best friend Marcus, and ends up stranded in Death Valley, handcuffed to Marcus’s corpse.

The novel illustrates in brutal detail that human lives and fates are not always determined by conscious choices but by external forces. This passage shows Trina’s increasing preoccupation with money:

At times […] she would lock her door, open her trunk, and pile all her little hoard on her table. By now it was four hundred and seven dollars and fifty cents. Trina would play with this money by the hour, piling it, and repiling it, or gathering it all into one heap, and drawing back to the farthest corner of the room to note the effect […]. She polished the gold pieces with a mixture of soap and ashes until they shone […]. Or, again, she would draw the heap lovingly toward her and bury her face in it, delighted at the smell of it and the feel of the smooth, cool metal on her cheeks. She even put the smaller gold pieces in her mouth, and jingled them there. […] She would plunge her small fingers into the pile with little murmurs of affection, her long, narrow eyes half closed and shining, her breath coming in long sighs.

2. Henry James,  What Maisie Knew

This work tells the story of Maisie Farange, a little girl caught between her divorced, warring parents. The adults focus only on their own happiness and use Maisie as a pawn. The book is a scathing commentary on relationships, the dark side of human nature, and the untenable position in which children are often placed. This is evident in the following description of Maisie’s parents’ fighting—and of the society that created it:

This was a society in which for the most part people were occupied only with chatter, but the disunited couple had at last grounds for expecting a time of high activity. They girded their loins, they felt as if the quarrel had only begun. They felt indeed more married than ever, inasmuch as what marriage had mainly suggested to them was the unbroken opportunity to quarrel. There had been “sides” before, and there were sides as much as ever; for the sider too the prospect opened out, taking the pleasant form of a superabundance of matter for desultory conversation.

3. Margaret Drabble,  A Summer Bird-Cage

A Summer Bird-Cage  is an account of a marriage in shambles seen through the eyes of a third party. Sarah watches as her sister Louise enters a loveless marriage with the insufferable Stephen. Louise knows that her husband is arrogant but chooses to ignore it; she instead occupies her time by having an affair with his friend. Tensions build between the two sisters until Sarah confronts Louise about the latter’s damaging decisions and attitudes toward life and love.

Drabble concentrates less on plot and more on cultivating the psychological realism of the story and the two principal characters. The sisters share a barely concealed animosity. For example, Sarah says:

In the end she taught me the art of competition, and this is what I really hold against her: I think I had as little desire to outdo others in my nature as a person can have, until she insisted on demonstrating her superiority. She taught me to want to outdo her. And when, occasionally, I did so, her anger hurt me, but as I had won it by labour from indifference, I treasured it. And when, finally, I took over one of her men at Oxford, the game was out in the open, I thought, for the rest of our lives.

Further Resources on Realism

Goodreads has a list of  Popular Realism Books .

English professor Ali Taghizadeh offers an academic perspective on  A Theory of Literary Realism .

The British Library looks at  realism in British literature .

Salon  puts forth the theory that  Literary Realism Is Dead .

Longwood University has compiled a comprehensive list of  American realist authors and their works .

Related Terms

  • Romanticism

realism in literature essay

Definition of Realism

Realism is a movement in art and literature that began in the 19th century as a shift against the exotic and poetic conventions of Romanticism . Literary realism allowed for a new form of writing in which authors represented reality by portraying everyday experiences of relatable and complex characters, as they are in real life Literary realism depicts works with relatable and familiar characters, settings , and plots centered around society’s middle and lower classes. As a result, the intent of realism developed as a means to tell a story as truthfully and realistically as possible instead of dramatizing or romanticizing it. This movement has greatly impacted how authors write and what readers expect from literature.

For example, playwright Anton Chekhov reflects in most of his writing a rejection of his romantic contemporaries and predecessors that tended to falsely idealize life. Chekhov’s plays and stories, instead, are made up of characters that are frustrated by the realities of their social situations and their own behaviors and feelings. His characters represent real, ordinary people who want happiness but are limited by and entangled in everyday circumstances.

Common Examples of Themes in Realism

Like most genres and literary movements, realism features fundamental, common, and recurring themes and motifs . Here are some common examples of those themes and conventions in literary realism:

  • close, detailed, and comprehensive portrayal of reality
  • emphasis on appearance of what is real and true
  • importance of character over action and plot
  • complex ethical decisions are often the subject matter
  • characters appear real in their complexity, behavior, and motives
  • characters appear natural in their relation to each other and their circumstances
  • importance of economic and social class, especially “middle” class interests
  • plausible, logical events (not overly sensational  or dramatic)
  • natural speech patterns among characters in terms of diction and vernacular (not overly poetic in language or tone )
  • presence of “objective” and impartial narration of story
  • subsets include: magical realism, social realism, “kitchen sink” realism, psychological realism, socialist realism

Examples of Novels in Literary Realism

Due to the changes in class structure with the developments of the second half of the 19th century, the novel became extremely popular. Literacy grew and written works were more accessible. Realism also enhanced the prevalence of novels since their subject matter often focused on characters and themes important and relatable to the working class, middle class, and social mobility.

Here are some examples of novels that helped to shape this literary movement:

  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ( Mark Twain )
  • House of Mirth ( Edith Wharton )
  • The Jungle (Upton Sinclair)
  • The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane)
  • Daisy Miller (Henry James)
  • The Call of the Wild (Jack London )
  • Middlemarch ( George Eliot )
  • Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackeray)
  • Jane Eyre ( Charlotte Bronte )
  • The Grapes of Wrath ( John Steinbeck )

Famous Authors’ Perspectives Regarding Literary Realism

It is beneficial, for understanding literary realism, to get a sense of how well-known writers feel about this technique and movement. Here are some famous authors’ perspectives regarding literary realism.

  • The monster I kill every day is the monster of realism. (Anais Nin)
  • Realism, n. 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. (Ambrose Bierce)
  • Would it not be better to have it understood that realism, in so far as the word means reality to life, is always bad art — although it may possibly be very good journalism? (Sherwood Anderson)
  • Nothing is more real than nothing. (Samuel Beckett)
  • Realism is a very sophisticated form of literature, a very grown-up one. And that may be its weakness. But fantasy seems to be eternal and omnipresent and always attractive to kids. (Ursula K. Le Guin)
  • I don’t want realism. I want magic! ( Tennessee Williams )
  • Realism can break a writer’s heart. (Salman Rushdie)
  • It’s all lies. Some of them are just prettier than others, that’s all. People see what they think is there. (Terry Pratchett)
  • It seems to us that the readers who want fiction to be like life are considerably outnumbered by those who would like life to be like fiction. (Sara Caudwell)
  • When I work, I’m just translating the world around me in what seems to be straightforward terms. For my readers, this is sometimes a vision that’s not familiar. But I’m not trying to manipulate reality. This is just what I see and hear. (Don DeLillo)

Difference Between Realism and Naturalism

There is often confusion in trying to differentiate literary works that feature realism and those that feature naturalism . Naturalism is considered a form or subcategory of realism that is heavily influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The writers that pioneered the realist movement created complex, relatable characters while presenting detailed and realistic observations of society. In addition, realism encouraged narration that shifted away from romanticized and poetic language. This allowed writers to adopt a more truthful voice and address conditions of real life, including the realities of war, poverty , etc.

Naturalism, as a post-Darwinian movement of the late 19th century, attempted to apply the “laws” of scientific determinism to fiction. This movement upheld the belief that science provides an explanation for social and environmental phenomena. Naturalist writers extended the objective presentation of the details of everyday life as an insistence that literary works should reflect a deterministic universe in which a character is a biological entity controlled by environment and heredity.

Here are some examples of themes and conventions that reflect literary works of naturalism and differentiate them from realist works:

  • grim, animalistic environment
  • antisocial behavior and rough language of characters belonging to lower class
  • Themes of survival
  • a deterministic theory that genetic endowment is inescapable
  • lack of ability to impose individual will
  • pessimistic, tragic view of life

History of Realism in the US

Realism in the United States crept into literature, music, and art in the middle of the 19 th century and stayed until the early decades of the 20 th century. The artists, writers, and literary scholars depicted the social realities, contemporary landscapes, and ordinary people in their writings as well as paintings. Some of the popular writers depicting realism in their literary pieces are Henry James, Stephen Crane, George Bellows, Edward Hopper, George Lukas, and William Glackens.

History of Realism in the UK

Realism in the United Kingdom dates back to the decade of 1850 but it actually started during the Victorian period (1837-the 1901). Although the English ideals were being portrayed in literary pieces, Victorians turned to the depiction of what is known as the opposite of that. The imminent Victorian writers who were realists were George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens , Thomas Hardy , etc.

Six Types of Realism

There are six types of realism given in the writings of different writers. These are as follows:

  • Magical Realism: Magical realism shows fantasy as reality such as in the novels and stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez .
  • Social Realism: It shows the true living conditions of the workers such as in Hugo’s Les Miserables.
  • Naturalism : It shows the influence of the Darwinian theory of evolution such as in the writings of Emile Zola and William Faulkner .
  • Psychological Realism: It shows the inner side of characters that exist in reality such as in the writings of Dostoyevsky.
  • Kitchen Sink Realism: It shows the realism focusing on the young British working class as in the writings of John Braine.
  • Socialist Realism: It shows the realism glorifying the struggle of the working class as shown by Gladkov in his novels.

 Difference Between Romanticism and Realism

Romanticism is quite simple to understand by its name. It comprises fantasy shown through fiction, realism means to portray what actually exists. In other words, realists were more concerned with the world as it existed at that time than with the world of fantasy. However, the romanticists were mostly involved with the fictionalized world and also the world based purely on fantasy. Therefore, romanticism was based on fantasy rather than reality.

Difference Between Realism and Impressionism

Impressionism means to capture imitations of an object which is also called its essence. Realism is only related to its accurate description that actually exists. In other words, impressionism is more concerned with light in painting. Therefore, it could also be shown in writing. On the other hand, realism is the contrary it is showing the actual reality and not its silhouette.

Difference Between Nominalism and Realism

Nominalism is concerned with abstract concepts, showing that they do not exist as they are in the tangible world, or in material shape. Realism, however, is more concerned with showing the physical world that actually exists. In literature, it means pertaining to names in that reality is made up of only items and this exists because of the things or items and not on their own. It also means that the world does not exist in just people’s/reader’s minds.

Examples of Realism in Literature

Realism is a literary technique and movement that revolutionized literature. Literary realism creates the appearance of life as it is actually experienced, with characters that speak the everyday language and are representative of everyday life as a reader would understand it. Here are some examples of realism in literature and how they enhance the value of a literary work:

Example 1: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

There’s more beauty in truth, even if it is dreadful beauty.

Steinbeck encapsulates the scope of literary realism with this quote from his novel. The objective of most realist writers is to open the eyes and minds of readers to find comfort in the truth, without exaggeration , over-dramatization, or romanticism. Steinbeck’s novel traces generations of a family that faces realistic issues such as jealousy, betrayal, disappointment, and other struggles. However, rather than overdramatizing these circumstances or romanticizing the characters, Steinbeck portrays them as objectively and truthfully as possible for fiction. This allows readers to identify and relate to the novel as a form of literary realism.

Example 2: A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

Nora: And then I found other ways of making money. Last winter I was lucky enough to get a lot of copying to do. I locked myself in and sat writing every evening till late in the night . Ah, I was tired so often, dead tired. But still it was wonderful fun, sitting and working like that, earning money. It was almost like being a man.

In his play , Ibsen presents a harsh criticism of Victorian marital expectations and the traditional roles that men and women play in society. In this work, Ibsen portrays the main character, Nora, as a woman who is treated like a child by her husband and other characters. As a result, the play exposes Nora’s restricted role as a woman with respect to choosing an individual path, earning income, and making important household decisions.

Ibsen’s drama is a realistic exposition of societal problems that come about due to the drastic imbalance of power between women and men. The characters are relatable in the way they speak, feel, and behave. In addition, their decisions and actions are realistic and complex. This realism is significant in terms of the way the reader/ audience understands the underlying themes of the play.

Example 3: The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin

She knew that she would weep again when she saw the kind, tender hands folded in death; the face that had never looked save with love upon her, fixed and gray and dead. But she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely. And she opened and spread her arms out to them in welcome.

Initially, it appears that Chopin’s work of short fiction is a form of Romanticism with idealized characters and overdramatic depictions of events. As the main character Louise receives news that her husband has died, she isolates herself in a room with what the reader believes is the intention to overcome the shock and mourn her very recent loss. In a Romantic literary work, Louise’s reaction and behavior would have been described through poetic language and dramatic depictions.

Instead, Chopin creates a realistic and relatable, though surprising, reaction within Louise at the hearing of her husband’s death. She is sad that he is gone and knows she will miss his love. However, Louise looks to the future and understands suddenly that she is free of the entrapments of marriage and her role as a wife. Chopin reveals a complexity in Louise’s character that is realistic. In addition, as a form of realism, the story confirms many of the societal issues present at the time–particularly for women in terms of personal, economic, and social freedom. For readers, this realistic portrayal of Louise’s complex character and conflicting feelings is an assertion that, as a woman, she is an individual and not exclusively enmeshed in her role as a wife.

Example 4: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Now the way that the book winds up is this: Tom and me found the money that the robbers hid in the cave , and it made us rich. We got six thousand dollars apiece–all gold. It was an awful sight of money when it was piled up. Well, Judge Thatcher he took it and put it out at interest, and it fetched us a dollar a day apiece all the year round– more than a body could tell what to do with. The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would civilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer lit out.

This example shows the description of Tom and Widow Douglas and how they interact with each other. It shows pure realism as it happens with them and Mark Twain only describes how it happens.

Example 5: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

That was two months ago. Then he wanted to come – to the house. He wanted to stay there. He said al of us – that he would not have to work. He made me come there – in the evening. I told you – you thought I was at factory. Then – one night it snowed, and I couldn’t go back.  And last night – the cars were stopped. It was such a little thing – to ruin us all. I tried to walk, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want you to know. It would have – it would have been all right.

Rudkus is telling what he wants to do and what not. He tells about his work and the actual situation which is a purely realistic portrayal of his life. This also shows that it happens as it is and not as it should be.

Example 6: The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

But he obstinately took roundabout ways, and presently he was where he could see long gray walls of vapor where lay battle lines. The voices of cannon shook him. The musketry sounded in long irregular surges that played havoc with his ears. He stood regardant for a moment. His eyes had an awestruck expression. He gawked in the direction of the fight.

This description of Fleming shows realism at work but it is also called naturalism as it shows the nature of things, too. Therefore, naturalism is also realism, but it is its extreme form as shown through the walls that vapor comes into bamboozle Fleming.

Synonyms of Realism

Realism, like all other literary devices , is also irreplaceable, yet a few following words come close to it in meanings. They include fidelity, authenticity, verisimilitude , truthfulness, accuracy, naturalism, and faithfulness.

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Article contents

Naturalism and realism.

  • Gary Scharnhorst
  • https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.509
  • Published online: 26 July 2017

At the most elementary level, realism may be equated with verisimilitude or the approximation of truth. A mimetic artist, the literary realist claims to mirror or represent the world as it objectively appears. Naturalism may be given a trio of thumbnail definitions: pessimistic determinism, stark realism, and realism plus Darwin.

Realism As a Literary Theory

William Dean Howells , the most prominent American advocate of realism in the arts, urged readers to apply this singular test to any work of the imagination: “Is it true?—true to the motives, the impulses, the principles that shape the life of actual men and women?” In Criticism and Fiction ( 1891 ), Howells proposed an evolutionary literary model, with realism superior to romance just as birds are a more sophisticated species than lizards. Although Howells admired the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne , he nevertheless believed Hawthorne's fiction occupied a lower rung on the evolutionary scale of literature than realism, or “the truthful treatment of material.” “Let fiction cease to lie about life,” he declared. “Let it portray man and women as they are, actuated by the motives and the passions in the measure we all know;…let it not put on fine literary airs; let it speak the dialect, the language, that most Americans know—the language of unaffected people everywhere.” Howells was also able to stretch his definition of realism to cover such wildly different works as Mark Twain 's humorous sketches and his dystopian A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court ( 1889 ).

In all, according to Howells, realism insisted “that fidelity to experience and probability of motive are essential conditions of a great imaginative literature.” Thus, it resisted or opposed allegory and romance, especially sentimental romance. Realistic fiction portrayed distinctive personalities and rounded or credible characters, developed linear plots, and depicted recognizable settings. (As the modern writer John Barth has noted, “God was not a bad novelist, except He was a realist.”) Devaluing anecdote or story, it emphasized the importance of individual character. Sometimes claiming to portray a “slice of life” or “transcript of life,” the realists often found their subjects amid the details and surfaces of middle-class, bourgeois experience. They shared with such pragmatists as William James a philosophical attitude, a method of “radical empiricism” that affirmed free will and equated motive and behavior.

Standard literary histories have long dated the start of the realistic period in American literature at the end of the Civil War. Ostensibly, the pioneering works of realism were such volumes as John W. De Forest 's novel, Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty ( 1867 ), and Mark Twain's satirical travelogues, The Innocents Abroad ( 1869 ) and Roughing It ( 1872 ). With the critical recovery in the late twentieth century of women's writings from the mid-1800s, however, the beginning of the realistic period has been pushed back more than an entire generation to such texts as Caroline M. Kirkland 's A New Home, Who'll Follow? or, Glimpses of Western Life ( 1839 ) and Rebecca Harding Davis 's Life in the Iron-Mills ( 1861 ).

In the late twentieth century , too, proponents of poststructuralism assailed the notion of literary realism. How can any literary text replicate or imitate “reality” (whatever that may be?), they ask. Language creates the only reality we know. Any attempt to define the term absolutely is not only presumptuous but doomed. Roland Barthes , for example, has argued that so-called realistic texts are no more based on “reality” than other forms of writing and has indicted as simplistic the epistemological assumptions of those who purport to be realists. In effect, he suggested, the realists merely took reality for granted. Admittedly, it is easier to define what realism was not than what it actually was. ( Mary E. Wilkins Freeman told an interviewer in 1890 that she “didn't even know” she was “a realist until [some reviewers] wrote and told me.”) Such scholars as Donald Pizer , however, have attempted to recuperate or rehabilitate the terms “realism” and “naturalism.” As Pizer writes in The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism ( 1995 ), “Whatever the philosophical, moral, and social baggage that encumbers them, they will have to do.” In a functional sense, the terms obviously meant something. What qualities in the writings of the self-described realists seemed innovative? Or, put another way, what was it about those writings that inspired such fierce opposition during the so-called Realism War of the 1880s and 1890s? Influenced by such European writers as Zola, Tolstoy , Guy de Maupassant , and Dostoyevsky , the realists certainly believed they were championing a new brand of fiction.

Howells and the Realism War

While he neither inspired nor founded a school or movement of realists, Howells was at the center of American literary culture for over fifty years. He was the most influential American novelist, editor, and critic of his generation. As editor of the Atlantic Monthly for over fifteen years and later as the contributor of the “Editor's Easy Chair” series to Harper's Monthly , he befriended and promoted such realists as Henry James , Mark Twain, Mary Freeman , John De Forest , Sarah Orne Jewett , Frank Norris , Charles Chesnutt , Paul Laurence Dunbar , Hamlin Garland , Edith Wharton , Charlotte Perkins Gilman , Abraham Cahan , and Stephen Crane . For Howells, realism was a democratic movement in the arts, a focus on the normal and ordinary, distinct from romanticism or “romanticistic” fiction with its emphasis on more ideal, bizarre, sentimental, fantastic, exotic, melodramatic, or aristocratic topics. In life , he declared, the realist “finds nothing insignificant.” In The Rise of Silas Lapham ( 1885 ), for example, Howells remarked on how “a great many novels” fail “as representations of life.” The Reverend Mr. Sewell, a Howells spokesman, refers derisively to the “mischief” done by such popular fiction. “The novels might be the greatest possible good to us if they painted life as it is, and human feelings in their true proportion and relation, but for the most part they have been and are altogether noxious.” The readers of such slop commit psychical suicide . The novelist “who could interpret the common feelings of commonplace people,” another character in the novel avers, “would have the answer to ‘the riddle of the painful earth’ on his tongue.” In The Minister's Charge ( 1887 ), which again features the character of Sewell, Howells realistically rewrote the sentimental juvenile fiction of such authors as Alger and Oliver Optic . Similarly, Basil March , another Howells persona, opines in A Hazard of New Fortunes ( 1890 ) that

I believe that this popular demand for the matrimony of others comes from our novel-reading. We get to thinking that there is no other happiness or good fortune in life except marriage, and it's offered in fiction as the highest premium for virtue, courage, beauty, learning, and saving human life. We all know it isn't. We know that in reality, marriage is dog-cheap.

Howells was profoundly influenced in the late 1880s by Tolstoy's ideas about nonviolence and economic equality. In 1887 he risked his reputation and livelihood by publicly repudiating the guilty verdicts brought against the Haymarket Square anarchists and what he called the “civic murder” of four of them. His novel Annie Kilburn ( 1889 ) glossed Tolstoy's Anna Karenina ( 1875–1877 ), as the identical initials of their respective heroines suggest. As a result, he became an easy target for some parochial critics. The so-called Realism War, waged in reviews and magazines throughout the 1880s and 1890s, pitted the realists, especially Howells, against editors and popular writers who espoused the sentimental or sensational brands of literary romance. For example, the genteel critic Hamilton Wright Mabie alleged in his review of Howells's Silas Lapham that realism was nothing more or less than “practical atheism applied to art.” These skirmishes often smacked of politics; the controversy over realism began at the height of the debate over the fate of the Haymarket Square anarchists. Also, the war was fought largely along regional lines; the realists were largely easterners or transplanted westerners living in the East, whereas the most outspoken opponents of realism (including Maurice Thompson , author of Hoosier Mosaics [ 1875 ] and Alice of Old Vincennes [ 1901 ]; the poet James Whitcomb Riley ; and Lew Wallace , author of the historical romances The Fair God [ 1873 ] and Ben-Hur [ 1880 ]) often resided in the Old South or the Old Northwest. The Association of Western Writers (later the Western Association of Writers), played a crucial role in the war by offering Thompson, its first president, a forum for his attacks. Over a period of some twenty years, beginning in 1887 , Thompson repeatedly complained that Howells had foisted the “raw, nauseous realism of the Russians and the Zola school of France” onto a reading public hungry for “American books of a wholesome and patriotic kind.” Realism was little more than decadent “worship of the vulgar, the commonplace and the insignificant.” “Some years ago, before there had been so much said about realism in literature,” Thompson declared in 1889 , “I predicted that realism would in due time be found to mean materialism, socialism, and, at last, anarchy.…The progression will be: Realism, sensualism, materialism, socialism, communism, nihilism, absolute anarchy.” Thompson and Howells's other opponents often compared realism to mere photography, or worse, cheap Kodak snapshots, lacking the artistry of the painter.

The war, in the end, took its toll on Howells's reputation. By the early twentieth century his brand of realism seemed dull and timid, a movement within the spurned genteel tradition in American letters. Ambrose Bierce defined realism in his Devil's Dictionary ( 1906 ) as “the art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads.” In 1915 Howells wrote James that he had become “comparatively a dead cult with my statues cast down and the grass growing over them in the pale moonlight.” Sinclair Lewis famously, or infamously, attacked him by name in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1930 : “Mr. Howells was one of the gentlest, sweetest, and most honest of men, but he had the code of a pious old maid whose greatest delight was to have tea at the vicarage.”

In addition to Howells, many other novelists of the period defended the aesthetics of realism. In the preface to his novel The Mammon of Unrighteousness ( 1891 ), for example, H. H. Boyesen asserted that he had “disregarded all romantic traditions, and simply asked myself in every instance, not whether it was amusing, but whether it was to the logic of reality—true in color and tone to the American sky, the American soil, the American character.” Henry James implicitly compared realistic fiction to painting in his essay, The Art of Fiction ( 1884 ). According to James, the novel should exude an “air of reality,” which is its “supreme virtue,” by “its immense and exquisite correspondence with life.…The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life. When it relinquishes this attempt, the same attempt that we see on the canvas of a painter, it will have arrived at a very strange pass.” James's brand of realism was a form of literary portraiture, as may be inferred from several of his titles (including Portraits of Places [ 1883 ], The Portrait of a Lady [ 1881 ], The American Scene [ 1907 ], and Partial Portraits [ 1888 ]). And in his facetious essay, Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses ( 1895 ), Mark Twain listed “nineteen rules governing literary art.” Among them: “when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances,” and “the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone.” Cooper 's romance, The Deerslayer ( 1841 ), however, was “simply a literary delirium tremens .” Similarly, Stephen Crane reminisced that he had

developed all alone a little creed of art which I thought was a good one. Later I discovered that my creed was identical with the one of Howells and Garland, and in this way I became involved in the beautiful war between those who say that…we are the most successful in art when we approach the nearest to nature and truth, and those who…don't say much.

Realism As Literary Practice

The literary landscape in the late nineteenth century featured no organized or monolithic group of realists. As Elizabeth Ammons has suggested, “the most important characteristic of American realism was its racial, ethnic, sexual, and cultural range.” There were, in effect, many “realities” or varieties of realism, including local color or regionalism (for example, the tales of Twain, Jewett, Freeman, Chopin, Bret Harte , James Lane Allen , Rose Terry Cooke , Joel Chandler Harris , Edward Eggleston , and Joseph Kirkland ), psychological realism (James, Gilman, Sherwood Anderson ), critical realism (Howells), and “veritism” (Garland's term for realism true to the perceptions of the writer, a protorealism or an overtly politicized form of realism). The various realists did not necessarily appreciate all contributions to the form; Mark Twain wrote Howells that he “would rather be damned to John Bunyan's heaven than read” James's The Bostonians ( 1886 ). Such Native-American storytellers as Zitkala-Sa and Sarah Winnemucca, the Jewish-American writer Anzia Yezierska, the Asian-American author Sui Sin Far, and such African Americans as W. E. B. Du Bois and Charles Chesnutt were also regarded as realists, though obviously their experiences were distinctly different from those of the canonical Anglo-American writers. With their interest in local customs, mores, and dialects, local colorists were local historians in a sense. They identified themselves with the communities they chronicled. Their tales often took the form of the anecdote or character sketch (Harte's “Tennessee's Partner” [ 1869 ], Freeman's “A New England Nun” [ 1891 ], and Harriet Beecher Stowe 's Oldtown Folks [ 1869 ], for example). Both Eggleston, the author of The Hoosier Schoolmaster ( 1871 ), and Kirkland, the author of Zury: The Meanest Man in Spring County ( 1887 ), turned formally late in their careers to writing local history. Eggleston was even elected president of the American Historical Association in 1900 . The difference between literary romance and realism, at least of the local color variety, may be underscored by comparing two of Twain's novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer ( 1876 ) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ( 1884 ). As Leslie Fiedler has suggested in Love and Death in the American Novel (rev. ed., 1966 ), the two novels retell essentially the same story, the first nostalgically and sentimentally through a soft lens and the second more rigorously, honestly, and truthfully. The two novels are “alternative versions of the same themes” or “the same dream dreamed twice over, the second time as nightmare.” Huckleberry Finn is a true book,” Fiedler adds, but Tom Sawyer only ‘mostly a true book’ with ‘some stretchers,’ one of which is its ending.” The contrast is perhaps most apparent in the respective depictions of Twain's hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. The bucolic St. Petersburg of Tom Sawyer and the opening chapters of Huckleberry Finn are an idealized representation of Hannibal, which is more realistically rendered in the latter work as Bricksville, the dirty little river town where hogs root in the muddy streets and the town drunk is killed in cold blood. Though his masterwork is rarely regarded as an exercise in local color, Twain also carefully recreated in Huckleberry Finn the several distinct dialects spoken by his characters. “The shadings have not been done in a hap-hazard fashion, or by guess-work,” he insisted in an explanatory note, “but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with those several forms of speech.” In the Uncle Julius dialect tales collected in The Conjure Woman ( 1899 ), moreover, Chesnutt satirized Harris's popular Uncle Remus tales and the plantation tradition they evoked. Local colorists seemed drawn to compiling short story cycles. In addition to Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman , examples include Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs ( 1896 ), Garland's Main-Travelled Roads ( 1891 ), George Washington Cable 's Old Creole Days ( 1879 ), and Kate Chopin 's Bayou Folk ( 1894 ).

James's psychological realism was a more aestheticized form of fiction. By experimenting with refined narrators or “centers of consciousness,” James presumed to recreate the play of their imaginations—in effect, to adapt his brother William's Principles of Psychology ( 1890 ) to the fictional page. Chapter 42 of The Portrait of a Lady ( 1881 ), in which Isabel Archer contemplates the state of her marriage to Gilbert Osmond, anticipated the modern stream of consciousness novels of Gertrude Stein , Virginia Woolf , James Joyce , and William Faulkner . In The Turn of the Screw ( 1898 ), Henry James recounted a ghost story from the point of view of a psychopathological narrator. Particularly in some of his later tales (including The Beast in the Jungle [ 1903 ]), he described almost no physical behavior, a technique that led to the joking complaint that James “chewed more than he bit off.”

Very few American poets of the period between 1865 and 1915 presumed to be realists in their verse. The major poets—such as Longfellow , Riley, E. C. Stedman , Edwin Markham , Sidney Lanier , Ina Coolbrith , Thomas Wentworth Higginson , William Vaughan Moody , and Thomas Bailey Aldrich —were heirs of the sentimental tradition of British romanticism. Howells and other realists wrote poetry, to be sure, but most of it was utterly conventional and forgettable. Twain parodied sentimental verse in both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn , as in Emmeline Grangerford's funeral poetry, but his own poetry was unremarkable. The African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar published dialect verse, much as Chesnutt wrote dialect stories, but he was an exception to the rule. Both Crane and Edwin Arlington Robinson penned a brand of naturalistic poetry around the turn of the century. Crane's verse was enigmatic and bitterly ironic, and Robinson wrote such dramatic monologues as Richard Cory and Miniver Cheevy and the sonnets Zola and Annandale , the latter a defense of euthanasia.

The forte of the realists, however, was topical fiction. Even James's stories on the international theme (for example, Daisy Miller [ 1879 ], The American [ 1877 ], and The Ambassadors [ 1903 ]) exploited the growth in international travel during the last third of the nineteenth century . (With the development of the steamship, passenger departures from the United States for Europe increased from around 20,000 in 1860 to around 110,000 in 1900 .) More to the point, realists often protested conditions, pilloried hypocrisy, or proposed social reforms. Few topics escaped their notice. It was, as Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner averred in their collaborative novel, a “gilded age,” not a Golden Age. Among the topics that concerned them were political corruption (Twain and Warner's The Gilded Age [ 1873 ], Henry Adams's Democracy [ 1880 ], and Garland's A Spoil of Office [ 1892 ]); immigration and integration (Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky [ 1917 ], Sui Sin Far 's Mrs. Spring Fragrance [ 1912 ], and Yezierska 's Hungry Hearts [ 1920 ]); marriage and divorce (Howells's A Modern Instance [ 1882 ] and Wharton's The Age of Innocence [ 1920 ]); small-town parochialism or “the revolt from the village” ( E. W. Howe 's The Story of a Country Town [ 1883 ], Edgar Lee Masters 's Spoon River Anthology [ 1915 ], Robinson's The Children of the Night [ 1897 ], Wharton's Ethan Frome [ 1911 ], Sinclair Lewis's Main Street [ 1920 ], and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio [ 1919 ]); military imperialism during the Spanish-American War (Howells's “Editha” [ 1905 ] and Twain's The War Prayer [ 1916 ]); lynchings (Twain's “The United States of Lyncherdom” [ 1923 ] and Walter V. T. Clark's The Ox-Bow Incident [ 1940 ]); urban squalor, prostitution, and the “fallen woman” or “the shame of the cities” (Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets [ 1893 ]); economic injustice (James's The Princess Casamassima [ 1886 ], Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes [ 1890 ], and Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court ); alcoholism (Howells's The Landlord at Lion's Head [ 1897 ] and Norris's McTeague [ 1899 ]); and euthanasia (Wharton's The Fruit of the Tree [ 1907 ]). Such texts complemented some of the social essays of the period, including Henry Demarest Lloyd 's Wealth against Commonwealth ( 1894 ), Thorstein Veblen 's The Theory of the Leisure Class ( 1899 ), and Jacob Riis 's How the Other Half Lives ( 1890 ). In Under the Lion's Paw ( 1889 ), Garland specifically endorsed the “single tax” on “unearned increment” advocated by Henry George in his book, Progress and Poverty ( 1879 ).

Other narratives were devoted to the “woman question” and the contemporary feminist movement, including Chopin's The Awakening ( 1899 ) and “The Story of an Hour” ( 1894 ), James's The Bostonians , Howells's Dr. Breen's Practice ( 1881 ), Freeman's “A New England Nun” ( 1891 ) and The Revolt of ‘Mother’ ( 1890 ), and Gilman's The Yellow Wall-Paper ( 1892 ). The latter tale specifically critiqued the rest cure for women suffering from hysteria or neurasthenia prescribed by S. Weir Mitchell, a Philadelphia nerve specialist and part-time novelist.

Realistic fiction published during the final decade of the nineteenth century was often a race-inflected fiction as well. The 1890s, punctuated by the Chinese Exclusionary Act ( 1892 ) and the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of the Supreme Court ( 1896 ) sanctioning “separate but equal” public facilities for blacks and whites, were the nadir of race relations in the United States. The public debate about it notwithstanding, Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was not a race novel, certainly not in the same sense as Howells's An Imperative Duty ( 1891 ) or Twain's The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson ( 1894 ). In the former, a young woman raised to believe she is white discovers that she has a black ancestor. In the latter, two baby boys are switched in their cradles, one of them freeborn and the other a slave but otherwise indistinguishable, with tragic results. In both novels the authors probed the meaning of racial identity. A cluster of other realistic race novels appeared in the early 1890s, among them Anna J. Cooper's A Voice from the South ( 1892 ) and Frances E. W. Harper's Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted ( 1892 ). Chesnutt also published a trio of realistic novels around the turn of the century that pondered the consequences of racial violence: The House behind the Cedars ( 1900 ); The Marrow of Tradition ( 1901 ), based on the race riot in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898 ; and The Colonel's Dream ( 1905 ), about the failure of the New South to secure racial justice.

Despite the early successes of the local colorists Bret Harte and Mark Twain, western American writers were slow to warm to realism. Western literature was epitomized by the sensational, blood-and-thunder of the dime novel westerns that celebrated westward expansion and conquest. As late as 1902 , the same year Owen Wister's romanticized bestseller The Virginian appeared, Norris complained that rather than a school of western realists there were “the wretched ‘Deadwood Dicks’ and Buffalo Bills of the yellowbacks” and writers “who lied and tricked and strutted in Pathfinder and Leather-Stocking series.” Still, a brand of western realism emerged in such neglected or unknown works as Mary Hallock Foote's novel The Led-Horse Claim ( 1883 ), Mary Austin 's Land of Little Rain ( 1903 ), and Andy Adams 's The Log of a Cowboy ( 1903 ), all of which deal with mining, ranching, or other forms of labor. Clarence Gohdes declared in 1951 , in fact, that Foote was “more of a realist than either Harte or Clemens in portraying the life of the mining areas.…In the history of fiction dealing with the Far West she may claim attention as the first realist of the section.”

American realists contributed to the national literary culture in another way; they belonged to the first generation of true literary professionals in America, as Howells suggested in his essay, The Man of Letters As a Man of Business ( 1893 ). The realists hired the first literary agents in the early 1880s, contributed to the first newspaper fiction syndicates in the mid-1880s, and lobbied for passage of legislation governing international copyright, finally adopted in 1891 . They introduced marketing gimmicks such as subscription sales (Mark Twain was a director of the American Publishing Company of Hartford) and composite novels (such as The Whole Family [ 1908 ], to which Howells, James, Freeman, and nine other writers each contributed a chapter). Partly as a result of the invention of the Linotype machine, the number of magazines published in the nation increased from about two hundred in 1860 to some eighteen hundred in 1900 , with a corresponding increase in the opportunities for literary careers. To be sure, most commercially successful novels were still pitched to middle-class women readers. Howells estimated that some 75 percent of all books sold in the United States were bought by women, and the novelist John W. De Forest similarly declared that women comprised four-fifths of the novel-reading public. The novel, even the realistic novel, usually contained a love interest ( Huckleberry Finn was a rare and notable exception) if only to spur sales—but it was a love interest often disappointed. Many of the realists also scripted plays, often adaptations of their own stories and novels, because the market for new drama was more lucrative than for fiction. As Harte would write, plays were potentially “vastly more profitable” or lucrative than novels. A “good play” in production ought to pay its author about three thousand dollars per year, he thought. Similarly, James noted privately that he “simply must try, and try seriously, to produce half a dozen—a dozen, five dozen—plays for the sake of my pocket, my material future.” In all, Twain, Howells, James, and Harte produced some sixty scripts, though many of them were never produced professionally.

Naturalism As a Literary Theory

In his essay Le roman expérimental (The Experimental Novel) ( 1880 ), the French novelist Émile Zola developed an elaborate analogy between experimental or empirical fiction and the medical science of the French physician Claude Bernard . According to Zola, the experimental (that is, the naturalistic) novelist simply adopts “the scientific method, which has been in use for a long time.” He “institutes the experiment, that is, sets the characters of a particular story in motion, in order to show that the series of events therein will be those demanded by the determinism of the phenomena under study.” Richard Wright deployed a similar trope in his essay How Bigger Was Born ( 1940 ), often reprinted as an introduction to his Native Son ( 1940 ), one of the last American naturalistic novels: “Why should I not, like a scientist in a laboratory, use my imagination and invent test-tube situations, place Bigger in them, and…work out in fictional form a resolution of his fate?” The influence of Zola on American naturalists can hardly be understated. Norris, for example, sometimes signed his letters “the boy Zola,” and Crane wrote that his character Maggie Johnson “blossomed in a mud puddle,” much as Zola's character Nana was “a plant nurtured on a dung heap.”

In a word, the strategies of both realism and naturalism depend upon a quasi-scientific method of detailed observation, but in the case of naturalism the science is rooted in Darwin's theory of evolution. As Malcolm Cowley explained in ‘Not Men’: A Natural History of American Naturalism ( Kenyon Review , Summer 1947 ), “The Naturalistic writers were all determinists in that they believed in the omnipotence of abstract forces. They were pessimists so far as they believed that men and women were absolutely incapable of shaping their own destinies.” Similarly, Lars Åhnebrink , in The Beginnings of Naturalism in American Fiction ( 1950 ), allowed that the naturalist “portrays life as it is in accordance with the philosophical theory of determinism .” Dreiser variously described Carrie Meeber, for example, as “a waif amid forces,” “a wisp in the wind,” a “wisp on the tide,” and he referred in Sister Carrie ( 1900 ) and An American Tragedy in pseudoscientific terms to such body chemicals as “katastates” and “anastates” and to “chemisms” in an attempt to explain all thoughts and emotional responses as mere chemical reactions in the blood.

In all, naturalism was a literature of despair that repudiated the optimism and idealism of the Enlightenment. American naturalists tended to emphasize environmental factors in the formation of character, European naturalists heredity factors. Most American literary naturalists were also Social Darwinists who applied Darwin's biological theories of natural selection to models of social organization, arguing by analogy that just as the fittest of each species in nature struggles for existence by adapting to its environment, the fittest human competitors best adapt to social conditions and thrive and prosper. Crane made the point in a poem that is a virtual Social Darwinian parable:

The trees in the garden rained flowers. Children ran there joyously. They gathered the flowers Each to himself. Now there were some Who gathered great heaps— Having opportunity and skill— Until, behold, only chance blossoms Remained for the feeble. Then a little spindling tutor Ran importantly to the father, crying: “Pray, come hither! “See this unjust thing in your garden!” But when the father had surveyed He admonished the tutor: “Not so, small sage! “This thing is just. “For, look you, “Are not they who possess the flowers “Stronger, bolder, shrewder “Than they who have none? “Why should the strong— “The beautiful strong— “Why should they not have the flowers?” Upon reflection, the tutor bowed to the ground. “My lord,” he said, “The stars are displaced “By this towering wisdom.”

Similarly, the opening chapter of Dreiser's The Financier ( 1912 ) portrayed a battle to the death between an octopus and a squid. Young Frank Cowperwood wonders how life is organized and observes the battle in a tank at a fish market near his home. Gradually, the lobster devours the squid and answers the riddle young Cowperwood had been pondering: “Lobsters lived on squids and other things,” and men lived on “other men.” Tennyson had mused on “Nature, red in tooth and claw” a half century before, but it remained for the naturalist writers to illustrate a ruthless struggle for existence. The theory of literary naturalism even informs such pulp novels as Edgar Rice Burroughs 's Tarzan of the Apes ( 1914 ), which thematically suggests that a white child raised in the African jungle will inevitably grow up to be “king of the apes.”

In truth, most naturalists came to Social Darwinism not through Darwin but through the social theories of Herbert Spencer. The poet Edwin Arlington Robinson lamented to a friend in 1890 that “Life was something before you came to Spencer.” When Dreiser read Spencer's First Principles ( 1862 ) in 1894 , he admitted, it “blew me, intellectually, to bits” and left him “numb.” He realized that “Man was a mechanism, undevised and uncreated, and a badly and carelessly driven one at that.…When I read Spencer I could only sigh.” He later told the novelist Frank Harris that Spencer “nearly killed me, took every shred of belief away from me; showed me that I was a chemical atom in a whirl of unknown forces; the realization clouded my mind.” Similarly, Jack London recalled in his autobiographical novel, Martin Eden ( 1909 ), his own introduction to “the man Spencer.…There was no caprice, no chance. All was law.” In brief, naturalism gleans from Darwin the metaphor of the jungle; from Spencer the metaphor of the “struggle for existence” in society; from Freud the inviolable determinism of the unconscious; from Marx a sense of economic determinism; from positivism in general and Auguste Comte in particular a doctrine of environmental determinism; and from Hippolyte Taine the notion of literature as the product of race or national character, moment, and social milieu.

While the canonical American naturalists are usually considered sui generis —some literary historians even assert that no American realist became a naturalist—both Howells and Twain commented on the doctrine of determinism in their late fiction. In The Landlord at Lion's Head and The Son of Royal Langbrith ( 1904 ), Howells considered the possibility of biological determinism along the lines of Zola. And Huckleberry Finn contains hints of Twain's belief in environmental determinism. (“I never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it.”) Both A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson were thematically devoted to illustrating how environment shapes character. “Training is everything”—this exact phrase appears in both chapter 18 of the former novel (“Training—training is everything; training is all there is to a person”) and as an epigraph to chapter 5 of the latter. (“Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.”) Twain expressed his ideas about environmental determinism most fully in his philosophical treatise What Is Man? ( 1906 ): “The human being is merely a machine, and nothing more.…A man is never anything but what his outside influences have made him.”

Little wonder Cowley concluded that the net effect of naturalism was “to subtract from literature the whole notion of human responsibility.” As Norris wrote of the brutish “second self” of his protagonist in McTeague ( 1899 ), “Below the fine fabric of all that was good in him ran the foul stream of hereditary evil, like a sewer. The vices and sins of his father and of his father's father, to the third and fourth and five hundredth generation, tainted him. The evil of an entire race flowed in his veins. Why should it be? He did not desire it. Was he to blame?” The author's answer is obvious: of course not. Or as Dreiser noted in chapter 7 of Sister Carrie , “On the tiger no responsibility rests.” Crime in the naturalistic novel—such as McTeague's murder of Trina, Hurstwood's theft of money from his employers in Sister Carrie , or Clyde Griffith's murder of Roberta Alden in An American Tragedy ( 1925 )—was the result of uncontrollable passions and forces, not personal volition. Similarly, Crane inscribed the flyleaf of a presentation copy of his novel Maggie, A Girl of the Streets :

It is inevitable that you will be greatly shocked by this book, but continue, please, with all courage to the end. For, it tries to show that environment is a tremendous thing in the world and frequently shapes lives regardless. If one proves that theory, one makes room in Heaven for all sorts of souls, notably an occasional street girl, who are not confidently expected to be there by many excellent people.

Yet Crane's comment also illustrates a dilemma faced by the naturalist. To the extent that he objectively portrayed the plight of the underclass and described the deterministic forces that shape character, he was faithful to the tenets of naturalism. To the extent he wrote a brief for the defense of the underclass or preached a message, however, he violated the principle of scientific objectivity and became an advocate for reform rather than an objective scientist. Form had been sacrificed to theme, as in Maggie or Upton Sinclair 's The Jungle ( 1906 ), or even Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath ( 1939 ). Unlike realism, doctrinaire naturalistic texts rarely advocated social reform. Indeed, the naturalistic theory of mind went hand in glove with the Gospel of Wealth of such industrialists as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller and Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner . Whereas naturalism shares with realism the ambition of depicting the experience of everyday men and women accurately, it also shares with modernism an epistemological skepticism, a belief in the nonteleological or purposeless nature of the universe. Though many of the naturalists were leftists (including Dreiser, London, Sinclair, and Steinbeck), their theoretically objective literary perspective warred with their politics. Or as Charles C. Walcutt explains in American Literary Naturalism: A Divided Stream ( 1956 ), “all ‘naturalistic’ novels exist in a tension between determinism and its antithesis. The reader is aware of the opposition between what the artist says about man's fate and what his saying it affirms about man's hope.”

A naturalistic corollary to the doctrine of determinism was the indifference if not malevolence of nature. In Placer County, California, Norris writes in McTeague , nature “is a vast, unconquered brute of the Pliocene epoch, savage, sullen, and magnificently indifferent to man.” Similarly, in The Octopus ( 1901 ) his narrator opines that “Nature is a gigantic engine, a vast cyclopean power, huge, terrible, a leviathan with a heart of steel, knowing no compunction, no forgiveness, no tolerance; crushing out the human atom standing in its way, with nirvanic calm.” In The Blue Hotel ( 1898 ), Crane marvels on “the existence of man” suffering a blizzard and concedes “a glamour of wonder to these lice which were caused to cling to a whirling, fire-smote, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb.” Or, as Crane wrote in one of his poems,

A man said to the universe “Sir, I exist!” “However,” replied the universe, “The fact has not created in me A sense of obligation.”

Naturalism As Literary Practice

Theoretically, the naturalistic tale might be a “success story,” with the hero achieving ever greater triumphs. In practice, however, the naturalistic tale was almost always a “failure story” or “plot of decline,” with an unfit protagonist like Eugene O'Neill's Brutus Jones slowly degenerating, falling ever lower on the evolutionary ladder. Norris's McTeague is depicted as an atavist fated eventually to die. Dreiser 's An American Tragedy was among other things a parody of the Horatio Alger myth of success. Jack London's To Build a Fire ( 1908 ) features a foolish and unfit protagonist who deserves to die, and his The Law of Life ( 1901 ) depicts the necessary sacrifice of a tribal elder when he becomes a liability to the survival of the group. Such tales were often shocking to readers, and Maggie, The Red Badge of Courage ( 1895 ), and Sister Carrie were all published in expurgated versions at the insistence of publishers. Moreover, even though many naturalists (Dreiser, Crane, and Harold Frederic, for instance) began their careers as journalists, they employed a self-consciously crude style of writing. As Norris declared, “Give us stories now, give us men, strong, brutal men, with red-hot blood in 'em, with unleashed passions rampant in 'em, blood and bones and viscera in 'em, and women, too, that move and have their being, people that love and hate.…We don't want literature, we want life. We don't want fine writing, we want short stories.”

However crude the naturalistic style, it did exhibit certain recurring hallmarks. Virtually all naturalistic novels were written from the third-person omniscient point of view. The naturalist was, after all, a type of scientist, his novel a type of laboratory report. (There were rare exceptions, such as Jack London's The Sea-Wolf [ 1904 ].) Whereas the realist aimed to draw “rounded” or credible individual characters, the naturalist portrayed representative and recurring types such as the brute (for example, Norris's McTeague and Vandover and the Brute [ 1914 ] and O'Neill 's The Hairy Ape [ 1921 ]) and the spectator or observer (Presley in The Octopus or Ames in Sister Carrie , for instance). Unfortunately, the trend among naturalists to portray types also prompted them to reinforce racial and ethnic stereotypes and to assume the superiority of Anglo-Saxon civilization according to the standard science of the day. For example, Norris depicted a Jewish junk collector through anti-Semitic stereotyping in McTeague , Crane portrayed a comic Sambo in “The Monster” ( 1898 ), and London condescended to a number of racial types in his Klondike and South Seas fiction. Such belief in Anglo-Saxon superiority would point, in the end, to Gilman's endorsement of the early- twentieth-century eugenics movement in her novel, Herland ( 1915 ).

There were other formal characteristics of literary naturalism. Naturalists frequently employed organic, especially animal, metaphors. Obviously, such metaphors had been used prior to the publication of On the Origin of Species ( 1859 ), but after the publication of Darwin's theory of natural selection they would have an entirely new resonance. McTeague is a bull, Maggie's brother Jimmie is a fighting cock, and the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath is implicitly compared to a land turtle. Naturalists also often invoked sports or gaming metaphors, as when Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage compares a military battle to a football game. Plots were occasionally organized around such forms of cutthroat competition as labor strikes (for instance, Sister Carrie , Norris's The Octopus , Sinclair's The Jungle , Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle [ 1936 ] and The Grapes of Wrath ) or, for obvious reasons, warfare (Crane's The Red Badge of Courage , Willa Cather's One of Ours [ 1922 ], Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bells Tolls [ 1940 ], Wharton's A Son at the Front [ 1923 ], Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead [ 1948 ], and James Jones's From Here to Eternity [ 1951 ] are examples). Naturalistic novels were often bloated with detailed descriptions of insulated settings, such as Rum Alley in Maggie , based on Hell's Kitchen on the West Side of Manhattan; the Polk Street neighborhood of San Francisco in McTeague ; and first a ship and then an island in London's The Sea-Wolf . If a writer is an environmental determinist, after all, he or she labors under the obligation of depicting the environment in minute detail. Taking their cue from Zola's twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart cycle ( 1871–1893 ), moreover, several naturalists planned or completed trilogies of novels. Dreiser projected a “trilogy of Desire” and Norris anticipated a “trilogy of the Wheat.” John Dos Passos's U.S.A. ( 1938 ) comprised three published novels, James T. Farrell wrote a “Studs Lonigan” and “Danny O'Neill” series, and Eugene O'Neill wrote Mourning Becomes Electra ( 1931 ) and later projected a cycle of plays on American history, of which the completed A Touch of the Poet ( 1946 ) and More Stately Mansions ( 1964 ) were to be a part.

Above all, the naturalists tended to be critical of the “teacup tragedies” of Howellsian realism. “Realism is minute; it is the drama of a broken teacup, the tragedy of a walk down the block, the excitement of an afternoon call, the adventure of an invitation to dinner,” Norris complained. Naturalism, in contrast, should explore “the unplumbed depths of the human heart, and the mystery of sex, and the problems of life, and the black, unsearched penetralia of the soul of man.” In fine, “terrible things must happen to the characters in a naturalistic novel.” Broadly speaking, too, there were generational differences between realists and naturalists. Realists like James and Howells matured as writers in the 1870s and 1880s, whereas naturalists like Crane and Norris matured in the 1890s. But these differences should not be exaggerated. After all, James and Howells remained essentially realistic and remarkably prolific writers until their deaths in 1916 and 1920 , respectively, whereas Crane and Norris both were dead by 1902 , Crane at the age of twenty-eight, Norris at thirty-two.

Twentieth-Century Developments

Some of Crane's later writings, such as The Red Badge of Courage and “The Blue Hotel,” represent a variation on the naturalistic tradition and point in the direction of literary impressionism and modernism. Crane asserted in War Memories ( 1899 ) that he was trying to imitate in words what the French impressionists were doing with light and color: “I bring this to you merely as an effect—an effect of mental light and shade, if you like: something done in thought similar to that which the French Impressionists do in color; something meaningless and at the same time overwhelming, crushing, monstrous.” The Red Badge of Courage essentially recounts through his impressions the fears and illusions of its ironic soldier-hero, Henry Fleming. All events are filtered through his vision, his sense perceptions. Not only is there no objectivity to his story, the very notion of reality is a shifting and unstable construction of Fleming's imagination. Put another way, by the end of his life Crane had begun to develop naturalistic themes in an impressionistic style. His later tales anticipate Hemingway's terse style, with frequent shifts in point of view, and in fact Hemingway later praised Crane's masterful method in such stories as The Blue Hotel and The Open Boat ( 1894 ).

The proletarian writers of the early twentieth century , such as Sinclair ( The Jungle ), Jack Conroy ( A World to Win [ 1935 ]), and Robert Cantwell ( The Land of Plenty [ 1934 ]), attempted to graft their leftist politics onto naturalism, a project that met with decidedly mixed results. The hybrid betrayed the “divided stream” of American naturalism in unusual degree. The Jungle may have been the earliest American proletarian novel, and it is often credited with catalyzing support for the Pure Food and Drug Act ( 1906 ), but as a novel it is crudely constructed and basically breaks in half when the proletarian hero, Jurgis Rudkus, is thrown in jail and, upon his release, leaves Chicago. As Sinclair later conceded, he “aimed at the public's heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Naturalism, as Cowley explains in “ ‘Not Men,’ ” was fundamentally “unsuited” to the “essentially religious purpose” of the proletarian writers. Given the deterministic bias of naturalism, the proletarian writers were simply unable to explain the conversion of a character to socialism or other forms of radical politics.

The last major controversy over naturalism in literature occurred in the 1940s, and it centered on the possibility of “naturalistic tragedy.” During the 1880s the Scandinavian playwrights Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg had conceived of their plays Ghosts ( 1881 ) and Miss Julie ( 1888 ) as naturalistic tragedies. But tragedy, according to its Aristotelian definition, affirms the significance of human life: through the imitation of noble actions ending in catastrophe, a tragic hero falls from a high place and the audience experiences a catharsis of “pity and fear.” Joseph Wood Krutch , in The Tragic Fallacy , a chapter in The Modern Temper ( 1929 ), countered that the phrase “naturalistic tragedy” is an oxymoron. “We write no tragedies today,” Krutch argued, because modern science has enfeebled the human spirit. “If the plays and novels of today deal with littler people and less mighty emotions,” he added, “it is not because we have become interested in commonplace souls and their unglamorous adventures but because we have come, willy-nilly, to see the soul of man as commonplace and its emotions as mean.” When writers turned “from the hero to the common man,” they “inaugurated the era of realism.” These arguments prompted Arthur Miller 's dramatic experiment, Death of a Salesman ( 1948 ). In effect, Miller replied to Krutch in an essay explaining why he wrote the play: “In this age few tragedies are written,” he declared. “It has often been held that the lack is due to a paucity of heroes among us, or else that modern man has had the blood drawn out of his organs of belief by the skepticism of science.” The tragic mode may seem “archaic, fit only for the very highly placed, the kings or the kingly,” but “I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were.” So Miller portrayed his hapless salesman Willy Loman (low man) as a tragic hero.

The tradition of realism and naturalism has left an indelible mark on American fiction. Even today, some elements of naturalism surface in the fiction of Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, for example, and John Updike is a type of neo-realist with affinities to Howells. Whatever the posturings of the postmodernists, literary historians may claim for no other American literary tradition the achievements of the realists and naturalists.

See also Anderson, Sherwood ; Chesnutt, Charles W. ; Chopin, Kate ; Crane, Stephen, and his The Red Badge of Courage ; Dreiser, Theodore ; Dunbar, Paul Laurence ; Garland, Hamlin ; Harte, Bret ; Howells, William Dean ; James, Henry ; Jewett, Sarah Orne ; London, Jack ; Masters, Edgar Lee ; Miller, Arthur, and his Death of a Salesman ; Norris, Frank ; O'Neill, Eugene ; Robinson, Edwin Arlington ; Sinclair, Upton, and the Muckrakers ; Steinbeck, John, and his The Grapes of Wrath ; Twain, Mark ; Wharton, Edith ; and Wright, Richard .

Further Reading

  • Åhnebrink, Lars . The Beginnings of Naturalism in American Fiction . Cambridge, Mass., 1950. A pioneering work on Zola's influence on Frank Norris.
  • Berthoff, Warner . The Ferment of Realism: American Literature, 1884–1919 . New York, 1965. A useful survey of the period with particular reference to the major canonical texts.
  • Cady, Edwin H. The Light of Common Day: Realism in American Fiction . Bloomington, Ind., 1971. A traditional defense of the literary method, its unique sensibility, and its sources, with particular reference to James, Howells, and Twain.
  • Campbell, Donna M. Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1885–1915 . Athens, Ohio, 1997. Persuasively explains the emergence of naturalism as a response to the cultural mythology and feminine influence of the local colorists.
  • Condor, John J. Naturalism in American Fiction: The Classic Phase . Lexington, Ky., 1984. A jargon-free, traditional survey of the major naturalistic texts by Crane, Norris, Dreiser, Dos Passos, and Steinbeck.
  • Cowley, Malcolm . ‘ Not Men’: A Natural History of American Naturalism . Kenyon Review 9 (Summer 1947): 414–435. A succinct review of the form and many of the critical issues it raised.
  • Fiedler, Leslie . Love and Death in the American Novel . Rev. ed. New York, 1966. Though well-known for its thesis about the recurrence in American fiction of portrayals of interracial homosexual love, this study also dared to challenge other, privileged views of American literature.
  • Habegger, Alfred . Gender, Fantasy, and Realism in American Literature . New York, 1982. Examines how realist writers, social novelists by definition, defended masculinity and sought to correct the distortions in symbolic fiction by women.
  • Howard, June . Form and History in American Literary Naturalism . Chapel Hill, N.C., and London, 1985. A neo-Marxist approach to the topic of American naturalism.
  • Kaplan, Amy . The Social Construction of American Realism . Chicago, 1988. Reexamines the relation of realism to “social change,” “the representation of class difference,” and the emergence of a “mass culture.”
  • Kolb, Harold H., Jr. The Illusion of Life: American Realism as a Literary Form . Charlottesville, Va., 1969. Revising traditional definitions of realism, this study suggests that realism was special not because it was an objective treatment of materials but because it offered the illusion of objectivity.
  • Martin, Jay . Harvests of Change: American Literature, 1865–1914 . Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1967. The study most sensitive to historical events during the period. A detailed literary history.
  • Martin, Ronald E. American Literature and the Universe of Force . Durham, N.C., 1981. A study of “the origins, transmission, and uses” of the concept of “force-universe,” particularly in the writings of Henry Adams, Norris, London, and Dreiser.
  • Michaels, Walter Benn . The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism . Berkeley, Calif., 1987. A New Historicist interpretation of American naturalism in which the writers work out conflicts between “material and representation, hard money and soft.”
  • Mitchell, Lee Clark . Determined Fictions: American Literary Naturalism . New York, 1989. Considers “the narrative effects of determinism” on naturalistic texts, specifically London's “To Build a Fire,” Dreiser's An American Tragedy , Norris's Vandover and the Brute , and Crane's The Red Badge of Courage .
  • Pizer, Donald . Twentieth-Century American Literary Naturalism: An Interpretation . Carbondale, Ill., 1982. A continuation of Pizer's work on nineteenth-century naturalism, with emphasis on the neglected naturalists of the 1930s and 1940s (including Dos Passos, Farrell, and Styron).
  • Pizer, Donald . Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature . Rev. ed. Carbondale, Ill., 1984. A formal approach to the study of realism and naturalism mediated through philosophy and aesthetics.
  • Pizer, Donald , ed. The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: Howells to London . Cambridge and New York, 1995. A collection of a dozen essays delineating the historical contexts, contemporary critical approaches, and “case studies” of works by Howells, Twain, James, Norris, Crane, Chopin, Wharton, London, Sinclair, and Du Bois.
  • Quirk, Tom , and Gary Scharnhorst , eds. American Realism and the Canon . Newark, Del., 1994. A collection of twelve essays from a variety of critical perspectives reassessing the accomplishments of both established and “new canonical” realists.
  • Sundquist, Eric J. American Realism: New Essays . Baltimore and London, 1982. A collection of fifteen revisionary essays on major texts by Howells, Twain, James, Crane, Norris, Wharton, Dreiser, and others.
  • Walcutt, Charles C. American Literary Naturalism: A Divided Stream . Minneapolis, Minn., 1956. Perhaps the most accessible studies of American naturalism, with chapters on Crane, London, Norris, Frederic, Garland, Dreiser, Anderson, and Farrell. Argues the now-familiar theme that naturalistic novels dramatize a tension between determinism and the exercise of free will.
  • Warren, Kenneth W. Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism . Chicago, 1993. Examines a variety of realistic texts on race written between Emancipation and the 1890s to argue for their “emancipatory” power.

Related Articles

  • Anderson, Sherwood
  • Chesnutt, Charles W.
  • Chopin, Kate
  • Crane, Stephen
  • Dreiser, Theodore
  • Dunbar, Paul Laurence
  • Norris, Frank
  • Garland, Hamlin
  • Harte, Bret
  • Howells, William Dean
  • James, Henry
  • Jewett, Sarah Orne
  • London, Jack
  • Masters, Edgar Lee
  • O'Neill, Eugene
  • Robinson, Edwin Arlington
  • Twain, Mark
  • Sinclair, Upton, and the Muckrakers
  • Wharton, Edith
  • Wright, Richard

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Literary Theory and Criticism

Home › The Realism of William Dean Howells

The Realism of William Dean Howells

By NASRULLAH MAMBROL on January 8, 2018 • ( 2 )

Regarded by many as the major American novelist and critic of his age, William Dean Howells (1837–1920) began his career as a printer and journalist. He became sub-editor and then chief editor of the most prestigious journal on the East coast, The Atlantic Monthly , and associate editor of Harper’s Monthly in New York. His chief fictional work was The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), and his subsequent novels, such as A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) and The World of Chance (1893), reflect his move toward both socialism and social realism, whereby he conducted a critique of American capitalism and imperialism. His status as the major American theorist of realism was established by his book Criticism and Fiction (1891), which effectively compiled articles he had written for his “Editor’s Study” section of Harper’s Monthly. As influential editor, novelist, and theorist, he occupied a central position in American literature. Influenced by Lowell and Hawthorne, as well as by European and Russian realists such as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Zola , and Ibsen, he transmitted the aesthetic of these writers in a refined and revitalized form to his native soil and his own era. He was acquainted with most of the leading writers of his time, including Lowell, Hawthorne, Emerson , Thoreau, and Whitman; he influenced the careers of Henry James, Mark Twain, Charles W. Chesnutt, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. By the time of his death he had exerted a powerful and pervasive influence on American letters, though subsequent generations of critics and writers tended somewhat to devalue his critical and literary reputation.


Howells’ Criticism and Fiction is a closely argued manifesto for realism. He begins by declaring his common ground with John Addington Symons, who had expressed a hope that future literature might abandon “sentimental or academical seekings after the ideal,” that it shall harness “the scientific spirit,” and shall “comprehend with more instinctive certitude what is simple, natural, and honest.”1 Howells further suggests that “what is true is always beautiful and good, and nothing else is so,” finding sanction for this partly in Keats’ poetic line, “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.” From Edmund Burke ’s essay on the sublime and the beautiful, Howells reaffirms the insight that the “true standard of the arts is in every man’s power; and an easy observation of the most common, sometimes of the meanest things, in nature will give the truest lights” (298– 299). Integrating these various insights, Howells expresses his own hope that “each new author, each new artist, will be considered, not in his proportion to any other author or artist, but in his relation to the human nature, known to us all, which it is his privilege, his high duty, to interpret” (300). The important issue at stake here, as raised by Burke , is the individuality and authenticity of an artist’s perception. Howells laments the custom of encouraging young artists to form their observations not upon life but upon the perceptions of previous masters. Instead of being encouraged to describe, for example, an actual grasshopper, the young artist is urged to describe an artificial one, which represents “the grasshopper in general . . . a type.” Such a grasshopper, formulated by generations of previous artists, represents a cultivation of the ideal, the ideal grasshopper through the lens of which the real one must be viewed. Howells voices the hope that the artist, as well as the “common, average man,” will reject “the ideal grasshopper, the heroic grasshopper, the impassioned grasshopper, the self-devoted, adventureful, good old romantic card-board grasshopper,” in favor of the “simple, honest, and natural grasshopper” (301). Howells is of course attempting to extricate the novel from the characteristics of the conventional heroic and adventurous romance. In the passage above, Howells appropriates from Symonds a new criterion for art: it must be judged not by conformity with the so-called classics or with the authority of tradition but by “the standard of the arts which we all have in our power, the simple, the natural, and the honest” (302). In historical terms, Howells sees realism as continuing a rebellion initiated by Romanticism at the beginning of the nineteenth century: “Romanticism then sought, as realism seeks now, to widen the bounds of sympathy, to level every barrier against aesthetic freedom, to escape from the paralysis of tradition. It exhausted itself in this impulse; and it remained for realism to assert that fidelity to experience and probability of motive are essential conditions of a great imaginative literature” (302).

As he himself later acknowledges, Howells’ theory of realism is “democratic” in several senses. As seen above, he takes from Burke (ironically, given the antidemocratic strain of Burke ’s conservative politics) the democratic notion that all people have the potential for aesthetic judgment. Howells adds that the true realist establishes no hierarchy in the material he considers to be at the disposal of art. The true realist “finds nothing insignificant,” and “feels in every nerve the equality of things and the unity of men; his soul is exalted, not by . . . ideals, but by realities, in which alone the truth lives.” For such a person, “no living man is a type, but a character” (302–303). Howells rejects the “tendency to allegorization” in recent fiction, as well as “the exaggerated passions and motives of the stage” (304–305).

In a manner that somewhat anticipates Northrop Frye and some of the New Critics of the earlier twentieth century, Howells drew attention to the deficiencies of literary criticism as conceived and practiced in his era. He suggests that the critic currently has no principles and indeed is amateurish (306–307). He tends to base his assessments of literary works on personal feelings and impressions; and, in general, his practice has been based on a perpetual resistance of whatever is new, and a blind adherence to past models (311). Interestingly, his position might be viewed as a critique of the “touchstone” theory advanced by Matthew Arnold , with whom Howells otherwise has much in common. Arnold erected this very dearth of critical principles itself into a theory, suggesting that we cannot judge literature by means of fixed and teachable concepts but that we must be exposed to past models of literary greatness, which will serve as touchstones for the assessment of any works we read.

Howells also anticipates the New Critics in his insistence that criticism can have only a subsidiary function: it always exists in a relation of dependence to art; it cannot create literature, and it cannot make or unmake the reputation of authors (308–310). To this sorry state of affairs, Howells brings, as Frye was to do later, a message of admonition that criticism must “reconceive its office.” What we need is a “dispassionate, scientific” study of current literature (311, 314). The critic must with humility acknowledge that he can learn from the creative author who, like Wordsworth , expresses a “revolution, a new order of things, to which the critical perceptions and habitudes had painfully to adjust themselves” (312). Hence criticism must reduce its office, its function, “to the business of observing, recording, and comparing; to analyzing the material before it, and then synthesizing its impressions. Even then, it is not too much to say that literature as an art could get on perfectly well without it” (311). This sounds much like T. S. Eliot in his essay “The Function of Criticism,” where he claimed to be diverging from Arnold and suggested that the critic’s function was disinterested “comparison and analysis.” Each of these writers in his own way was attempting to reaffirm the genuine creativity of art, a creativity that could neither be anticipated nor entirely formulated by criticism. Such a posture reinvests art with an indefinable aura of authority, as expressed in the Romantic notion of “genius,” which soared above any attempts at rational analysis. Yet Howells, true to his democratic aesthetics, rejects the concept of genius outright, as “a mischievous superstition” aimed at mystifying the artistic process.

The democratic strain of Howells’ theory of realism is taken in part from the Spanish writer Palacio Valdés , and appears to be inspired also by insights from Emerson and George Eliot . Like George Eliot, Howells recognizes that truthful simplicity is “very difficult,” and that “nothing is so hard as to be honest” (315). From Valdés, Howells repeats a number of crucial elements of realism. He quotes with approval Valdés’ statement that “in nature there is neither great nor small; all is equal” (316). Following Valdés, Howells urges that artists need to learn how to interest the reader “with the ordinary events of life, and with the portrayal of characters truly human” (317). The novelist must not endeavor to “add anything to reality, to turn it and twist it, to restrict it,” but must paint images “as they appear” (319). And he must engage in a “direct, frank, and conscientious study of character” (318). Howells adds that “Realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material” (319). He cites Emerson’s statement: “I embrace the common; I sit at the feet of the familiar and the low” (321).

Where Howells integrates these insights from various writers and makes them speak through his own voice is in his insistence on the political significance of their democratic sentiment. Since the creation and depiction of beauty rest upon truth, the finest effect of the beautiful, says Howells, “will be ethical and not aesthetic merely. Morality penetrates all things, it is the soul of all things” (322). The novelist “must be true to what life has taught me is the truth.” His work will be pernicious if it constructs a “metaphysical lie against righteousness and common-sense.” Howells looks forward to a day when “the poor honest herd of mankind shall give universal utterance to the universal instinct, and shall hold selfish power in politics, in art, in religion, for the devil that it is” (323). Fiction is harmful if it tells “idle lies about human nature and the social fabric.” Howells reacts against the literary “diet” on which readers have been “pampered to imbecility” (333). The truth alone, says Howells, can “exalt and purify men” (326). Hence this is the supreme test of any work of the imagination: “Is it true? – true to the motives, the impulses, the principles that shape the life of actual men and women? This truth . . . necessarily includes the highest morality and the highest artistry” (327). Beauty in literature “comes from truth alone” and the realistic novel has a moral, as well as an aesthetic, mission (331, 334). In the spirit of this mission, Howells admonishes: “let fiction cease to lie about life; let it portray men and women as they are, actuated by the motives and the passions in the measure we all know . . . let it speak the dialect, the language, that most Americans know – and there can be no doubt of an unlimited future, not only of delightfulness but of usefulness, for it” (328). Such is the circuitous historical route by which literary aesthetics returns to the principles of Horace, that the work of art must delight and teach.


On the question of dialect and language, Howells is reluctant to ask writers to be consciously “American.” But he does encourage them to speak their own dialect, rather than indulge in a “priggish and artificial” endeavor to be “English” (328). He directly equates the democratic political beliefs of the country with a democratic aesthetic: the political state, he says, was built “on the affirmation of the essential equality of men in their rights and duties . . . these conditions invite the artist to the study and appreciation of the common . . . The arts must become democratic, and then we shall have the expression of America in art” (339).

Howells issues a ringing judgment against the classics: at “least three-fifths of the literature called classic . . . is not alive; it is as dead as the people who wrote it and read it . . . A superstitious piety preserves it” (341). Howells sees literature as one of the last refuges of the aristocratic spirit which is disappearing from the political and social fabric and “is now seeking to shelter itself in aesthetics . . . Democracy in literature is the reverse of all this. It wishes to know and tell the truth, confident that consolation and delight are there; it does not care to paint the marvellous and impossible” (353). Neither arts nor sciences can be viewed as serious pursuits unless they “tend to make the race better and kinder . . . and they cannot do this except from and through the truth” (354).

Notes !. Criticism and Fiction , reprinted in W. D. Howells: Selected Literary Criticism. Volume II: 1886–1869, ed. Donald Pizer and Christoph K. Lohmann (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993), p. 298. Hereafter page citations are given in the text.

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Tags: A Hazard of New Fortunes , Criticism and Fiction , Literary Criticism , Literary Theory , Naturalism , Palacio Valdés , Realism , The Rise of Silas Lapham , The World of Chance , William Dean Howells

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In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Realism and Naturalism

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Realism and Naturalism by John Dudley LAST REVIEWED: 29 August 2012 LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0059

Variously defined as distinct philosophical approaches, complementary aesthetic strategies, or broad literary movements, realism and naturalism emerged as the dominant categories applied to American fiction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Included under the broad umbrella of realism are a diverse set of authors, including Henry James, W. D. Howells, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, George Washington Cable, Rebecca Harding Davis, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Hamlin Garland. Often categorized as regionalists or local colorists, many of these writers produced work that emphasized geographically distinct dialects and customs. Others offered satirical fiction or novels of manners that exposed the excesses, hypocrisies, or shortcomings of a culture undergoing radical social change. A subsequent generation of writers, including Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, and Jack London, are most often cited as the American inheritors of the naturalist approach practiced by Emile Zola, whose 1880 treatise Le Roman Experimental applied the experimental methods of medical science to the construction of the novel. Governed by a combination of heredity, environment, and chance, the typical characters of naturalist fiction find themselves constrained from achieving the transcendent goals suggested by a false ideology of romantic individualism. Over the past century, critics and literary historians have alternately viewed realist and naturalist texts as explicit condemnations of the economic, cultural, or ethical deficiencies of the industrialized age or as representations of the very ideological forces they purport to critique. Accordingly, an exploration of these texts raises important questions about the relationship between literature and society, and about our understanding of the “real” or the “natural” as cultural and literary phenomena. Though of little regard in the wake of the New Critics’ emphasis on metaphysics and formal innovation, a revived interest in realism as the American adaptation of an international movement aligned with egalitarian and democratic ideology emerged in the 1960s, as did an effort to redefine naturalist fiction as a more complex form belonging to the broader mainstream of American literary history. More recently, the emergence of deconstructive, Marxist, and new historicist criticism in the 1980s afforded a revised, and often skeptical, reevaluation of realism and naturalism as more conflicted forms, itself defined or constructed by hegemonic forces and offering insight into late-19th- and early-20th-century ideologies of class, race, and gender.

In the wake of Parrington’s attempt to reconcile the rise of realism and naturalism with an essentially romantic tradition ( Parrington 1930 ), interest in the rise of these movements has occurred in waves. In particular, efforts to provide large-scale summaries reflect the attention to social problems in 1960s, and the influence of—and reaction to—post-structuralism and cultural criticism in the 1980s. In all cases, however, comprehensive hypotheses about the nature of realism and naturalism remain grounded, to a large extent, in the political, economic, and cultural history of the late 19th century. Berthoff 1965 , Pizer 1984 , and Lehan 2005 represent attempts to accommodate the horizons established by Parrington’s definition of the study of literary form. Kaplan 1988 , Borus 1989 , and Bell 1993 each make valuable contributions to the new historicist reexamination of naturalism. Murphy 1987 offers one of the few comprehensive accounts of realism within dramatic literature.

Bell, Michael Davitt. The Problem of American Realism: Studies in the Cultural History of a Literary Idea . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Provides compelling readings of the canonical authors, suggesting little common ground beyond the fact that both realism and naturalism explicitly reject the conventional dictates of artistry and dominant notions of style. Unified in their attraction to “reality” as an abstraction, Howells, Twain, James, Norris, Crane, Dreiser, and Jewett each constructed radically unique responses to a common “revolt against style” (p. 115)

Berthoff, Warner. The Ferment of Realism: American Literature, 1884–1919 . New York: Free Press, 1965.

Suggests that realism as a category may be best understood though an examination of practice, rather than through the study of principles or theories. In this light, establishes forceful reading of realist novels as varied statements of outrage and opposition to the increasing materialism, disorder, and perceived moral decay in the years leading up to World War I.

Borus, Daniel H. Writing Realism: Howells, James, and Norris in the Mass Market . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Draws on concerns of new historicism, yet emphasizes the process of literary publication and reception itself. Explores Howells, James, and Norris in detail, with some attention to other writers, including compelling discussions of the publishing industry, literary celebrity, and rise of the political novel.

Kaplan, Amy. The Social Construction of American Realism . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Includes a concise summary of earlier critical debates about realism (including and subsuming naturalism) and describes the cultural work in novels of Howells, Wharton, and Dreiser to construct social spaces that contain and defuse class tensions emerging in the late 19th century. Among the more influential new historicist interventions.

Lehan, Richard Daniel. Realism and Naturalism: The Novel in an Age of Transition . Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005.

Resolutely formalist overview of realism and naturalism as literary modes. Describes the philosophical and cultural assumptions that helped shape these movements and traces their development throughout the 20th century. At times polemical in its dismissal of post-structuralist or materialist rereadings (see, for example, Kaplan 1988 ; Howard 1985 or Michaels 1987 , both cited under Philosophy, History, and Form ), nonetheless immensely useful and readable synthesis of key ideas.

Murphy, Brenda. American Realism and American Drama, 1880–1940 . New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

A treatment of realism in American theater, tracing the development of realist ideas about dramatic representation and their subsequent influence on American dramatists of the 20th century, including Eugene O’Neill, Elmer Rice, and others. Addresses the scant attention paid to the theater in the scholarship on realism.

Parrington, Vernon Louis. The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America, 1860–1920 . Vol. 3, Main Currents in American Thought . New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1930.

Though left incomplete at Parrington’s death, offers what would become the dominant view of realism and naturalism for much subsequent criticism. Sees these movements as antitheses of idealism represented by the Emersonian tradition, providing a needed corrective to “shoddy romanticism” that threatened to consume the American literary tradition.

Pizer, Donald. Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature . Rev. ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

Revision of essential 1966 work, offering a comprehensive formal theory of realism and naturalism, linked by adherence to an ethical idealism that informs, restructures, and complicates the diversity of themes and topics, the often bleak subject matter, and the presence of a deterministic worldview. Collects a variety of essays that construct a coherent portrait of the movements and their defining tensions.

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Realism in Literature & Literary Theory

Realism, as a theoretical term, posits that objects and phenomena exist independently of human perception and consciousness.

Realism in Literature & Literary Theory

Realism: Etymology /Term, Meanings and Concept

Table of Contents

The term “realism” originates from the Latin word “realis,” meaning “real.” In philosophy and the arts, realism denotes a movement or approach characterized by an emphasis on depicting things as they are, without idealization or distortion.

  • Meaning in Philosophy : In philosophy, realism posits that objects exist independently of the mind and are perceivable through sensory experience. This stands in contrast to idealism, which asserts that reality is fundamentally mental or constructed by the mind.
  • Meaning in Literature and Art : In literature and art, realism refers to a style or movement that seeks to represent reality faithfully, often focusing on everyday life and ordinary people. Realist works typically eschew romanticism and idealization in favor of portraying the world as it is, with all its complexities and imperfections.
  • Epistemological Realism : This philosophical perspective asserts that truth exists independently of human perception or belief, and that knowledge can accurately represent objective reality. Epistemological realism is often contrasted with various forms of skepticism and anti-realism.
  • Political Realism : In the realm of politics, realism is a school of thought that emphasizes practical considerations and power dynamics in international relations. Political realists prioritize national interests, security, and stability over ideological or moral concerns, advocating for a pragmatic approach to diplomacy and statecraft.

Realism: Definition of a Theoretical Term

Realism, as a theoretical term, posits that objects and phenomena exist independently of human perception and consciousness. It asserts that there is an objective reality that exists regardless of whether or not it is perceived by humans. Realism holds that truth and knowledge are rooted in this external reality, which can be apprehended through empirical observation and rational inquiry.

Realism: Theorists, Works and Arguments

Realism: major characteristics.

  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert: This novel provides a detailed portrayal of provincial life in France, focusing on the daily struggles and aspirations of its characters.
  • Middlemarch by George Eliot: Eliot’s novel meticulously describes the social, political, and economic realities of provincial England in the 19th century.
  • Germinal by Émile Zola: Zola’s novel offers a gritty portrayal of life in a mining community in France, addressing the harsh conditions faced by workers during the industrial revolution.
  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy: Tolstoy’s novel delves deeply into the psychological complexities of its characters, examining their inner conflicts and desires.
  • The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane: Crane’s novel presents a starkly realistic portrayal of war, devoid of romanticized heroism or glory.
  • The Jungle by Upton Sinclair: Sinclair’s novel exposes the harsh realities of the meatpacking industry in Chicago, highlighting the exploitation of workers and the unsanitary conditions of the industry.

Realism: Relevance in Literary Theories

Realism: application in critiques.

  • Realism in Social Commentary: Steinbeck’s portrayal of the struggles of the Joad family during the Great Depression is a powerful critique of socio-economic conditions in America. Through vivid descriptions of poverty, displacement, and exploitation, Steinbeck captures the harsh realities faced by migrant workers.
  • Realism in Language and Dialogue : The use of colloquial language and dialects in the dialogue enhances the authenticity of the characters and their experiences. Steinbeck’s writing style mirrors the speech patterns of the working-class, adding depth to the realism of the narrative.
  • Realism in Symbolism : The recurring motifs of dust, decay, and resilience symbolize the broader socio-economic challenges faced by the characters. These symbols anchor the narrative in the reality of the Dust Bowl era and its impact on ordinary people.
  • Realism in Characterization: Lee’s portrayal of characters like Atticus Finch and Scout reflects the complexities of human nature and the dynamics of race and class in the American South during the 1930s. The characters feel authentic and multi-dimensional, contributing to the realism of the narrative.
  • Realism in Social Commentary: The novel explores themes of racial injustice, moral growth, and societal norms, offering a candid depiction of the deep-seated prejudices and inequalities prevalent in the Southern United States. Lee’s unflinching portrayal of these issues adds weight to her critique of society.
  • Realism in Narrative Voice : The use of Scout Finch as the narrator provides a child’s perspective on the adult world, offering insights into societal injustices and moral complexities through the innocent lens of a young girl. This narrative choice adds layers of authenticity and realism to the story.
  • Realism in Cultural Context: Dangarembga’s novel provides a candid portrayal of post-colonial Zimbabwe, exploring themes of gender, race, and identity within the context of a changing society. The depiction of traditional Shona culture alongside Western influences adds depth and authenticity to the narrative.
  • Realism in Character Development: The protagonist , Tambu, undergoes a nuanced journey of self-discovery and resistance against patriarchal norms, reflecting the struggles faced by many African women in a rapidly evolving society. Dangarembga’s attention to Tambu’s internal conflicts and external challenges contributes to the realism of the story.
  • Realism in Language and Dialogue : The use of Zimbabwean English and indigenous languages in the dialogue enriches the authenticity of the characters and their cultural backgrounds. Dangarembga’s incorporation of local idioms and expressions adds layers of realism to the narrative, grounding it in its cultural context.

Realism: Relevant Terms

Realism: Suggested Readings

  • Eliot, George. Middlemarch . Penguin Classics, 2003.
  • Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary . Translated by Lydia Davis, Penguin Books, 2010.
  • Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle . Dover Publications, 2001.
  • Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage . Dover Publications, 1990.
  • Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina . Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Penguin Classics, 2004.
  • Zola, Émile. Germinal . Translated by Peter Collier, Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince . Translated by George Bull, Penguin Classics, 2003.
  • Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan . Edited by Richard Tuck, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Morgenthau, Hans. Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace . Knopf, 1948.
  • Carr, E.H. The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations . Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

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17 Realism Introduction

Amy Berke; Jordan Cofer; and Doug Davis

After the Civil War and toward the end of the nineteenth century, America experienced significant change. With the closing of the Western frontier and increasing urbanization and industrialization , and with the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad and the advent of new communication technologies such as the telegraph, America began to emerge as a more unified nation as it moved into the Industrial Age . As immigration from both Europe and Asia peaked during the last half of the nineteenth century, immigrants provided cheap labor to rising urban centers in the Northeast and eventually in the Midwest. There was a subsequent rise in the middle class for the first time in America, as the economic landscape of the country began to change. The country’s social, political, and cultural landscape began to change as well. Women argued for the right to vote, to own property, and to earn their own living, and, as African-Americans began to rise to social and political prominence, they called for social equality and the right to vote as well. Workers in factories and businesses began to lobby for better working conditions, organizing to create unions. Free public schools opened throughout the nation, and, by the turn of the century, the majority of children in the United States attended school. Throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century, activists and reformers worked to battle injustice and social ills. Within this heady mix of political, economic, social, and cultural change, American writers began to look more to contemporary society and social issues for their writing material, rather than to the distant or fictional past.

The first members of the new generation of writers sought to create a new American literature, one that distinctly reflected American life and values and did not mimic British literary customs. At the same time, these writers turned to the past, toward writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and James Fenimore Cooper, and reacted against their predecessors’ allegiance to the Romantic style of writing which favored the ideal over the real representation of life in fiction. William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, and Henry James wrote prolifically about the Realistic method, where writers created characters and plot based on average people experiencing the common concerns of everyday life, and they also produced their own literary masterpieces using this style.

All writers in the Realistic mode shared a commitment to referential narrative. Their readers expected to meet characters that resembled ordinary people, often of the middle class, living in ordinary circumstances, who experienced plausible real-life struggles and who often, as in life, were unable to find resolution to their conflicts. Realists developed these characters by using ordinary speech in dialogue, commensurate to the character’s social class. Often in Realistic stories, characterization and plot became intertwined, as the plot was formed from the exploration of a character working through or reacting to a particular issue or struggle. In other words, character often drove the plot of the story. Characters in Realistic fiction were three-dimensional, and their inner lives were often revealed through an objective, omniscient narrator.

Realists set their fiction in places that actually existed, and they were interested in recent or contemporary life, not in history or legend. Setting in Realistic fiction was important but was not limited to a particular place or region. Realists believed in the accuracy of detail, and, for them, accuracy helped build the “truth” conveyed in the work. The implied assumption for these writers is that “reality” is verifiable, is separate from human perception of it, and can be agreed upon collectively. Finally, Realistic writers believed that the function of the author is to show, not simply tell. The story should be allowed to tell itself with a decided lack of authorial intrusion. Realistic writers attempted to avoid sentimentality or any kind of forced or heavy-handed emotional appeal. The three most prominent theorists and practitioners of American Literary Realism are Mark Twain, often called the comic Realist; William Dean Howells, often termed the social Realist; and Henry James, often characterized as the psychological Realist.

Two earlier literary styles contributed to the emergence of Realism: Local Color and Regionalism . These two sub-movements cannot be completely separated from one another or from Realism itself, since all three styles have intersecting points. However, there are distinct features of each style that bear comparison.

Local Color (1865-1885)

After the Civil War, as the country became more unified, regions of the country that were previously “closed” politically or isolated geographically became interesting to the populace at large. Readers craved stories about eccentric, peculiar characters living in isolated locales. Local Color writing therefore involves a detailed setting forth of the characteristics of a particular locality, enabling the reader to “see” the setting. The writer typically is concerned with habits, customs, religious practices, dress, fashion, favorite foods, language, dialect, common expressions, peculiarities, and surrounding flora and fauna of a particular locale. Local Color pieces were sometimes told from the perspective of an outsider (such as travelers or journalists) looking into a particular rural, isolated locale that had been generally closed off from the contemporary world. In some stories, the local inhabitants would examine their own environments, nostalgically trying to preserve in writing the “ways things were” in the “good old days.” The Local Color story often involved a worldly “stranger” coming into a rather closed off locale populated with common folk. From there the story took a variety of turns, but often the stranger, who believed he was superior to the country bumpkins, was fooled or tricked in some way. Nostalgia and sentimentality, and even elements of the Romantic style of the earlier part of the century, may infuse a Local Color story. Often, the story is humorous, with a local trickster figure outwitting the more urbane outsider or interloper. In Local Color stories about the Old South, for example, nostalgia for a bygone era may be prevalent. The “plantation myth” popularized by Thomas Nelson Page, for instance, might offer a highly filtered and altered view of plantation life as idyllic, for both master and slave. Local Color stories about the West, such as Mark Twain’s “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” might offer raucous stories with stock characters of gamblers or miners who outwit the interloper from the city, who flaunts his intellectual superiority over the locals. An early African-American writer, Charles Chesnutt, used the Local Color style of writing to deconstruct the plantation myth by showing the innate dignity, intelligence, and power of slaves or former slaves who outwit the white racist landowners.

Local Color writing can be seen as a transitional type of writing that took American literature away from the Romantic style and more firmly into the Realistic style. The characters are more realistically drawn, with very human, sometimes ignoble, traits: they swear, speak in regional dialect, swat flies away from their faces, and make mistakes; they are both comic and pitiable. The setting is realistically drawn as well: a real-life location, with accurate depictions of setting, people, and local customs. Local Color writing, however, does not reach the more stylistically and thematically complicated dimensions of Realistic writing. Local Color works tend to be somewhat sentimental stories with happy endings or at least endings where good prevails over evil. Characters are often flat or two-dimensional who are either good or bad. Outlandish and improbable events often happen during the course of the story, and characters sometimes undergo dramatic and unbelievable changes in characterization. Local Color did, however, begin a trend in American literature that allowed for a more authentic American style and storyline about characters who speak like Americans, not the British aristocracy, real-life American places, and more down-to-earth, recognizably human characters.

Regionalism (1875-1895)

Regionalism can be seen as a more sophisticated form of Local Color, with the author using one main character (the protagonist) to offer a specific point of view in the story. Regionalist writers often employ Local Color elements in their fiction. After all, they are concerned with the characteristics of a particular locale or region. However, regionalist writers tell the story empathetically, from the protagonist’s perspective. That is, the Regional writer attempts to render a convincing surface of a particular time and place, but investigates the psychological character traits from a more universal perspective. Characters tend to be more three-dimensional and the plot less formulaic or predictable. Often what prevents Regional writers from squarely falling into the category of “Realist” is their tendency toward nostalgia, sentimentality, authorial intrusion, or a rather contrived or happy ending.

In Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron,” for example, the story has a number of features of Local Color stories: characters speak in a New England dialect, the landscape is described in detail, the customs and rituals of farming class families are described, and an outsider—the young male ornithologist—comes to this secluded region with a sense of superiority and is thwarted in his endeavors by young Sylvy who refuses to give up the secret location of the heron. However, the story is told from the perspective of Sylvy, and readers gain insight into her inner conflict as she attempts to make a difficult decision. We gain awareness of Sylvy’s complexity as a character, a young girl who is faced with making an adult decision, a choice that will force her to grow up and face the world from a more mature stance. Jewett does, at times, allow the narrator to intrude in order to encourage readers to feel sympathy for Sylvy. Therefore, the story does not exhibit the narrative objectivity of a Realistic story.

Regionalism has often been used as a term to describe many works by women writers during the late nineteenth century; however, it is a term which, unfortunately, has confined these women writers’ contribution to American literature to a particular style. Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman, for example, certainly wrote about the New England region, but their larger focus was on ordinary women in domestic spaces who seek self-agency in a male-dominated culture. Kate Chopin set most of her works among the Creole and Acadian social classes of the Louisiana Bayou region, yet the larger themes of her works offer examinations of women who long for passionate and personal fulfillment and for the ability to live authentic, self-directed lives. Like the established theorists of Realism—Howells, Twain, and James—women writers of the time, including Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Ellen Glasgow, who are generally not thought of as Regional writers, produced work which often defied strict labeling and which contributed to the beginning of a feminist tradition in American literature. While literary labels help frame the style and method of stories written in the late nineteenth century, most literary works—especially those that have withstood the test of time—defy reductionism.

In America, industrialization can be seen as the process by which advances in technology in the nineteenth century led to the shift from farm production to manufacturing production.

In America, the rise of industry in the mid to late nineteenth century and beyond caused a shift in America from a primarily agrarian economy to an industrial economy.

America saw a steep rise in immigration in the nineteenth century, as people from other countries moved to America for a variety of personal and political reasons but primarily to find work in America’s growing industries, including the building of the transcontinental railroad.

Local color is a type of writing that became popular after the American Civil War. It is a sub-movement of writing that generally preceded and influenced the rise of Realism in American writing while it still retained some features of the Romanticism, the movement which preceded it. Local color writing focuses on the distinctive features of particular locale, including the customs, language, mannerisms, habits, and peculiarities of people and place, thereby predicting some aspects of the Realists’ writing style, which focused on accuracy and detail. However, in Local Color stories, the characters are often predictable character types rather than the complex characters offered by Realist writers. Additionally, Local Color stories often retain Romantic features of emotion (including sentimentality and nostalgia) and idealism (with endings that are neatly resolved). Examples include Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.

Regionalism is a type of writing that was practiced after the American Civil War. It is a sub-movement of writing that generally preceded and influenced the rise of Realism in American writing. Regionalism, like Local Color, employs a focus on the details associated with a particular place, but Regionalist stories often feature a more complex narrative structure, including the creation of a main protagonist who provides the perspective or point of view through which the plot of the story is told. Such a shift in the technique of narration aligns Regionalist writers more closely with Realist writers, who are known for their complex characters who exhibit psychological dimensionality. However, Regionalist stories, like Local Color stories, often retain Romantic features of emotion (including sentimentality and nostalgia) and idealism (with endings that are neatly resolved).

In Kate Chopin’s work, the French Creoles are of Spanish or French descent. They are typically white and are considered members of the upper class.

In Kate Chopin’s work, the Acadians (or ‘Cadians) were of French or French- Canadian descent. They may be depicted as having a mixed racial and ethnic heritage, and they do not have the wealth and status that the Creoles have.

The advocacy of equality between the sexes. In the United States, feminism can be defined as a series of social, cultural, economic, and political movements that emphasized and called for equality for women.

American Literatures After 1865 Copyright © by Amy Berke; Jordan Cofer; and Doug Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Literature

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Bernard Harrison currently holds an Emeritus Chair in Philosophy at the University of Utah. At the University of Sussex, where he taught from 1963 to 1992, he profited from the presence of a stellar group of colleagues in literary studies, including A. D. Nuttall, Stephen Medcalf, and Gabriel Josipovici. His interests include the interfaces between literature, moral philosophy, and the philosophy of language. His books include Fielding's Tom Jones: The Novelist as Moral Philosopher, Inconvenient Fictions: Literature and the Limits of Theory, and (with Patricia Hanna) Word and World: Practice and the Foundations of Language.

  • Published: 02 September 2009
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This article considers the relation between literature and philosophy during the period of realism. It explains that the notion of realism, in its development as a term of literary criticism, is in origin a genre concept and that discussions of realism in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary criticism and polemic rapidly acquire a moral, political, and philosophical dimensions. It suggests that all questions of literary form and technique fall to the will of the writer to determine. However, the article states, it does not follow that literature is a free field for play in the sense of frivolity because the connection between literature and reality does not run by way of the truth or falsity of statements, but by way of deeper linkages, internal to language, between the meanings of words and the practices that constitute human worlds and form the outlook and personalities of their inhabitants.

For words are wise men's counters, they do but reckon with them, but they are the money of fooles —Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
The soul looketh steadily forwards, creating a world before her, leaving worlds behind her. —Walt Whitman, The Over-Soul

The notion of realism, in its development as a term of literary criticism, is in origin a genre concept. “Realistic” writing is, in that sense, essentially writing that deals with “low” rather than “high” topics, with the doings of ordinary people leading everyday lives, rather than with the acts of gods, princes, or nobles; and deals with them in a “low” style, a style close to the plain language of daily life, and remote from the “high,” poetic diction considered appropriate to the latter. Erich Auerbach's great book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1957) deals exhaustively, through a multitude of examples, with the gradual emergence of such concerns and styles of writing in literature from late antiquity onward.

Discussions of realism in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary criticism and polemic, however, rapidly acquire a moral and political dimension and, in consequence, a philosophical one. Realism in literature, for one thing, becomes associated with claims to “truth,” or at least to the truthful “representation of reality.” Edmond and Jules Goncourt, in the preface to their 1864 novel Germinie Lacerteux , a preface that constitutes inter alia a kind of manifesto on behalf of the French literary realism coming to birth in the period, assert bluntly, “Le public aime les romans faux: ce roman est un roman vrai” [“the public likes false novels: this novel is a true one”] (as cited in Auerbach 1957 : 435). A later passage in the preface both forges and explains the connection between an older realism, defined by “low” characters and style, and a newer realism, in France that of Émile Zola and Guy de Maupassant, for example, which adds to these purely stylistic concerns those of social justice and the revelation of otherwise hidden depths in society:

Vivant au XIXe siècle, dans un temps de suffrage universel, de democratie, de libéralisme, nous nous sommes demandés si ce qu'on appelle “les basses classes” n'avait pas droit au Roman; si ce monde sous un monde, le peuple, devait rester sous le coup de l'interdit littéraire et les dedains d'auteurs, qui ont fait jusqu'ici le silence sur l’âme et le coeur qu'il peut avoir.

[Living in the nineteenth century, in a time of universal suffrage, of democracy, of liberalism, we asked ourselves if what is called “the lower classes” did not have a right to the Novel; if that world beneath a world, the people, must remain under the literary interdict and the disdain of authors who have so far kept silent upon the soul and the heart which it may have.] (1957: 435)

From this point, the line of descent is unbroken to twentieth-century theorists of social realism such as György Lukács ( 1963 ) and to a host of writers who consider themselves to be in some sense informing their readers upon, or making present to them, real aspects of their lives and times that would otherwise remain unnoticed and unreflected upon.

Realism in this sense sets up, as realism considered purely as a genre concept does not, one of those linkages, or tensions, between literature and philosophy that it is the business of this volume to investigate. It opens the door, in other words, to a question of one of the standard kinds that professionally occupy philosophers: what could possibly justify claims of this sort? If literature is to be, in some sense, an exploration, an investigation, of reality, then some relationship must, presumably, subsist between it and reality. What relationship could that be? As we shall see, pursuing this question very soon involves a second, and perhaps more profound, set of inquiries: Why is literature valuable? Is its value intrinsic or extrinsic to it? To what extent does its value derive from its relationship to reality?

Two answers to the first question, of the precise nature of the presumed relationship between literature and reality, have long been available. According to the first, the relationship is a mimetic or representative one, and the value of literature consists in its power to represent to its readers, to bring before them, aspects of human life of which they would otherwise remain ignorant. According to the second, the relationship in question is simply truth . Great works of literature, on this view, are of value because they “embody” or “express” important general truths about human life and society. Both answers are, in their origins, comparatively ancient. The first, that the business of literature, as of all art, is mimesis derives ultimately from Plato. The best recent defense in English of that claim is to be found in A. D. Nuttall's A New Mimesis (1983). It swims against the prevailing current of thought, mainly of French origin, associated with the movement known as critical and cultural theory. The view dominant within critical and cultural theory is that the main social function of literature is the dissemination of ideologies—generally reactionary ones, whose function is to sustain one ruling group or another in power. The claim of literature to have any commerce with reality is baseless, since its function is precisely to disseminate an illusory representation of reality. As the following passage of Roland Barthes in “L'Effet du Réel” (1968) affirms, we are dealing, in the case of the purportedly “realistic” details that authors insert in their work, not with reality, but merely with verisimilitude:

[D]ans le moment même ou ces détails sont réputés dénoter directement le réel, its ne font rien d'autre, sans le dire, que le signifier; le barométre de Flaubert, la petite porte de Michelet ne disent finalement rien d'autre que ceci: “nous sommes le réel.”

[T]hey do not say so, but at the very moment at which these details reputedly directly denote reality, they in fact merely signify it; Flaubert's barometer, Michelet's little door, have in the end only this to say: “we are reality.”] (cited in Nuttall 1983 : 56)

The second general claim often advanced in favor of realism, that literature conveys valuable general truths, has found a great many modern adherents among writers and literary critics of the past two centuries, though fewer among philosophers. It emerged at least as long ago as the seventeenth century and was already familiar when, in the following century, Samuel Johnson, in Rasselas , famously put a version of it in the mouth of the poet Imlac:

“This business of a poet,” said Imlac, “is to examine, not the individual, but the species; to remark general properties and large appearances. He does not number the streaks of the tulip, or describe the different shades in the verdure of the forest … He must divest himself of the prejudices of his age and country …; he must disregard present laws and opinions, and rise to general and transcendental truths, which will always be the same ” (1909: 48, emphasis original)

Many more recent forms and versions of it are described and critically evaluated in Peter Lamarque and Stein Haugom Olsen's book Truth, Fiction, and Literature (1994), which offers an invaluable resource for this branch of the topic. But once again, any such view has long been under threat from philosophers and literary theorists generally. Lamarque and Olsen deploy arguments that leave one deeply skeptical of the idea that any version of realism so founded can be made to stand up to rational scrutiny. They opt themselves for what they call a “no truth” theory of the functions and value of literature, which I address further below.

It is nevertheless observable, despite the force of the academic arguments brought against it, that the conviction that great literature has cognitive gains to offer its readers, that it sheds light on “reality” in some sense of that complex and abused term, and that it does so both by “holding up a mirror to nature” and by opening access to otherwise inaccessible insights that it is hard to avoid describing as “truths,” retains a far greater hold at present over the minds of intelligent, educated general readers than it does over those of philosophers, literary theorists, and other professionally interested parties. It is open to us, as theorists, to conclude that those outside our charmed circle who cling to such views are simply poor deluded souls swept along in the current of their already outmoded times—times, indeed, that have mysteriously so far failed, as times sometimes will, to yield to the persuasions of currently fashionable versions of historicism, but no doubt will so yield in time. But, on the other hand, it may equally be the case that the deluded masses see something we do not. It is this second possibility that I explore here.

It is best to begin by examining some of the main arguments against the idea that literature has, or could have, any connection with reality. The most obvious, and potent, perhaps, spring from the evident fact that works of literature are created by an author who performs his or her creative task simply by arranging words on a page at the behest of his or her free choice. It can be objected that the production of literary works, at least of those realistic or naturalistic in intention, must to some degree be constrained by the nature of reality. But to this it can be retorted, as in Barthes passage quoted above, that such constraint as is exerted by reality on the creation of the literary text is brought to bear on it, not by the need to achieve truth, but merely by the need to secure verisimilitude : to produce, in other words, not so much a faithful depiction of reality as a work likely to be accepted by a majority of its readers as a faithful depiction of reality.

In modern philosophy, that simple point has been greatly refined and sharpened, like much else in philosophy, by the work of Gottlob Frege. Frege held that a statement cannot be assigned a truth-value unless the names that enter into its composition can be assigned referents, or Bedeutungen . And the names that occur in works of fiction, “Odysseus,” for instance, lack Bedeutungen precisely because the statements in which they occur—to take Frege's best-known example, “Odysseus was set ashore at Ithaca while fast asleep” (Geach and Black 1952 : 62)—are fictional. What follows is not that the statements that figure in works of fiction are false, but something rather worse, that these statements are, as it were, dummy statements, incapable of being assigned any truth-value, either true or false.

A further implication of Frege's point is that, along with the notions of truth and falsity, the notions of confirmation and disconfirmation find no foothold in fictional discourse. It would seem to follow that the entire apparatus of rational scrutiny, the kind of scrutiny to which we subject a statement with a view to determining its adequacy as a description of reality (or “the world,” or “the way things stand”), is automatically disabled the moment we pick up a work of literature.

The effect of these arguments is severely to weaken, if not entirely to invalidate, any claim to the effect that literary works might embody any sort of useful or enlightening reflection on the real world, as distinct from the “imagined worlds” that spring from the freedom enjoyed by authors of literary fiction to set, at will, one word after another on a blank sheet of paper. Their tendency is to reserve any actual commerce with reality to putatively factual discourse—the discourse of the sciences, or history. What role does this leave to literature? Plato, on the usual interpretation, at least, credits art with offering us a vision of reality, even if one as inferior to that offered by sensory experience as the latter is inferior to the apprehension of the eternal Forms offered by Reason. The verdict of the empiricist tradition—even less flattering to the poet than Plato's—has tended to be that the business of literature, as indeed of all art, is merely play.

Thomas Hobbes stands at the root of this Renaissance turn in the philosophical critique of literature. He distinguishes four uses of speech:

First, to Register, what by cogitation, we find to be the cause of any thing, present or past; and what we find things present or past may produce, or effect … Secondly, to shew to others that knowledge which we have attained, which is, to Counsell, and Teach one another. Thirdly, to make known to others our wills and purposes, that we may have the mutuall help of one another. Fourthly, to please and delight our selves, and others, by playing with our words, for pleasure or ornament, innocently. (1997: 34:)

Literature, presumably, falls for Hobbes into the fourth category, of “playing with words”: an innocent form of play, perhaps, but as Hobbes (followed later by Locke, and still later by the entire tradition of critical and cultural theory) at once goes on to say, one instinct with all the potential power of subjectively generated illusion to mislead and, in so doing, to alienate us from the sad actuality that we in fact inhabit.

The power of these arguments, issuing as they do from various philosophical traditions, some frankly antiliterary in character, might lead one to suppose that the main opposition to the idea that literature possesses the power to illuminate reality comes from outside literary studies. That would be a mistake. The idea that literature “holds up a mirror to humanity” and its affairs in any sense analogous to that in which a good geological map of the southwestern United States, say, might be said to “hold up a mirror” to the geological history of that region, comes under critical pressure also from arguments that, given that they question the ability of any such story to offer an adequate account of the value of great literature, might be taken to come from within the tradition of literary studies, that is to say, the tradition of reading and valuing great literature as a serious contribution to our culture.

A striking articulation of this problem has recently been provided by R. M. J. Dammann (forthcoming). Consider, to change genres for a moment, a painting by George Stubbs of a racehorse, Whistlejacket, let's say, and its subject, that very horse. Suppose we say that the painting's value as a work of art lies in the relationship of representation between painting and horse. On the one hand, we seem to have replaced one object, the work of art, with two objects, a horse, and some slabs of pigment adhering to a piece of canvas. Still worse, neither of these objects appears to possess any intrinsic aesthetic interest or value. Similarly, suppose we say that the literary value of Othello lies in part in the relationship of representation subsisting between the text of the play and a Venetian general of Moorish extraction. Which general, precisely? Shakespeare's Othello? Or some Othello counterpart presumed to occupy, like Stubbs's subject Whistlejacket, a place among the furniture of nature? If we say the second of these things we replace the single aesthetic object, the text, with two objects: on the one hand, a man; on the other, some words. Now we face again the problem that we faced with the dissolution of Stubbs's painting into a real horse, Whistlejacket, and some equally real patches of oil paint smeared on canvas: neither the words nor the man seem in themselves of any aesthetic interest. But if we take the first course, of saying that the general whose tragedy is represented in Othello is Shakespeare's Othello, then talking of representation has brought us no nearer, it seems, to connecting art and reality, since Shakespeare's Othello is a denizen, not of the (one) real world, but of the “world” of Shakespeare's play.

A closely related point to this one of Dammann's is developed by John Gibson. To the extent that we value literature for what it can teach us about the world, Gibson argues, we move the locus of literary value from the literary to the extraliterary:

We may of course take what we find in a literary text and ask whether it holds true in the real world, whether, if we apply it there, we can acquire a better understanding of worldly affairs. But as soon as we have done this we have left aside literary appreciation and stepped into something more like social science: we are now investigating the world and not the literary work. These questions may be infinitely important to us, …; but they ultimately say nothing about how we experience literary works, and thus they will fail to help us understand the ways in which we can read the literary work of art. (2004: 113)

A further point, common to both Dammann and Gibson, is that literary appreciation, the appreciation of the nature and value of great literature, is exercised entirely about the language of the work. Literature is after all, an art made , wholly and solely, out of language ; an art whose works are created merely by arranging words on a page. We seem, as a culture, to experience difficulty with this thought. A particularly fatuous index of the kind of difficulty we feel has lately been provided by the BBC, which put on a series of “modern versions of Shakespeare plays” that kept the plots and the names of the characters but dropped Shakespeare's language. The thought here—the thought that justifies continuing, absurdly, to call these amusing travesties versions of Shakespeare—seems to be that Shakespeare's language cannot be all his work amounts to, cannot be what constitutes his work, because language is—well, just language. And how can language , the mere deployment of words, considered just in itself, either be considered great —as distinct from, say, resonant, or clever—or for that matter reveal to us anything about anything?

One of the major merits of Lamarque and Olsen's treatment of the topic, also, is their insistence that both literary criticism and our apprehension of the value of literature are exercised about the language, the words, of the literary text, and not about things external to the text to which those words might give access. And I think, moreover, that they are right to see that fact as a further obstacle in the path of those who wish to represent the value of literature as residing in its power either to formulate truths or to “hold up a mirror” to human nature. In any statement that purports to communicate a truth or, to put it more generally, to inform us concerning how things stand in the real world, the language in which it is couched is of value only from the standpoint of communicative efficiency. A given message may be of very great value in that it informs those who read it, let's say, of the sinking of the Titanic . But the value of its language is relative solely to the efficiency with which it serves to communicate that fact. It would be absurd, in such a case, to suggest that intrinsic value resided in the choice of one form of words over another, or that the message would lose its value as a message if any word in it were to be altered. But those are precisely the sorts of things we do say about works of literature. And, since what makes quality of language no more than instrumentally relevant to truth-stating discourse is precisely the relationship in which truth-stating discourse stands to the representation of reality, this does rather suggest that literature lacks, precisely, that—or any analogous—relationship to reality, at least when reality is taken, as it appears we must take it, as something existing independently of, and externally to, language.

It is open to question, though, whether Lamarque and Olsen do not pay too heavy a price for the centrality of this—undoubtedly, at least up to a point, sound—insight to the development of their argument. Forcing too close an analogy between literature and informative, fact-stating discourse undoubtedly makes it difficult, for the reasons just given, to understand why we should ascribe intrinsic value to a literary work, and do so, moreover, in virtue of the quality of its language. It has to be said, however, that to deny literature any relationship whatsoever with reality, as Lamarque and Olsen's “no truth” account does, makes that even more difficult to understand. And that is the direction in which their argument now moves.

Lamarque and Olsen grant, in their chapter “The Mimetic Aspect of Literature,” that literature has such an aspect. It has an aspect of “aboutness.” And what it is “about” are themes . Thus (their example), the theme of Euripides’ Hippolytus is human weakness in the face of forces beyond our control, coupled with the lack of divine purpose. Euripides’ treatment of this theme is built around a number of thematic concepts, “through which the different features of the play are apprehended and related to each other: freedom, determinism, responsibility, weakness of will continence/incontinence, sympathy, guilt, human suffering, divine order, purity, pollution, forgiveness, charity, reconciliation” (1994: 401–2).

The thematic concepts that articulate a work of literature are, however, according to Lamarque and Olsen, “by themselves, vacuous. They cannot be separated from the way they are ‘anatomised’ in literature and other cultural discourses” (1994: 403). It becomes clear in context that a rather strong claim is being floated here, namely, that outside “cultural discourses,” including those of literature, such concepts find no application , find, as Wittgenstein would say, no foothold . Such concepts as “divine order,” “purity,” “forgiveness,” “charity,” say Lamarque and Olsen,

have received a significance over and above that which they have in everyday use through the role which they play in religious belief, ritual and in theological discourse … To point this out is not to suggest that perennial thematic concepts receive their definition in philosophical discourse or through the role they play in religious practice and are then borrowed by the reader of literature who wants to appreciate a work of art. On the contrary, these perennial thematic concepts achieve the importance they have within the culture, and receive their content, both from the role they play in philosophical discourse and religious practice, on the one hand, and, on the other, from the role they play in literary appreciation. (407, emphasis added)

In short, the thematic concepts that supply the content of literature not only are not, but also could not be made, the vehicle of any body of insights concerning the real world, because they have no application to anything “real” in the sense of external to literature and other “cultural practices” loosely associated with literature.

As radical a divorce as this between the concerns of literature and those of everyday life is, clearly, required of Lamarque and Olsen by the contention—central to their “no truth” account of literature—that “whatever the purpose of fiction and literature may be, it is not ‘truth-telling’ in any straightforward sense” (1994: 440). The difficulty it involves them in, however, becomes evident the moment we ask why literary activity, so understood, should be considered valuable. Why should we care about the allegedly “mortal” questions [Thomas Nagel's phrase, borrowed by Lamarque and Olsen] that provide the themes of great literature, or waste time worrying about the “thematic concepts” in terms of which such questions pose themselves, if the concepts in question “receive their content” only from the role they play in literature (and a few other, equally rarefied, “cultural practices”) and otherwise have no bearing on the prosaic fabric of life as it is actually lived outside the covers of books?

It can come as no surprise that Lamarque and Olsen have no answer to this question, except to say, in the penultimate sentences of their book: “These are simply things we care about and always seem to have cared about. And this is where the argument stops” (1994: 456).

It is time for a new start. Let us return to the simple thought that lies somewhere near the root of the philosophical critique, at least in its Renaissance and modern forms: that since authors create literary works simply by arranging words on a page at their own sweet wills, their works cannot teach us anything about reality. Why not?

The reason cannot be that reality is external to the mind of the writer, for that divorce plainly cannot, and does not, prevent the reality of things from being adequately captured in plain, descriptive prose. The problem is rather that reality is, or is held to be, in every sense, external to language . That thought is implicit in Hobbes's typically pregnant aphorism, “For words are wise men's counters, they do but reckon with them, but they are the money of fooles” (1997: 37). The gist of that remark is that words have no meaning that is not derived from correspondence with some item or aspect of extralinguistic reality. It follows that words can, by their arrangement into sentences, compose statements capable of capturing reality, only if their arrangement is dictated by reality , not if it is dictated by the will of the author. Truthful discourse is discourse transcribed from nature. To abandon the hard work of transcription from nature, and instead to arrange what are, after all, so used, mere “counters,” into sentences at will is therefore merely, as Hobbes says, to play with words, like a child, “for pleasure and ornament, innocently” (1997: 34).

On such a view of language, language has no grip on, no commerce with, reality, internal to itself. Its commerce with reality is a purely external commerce, conducted via the conventional association of basic terms or sentences with elements of the world; in recent philosophy, for example, Bertrand Russell's individuals, universals, and relations, or W. V. O. Quine's collections of “stimuli.”

Is that true? Has language really no inward, internal, commerce with reality? A very powerful and popular argument against saying that it has any such thing is that such talk must lead immediately to linguistic idealism, the thesis that the way we choose to speak has the power to create the reality of which we speak. Taking that route appears to sever all connection between the way we talk and the way things are. Nothing created more animus against the late Jacques Derrida, among English-speaking philosophers, than the latter's remark Il n'y a pas d'horstexte , interpreted, at least in the anglophone philosophical world, as conveying the proposition that there is no such thing as an extralinguistic world against which to measure the success of our attempts to convey its nature in language. Whether or not such an interpretation is fair to Derrida (see Harrison 1985 , 1991 : 123–43), which is quite another matter, there can be no doubt that the position with which it saddles him is a deeply unattractive one. After all, the connection with reality that language seems most paradigmatically to possess, at least in the sciences, runs precisely by way of procedures that are, in an obvious sense, external to itself: measurement of, and experimentation on, the materially real. I would not wish to go down any path of argument that terminated in a denial of the possibility of that type of entirely external, relationship between language and reality. But is there any other path down which one can go, starting from the thought that language has, or might have, an internal relationship to reality, instead of, or possibly as well as, a merely external one?

I think there is. It is the path hacked out by Patricia Hanna and me in Word and World: Practice and the Foundations of Language (2004).

One of the central arguments of that book goes, in brief, like this. Frege taught us, among much else, that meaning in a natural language is primarily to be understood in terms of the notions of truth and falsity, and that the prime locus of meaning is, therefore, the statement—in linguistic terms, the sentence. A grasp of the concept of meaning in a natural language therefore requires a grasp of the concept of the assertoric or, to put it less tersely, of what it is for a linguistic expression to assert something , to be the vehicle of an assertoric content —to be, in other words, a suitable candidate for the ascription of the predicates “ … is true” and “ … is false.”

How is the concept of the assertoric to be acquired, or taught? There is, clearly, nothing assertoric to be encountered in the natural world. Assertoricity, if one may speak in that way, is a property not of lakes, trees, or mountains but of linguistic expressions. What it is for such an expression to be assertoric in character has thus to be specified, to be stipulated, if the notion is to get off the ground.

How is that to be done? To explain what it is for a linguistic expression to assert something, to possess assertoric content, is, presumably, to explain its relationship to the conditions that make it true or false. It is tempting to suppose that we might do this, for the statement S expressed by a given sentence å, by listing, first, some things or circumstances of which S might be truly asserted and, second, some of which it would be false to assert S. This would be a mistake. Someone who grasps what assertoric content is expressed by a sentence å is capable, in virtue of that grasp, to extend indefinitely both the list of things or circumstances of which it would be true to assert the corresponding statement S (call this the T-list) and the list of those of which it would be false to assert S (call this the F-list). From a finite number of items on either list, however, no continuation of the list can be confidently inferred. If I am shown, for example, a finite array of objects of which I am told only that the statement expressed by an English sentence å of the form “X is three inches long” is true of each and every one of them, then I am plainly in no position to add a new object to the array, since I have as yet no idea what assertoric content, that is to say, what statement, S, is expressed by å, and hence no means of knowing which of the multifarious similarities exhibited by the objects in the array are to be treated as relevant to the truth of S, and which are not. And similarly for any finite array of items presented as exemplifying the class of objects of which it would be false to assert the statement expressed by å.

Plainly, there is something that the learner still needs to grasp and does not: something that, if he were to grasp it, would allow him to extend either array with confidence. What could that be? Rather evidently, I suggest, what the learner needs, somehow, to grasp is that the statement expressed by a sentence of the form of å is a statement of spatial dimension , to be precise, of length . If he were to grasp that, he would see how the T-list and the F-list are related to one another. He would grasp that an object belongs in the T-list if its greatest linear dimension has a certain value, but is to be transferred from the T-list to the F-list if its greatest linear dimension has any other value. Grasping that, he would grasp how to set about extending either list in a manner consistent with the principles on which it was constituted in the first place.

But how is the learner to be brought to grasp that the sentence expressed by a sentence of the form of å is a statement of linear dimension? We have already seen that there is no way in which we could bring him to that understanding by showing him how to relate sentences of that form directly to classes of natural objects. The only other possibility is that we show him how sentences of that form are related to a certain human practice, namely, the practice of measuring . He needs to learn that measurement institutes a standardized system for comparing objects with one another. Our systems of linear measurement, I take it, are built up from the basic idea of taking a small, straight-edged object, M, and seeing how many end-over-end applications of that object it takes to span one edge of a larger straight-edged object, O. The practical utilities of this idea are many. An obvious initial one is that it offers a way of finding out whether a heavy object will fit into a given space, without actually having to move it. The small object M may now become standard in such operations: people in the Musing community begin to ask questions like, “How many M's long must a stone be to fit this space?” Then some unusually astute Muser sees that the business of ascertaining the answers to such questions would be easier if one were to take a rod and mark it out in divisions, each a single iteration of M in length, by applying the object M successively to the rod. “Here”—he says—“I have made an M-stick: use that.” As M-stick use spreads and acquires other practical uses—in the measurement of plots of land, say, people begin to need words for what they are doing in measuring. First, they give a name to the length of M: they call it, let's say, “an inch.” Then they introduce a word that describes the way in which the object M functioned, and continues to function, in their practice of linear measurement. They begin to say that M served, and serves, them as a modulus of measurement .

How is the learner helped, by being thus taught, in practice, what measuring is, and how to set about measuring? The problem he faced, remember, was that of discerning any relationship between the items composing the T-list and those composing the F-list. He needed, somehow, to grasp that the true and the false are not different things , but rather different aspects of the same thing, namely, an assertion . He needed to see that it is precisely the assertoric content of a statement which makes it both true of some things and false of others.

This is the difficulty that is resolved for the learner when, as Wittgenstein puts it, he sees, through learning the practice and the point of measurement, “the post at which we station” (1958: 14e) a sentence like “This is three inches long” relative to the practice. The practice gives him access to a procedure, measuring, by appeal to which he can himself determine whether a given item is to be placed in the T-series or the F-series. He thus sees what it is for the expression “This is three inches long” to be assertoric in form, to convey an assertion, for the essence of what it is to be an assertion is precisely that an assertion can be either true or false.

The moral of this story is, of course, that if meaning in natural languages is, as Frege thought, essentially connected with truth and falsity, and thus with the concept of the assertoric, then the meaning of an expression cannot be explained merely by correlating it with some item or aspect of the sensible world. Words are not, as Hobbes thought, merely “counters” by means of which we represent to ourselves the things, “out there” in the world, for which they have been conventionally assigned to stand. On the contrary, the meanings of words are determined internally to language—or better, perhaps, internally to practice . Think, for instance, of the ways in which the terms “inch” and “modulus” acquire their meanings in the context of the simple system of linear measurement just discussed. “Inch” is just the name we use for the distance between each mark and the next on the yardstick we make by marking up a rod using the object M. “Modulus” is just the name we give to any object, such as M, used in this sort of way. There is clearly no way, for reasons we have already adduced, in which the meanings of these terms could be explained by ostensively associating the terms with any element of the extralinguistic world. Talk of their meanings is equivalent to, simply amounts to, talk of their relationship to the practice of measurement—to the socially devised and maintained device, the language game, as Wittgenstein would say, in which they find a use.

Does that mean that, since such concepts as “measurement,” “modulus of measurement,” “length” are not simply markers for prelinguistically existing features of extralinguistic reality (“counters,” as Hobbes put it), there can be no possibility of using the corresponding words to frame sentences capable of expressing true statements—statements correctly informing us about how things stand in the extralinguistic world? Plainly not. The statement expressed by the sentence “This book measures six inches by nine inches,” uttered with reference to a particular book, manifestly admits either of being true or of being false, and which it happens to be can be easily determined by measuring the book. For it to be possible to use language to say how things stand, or fail to stand, in the extralinguistic world, it is indeed necessary that some relationship should subsist between language and the extralinguistic. But (1) the relationship in question need not necessarily run between elements of language (words, sentences, e.g.), on the one hand, and elements of “reality” (individuals, universals, relations, collections of “stimuli”), on the other. On the contrary, it may, and does, run by way of the relationship between practices and the natural circumstances in which their operations find a foothold, or to put it another way, with which those operations engage. And (2) it need not be identified with the relationship or relationships that determine the meanings of linguistic expressions. On our account, that job is done by the relationships subsisting between linguistic expressions and the practices in the context of which they find a use. What Hanna and I are suggesting in Word and World , in effect, is that we should cease identifying what serves to establish the meanings of linguistic expressions with what connects language in general with extralinguistic references existing apart from human practices. Without language, we would still, in a certain sense, “possess concepts.” But since, as alinguistic beings, we would be restricted, like animals, to sensual and bodily interaction with the world, such concepts as would remain accessible to us would be concepts only in the rather limited sense of “concept” exemplified by psychological experiments on “concept formation,” which in effect concern merely the ability of animals to respond differentially to recurrent patterns of stimulation. The complex interactions, on the one hand, between linguistic expressions and the practices—measurement, for instance—in terms of which we interrogate reality and, on the other, between the latter and the natural features of the world that determine difference of outcome for their operations, equip us with the linked notions of “truth,” “falsity,” and “assertion,” and thus with concepts in the full, language-presupposing, sense of the term , that is to say, notions that cannot be entertained without ramifying instantly into a fan of possibilities of sentential occurrence, because to grasp the possibility of using a concept (in the full, language-presupposing sense) in the framing of assertions is (again, in that, full, sense) just what it is to grasp, to possess, a concept.

The utility for present purposes of the possibility just outlined of thinking about meaning, and about the relationship of language to the extralinguistic, is that it gives us a way of crediting language with a semantic, as well as a syntactic, “interior.” The semantic interior of language, on the present view, is constituted by the multifarious interactions of linguistic expressions with the practices in terms of which we interrogate extralinguistic reality.

What sent us down this path, however, was the hope that we might discover some sense in which language might be said to have an internal, as well as an external, relationship to reality. And the argument, which might seem to have left us as far from that goal as ever, states, in effect, that the relationship between language and the extralinguistic runs not by way of the connection of elements of language (words, sentences) with anything simply given , independently of practices, but rather by way of the establishment, through the operation of the practices in relationship to which elements of language take on meaning, of binary sets of options between which reality can be forced, as it were, to determine a choice, and thus a distinction between the true and the false. If this is right, the connection between language and the extralinguistic runs by way of assertion. And that, it seems, leaves the poet, who as Sir Philip Sidney put it, “nothing affirmeth” (2004: 34) and the writer of fiction, who characteristically makes no assertions about anything outside the “world” of his fiction, still lacking a grip on anything worth calling reality.

But wait—there is one more level of complexity to come. So far, I have been arguing that the involvement of words in practices is necessary to establish the nature of the connection between what is affirmed and what is denied in asserting the truth (or the falsehood) of a given statement. If the argument stands, the involvement of words in practices is what gives us access to the linked notions of truth, falsity, and the assertoric. Seen from that point of view, the function of the internal machinery of language—the machinery constituted by linguistic expressions taken together with their functional modes of insertion into practices of one sort and another—is to make it possible for us to capture, in terms of the truth or falsity of propositions, the nature of a world—the natural world—which is indeed wholly external to language.

There is, however, a second way in which the creation of practices that are in part linguistic in nature bears on our relationship to reality. In the very act of creating the varied practices that found the possibility of propositionally formulated knowledge of the world external to language, we also constitute a second, nonnatural world: the human world , a world as real as the natural world—the world wholly external to language—but this time a world partly internal to language. Consider, once more, the practice of linear measurement, with its associated notions of “modulus,” “length,” “measuring rod,” and so on. For a society to have access to a commonly understood practice of that kind renders accessible possibilities of social organization, and with them, patterns of feeling, interest, and self-description, that are not accessible to a society without such a practice. It becomes possible to measure land and goods accurately, for instance, and to make exact comparisons of the sizes of fields, or pieces of cloth, say, for purposes of sale, exchange, or inheritance. Such practices very rapidly acquire a moral dimension. Accuracy in measurement very soon becomes one of the parameters of honesty. The merchant or trader who gives good measure is an honest man; one whose instruments of measurement have been in some way corrupted or falsified in his own interest, the opposite. Many preindustrial societies have reached the point of having market officials whose duty is to check the accuracy of measuring implements used in commerce: scales, weights, measuring vessels, measuring rods, and so on. It is easy, too, for the connection between accuracy in measurement and honesty to take on a wider moral relevance, so that people begin to think of the moral life itself as, crucially, a matter of observing limits, and of moral intelligence as accuracy in the measurement of the points at which the free exercise of personal choice ends and moral license begins. Out of these ways of thinking are born further practices, including law, that are essentially moral in character: at one and the same time ways of conducting life and also resulting patterns of feeling and response to the events of life, which come to surround our original, purely utilitarian practices of measurement. Such moral practices give rise, in turn, to habits of response and corresponding traits of character of the sort immemorially honored with the name of virtues. One such, comparatively little honored among us nowadays, is the practice of refusing, and the corresponding capacity to refuse, an unmeasured response to the invitations of sexuality. Another is the practice of refusing, and the capacity to refuse, an unmeasured response, not only to appetite, but also to such essentially unmeasured emotions as anger, including righteous anger. New collections of terms define themselves through their relationships to these practices, for example, “chastity,” temperance,” “a short fuse,” and “self-control.” To these we may add also, since virtues have a tendency to mutate into vices, and vice versa, as circumstances present one or another aspect of themselves, such expressions as “spontaneity,” “decisiveness,” “strait-laced,” and “cold-blooded.”

Now for several general points about this situation. A society for which measure is a central moral notion, governing a whole family of subordinate moral notions, is a certain sort of society in which certain rather specific sorts of character will predominate and certain rather specific sorts of tension and dilemma be felt and experienced. That the society in question is this way is, I take it, a reality . That it is a society of that specific type, in other words, conducted by persons of a certain corresponding range of characters and personality types, has as much right to be regarded as a real feature of the world, as part of the “furniture of reality,” as some equally salient natural fact, as that the rate of acceleration for a body in free fall near the surface of the earth is approximately 32 feet per second per second. The facts about how a given sort of society works, what possibilities of choice (“living options,” as William James would say [1954: 89]) it offers its members, and what sort of people they become through having been brought up to inhabit it, are not natural facts, in the sense that the workings of the law of gravity or the structure and physiology of the human body are natural facts. Rather, they are facts brought into being through the invention and adoption by human beings of certain specific practices. The society dominated by those practices inhabits, I want to say, a certain human world or, to give a new sense to a term that both Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty use in related, though different senses, a Lebenswelt .

The relationship in which language stands to the reality constituted by a Lebenswelt is, I want to say, different from the relationship in which it stands to the nonhuman, the natural world. The natural world is in no sense constituted by the practices, of linear measurement, for instance, through which we gain access to the possibility of describing it in propositional terms. A given human world, a Lebenswelt , however, is constituted by the very practices in connection with which a range of associated terms and conceptual distinctions take on meaning. In the case of the human world, or worlds, therefore, the reality of how things stand, and the possibilities we possess of saying how things stand, possess a common root in the practices constitutive of that reality. We have what we were looking for: a department of reality that, because the practices that constitute it constitute simultaneously —as it were, in the very act of constituting it—a specific, associated body of language, of terms with specific meanings, enshrining specific conceptual distinctions, actually does stand in internal relationship to language.

But how, in practice, does that help, if it does, when it comes to the question of how, if at all, literature can, at times, offer its readers cognitive gains?

It will be best, I think, to arrive at the general answer I want to give to that question by way of a specific and concrete example. Shakespeare's play Measure for Measure suggests itself in that role, not least because its language connects it with the kind of examples we have just been discussing. The plot of Measure for Measure is simple enough. Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, wishes to restrain the increasing sexual license of the city, whose strict laws against such license have not for some time been enforced. But he does not himself wish to enforce those laws, since having himself allowed them to lapse, he fears to be accused of tyranny if he now has people punished for conduct that he himself allowed to become acceptable. He therefore announces that he will make a long journey, and leaves as his deputy Angelo, a man with a reputation for rigid moral rectitude and sexual purity. In his absence, Claudio, a young gentleman, is arrested for getting with child his betrothed, but as yet unespoused, sweetheart Julia. Claudio is duly sentenced to death by Angelo, that being the penalty for fornication strictly prescribed by the laws of Vienna. Lucio, Claudio's brothel-haunting friend, approaches Claudio's sister Isabella, a postulant nun whose chastity is as renowned as Angelo's, to appeal to the latter for Claudio's life. Her appeal fails, at least on its own terms, but produces the unintended result that Angelo is suddenly seized with desire for her and offers to spare her brother's life if she will sleep with him. She is appalled and refuses. Fortunately, however, the Duke, who set these events in motion, has not left Vienna but has remained there, disguised as a friar, supposedly traveling with a papal commission. The Duke turns the tables on Angelo, by arranging for Angelo's former betrothed Marianna, who has been rejected by Angelo for lack of a dowry, to take the place of Isabella in the sexual encounter with Angelo that Isabella has arranged. Angelo, supposing himself to have slept with Isabella, nevertheless reneges on the deal by ordering Claudio's execution. This plan, too, is thwarted by the Duke, who finally reappears and reestablishes order.

In one sense, the plot, thus baldly summarized, is an operatic farrago. The characters, similarly, are pure invention. It would seem, then, that the play can tell us nothing about what we are ordinarily inclined to term “the real world”—nothing about the sociology or politics of Renaissance Europe, for example; nothing, either, about “human nature,” in the sense of the subject matter of psychology. It may be that the character of Angelo is a rather well-drawn instance of a certain type of anal-obsessive puritan, but even if that were so, it is difficult to see, following Dammann and Gibson, how Shakespeare's success in “representing” a certain sort of puritan character could be relevant to the literary value of the play. But in that case, what is relevant to the literary value of the play? Shakespeare scholars, echoed by several centuries’ worth of common readers, will reply with one great voice: Shakespeare's language! But what exactly is that answer worth? What, for a start, is one saying when one says that it is the language of the play that constitutes its value? Is one saying more than that Shakespeare has the gift of creating highly decorative, though entirely uninformative, skeins of words?

It depends what one means by “uninformative.” In one sense, indeed, Frege is not mocked. No intelligent reader or hearer of Measure for Measure has ever, I suppose, been seriously tempted to assess for truth any of the sentences that occur in the text. Rather, readers or auditors of the play assess what they read, or hear spoken, for meaning . If the meaning of a word could be identified, as so many philosophers have supposed, with some aspect or feature of the natural world, that is to say, of a domain of reality altogether external to language, then assessment for meaning would be a pointless proceeding, unless its object were simply to determine what, if anything, a given statement asserts concerning that domain. But I have argued that this is not a viable account of language and proposed an alternative, broadly Wittgensteinian one, according to which to attend to what is written or uttered from the point of view of its meaning is to attend to it from the point of view of the foothold that specific words and sentences find in practices, practices that in turn determine in part the shape of a human world, which in turn determines in part the sort of beings we, the inhabitants of that world, have become through living in it, and the kind of dilemmas we face in consequence. When language is used in the ordinary, assertoric way, it neither invites nor allows us to pay much regard to the constitution of the human world our practices have created for us, because the functions of the apparatus of assertion, truth, and falsity, even when what is at issue are statements—historical or sociological ones—for instance, concerning the workings of one or another human world, can be brought into play only insofar as the subject matter of the statements addressed can be considered independently of any intrinsic relationship in which that subject matter may, at some level, stand to language. Therefore, to bring before us the consequences, in terms of our situation, of the ways in which our practices have devised for us a specific kind of world, the human world, whose nature determines the scope and boundaries of what for us counts as a human life, a tradition of using language nonassertorically is required. That tradition is what we call literature. The poet “nothing affirmeth,” as Sidney observed, because if he were to affirm anything he would not be a poet; he would be a deviser of versified philosophy, like Lucretius, or of versified sermons, like the Victorian poet Martin Tupper. It is only by speaking nonassertorically that he can perform his proper function of showing , rather than asserting, what the founding practices of the particular human world that we and he inhabit, have made, and make, of us, its inhabitants.

The title of Measure for Measure announces the central theme of the play: the balancing of moral debts. The words invoke not only the prosaic practices of linear and volumetric measurement and their uses in commerce, in which the various meanings of the term “measure” originates, but also the extension of that term into the description of morals: “measured response,” “measured words,” “just—or fair—measure” for instance. The play of meanings here equally immediately invokes the opposite of measure, the unmeasured, that which presses continually against socially contrived boundaries, in the present case, sexual appetite. What the play does, in effect, is explore a range of different responses to this conflict. It does so through the creation of characters. The characters of the play have, clearly, no reference outside the play. Shakespeare is plainly not concerned to offer us a “portrait” of a typical Viennese gentleman of the period, in the way that an Edwardian novelist like Arnold Bennett was concerned to offer his readers “portraits” of typical inhabitants of the Five Towns in, say, 1905. Shakespeare's characters are no more than the situation assigned to them by the plot plus the words Shakespeare puts in their mouths. Nevertheless, as a very long tradition of response, emanating from scholars and common readers alike, assures us, they “live,” they are “real.” What people who respond in that way are responding to , I want to suggest, is the manner in which the words Shakespeare gives his characters invoke features of a human world we share with them, which link our situation to theirs, allowing the emotions associated with the pressures of that common situation to flood from us into them, in such a way, that, viewed in them as in a glass (for the specular metaphor has always possessed a certain intuitive force, which it retains in this connection and to this extent), our own situation as inhabitants of, and as the bearers of natures formed by the pressures of, a certain human world becomes in certain respects clearer to us, because surveyable as a whole.

Thus, Claudius, ruefully reflecting to his friend Lucio on the errors that have led to his imprisonment, answers Lucio's question “whence comes this restraint” with the words,

From too much liberty, my Lucio. Liberty, As surfeit, is the father of much fast; So every scope, by the immoderate use Turns to restraint. Our natures do pursue, Like rats that ravin down their proper bane, A thirsty evil; and when we drink we die. (2001: I, 2, 11. 113–18)

As with the word “measure” in the title, the words of this brief speech carry with them their modes of insertion in one or more of the many patterns of practice that can frame a human life and, with that, the meanings of contrasting terms. We speak of “surfeit” because we need a word for eating carried to an extreme that produces illness. We need that word because it is in fact possible to make ourselves ill by gorging. The speech simply brings before us the evident possibility that giving unlimited scope to our appetites may result in the loss of our power to satisfy them. We are like rats, says Claudius, that rat poison has made ravenously thirsty but that has also ensured that to drink is death. In a sense, we learn nothing new from this—we knew already what “surfeit” and “ravin” mean: if we had not, we could not have understood the speech. What the speech and the bitter metaphor of the dying rat give the reader or auditor, however, is a sudden sharp sense of what, in another sense of “means,” it means to have destroyed one's life by giving one's appetites unlimited rein. By the mere force of the words Shakespeare has given him, their power, that is to say, to make familiar relationships rise up before us in a form made newly urgent by the terms of the plot, the nature of Claudio's situation becomes so sharply present that the emotions his words express, of bitter regret and self-blame, become suddenly real to the reader or auditor as well.

As with Claudius, so with the other characters. Each occupies a different situation with respect to the basic dilemma we—and not only Shakespeare's characters—face as beings of potentially unmeasured appetite who also live, and on the whole wish to live, by the light of practices, monogamous marriage, religious chastity, law itself, which all enshrine some concept of measure or boundary. The play offers no advice, no solution to the difficulties we encounter in attempting to square these moral circles. The moral rigorism of Angelo comes indeed to grief, the law he is committed to enforce turning in his hands into a tyranny that reflects the tyranny of his own sexual appetites. In a related way, the moral rigorism of Isabella's chastity stands compromised by its incompatibility with charity toward her brother. But the play's representatives of moral permissiveness, the “fantastick” Lucio and his entourage of pimps, whores, and bravos, fare no better. The Duke's restoration of order in the final scene amounts really to no more than the evasion of a series of impossible choices by means of ad hoc decisions. What, then, have we learned from the play? We have learned, by being given a certain sort of guided tour of certain aspects of a particular human world, a world that we, like Shakespeare's characters, in part continue to inhabit, that the topography of that world is more complex than we might have supposed. We have, in learning that, I suggest, learned something about reality—not, of course, the reality of the natural world, the world altogether outside language; rather, the reality of our world: the—or rather, one possible—human world.

Let me sum up by returning briefly to the questions with which the chapter began. Literature is not about the “real world” in the sense of the natural world, the world wholly external to language. But that does not mean that literature, including great literature, necessarily concerns fantasy worlds, worlds made up out of whole cloth, worlds conjured out of the fancy, the mere subjectivity, of one or another writer, in the interests, as Hobbes thought, of amusement or play. Fiction can work like that and serve those ends, but that doesn't have to be all there is to it. The “subjectivity” that characterizes the best literature is like the subjectivity that characterizes the work of the best scientists: a subjectivity of personal voice and style only. What, on the other hand, the best literary work, like the best scientific work, is actually concerned with is not the “subjectivity” of the writer or, for that matter, of the scientist, but rather reality, the “real world,” only, in the case of the former, the department of reality it addresses is not the natural world but the—or a—human world, and the latter considered rather from the standpoint of its constitution, of its roots in praxis , rather from the standpoint of its status as subject matter of contingent assertions, true or false.

It is possible to have an art of this kind, an art that is made simply by arranging words on a page, and yet that, at its occasional best, addresses realities, because the realities in question are accessible via the assessment of language for meaning, rather than for truth. They are accessible by this route because the meanings of words are determined by the relationships in which words stand to the practices that in part constitute the realities of a given human world.

Putting things in this way gives the present account, finally, a new grip on those questions of value that turn out, as we saw above, to be inseparable from the question of literary realism. We have come out, in the end, in agreement with the central tenet of Lamarque and Olsen's “no truth” account of literature: great literature asserts nothing , either false or true. But we can avoid the conclusion they draw from this thought, namely, that the concepts and themes deployed in literature and other “cultural practices” derive their content internally to such practices and therefore have no foothold in, or relevance to, the prosaic affairs of everyday life, by suggesting, in effect, that “cultural practices,” far from being something added on to the “everyday life” of human beings, an optional extra, as it were, are, on the contrary, main contributors to the constitution of the terms on which any such life is available to be led.

That explains why so many have rightly supposed great literature to be in intimate connection with other aspects of the life we lead. It explains, among other things, how it is that, through reading it, we may be led to all sorts of insights, including, as I have argued elsewhere (see Harrison 1975 , 1991 , 2001 , 2004 , 2006), philosophical insights that we are unlikely to have stumbled upon otherwise and that can perfectly well be expressed in indicative statements capable of being assigned a truth-value. That such possibilities exist goes far to explain, I think, why so many minds are so reluctant to abandon the idea that great literature can instruct, can be a source of truths, despite the evident force of the type of counterargument to that claim assembled by writers like Lamarque and Olsen.

Many of the concepts and conceptual distinctions whose ramifications are displayed by great writers—the sort that Lamarque and Olsen call “thematic concepts”—are moral concepts, and philosophers such as Richard Eldridge ( 1989 ) and Martha Nussbaum ( 1986 and 1990 ) have begun to take seriously the idea that some of the problems of moral philosophy might be more fruitfully addressed by making literature and literary studies active partners, as it were, in philosophical enquiry. At one point Lamarque and Olsen dismiss this tendency in the following terms:

[Eldridge] argues as if literature provided answers to serious questions that we have to address in our own lives, questions that exist for us independently of the existence of literary practice. The trouble with this type of defence from our point of view is that it demands a concept of what may be called “true-versions” of themes that we have argued in detail cannot be sustained in any substantive form. (1994: 451)

The view proposed here makes it clear, I think, why the programs of philosophers like Eldridge and Nussbaum require no such theoretical underpinning: because the “themes” dealt with in great literature are in fact deeply rooted in “our own lives,” not through the (admittedly nonexistent) possibility of assigning truth-values to the content of literary works, but through their roots in the practices and forms of life which simultaneously (1) determine the content of the concepts in question and (2) constitute the moral framework of whatever human world it is in which our everyday lives are led. In other words, there is simply no such breach as Lamarque and Olsen postulate between the concerns of everyday life and those of literature.

But it also follows, from the position set out here, that the value of great literature does not, as we found Gibson and Dammann rightly insisting, consist in the possibility of being guided by it to such truth-assessable insights as may be derived from reading and reflecting upon it. According to us the power, and the value, of great literature is, just as Gibson and Dammann argue, internal to it, because it resides in the power of its medium, language, to summon up and display—for here the metaphor of mimesis revives and recovers a good deal of the force ascribed to it by writers like Nuttall—through its deployment in the medium of a fiction, the nature of the human practices and choices that found the conceptual distinctions it enshrines, and that simultaneously found, along with them, a world, one that is not only the world in which we live, but a world, and its founding words, made flesh in us: the world that exists only in us, the world of whose values and assumptions we are the living bearers, and that is not, moreover, a static world, but a world constantly in a slow, glacier-like flux of change, one of the motivating forces of which, of course, is great literature. That is why great literature is, or should be, important to us.

That thought suggests a return to our starting point, in the notion of realism as a genre concept. Realism as a genre is, for many literary historians, conterminous with the brief reign of the nineteenth-century realist novel, and passes from the scene with the rise of literary modernism, in the work of such writers as Kafka, Proust, Joyce, Woolf, or Eliot.

The revolutionary character of modernism in literature, as in other arts, is often taken to consist in two main characteristics, both involving a crisis of authority. On the one hand, it is said, modernist writers are painfully aware that, since the book is “only a book and not the world” (Josipovici 1977 : 113), and since the claim to capture reality in a fiction is a grandiloquent pretense, the writer cannot rely on reality to authorize what he writes. On the other hand, the recognition by modernists that traditional literary forms and rules of composition are “man-made and not natural” (122), it is claimed, destroys the authority of past literary practice. That double lapse of authority leaves the modernist writer, when it comes to deciding what to write down upon the blank page confronting him, in that state of absolute freedom, at once liberating and angst ridden, that the existentialist tradition, from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche onward, has made it its business to explore.

One way of responding to this situation is to argue, with Gabriel Josipovici (echoing Hobbes, in the passage from Leviathan cited above), that it gives to literature, as to art in general, “a greater sense of game, of playfulness, than ha[s] ever been known since the dawn of the Renaissance” (1977: 122). But—and here is the rub—such a stance leaves room for two darker responses: first, that it is a short step from playfulness to frivolity—to an art that no longer functions either as a transmitter or as a critic of cultural stances and values because it has subsided into the self-absorbed pursuit of purely formal “experiments”; and second, that of Thomas Mann in Doctor Faustus , that modernism in art, in its surrender of all cultural authority in favor of the naked will of the artist, has a demonic side, a side not without connections, for Mann, with the rise of Nazism.

If the position I have outlined here stands, however, the latter two, pessimistic, responses have rather less to be said for them than might otherwise appear. On the view suggested here, the negative part of the case for modernism advanced by Josipovici and others is sound enough. It is indeed not the business of literature to “describe reality”—even human reality—in the sense in which a true, literal, indicative statement “describes reality.” No doubt, also, all questions of literary form and technique do indeed fall to the will of the writer to determine. But if we are right, it does not follow that literature is a free field for “play” in the sense of frivolity , for the connection between literature and reality does not run by way of the truth or falsity of statements, but by way of deeper linkages, internal to language, between the meanings of words and the practices that constitute human worlds and form the outlook and personalities of their inhabitants. To “play” with these connections, to bring them to consciousness, to criticize them, at times to transform them, is indeed the business of serious literature, including modernist literature. But the “play” in question is serious play, since it affords us one of the few means we have of rising above our habitual acquiescence in the vast fabric of historically accumulated practice, in and through which we live our lives, to a position from which we can, in principle at least, contemplate with a serious eye what that fabric has made, and continues to make, of us.

Auerbach, E. ( 1957 ). Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (W. Trask, trans.). Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor. (Original work published 1946).

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Josipovici, G. ( 1977 ). The Lessons of Modernism, and Other Essays . London: Macmillan.

Lamarque, P. , and Olsen, S. H. ( 1994 ). Truth, Fiction, and Literature: A Philosophical Perspective . Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lukács, G. ( 1963 ). The Meaning of Contemporary Realism (J. and N. Mander, trans.). London: Merlin Press. (Original work published in 1958).

Merleau-ponty, M. ( 1964 ). Signs (R. C. McCleary, trans.). Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press. (Original work published in 1960.)

Nussbaum, M. ( 1986 ). The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. ( 1990 ). Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nuttall, A. D. ( 1983 ). A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the Representation of Reality . London: Methuen.

Shakespeare, W. ( 2001 ). Measure for Measure . Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Original work published in 1623.)

Sidney, P. ( 2004 ). “The Defence of Poesy.” In   G Alexander (ed.), Sidney's “The Defence of Poesy” and Selected Renaissance . London: Penguin. (Original work published in 1795.)

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Realism in American Literature

This essay about realism in American literature explores its departure from romantic ideals, focusing on the everyday experiences of ordinary people with detailed authenticity. Realism emerged in response to societal changes post-Civil War, emphasizing character over plot and delving into psychological intricacies. Authors like Henry James and Mark Twain crafted narratives rooted in realistic settings, addressing social injustices and societal norms. Realism laid the groundwork for naturalism, portraying human behavior as influenced by external forces. Ultimately, realism provided a reflective lens for society to examine itself, resonating with its era and shaping the trajectory of American literature.

How it works

Realism within American literature heralds a substantial departure from erstwhile romantic paradigms, imbuing the quotidian experiences of common folk with a level of detail, subtlety, and unadorned veracity. This literary epoch, ascending to prominence in the twilight of the 19th century, epitomized a concentration on the bourgeoisie and its tribulations, eschewing melodramatic flourishes, hyperbolic sentimentality, and the excessively theatric facets emblematic of romantic literary works.

Realism materialized as a riposte to the swift metamorphoses and societal convulsions in the wake of the American Civil War.

As industrialization reshaped the landscape and the fabric of American existence, authors endeavored to encapsulate the existence of ordinary citizens in a candid manner. They fixated on plausible occurrences and the impetuses and inner machinations of their personae. This newfound focus signified a departure towards a more sober contemplation of the norms and anticipations permeating the burgeoning society.

The crux of realism lies in its preoccupation with character over plot. Realist scribes plumb the depths of their characters’ psychological intricacies, scrutinizing their motivations, responses, and the societal mores that mold their conduct. This profound psychological expedition ensures that these personages strike a chord with the reader, as they frequently mirror the authentic travails and ethical quandaries confronted by denizens of society. For instance, Henry James, a luminary of realism, frequently delved into the consciousness of his characters through an introspective narrative style that accentuated their internal ruminations amidst their societal interplays.

Furthermore, the settings in realist literature are delineated with meticulous detail to mirror the actual environs in which the personages reside and toil. This elaborate depiction of locale aids in anchoring the narrative in a recognizable reality, thereby augmenting the relatability and credibility of the story. Wordsmiths like Mark Twain and William Dean Howells, for instance, tailored their tales around specific American locales, infusing their narratives with the sights, sounds, and social dynamics of those environs. Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” not only captures the vernacular and regional peculiarities of the locales along the Mississippi River but also delves into the intricate social quandaries of race and identity in the antebellum South.

Realism also confronted social quandaries and the injustices endemic to the era. Realist authors frequently employed their narratives as a platform to spotlight and critique societal injustices and the repercussions of social mores on individual existences. Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie” vividly delineates the snares of the American Dream, exploring the themes of destitution and the pursuit of felicity in an expanding capitalist milieu.

This movement laid the foundation for subsequent literary evolutions, evolving into naturalism, which emerged as a specialized offshoot of realism. Naturalism expanded upon realism’s focus on quotidian existence and appended a more robust emphasis on the inexorable forces of nature and society that sculpt human comportment, frequently depicting man as a pawn ensnared by circumstances beyond his mastery.

In summation, realism within American literature proffered a reflective looking glass through which society could scrutinize itself in all its intricate, mundane splendor. By focusing on ordinary folk and everyday circumstances, realism assailed the literary conventions prevailing up to that juncture, proffering novel profundity and import to the narrative arts. It delineated a tableau of existence that was not idealized or romanticized, but authentic and palpable, resonating profoundly with the experiences and circumstances of its epoch. This authenticity rendered realism an epochal movement in American letters, whose reverberations are still discernible in the contemporary literary milieu.


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Realism in American Literature Essay

Introduction, william dean howells, henry james, stephen crane, frank norris.

In literature, realism is applied to the school of fiction writers describing life with utmost fidelity to fact and detail in opposition to romanticism or classicism. This tendency towards realism is common in modern writing and at different periods, but it became a definite school primarily due to French influence in the later part of the 19 th century. This close analysis and stress on characterization is evident in Balzac and Stendahl, however it was Flaubert who surpassed them in “Madame Bovary”, his masterpiece. Flaubert’s achievement gave rise to works written by Goncourts, J.K. Huymans, de Maupassant, Zola and others. A heated controversy came up regarding the tendency of realistic writing to overstress what is corrupt and sordid; however their influence in the novel has become apparent and their detailed descriptions have lessened.

English realism has been tempered by moderation. Representing periods of its growth are George Eliot, Meredith, George Moore, Hardy, Wells and Bennett. This change is evidenced in the importance put on detailed psychological analysis, as in the novels of James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson, Gorky, Cheknov, Strindberg, Sundermann, Couperons and Hamsum, typifying their respective countries. Corresponding tendencies in the drama are shown in the writings of Ibsen, Hamptman and Galsworthy. “In the United States, Wolfe, Hemingway and Faulkner are among the leading representatives of the modern school of realism.” (Groiler Encyclopedia, 1961: 279). This paper, hopefully will prove Howells, Twain, James, Crane and Norris, respectively prove how five American writers have been categorized as realists.

Our first realist, William Dean Howells (1837 – 1920) was an American man of letters born at Martin’s Ferry, Ohio on March 1, 1837. He was the son of William Cooper Howells, a newspaper proprietor. A compositor at his father’s printing office, he turned journalist with definite literary aims. He became consul at Venice, Editor of the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Magazine. He also worked for the New York Times and the Cosmopolitan Magazine.

In 1862, he wed Elinor G. Mead and died May 11, 1920 in New York. He served as president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters from the time it was founded until he died. His 70 works consist of poems, travel books, essays, plays and criticism. His first book was a campaign life of Lincoln and of his books Venetian Life and Italian Journeys are delightful transcripts of personal experience, which cannot otherwise be authentic. He was chosen Leader of the Realistic School in American Literature. His novels reflect analytically the life of his time, realistically, but in proper perspective. “He was a successful short-story (as adjudged by Editha ), a penetrating critic and some of his poems reflect the qualities of his prose, which is consistently clear, compact, exact and felicitous. Several successful faces agreeably reflect his sweet and quiet humor.” (Groiler Encyclopedia, 1961: 30).

We now venture into Howell’s short story, Editha, which was first published in Harper’s Monthly in January of 1905. We hope to glean from it such qualities as will categorize it as realistic writing. To begin with, the setting of the story is the period circa the First World War, which occurred during Howells’ lifetime and Howells makes the reader believe the story actually happened, not just to the characters in the story, but also to many others. It is very clear even in the first paragraph how Howells’ pays attention to detail in his description of the setting. “The air was thick with the war feeling, like the electricity of a storm which had not yet burst. Editha sat looking out into the hot spring afternoon, with her lips parted, and panting with the intensity of the question whether she could let him go”

Lastly, the ending of the story isn’t what most romantics expect and desire. It ends with the sordidness of war. George gets killed and Editha fulfills her promise to him by going to visit his mother who fails to receive her with warmth. This is understandable and realistic since George’s mother cannot come to terms with the war as she and George’s father suffered greatly earlier war. But all’s well that ends well and the realistic approach is for the girl to pick up the pieces of her life and begin to live life again.

Our next American writer of realism is Samuel Clemens more popularly known as Mark Twain. Born in Florida, Missouri, November 30, 1835, Clemens claimed descent on his mother’s side from the Lambtons of Durham, England and on his father’s side, from men who were pirates and slavers. He started life as a compositor. In 1851, he became a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi. From this life was derived his pen name “Mark Twain”, a leadsman’s cry meaning two fathoms. He started his writing career as a compositor. After working as a reporter in Virginia City, Nevada, he tried mining and journalism in San Francisco and visited the Sandwich Islands.

Paying great attention to detail but without exaggeration is part of Twains’ realistic style of writing. “Mart Twain loved the little town of Hannibal. It was tranquilly content, content as slave towns are in general. He remembered it as the white town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer morning… the great Mississippi, the magnificent Mississippi rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun, the dense forest away on the other side.” (Paine, 1912: n.p.). His book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, is the story of an adventurous boyhood along the Mississippi. The realism here is that the account is much like the author’s own. The adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a highly dramatic reflection of river life, and by common consent ranked as the author’s masterpiece. In 1907, Oxford University conferred on him the honorary degree, Doctor of Literature.

Still another proof of realism in Twain’s writing is this vivid representation of scenes in a letter to Will Bowen, a childhood friend: “The old life has swept before me like a panorama, the old life trooped by in their old glory again, the old faces have looked out of the mists of the past, old footsteps have sounded in my listening ears, old hands have clasped mine, old voices have greeted me and the songs I loved ages and ages ago have been wailing down the centuries.”(Cox, 1966: 78).

Henry James (1843 – 1916) comes next. He was an Anglo-American novelist, born in New York. He was the son of Henry James, a well-known Swedenborgian. His older brother was William James. He studied law at Harvard, but early turned his attention to literature, at first in the form of short stories and contributions to periodicals.

James first sent Daisy Miller to the Philadelphia magazine Lippincotts, which rejected it on the basis of their belief that the portrayal of Daisy was “an outrage on American girlhood.” After extensive revisions, he succeeded in burying the unassuming simplicity of his early style under the mannerisms of the Master. The novelette was a great success. His fellow realist, William Dean Howells wrote to James Russell Lowell: “There has been a vast discussion in which nobody felt very deeply, and everybody talked very loudly. The thing went so far that society divided itself into Daily Millerites and anti-Daisy Millerites. I was glad for it for I hoped that in making James so thoroughly known, it would call attention to the beautiful work he had been doing for very few readers.” (Moore 1878: n.p.).

Moore’s introduction to the Penguin edition draws parallels between Daisy and Huck Finn written by fellow realist Mark Twain and Emerson’s concept of self-reliance. Moore says, “For us, the readers, it is Daisy who is on the side of the angels, and I am sure that James meant it to be so, despite the fact that he invoked poetic justice in consigning her to her doom for being such a wicked flouter of convention. If there is one abiding theme which runs through the American experience it is that men and women must have the courage to go it alone, setting their faces resolutely against what they see as arbitrary and outmoded rules and regulations. The relating of this experience is definitely part of James being a realist.

Moore concluded by saying that in Daisy Miller, there is the seed of what we are to find in full bloom at the end of James’ career… the pitting of values of America against those of Europe. The reason Daisy has nothing in common with her fellow Americans in Rome is because they subscribe to the European way of looking at life, a way which so many of James’ novels reveal to be shallow, superficial and cynical. Daisy is honest, fresh and open.

The consensus of opinion regarding naturalism is that it is a sub-genre of realism. All naturalists are also realists; but not all realists are naturalists. The naturalists we shall touch upon are Frank Norris and Stephen Crane. Naturalism has been defined as “the doctrine that there is no interference of any supernatural power in the universe.” (Haddock, n.d.).

Stephen Crane (1871 – 1900), American writer was born in Newark, N.J. In 1890 he moved to New York City to do intermittent reporting for the Herald and Tribune. His first book, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, picturing life in the slums, was hailed as the first naturalistic novel of the U.S. In 1895 appeared, The Red Badge of Courage, Crane’s great realistic study of ordinary men amidst the storm and tumult of war. It was an instant success.

“Attention turned to Maggie and Crane’s reputation was established. In 1896, from experiences gained when he suffered shipwreck, he wrote The Open Boat, best know short stories. In 1899, he went to live in England where he died in 1900.”(Groiler Encyclopedia, 1961: 203)

Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat is characteristically realistic writing since it endeavors to describe life as it actually happened. It is also naturalism in that it involves the characters’ singular experience in their struggle against nature. The Open Boat is a fictionalized account of a very traumatic personal experience in Crane’s life: a ship on which he was a passenger sank off the coast of Florida, and he found himself one of four men in a tiny open dinghy, struggling to make it through a narrow strip of rough sea and pounding surf that separated them from dry land.

Many sailors or those who travel sea have, at one time or another, undergone a shipwreck experience, but what makes Crane’s narrative naturalist writing is that it accentuates the gulf between an objective journalistic rendering of going down with a ship and the only way to convey the full horror of this experience. In addition to vivid language, Crane uses carefully chosen anecdotes to make the situation seem harrowing.

Frank Norris (1870 – 1902), an American novelist was born in Chicago and educated in Paris, at Harvard and at the University of California. He was war correspondent in South Africa for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1896. He was editor of the San Francisco Wave in 1807. “The powerful realistic Mc. Teague, 1899, was his first novel to attract attention. His uncompleted trilogy, The Epic of the Wheat is generally considered his greatest work. In some ways, his writing seems to have been influenced by the French author, Alphonse Daudet.” (Groiler Encyclopedia, 1961: 73).

A Deal in Wheat by Norris has its protagonist in Sam Lewiston. The setting of the story is factual – a ranch in southwestern Kansas. Lewiston and his wife were two of a vast population of farmers, wheat growers who at that moment were passing through a crisis – a crisis that at any moment might culminate in tragedy. Unable to conduct his farm upon a paying basis at the time when Truslow, the “Great Bear” had sent the price of grain down to sixty-two cents a bushel, Lewiston had turned over his entire property to his creditors and left Kansas for good.

Norris’ account is the singular one – the only one of all the men who has struggled up to the surface again. How many others had gone down in the great ebb? Grim question, he dared not think how many. There were countless ones like Sam who were victims of a great wheat operation – a battle between Bear and Bull. What makes the story an exercise in naturalism is that although there were many who suffered just like Sam, it was only he who made it – who survived, perhaps by hard work or a streak of good luck.

After an extended analysis of the above-mentioned authors known to be American realists, it is not easy to come up with an original definition of American realism . Realism in American literature is a style of fiction writing influenced by the French in which life is described with strict fidelity to fact and detail. Naturalism , on the other hand is a sub-genre of American which involves the character/ characters’ singular struggle against the forces of war, nature and the like. Although there are a lot of similarities between American realism and European realism, from which it originated, the former puts a stress on that which is optimistic and aesthetic, reflecting the American way of viewing life.

Barnhart, C.E. (ed) (1959) The American College Encyclopedic Dictionary (Vols I and II). Chicago: Spencer Press Inc.

Cox, J. (1966) Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Groiler Encyclopedia. (1961) New York: Groiler International.

Haddock, P. (Pub) (n.d.) The Concise English Dictionary. USSR: Blackie and Son.

Moore, G. in James, H. (1878) Daisy Miller, A Study in Two Parts. New York: Harper and Brothers. 2007. Web.

Paine, A.B. (1912) Mark Twain, A Biography. New York: Harper and Brothers.

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Essays on realism.

Essays On Realism

by Georg Lukács

Edited by Rodney Livingstone

ISBN: 9780262620420

Pub date: May 10, 1983

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ISBN: 9780262120883

Pub date: May 5, 1981

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  • Published: May 1981

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Originally published in the 1930s, these essays on realism, expressionism, and modernism in literature present Lukacs's side of the controversy among Marxist writers and critics now known as the Lukacs-Brecht debate. The book also includes an exchange of letters between Lukács, writing in exile in the Soviet Union, and the German Communist novelist, Anna Seghers, in which they discuss realism, the European literary heritage, and the situation of the artist in capitalist culture.

Georg Lukács was a Hungarian Marxist philosopher, aesthetician, literary historian, and critic.

Rodney Livingstone, Reader in German at the University of Southampton, has edited and translated numerous works by Lukács, Theodor Adorno, and others.

Considering [his] capacity for historical intervention and personal survival, the least one can say is that Lukács was the most successful Marxist intellectual of the 20th century.... The six essays and one public exchange of letters that David Fernbach's translation makes available to English readers were all written between 1931 and 1940, a period during which Lukács served the Comintern as one of its most formidable (and certainly its most erudite) critical hitmen. J. Hoberman The Village Voice

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Realism in american literature, 1860-1890.

realism in literature essay

Other Views of Realism

"The basic axiom of the realistic view of morality was that there could be no moralizing in the novel [ . . . ] The morality of the realists, then, was built upon what appears a paradox--morality with an abhorrence of moralizing. Their ethical beliefs called, first of all, for a rejection of scheme of moral behavior imposed, from without, upon the characters of fiction and their actions. Yet Howells always claimed for his works a deep moral purpose. What was it? It was based upon three propositions: that life, social life as lived in the world Howells knew, was valuable, and was permeated with morality; that its continued health depended upon the use of human reason to overcome the anarchic selfishness of human passions; that an objective portrayal of human life, by art, will illustrate the superior value of social, civilized man, of human reason over animal passion and primitive ignorance" (157). Everett Carter, Howells and the Age of Realism (Philadelphia and New York: Lippincott, 1954).

"Realism sets itself at work to consider characters and events which are apparently the most ordinary and uninteresting, in order to extract from these their full value and true meaning. It would apprehend in all particulars the connection between the familiar and the extraordinary, and the seen and unseen of human nature. Beneath the deceptive cloak of outwardly uneventful days, it detects and endeavors to trace the outlines of the spirits that are hidden there; tho measure the changes in their growth, to watch the symptoms of moral decay or regeneration, to fathom their histories of passionate or intellectual problems. In short, realism reveals. Where we thought nothing worth of notice, it shows everything to be rife with significance." -- George Parsons Lathrop, 'The Novel and its Future," Atlantic Monthly 34 (September 1874):313 24.

“Realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material.” --William Dean Howells, “Editor’s Study,” Harper's New Monthly Magazine (November 1889) , p. 966.

"Realism, n. 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." --Ambrose Bierce The Devil's Dictionary (1911)

Context and Controversy

In its own time, realism was the subject of controversy; debates over the suitability of realism as a mode of representation led to a critical exchange known as the realism war. (Click here for a brief overview.)

The realism of James and Twain was critically acclaimed in the twentieth century. Howellsian realism fell into disfavor, however, as part of early twentieth century rebellion against the "genteel tradition." For an account of these and other issues, see the realism bibliography and essays by Pizer, Michael Anesko, Richard Lehan, and Louis J. Budd, among others, in the Cambridge Guide to Realism and Naturalism .

© 1997-2013. Donna M. Campbell. Some information adapted from Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1885-1915 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997) .

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‘Megalopolis’ Premieres at Cannes: First Reaction

Francis Ford Coppola’s first movie in more than a decade reveals a filmmaker not content to rest on his laurels.

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Against a gold metallic background, Adam Driver, wearing a black jacket over an open-collar shirt, looks down at the camera.

By Manohla Dargis

Reporting from Cannes

Late in “ Megalopolis ,” Francis Ford Coppola’s plaintively hopeful movie about — well, everything under the sun — a character speaks to the power of love. It’s a wistful moment in a fascinating film aswirl with wild visions, lofty ideals, cinematic allusions, literary references, historical footnotes and self-reflexive asides, all of which Coppola has funneled into a fairly straightforward story about a man with a plan. It is a great big plan from a great big man in a great big movie, one whose sincerity is finally as moving as its unbounded artistic ambition.

“Megalopolis,” which had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on Thursday, is Coppola’s first movie since “Twixt” (2011), a little-seen, small-scale horror fantasy. “Megalopolis” is far larger in every respect, though at this point it’s an open question whether it will reach an audience of any kind. The industry, never a welcoming place for free-ranging and -thinking artists, is in the midst of another of its cyclical freakouts. Business is terrible and the sky is definitely, absolutely falling. Fear, panic and timidity rule the day, as they generally do.

And then there is a recent report in The Guardian with anonymous sources alleging that Coppola tried to kiss female extras. The executive producer Darren Demetre has said, “I was never aware of any complaints of harassment or ill behavior during the course of the project” and described the contact as “kind hugs and kisses on the cheek to the cast and background players.”

I thought about these allegations every so often while watching “Megalopolis,” particularly during one of the bacchanals that punctuate the story and especially when yet another semi-covered breast waggled onscreen. I didn’t find the breasts scandalous or remotely offensive; for one thing, the movie is a speculative fiction about a city that more or less looks like New York, if one modeled on ancient Rome. There the city’s wealthy citizens scheme, the poor suffer and a visionary architect, Cesar Catilina (Adam Driver), dreams of a “perfect school-city” in which everyone can become who they were meant to be.

The movie follows Catilina pondering his mortality atop what looks like the Chrysler Building. After gingerly crawling outside on a ledge, he gazes over the city and raises a foot in the air, then freezes as if contemplating the abyss. This apparent to-be-or-not-to-be moment initiates a story that finds him wrestling with imponderables, having anguished meltdowns and trying to realize his utopian project using a building material he has invented as he navigates assorted hurdles. Among the most persistent is the imperious mayor, Franklyn Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito), who has a beautiful daughter, Julia (Nathalie Emmanuel), a party girl who can quote the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius by heart.

The plot thickens quickly as characters enter and exit delivering lines that, by turns, sound like everyday speech (well, almost) and as formally structured (and antiquated) as Shakespearean prose. The performance styles are similarly varied though rarely do they align with the kind of natural-seeming psychological realism that’s so familiar. There’s a heightened aspect to many of them; every so often, Driver tips into old-school Method-esque intensity while other actors push in separate directions. You can almost see the quotation marks hovering around Aubrey Plaza’s wonderfully sly performance as a TV celebrity called Wow Platinum, while Shia LaBeouf goes full-on court fool as Clodio, Catilina’s cousin.

It admittedly took me awhile to get accustomed to both the dialogue and the performances, which while not exactly alienating did feel destabilizing. I soon got into Coppola’s groove, though, and stayed there more or less, despite my exasperation with his stubbornly old-fashioned ideas about women and men and my deep skepticism about technological determinism. Even so, while I have my doubts about Catilina’s vision, Coppola’s own pleasure in playing with a digital toolbox is fun to watch. Unsurprisingly, the results are often striking, like the image of Catilina and Julia kissing while precariously perched on metal girders that are floating high above the ground or the picture of a futuristic city whose flowing organic forms recall the work of the brilliant architect Zaha Hadid.

From the moment Catilina appears atop his world, his foot frozen above the void and seemingly ready to take a great leap, it’s clear that “Megalopolis” — a dream that Coppola has been dreaming for some 40 years — is no ordinary movie. It too is a great leap, a formally and visually audacious experiment that feels like the work of a filmmaker who, rather than repeating himself ad infinitum or resting on his countless laurels, remains excited by moving pictures and their infinite possibilities. I don’t think “Megalopolis” will be for everyone, but art rarely is. In 1895, the film pioneer Louis Lumière apparently said that the cinema was “an invention without a future,” a comment that’s been repeated in one way or another ever since; in 2024, and against all odds, Coppola dares to insist that it has one.

Manohla Dargis is the chief film critic for The Times. More about Manohla Dargis


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  1. Realism in Literature: Definition & Examples

    Realism (REEL-iz-um), or literary realism, is an era of literary technique in which authors described things as they are without embellishment or fantastical plots. Works of literary realism shun flowery language, exotic settings and characters, and epic stories of love and heroism. Instead, they focus on everyday lives and people in ordinary times and places.

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  10. Introduction: American literary realism

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  20. Realism in American Literature

    Realism in American literature is a style of fiction writing influenced by the French in which life is described with strict fidelity to fact and detail. Naturalism, on the other hand is a sub-genre of American which involves the character/ characters' singular struggle against the forces of war, nature and the like.

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    For an account of these and other issues, see the realism bibliography and essays by Pizer, Michael Anesko, Richard Lehan, and Louis J. Budd, among others, in the Cambridge Guide to Realism and Naturalism. ... Campbell, Donna M. "Realism in American Literature, 1860-1890." Literary Movements. Dept. of English, Washington State University.

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    English Department, Razi University, Kermanshah, Iran. Abstract—The European Medieval romance was far from realistic. However, the modern literary realism both in England and America has been multi-faceted. An English face of it is often the manifestation of man in search of salvation via the application of his mental capacity in a chaotic ...

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