Realism – Childers and Hentzi


Realism, according to Joseph Childers and Gary Hentzi:

“In its literary usage the term realism is often defined as a method or form in fiction that provides a ‘slice of life,’ an ‘accurate representation of reality.’ Such a seemingly straightforward definition, however, belies a number of complexities that inform the concept of realism. First, and perhaps foremost, is the extreme differences in style and form among the texts that are usually identified as realistic. The term, though applicable to contemporary works, is most often used in discussion of nineteenth-century novels. Among those considered realists are George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, and George Gissing in England, Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and Emile Zola in France, Ivan Turgenev and Leo Tolstoy in Russia, and W.D. Howells, Theodore Dreiser, and Henry James in the United States. For the most part, it might be said of these authors’ works that they focus on ordinary characters and the day-to-day events of those characters’ lives. The plots of these works encompass all social classes and tend away from excessive sentimentalizing. The characters’ speech and actions are appropriate for their education and social standing. Often these authors are extremely interested in the small details of experience, describing at length scenery, events, and seemingly unimportant objects. The representations of life found in these novelists’ works seem corroborated by nonfiction works that deal with the same subject matter. Yet at the same time that these works are categorized as realistic, one would be hard put to find common styles, techniques of plotting, or political agendas among them.
Another difficulty with the concept of realism has to do with the fact that it is applied to representations of the world. The concept of “realistic fiction” is rather oxymoronic, since ostensibly a text should be either “realistic” or a “fiction,” but it does not seem possible that it could be both. This contradiction is usually overcome by the response that “realistic fiction” attempts a faithful representation of concrete reality. Yet this too is a problematic assumption, since it begs the questions of the extent to which language, and thus fiction, actually constitute our perception of “reality.” This is not to say that realist authors were not aware of their own subjectivity or the ways in which experience is mediated through language, but they (and the critics who have unproblematically adopted [-p.256] “realism” as an analytical term) tend to assume that the nature of the material world is realtively stable and representable.” (pp.255-256)

“Another term that has been used in conjunction with discussions of realism is magic realism. Applied to a group of writers that include Latin American authors Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, as well as German Günter Grass and Englishman John Fowles, magic realism describes the technique of combining realistic depictions of events and characters with elements of the FANTASTIC, often drawn from dreams, myth, and fairy tales.
In recent years realism has come under considerable attack by post-structuralists…. Theorists such as Roland Barthes and Colin McCabe have argued that “classic,” nineteenth-century realism, in its reliance on closure (or the resolution of the plot) and its effacement of its own fictionality, reinscribe both characters and readers as essential, autonomous SUBJECTS. The basis for this subjectivity, they argue, is a middle-class “norm” that is always presented as the obvious and true. Thus, for such critics, the realist novel is a tool of bourgeois ideology that affirms that ideology and the place (and activities) of the subject within it. Another poststructuralist theorist, Jean Baudrillard, has argued that while once realism may have been at a premium, existence today operates on the level of SIMULACRA. Because we live in a world in which representation is so easily produced and disseminated, it is these simulations themselves, rather than any sort of “reality,” that constitute our being and our world. For Baudrillard, we have become so enmeshed in simulacra that our references are only to other simulations.” (p.256)

Ref: (capitals and italics in original) Joseph Childers and Gary Hentzi (1995) The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism New York: Columbia U.P.


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