This is the first in the promised series of posts on realism, modernism, and post-modernism. Do I need to repeat my warning about where people can stick their reproaches as to how this post is not scholarly enough?

The XIXth century brought us the beautiful realist literature. The Industrial Revolution, the technological advances, the ideas of positivism made people believe that the world could be understood, explained, and narrated. Realist authors create complex narrative universes that are so detailed that readers begin to perceive them as real.

However, it is a mistake to believe that in their novels realist writers simply describe reality as they find it. That is not even remotely the case. A realist writer doesn’t want to describe as much as s/he wants to create. Realist writers are didactic and moralizing but they are also very good at sneaking their ideology past the readers in a way that we often don’t even notice that we are being manipulated.

The hook these controlling authors use to hold you under control is a beautiful, intricate, fascinating plot. You get invested into the story and become eager to find out what will happen next. And the only person who can reveal the story’s development to you is the God of this small narrative universe – the all-knowing, all-powerful narrator. Now that the writer has entrapped you with the plot, you will have to consume the ideas s/he wants to feed you. The omniscient narrator is rarely even there. All you get to hear is a disembodied voice that is not attached to a specific person, and that makes it hard to question the veracity of the narrative. When Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina with “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, readers don’t see this as a statement made by an extremely sexist man who created one of the most unhappy families in existence and who is the last person in the world you want to consult on the subject of families but as some sort of an eternal wisdom. And this is precisely what a realist wants us to do.

A realist novel drowns us in details and offers mountains of facts. Note how often a realist novel begins with a very long introductory chapter that narrates the history of the protagonist’s family across generations. All of this detailed information is provided in order to convince us that the narrator really knows this stuff and should be trusted implicitly.

Writers like Balzac and Galdos created such complex and fascinating literary universes that a reader can spend a lifetime exploring them. For me, the most enjoyable part of reading realist novels is trying to locate these small fissures in the narrative flow where the author lets us catch a glimpse of the manipulative nature of the text.

Who is your favorite realist / naturalist writer?


11 thoughts on “Realism

  1. I love it when the all-knowing author makes ominous statements like: ‘Little did she know that…’, or extremely bold general statements like: ‘As all young men in this age of ours, he… ‘. I am not sure why it is so pleasant to read things like that. Maybe because for a second it is like I am able to believe that there is, in fact, some authority out there that knows those things, what will happen next to me as well, how all young men are…etc. 🙂
    I know very little about literature theory, so I love your posts about this. I have never thought of those authors as manipulative, but of course you are right, they are… and so are many other things that are entertaining, like for example TV shows which also normally bring across some kind of fixed world view.
    Could it be that manipulative and entertaining are related?

    To answer your question: Thomas Hardy (but I read those books many years ago — he is a realist, right?). Isn’t Ian McEwan actually kind of a realist among today’s authors?


    1. “Could it be that manipulative and entertaining are related?”

      – ABSOLUTELY! In my next post, I will discuss modernism and we will see why modernist art stops being entertaining the moment it renounces manipulation.

      I LOVE Hardy, too.


  2. Hey Clarissa feel like reading some excruciatingly bad writing? each year this web site asks people to submit the most poorly written sentences they can come up with on purpose the results are pretty funny. With you being an expert on literature I thought you might get a laugh out of it


  3. Oh, Hardy and Eliot are realists? I really, *really* like both of them!

    Who else? Hmm … I like Madame Bovary, but I haven’t read any other books by Flaubert, so I’m not sure I can count him. What about Dostoevsky? Is he a realist? And Jane Austen? I know you don’t like her, and she is very *early* nineteenth century, but she certainly fits the bill of drowning you in detail and using omniscient narrators who make sweeping, authoritative statements.

    If she counts, she’s definitely one of my favorites. But the #1 spot probably goes to George Eliot. I love her so much.

    I feel so weird having a literature degree and not really knowing what realism is or how to spot a realist author.

    (I have other 19th-century authors who might fit this genre that I’m curious about but haven’t read yet, like Thackeray, Elizabeth Gaskell and, of course, George Gissing.)


  4. I suppose all authors I love are realists. Here I wanted to recommend Bernard Shaw’s plays “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” and “Saint Joan”, where you can see real strong people, who happen to be women. I’ve recently read “The Awakening”, which you said you loved, but Edna can’t be compared to the strength of character of the main heroine of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”. If you read any of them, I would be super curious to hear your impressions. I am sure the plays can be downloaded for free.

    Bernard Shaw wrote very long prefaces to his plays, in which he expressed his opinions about the topic in question. However, in plays themselves he can’t and doesn’t put any author’s remarks, letting characters show themselves to us, which is probably vastly preferable and harder than making “ominous statements”.

    Btw, I love the prefaces because they give historical context, and Shaw’s social and psychological analysis of the situation, be it about cruelty and legal justice in Middle Ages vs now in “Saint Joan” (isn’t so simple, as it seems) OR about practice of medicine and characters of doctors in another play.

    I feel Shaw is straighforward and doesn’t try to manipulate me, but rather present his point of view, which is, at least in part, different.


    1. OK, let me first get through modernism and postmodernism before we get to theater. 🙂 I will be posting about theater a lot in the future because I’m preparing a course on drama.

      I’m not a huge fan of Shaw, though, precisely because I find him way too moralizing.


  5. Interesting how much the contemporary interest, in reading a work of literature, is on where the author sets out to trick us. I’m not saying this is an unfruitful angle on a work of art, from from that. It’s just that I think the logic has reached its limit, whereby people cannot read for understand or to gain information very much, anymore. They’re too busy trying to find “the trick”, the method of deception…

    I’m sure I speak above all for myself, since I have bookshelves of those critters (books) which I can no longer read any more.


    1. But imagine how boring my job would be if we didn’t try to come up with our own readings of books. “Cervantes writes about a place in La Mancha whose name he doesn’t want to remember. Well, if he says so, it must be true.” 🙂 :-$


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