French Realism Essay - Critical Essays

French Realism

Introduction

French Realism

By the mid-nineteenth century, Realism had become the dominant mode of literary production in France, and for the next half-century, until the mid 1890s, the movement maintained its hegemony. The basic goals and tenets of the Realist movement were stated by many, and thus a large diversity of opinion existed as to its definition. Essentially, though, the Realists wanted to remove some of the distinctions between literature and science, thereby allowing themselves to attain truth by the simple observation and recording of reality. To achieve this end, the early theorists of Realism advocated a plain writing style, devoid of moral intention or authorial interpretation, that was primarily concerned with character and represented common people engaged in everyday activities. These thoughts were adopted and later manipulated by the great figures of French Realism; among them are Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary (1857) and widely considered the father of the realistic novel; Guy de Maupassant, Flaubert's disciple and the acknowledged master of the realistic short story; and Emile Zola, principal theorist of Naturalism, a later development in Realism, and the author of the twenty-novel Les Rougon-Macquart series.

While not a formal member of the Realist school, Honoré de Balzac is generally considered the chief precursor of French Realism. He is the author of La Comédie humaine, a series of novels published between 1842 and 1855 that examine French society between the years 1789 and 1848; his works, however, are said to evince a strongly romantic sensibility, to which many later writers reacted. Among the early writers, Edmond Duranty formally emphasized the use of an unadorned style of writing that took as its subject lower- and middle-class people in his periodical Le Réalisme (first published in 1856). Jules-François-Felix Husson (called Champfleury), a novelist and art critic, also stressed the importance of careful research and factual documentation in the modern novel. Champfleury is also remembered for another significant theoretical innovation, his 1856 declaration "that every serious novelist was an impersonal being who did not judge, condemn, or absolve." The Realists embraced this stance of total impartiality and sought a complete elimination of the artist from the work in much the same way that the contemporary painter Gustave Courbet had. Courbet, whose essentially disinterested and almost photographic renderings of ordinary people in the 1850s had initially conjured the word "realism," was, like the literary artists of his time, attacked by harsh criticism. Among the flaws that commentators noted were an excessive emphasis on "trivial" detail. Likewise, accusations of representing "commonness" and "ugliness" were levelled at the Realists, as was a general disparagement of the newly "unartistic" arrangement of material. This negative response by critics was typical, as in the case of immorality charges brought against Flaubert for his novel Madame Bovary. The work, which is commonly considered the seminal piece of Realist literature, details the life of Emma Bovary, a bored, middle-class housewife whose attempts to fulfill her romantic dreams prove untenable and lead to her financial ruin and eventual suicide. In the novel, Flaubert attempted to portray contemporary, bourgeois French society not simply as he saw it, but with an objective and impersonal tone. Despite early detractors (a trial was held, and Flaubert was eventually cleared of immorality charges), the work launched the then-obscure Flaubert to the forefront of the French literary scene, a position that was reluctantly shared with him by Edmond and Jules de Goncourt.

Little read in the twentieth century, the Goncourt brothers were, like Duranty and Champfleury, theorists as well as novelists, whose writings again emphasized the new direction for the French novel based on the exploitation and extensive research into what they called "human documents." In 1864 they wrote, "the novel of today is composed from documents, received by word of mouth or taken direct from nature, just as history is composed from written documents. Historians write narratives of the past, novelists narratives of the present." Their results, considered by some to be the first works of Naturalism, included writings dealing with the minutiae of character, such as Renée Mauperin (1864), one of the first novels to analyze its protagonist as a psychological "case study."

In 1880, the publication of a collection of short stories under the title Les Soirées de Médan by Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Paul Alexis, Henry Céard, and Léon Hennique, formally initiated the movement of Naturalism. Zola, who had already published L'Assommoir (1877) and written his essay "Le Roman expérimental" (1880), took his place as head of the new movement, claiming a greater emphasis on the scientific and analytical than in its predecessor, Realism. Since both the terms réalisme and naturalisme had been in use since mid-century with varying definitions and significances, however, critics have acknowledged that the distinctions between the two are somewhat hazy. As a movement, therefore, Naturalism is discrete from Realism more in name than in fact, although scholars have generally characterized it as distinguished by Zola's heightened sense of determinism and more complete rejection of literary idealism. Among the other Naturalists only Maupassant, whose novel Une Vie (1883) is reminiscent of Madame Bovary, has approached Flaubert and Zola in terms of overall importance. In addition, Maupassant is typically remembered for his short stories, which often lack the emotional detachment that the theorists of both Realism and Naturalism demanded. Likewise, commentators have since observed that Zola failed to maintain impartiality in his novels, which display a tendency toward symbolism and a highly personalized and moralistic vision.

These fissures between Realism in theory and practice have become a primary focus of criticism in the twentieth century. While "realistic" literature continues to be produced, as a movement Realism has long since been replaced. J. K. Huysmans, one of the original members of the Médan circle, is now more commonly associated with the French Decadent movement in literature, his A rebours (1884) being something of an early manifesto of Decadence that shares little with Naturalism except in its highly deterministic bent. Likewise, critics in the second half of the twentieth century have observed that the goals of the Realists were often subverted by the problematic nature of realistic representation. Contemporary commentators find in the works of Flaubert, Zola, and Maupassant a failure to efface the personal biases of the author or to eliminate ideological and allegorical aspects from their works in favor of a truly objective tone. Still, the prevalent influence of the Realists in the twentieth century is consistently acknowledged by critics, who have elevated Flaubert, Zola, and some of their precursors (such as Stendhal and Balzac) into the most important figures in nineteenth-century French literature and have seen in their works the roots of the great novels of the twentieth century.

Representative Works

Honoré de Balzac

Le Père Goriot 1835

La Comédie humaine 1842-1855

Henry Céard

Une Belle Journée 1881

Champfleury (Jules-François-Felix Husson)

Chien-Caillou 1847

Alphonse Daudet

Les Contes du lundi 1873

Edmond Duranty

La Cause du Beau Guillaume 1862

Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary 1857

L'Education sentimentale: Histoire d'un jeune homme 1870

Edmond and Jules de Goncourt

Germinie Lacerteux 1864

Renée Mauperin 1864

Guy de Maupassant

Les Soirées de Médan 1880 [with Zola and others] Une Vie 1883

Emile Zola

L'Assommoir 1877

Nana 1880

Germinal 1885

Origins And Definitions

Lafcadio Hearn

SOURCE: "Realism and Idealism," in Essays in European and Oriental Literature, edited by Albert Mordell, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1923, pp. 16-18.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1886, Hearn decries the "revolting realism" prevalent among the works of his contemporary writers in France.]

We have frequently drawn attention to the increasing tendency toward a revolting realism which is manifested by the leading authors of France. Indeed, the methods of the dissecting-room are growing in favor with the literateurs of the world. French authors have been the chief sinners in this regard, because they have to cater to a peculiar public taste, and because the French language is peculiarly adapted to embalming with exquisite literary art the most awful forms of human depravity. No English writer dares to treat the topics which give life and color to the masterpieces of Emile Zola, Alphonse Daudet and Guy de Maupassant. With us, this realism takes the form of a most exhaustive and exhausting analysis, which extends to the most inane and commonplace people. First, these people tell you what they think, then the author proceeds to tell you why they think so, and then somebody else expatiates on what they might have thought in different circumstances. This is, in the main, the method of James and Howells. It lacks the coarseness of vice which belongs to the French school, but it also lacks the deep interest which the works of the French masters possess for the student of morbid anatomy.

What our age really needs is not more realism, but more of that pure idealism which is founded on a perfect knowledge of the essential facts of human life. There is so much misery visible on every hand that the youngest of us stands in but slight danger of taking too roseate a view of the new world. The most imminent danger to every man and woman lies in the loss of the idealism which is the basis of the loftiest relations and the holiest duties of our lot. To believe that all men and women are, in reality, morally rotten is but preliminary to floating with the tide. When once a man comes to believe in the general depravity of his fellow men, he is far beyond the saving power of such maxims as "Honesty is the Best Policy," and the like. Realism should be the means, not the absolute end, of the writer of fiction.

In truth this debauching realism tends to make fiction miss its highest purpose—the recreation of minds that are weary of the toil and strife of the world. The average man sees enough of human depravity; he knows too many absolutely commonplace people; he is too often at the mercy of bores; therefore, when he turns to fiction for rest, he wants and expects something different from the routine of his daily life. Fiction has perhaps become more scientific than it was in the hands of Thackeray and Dickens, but it has lost the restfulness and the brawny, moral tone which it then possessed. This is a real loss, for the novel reader wants neither a medical treatise nor an essay on political and social economy. So long as the world endures there will be no lack of heartrending realism; so long as human nature remains unchanged there will be an unappeasable yearning for the idealism without which men have neither the courage to struggle nor the power to enjoy.

Ernest Boyd

SOURCE: "Flaubert and French Realism," in Studies from Ten Literatures, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1925, pp. 3-20.

[In the following essay, Boyd surveys the history of French Realism from the writings of Balzac to those of his contemporaries in the 1920s.]

The connotations of the word "realism" in French literature are varied. In its later developments realistic literature presented a considerable problem, and a constant source of irritation to the guardians of the academic portals to Fame. Wherefore, these gentlemen exercised a remarkable ingenuity in the art of evasion and denial, which is responsible very largely for the diversity of opinion as to what realism is, and when it made its appearance in France. When challenged by modern realism they evaded the issue by asserting that it was not modern, and by denying that it was realistic. Thus, as every text-book will show, it was seriously argued that "the real French realists" were Racine, Molière, Boileau, La Bruyère, and Lesage. The rise of the Classical School in 1660 was described as a reaction against the Romantic period of the preceding half-century. Then followed a didactic era, when theses and theories were the essential, and finally, after an interval of sterility, there came, with Chateaubriand, a renaissance of the imagination. The Romantic movement was born, and it dominated the literary scene until about the middle of the nineteenth century.

It is at this point that we encounter realism as it is understood to-day. Balzac, who died in 1850, is accepted by all parties to the controversy as the precursor of the movement which was to crystallize in the work of Flaubert, the Goncourt brothers, Emile Zola, and the Naturalists. Balzac has been called "a realist in the observation of material facts," but "a Romanticist in his invention of plot and incident," and this dualism in his work accounts, I think, for the strange unanimity of such irreconcilable adversaries as Brunetière and Zola in greeting him as the founder of the Realistic movement. The mandarins claimed him joyfully, because he served admirably to becloud the issue which the Goncourts, Flaubert, and Zola were trying to force to a decision. Zola and his disciples were glad to invoke a venerable name when fighting for their literary lives against a criticism which never ceased to decry them until they died or renounced their heresies.

Balzac, therefore, is the first name associated in modern French literature with realism, and his work provided material for the species of argument which, as I have said, involves the whole subject in a maze of qualified statements and contradictions. His successor Flaubert, after his death in 1880, was also drawn into the debate for the same purpose; namely, to support the thesis of the conservative critics that the modern realists were neither realistic nor modern. Both writers were powerfully influenced by the Romantic movement, and thus lent themselves to such interpretations as were placed upon them by the conflicting groups of their admirers. Flaubert, however, seemed more definitely to belong to the new school, for several reasons. In the first place, he did set himself deliberately to repress and finally to dominate that exuberant Romantic imagination which he shared with his age. He conceived Madame Bovary in a thoroughly realistic fashion and accomplished his task in strenuous obedience to a theory which was to become the dogma of Naturalism a generation later. In the second place, unlike Balzac, he enjoyed a clash with the official moralists, and at the outset of his career he acquired the halo without which, I suspect, no modern realist is authentic in the eyes of the average reader. When Flaubert was indicted for the immorality of Madame Bovary he was irrevocably committed to the company—since so numerous—of those writers euphemistically called in English "unpleasant."

Although the term "realism" does not, as is often supposed, date from the publication of that work, Flaubert is generally accepted as the father of the realistic novel. It was after a dinner given in his honor by Maupassant, Zola, Huysmans, and Octave Mirbeau, in 1877, that the "Naturalistic" school was created by the French press. The fame of Flaubert is definitely associated with Realism and Naturalism, and, as these are precisely the elements in contemporary American literature which are cultivated by the younger novelists, it is interesting to glance back at the chapter in French literature which began with Madame Bovary in 1857.

It was a year in which the unsuspecting Flaubert had every reason to believe that he could go on quietly writing for himself, as he had been doing ever since his return from the East. Labiche's comedies and the melodramas of Dumas fils, kept the theatre public busy; at the opera the first performance of Weber's Oberon occupied the attention of music-lovers, while the reception of Augier at the French Academy and the death of Alfred de Musset provided the literary world with excitement, varied by the thrills of legal scandals, the trial of Baudelaire for Les Fleurs du Mal, and Victor Hugo's attempted injunction against Rigoletto, on the ground that it was stolen from Le Roi s'amuse. Paris had obviously plenty of things to attend to without troubling over the first novel of Gustave Flaubert, whose name was utterly unknown to more than a small circle when he began to issue Madame Bovary as a serial in La Revue de Paris.

Unfortunately, that review was in bad odor politically with the authorities, and they made the novel a pretext for harassing the editors. Flaubert was, however, more fortunate than Baudelaire, a few months later, for he was acquitted, in consideration of the serious artistic purpose which clearly inspired his work. The trial, as is the custom in these affairs, merely served as an enormous advertisement for the new author, of which his publisher reaped the immediate benefit, for Flaubert had received only five hundred francs for the rights to the book during five years. So great was the success of the scandal that a newspaper at once offered him fifty centimes a line for his next novel, clearly a substantial advance upon the terms he had received for his first work. All the interests of the crowd were driven into the background by Madame Bovary; no vaudeville show was complete without its song on the subject, and burlesque playlets were written with Emma Bovary as the central figure. The reviewers had naturally jumped into the fray and the furious and eternal battle was waged with great vigor, only Sainte-Beuve, Barbey d'Aurevilly, Baudelaire, and a few of the more discriminating realizing the true value and the literary significance of Madame Bovary. The press as a whole gave preference to Ernest Feydeau's Fanny, a novel which appeared about the same time and presented a certain superficial resemblance to Flaubert's in its treatment of a similar theme, but is long since forgotten.

All the circumstances were propitious for a further exploitation of public curiosity, but Flaubert returned to his home near Rouen and gave no heed to popular clamor for five years, when he published Salammbô. In the interval all sorts of rumors had been in circulation; the author's first book was flying backward and forward like a shuttle-cock between the camps of the Realists and their opponents, and the general expectation was that Flaubert would either aggravate his former offenses, or offer some sort of amende honorable. Flaubert did neither; he simply flabber-gasted both his friends and his enemies by publishing this lengthy novel of Carthaginian life. Sainte-Beuve, even, called for a lexicon with which to decipher this mass of exotic words and archœological terms; the learned experts denounced the pretensions of this novelist turned historian, and the inaccuracies of detail were solemnly exposed. In the main there was agreement on one point: the book was dull, though some suspected, and tried to prove, that indecencies were concealed beneath its soporific weight. The dulness and latent obscenity of Salammbô were the leading counts in the popular indictment of the book, for Flaubert was now a public personage and had to pay the penalty. Once more his name and his work were bandied about in the couplets of vaudeville singers, and an elaborate burlesque, Folammbô, ou les Cocasseries carthaginoises, was produced at the Palais-Royal Theatre, in which Hamilcar became Arriv'tar, and by dint of much punning of this type the whole story was turned into ridicule, precisely in such a manner as to preserve the legend of the author's manifold indecencies. It is remarkable how the cheap humor of this parody summed up the general tendency of contemporary criticism toward Salammbô, into which Flaubert had poured all his romanticism, his love of the fabulous Orient, of color and sound and primitive passion.

The author himself considered this book to be an even more definite manifestation of his theory of art than Madame Bovary, and it was upon his theory, the doctrine of "impersonal" literature, that the whole reaction against the Romantic Movement took its stand. The Romanticists were entirely personal and subjective; the Realists sought for an objective, dispassionate notation of life, from which the author's personality and his sentiments are eliminated. What is the explanation of this misunderstanding between the master and his disciples? To ask this is to raise the whole problem of Flaubert's realism, for, it has often been pointed out, his works are apparently realistic and romantic alternately. After Madame Bovary came Salammbô, and then L'Education sentimentale, which was followed by La Tentation de Saint-Antoine; after which came the unfinished Bouvard et Pécuchet. If the author of these works was hailed and denounced as the begetter of the realistic novel, if the Goncourts and Maupassant and Zola elected him as master, later criticism is disposed to regard him rather differently, and to refuse to allow him to be claimed either by the Realists or the Romanticists. He seems at bottom to have belonged to the latter rather than the former, but his romanticism was not based upon that horror of reality which is the true mark of the French Romantic school.

Thus in his works of sheer imagination, Salammbô and La Tentation, the desire for reality, for verisimilitude, for the suppression of his own personality, leads him to write his romance as Zola documented himself for his records of the Second Empire. In his realistic novels, on the other hand, he took refuge from the despotism of facts by transferring his romanticism to his characters, to Frédéric in L'Education sentimentale, to Emma in Madame Bovary, and, above all, by allowing himself the freest play in the beauty of his words, in the wonderful rhythm of his phrases, so that a story of provincial adultery, the most hackneyed theme in fiction, takes on the glamour of Chateaubriand's adventures in mythical regions of tropical beauty. As his correspondence reveals, Flaubert's romantic imagination was never more powerfully stimulated than when he was engaged upon a work of realism, but when he turned to a work of imagination, then his scrupulous concern for reality insisted upon satisfaction.

This Romanticist who had no fear of reality was destined to live just long enough to see the rise of a literary generation which cultivated that fearlessness to a point where the Realist dominated everything else. In 1877 he was the guest at a dinner-party from which came the six authors, Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, J. K. Huysmans, Henry Céard, Léon Hennique, and Paul Alexis, who launched the Naturalistic movement with Les Soirées de Médan, which was published the year of Flaubert's death. Looking over the work of this group, not to mention the deservedly forgotten host of their imitators, it is difficult to connect them with Flaubert. That scrupulous artist, who could spend five days over the writing of one page, whose style is one of the delights of French literature, was surely the strangest progenitor for that brood of Naturalists. The Goncourts still preserved their cult of the "exact word," of the "rare epithet," but these writers cultivated the commonplace in both style and matter. Their virtues are seen in the work of Maupassant and in that sardonic little masterpiece of Henry Céard's, Une Belle Journée, but who even remembers Léon Hennique and Paul Alexis, "the shadow of Zola," as he was called?

In the pleasant process of progressing backward, in which the younger American novelists are just now engaged, the oblivion which has descended upon Flaubert's succession seems to be ignored, or, at least, to suggest no disquieting reflections. There is a drift in contemporary fiction which takes the novel back to France of the eighties and late seventies, but not to the fifties, when Flaubert expressed the only durable reaction against Romanticism. All literature is the history of the reaction of one generation against the idols of another, and Madame Bovary marked the end of the Romantic movement. It was the work of the transition and is therefore characterized by that hesitation between two schools which is the essence of Flaubert. The modern Realists, like his immediate successors, have emphasized only one element in the movement of which he was the leader, and their preoccupation with the mere details of actuality will as surely condemn them to neglect as it has condemned the voluminous literature of the Naturalistic school. With the exception of Baudelaire, no other French writer in modern times has exercised so powerful an influence as Flaubert with so small a volume of published work. During his lifetime only five books of his were published, yet they endure, while the twenty volumes of Zola's Rougon-Macquart series and the sixteen other volumes of his miscellaneous fiction have fallen into increasing disrepute, together with most of the "polygraphy" of that period. Madame Bovary shocked the bourgeoisie in accordance with all the rules of Naturalistic procedure; it evoked and reconstructed the life of a provincial town with the superb skill of the creative genius who is master of detail, in a fashion which only makes the labored piling up of facts seem intolerable in his successors. Yet it lives, after all these years, as photographic realism never lives after the external circumstances of the time have changed. It lives because of that dual element in the genius of Gustave Flaubert, which enabled him to see the dream and the reality which together make up the sum of human existence, and to express both with the sensitive beauty of a great artist.

Flaubert having been acquitted, in due course his sins were forgiven, and he became a respectable figure, to be cited by the orthodox, together with Balzac, as an example of what decent realism should be. In this country, where French literature is simultaneously suspected by the moralists of outrageous licentiousness and credited by ingenuous youths with an ideal tolerance of the freedom of the artist, the fortunes of the realistic school from this point onward are instructive. Balzac having been canonized, and Flaubert being accepted for his romanticism tempered by realism, it might be imagined that the course of true literature ran smooth. It did not, however, for there continued an extraordinary confusion as to what a Realist really was. Brunetière actually discussed Rhoda Broughton in the same category as Flaubert, Zola, and Maupassant, while Dickens, George Eliot, and George Sand were—and still are—cited in every well-behaved French literary manual in discussions of realism.

In the circumstances, it is not surprising that, when a generation arose with a literature corresponding exactly to what the outside world now understands by French realism, the battle of Madame Bovary was resumed with intense vigor. The protagonist of this struggle was, of course, Emile Zola, whose name and influence have loomed larger in America, England, and Germany than those of any of his predecessors or contemporaries in the Realistic movement. Nevertheless, amongst both will be found men who never wrote worse than he, and several whose craftsmanship was vastly superior to his.

Let us begin with his own avatars. As early as 1847 there was Champfleury's Chien-Caillou, which was the first stone to be thrown at Romanticism by the actual pioneers in the campaign subsequently led by Zola. These pioneers were three gentlemen, of whom I need name only one, since his fame in this connection has survived him, Edmond Duranty, whose best novel, La Cause du Beau Guillaume, has been republished in Paris. During the early years of the Second Empire Duranty and his friends published a periodical whose title, Le Réalisme, was in itself a manifesto. When the first of its six numbers appeared, in 1856, Flaubert had not yet published Madame Bovary, and the very name of realism was something challenging, heretical, diabolical. Duranty had little to offer except his belief that a new literary epoch was imminent, that Champfleury was its precursor, and that romanticism was anathema.

When Zola was a young and unknown employee at the publisher Hachette's he came in contact with Duranty, who published La Cause du Beau Guillaume with that firm in 1862, at a time when Zola himself had not even issued his Contes à Ninon. Later Zola paid a brief tribute to this interesting and neglected figure in the history of modern French fiction, citing from Le Réalisme the formula which so largely anticipated the programme of the Naturalists: "Realism aims at an exact, complete, and honest reproduction of the social environment, of the age in which the author lives, because such studies are justified by reason, by the demands made by public interest and understanding, and because they are free from falsehood and deception. This reproduction should be as simple as possible so that all may understand it." Zola accepts this definition of purpose, merely extending it to include all classes of society, for he contends that Duranty's realism was too much restricted to the middle classes. Champfleury, however, was not a writer of sufficient stature to bear the brunt of such a programme, and by one of those ironies of literary history which are so delightful, Flaubert's Madame Bovary received only a brief and not very appreciatory notice in Le Réalisme, which thus died without being aware that it had witnessed the first serious breach in the ramparts it had attempted to storm.

Although Zola's earliest fiction was too unorthodox for Hachette, who refused one of the stories in the Contes à Ninon, and although his first novel, La Confession de Claude, in 1865, outraged the pruderies of the Empire, he had not yet produced the great work which was to place him at the head of the Realists, now christened Naturalists, in accordance with his scientific theories. That work was L'Assommoir, published in 1877, and the first big success of the twenty volumes of the Rougon-Macquart series. This is a date in Zola's evolution, but in the history of French realism that date was anticipated by Edmond and Jules de Goncourt in 1865, when their Germinie Lacerteux appeared. They were the real successors of Flaubert, and they had actually formulated the whole doctrine of Naturalism when they wrote, in 1864: "The novel of to-day is composed from documents, received by word of mouth or taken direct from nature, just as history is composed from written documents. Historians write narratives of the past, novelists narratives of the present."

Germinie Lacerteux contained a preface which is regarded as a document of historic importance, not only because it emphasizes the revolutionary character of the novel itself, but also because it lays down the theory of Naturalism. "The public like novels that are untrue. This is a true novel. They like books which seem to take them into society: this work comes from the streets. This is a clinical study of love. The public like harmless and comforting stories, adventures that end happily, ideas which disturb neither their digestion nor their peace of mind. Nowadays, when the novel has assumed the studies and the duties of science, it may claim the liberty and frankness of science." When this manifesto appeared Zola was an obscure journalist, and in a provincial paper he wrote one of the earliest of the few favorable reviews which the book received. The comments were, in the main, exceedingly violent in their hostility. "Putrid literature," cried one pundit, while a notorious pornographer described the book as "sculptured slime." Flaubert, however, was enthusiastic, and declared that "the great question of realism was never so frankly propounded." Sainte-Beuve realized that a new aesthetic was needed to criticise the new literature.

However, he kept this opinion and his appreciation of the book for the private consumption of his friends, following the precedent he had set for himself in the more delicate affair of Les Fleurs du Mal. The result is that, to this day, the Goncourts are viewed with a cold eye in academic circles. Even in Professor Saintsbury's enormous and catholic survey of the French novel they receive a few intolerant paragraphs, in which indignation takes the place of criticism and historical perspective. Zola himself, for some reason, escapes with milder censure, although his debt to the Goncourt brothers is obvious, the difference between the authors of Germinie Lacerteux and the author of L'Assommoir being that the former were artists, whereas the latter was a reporter. The Goncourts had a style and an aesthetic. Zola's style consisted in his having none, and for an aesthetic he substituted a scientific superstition.

Needless to say, it was Zola, not Edmond de Goncourt, who enjoyed the popular fame which for some years was the reward of the realistic novelists. To the end Goncourt, who outlived his brother Jules by a whole generation, was the object of an incredible vendetta. It seemed as if neither the mob nor its masters could pardon him for being a perfect man of letters, happily independent of the exigencies of his critics or his potential patrons. Zola, on the other hand, threw himself into the struggle which the Goncourts disdained. The critics wildly denounced each book of the Rougon-Macquart series as it appeared, as they had begun, in 1868, by fulminating against his earliest novel of importance, Thérèse Raquin. Alphonse Daudet was kindly treated, as the tame Realist who managed to be so much more gentlemanlike than his terrible friends and literary confrères, Zola, Huysmans, Paul Alexis, Henry Céard, and the Goncourts. But the strange fact remained that Zola's readers surpassed those of Daudet in number, and the sales of such books as Nana and La Débâcle were rivalled only by those of the estimable George Ohnet.

Everything tended to constitute Zola the leader and spokesman of what was now known as Naturalism. He came forward with his flock around him in 1880, when the celebrated collection of stories, Les Soirées de Médan, was published under the aegis of the master. In addition to that of Zola, some of the five other names in that volume are still remembered, such as Huysmans and Maupassant; Léon Hennique and Paul Alexis are forgotten, though George Moore retold the one story of Alexis, La Fin de Lucie Pellegrin, which deserves to survive. Henry Céard, who was a member of the Academy Goncourt, and until his death on August 16, 1924, one of the few remaining members of the original Goncourt circle, has never had the fame outside his own country to which that sardonic little masterpiece, Une Belle Journée, entitles him. It was issued here in an English translation just as he died, leaving Léon Hennique as the last survivor of the Médan group.

If only because, with Boule de Suif, it introduced Maupassant, Les Soirées de Médan contained enough to justify its existence, and to impose the new generation of Realists upon the attention of public and critics alike. It presented six writers who were to play a considerable part in current French literature for a decade or more, and of whom two, Maupassant and Huysmans, outlived the merely transient fame attaching to the work of a challenging school. Moreover, the arrival of recruits was not delayed, and soon to those names were added Camille Lemonnier, Octave Mirbeau, J. H. Rosny, Paul Adam, Lucien Descaves, and the brothers Margueritte, to mention a few which will be familiar to the general reader of to-day. These writers all gravitated around Zola, and the formula of the experimental novel, with its scientific observation of facts, its exact documentation, its objective study of social environment, seemed to be assured of success.

England and Germany were translating Zola, George Moore in London, and Michael Georg Conrad in Munich were imitating him, and the upholders of morals and traditions at home and abroad were up in arms against this literary Antichrist. Not only did the professors like Brunetière recoil in terror, but critics as urbane as Lemaître and Anatole France were troubled. France, in particular, was desperately aggrieved by the lack of patriotism in Abel Hermant (now repentant and in turn the censor of that venerable radical), and deeply offended by the salaciousness and indecencies of such works as La Terre. All that suburban moralists abhor in the younger generation in America to-day was duly abhorred and castigated in Zola and his followers during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. With a virtuous indignation worthy of a contemporary Society of Authors holding its skirts aloof from a Dreiser or a Cabell, a group of schismatics in the ranks of Naturalism turned upon Zola, and provided us with one of the best jokes in the history of French literature.

In Le Figaro of the 18th August, 1887, shortly after the publication of La Terre, there appeared "The Manifesto of the Five." The signatories were Paul Bonnetain, J. H. Rosny, Lucien Descaves, Paul Margueritte, and Gustave Guiches, and they solemnly recorded their sternest disapproval of the master, whom they had weighed in the balance both of morals and aesthetics and found wanting. In order to appreciate the charm of their virtuous censure of Zola, one must know that Bonnetain had acquired fame as the author of a novel whose theme was onanism, J. H. Rosny had in that very year published L 'Immolation, a novel of incest, Paul Margueritte was the author of a Lesbian masterpiece, entitled Tous Quatre, while neither Guiches nor Descaves could have been translated without considerable bowdlerization. However, they proceeded to a formal indictment of their literary progenitor, accusing him of having lowered the standard of Naturalism, of catering to large sales by deliberate obscenities, of being a morbid and impotent hypochondriac, incapable of taking a sane and healthy view of mankind. They freely referred to Zola's physiological weaknesses and expressed the utmost horror at the crudeness of La Terre.

At the same time they did not ignore the literary side of their brief for the prosecution. His experimental novels based on documentation are described as the work of a man "armed with faked documents picked up at third hand, full of Hugoesque bombast . . . and lapsing into perpetual repetition and stereo-typed phrases." The observation in La Terre is "superficial, its technic old-fashioned, and the narrative is vulgar and commonplace, while the filthiness is exaggerated . . . the Master has descended to the lowest depths of dirtiness." Therefore, they conclude, "we energetically repudiate this imposture on real literature . . . we repudiate these rhetorical mouthpieces, these gigantic, superhuman, and incredible figures, devoid of all subtlety, projected brutally, in heavy masses, upon scenes viewed in chance glimpses from the windows of express-trains . . . we refuse to be parties to a shameful degeneration."

Thus ended a glorious adventure in realism, perhaps the greatest deliberate effort of the school in any country to impose its aesthetic and to alter the course of literary evolution by violent effort. The Five formulated in their literary criticism the substance of our judgment to-day on the work of Zola and his disciples. The scientific notation of life is an illusion, and when an illusory theory is added to an execrable style, the result is a foregone conclusion. It was left, however, to writers not one whit less improper, in the moralists' sense, than those they attacked, to break the spell of Naturalism, not by producing "realistic" novels in the manner of Rhoda Broughton, but by throwing over the preposterous convention which was the real offense of Zola against literature. The names that will survive from that period, between the death of Balzac and the decline of Zola in the last years of the 'nineties, are those of writers like Flaubert, the Goncourts, and Maupassant, whose genius transcended the limitations of the realistic dogma.

Yet, it is still on moral and not upon aesthetic grounds that realism is impugned. In English-speaking countries the term is synonymous, in the popular mind, with literature that is unpleasant and more or less obscene. To such an extent is this convention accepted, even unconsciously, by those who theoretically know better, that a French work which is not avowedly realistic, which treats of psychological and spiritual rather than physical and material conditions, may with impunity emulate the strangest aberrations of the much-decried Naturalists. Marcel Proust's astonishing epic of sexual inversion, though not lacking in the crudest details, receives tributes of admiration from English and American critics who indorsed the purely political vendetta which resulted in the condemnation of Victor Margueritte's La Garçonne. The latter is nothing more than a typical volume amongst many which have recently far exceeded its frankness in describing the sexual life of a certain type of woman. Let us recall that time, more than thirty years ago, when Paul Margueritte was seized with a moral fervor ostensibly as genuine, and inherently as ridiculous, as that of which the surviving brother is now the victim. These incidents have only the remotest concern with literature.

At the present time realism in French literature is in abeyance. Its exponents are chiefly the survivors of the Naturalistic period: Céard, Victor Margueritte, Lucien Descaves, and Paul Adam, to whom must be added the isolated creator of Jean Christophe. The younger men who may be counted as the continuators of the realistic tradition are not numerous, for they are separated from their literary forebears by the Symbolist generation, whose fiction cannot be called realistic, although Anglo-Saxon virtue would blush at the charming impudicity of Henri de Régnier's novels, were he not protected by that unwritten law in favor of those who have no specific purpose in exhibiting "human documents." A few names deserve mention among the contemporary Realists, Gaston Chérau, with his Champi-Tortu; Léon Werth with La Maison Blanche; Roger Martin du Gard with Les Thibault.

Realism, as it has thus evolved, more closely approximates to the English variety; it has shed its exuberances and modified its crudities, for it is no longer bemused by the pseudo-science of Zola. Such excesses as used to interrupt the easy flow of French fiction are disappearing, to make way for the very different experiments of impressionists like Jean Giraudoux and the fantastic adventures of Francis Carco, André Salmon, and Pierre MacOrlan. Such incidents as the expulsion of Victor Margueritte from the order of the Legion of Honor have no literary significance. Only extreme innocence of the character of the works which have simultaneously passed unnoticed can account for the foreign comment upon La Garçonne. No legal proceedings, it will be noticed, were instituted. We are far from the heroic period of Flaubert or even Zola. Realism, in that peculiar Anglo-Saxon connotation of the word, is a dead issue in France. That is why French critics who are aware of the real import of Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu have wasted no inappropriate zeal in repudiating Victor Margueritte. Ils en ont vu bien d'autres!

Bernard Weinberg

SOURCE: "Theory and Opposition (1840-1870)," in French Realism: The Critical Reaction, 1830-1870, Modern Language Association of America, 1937, pp. 117-44.

[In the following excerpt, Weinberg reviews the basic tenets of, and the vehement reaction against, French Realism of the mid-nineteenth century.]

To state adequately the history of realistic theory, one would have to go back at least as far as the eighteenth century, to the formulations of Diderot. It would then be necessary to trace in romantic credos and manifestoes the development of certain contentions which eventually formed the basis of the realistic gospel. Special attention would need to be paid, for example, to the prefaces and critical pronouncements of Stendhal and Balzac, and to minor novels and novelists of the '20's and '30's. Such a study, however, is beyond the scope of my investigation. In the present [essay] . . . I shall consider the situation only as it affected the critics and the press during the period indicated. For statements of realistic doctrine, I shall use only such articles as were accessible to contemporaries (thus eliminating private correspondences and unpublished treatises), and I shall attempt an analysis of that doctrine only to show what it was that critics were opposing when they opposed realism. In the second place, I shall try to state the nature of the critical reaction to the new movement, as this reaction affected the movement in general rather than any specific author. I have chosen 1840 as a terminus a quo, since before that date there was no realistic school and no doctrine recognizable by contemporaries as such.

As a prelude to this study, it will be well to examine the history of the words réalisme and réaliste in their literary connections. As philosophical terms, both had long been known; but it was only during the nineteenth century that they were transferred to the vocabulary of aesthetics, and applied especially to painting and literature. It is impossible to say how early the transfer took place, for not all the relevant documents have been studied. Whatever statements I shall make with regard to this early history must therefore be taken as tentative, and as valid only for the materials examined. As early as 1834, Hippolyte Fortoul uses "réalisme" in a review of Antony Thouret's Toussaintle-Mulâtre; after speaking of the "souffrances réelles" and the "passions actuelles" depicted in the work, he goes on to say:

M. Thouret a écrit son livre avec une exagération de réalisme, qu'il a empruntée à la manière de M. Hugo. Lorsqu'il l'applique purement à des descriptions extérieures, aux révélations des ténèbres de la police, aux réminiscences du cachot, aux souvenirs du jour-nalisme, il donne vraiment à son matérialisme une verve et une chaleur originales.

In 1835 and 1837, Gustave Planche uses the words in a number of articles appearing in the Revue des deux mondes; for a time, indeed, they seem to be the property of this writer and this journal. Planche conceives of realism as an exact reproduction or imitation of nature, limited strictly to the physical aspects of observable things; he regards it as incompatible with beauty, with the ideal, with art. "Envisagé comme une réaction accidentelle et passagère contre la dégénérescence des formes convenues, il peut avoir son utilité; mais ce n'est tout au plus qu'un moyen; et s'en tenir au réalisme, c'est méconnaître d'emblée le véritable but de l'invention." During the same period (1836), Hains speaks of Balzac as "quittant le sentier mystérieux qui sépare le réalisme du monde fantastique"; but this is probably only a misuse of the philosophical term, taken as meaning réalité. Again, in 1840, an anonymous critic of Le Semeur reviews Eugène Villard's Idéalisme et réalité, and asks: "Ce romancier avait-il à coeur de combattre le réalisme ou le positivisme, termes barbares qu'il faut employer pourtant, parce qu'ils expriment des idées pour lesquelles il n'y a pas de mots dans notre vieille langue française?" Here, too, the meaning is philosophical rather than literary. But more distinctly literary uses of the words come in 1846. Then, in June, Marc Fournier applies réalisme to Charles de Bernard:

Il semble, à première vue, que ce grand cachet de réalisme, dont M. de Bernard a le mérite d'empreindre ses ouvrages, doive leur donner un certain tour pittoresque et original. Oui, si c'était le véritable cachet d'un véritable réalisme.

In October, Hippolyte Castille speaks of Balzac and Mérimée as belonging to the école réaliste, of Balzac as losing la physionomie réaliste when he portrays exceptional rather than typical characters. In connection with these early specific uses, several facts are significant: first, that the words are for a time used almost exclusively by the Revue des deux mondes, and that they then 'disappear' for almost ten years; second, that when they reappear, it is to become the property of writers in L'Artiste. For Fournier's article appeared in that journal, edited by Arsène Houssaye, and it was Houssaye's Histoire de la peinture flamande et hollandaise (published in January, 1846) that first gave the words any real prominence. . . . L 'Artiste was instrumental in supporting the realists and in formulating their doctrine; its whole connection with the movement deserves careful and detailed study.

After 1846, the words réalisme and réaliste become increasingly prominent. Houssaye in 1847 and Thomas in 1848 (both writing in L'Artiste) are the next authors to use them. It is not until 1851, however, that they gain any real currency, both in criticism of literature and of painting. In 1856, they attain a sort of consecration when Duranty founds his review called Réalisme; in 1857, Champfleury publishes his volume of essays called Le Réalisme. From that time onward, they appear in almost every literary discussion, applied—and misapplied—to the most diverse writers, definitely a part of current critical vocabulary. For a long time, however, writers continue to italicize the term, which remains for them a neologism; cf. Janin in 1852, Champfleury in 1853, Pontmartin in 1855, Claude Vignon in 1858, Barthet in 1859, Reymond in 1860, Lefrançais as late as 1867, Laprade as late as 1868, and many others too numerous to list. It is important to remark, too, that in this period naturalisme is used only rarely as a literary term equivalent to réalisme, and that even in these few cases its meaning is not demonstrably literary. Naturalisme had long been an accepted term in painting, where réalisme was merely adopted as a new synonym; it had not previously been used in regard to literature, however, and had to await a later school to be adopted as a literary by-word.

How, we may now ask, did realism present itself to its contemporaries?

(1) In 1843, before the days of a realistic school, Hippolyte Babou gave a definition of the "roman d'analyse" which merits a place as our first statement of realistic doctrine. Speaking of Balzac and his school, and especially of Charles de Bernard, Babou outlined the conditions of what Bernard himself had called "la chimie morale." His terms, in some passages, are remarkably similar to those of Taine a number of years later.

C'est par l'énumération des détails que les analystes réussissent à donner une idée de l'ensemble. Ils saisissent sur les objets extérieurs et matériels les reflets des sentiments et du caractère de leurs personnages. A leurs yeux, une existence humaine n'est pas concentrée tout entière au foyer de la pensée. Elle se compose de milliers d'atomes épars autour d'elle; la forme et la disposition des meubles, la couleur du vêtement, les particularités de l'habitation, le degré de lumière qui entre par la croisée, mille autres petites choses imperceptibles, révèlent les moeurs et les instincts d'un individu, d'une famille. L'analyste consciencieux pousse la religion du détail aussi loin que l'antiquaire.

L'analyse avait été jusque-là [before Balzac] une action réglée par un talent spontané; elle devint alors une science: de là le mal. Toute science qui se constitue a besoin d'une nomenclature; la chimie morale eut la sienne. Les passions et les caractères furent désormais traités comme l'oxygène et l'hydrogène. Une technologie barbare, pédantesque, obscure, remplaça le langage ordinaire. Peu s'en fallut que la chimie morale ne nous donnât des oxides d'amour et des sulfures de haine, correspondants aux oxides de fer et aux sulfures de plomb de la chimie proprement dite . . . Ces manipulations qui avaient, il faut en convenir, un certain air de nouveauté, tendaient de plus en plus à changer en laboratoire le cabinet de l'écrivain. Le roman de moeurs échappait à la littérature pour entrer dans le domaine des sciences physiques et naturelles. Aprés avoir été chimiste, le romancier se faisait médecin. Il tâtait le pouls de ses personnages, au lieu d'interpréter les secrets mouvements du coeur. Les passions se transformaient en maladies, et les caractères en tics. Le monde matériel, que l'intelligence humaine avait semblé d'abord élever jusqu'à elle, réagissait à son tour et envahissait l'intelligence.

These same ideas, as we shall see, appear often in later statements of realistic theory.

(2) Ten years later, 1853. Champfleury voices a confession de foi and a complaint in his "Lettre à M. Ampère touchant la poésie populaire":

L'art vrai, ce qu'on pourchasse aujourd'hui sous le nom de réalisme . . ., l'art simple, l'art qui consiste à rendre des idées sans "les faire danser sur la phrase" comme disait Jean-Paul Richter, l'art qui se fait modeste, l'art qui dédaigne de vains ornements de style, l'art qui creuse et qui cherche la nature comme les ouvriers cherchent l'eau dans un puits artésien, cet art qui est une utile réaction contre les faiseurs de ronsardisme, de gongorisme, cet art trouve partout dans les gazettes, les revues, parmi les beaux-esprits, les délicats, les maniérés, les faiseurs de mots, les chercheurs d'épithèles, les architectes en antithèse, des adversaires aussi obstiés que les bourgeois dont je vous ai donné un portrait.

(3) April, 1854. Elme-Marie Caro, professed adversary of the realist group, states what he considers to be its point of view:

Nos jeunes réalistes du théâtre . . . annoncent hautement la prétention de donner à notre siècle la représentation du siècle lui-même exactement copié dans tous ses traits même les plus difformes, dans tous les éléments même les plus vulgaires de sa physionomie, dans les réalités les plus honteuses de son existence. Ils font de l'art, et ils s'en vantent, un trompe l'oeil; leur but n'est plus l'expression de l'idéal, c'est l'illusion du réel. Leur poétique a pour règle unique l'imitation; l'art véritable sera pour eux le plus exact plagiat de la nature. Produire sur la scène des hommes et des femmes comme ceux que vous rencontrez chaque jour dans les ateliers, dans les estaminets, dans la rue ou ailleurs, et jeter tous ces personnages de bas aloi dans le moule d'une action vulgaire, en leur donnant des moeurs de hasard et un langage brutalement vrai, c'est là une pratique destinée à remplacer les théories discréditées des romantiques et des classiques, la théorie d'Hernani aussi bien que celle d'Athalie. C'est ce qu'on appelle briser les formes usées de la vieille tragédie et renouveler l'aspect du romantisme épuisé.

(4) May, 1854. Champfleury, in the Revue de Paris, publishes two articles on the "Aventurier Challes," an early eighteenth-century novelist whom Champfleury hailed as a precursor of realism. From the mass of anecdotic and biographical materials, we may isolate the following critical theories. (a) The novel should proceed by the observation of minute details, not by "invention" or "imagination"; (b) limiting itself thus to reality and to truth, it is absolutely sincere; (c) at the same time, it must be contemporary, giving peintures de moeurs and scènes de la vie habituelle; (d) but this does not mean photography, for the author's personality everywhere prevents him from giving a mechanical reproduction; (e) choice, indeed, is necessary, and the artist must arrange and distribute his materials to make of them a work of art; (f) the style of the novel should be simple.

(5) In December, 1855, in L'Artiste, the poet Fernand Desnoyers published the first deliberate manifesto of the school, entitled "Du réalisme," and beginning with "Cet article n'est ni la défense d'un client ni le plaid-oyer pour un individu, il est un manifeste, une profession de foi." I quote the most important passages:

Le Réalisme est la peinture vraie des objects.

Il n'y a pas de peinture vraie sans couleur, sans esprit, sans vie ou animation, sans physionomie ou sentiment. Il serait donc vulgaire d'appliquer la définition qui précède à un art mécanique. . . .

Le mot réaliste n'a été employé que pour distinguer l'artiste qui est sincère et clairvoyant, d'avec l'être qui s'obstine, de bonne ou de mauvaise foi, à regarder les choses à travers des verres de couleur.

Comme le mot vérité met tout le monde d'accord et que tout le monde aime ce mot, même les menteurs, il faut bien admettre que le réalisme, sans être l'apologie du laid et du mal, a le droit de représenter ce qui existe et ce qu'on voit.

On ne conteste à personne le droit d'aimer ce qui est faux, ridicule ou déteint, et de l'appeler idéal et poésie; mais il est permis de contester que cette mythologie soit notre monde, dans lequel il serait peut-être temps de faire un tour.

D'ailleurs, on abuse de la poésie. . . . La poésie pousse comme l'herbe entre les pavés de Paris. Elle est rare . . . Quant à moi, je crois que cette poésie que chacun pense avoir dans sa poche, se trouve aussi bien dans le laid que dans le beau, dans le fantastique que dans le réel, pourvu que la poésie soit naïve et convaincue et que la forme soit sincère. Le laid ou le beau est l'affaire du peintre ou du poète: c'est à lui de choisir et de décider; mais à coup sûr la poésie, comme le Réalisme, ne peut se rencontrer que dans ce qui existe, dans ce qui se voit, se sent, s'entend, se rêve, à la condition de ne pas faire exprès de rêver. Il est singulier à ce propos qu'on se soit spécialement suspendu aux pans de l'habit du Réalisme, comme s'il avait inventé la peinture du laid. [All the great artists of the past have depicted evil and the ugly.] Que les réalistes jouissent de la même liberté! si les gens en paletot qui passent devant nos yeux ne sont pas beaux; tant pis! ce n'est pas une raison de mettre une redingote à Narcisse ou à Apollon. Je réclame le droit qu'ont les miroirs, pour la peinture comme pour la littérature.

[Mockery of the classicists and the romanticists.]

Enfin, le Réalisme vient!

C'est à travers ces broussailles, cette bataille des Cimbres, ce Pandémonium de temples grecs, de lyres et de guimbardes, d'alhambras et de chênes phtisiques, de boléros, de sonnets ridicules, d'odes en or, de dagues, de rapières et de feuilletons rouillés, d'hamadryades au clair de la lune et d'attendrissements vénériens, de mariages de M. Scribe, de caricatures spirituelles et de photographies sans retouche, de cannes, de faux cols d'amateurs, de discussions et critiques édentées, de traditions branlantes, de coutumes crochues et couplets au public, que le Réalisme a fait une trouée.

[The noisy objections to its advent.]

Et tout cela pourquoi? parce que le Réalisme dit aux gens: Nous avons toujours été Grecs, Latins, Anglais, Allemands, Espagnols, etc., soyons un peu nous, fussions-nous laids. N'écrivons, ne peignons que ce qui est, ou du moins, ce que nous voyons, ce que nous savons, ce que nous avons vécu. N'ayons ni maîtres ni élèves! Singulière école, n'estce-pas? que celle où il n'y a ni maître ni élève, et dont les seuls principes sont l'indépendance, la sincérité, l'individualisme.

(6) The first number of Réalisme (July, 1856) included, besides [an] article of Duranty . . ., one other item of interest for realistic theory. This was a review, by Jules Assézat, of Auguste Vacquerie's Profiles et grimaces, attacking Vacquerie's romanticism:

Pour les romantiques, le but de la littérature était une chose fantastique: l'art; pour nous, c'est une chose réelle, existante, compréhensible, visible, palpable: l'imitation scrupuleuse de la nature.

Pour nous, nous admettons le laid, parce qu'il est vrai; nous admettons le beau, parce qu'il est vrai aussi; nous admettons le vulgaire comme l'extraordinaire, parce que tous deux sont vrais; mais ce que nous n'admettons pas, et ce qui a tué le romantisme, c'est la manie exclusive du laid-horrible et de l'extraordinaire-monstrueux.

(7) August, 1856. Champfleury publishes, in Figaro, a letter from one of his readers criticizing M. de Boisdhyver; to it he appends a reply, which he terms "ma poétique":

Tout romancier sérieux est un être impersonnel qui, par une sorte de métempsycose, passe de son vivant dans le corps de ses personnages.

Il serait dangereux de présumer de son tempérament, de ses vices ou de ses vertus, de son caractère, par les personnages qu'il met en scène.

Tout homme qui ne se sentira pas assez de courage pour devenir une sorte d'encyclopédiste, pour ne rien ignorer des tendances scientifiques et morales de son époque, devra renoncer à faire du roman. Joignez à ces études une attention profonde, une indifférence pour les actualités politiques, artistiques et religieuses, une oreille fine, un regard profond, une intelligence native, un travail absorbant, une volonté de fer dans un corps robuste ou maladif, et vous aurez un type de romancier auquel il est donné à bien peu d'atteindre.

Au-dessous de ces fortes intelligences se place le romancier personnel, qui n'a qu'à se regarder au dedans, pour, à un certain âge, retrouver au fond d'un tiroir les bouquets séchés de sa jeunesse, et, grâce, à la réalité, laisser un livre curieux, quelquefois plus longuement vivace que les oeuvres de cerveaux puissants. [e.g. Adolphe, Manon Lescaut.]

L'idéal, pour le romancier impersonnel, est d'être un protée souple, changeant, multiforme, tout à la fois victime et bourreau, juge et accusé, qui sait tour à tour prendre la robe du prêtre, du magistrat, le sabre du militaire, la charrue du laboureur, la naïveté du peuple, la sottise du petit bourgeois.

Par ses incarnations si diverses, l'auteur est obligé d'étudier en même temps le physique et le moral de ses héros; s'il endosse divers habits, il connaît diverses consciences.

Le romancier ne juge pas, ne condamne pas, n'absout pas.

Il expose des faits.

(8) November, 1856. Xavier Aubryet, in L'Artiste, discusses Champfleury; incidentally, he states his own concept of the realist:

Qu'est-ce en effet et que doit être un réaliste? Un homme qui n'est d'aucum parti, qui n'a pas de préférence, qui réfléchit les êtres et les choses, sinon avec sévérité, du moins avec une exactitude impartiale; il peint l'humanité dans tous ses milieux et dans toutes ses sphères, il ne la parque pas dans un coin obscur. De l'homme du peuple au patricien, de la beauté à la laideur, de la détresse à l'opulence, de l'infirmité à la toute puissance, il passe sans indifférence, mais sans élection déterminée; au point de vue de l'art, il choisit,—car c'est là la condition de l'art,—mais au point de vue humain, il ne choisit pas; car sa nature de réaliste le force à reproduire la réalité telle qu'elle est; or, la réalité est aussi charmante qu'horrible, aussi délicate que grossière, aussi naïve que raffinée. [Balzac and Shakespeare are true realists.] Ils n'ont ni haine ni engouement; il y aurait là deux périls d'aveuglement; ils sont surtout impersonnels, objectifs.Le moi, ce moi humain qui est le secret de tant d'oeuvres, ne joue aucun rôle dans leurs créations; ils ont le don de ne pas rester eux-mêmes, non pas comme écrivains, mais comme observateurs.

(9) December, 1856. Duranty, in the second number of Réalisme, summarizes—"pour ceux qui ne comprennent jamais"—the content of the first issue:

. . . il a été très-nettement établi:

Que le Réalisme proscrivait l'historique dans la peinture, dans le roman et dans le théâtre, afin qu'il ne s'y trouvât aucun mensonge, et que l'artiste ne pût pas emprunter son intelligence aux autres;

Que le Réalisme ne voulait, des artistes, que l'étude de leur époque;

Que dans cette étude de leur époque, il leur demandait de ne rien déformer, mais bien de conserver à chaque chose son exacte proportion;

Que la meilleure manière de ne pas errer dans cette étude, était de toujours songer à l'idée de représenter le côté social de l'homme, qui est le plus visible, le plus compréhensible et le plus varié, et de songer ainsi à l'idée de reproduire les choses qui touchent à la vie du plus grand nombre, qui se passent souvent, dans l'ordre des instincts, des désirs, des passions;

Que le Réalisme attribue par là à l'artiste un but philosophique pratique, utile, et non un but divertissant, et par conséquent le relève;

Que, demandant à l'artiste le vrai utile, il lui demande surtout le sentiment, l'observation intelligente qui voit un enseignement, une émotion dans un spectacle de quelque ordre qu'il soit, bas ou noble, selon la convention, et qui tire toujours cet enseignement, cette émotion, de ce spectacle en sachant le représenter complet et le rattacher à l'ensemble social, de sorte que par exemple les reproductions à la Henry Monnier, isolées, fragmentaires, doivent être rejetées de l'art et du réalisme bien qu'on ait voulu les y rattacher;

Que le public était juge définitif de la valeur des sentiments étudiés dans une oeuvre, parce que la foule est tout aussi accessible à la pitié, au malheur, à la colère, etc., que l'écrivain qui s'adresse à elle . . .

(10) In Numbers 2, 3, 5, and 6 of Réalisme, from December, 1856 to May, 1857, Henri Thulié published four articles on the novel, treating respectively character, description, action, and style. These constitute the most important body of theoretical materials in the journal. We may summarize them briefly thus: (a) The character—the most important element in the novel—must be depicted as an individual, not as a type, and with all of the special traits springing from his rank and his environment; he must be typical only in the sense that he represents all the traits of his class; naturally, he must be contemporary, and drawn from any social level. (b) Description is valid only as a means to characterization: landscape and setting as influences on character, together with interiors, physiques and clothing as expressions of character, must be fully described as seen by the artist. (c) Action, too, is subsidiary to character; it arises from differences between the characters of the various actors, and exists only as a further explanation of these characters; hence it must be as simple as possible. (d) Style must be simple, clear, using only as many words as are necessary to express the idea, cultivating the mot propre always in preference to the periphrasis.

(11) August, 1857. Antonio Watripon writes, in Le Présent, an article called "De la moralité en matière d'art et de littérature," in which he insists on the necessity of truthful depiction:

Au fond, ce prétendu idéal de beauté, ce type primitif, n'est qu'une chose de convention et n'aboutit presque toujours qu'au maniérisme. . . . Aussi, les moeurs contemporaines ne tentent-elles que les écrivains vraiment observateurs et les artistes sérieux.

Ce sont précisément ces gardiens antédiluviens de la beauté primitive qui ont toujours à la bouche le rappel au sens moral.

. . . une littérature ne peut pas plus se passer d'observation que les rayons lumineux ne peuvent se passer de demi-teintes et d'oppositions. Or, l'observation n'est pas autre chose que la science; c'est la somme acquise des investigations d'une époque, aussi bien du laid que du beau, de ses croyances que de ses négations. Donc, littérature et science ne peuvent vivre, c'est-à-dire s'élever, qu'autant qu'elles expriment d'une facon générale les besoins, les aspirations et les moeurs, QUELLES QU'ELLES SOIENT, du temps qu'elles prétendent guider et éclairer.

L'oeuvre du romancier est donc de peindre la vie comme elle est; il serait souverainement immoral et dangereux de la peindre autrement; ce serait induire en erreur une masse de lecteurs et conseiller implicitement l'hypocrisie.

Etre vrai avant tout! La vérité ne peut effrayer qui que ce soit; elle ne peut égarer personne.

(12) Francisque Sarcey, in an attack on Champfleury (Figaro, February, 1859), defines "Réalisme et champfleurisme." For each statement on realism, he gives a parallel remark about Champfleury; I quote only the former here:

"Il ne faut peindre que ce que l'on a vu, et le peindre comme on l'a vu; en d'autres termes: il n'y a de véritablement bon dans les lettres, que ce qui est absolument vrai, et les romantiques ne sont pas vrais."

Le Réalisme peint des caractères: sous la variété infinie et toujours changeante des traits qui distinguent chaque individu et lui donnent sa physionomie propre, il cherche les traits immuables de l'espèce où rentre cet individu; il les fixe en un portrait, qui vit et ne doit plus périr.

Le réalisme jette ses personnages dans une action, qui a son commencement, ses progrès et sa fin. Il prend la peine de former ses drames, comme il a pris la peine de les ouvrir.

Le réalisme étudie les passions et les étale à nos yeux dans un relief puissant. C'est ainsi que le peintre fait jaillir, sous la surface unie de la peau, des muscles qui èchappent à la vue courte et inattentive du vulgaire.

Le monde est mêlé de bien et de mal; c'est ainsi que le réalisme l'a toujours représenté. Il met des vertus sublimes à côté de vices hideux, d'héroïques dévouements près depassions égoïstes ou furieuses.

Le réalisme ne remue ces misères que du bout du doigt et pour en inspirer l'horreur . . .

Le réalisme ne mourra point: au moment même où le faux, le convenu, le boursouflé, le grotesque triomphaient sous le couvert du romantisme, les trois grands maîtres du roman contemporain, Stendhal, Balzac et Mérimée, maintenaient avec des fortunes diverses les fortes traditions du réalisme. Ils ont laissé leur succession à de jeunes écrivains, qui la transmettront à d'autres.

(13) 1863. Ernest Feydeau, in a "Préface" to Un Début à l'Opéra, reopened the discussion of realism, especially in its relation to the moot question of morality; the preface excited much comment and controversy. Feydeau pointed out that the contemporary, materialistic public no longer demanded in fiction the pittoresque, but rather an exact representation of itself; hence realism was the only possible form of literature for the second half of the nineteenth century. Realism he defined as "le système qui consiste à peindre la nature (ou l'humanité) telle qu'on la voit." This portrayal involves choice, arrangement, and interpretation of the materials, it includes the ideal as well as the real. If it represents corrupt manners, it is because society itself is corrupt; the novel derives from society, rather than being responsible for social corruption. Hence the reproach of immorality is nonsense.

These are the documents. They extend (if we exclude the first) over a period of ten years. They are the work of ardent realists, of no less ardent adversaries of realism, of critics and novelists, poets and journalists. They appear in the most conventional and in the most progressive of Parisian reviews. Nevertheless, they show a striking unity of conception: realism stating its case in "la bataille réaliste," stated it in approximately these terms. Romanticism and classicism, striving for an ideal beauty and seeking it mainly in the historical subject, arrive only at affectation and falseness. Realism, on the contrary, aims to attain truth. Now truth is attainable only by the observation (scientific and impersonal) of reality—and hence of contemporary life—and by the unadulterated representation of that reality in the work of art. Therefore, in his observations, the artist must be sincere, unprejudiced, encyclopedic. Whatever is real, whatever exists is a proper subject for art; this means that the beautiful and the ugly, the physical and the spiritual, are susceptible of artistic treatment; it does not imply that the artist refrains from choosing his subject and his detail, for choice is fundamental in art. The principal object of imitation is always man; description of the material world, construction of plot, are thus subsidiary and contributory to character portrayal. In setting down his observations, the artist must of course arrange and dispose his materials; but he avoids all possible falsification of them by practicing the utmost simplicity of style and form. The product of this method is moral in the highest sense—truth being the highest morality—and is eminently adapted to the needs of a materialistic, 'realistic' society.

Realism in literature, so conceived, differs in certain respects from realism in painting; these divergences are to be explained largely by the difference in the media of the two arts. The desire for truth, contemporaneity, and completeness, the insistence upon observation and impersonality, the reaction against romantic and classical convention, are common to both. But literary realism goes farther in proclaiming the priority of man and human character among the objects to be imitated, and in declaring that character must be approached by a scientific, analytical method of observation. Again, and unlike pictorial realism, it insists that the artist must choose and arrange his materials. This insistence, in all probability, was merely an answer on the part of the theorists to the attacks levelled previously at the practices of the painters and at the early manifestations of realism in literature. In spite of these differences, however, the doctrine of the realists is essentially the same in both arts.

This similarity is borne out more strikingly still when we consult the definitions of realism which appear in the criticisms of these years. "Calque de la réalité," "copie fidèle de la nature," "peinture exacte," "vérité dans l'art," these and similar phrases recur in practically all of the seventy odd definitions given by the critics. As in the definitions of realism in painting, réalisme is again contrasted with fantaisie, idéalisme, spiritualisme. These formulations, indeed, are almost monotonous in their similarity; very few of them go beyond some phrase such as those quoted, and it would hardly be profitable to list them all here. I cite only a few of the most representative:

[1846]
Fournier: "donner à tous ses récits comme à tous ses personnages les solides contours de la réalité." "rendre la société telle qu'il la voit."
[1847]
Houssaye: "ceux-là qui violent la vérité toute ruisselante encore sur la margelle de son puits."
[1851]
Poincelot: "culte de la vulgarité." "la reproduction infime et systématique de la réalité, sans élévation, sans aspiration vers l'idéal." "l'antithèse de I'Idéalisme."
[1852]
Baschet: "le côté magnifique du Réalisme dans le roman. La vie réelle, la société telle quelle, le monde avec ses accessoires, la représentation des sentiments et des désirs."
[1853]
Mazade: "la minutieuse anatomie des choses qu'il entreprend de peindre et de décrire." "il suffit d'observer, quelle que soit la chose qu'on observe, pourvu qu'elle ait un caractère réel." "la reproduction minutieuse des vulgarités les plus crues."

Villedeuil: "la vie réelle avec ses drames mesquins et ses catastrophes exiguës; . . . avec ses grandeurs et ses petitesses, ses misères et ses ridicules."

Rouquette: "[copier] la nature ligne pour ligne, contour pour contour." "la nature telle qu'elle est, mais non pas telle qu'elle paraît être."

[1854]
Caro: "sensualistes de la forme et de la couleur." "l'imitation brutale de nos moeurs, une sorte de contr'épreuve daguerrienne de la vie de chaque jour."
[1855]
Pontmartin: "le sentiment vrai ou excessif de la réalité se passant de toute poésie ou ne la cherchant qu'en lui-même."

Janin: "tout ce qu'il entend, il le répète; tout ce qu'il voit, il le raconte; il n'arrange rien, il ne déguise rien."

[1859]
Monpont: "peindre de préférence, avec le pinceau ou la plume, les scènes et les objects les plus grossiers, les plus vulgaires, dans ce qu'ils ont de plus vrai, de plus naturel, de plus saisissant, et même de plus repoussant, et ne pas sortir de là."
[1864]
Delaplace: "copier simplement la nature, et mettre son ambition suprême dans l'exactitude de la peinture, dans la perfection des détails."
[1868]
Laprade: "l'art sans idéal." "la reproduction aussi exacte, aussi directe que possible des qualités matérielles d'un objet, . . . la représentation de ce qui tombe sous les sens, de manière à tromper les sens eux-mêmes." "photographier en quelque sorte la nature, . . . reproduire le monde matériel avec toutes les qualités les plus saisissantes de la matière."

From the earliest years, realists and critics alike cast about for ancestors of the new school, for prototypes and examples in the past....

(The entire section is 29540 words.)

Issues And Influence

Vivienne Mylne

SOURCE: "Social Realism in the Dialogue of Eighteenth-Century French Fiction," in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Vol. 6, edited by Ronald C. Rosbottom, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1977, pp. 265-84.

[In the following essay, Mylne explores the trend toward increased use of realistic dialogue in French fiction of the eighteenth century.]

One element of French novels which shows a marked change during the eighteenth century is that of dialogue. The simplest and most obvious way of describing the change is to say that, in a significant number of novels, dialogue becomes more "realistic" in manner and presentation: the...

(The entire section is 27617 words.)

Realism And Representation

Hayden White

SOURCE: "The Problem of Style in Realistic Representation: Marx and Flaubert," in The Concept of Style, edited by Berel Lang, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979, pp. 213-29.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1977, White examines affinities between the realistic style of Flaubert's Sentimental Education and Marx's historical and ideological rendering of nineteenth-century French history in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.]

Prior to the nineteenth century, the problem of style in literature turned upon discussion of techniques of rhetorical composition and especially techniques...

(The entire section is 15842 words.)

Further Reading

Cogny, Pierre. "Realism and Naturalism: Roots of the Twentieth Century," translated by Leslie Brittman and Will L. McLendon with Michel Bodin. In L'Hénaurme Siècle: A Miscellany of Essays on Nineteenth-Century French Literature, edited by Will L. McLendon, pp. 135-43. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1984.

Traces the importance of the nineteeth-century French Realists to twentieth-century literature.

Cook, Malcolm. Fictional France: Social Reality in the French Novel, 1775-1800. Providence, R.I.: Berg, 1993, 169 p.

Surveys the fictional representation of French society during the...

(The entire section is 355 words.)