Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Erich Auerbach tackles a formidable topic in his scholarly investigation of the concept of mimesis. The Greek word, translated literally as “imitation,” means for the literary scholar the method by which a writer imitates the real world around him and conveys a sense of that world to the reader. Central to any analysis of the concept is the identification of those elements of the narrative that transmit the sensory environment in which the action takes place. Auerbach offers the following description of the technical function of mimesis in a writer’s work:Imitation of reality is imitation of the sensory experience of life on earth—among the most essential characteristics of which would seem to be its possessing a history, its changing and developing. Whatever degree of freedom the imitating artist may be granted in his work, he cannot be allowed to deprive reality of this characteristic.

His study of the concept leads him to explore a wide range of literary works, from the writings of the ancient Greeks through almost all Western literature to examples from twentieth century stream-of-consciousness novelists. Wherever he looks, he searches for “representations of everyday life,” to discover ways “in which that life is treated seriously, in terms of human and social problems” or in terms of “its tragic complications.”

Auerbach seeks to answer four key questions: What style best represents reality? What is the opposite of mimesis—fantasy, farce, rhetoric? What elements of realism influence the artist who writes intentionally nonrealistic literature? What cultural, historical, or literary phenomena affect the writer’s attitudes toward contemporary reality and determine his obligation to represent it faithfully?

To formulate a comprehensive response, Auerbach scours the great works of Western literature—and many not-so-famous ones as well. Individual chapters highlight key passages from Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.); works by Roman writers Petronius, Ammianus Marcellinus, and historian Gregory of Tours; the Chanson de Roland; Chretien de Troyes’s Yvain (c. 1177-1181); Dante’s Inferno (c. 1320); and Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1349-1351). His examination of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment takes him to scenes from works by Antoine de Sales, Francois Rabelais, William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes, Moliere, and the Abbe Prevost. The writings of Friedrich Schiller, Stendhal, and the Goncourt brothers (Edmond and Jules de Goncourt), as well as passages from Honore de Balzac and Emile Zola, serve him as examples of the way the concept of reality is dealt with by artists of the nineteenth century, the era in which the modern concept of realism emerges. A lengthy examination of a scene from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) offers him a text to demonstrate what happens to the concept of reality in the hands of men and women who are his contemporaries.

In his...

(The entire section is 1241 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Barrett, William. Review in Saturday Review. XXXVII (March 20, 1954), p. 21.

Boyd, John D. The Function of Mimesis and Its Decline, 1968.

Holdheim, Wolfgang. “Auerbach’s Mimesis as Historical Understanding,” in Clio. X (Winter, 1981), pp. 143-154.

Hughes, Serge. Review in Commonweal. LIX (February 5, 1954), p. 454.

Landauer, Carl. “Mimesis and Eric Auerbach’s Self-Mythologizing,” in German Studies Review. XI (February, 1988), pp. 83-96.

Lyons, John D., and Stephen G. Nichols, Jr. Mimesis: From Mirror to Method, Augustine to Descartes, 1982.

Morrison, Karl F. The Mimetic Tradition of Reform in the West, 1982.

Schwartz, Delmore. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LVIII (November 29, 1953), p. 40.

Tuve, Rosemond. Review in The Yale Review. XLIII (Summer, 1954), pp. 619-622.