George Eliot

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What is George Eliot's idea of realism?

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Chapter 17 of Adam Bede provides a good explication of Eliot's ideas about realism.

Eliot begins by saying that readers often want an idealized picture of characters, especially "good" characters such as clergyman. However, Eliot pushes back against this desire, making what is at heart a moral argument in favor of realism.

In doing so, she is implicitly pushing back against Romanticism. Romantic writers wanted to depict life as it ought to be, not as it is. They wanted to paint idealized portraits of people and life to inspire and stir readers to, in effect, reach for the stars and to be the best that they could be. The Romantics wished especially to show simple people as bigger than life—at their best and most heroic—even if this was not the way people are ninety-nine percent of the time.

In contrast, Eliot insists it does the most good to depict people as they really are, "warts and all," as the saying goes. She argues that this helps readers learn to tolerate the faults in the people around them rather than expecting too much from others and becoming judgmental and disillusioned. People are flawed—that is reality. Good people make mistakes. Everyone has weak points and blind spots. The more we can accept that, Eliot says, the more we can be useful members of a community.

Eliot compares her realism, as does Thomas Hardy, to seventeenth century Dutch art. Eliot says that some people despise this art for not being exalted and ideal. However, she defends it for depicting homely, everyday life as it is with cracked milk jugs and ordinary people—because this is what life is like.

In defending her realism, Eliot makes the case for literature as didactic—it is meant to teach us how to live. Eliot believes we can best learn how to live by seeing and accepting life as imperfect.

Eliot's novels often practice what we might call a gentle realism—her good characters, like Adam Bede, can be idealized, but she does, in general, try to depict life as she sees it, the good and the bad mixed together, which leads her to paint complex portraits of individuals and situations.

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