The Realistic Imagination

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

More than sixty years ago, in an essay appropriately titled “Modern Fiction” (1919), Virginia Woolf took issue with her contemporaries Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, and H. G. Wells for their failure to carry on the tradition of progress, as she perceived it, in the development of the novel. Victims of some “powerful and unscrupulous tyrant” who demands that fiction conform to conventional expectations, these “materialists” were turning out novels that provided plot, comedy, tragedy, love, and “an air of probability embalming the whole so impeccable” that if the characters in these fictions came to life, “they would find themselves dressed down to the last button of their coats in the fashion of the hour.” She asks, rhetorically, “Is life like this? Must novels be like this?” For her, the answer is no: “life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged,” she insists, but rather “a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” In the works of her popular contemporaries, however, she finds no “life”: “Whether we call it life or spirit,” she argues, “truth or reality, this, the essential thing, has moved off, or on,” and the reader is given only a dose of conventional fictionalizing that is not at all representative of what the world in which he lives is really like.

What Woolf was arguing for was realism—her own special kind, or the kind she found in the works of James Joyce, whom she praises lavishly in the same essay. The authors whom she chastizes, however, believed themselves realists, inheritors (and improvers) of the tradition that included in its ranks some of the great novelists of the preceding century: Jane Austen, William Thackeray, George Eliot. If one accepts Woolf’s definition of realism, it is easy to dismiss the realists of the nineteenth century as mere hacks cranking out conventional set pieces that gave their audiences more of what they expected, more of what they wanted to be told. For more than half a century before Woolf’s essay was published, however, serious novelists and equally serious critics had debated the issue of realism in the novel, and the question was certainly not resolved on the side of Bennett and Galsworthy when Woolf joined the argument. As early as the 1870’s, Henry James sought to refine the notion of realism to make it more in keeping with his own belief that highly ordered experience, related from the limited perspective of a discerning but not omniscient mind, would most closely approximate life as the reader experienced it outside the fictional world. James was not alone; in the last half of the nineteenth century, scores of critics entered the fray to define literary realism and evaluate works purporting to represent reality frankly and directly.

Woolf’s essay has certainly not been the last word on the subject, either; a bibliography of articles and books attempting to define realism and determine which writers can be classified as realists would itself extend to monograph length. To call Thackeray and Alain Robbe-Grillet, Anthony Trollope and James Joyce realists requires some serious mental gymnastics for the average reader. If, however, one believes that the critic’s task is to offer judgments about works of literature, then the necessity for establishing terms for reporting such judgments is apparent: without a common vocabulary, there can be no real understanding among those who seek to exchange ideas about the value of any work of literature.

The most prevalent modern critical assumption, supported by the Deconstructionist critics, is that “realism” as a movement in literature was at best simply another way of describing a set of conventions used to create fictions; “realistic” works do no more to convey the world “out there” than other modes of fiction, and the realist’s claim that he is portraying “life” is spurious. As a movement, so this account goes, “realism” died a well-merited death sometime around the beginning or end of World War I, certainly by the end of World War II.

George Levine’s The Realistic Imagination challenges this widely accepted view, arguing instead that the great realistic novelists of the nineteenth century were engaged in a process “intimately and authoritatively connected to the modernist position.” For the nineteenth century novelists, “realism” was a method that was intentionally anti-literary, exploratory in nature (and thus consonant with empirical science), and particularly suited to moral instruction because it focused on the ordinary in such a way as to give the commonplace special significance. Levine sees the realists embarked on a quest, the “impelling energy” of which was the belief that beyond the world of words there lies a real world “meaningful and good; the persistent fear” felt by the great novelists of the age was that the world outside was “merely monstrous and mechanical, beyond the control of human meaning.” In this important study of the conventions of the genre, Levine attempts to synthesize the criticism of a hundred years and select from it those readings which most accurately describe what he finds in the texts of more than a score of novels written during almost every decade of the century. His attempt is, on the whole, remarkably successful.

Levine’s major thesis is that realism was a process, an evolutionary phenomenon in which novelists of every decade of the century participated in some way. Born out of an attempt to subvert the conventions of the romance, realism soon came to have conventions of its own, and later novelists found it necessary to violate those artificial strictures to describe the world as they perceived it. Levine sketches out his argument in an introductory chapter that presents in capsule all that is to follow, and simultaneously “places” the nineteenth century realists within both the English literary tradition and the intellectual climate of the age. He sees the authors of the nineteenth century not as simple moralists, but rather as extremely self-conscious artists worried about the nature of reality and about the...

(The entire section is 2528 words.)