Realism in the English Novel
Realism in the English Novel
Although early prose fiction prototypes of the novel had been popular with readers since the late seventeenth century, the English novel as such only became a mature and predominant literary form in the mid-eighteenth century. After decades of embattled popularity—embattled because the gaurdians of aesthetic value saw these works of fictions as a frivolous and corrupting upstart too derivative of French romance—the novel finally won a respectable place in the literary eschelons in the 1740s, due largely to the works of two writers: Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. Daniel Defoe's Advenstures of Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719, was the only earlier prose fiction to earn similar favor. The change in opinion, as well as the last step in the novel's rise to sovereignty, has been attributed to the growing presence of realism as the novel's defining formal characteristic.
Before the eighteenth century, prose fiction was a relatively rare phenomenon and aroused controversy about narrative fabrication, a largely religious concern quite foreign to readers today. Nonetheless, seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century readers of, for example, travel narratives were apt to criticize authors for making up tales rather than recording actual experiences. Consequently, authors of the same period typically presented their writings as manuscripts they had found and edited for public consumption. In this way, realism in the novel was synonymous with veracity: it denied altogether its fictionality and, in prefaces and other narrative devices, asserted its reality to the reader.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the reading public happily consumed "novels"—those prose fictions understood to be an author's original fabrication with wholly fictive characters and events. Since realism in these works could not suggest anything about their veracity, it encompassed instead the dominant meanings the term has today, described by literary critic Ian Watt in 1962 as "particularity of description" and "the primacy of individual experience." The former pinpoints the meaning of realism most obvious to readers today: a "photographic" attention to detail, apparently comprehensive and relatively commonplace, also called verisimilitude. But realism in the novel, according to scholars, also includes significant choices in subject matter. As distinct from earlier literary genres and from the novel's own roots in French romance—which traded in the fantastical and the noble—the eighteenth-century novel strove for some appearance of probability and even the mundane in character, setting, and event. Even highly unusual events, such as Robinson Crusoe's shipwreck, authors sought to provide with a logical cause-and-effect and a solidity of detail in order to achieve the reader's willing suspension of disbelief. This shift also entailed a significant change in character focus: the epic heroes and nobility that populated so many centuries of poetry gave way, more often than not, to middle-class protagonists. (In fact, many literary critics have associated the rise of the novel with the rise of the middle classes in Western Europe—a rise caught up in major changes in economics and politics.) Not only did the new novel form depict a different type of character, but it also used a new manner of representation: as Ian Watt and others have contended, the novel focused on the portrayal of the experience of the individual. Even though neoclassical literature might have spotlighted the exploits of a single hero, it would not have been rooted in that character's psychology, but in the novel the exploration of individual consciousness and perception became the primary concern of representation.
Although the English novel began in the late seventeenth-century as an offshoot of continental romance, its later rejection of the fabulous imaginings and idealism of the romance and classical narrative has prompted most critics since then to define its realism as the antithesis of romance. This shift found its most legendary expression in Spanish literature, with the "anti-romantic" Don Quixote, written by Miguel Cervantes in the early seventeenth-century. In this work, the protagonist, a minor nobleman with depleted funds, determines to live his life as a questing knight and according to the ethic of chivalric romance—of which he has read too much. But Quixote's world is a "realist" one, in which the circumstances do not conform to the rules of romance, and his struggles demonstrate again and again the often pathetic conflict between his favorite genre and the "real" world. The realism he encounters puts away the ideal of human perfectability for an unflinching portrayal of human weaknesses. Taken to the extreme, as it was by many French writers in the nineteenth-century, realism came to mean not just the depiction of the commonplace, but even of the base and low. Writers like Émile Zola, called "naturalists" as well as realists, described human imperfection with a single-mindedness that emphasized degradation and misery.
One effect of broadness of the term "realism" is that most fiction can be understood to be "realist" in some sense. For example, a storyline quite like a traditional romance—dealing with improbable and idealized people and events—could be deemed "realist" because the descriptive style is realist. However, this broad range of characteristics of realism in literature have fueled its rise to literary prominence in and throughout the nineteenth-century and on into the twentieth, and have become almost synonymous with the novel itself.
Fanny Burney, Evelina (1778)
Miguel Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605; 1615)
Daniel Defoe, Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719)
Henry Fielding, Joseph Andrews (1742)
Henry Fielding, Tom Jones (1749)
Samuel Richardson, Pamela (1740)
Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (1760-1767)
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SOURCE: "Richardson and Fielding," in The English Novel, John Murray, 1894, pp. 140-79.
[In the following chapter from his The English Novel, Raleigh discusses both the roots of prose fiction in drama and its maturation in the works of Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. Much of the credit that he gives these authors depends on the presence of realism in their fiction, especially "direct" narrative from a character's point of view, attention to detail in description, and a focus on the processes of individual consciousness.]
In one or other of the various literary forms dealt with in the last chapter, almost all the characteristic features of the modern novel are to be found. Yet the novel was slow to arise. For many years after the appearance of the masterly sketches and tales of the Tatler and Spectator, writers were content to imitate these more or less exactly in the literary journals of the day, and to seek for no more ambitious development. It was not until years after Madame de la Fayette had created a new era in French fiction by her novel La Princesse de Clèves (1678), not until years after Marivaux by his Vie de Marianne (1731) had singularly anticipated Richardson in subject and treatment, although, so far as can be ascertained, without influencing him, that the English Pamela was born in 1740.
The reason of the delay is not hard...
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SOURCE: "Rise of Realism," in PMLA, N.s., Vol. XXI, No. 1, 1913, pp. 213-52.
[In the following essay, Tieje unearths in fiction previous to Richardson a "striving toward a crude form of realism," which he defines as an author's desire "to gain the implicit credence of the reader"—that is, strategies and styles fashioned to convince the reader that the story is factual rather than imaginative.]
No investigator of the expressed theory of pre-Richardsonian fiction need labor long before he discovers that all the declared aims of writers of prose fiction may probably be reduced to five: desire to entertain the reader, to edify him, to impart information to him, to depict life for him, to arouse his emotions. Gradually, however, if the student analyze these intentions, he will become aware of what might be called a sixth expressed aim—the conscious effort of an author to gain the implicit credence of the reader. Yet this effort is so much more than a mere expressed aim that it is perhaps best described as a striving toward a crude form of realism. As such, and in its effect upon both content and structure of nearly all types of early fiction, it merits close study. And nothing save quotation upon quotation can indicate the hold upon pre-Richardsonian fiction of this effort to force belief—so the movement may well be termed. For the phrase, "conscious effort," does not here imply any consideration of...
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SOURCE: "Realism," in A Study of Prose Fiction, Revised Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1920, pp. 217-57.
[In the excerpt that follows, Perry first examines the primary meanings of "realism" in both fine art and literature from the Renaissance through the twentieth century and subsequently proposes a definition of realism as an "effort to depict things as they are, life as it is."]
We are to discuss in this chapter a somewhat difficult theme,—one that has long occupied the attention of the reading public, and about which all the critics, and indeed most of the novelists, have at one time or another had their say. No term dealing with literary methods has been more current than "realism," and there is none that needs a more exact analysis. In connection with all the fine arts the word "realism" is used, but we do not always use it in the same sense. In criticising works of art the term is employed with at least four distinct shades of meaning.
First, we speak of realism as opposed to conventionalism. In decorative work, for instance, there is usually no attempt to represent any particular flower or tree, but simply to repeat a conventional pattern. But if in the carvings around a cathedral door we find among the conventional trefoils and dragons an effort to represent an actual plant or animal of that neighborhood, we speak of the "realism" of the mediæval sculptor. In like manner,...
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SOURCE: The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, University of California Press, 1962, pp. 9-59.
[Watt's The Rise of the Novel has remained one of the most important critical works on the English novel. In the two chapters reprinted below, Watt claims formal realism as the single most significant ingredient in the novel's rise to precedence as a literary genre.]
There are still no wholly satisfactory answers to many of the general questions which anyone interested in the early eighteenth-century novelists and their works is likely to ask: Is the novel a new literary form? And if we assume, as is commonly done, that it is, and that it was begun by Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, how does it differ from the prose fiction of the past, from that of Greece, for example, or that of the Middle Ages, or of seventeenth-century France? And is there any reason why these differences appeared when and where they did?
Such large questions are never easy to approach, much less to answer, and they are particularly difficult in this case because Defoe, Richardson and Fielding do not in the usual sense constitute a literary school. Indeed their works show so little sign of mutual influence and are so different in nature that at first sight it appears that our curiosity about the rise of the novel is unlikely to find any satisfaction other than the meagre one afforded by...
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Allen, Walter. "The Eighteenth Century." The English Novel: A Short Critical History, pp. 31-106. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1954.
Celebrates the mid-eighteenth-century achievements of Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Tobias Smollett as "the great flowering of the English novel."
Baker, Ernest A. "The Establishment of Realism." The History of the Novel, Volume III—The Later Romances and the Establishment of Realism, pp. 130-74. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1929.
Concentrates on Daniel Defoe as "the turning point in the history of the English novel," which Baker credits to the novelist's talents for detail and character consistency.
Bond, Clinton. "Representing Reality: Strategies of Realism in the Early English Novel." Eighteenth-Century Fiction 6, No. 2 (January 1994): 121-40.
Contends that claims to veracity in eighteenth-century did not actually try to deceive readers, but rather sought to legitimate the place of fiction among other humanist ideological discourses.
Boyle, Nicholas and Martin Swayles, eds. Realism in European Literature. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986, 206 p.
Explores the realist tradition in England and on the...
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