Realism and Naturalism in Europe and America

Realism was by no means a uniform or coherent movement; a tendency toward realism arose in many parts of Europe and in America, beginning in the 1840s. The major figures included Flaubert and Balzac in France, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy in Russia, George Eliot and Charles Dickens in England, as well as William Dean Howells and Henry James in America. The most general aim of realism was to offer a truthful  accurate, and objective representation of the real world, both the external world and the human self. To achieve this aim, realists resorted to a number of strategies: the use of descriptive and evocative detail; avoidance of what was fantastical, imaginary, and mythical; adhering to the requirements of probability, and excluding events which were impossible or improbable; inclusion of characters and incidents from all social strata, dealing not merely with rulers and nobility; focusing on the present and choosing topics from contemporary life rather than longing for some idealized past; emphasizing the social rather than the individual (or seeing the individual as a social being); refraining from the use of elevated language, in favor of more colloquial idioms and everyday speech, as well as directness and simplicity of expression. All of these aims and strategies were underlain by an emphasis on direct observation, factuality, experience, and induction (arriving at general truths only on the basis of repeated experience). In adopting the strategies listed above, realism was a broad and multipronged reaction against the idealization, historical retrospection, and the imaginary worlds seen as characterizing Romanticism.

realism_3Naturalism was the ancient term for the physical sciences or the study of nature. Naturalism explicitly endeavors to emulate the methods of the physical sciences, drawing heavily on the principles of causality, determinism, explanation, and experimentation. Some naturalists also drew on the Darwinian conception of nature and attempted to express the struggle for survival, as embodied in the connections between individuals and their environments, often portraying the physiologically and psychically determined dimensions of their characters as overwhelmed by accidental circumstances rather than acting rationally, freely, and heroically upon the world. Hence naturalism can be viewed as a more extreme form of realism, extending the latter’s scientific basis still further to encompass extremely detailed methods of description, a deterministic emphasis upon the contexts of actions and events (which are seen as arising from specific causes), upon the hereditary psychological components of their characters, experimenting with the connections between human psychology and external environment, and refusing to accommodate any kind of metaphysical or spiritual perspective. The theoretical foundations of naturalism were laid by the literary historian Hippolyte Taine (1828– 1893), in works such as his Histoire de la littérature anglaise (1863–1864), and by Émile Zola who first formulated its manifesto.

The term “realism” had been used in the 1820s but did not acquire any significant valency in literary strategy and criticism until the 1830s when a reaction started setting in against the predominating ideals of Romanticism. In Germany, a radical group called the Young Germans, whose prominent members included Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) and Karl Gutzkow (1811–1878), voiced their opposition to the perceived reactionary Romanticism of Goethe and Schlegel. This group also rejected the ideal of aesthetic autonomy in favor of a realism that was politically interventional. The atmosphere in Germany, however, was not favorable toward liberalism. Liberal movements had already been curbed by the Carlsbad Decrees of 1819, subjecting the universities to state control and authors to censorship. In 1835 the Young Germans were banned, as was the later Marxist criticism of figures such as Franz Mehring (1846–1919). The repressive political situation, climaxing in the defeat of the 1848 revolution, led to an isolation of literature from political discourse, reflected even in the literary historicism of figures such as Georg Gottfried Gervinus, influenced by Hegel’s aesthetics. Hegelian idealism and historicism increasingly gave way before positivism, reflected in various brands of realism and naturalism. Proponents of realism included Julian Schmidt (1818– 1886), the novelist Gottfried Keller (1819–1890), the dramatist Friedrich Hebbel (1813– 1863), and Friedrich Theodor von Vischer (1807–1887), who endeavored to express a theoretical basis for realism. The naturalist movement, arising in the 1880s through the influence of Zola, was advanced by Arno Holz (1863–1929), Heinrich (1855–1906) and Julius Hart (1859–1930), Wilhelm Bolsche (1861–1939), the social novelist Theodor Fontane (1819–1898), and Wilhelm Scherer (1841–1886), who attempted to base literature on scientific principles. In general, this entire period was marked by a conflict between politically valent criticism and various forms of aestheticism, impressionism, and relativism, as well as by the collision of historicism with positivism.

In France, realism became a force in the 1850s. A controversy was sparked by the painter Gustave Courbet, who exhibited his art under the rubric of realism after his paintings had been rejected by the Paris World Fair in 1855. Courbet aimed to present a “slice of life,” cut free of any moral or emotional or even aesthetic investment. Edmond Duranty began a journal called Réalisme in 1856, in which realism was equated with truthfulness, sincerity, and the modern. Duranty believed that novels should reflect the lives of ordinary middle-class or working-class people. In 1857 Jules-François- Felix Husson (known as Champfleury) published a collection of essays entitled Le Réalisme. Anticipating Zola, he urged the need for scrupulous documentation and freedom from moral constraints. Positivism in France took on a more overt aspect in the work of Taine. Influenced by the Enlightenment rationalist philosophers on theone hand, and by Hegel and Spinoza on the other, Taine sought a totalizing explanation of the causal operations governing both human beings and the world. In a somewhat paradoxical endeavor, he sought to situate positivism within a broader historical scheme. In the famous Introduction to his History of English Literature, he advocated, following Sainte-Beuve, an ideal of scientific exactness in literary criticism, urging that the task of the critic was to discover the master characteristic of a writer’s work, by using the literary text as an expression of the facts of the author’s psychology and biography. This predominating characteristic, he held, was determined by three broad factors: race, milieu, and moment. The broader assumption behind this endeavor was that art expresses not only the psychology of its immediate creator but also the spirit of its age. Taine was a major influence on Zola and writers such as Ferdinand Brunetière (1849–1906), who reaffirmed the ideals of an objective criticism. In 1880, Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Joris-Karl Huysmans, and others jointly published a volume of naturalistic fiction entitled Les Soirées de Meda. As in Germany, these “scientific” and positivistic tendencies were countered toward the end of the century by advocates of impressionism (as in Edmond and Jules de Goncourt) and the subjectivism of writers such as Anatole France, which renewed the Romantic emphasis on subjectivity and individuality.

In England, realism had in varying degrees informed the numerous types of novel – political, historical, religious – which had been written by major figures such as Thackeray and Dickens during the nineteenth century. But it was with the novels of George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, George Meredith, and Thomas Hardy that realist fiction flowered. George Eliot’s views were influenced by Ludwig Feuerbach and Auguste Comte, and her exposition of realism will be discussed below. Eliot’s friend and domestic partner George Henry Lewes was a philosopher, critic, and scientist, who was also influenced by Comte. His impact on realistic thinking lay in his examination of human psychology as intimately related to social conditions. Two other notable realists of this period were George Gissing (1857–1903) and George Moore (1852–1933), who, both influenced by Zola, introduced a strain of naturalism into English letters. Gissing was an admirer of Balzac and wrote novels that offered minutely documented accounts of lower-middle-class life in London. The Irish novelist Moore also adopted and modified the realist strategies of Flaubert and Balzac. Another figure associated with English realism was the artist and critic F. G. Stephens, a member of the group of painters known as the “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood,” formed in 1848; this group had aimed to revive in art qualities such as moral seriousness, directness, and minute representation of detail. Indeed, as Lilian Furst has pointed out, the subsequent development of photography and the ideal of photographic accuracy had considerable significance for realism in both art and literature.

ivanovWhile realism in America reacted against the fundamental tendencies of Romanticism, it perpetuated the latter’s concern with national identity and defining a native tradition. The foremost theorist of realism in America was William Dean Howells, whose views will be considered below. Influenced by De Sanctis and Tolstoy, and drawing on the determinism of Taine and the evolutionary philosophy of Herbert Spencer, Howells was a powerful advocate of verisimilitude in fiction. In his manifesto Crumbling Idols (1894), Hamlin Garland advanced a notion of “veritism,” a version of naturalism, which would express social concerns while respecting local traditions and individual qualities. The novels of both Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane bear the impact of Zola’s naturalism and social Darwinism. Frank Norris’ influential essay “A Plea for Romantic Fiction” (1901) was effectively a defense of naturalism which accommodated some Romantic qualities. An important figure in realist theory was Henry James, whose emphasis on freedom in fiction will be examined shortly.

Nearly all of these writers in the traditions mentioned, however, recognized that realism was problematic and even impossible to achieve. Many of their own creative works contradicted and counter-exemplified their critical views, often deploying sophisticated techniques of symbolism and authorial perspective. They often gave voice to scathing critiques of oppressive social conditions and were often guilty (inevitably) of manipulating so-called facts. Writers such as Flaubert were well aware that the raw material of life or experience needed to be worked on by art; and George Eliot was profoundly cognizant of the difficulty of expressing truth and reality.

In the light of the broad historical background outlined above, it needs to be stressed that realism – a way of thinking that continues to this day – has been not just a literary technique but a vast historical phenomenon with economic, ideological, philosophic, and religious ramifications. This is neatly indicated in Fredric Jameson’s statement that “the realistic mode . . . is one of the most complex and vital realizations of Western culture, to which it is . . . well-nigh unique.”2 Lilian Furst describes realism as a product of “a pervasive rationalist epistemology that turned its back on the fantasies of Romanticism.”1

Realism is not a new phenomenon, and its history can be traced all the way back through writers such as Defoe, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Aquinas to many of the classical thinkers such as Aristotle. Some insight into the connections between modern realism, classical realism, and Romanticism might be enabled by looking at their philosophical underpinnings. “Modern realism,” Ian Watt has suggested, “begins from the position that truth can be discovered by the individual through his senses: it has its origins in Descartes and Locke.”2 Watt remarks that the scholastic realism of the Middle Ages, deriving from Aristotle, viewed as the true realities universals, classes, and abstractions rather than the particular, concrete objects of sense-perception. Modern realism inverted these priorities, and it is the belief, affirmed in 1713 by Berkeley’s Philonous, that “everything which exists is particular,” which “gives modern thought since Descartes a certain unity of outlook and method.”3

Auerbach too distinguishes medieval from modern realism: in the former, “an occurrence on earth signifies not only itself but at the same time another, which it predicts or confirms . . . The connection between occurrences is not regarded as primarily a chronological or causal development but as a oneness within the divine plan, of which all occurrences are parts and reflections.”4 What Auerbach describes is a duality inscribed in each event, a simultaneous significance in two worlds, this world and the “other” world. Such duality confers universal significance upon the smallest particular occurrence. The potential for an event to have isolated meaning in this world only emerged into realization with a rising bourgeois class whose economic interests were expressed in the philosophical domain by an increasing emphasis on the world here and now, on an emancipation of the particular event from its imprisoning exemplification of moral truths or its stunting participation in preemptive categories. Yet, in virtue of their very assaults on universality, the bourgeois thinkers deprived themselves of the ability to relocate the particular within alternative schemes. Realism’s reification of the particular implied a world of mutually disconnected objects. Lilian FurstLilian Furst has pointed out that the evolution of realism was affected by the Daguerre– Niépce method of photography, presented in 1839, “which facilitated a more exact reproduction of reality.”5 The self-casting of realism into the mold of photography completed the rebellion of modern literary technique against the universal: the reality thus encaptured was expressed in great detail, in all its immediate particularity, but at the expense of being randomly isolated, literally cut out from its surroundings. The philosophical situation inherited by Kant had been articulated largely by Locke and Hume. It was a situation characterized above all by a separation between the worlds of subject and object; the difficulty of articulating the connection between these indicated that certain profound philosophical problems had been sidestepped by realism in its reductive claim to represent “the” real world.

Watt states that the problem of realism “is essentially an epistemological problem.” Fredric Jameson has suggested that “realism is the most complex epistemological instrument yet devised for recording the truth of social reality.”6 The rise of literary realism had been supported by the rise of philosophical realism, of thinkers such as Meinong, G. E. Moore, and Russell, whose assumptions might be traced back to Locke, and which were reaffirmed in the controversial collection of essays in The New Realism (1912).

Much literary modernism has reacted against realism’s reduction of experience to a single dimension, ascertainable in terms of causality, chronology, definable motive, and development of individual characters. Fredric Jameson has suggested that, as the bourgeoisie begins to decay as a class, not only is realism no longer appropriate as a mode of representing reality but also “the very object of realism itself – secular reality, objective reality – no longer exists either . . . that ‘real world’ is itself a thing of the past.”7 Other thinkers such as the Hungarian Marxist George Lukács have advocated a realism grounded not on the detailed depiction of particular events and characters but on an expression of these as typical of, or embodying, the broader historical movements of their time. These historical forces are the real subject of the realist novel which Lukács sees as the epic of the modern world.

Both Marxist and non-Marxist writers – formalists, structuralists, and deconstructionists – have associated realism with deficiency of artistic form, and with a commonplace vision which accepts reality as something given. According to these writers, the political connotations of merely expressing given reality are equally imposing: it is not the function of art simply to mirror and resign itself to the mundane bourgeois reality which surrounds it. This reality is not eternal, as it claims to be, but ephemeral; to express a more substantial reality, the artist must abstract from what lies immediately to hand. It is integral to the artist’s function to demystify this falsifying scheme, to lay bare the artifice of eternity. Structuralists such as Tzvetan Todorov have viewed realism as overtly and misleadingly transparent, and have rejected its referential basis: narrative and language, they have argued, refer not to any external reality; rather, they embody a self-contained and internally coherent system of concepts through which we see reality. Reader-response theorists such as Wolfgang Iser regard reality as produced by the interaction of author, text, and reader, rather than somehow existing prior to these linguistic operations. Deconstructive critics such as J. Hillis Miller have also rejected the correspondence theory of meaning and truth underlying realism: even the name of a city such as London is not a pregiven reality but a set of signs for writers such as Dickens.

As seen above, realism, in both literature and philosophy, was one expression of the “scientific” tendency to analyze and divide up the various constituents of the world. Influenced by psychoanalytic and sociological developments, much twentieth-century thought has tended to view mental states in terms of a complex admixture of previously separated “faculties” such as reason and imagination. It has also rejected the “scientific” assumption behind realism that total objectivity is attainable: the line between mental states and external objects is no longer so clear. This enables a different kind of realism, one which attempts not so much accurately to reflect the world as to express mental states in all their incoherent flux. Proust, Joyce, Woolf, and Bergson were crucial components of this modernist reaction against the rigidity of some nineteenth-century realism. But there is a sense in which these writers, like T. S. Eliot, do not reject realism outright but refine it. In confronting experience in all its complex temporal actuality rather than predefining its elements, modernism could be described as “realistic.” Such a reconceived realism is more consonant with twentieth-century modes of thought. As mentioned earlier, however, many of the nineteenth-century realists were well aware of the practical problems that confronted their theoretical claims. What follows is an analysis of central statements of realism and naturalism made in England, France, and America.



1 Lilian Furst, ed., Realism (New York and London: Longman, 1992), p. 1.
2 Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), p. 12.
3 Ibid., pp. 16–17.
4 Eric Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 555.
5 Furst, Realism, p. 2.
6 Jameson, Ideologies of Theory, pp. 122–124.
7 Ibid., pp. 121–123.

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