French Realism Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.