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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 678

Because Mimesis is organized as a series of disparate examinations of specific texts, arranged so as to present a chronological sweep through Western literature, it may not be readily apparent to all readers what Auerbach’s critical principles are. Nevertheless, the careful student of the work will discern Auerbach’s method of scholarly analysis long before the author makes it clear in his own words. Late in his study, he notes that he has found success in “a method which consists in letting myself by guided by a few motifs which I have worked out gradually.” He goes on to say that he tries these motifs out on a series of texts which have become familiar to him in the course of his philological activity.

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Auerbach is principally a philologist, interested in the way language works. Every investigation of a text begins with an examination of its language: the words, the syntax, the construction of paragraphs, the juxtaposition of words and phrases, the use of dialogue and narration. Throughout, he engages in a process of induction: Specific texts are analyzed so that general principles may arise. Auerbach undertakes frequent comparison and contrast to show the inevitable similarities of technique that join realists of different centuries in their attempts to portray the world around them, or he exposes the limitations which their environments placed on their attempts to reduce the experiences of everyday life into writing. His underlying assumption is that the analysis of a key scene will give insight into the work as a whole; he assumes that the text is all of a piece, and that attitudes toward the subject and techniques of presentation remain constant throughout the work. That is certainly a large set of assumptions; yet as one reads this detailed study, one senses that Auerbach knows of what he speaks.

Though he may be hesitant to offer clean-cut definitions, it becomes clear that Auerbach equates “realism” with a vernacular presentation of sensory experiences, distinguished from the stylized presentation of many classical authors (even Homer is guilty of limited vision in this respect). Representing reality demands that the artist be open to all subjects and to all forms of treatment; his interest in life must be wide-ranging. He faults the writers of the classical tradition (and those of the Enlightenment as well) for stressing the importance of eternal truths and moral dicta at the expense of exploring the commonplace. Such writers deal almost exclusively with the upper classes, ignoring the multitudes whose lives form the milieu in which the actions of great men and women take place.

Auerbach insists that an accurate representation of reality must...

(The entire section contains 678 words.)

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Critical Context