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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
  
  

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REALISM IN LITERATURE
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REALISM IN LITERATURE

The term “realism” was originally used by the
thirteenth-century scholastics as meaning a belief in
the reality of ideas; it was contrasted with
“nominalism” which supported the doctrine that ideas
are only names or abstractions. In the eighteenth cen-
tury its meaning was practically reversed; in Thomas
Reid, in Kant, and in Schelling realism means the
opposite of idealism. As a literary term, realism occurs
first in a letter of Friedrich Schiller to Goethe (April
27, 1798) asserting that “realism cannot make a poet.”
Friedrich Schlegel, in the same year (“Ideen,” No. 6)
formulated the paradox that “all philosophy is idealism
and there is no true realism except that of poetry.”
Schelling in his Vorlesungen über die Methode des
akademischen Studiums
(1802) refers to Plato's
“polemic against poetic realism.” The term was rather
frequent in German romantic aesthetics but does not
mean either specific writers or a specific period or
school. It is simply used as the opposite of idealism.

The term appears next in France as early as 1826.
A writer in the Mercure français even prophesied that
“this doctrine which leads to faithful imitation not of
the masterworks of art but of the originals offered by
nature” will be the “literature of the nineteenth cen-
tury, the literature of the true” (Borgerhoff, 1938).
Gustave Planche, in his time an influential antiromantic
critic, used the term “realism” from about 1833 onward
almost as an equivalent of materialism, particularly for
the minute description of costumes and customs in
historical novels. Realism is concerned, he says, with
“what escutcheon is placed over the door of a castle,
what device is inscribed on a standard, and what colors
are borne by a lovesick knight” (“Moralité de la
poésie,” in Revue des deux mondes, 4th ser., 1 [1835],


052

250). Clearly with Planche realism means almost the
same as “local color,” exactitude of description.
Hippolyte Fortoul, in 1834, complains for instance of
a novel by A. Thouret that it is written “with an
exaggeration of realism which he borrowed from the
manner of M. Hugo” (“Revue littéraire du mois,” in
Revue des deux mondes, 4th ser. [1 Nov. 1834], 339).
Realism at that time is thus merely a feature observed
in the method of writers whom we would today call
“romantic,” in Scott, in Hugo, or in Mérimée. Soon
the term was transferred to the minute description of
contemporary manners in Balzac and Murger, but its
meaning crystallized only in the great debates which
arose in the fifties around the paintings of Courbet,
and through the assiduous activity of a mediocre
novelist, Champfleury, who in 1857 published a volume
of essays with the title Le réalisme, while a friend of
his, Duranty, edited a short-lived review Réalisme
between July 1856 and May 1857. (See Bernard Wein-
berg, 1937; H. U. Forest, “'Réalisme,' Journal de
Duranty,” Modern Philology, 24 [1926], 463-79.) In
these writings a definite literary creed is formulated
which centers on a very few simple ideas. Art should
give a truthful representation of the real world: it
should therefore study contemporary life and manners
by observing meticulously and analyzing carefully. It
should do so dispassionately, impersonally, objectively.
What had been a widely used term for any faithful
representation of nature now becomes associated with
specific writers and is claimed as a slogan for a group
or movement.

There was wide agreement that Mérimée, Stendhal,
Balzac, Monnier, and Charles de Bernard were the
precursors, while Champfleury and later Flaubert,
Feydeau, the Goncourts, and the younger Dumas were
the exponents of the school, though Flaubert, for in-
stance, was annoyed at the designation and never
accepted it for himself. (On Flaubert see Maxime du
Camp, Revue des deux mondes, 51 [June 1882], 791:
Le mot [Réalisme] le blessa et, dans son for intérieur,
il ne l'a jamais admis.
) There is a remarkable, tire-
somely monotonous agreement in the contemporary
discussion of the main features of realism. Its numerous
enemies judged the same traits negatively, complain-
ing, for instance, about the excessive use of minute
external detail, of the neglect of the ideal, and seeing
the vaunted impersonality and objectivity as a cloak
for cynicism and immorality. With the trial of Flaubert
in 1857 for Madame Bovary the term was completely
established in France.

The French debate soon found its echoes in other
countries. We must, however, distinguish between the
use of the term “realism” in reporting French develop-
ments and the adoption of the term as a slogan for
a local school of realistic writing. The situation in the
main countries varies greatly in this respect. In
England there was no realist movement of that name
before George Moore and George Gissing, late in the
eighties.

Still, the terms “realism” and “realist” occur in an
article on Balzac as early as 1853, and Thackeray was
called, rather casually, “chief of the Realist school”
in 1851. George Henry Lewes was the first English
critic who systematically applied standards of realism,
for instance, in a severe review, “Realism in Art: Re-
cent German Fiction” (1858). There Lewes boldly
proclaims “... Realism the basis of all Art.” In David
Masson's British Novelists and their Styles (1859),
Thackeray is contrasted as “a novelist of what is called
the Real school” with Dickens, “a novelist of the Ideal
or Romantic school,” and the “growth among novel-
writers of a wholesome spirit of Realism” is welcomed.
Realistic criteria such as truth of observation and a
depiction of commonplace events, characters, and set-
tings are almost universal in Victorian novel criticism.
(“Balzac and his Writings,” Westminster Review, 60
[July and October 1853], 203, 212, 214; “William
Makepeace Thackeray and Arthur Pendennis, Es-
quires,” Fraser's Magazine, 43 [January 1851], 86; G.
H. Lewes, Westminster Review, 70 [October 1858],
448-518, esp. 493; D. Masson, op. cit., Cambridge
[1859], pp. 248, 257; see Richard Stang [1959].)

The situation in the United States was very similar:
in 1864 Henry James recommended “the famous 'real-
istic system'”—obviously referring to the French—for
study to a fellow novelist, Miss Harriet Prescott, who,
he complained, had not “sufficiently cultivated a deli-
cate perception of the actual” (Notes and Reviews, ed.
Pierre de Chaignon La Rose, Cambridge, Mass. [1921],
pp. 23, 32). But only W. Dean Howells, writing in 1882,
speaks of Henry James as the “chief exemplar” of an
American school of realism and from 1886 onwards
propagated realism as a movement of which he
counted himself and James as the chief proponents
(“Henry James, Jr.,” Century Magazine, 25 [1882],
26-28).

In Germany there was no self-conscious realist
movement, though the term was used occasionally. In
1850 Hermann Hettner spoke of Goethe's realism, in
“Die romantische Schule,” Schriften zur Literatur
(Berlin [1959], p. 66). Otto Ludwig devised the term
poetischer Realismus in order to contrast Shakespeare
with the contemporary French movement (Gesammelte
Schriften,
ed. A. Stern, Leipzig [1891], 264ff.). Julian
Schmidt used the term in articles in Die Grenzboten
from 1856, and in his history of German literature
(1867) for what is usually called “Das Junge Deutsch-
land” (Die Grenzboten, 14 [1856], 486ff.; “Die


053

Realisten 1835-1841” in Julian Schmidt, Geschichte der
deutschen Literatur seit Lessings Tod,
Vol. 3, Die
Gegenwart, 1814-1867,
5th ed., Leipzig [1867]). Even
in Marxist theory the term emerges very late. It cannot
be found in early pronouncements of either Marx or
Engels. It was not till 1888 that Engels, in an English
letter to Miss Harkness commenting on her novel, The
City Girl,
complains that it is “... not quite realistic
enough. Reality, to my mind, implies, besides truth to
detail, the truthful reproduction of typical circum-
stances” (Über Kunst und Literatur, ed. Michail
Lipschitz, Berlin [1948], pp. 103-04).

In Italy, Francesco De Sanctis defended Zola in
1878, and thought realism an “excellent antidote for
a fantastic race fond of phrasemaking and display.”
The Italian realistic novelists invented a new term,
verismo, though Luigi Capuana, the most prominent
theorist of the group, came to reject all “isms” both
for himself and his friend Giovanni Verga: Gli 'ismi'
contemporanei (Verismo, simbolismo, idealismo, cosmo-
politismo) ed altri saggi
(Catania, 1898).

In Russia the situation was again different: there
Vissarion Belinsky had adopted Friedrich Schlegel's
term “real poetry” as early as 1836; he applied it to
Shakespeare, who “reconciled poetry with real life,”
and Walter Scott, “the second Shakespeare, who
achieved the union of poetry with life” (Sobranie
sochinenii,
ed. F. M. Golovenchenko, 1, Moscow
[1948], 103, 107-08). After 1846 Belinsky spoke of
Russian writers such as Gogol as the “natural school”
(ibid., 3, 649; see note on p. 902 referring to Bulgarin's
use of the term earlier in the same year). Belinsky
determined the views of the radical critics of the sixties
but, among them, only Dimitri Pisarev used the term
as a slogan. Realism for him is, however, simply analy-
sis, criticism. “A realist is a thinking worker”
(Sochineniya. Polnoe sobranie, ed. F. Pavlenkov, 4th
ed., St. Petersburg [1904-07], 4, 68). Dostoevsky
attacked the radical critics sharply in 1863. He always
disapproved of photographic naturalism and defended
the interest in the fantastic and exceptional. In two
well-known letters Dostoevsky asserted that he had
“quite different conceptions of reality and realism than
our realists and critics. My idealism is more real than
their realism.” His realism is pure, a realism in depth
while theirs is of the surface. N. N. Strakhov, in his
biography, reports Dostoevsky as saying: “they call me
a psychologist: mistakenly. I am rather a realist in a
higher sense, i.e. I depict all the depths of the human
soul” (Letter to A. N. Maykov, 11/23 Dec. 1868, in
Pisma, ed. A. S. Dolinin, 2, Moscow [1928-34], 150,
and letter to N. N. Strakhov, 26 Feb./10 March 1869,
ibid., 169; N. N. Strakhov and O. Miller, Biografiya,
pisma
..., St. Petersburg [1883], p. 373). Similarly,
Tolstoy disapproved of the radical critics and showed
a violent distaste for Flaubert though, surprisingly
enough, he praised Maupassant and wrote an introduc-
tion to a Russian translation. Though truth and truth
of emotion is mandatory for Tolstoy in What is Art?,
the word “realism” does not occur in his writings
prominently at all; e.g., Tolstoy's introduction to S. T.
Semenov's Peasant Stories (1894) ridicules La légende
de Julien l'hospitalier
(What is Art? and Essays on Art,
trans. A. Maude, Oxford [1930], pp. 17-18; the intro-
duction to Maupassant [1894], ibid., pp. 20-45).

The term “naturalism” was in constant competition
with “realism” and was often identified with it. It is
an ancient philosophical term for materialism,
epicureanism, or any secularism. In a literary sense it
can be found again in Schiller, in the preface to Die
Braut von Messina
(1803), as something which Schiller
finds worth combatting, as in “poetry everything is only
a symbol of the real” (Sämtliche Werke, ed. Güntter-
Witkowski, Leipzig [1909-11], 20, 254). Heine, in a
passage of the 1831 Salon which profoundly impressed
Baudelaire, proclaimed himself a “supernaturalist in
art” in contrast to his “naturalism” in religion (Salon
[1831], in Werke, ed. O. Walzel, Leipzig [1912-15],
6, 25: Ind der Kunst bin ich Supernaturalist). But again
the term crystallized as a specific literary slogan only
in France. It had been used before in Russia by Belinsky
who usually spoke of the “natural” school in Russian
literature headed by Gogol, but who in the 1847 “Sur-
vey of Russian Literature” used “naturalism” expressly
as an opposite of “rhetorism” (Sobranie sochinenii, ed.
Golovenchenko, Moscow [1948], 3, 775, 776, 789). In
French, as in English, naturalist means, of course, sim-
ply student of nature, and the analogy between the
writer and the naturalist, specifically the botanist and
zoologist, was ready at hand. Without using the term
Balzac had made the parallel between writer and
zoologist the central metaphor of his preface to the
Comédie humaine (1842). Taine, in his essay on Balzac
(1858), draws the comparison explicitly when he says
that “the naturalist lacks any ideal; even more so does
the naturalist Balzac lack one.” Hugo in the preface
to La légende des siècles (1859) drew another parallel.
“A poet or a philosopher is not forbidden to attempt
with social facts what a naturalist attempts with
zoological facts: the reconstruction of a monster ac-
cording to the imprint of a nail or the cavity of a
tooth.” Cuvier's speculations on extinct antediluvian
fauna had struck the imagination of his contemporaries
forcibly. It is this parallel that both the early and the
late Zola has in mind. “Today,” Zola wrote in 1866,
“in literary and artistic criticism we must imitate the
naturalists: we have the duty of finding the men behind
their works, to reconstruct the societies in their real


054

life, with the aid of a book or a picture” (J. W. J.
Hemmings, 1964). The critic and the novelist, Zola
argues, do not differ basically and both are, or should
be, scientists. In the Preface to a new edition of his
novel, Thérèse Raquin (1866), Zola proclaimed the
naturalist creed most boldly. The book is “an analytical
labor on two living bodies like that of a surgeon on
corpses.” This is substantially what Zola later ex-
pounded as the method of his “experimental novel.”
The preface ends with Zola claiming “the honor of
belonging to the group of naturalist writers.” But the
distinction between “realism” and “naturalism” was
not stabilized for a long time. Ferdinand Brunetière
in his Le roman naturaliste (1883) discusses Flaubert,
Daudet, Maupassant, and George Eliot as well as Zola
under this title. The separation of the terms is a work
of modern literary scholarship.

Thus the contemporary uses of the terms “realism”
and “naturalism” should be distinguished from the
process by which modern literary research has imposed
the term “realism” or “realist period” on the past. The
two processes are, of course, not independent of each
other: the original suggestion comes from the contem-
porary debates. But still the two are not entirely the
same. Again, the situation varies greatly in different
countries.

In France the term “realism” with a distinct later
stage of “naturalism” seems firmly established. In par-
ticular the books by Pierre Martino, Le roman réaliste
(1913) and Le naturalisme français (1923), have con-
firmed the distinction: “naturalism” is the doctrine of
Zola; it implies a scientific approach, it requires a
philosophy of deterministic materialism while the older
realists were far less clear or unified in their philo-
sophical affiliations. In France there is one good book,
Gustave Reynier's Les origines du roman réaliste (1912),
which traces the method of realism from the Satyricon
of Petronius to Rabelais, to the Spanish Celestina, and
to the French literature about peasants and beggars
in the sixteenth century.

In England the use of the term “realism” as a period
concept is still very rare. The standard histories of
English literature of the early twentieth century, the
Cambridge History of English Literature and Garnett
and Gosse, use the term only very occasionally. Gissing
is called a “realist” because of Zola's influence and we
hear that “Ben Jonson set out to be what we now call
a 'realist' or 'naturalist.'” (On Gissing see Cambridge
History of English Literature,
14, 458; on Ben Jonson
see R. Garnett and E. Gosse, English Literature. An
Illustrated Record
[1903-04], 2, 310.) It needed an
American scholar, Norman Foerster, to suggest that
the term “Victorian” should be replaced by “realist,”
in his The Reinterpretation of Victorian Literature (ed.
Joseph E. Baker, Princeton [1950], pp. 58-59).

In American literary scholarship the position is quite
the reverse of the English position. There “realism”
is firmly established, mainly since Vernon Parrington
gave the title, The Beginnings of Critical Realism
(1930), to the third volume of his Main Currents of
American Thought.
There is a collective volume, Tran-
sitions in American Literary History
(1954), which
manipulates the period concept almost with the assur-
ance of a German literary historian. Realism, unlike
naturalism, is not primarily engaged in social criticism,
it is argued, but concerns itself with the conflict be-
tween the inherited American ideals of faith in man
and the individual and the pessimistic, deterministic
creed of modern science (Robert O. Falk, “The Rise
of Realism,” in Transitions in American Literary His-
tory,
ed. H. H. Clark, Durham, N.C. [1954]). Charles
Child Walcutt in American Literary Naturalism
(Minneapolis [1956], p. 9) has well described what he
called its “divided stream,” “the mixture of fervid
exhortation with concepts of majestic inevitableness.”

In German, two recent reformulations of the concept
of realism have attracted much attention. Erich
Auerbach's Mimesis: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der
abendländischen Literatur
(1946) sketches the history
of realism from Homer to Proust, always using short
texts as springboards for brilliant stylistic, intellectual
and sociological analyses. But it is hard to discover
what he means by “realism.” He tells us himself that
he would like to have written his book without using
any “general expressions.” Auerbach tries later to
combine two contradictory conceptions of realism;
first something which might be called existentialism:
the agonizing revelations of reality in moments of
supreme decisions, in “limiting situations”: Abraham
about to sacrifice Isaac, Madame du Chastel deciding
not to rescue her son from execution, the Duke of
Saint-Simon asking the Jesuit negotiator how old he
is. There is, however, a second realism in Auerbach,
the French nineteenth-century realism, which he
defines as depicting contemporary reality, immersed
in the dynamic concreteness of the stream of history.
Historicism contradicts existentialism. Existentialism
sees man exposed in his nakedness and solitude, it is
unhistorical, even antihistorical. These two sides of
Auerbach's conception of realism differ also in their
historical provenience. “Existence” descends from
Kierkegaard, whose whole philosophy was a protest
against Hegel, the ancestor of historicism and Geistes-
geschichte.
In Auerbach's sensitive and learned book
“realism” has assumed a very special meaning: realism
must not be didactic, moralistic, rhetorical, idyllic, or
comic. Thus he has little to say of the bourgeois drama
or the English realistic novel of the eighteenth and
nineteenth century; the Russians are excluded and so
are all the Germans of the nineteenth century as either


055

didactic or idyllic. Only passages in the Bible and
Dante, and among moderns, Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert,
and Zola live up to Auerbach's requirements. (See R.
Wellek, “Auerbach's Special Realism,” Kenyon Re-
view,
16 [1954], 299-307.)

Richard Brinkmann's Wirklichkeit und Illusion
(Tübingen, 1957) also arrives at an idiosyncratic con-
clusion. He ignores the historical debate and focuses
on an ingenious analysis of three German stories:
Grillparzer's Arme Spielmann (1848), Otto Ludwig's
Zwischen Himmel und Erde (1855), and Edward von
Keyserling's Beate und Mareile (1903). Brinkmann
argues that the acme of realism is reached in
Keyserling's story, as there the narrator limits himself
to the representation of the feelings of a single fictional
figure (a Prussian Junker wavering between two
women). Realism or rather reality is found ultimately
in the stream of consciousness technique, in the attempt
to “dramatize the mind,” a technique which actually
achieved the most radical dissolution of ordinary real-
ity. Brinkmann is well aware of the paradox of this
“reversal,” by which the attention to the factual and
the individual finally led to something as “unrealistic”
in the traditional sense as Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and
Faulkner. The conclusion that “the subjective experi-
ence... is the only objective experience” (op. cit.,
p. 298) identifies impressionism, the exact notation of
mental states of mind, with realism and proclaims it
the only true realism. The accepted nineteenth-century
meaning of realism is thus turned upside down. It is
replaced by an individualizing, atomistic, subjective
realism that refuses to recognize an objective order of
things: it is even solipsism in the sense of Pater or
Proust. The individual is called the “only reality” as
in existential philosophy. Lieutenant Gustl by Arthur
Schnitzler rather than Die Buddenbrooks, both dated
1901, is the culminating point of German realism.
Bergson rather than Taine or Comte would be its
philosopher.

In Germany, everybody is on his own and looks for
realism wherever he wants to find it. In Italy, with
the exception of Marxist critics, there is no problem
of realism. Croce has taken care of that: there is no
nature or reality outside the mind and the artist need
not worry about the relationship. “Realism” is (like
romanticism) only a pseudo-concept, a category of
obsolete rhetoric. (See B. Croce, Estetica, Bari [1950],
p. 118; “Breviario di estetica,” in Nuovi saggi di
estetica,
Bari [1948], pp. 39-40; “Aestetica in nuce,”
in Ultimi saggi, Bari [1948], p. 21.)

In Russia, realism is everything. Pushkin and Gogol
are considered realists, and as in Germany they argue
about “critical realism,” “radical democratic realism,”
“proletarian realism,” and “socialist realism,” its last
stage, which according to L. I. Timofeyev's authorita
tive Theory of Literature (Teoriya literatury, Moscow
[1938]) is the “fulfilment of all art and literature.”

“Socialist realism” propounds a consciously contra-
dictory concept: the writer ought to describe society
as it is but he must also describe it as it should and
will be. The writer must be faithful to reality but at
the same time be imbued with “party-spirit” (partij-
nost
). The contradiction is solved by the demand for
a “positive hero,” for a prescriptive model or even
ideal “type,” which, e.g., Georgi Malenkov, in a speech
at the nineteenth Party Congress (1952) called “the
central, political problem of realism.” Russian writers
are literally told to find and to describe the heroes
whose imitation in real life would help in transforming
society toward the goal of communism.

Among the Marxists who are not mere mouthpieces
of the party line, the Hungarian Georg Lukács (1885-
1971) developed the most coherent theory of realism.
It starts with the dogma that all literature is a “reflec-
tion of reality” (a phrase which Lukács repeats over
a thousand times in the first volume of his Aesthetik,
1962), and that it will be the truest mirror if it fully
reflects the contradictions of social development, that
is, in practice, if the author shows an insight into the
structure of society and the future direction of its
evolution. Naturalism is rejected as concerned with the
surface of everyday life and with the average, while
realism creates types which are both representative and
prophetic. Lukács assembles a number of criteria which
allow him to judge literature in terms of its “progres-
siveness” (which might be unconscious, even contrary
to the political opinions of the author) and in terms
of the all-inclusiveness, representativeness, self-
consciousness, and anticipatory power of the figures
created by the great realists. Though there is much
purely political polemic in Lukács and the criteria are
predominantly ideological, “popular front,” and later
“cold war,” Lukács at his best reformulates the “con-
crete universal” and renews the “ideal type” problem
so closely in relation with the main tradition of German
aesthetics that Peter Demetz could speak of him as
achieving “a renaissance of originally idealistic aes-
thetics in the mask of Marxism” (“Zwischen Klassik
und Bolschewismus. Georg Lukács als Theoretiker der
Dichtung,” Merkur, 12 [1958], 501-15).

Thus, the concept of realism vacillates today be-
tween the old meaning formulated in the nineteenth
century as “an objective description of contemporary
social reality” and more widely divergent recent con-
cepts which either, as in Marxism, give realism a more
specific meaning of a grasp of the social structure and
its future trends or, as often in the West, show a more
sophisticated awareness of the difficulties raised by the
concept of reality.

Recent theorists try to redefine it either in terms of


056

a historistic or existentialist concept of the nature of
reality. While in Marxism “realism” is the only right
procedure of art, most Western theorists see “realism”
as only one trend of modern literature, vying but not
necessarily surpassing other styles such as classicism,
romanticism, or symbolism.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

George J. Becker, ed., Documents of Literary Realism
(Princeton, 1963), an anthology. E. B. O. Borgerhoff,
Réalisme and Kindred Words: Their Use as a Term of
Literary Criticism in the First Half of the Nineteenth Cen-
tury,” in PMLA, 53 (1938), 837-43. Emile Bouvier, La
bataille réaliste
(1844-1857) (Paris, 1914). F. W. J.
Hemmings, “The Origin of the Terms Naturalisme, Natural-
iste,
” in French Studies, 8 (1954), 109-21. Harry Levin, ed.,
“A Symposium on Realism,” in Comparative Literature, 3
(1951), 193-285; idem, The Gates of Horn. A Study of Five
French Realists
(New York, 1963), contains much on the
history of the concept. Richard Stang, The Theory of the
Novel in England, 1850-1870
(London, 1959). Bernard
Weinberg, French Realism: The Critical Reaction, 1830-1870
(New York, 1937). René Wellek, “The Concept of Realism
in Literary Scholarship,” in Concepts of Criticism (New
Haven, 1963), pp. 222-55, appeared in Neophilologus, 44
(1960), 1-20.

RENÉ WELLEK

[See also Existentialism; Historicism; Impressionism; Marx-
ism; Naturalism in Art;
Socialism.]