Realism in the English Novel Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Realism in the English Novel

Although early prose fiction prototypes of the novel had been popular with readers since the late seventeenth century, the English novel as such only became a mature and predominant literary form in the mid-eighteenth century. After decades of embattled popularity—embattled because the gaurdians of aesthetic value saw these works of fictions as a frivolous and corrupting upstart too derivative of French romance—the novel finally won a respectable place in the literary eschelons in the 1740s, due largely to the works of two writers: Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. Daniel Defoe's Advenstures of Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719, was the only earlier prose fiction to earn similar favor. The change in opinion, as well as the last step in the novel's rise to sovereignty, has been attributed to the growing presence of realism as the novel's defining formal characteristic.

Before the eighteenth century, prose fiction was a relatively rare phenomenon and aroused controversy about narrative fabrication, a largely religious concern quite foreign to readers today. Nonetheless, seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century readers of, for example, travel narratives were apt to criticize authors for making up tales rather than recording actual experiences. Consequently, authors of the same period typically presented their writings as manuscripts they had found and edited for public consumption. In this way, realism in the novel was synonymous with veracity: it denied altogether its fictionality and, in prefaces and other narrative devices, asserted its reality to the reader.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the reading public happily consumed "novels"—those prose fictions understood to be an author's original fabrication with wholly fictive characters and events. Since realism in these works could not suggest anything about their veracity, it encompassed instead the dominant meanings the term has today, described by literary critic Ian Watt in 1962 as "particularity of description" and "the primacy of individual experience." The former pinpoints the meaning of realism most obvious to readers today: a "photographic" attention to detail, apparently comprehensive and relatively commonplace, also called verisimilitude. But realism in the novel, according to scholars, also includes significant choices in subject matter. As distinct from earlier literary genres and from the novel's own roots in French romance—which traded in the fantastical and the noble—the eighteenth-century novel strove for some appearance of probability and even the mundane in character, setting, and event. Even highly unusual events, such as Robinson Crusoe's shipwreck, authors sought to provide with a logical cause-and-effect and a solidity of detail in order to achieve the reader's willing suspension of disbelief. This shift also entailed a significant change in character focus: the epic heroes and nobility that populated so many centuries of poetry gave way, more often than not, to middle-class protagonists. (In fact, many literary critics have associated the rise of the novel with the rise of the middle classes in Western Europe—a rise caught up in major changes in economics and politics.) Not only did the new novel form depict a different type of character, but it also used a new manner of representation: as Ian Watt and others have contended, the novel focused on the portrayal of the experience of the individual. Even though neoclassical literature might have spotlighted the exploits of a single hero, it would not have been rooted in that character's psychology, but in the novel the exploration of individual consciousness and perception became the primary concern of representation.

Although the English novel began in the late seventeenth-century as an offshoot of continental romance, its later rejection of the fabulous imaginings and idealism of the romance and classical narrative has prompted most critics since then to define its realism as the antithesis of romance. This shift found its most legendary expression in Spanish literature, with the "anti-romantic" Don Quixote, written by Miguel Cervantes in the early seventeenth-century. In this work, the protagonist, a minor nobleman with depleted funds, determines to live his life as a questing knight and according to the ethic of chivalric romance—of which he has read too much. But Quixote's world is a "realist" one, in which the circumstances do not conform to the rules of romance, and his struggles demonstrate again and again the often pathetic conflict between his favorite genre and the "real" world. The realism he encounters puts away the ideal of human perfectability for an unflinching portrayal of human weaknesses. Taken to the extreme, as it was by many French writers in the nineteenth-century, realism came to mean not just the depiction of the commonplace, but even of the base and low. Writers like Émile Zola, called "naturalists" as well as realists, described human imperfection with a single-mindedness that emphasized degradation and misery.

One effect of broadness of the term "realism" is that most fiction can be understood to be "realist" in some sense. For example, a storyline quite like a traditional romance—dealing with improbable and idealized people and events—could be deemed "realist" because the descriptive style is realist. However, this broad range of characteristics of realism in literature have fueled its rise to literary prominence in and throughout the nineteenth-century and on into the twentieth, and have become almost synonymous with the novel itself.