Georg Lukács
Georg Lukács; drawing by David Levine

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.

The essays translated as Essays on Realism are taken from the fourth volume of Lukács’s Werke, Essays über Realismus (1971): some chapters tangential to Realism are omitted. The work comes entirely from the Thirties. In 1929 Lukács gave up his responsibilities to the Hungarian Communist Party and set about formulating aesthetic principles to serve the Marxist cause. Against the piously proletarian writer, he set the true realist. Using Marx’s account of reification, the system by which relations between people are given the form of relations between things, Lukács argued against Willi Bredel and others that it is naïve to rely upon the spontaneous ability of the workers to see through the false appearances foisted upon them. With the same polemical force, he argued that the Expressionism of such writers as Wedekind, Franz Werfel, and Walter Hasenclever abstracts from the full concrete detail of a situation what the expressionist takes to be its essence, and then presents, this essence as an image, deprived of every practical relation to the objective world.

Lukács’s belligerence provoked the philosopher Ernst Bloch into a defense of Expressionism; it also angered Brecht, who found Expressionism important to his own work in the theater. But the most lasting effect of Lukács’s essays was that they established as the inescapable question “the ideology of Modernism,” set against a true Realism. Lukács’s methods were crude, and it remained for more sensitive critics, especially Walter Benjamin and T.W. Adorno, to develop a more satisfactory Marxist response to Modernism, but Lukács’s work was crucial in laying out the ground of the dispute.

It must be conceded that Lukács’s position in these arguments is often shoddy. He was a poor reader, his analysis of a novel rarely went beyond an appraisal of its content. In his view, Maxim Gorky should be studied primarily as “a revolutionary writer in a capitalist environment,” important above all because he emphasized that what Lukács calls the “emotional culture…of the working-class vanguard” was superior to the “intellectual logic” of the middle classes. Lukács mainly asks only one question: is the social basis of this novel the dialectical unity of the external and internal forces, or their separation? Looking at the work of Gorky, Tolstoy, Mann, Kleist, and Ibsen, among others, he asks whether these writers have been able to temper the ideological limitations of their own class consciousness with observations of existing reality.

Adorno pointed out that the supreme criterion of Lukács’s aesthetics, “the postulate of a reality which must be depicted as an unbroken continuum joining subject and object,” assumes that a reconciliation has already taken place, “that all is well with society, that the individual has come into his own and feels at home in the world.” Besides, Lukács could not reconcile the Marxist cause with the fact that the novel of Realism he praised was a bourgeois invention. Like Marx, he hoped not to reject bourgeois achievements but to appropriate them: still, it was obviously insulting to offer Brecht and other Marxist writers the edifying examples of Scott and Balzac. But he remains an important figure for anyone who regards the relation between fiction, politics, and ideology as a crucial matter.

George Levine is not such a reader: his book is a study of Realism in its bearing upon the novel, but it does not use Lukács’s categories, and it rarely adverts to questions of class, power, commodity, reification, money, family. Levine deals with the novels by way of their plots, characters, circumstances, and heroes. He is chiefly concerned with the claims of Realism to apprehend reality in a way that is not circumscribed by inherited literary conventions—and with the misgivings with which the claims were made by the novelists themselves. This is the special interest he brings to novels by Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, Scott, George Eliot, Thackeray, Trollope, Elizabeth Gaskell, Dickens, Hardy, Conrad, and D.H. Lawrence.

To Levine, Realism always involves “an attempt to use language to get beyond language, to discover some non-verbal truth out there.” A realistic novel is feasible to the extent to which writer and reader believe in “the accessibility of experience beyond words.” Reading the later nineteenth-century novelists with reference, mainly, to Darwinian science and epistemology, he finds the realist “method consonant with empirical science in that it was exploratory rather than definitive.” Thus the emphasis on chance in Darwin’s evolutionary theory led both scientists and novelists to revise their ideas about inevitable sequence and causality. Conrad, for example, came to feel he could not produce a plotted novel of the kind that George Eliot had written only a few years before.

In this, Levine resembles Lukács, who also argued that Realism was what Levine calls “a method of discovery, not representation of preestablished realities.” But the realist novelists were, for Levine, concerned above all to explore reality by resisting inherited narrative conventions—they gave highly self-conscious attention to language and literary form. Levine argues that no major Victorian novelists were deluded about either the mimetic power of language or their own ability fully to grasp the “unmediated reality” around them. It is in this that they are, for him, “intimately connected to the modernist position.”

The central concern of Realism, in Levine’s view, is “the necessity to make one’s peace with a determining society”; in The Mill on the Floss, for example, “the excessively romantic and egoistic heroine must learn the relation of desire to possibility, of self to society.” Like George Eliot herself, Maggie Tulliver must learn to reconcile her own ordering imagination with the “intransigent reality” of the world around her. Later, as realist authors become increasingly unsure about their own or their characters’ ability to perceive the world around them without subjective distortion, this concern is described as “the disparity between dream and reality.” According to Levine, Conrad’s difficult style “constantly reminds us of the arduousness of finding a language that can touch reality, and thus makes us believe in the reality beyond words that his words displace.” These phrases are helpful, but they won’t convince anyone who believes that there is no “place” beyond language.

One of Levine’s main points is that Victorian novelists were not, as they have often been said to be, naïve realists: “realism was never naïvely deluded into believing itself a perfect mirror of reality.” But here again the metaphor of the mirror confuses the question, since it allows for distortion and obliquity as well as difference. Levine shows that Scott and, even more so, Thackeray were aware of the limitations of Realism, even while they committed themselves to its official theme, “the relation between the dreaming self and the indifferent other.” Partly as a result, Victorian fiction became a fiction of compromise, based upon the determination to get along without sublimity.

Levine has brilliant chapters on this theme, emphasizing that Victorian Realism is an attempt to domesticate violence while revealing the violence that is to be domesticated. Wuthering Heights “speaks what realism knows but has been trained not to tell.” Levine’s account is partly, I think, an answer to critics who argue that many Victorian novelists conspired with the official powers in society to suppress desire and violence by accommodating them to an acceptably secure social image. He replies that desire and violence are not suppressed: “within every hero or heroine there is a Frankenstein” whose dangerous aspirations to knowledge beyond his reach are also shown to be part of a creative “rebellion against a stifling society.” Even when this irrational violence is suppressed in form, it is not denied, indeed “excess reasserts itself against the realistic style imagined to deny it.” The point is ideologically difficult because you have to decide, in a particular novel, whether the violence is convincingly assimilated by defensive powers the society is fully entitled to use, or merely domesticated in a perfunctory way to get the story ended.

The Realistic Imagination is an exceptionally interesting and far-reaching book. The main question for Levine is: to what extent are the cognitive claims of Realism asserted, justified, maintained in bad faith, or even undermined, in the novels we think of as realistic? Realism claims to be true to the reality it addresses, but true in what sense? True as a mirror is true, or a carbon copy, or true as a lover is true to his beloved? Besides, the claim can be made in a wide range of tones: buoyant, rueful, desperate, self-deprecating. A description of the tone in a particular novel allows Levine to indicate the pressure the novelist’s Realism has to bear.

At one point Levine says that “what cannot be directly experienced or observed cannot be embodied in realistic forms,” and he goes on to say that Conrad “brings to bear on realism’s conventions of moral order and moderation a profoundly skeptical continental intelligence.” Both statements are true, up to a point, but they set a rigid limit upon Realism at a point where description is deemed to end and imagining to begin. The language of Heart of Darkness, he says, “requires us to imagine what it cannot describe.” But this distinction between describing and imagining is a desperate device on Levine’s part to account for sentences in Conrad’s story where he feels that the language is under extreme strain and for other sentences in which it doesn’t seem to be. What Levine feels in Heart of Darkness is indeed there; it is what F.R. Leavis felt and accounted for in The Great Tradition as “a ‘significance’ that is merely an emotional insistence on the presence of what Conrad can’t produce…. He is intent on making a virtue out of not knowing what he means.” Leavis’s version has one merit over Levine’s, that it ascribes to Conrad as a disability, and not to Realism as a constitutional limitation, the inability to find a language adequate to Kurtz’s experience.

A more important objection is that by confining Realism to powers of description, Levine forces us to regard the Victorian novel as necessarily superseded by Modernism: it is given, as its sole form of fulfillment, the fate of being transcended. From Jane Austen to Conrad, that is Levine’s story, told to show that the only future Realism could have had at any moment was its disruption. “By Conrad’s time, then, reality no longer held still for the language realism required.” But Conrad shared the same time with Maupassant, James, Howells, Wells, Hardy, Kipling, Meredith, and Mann, writers who must have been blind, if Levine’s argument is to hold, to the predicament he deduces from Conrad’s style.

What troubles me is Levine’s confidence that he can recognize a “spirit of the age,” sense its changes, and present the entire record in narrative form. For him, the spirit is empiricist and epistemological: novelists and scientists alike explore reality by means of “subtle variations” on earlier ways of perceiving things. The nineteenth century was for Levine a bold, exploratory age, more than ordinarily willing to revise its notion about “what the nature of reality actually was,” and each realist writer represents a certain phase in the history of that spirit. Hardy is correlated to “advancing secularism” and “an exciting yet disruptive new science.” But even if we assume that an age has a spirit, we are not bound to believe that the only thing a novelist can do with the spirit is exemplify it.

The moral of Levine’s story is that Realism, recognizing its disabilities and the fact that it could not keep its promise, yielded to Modernism, a new set of assumptions which had a stronger claim to being true to its time. This moral ignores two difficult facts; that many of the serious novels written and read at present are realistic rather than symbolist or otherwise modernist; and that Modernism has not demonstrated any moral or cognitive superiority to Realism. Most of the masterpieces of Modernism are sustained by “strategies of inwardness” (to use Fredric Jameson’s phrase) which are compromises just as devious as those Levine has found in Victorian fiction.

My dispute with Levine turns upon a question of literary history, but it has wider ramifications. He has deduced from Victorian and modern novels that between 1850 and 1920 certain changes took place in the rules that guided both scientists and literary men in their efforts to give form to “the unmediated reality” around them. The novels he has read with notable vigor and power are deemed to embody these changes. But the rules, these axioms of cognition, don’t change often or quickly: a different set of novels—e.g., by the writers I’ve mentioned—would support that conviction. Levine implies a fairly direct relation between nineteenth-century science and epistemology and the corresponding novels. But novelists are often remarkably selective in what they choose to care about.

Mention of Fredric Jameson reminds me that, far from accepting the demise or transcendence of Realism, he has called for a new Realism mainly in Lukács’s terms, going back to his History and Class Consciousness (1923). Such a realism would involve, in Jameson’s version, “the forcible reopening of access to a sense of society as a totality, and the reinvention of possibilities of cognition and perception that allow social phenomena once again to become transparent, as moments of the struggle between classes.” Jameson knows that one of the effects of a capitalist system is the confusion that comes from class: he thinks of it as damage, but that the damage can be undone. I don’t share his sense of damage, or his particular form of hope. Workers in every capitalist country are trampling upon one another to get into the middle class; I doubt most of them have desires distinct from a bourgeois image of fulfillment. Historical nostalgia is Jameson’s problem; he has a Marxist solution, so he needs a Marxist predicament to which it can be applied.

Levine’s argument is that nineteenth-century Realism stayed fairly confidently in possession of itself and of the experience it negotiated only for a relatively short time. Subversion began early. Or at least misgivings about Realism and its ability to keep its promises. I’m not convinced: I think the rhythm of literary history, as he senses it, has forced him into a premature narrative. I take heart from Auerbach’s Mimesis (1946), a study of the representation of reality in Western literature.

Auerbach finds it reasonable to examine texts from the Old Testament and the Odyssey to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and to refer without fuss to “Homer’s realism.” In the last chapter Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay is the reality to be represented, and Auerbach’s account of To the Lighthouse clarifies “the design of a close approach to objective reality by means of numerous subjective impressions received by various individuals and at various times.” If it is possible to speak of Homer’s realism and then of Virginia Woolf’s realism, without sinking their differences, the reason is that Realism, in some flexibly defined sense, is perennial. The merit of Auerbach’s method—his book consists of a series of closely analyzed examples of literary representation, ancient and modern—is that it does not require him to present Realism as doomed, at every moment, to face its dying into something else.

We come back to the first question. Why should anyone care? What is at stake in a dispute about Realism? The answer is that Realism, like every form of opposition to it, is an ideology, a force of society that pretends to be a force of nature and acts upon that pretense. If I say, citing Auerbach in support, that Realism is perennial, I am trying to gain for a preference something of the authority attaching to a law of nature. Every ideology is an attempt to gain power and hold it: the only future an ideology wants is one of power. The literature of Realism is an attempt to prescribe the terms, the sense of life, the sense of the world, in which power will be exercised. That is why it matters. The fact that the power of literature is notional rather than real displaces the consideration of power from actions to attitudes; but some attitudes become actions in the long run, and then their power becomes evident.

This Issue

November 19, 1981