Essays on Realism
The Realistic Imagination: English Fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterley
Many readers still believe, despite much dissuasion, that serious fiction is bound to be realistic. Not real, but realistic: they know it is fiction, but fiction taking a particularly affirmative attitude toward common sense and the sense of reality sustained by observation and communication. They know when a sentence is realistic. “Buttoned to the throat in a long, soft overcoat, dark green, Clarence Feiler got off the Hendaye Express in the Madrid station.” Realistic, because it gives the impression that other people got off the same train, and that reality is made up of many similar gestures and presences. “The moon rocks whistled ‘Finlandia,’ by Jean Sibelius, while reciting The Confessions of St. Augustine, by I.F. Stone.” No, not realistic; because the sentence (from Donald Barthelme’s story “A Film”) does not give the impression that the subject is separable from this account of it and is in some sense independent of the account. So the sentence is read as a joke, a conceit, a verbal flourish effected by virtue of the fact that you can make sentences say what you can’t make moon rocks do.
Does it matter? Or rather: who cares? Isn’t the world large enough to contain a sentence ostensibly about a train in Madrid and another ostensibly about a book not yet written by I.F. Stone? Yes, but the capacity of the world is not the point. The trouble is that a sentence is not ideologically neutral: our two sentences agree to maintain the decencies of English grammar, but agree upon nothing else. Ideologically, they are further apart than Ronald Reagan and Norman Mailer.
Let me take a few practice shots at a description of Realism. A work of literature is realistic when the reader finds it easy to forget that it is literature, the fiction is so continuous with what he already knows of life. Realism tries hard to give the impression that the work of art is really a work of nature, and that the artist has merely taken dictation from a truth-telling force in life itself. A novel about a group of Catholic students at a provincial university in England will concede, if questioned on the point, that it is fiction, an imagined thing, but it does all it can to prevent the question from arising: specifically, it proceeds as though its particular form and style arose so spontaneously from the experience it presents that the gap between the experience and the style seems to be closed.
A realistic sentence says to the reader: believe me; or at least, have the experience which would follow upon notional belief. A sentence indifferent to Realism says: enjoy me, regardless of belief. Realism views with regret the gap between the sentence and what it refers to, between signifier and signified. Unrealism says to the reader: have no regrets, take pleasure in the extravagance of the signifier. Realism makes a claim upon truth, unrealism upon pleasure, the fulfillment of desire. Realism encourages the reader to believe that what he thinks he knows is indeed the case, and that what he doesn’t know is continuous with what he thinks he knows. Unrealism diverts him from knowledge to his heart’s desire, in keeping with the fact that fiction is fiction because, without it, he would die of fact.
For many years now it has been common to take the ideological venom out of these matters by arguing that Realism is simply one form of fiction among many. Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957) presented a persuasively utopian account of literature in which the various fictive, poetic, and mythic forms live contentedly side by side, each with goodwill toward the rest. Frye’s book is a grammar of desire, showing the diversity of our desires and the readiness of imaginative forms to fulfill them. But the debate has become contentious again, mainly because many critics see in Realism a bourgeois conspiracy: they read the realistic novel as a blatant device to pacify the natives by showing them signs that conceal their character as signs and pretend to be the truth itself.
Lukács’s essays on Realism and George Levine’s study of the nineteenth-century English novel bear on this debate, but a little more needs to be said to place them in it.
Realists assume that the purpose of literature is to enrich our understanding of life by studying the visible and audible forms it takes. George Eliot referred to Realism as “the doctrine that all truth and beauty are to be attained by a humble and faithful study of nature, and not by substituting vague forms, bred by imagination on the mists of feeling, in place of definite, substantial reality.” Realistic literature aspires to a complete knowledge of man: characters are important in a novel because they may be, unlike ourselves and other people, almost completely known. What the realistic novel shows with particular conviction is man in society: his personal being cannot be understood apart from his social and historical environment. Human life is known as the relations between people and the world in which they live: the conviction of this knowledge is felt as constituting truth. The realistic novel sustains the sense of living in a world that can be verified: it gives privilege to the experiences that are held in common. Other forms of fiction may present a person in the intensity of his isolation, but Realism presents him in a continuous relation, dynamic and often painfully tense, with other people and other institutions, law, convention, social class, money. A man is what all these forces, including his own will, have produced him to be.
Opposition to Realism has taken many forms. Virginia Woolf described her realists (Wells, Bennett, Galsworthy) as materialists, meaning “that they write of unimportant things; that they spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring.” The realistic novel, as she construed it, was merely a dreary mimicry of the surfaces of daily life: vicious, because it told lies. But the general opposition to Realism holds that it impedes the freedom of imagination, fantasy, the metaphorical possibilities to be discovered within the artistic medium; and therefore conspires with a complacent society to maintain its common-places, especially those of character, identity, and history. Realism, it is alleged, seeks truth only that we may be enslaved by it in the interests of those in power.
Here is a passage from Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, the last chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses. Molly, lying in bed, is thinking of her husband’s young friend, Stephen Dedalus:
hes very young to be a professor I hope hes not a professor like Goodwin was he was a patent professor of John Jameson they all write about some woman in their poetry well I suppose he wont find many like me where softly sighs of love the light guitar where poetry is in the air the blue sea and the moon shining so beautifully coming back on the nightboat from Tarifa the lighthouse at Europa point the guitar that fellow played was so expressive will I never go back there again all new faces two glancing eyes a lattice hid Ill sing that for him theyre my eyes if hes anything of a poet two eyes as darkly bright as loves own star arent those beautiful words as loves young star itll be a change the Lord knows to have an intelligent person to talk to about yourself not always listening to him and Billy Prescotts ad and Keyess ad and Tom the Devils ad then if anything goes wrong in their business we have to suffer Im sure hes very distinguished Id like to meet a man like that God not those other ruck besides hes young those fine young men I could see down in Margate strand bathing place from the side of the rock standing up in the sun naked like a God or something and then plunging into the sea with them why arent all men like that thered be some consolation for a woman….
An excellent piece of writing, most readers would say; and realistic, too, lifelike, convincing enough to make William Empson divine that Leopold Bloom puts his wife to bed with Stephen Dedalus in the hope of their producing the son he wants but can’t bring himself to father. You can only talk as Empson did about a realistic novel, because you can think the fiction continuous with the way such a situation would work out in real life. So a realist should be content with the passage.
But one of the most forceful advocates of Realism, Georg Lukács, has compared Joyce’s procedures unfavorably with Thomas Mann’s in Lotte in Weimar. He argues that in Ulysses Molly’s experience is confined to momentary sense-impressions, but in Mann’s novel about Goethe the interior monologue works as a technical device among many, allowing Mann to present Goethe’s experience in a complex and fully pondered relation to his past, present, and future. In Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, according to Lukács, “the perpetually oscillating patterns of sense-and-memory-data, their powerfully charged—but aimless and directionless—fields of force, give rise to an epic structure which is static, reflecting a belief in the basically static character of events.”
The last phrase means that, to Lukács, Joyce is not a true realist. A Marxist, a communist, and for many years a Stalinist, Lukács believed that reality is objective, concrete, and socially determined: in a novel, content determines form. Realism is, as he argued in The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, “the basis of all literature,” because it has to do with “the complete human personality.” The central concern of the realistic novel is “the dialectic between the individual’s subjectivity and objective reality.” While the modern psychological novel deals with the individual in his solitariness, the realistic novel presents the human type, “a peculiar synthesis which organically binds together the general and the particular both in characters and situations.” For Lukács, the great achievement of novelists like Tolstoy and Balzac is their vision of “the contradictions, struggles and conflicts of social life…as these appear in the mind and life of actual human beings.” A true narrative also “dissolves the rigid appearance of things into the processes that they really are.”
Realistic fiction such as Thomas Mann’s short story “Tonio Kroger” can therefore be used to attack the fetishism and reification typical of a capitalistic system: Kroger’s “yearning for community” and for the unthinking contentment of the waltzing couple he watches at a country dance is, for Lukács, a conscious rebellion against the subjective isolation “enforced” by the “social conditions of imperialist Germany.” Lukács offered Realism as a superior literary procedure, far more authentic than either Naturalism or the Psychologism he identified at various times with Symbolism, Modernism, Expressionism, and Decadence: in his eyes they were all one in their caprice and subjectivity. The true masters were Defoe, Swift, Balzac, Tolstoy, Gorky, and Mann: the writers who languished in error if not in sin included Dostoevsky, Kafka, Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, and Beckett.