Realism is shaped by two formal issues: the need to represent the random, mundane nature of the "real" world, and the imperative to give literary narrative a satisfying shape and structure.  Give...

Realism is shaped by two formal issues: the need to represent the random, mundane nature of the "real" world, and the imperative to give literary narrative a satisfying shape and structure.  Give some examples of how the 19th century authors of Jane Eyre and The Awakening manage and resolve these seemingly incompatible aspects of realism. 

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Always for human beings there is an outer reality and an inner reality. In the 19th century, the Victorian Age, there was an imposed outer world of propriety; nevertheless, the Victorian novel that emphasized the realistic portrayal of social life did not neglect the many social issues of this age and the interior realities in its narratives. Such renowned authors as Charles Dickens examined the issues connected to social class and social reform. Charlotte Bronte and Kate Chopin chose to examine the interior realities of the repression of women and their growing awareness of self and desire to achieve "a voice" as well as the very real examination of passion. 

Bronte's novel Jane Eyre is a coming-of-age narrative of a woman's passions, and it is told in stages:

  1. At Gateshead, the orphaned child Jane learns to stand up for herself, refusing to be badgered by her cruel cousins.
  2. At Lowood School, Jane rejects the passive Christianity of her friend Helen and the saintly teacher Miss Temple who counsels Jane.
  3. At Thornfield, as the governess Jane resents the treatment of Miss Blake and others, and demands fairness. After feeling that Mr. Rochester has betrayed her after she agrees to marry him and it is discovered that he is already married, Jane leaves.
  4. At Marsh End, after nearly starving to death, Jane finds a family, but again she is oppressed by St. John Rivers. This time it is a religious suppression that Jane suffers.
  5. At Ferndean - Jane leaves her Victorian society and finds spiritual love and a new place.

In four of these homes, Jane is repressed, and she witnesses the repression of others, as well. Still, she does learn some valuable lessons about the necessity of controlling emotion as she witnesses in Mr. Rochester unbridled passion that does some harm to her:

His fury was wrought to the highest: he must yield to it for a moment, whatever followed; he crossed the floor and seized my arm and grasped my waist....

and, certainly, in Bertha Rochester's character Jane learns the danger of emotions that go out of control. Therefore, when her inner emotions are liberated, Jane has attained a maturity that allows her independence so that she can live a life of her own choosing, a truly free life in which her passions are balanced.

Female independence is also central to Kate Chopin's The Awakening; however, Edna Pontellier does not gain control of herself as does Jane Eyre, perhaps because she can find no way out of her repression without bringing social condemnation upon herself and embarrassment upon her family; she is trapped by society. She does, however, rise spiritually as she embraces the world of art, first inspired by Mademoiselle's Reisz's passionate piano, and then by her own ventures in painting. For, later in the narrative, Edna feels a sense "of having descended in the social scale, [yet] with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual."

Like Jane, Edna is strong enough to rebel, but in her Victorian society she is too fragile to maintain this rebellion as her final awakening is to the isolation in which she has placed herself by rebelling against the stifling conventions of her life in which female sexuality is a topic that is taboo. In addition, her art is escapist rather than fulfilling. So, she is not strong enough to bear up to Victorian society because, unlike Jane Eyre, she has not looked ahead to consequences. As she has done with her art, Edna then takes the route of escapism and drowns herself as she cannot conform.

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thanatassa's profile pic

thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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As the questioner points out, our actual lives rarely have a satisfactory narrative trajectory of the sort that the readers of fiction demand. Nineteenth-century writers responded to this in two ways. The first was engaging in radical experimentalism, throwing out the narrative conventions that required a neo-Aristotelian trajectory in the plot of theater and drama and embracing the random and irrational. Kate Chopin and Charlotte Brontë, though, retained the conventional plot trajectory and apparatus necessary to conform to genre expectations. In that way, both are relatively conventional writers, despite their often controversial subject matter. In both cases, the writers use coincidences to make the plot machinery move towards improbable resolutions.

In Jane Eyre, perhaps the most often cited improbable plot mechanic is the telepathic moment in which Jane hears Rochester's voice calling to her in a dream, and instead of accompanying St. John Rivers to India, returns to Thornfield. As stated above, the realism of the novel lies in the description of different environments and of the characters' emotions. Many of the plot elements are obviously artificial, such as the wish-fulfillment narrative of the poor, orphaned, physically unattractive governess attracting the true deep love of the wealthy employer, a plot that is both trite and unrealistic. Very few wealthy men in the period married their servants; the reality was more likely to include either ignoring them completely or raping them and then firing them if they got pregnant.

Although The Awakening does not have any elements as wildly improbable as telepathy, many of the meetings among lovers and the intensity, timing, and symmetry of the relationships are cleaner and less messy that real relationships. Coincidences  and timing are frequently used plot devices. Again, as stated above, the realism lies in the interior feelings of the protagonist rather than in the plot structure.

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