How can one critically respond to Elaine Auyong's view on literary realism using the opening paragraph of Gaskell's Mary Barton?

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In her essay “Rethinking the Reality Effect,” Elaine Auyoung discusses cognitive processes that shape how readers of realist fiction make sense of the written word to create a fictional world based on the information provided in the text. She states in the first paragraph,

From cotton stockings in Madame Bovary to umbrellas in Bleak House to oysters in Anna Karenina, realist novels have long been distinguished for the abundance of empirical details that they contain.

Auyoung maintains that these realistic details not only evoke an intellectual response in the reader but also a phenomenological response, which means that they signify on the lived experiences of the reader. More importantly, Auyoung also argues that what is not said in the text is more important than what is said. She states,

The cognitive tendency that realist writers particularly seek to engage is the reader’s everyday readiness to recognize what fragmentary cues imply. In fact, this economical strategy of world-creation lies at the heart of any attempt to evoke an illusory world without reproducing it in its entirety.

In summary, Auyoung posits that the reader engages in active cognitive processes to make sense of the text and imagine fictional worlds. Fictional worlds are hence not only created by authors of realist novels but also by readers who read and interpret them based on the information provided.

Auyong’s arguments are somewhat convincing; however, one of the major problems with her interpretation of the reading process is that in order to fill in the gap and create a fictional world, the reader needs to have a certain level of a priori knowledge and lived experience that serves as a mental reference frame. Auyong acknowledges this in her discussion of bottom-up and bottom-down cognitive processes, but a closer look at the first paragraph of Elisabeth Gaskell’s novel Mary Barton reveals that Auyong’s theory may fall short. Gaskell’s novel is a classic example of nineteenth-century realism depicting the hardships of the Victorian working classes.

The opening paragraph of the novel provides the reader with a detailed description of the setting, “some fields near Manchester, well known to the inhabitants as ‘Green Heys Fields,’ through which runs a public footpath to a little village about two miles distant.” The description then goes on to provide details about the setting,

Old black and white farm-house, with its rambling outbuildings, speaks of other times and other occupations than those which now absorb the population of the neighbourhood. Here in their seasons may be seen the country business of hay-making, ploughing, &c., which are such pleasant mysteries for townspeople to watch; and here the artisan, deafened with noise of tongues and engines, may come to listen awhile to the delicious sounds of rural life: the lowing of cattle, the milk-maids' call, the clatter and cackle of poultry in the old farm-yards.

When reading this passage and the rich details provided, the reader can easily imagine the setting; however, whether or not this passage does indeed signify on lived experiences of the reader or merely abstract historical knowledge is open for debate. Most people today have no experience with haymaking or milk-maids’ calls and hence have to resort to abstract knowledge. One could further argue that because the readers’ personal knowledge and experiences with country life are probably limited, the details provided in the passage rather than the gaps help the reader create a fictional world. In other words, Auyong’s claims are problematic because the process of creating a fictional world depends in no small part on the cultural context and lived experiences of the reader. These, however, cannot be assumed to be the same in everyone who reads a realist novel.

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