Some Notes on Realism

by Professor John Lye


Realism is the creation of the effect of the representation of the concrete, historical nature of human life. Lilian Furst comments in her book Realism1 that "As an artistic movement realism is the product and expression of the dominant mood of its time [the mid- to late 19th century]: a pervasive rationalist epistemology that turned its back on the fantasies of Romanticism and was shaped instead by the impact of the political and social changes as well as the scientific and industrial advances of its day." In Realism the details of environment, of motivation, of circumstance, and of temporality with its cause and effect, become the context for the exploration of human values and fate. The emphasis of Realism tends to be on the individual, in her social environment.

Realism is the representation of the common life:

  1. in an age in which the human was seen as, most fundamentally, a secular being, or at the least, a being living in a world which was not transformed by or informed by spiritual presence.

  2. in an age of mechanism, empirical thought and materialism, when what was important was coming to be defined as what works, and what was real was what could be demonstrated physically.

  3. in an age when the 'rights of the individual' had been theorized, with a consequent focus on the located self as the object of moral and political importance and concern.

  4. particularly at a time of rapid sociological change, when the conventions and character of 'everyday life' and of the formation of the individual ceased to be a taken-for-granted backdrop and became the site of significant meaning and action.

  5. at a time when the economic consciousness is becoming dominated by the ideology of capitalism: materialism, the commodification of so many aspects of human life, the rightness of that obsession with property and its distribution which marks capitalist society, the primacy of the individual over the communal.

There have been a number of theorists, for instance the Marxist critic Georg Lukacs, who have held that through the methodology of realism literature reflects a social reality whose phenomena serve as a model for the work of art -- the realist gives a complete and correct account of observed social reality, and thus is able to uncover the driving forces of history, the principles governing social change.

It became clear to some of the realists, however, as they attempted to represent the 'real world' in art, that all they could represent was what structuralist theorists call a 'reality effect': that they were using language, that is, a symbol system, and that they were placing humans in complex systems of social relations and of material conditions which could be represented only by signs, and then only briefly and selectively. See the selectionfrom Flaubert's discussion on some problems of realism; Flaubert concludes that talented Realists should in fact call themselves illusionists. Phillipe Hamon in "A Constrained Discourse" (in Furst), agrees that realism is a constructed form which does not unproblematically 'represent reality', and he gives a number of salient procedures of realism

In the structuralist (and poststructuralist) understanding, aesthetic effects and representation (mimesis) are created through the use of signs, codes and conventions, and are constituted as well through reference to previous literary representations -- that is, through intertextuality. Because signs are culturally constructed and used, any representation using them will inevitably be imbued with the way of viewing and discussing the world of that particular use of signs. Consequently 'realism' will inevitably be ideological, although it represents itself as transparent (that is, it claims tht it allows 'reality' to appear, fully and completely, through its signs).

On the other hand, realism has been such a durable form, and has been put into use so consistently in popular literature, in history, in journalism with at its best its intense commitment to the truth, that one must grant both its power, and its evident social utility as a representational mode.


The advantages of realism

Realism is faithful to our experience of life lived in a physical and social environment, and governed by causes and effects. The most powerful argument for realism is that it represents life as we live it -- sequential, contextualized, rooted in the concrete. It can be argued that realism is to be found everywhere in literature, especially when the high mimetic forms such as the epic give way to a feel for the life of the common person -- in Scripture, in comedy, in historical texts, in fabliaux.

Realism brings us close to the physical, to our material existence, and so is less likely than other forms of representation to be distorted by ideology or mystification. It is responsible directly to the life we recognize that we live.

The language we speak in our ordinary life -- our explanations, our accounts, our vocabulary -- is the same kind of language-use that one finds in realism.


The problems of realism

To understand most reservations about realism one has to go first to the idea that any representation is a selection, and hence implicit or explicit set of inclusions, exclusions, elisions, arrangements. As Calvin explains to Hobbes (in the comic strip, you understand) when he realizes that whereas people think that cameras tell the truth, cameras in fact lie, "Select the facts and you manipulate the truth." In another strip Calvin, faced with the idea that different perspectives might be equally valid, finds himself living in a Cubist rather than a Realist world (Cubism is an attempt to represent all perspectives at once -- it looks really weird); to claim back his normal sense of reality, he asserts that he is right, in this case his Dad, is wrong -- the world shifts back from Cubism to what we think of as normality.

Even were one to be able to 'include everything', and to have a wholly objective perspective, and to represent all possible valid construals of the 'reality' before one, one has to use words to represent, and authors generally as well make heavy use of tropes (in fact many words are metaphoric in their etymology). Words are, specifically, not reality, but are arbitrary signifiers of it -- they have no necessary, or as it is called 'motivated,' relationship to what they represent. In fact a claim can be made that the meanings of words are constructed in the first instance by differentiations from other signs -- as we understand "hot" in relation to "cold", "warm", "tepid", "sweltering", "oppressive", and so forth. Words also belong to cultural systems of meaning, and cultural ways of saying, as ethnographers have documented. So as signs, and as culturally-located elements of meaning, words cannot objectively and clearly represent 'reality'.

This brings us (I'll get back to tropes in a minute) to the problem with the word 'reality' -- it is too inclusive to be very useful: it refers to objects, phenomenon, feelings, perceptions, to various different stati (statuses?) of being, susceptible to different kinds of knowing. So 'realism' may restrict our very sense of what 'reality' is.

Representation in language is often tropic -- we use metonyms, metaphors, irony. These all lead away from, rather than toward, any sense that one can say that the writing is a transparent, reliable representation of what actually is. David Lodge has shown, in Modes of Modern Writing, that whereas modernist writing is marked by the use of metaphor, realism, rather than being free from tropes, is marked by the use of metonymy. Catherine Belsey makes a similar argument in writing against "expressive realism" in Critical Practice.

The argument is made that the 'reality-effect' of realism, its apparent objectivity, concretion and neutral view-point, make realism a dangerous form: better to have a way of representation, the thinking goes, which either foregrounds the problems of representation, or at least does not pretend that it is objective. The 'objective,' distanced voice of the realist narrator, it is argued, is a ultimately a dishonesty which masks the ideological commitments of the text.

Realism forms and enforces a world without a genuine spiritual dimension, a world of place and time, and so has inherent limitations as a form; it has for instance serious limitations in its capacity to represent the spiritual being of humankind. This argument seems opposed to the previous one, as 'the spiritual in man' may be a mystification, but it is a dimension that humans have often longed to express and live in, and realism, with its devotion to a world of physicality and the everyday, has little room for it.

The concretion of realism also militates against the expression the hidden forces in the human psyche, a power that Romance possesses.


All the same...

All the same realism is a very attractive form. Many things, it is claimed, can be accurately represented, or at least more accurately represented than in any other form, because realism is the way in which we genuinely know and configure our experience as physical beings in a contingent world.

Just a mystification, say realism's opponents...


1. Realism, Longman, New York and London, 1992, LC # PN 98 R4 R43 1992. I recommend this book as a very good set of selections with a very good introductory essay.