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c. 1860

The realist movement in literature first developed in France in the mid-nineteenth century, soon spreading to England, Russia, and the United States. Realist literature is best represented by the novel, including many works widely regarded to be among the greatest novels ever written. Realist writers sought to narrate their novels from an objective, unbiased perspective that simply and clearly represented the factual elements of the story. They became masters at psychological characterization, detailed descriptions of everyday life, and dialogue that captures the idioms of natural speech. The realists endeavored to accurately represent contemporary culture and people from all walks of life. Thus, realist writers often addressed themes of socioeconomic conflict by contrasting the living conditions of the poor with those of the upper classes in urban as well as rural societies.

In France, the major realist writers included Honoreéde Balzac, Gustave Flaubert,Émile Zola, and Guy de Maupassant, among others. In Russia, the major realist writers were Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Leo Tolstoy. In England, the foremost realist authors were Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Anthony Trollope. In the United States, William Dean Howells was the foremost realist writer. Naturalism, an offshoot of Realism, was a literary movement that placed even greater emphasis on the accurate representation of details from contemporary life. In the United States, regionalism and local color fiction in particular were American offshoots of Realism. Realism also exerted a profound influence on drama and theatrical productions, altering practices of set design, costuming, acting style, and dialogue.


Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)

Honoréde Balzac is recognized as the originator of French Realism in literature and one of the greatest novelists of the nineteenth century. Balzac was born HonoréBalssa on May 20, 1799, in Tours, France. He spent much of his adult life in Paris, where he frequented many of the notable literary salons of the day and began to use the last name de Balzac. Balzac supported himself through writing, typically spending fourteen to sixteen hours a day on his craft. He was a man of great charisma and lived to the excesses of life, abusing coffee and rich food in order to work longer hours. His life's work comprises a series of some ninety novels and novellas collectively entitled La Comeédie humaine (The Human Comedy). Balzac died following a long illness on August 18, 1850, leaving his wife of five months with mountains of debt.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

Charles Dickens is known as an early master of the English realist novel and one of the most celebrated and most enduring novelists of all time. Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England, on February 7, 1812. He lived and worked in London as a law clerk, court reporter, and newspaper journalist. Following the publication of his first novel, Pickwick Papers (1836), Dickens soon became the most popular author in England.

Dickens's major novels include Oliver Twist (1838), Nicholas Nickleby (1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty (1841), The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation (1848), David Copperfield (1850), Bleak House (1853), Hard Times: For These Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1857), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Great Expectations (1861), and Our Mutual Friend (1865). His Christmas story A Christmas Carol (1843) remains an ever-enduring classic. Dickens died of a paralytic stroke in Kent, England, on June 9, 1870.

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)

Fyodor Dostoevsky (also spelled Dostoyevsky) is known as a major author of Russian realist fiction and one of the greatest novelists of all time. Dostoevsky was born October 30, 1821, in Moscow, Russia. He received a degree in military engineering in 1843 but resigned his post in order to pursue a career in writing. His first published work was a translation from French into Russian of Balzac's novel Eugénie Grandet. Dostoevsky's original novella Bednyye lyudi (Poor Folk), published in 1846, immediately gained the admiration of the leading Russian writers and critics of the day.

In 1849 Dostoevsky was arrested for his association with a group of socialist intellectuals. After eight months in prison, he was given a death sentence and, along with several other prisoners, led out to be shot by a firing squad. However, at the last moment the sentence was reversed, and the prisoners were allowed to live; this mock-execution had been designed as a form of psychological torture. Dostoevsky was then sentenced to four years in a Siberian prison followed by six years in the army. After serving this ten-year sentence, he went on to a successful career as a novelist and journalist.

Dostoevsky's fiction had a profound influence on the literature, philosophy, psychology, and religious thought of the twentieth century. His novels are celebrated as masterworks of psychological Realism in their portrayal of individuals haunted by their own dark impulses. Dostoevsky's greatest works include the novels Prestupleniye I nakazaniye (1866), translated as Crime and Punishment; Idiot (1868); Besy (1872), translated as The Possessed; Dnevnik pisatelya (1873-1877), translated as The Diary of a Writer; and Brat'ya Karamazovy (1880), translated as The Brothers Karamazov, as well as the novella Zapiski iz podpolya (1864), translated as Notes from the Underground. Dostoevsky died in St. Petersburg, Russia, on January 28, 1881, of complications from emphysema.

George Eliot (1819-1880)

George Eliot is the pen name of Mary Ann (or Marian) Evans, one of the most outstanding novelists of English Realism. Eliot was born in Warwickshire, England, on November 22, 1819. After the death of her mother, Eliot took on the role of her father's caretaker. After her father died, she moved to London to support herself as a freelance writer and then as editor of the Westminster Review. In the role as editor she became acquainted with a circle of free thinkers, including some of the major philosophical and literary minds of the day, such as Herbert Spencer. Eliot's major works include Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Middlemarch (1871-1872), and Daniel Deronda (1876). Eliot died suddenly of heart failure in London, England, on December 22, 1880.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)

Gustave Flaubert is known as the consummate writer of French Realism. Flaubert was born on December 12, 1821, in Rouen, France. He spent most of his adult life at his family estate in Croisset, where he devoted his life to writing. Flaubert became acquainted with many of the important writers of the day, including George Sand, Émile Zola, Alphonse Daudet, Guy de Maupassant, and Ivan Turgenev. His major works include the novels Madame Bovary (1857), Salammbo (1863), and L'Education sentimentale (1869; Sentimental Education: A Young Man's History), as well as the volume Trois Contes (1877), a compilation of three short stories. Flaubert died from a stroke in Croisset on May 8, 1880.

William Dean Howells (1837-1920)

William Dean Howells is considered the foremost American realist writer of the nineteenth century. Howells was born March 1, 1837, in Martin's Ferry, Ohio. In 1860 he wrote a biography of then-presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln. After Lincoln was elected, Howells was given a consulship in Venice, Italy, which he held from 1861 to 1865. Upon returning to the United States, he worked as assistant editor of the Atlantic Monthly magazine from 1866 until 1871, then as chief editor until 1881.

Howells earned distinction as a highly influential literary critic, championing the realist writing of American authors Henry James, Mark Twain, and Stephen Crane as well as European authors Ivan Turgenev, Henrik Ibsen, Leo Tolstoy, and Émile Zola. Howells's major works include A Modern Instance (1882), TheRiseof Silas Lapham (1885), Annie Kilburn (1888), and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890). Howells died in New York City, New York, on May 11, 1920.

Henry James (1843-1916)

Henry James was born April 15, 1843, to an upper-class family in New York City. He had an affinity for literature and languages and traveled around Europe as a young man. He considered a career in law but decided upon writing instead. He was soon contributing to periodicals such as the Nation, the Atlantic Monthly, and the New York Tribune. He lived abroad from 1880 to 1905 and was a declared bachelor. In fact, James never married and his letters have revealed that he was discretely homosexual. He was good friends throughout his life with Edith Wharton, also a novelist and a socialite from New York City. James became a British citizen in 1915 in protest of the U.S. refusal to become involved in World War I. He died less than a year later, on February 28, 1916, in London, England, from complications from a stroke that occurred in December. "The Turn of the Screw," a famous ghost story by James, is about a governess working at an estate in rural England who tries to exorcise the ghosts from the lives of her two young wards. James's most prominent works include Daisy Miller (1878), Portrait of a Lady (1881), Wings of the Dove (1902), and The Ambassadors (1903). His work is characterized by depictions of conflict between American and European values.

Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893)

Guy de Maupassant is known as a major practitioner of Naturalism and Realism and an exceptionally fine short story writer. Maupassant was born August 5, 1850, near Dieppe, France. When the Franco-German war broke out in 1870, he left law school to serve in the military effort. When the war ended in 1871, Maupassant continued his law studies and began a career in the French bureaucracy. Maupassant developed an important literary apprenticeship under Gustave Flaubert, who also served as a father figure. Flaubert introduced the young writer to major literary figures of the day, including Émile Zola, Ivan Turgenev, Edmond de Goncourt, and Henry James.

With the publication of his story "Ball of Fat" (1880), Maupassant gained immediate literary success and was able to quit his job in order to write full time. He went on to publish some three hundred short stories and six novels as well as several nonfiction books and a volume of poetry. Maupassant's major volumes of short stories include La maison Tellier (1881), translated as The Tellier House; Mademoiselle Fifi (1883); Contes de la bécasse (1883), translated as Tales of the Goose; Clair de lune (1884); Les soeurs Rondoli (1884), translated as The Rondoli Sisters; Yvette (1884); Toine (1886); Le Horla (1887); Le rosier de Madame Husson (1888), translated as The Rose-Bush of Madame Husson;and L'Inutile beauté (1890), translated as The Useless Beauty. His most important novels include Une vie (1883), translated as AWoman's Life; Bel-Ami (1885), translated as Good Friend;and Pierre et Jean (1888), translated as Pierre and Jean.

As a result of contracting syphilis, Maupassant suffered increasing mental and psychological instability. He died in a nursing home on July 6, 1893, at the age of forty-two.

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy (also spelled Tolstoi) is known as a major Russian realist writer and one of the most eminent novelists of all time. Tolstoy was born in the Tula Province of the Russian Empire on September 9, 1828. His mother died before he was two years old. By the time Tolstoy was nine, his father had also died. Tolstoy's first publication, Detstvo (1852; Childhood), is a nostalgic work of fiction based on the early years of his life.

In the early 1850s, Tolstoy joined the military and fought in the Crimean War (1853-1856). In the late 1870s, he experienced a religious conversion and developed ideas of Christian faith that were at odds with the Russian Orthodox church, from which he was excommunicated in 1901. His religious ideas included a devotion to nonviolence that later influenced Mahatma Gandhi, the great twentieth-century Indian nationalist and proponent of nonviolent resistance.

Tolstoy's greatest novels are Voini i mir (1869; War and Peace) and Anna Karenina (1877). His Smert Ivana Ilicha(1886; The Death of Ivan Ilyich) is considered one of the greatest examples of the novella, or short novel form. He died of pneumonia in the province of Ryazan on November 20, 1910.

Émile Zola (1840-1902)

Émile Zola, one of the greatest novelists of all time, was the founder of Naturalism in literature, which was a further development of Realism. Zola was born in Paris, France, on April 2, 1840, and grew up in Aix-en-Provence in southern France. Zola's father died when Zola was still in grade school. After his first novel was published in 1865, Zola quit his job as a clerk at a publishing company in order to support himself as a writer. Inspired by Balzac's The Human Comedy, Zola set out to write what became a twenty-novel series entitled Les Rougon-Macquart(The Rougon-Macquarts).

Zola became associated with the painters Paul Cézanne (a boyhood friend) and Edouard Manet as well as the French Impressionist painters Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Pierre-August Renoir. He also became acquainted with major literary figures of the day including Gustave Flau-bert, Edmond Goncourt, Alphonse Daudet, and Ivan Turgenev. In 1880 Zola oversaw the publication of a collection of short stories by six naturalist authors titled Les Soirées de Médan (Evenings at Médan), after the location of his home at Médan, outside of Paris, where his circle of naturalists met.

In 1888 Zola became famous for his literary intervention in the Dreyfus affair, a highly controversial political event that dominated French political debates for twelve years. In an article titled "J'Accuse" ("I Accuse"), Zola defended the rights of a Jewish military officer, Alfred Dreyfus, who had been falsely accused of espionage. Zola has since been celebrated as a champion against anti-Semitism and an important influence on French public opinion. Zola died of accidental asphyxiation in Paris, France, on September 29, 1902.


Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina (1873-1877), by the Russian realist writer Leo Tolstoy, is considered one of the greatest novels of all time. The story concerns the intrigues of three Russian families: the Oblonskys, the Karenins, and the Levins. In the Oblonsky family, the husband, Stiva, is unfaithful to his wife, Dolly. The Oblonskys are the subject of Tolstoy's famous opening line in Anna Karenina: "All happy families resemble each other; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

The Karenin family is disrupted when Anna Karenina (the feminine version of the last name Karenin) leaves her husband and child because of an affair she is having with Aleksey Vronsky, a young military officer. The third element of Anna Karenina concerns the young Konstantin Levin and his courtship of Dolly's sister Kitty. The character of Konstantin embodies one of Tolstoy's major philosophical values: that the best life is lived through the daily events of honest work, a stable family, and a domestic situation, and that intellectualizing about life is useless.

"Ball of Fat"

"Ball of Fat," originally "Boule de suif," is considered the masterpiece of Guy de Maupassant. "Ball of Fat" was first published in 1880 in Les Soirees de Médan (Evenings at Médan), a volume of stories by six different authors writing on the subject of the Franco-German War of 1870-1871. In "Ball of Fat," a prostitute is traveling by coach with several other passengers, all of them French, to flee German occupation of the city of Rouen. At first the other passengers are friendly with the prostitute because she has food, which they want her to share with them. When they stop for the night at a hotel, a German military officer threatens to not let them continue their journey unless the prostitute satisfies his lust. Not wanting to consort with the enemy, the prostitute at first refuses to consent to his wishes. However, in order to ensure their own safe passage, the other passengers manipulate her into giving in to the German officer. Afterwards, the other passengers ostracize the prostitute for succumbing to the officer. "Ball of Fat" is a notable example of Maupassant's mastery at economical composition in the short story form.

Crime and Punishment

Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment), by the Russian realist writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, is considered one of the greatest novels of all time. In Crime and Punishment a young intellectual, Raskolnikov, uses philosophical reasoning to justify his plan of murdering an old woman for her money. After the murder, however, Raskolnikov is filled with a sort of spiritual dread. Meanwhile, a detective who believes Raskolnikov to be the murderer manipulates him into confessing his crime. When Raskolnikov is convicted and sent to prison in Siberia, the woman who loves him, Sonya Marmeladova, follows him to live near the prison. Influenced by Sonya, Raskolnikov experiences a religious conversion while in prison. Dostoevsky is celebrated for his detailed psychological study of the character Raskolnikov, tracing the complex and minute factors which motivate his crime.

Daisy Miller

Henry James's early novella Daisy Miller (1878) tells the story of a young, beautiful American woman abroad in Europe. In Switzerland, she is introduced by her brother to a man named Winterbourne. She is friendly and flirtatious, which confuses Winterbourne and displeases other Europeans in their social circle. Despite himself, Winterbourne pursues Daisy. After Switzerland, they reunite in Rome. Daisy's shocking behavior continues, and Winterbourne attempts to rein her in since it is clear that her family will not inter-cede. He finds her at the Colosseum one evening and tells her that they cannot be together because it is now clear to him that she is not his equal in status. He also warns her to not be out at night or she will catch a fever. Daisy indeed becomes ill and dies within days. Winterbourne regrets his decision to break with her. Daisy Miller was an immediate success and continues to be popular among James's works. James revised and republished the novella in 1909; however, many still prefer the original.

David Copperfield

David Copperfield (1849-1850) is one of the most popular and enduring of the novels of Charles Dickens, and it was the author's personal


  • Many realist novels of Charles Dickens have been adapted to film in a variety of productions dating as far back as the 1930s.David Copperfield was adapted to film in 1935 (with George Cukor directing) and in 1970 (with Delbert Mann directing).
  • Many of Dickens's novels have been recorded on audiocassette. David Copperfield was recorded by Media Books Audio Publishing in 1999 with Ben Kingsley reading. In 2002, a twenty-six cassette edition was released by Audio Partners Publishing Corporation with Martin Jarvis as the reader.
  • The major works of Dostoevsky have been adapted to film in several different productions and recorded on audiocassette. Crime and Punishment was adapted twice to film in 1935 (one of these a French production) and in 1970 in a Russian production.
  • An audiocassette recording of Crime and Punishment was read by Michael Sheen for Naxos of America in 1994.
  • Many of Eliot's novels have been adapted to film and recorded on audiocassette. Middlemarch was adapted to film as a made-for-television movie, directed by Anthony Page, in 1994.
  • Middlemarch, read by Nadia May, was recorded on audiocassette by Blackstone Audio Books in 1994.
  • Flaubert's Madame Bovary has been adapted to film many times. The first English version appeared in 1949 and was directed by Vincente Minnelli. Tim Fywell directed a made-for-television version in 2000.
  • Madame Bovary was recorded by New Millennium Audio, read by Glenda Jackson, in 2002.
  • Tolstoy's Anna Karenina was adapted to film in 1935, starring Greta Garbo; in 1947, starring Vivien Leigh; in 1974, as a ballet; and in 1985, starring Christopher Reeve.
  • Anna Karenina was recorded on audiocassette by Bantam Books for the "BBC Radio Presents" series in 1999.

favorite. David Copperfield is a semi-autobiographical work. David Copperfield is most noted for the early chapters describing childhood experiences. Among these is a description of Dickens's experience of being taken out of school as a child to work in a factory in London while his father was imprisoned for unpaid debts. In David Copperfield, Dickens addresses the social injustices of urban poverty and industrial labor.


The novel Germinal (1885) is considered the masterpiece of Émile Zola, a French realist writer and the originator of the school of Naturalism in literature. Germinal is set in a mining town and portrays the socioeconomic tensions between the working-class miners and the upper-class mine owners. The novel depicts the effects of a workers' strike on the mining community and addresses major political theories of the day, such as Marxism, socialism, and trade unionism. Zola uses the metaphor of a monster to describe the coal mine, which devours the workers who enter it. In Germinal, Zola accurately represents the conditions of the two separate social spheres as well as tackling important political debates regarding inequalities in socioeconomic class.

A Hazard of New Fortunes

A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), by the foremost American realist, William Dean Howells, is regarded as one of the author's most important novels. A Hazard of New Fortunes takes place in New York City and concerns a group of people trying to start a magazine. Howells was inspired by his reading of Tolstoy's War and Peace to write a long novel, wide in scope and containing many characters. The result includes fifteen major characters and is notable for Howells's depiction of many sectors of society in New York City during the 1890s as well as his rendering of the flow of life in a city teeming with people. Howells expressed strong socialist views in A Hazard of New Fortunes, and many of the characters represent differing points on the spectrum of American political opinion.

The Human Comedy

The Human Comedy, originally La Comédie humaine (1842-1855), is the collective title for a grouping of some ninety novels and novellas by Honoréde Balzac. In his fiction, Balzac portrays all levels of French society with impressive accuracy. He is noted for the vast number of different characters created in his fiction, numbering some three thousand throughout The Human Comedy. Balzac introduced the literary device of including many of the same characters in several different novels. In managing this diverse range of characters, Balzac was a master of characterization, portraying in minute detail the psychological and sociological minutiae that make up each individual's personality and determine his or her actions. The Human Comedy addresses themes of socioeconomic class, ambition, and obsession.

Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary (1857), by Gustave Flaubert, is considered a masterpiece of French realist fiction. Madame Bovaryis the story of a middle-class woman whose rampant consumerism, debt, and extramarital affairs lead to tragedy and her suicide.Madame Bovary was first published in installments in a magazine in 1856. In 1857 Flau-bert was taken to court by the French government which charged that the novel was obscene. However, his lawyer convincingly defended his case and Madame Bovarywas published in book form soon afterward. The novel is noted for Flau-bert's narrative objectivity and the psychological detail by which he accounts for the course of events initiated by his characters.


Middlemarch (1871-1872), by George Eliot, is a masterpiece of English realism. Middlemarch is set in a small fictional town in rural England and is noted for the detail with which Eliot depicted characters from all walks of life. While Middle-march includes many major characters, the central figure of the story is Dorothea Brooke, a young woman who marries an older clergyman and religious scholar because she hopes to do something meaningful with her life. Eliot explores the idea that an individual may aspire to accomplishing something significant only to be defeated by the press of social convention or some flaw of character. Such individuals may leave small marks on history but in the larger social record they remain unknown. Middle-march is considered a high point in the development of the novel, elevating the form with its intellectual and metaphoric complexity.


Class Conflict

One of the major themes addressed by realist writers is socioeconomic class conflict. Many realist writers, in their efforts to depict characters from all levels of society, highlighted differences between the rich and the poor.

In David Copperfield, byDickens,the protagonist experiences the suffering of impoverished children forced to work in urban factories. In Germinal, Zola focuses on the conflict between working-class miners and wealthy mine owners, which erupts in a labor strike. In the process, Zola considers various political theories about the conditions of the working class. In AHazard of New Fortunes, Howell portrays characters from various places on the spectrum of American political thought who come into conflict over their efforts to start a magazine. At the end of A Hazard of New Fortunes, a young man is killed during the violence that erupts in a workers' strike. In War and Peace, Tolstoy portrays conflicts between the Russian landowners and the serfs who work their land. Many realist authors thus addressed social, economic, and political concerns through their depictions of socioeconomic class conflict.

The City

Many realist novelists sought to depict various aspects of life in the rapidly industrializing nineteenth-century city. Balzac, in the novels of The Human Comedy, is often noted for his extensive and accurate portrayal of society, culture, and commerce in Paris during the mid-nineteenth century. Howells, in A Hazard of New Fortunes, has been praised for his detailed depiction of the diverse flow of human life in New York City. Dickens set much of his fiction in London, describing specific streets, buildings, and neighborhoods in his novels. Russian realist


  • The Parnassian poets were a major offshoot of the realist movement in literature. Research one of the following poets of the Parnassian movement: Leconte de Lisle, Albert Glatigny, Theodore de Banville, François Coppée, Leon Dierx, or Jose Maria de Heredia and provide a brief biography of this poet as well as an overview of his literary career and major works. Discuss how the poet employs the elements of Realism in the poem.
  • The realist movement in literature was first inspired by the paintings of the French artist Gustave Courbet, particularly his paintings "The Stone-Breakers" and "Burial at Ornans." Learn more about the life and work of Courbet. Write an essay providing a biography of Courbet and overview of his artistic career. Then describe one of his paintings and explain the elements of Realism in the painting.
  • Realism in literature developed simultaneously with major developments in still photography during the second half of the nineteenth century. Research the history of photography between 1830 and 1900. What major technical discoveries and inventions characterized photography during this period? What types of photographs were being taken during this period? Find reproductions of early photographs from this period and discuss the style of photography in comparison to photography in your own time and culture.
  • The nineteenth century was a time of significant industrial and political development. Choose an English novel of provincial life and analyze it as a portrait of how country people viewed the advent of the railroads or the redistricting of voting districts.

writers Tolstoy and Dostoevsky described various elements of society in Moscow and St. Petersburg in their novels. Realist fiction thus often has a documentary quality to the extent that these writers have accurately reported the details of a specific historical era in the development of the modern city.

Philosophy and Morality

Realist novelists often address the related themes of religion, philosophy, and morality in their works of fiction. While realist novels are known for their accurate descriptions of various physical details, many of them are also highly theoretical in their presentation of various religious and philosophical debates. The Russian realist Tolstoy, for example, included characters in his novels that grapple with complex questions regarding Christian faith and the meaning of life. The Russian realist Dostoevsky also created fictional characters who carry on extended philosophical discussions and debates about Christian morality. In such novels as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky was particularly concerned with the moral, ethical, and religious issues raised by characters who commit crimes such as murder. In a famous scene of The Brothers Karamazov, one character carries on an imaginary debate with the Devil, who visits him in the form of an aging gentleman. In Crime and Punishment a young man who has committed a murder that he justified by his philosophical reasoning later finds redemption through Christian faith.

Marriage and the Family

Realist novelists often focused on the dynamics of marriage and family life in different sectors of society. Extramarital affairs are the subject of such major works of realist fiction as Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, both novels about married middle-class women whose affairs lead to social catastrophe and suicide.

Realist fiction often focuses on several sets of families or couples within a single novel. Anna Karenina and War and Peace focus on three families. Eliot's Middlemarch also focuses on the family and marital dynamics within several different households. Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov focuses on four brothers (including one illegitimate half-brother) and their father, whom one of them has murdered. Dickens often wrote about orphans who were without family but who eventually find people who function as surrogate families. In their portrayals of marriages and families, realists explored various social and psychological factors contributing to the quality of domestic life in the nineteenth century.


Narrative Voice

The term narrative voice refers to the way in which a story is told. Many realist writers sought to narrate their fictional stories in an omniscient, objective voice, from the perspective of a storyteller who is not a character in the story but rather an invisible presence who remains outside the realm of the story. Realist writers hoped thereby to create accurate portrayals of objective reality. The French realists in particular-Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, and Maupassant-sought to describe the subject matter of their fiction in clear, detailed, accurate terms, devoid of judgment or moralizing on the part of the narrator.


Setting is an important element of Realism in literature. Realist writers sought to document every aspect of their own contemporary cultures through accurate representations of specific settings. Realist novels were thus set in both the city and the country, the authors taking care to accurately portray the working and living conditions of characters from every echelon of society. Thus, realist novelists documented settings from all walks of life in major cities such as London, Paris, New York, Boston, Moscow, and St. Petersburg. The living and working conditions of peasants and serfs in rural settings throughout England, Russia, and France were also depicted in great detail by major realist authors.

Realist writers also set their fictional stories in the midst of specific historical events of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities is set during the French Revolution. The volume Evenings at Médan contains six short stories by six different authors, all set during the Franco-German war of 1870-1871. Eliot's Middlemarch is set in a fictional town in the context of major political debates over social reform which took place in England during the first half of the nineteenth century. Tolstoy's War and Peace is set in the historical context of the Napoleonic wars between Russia and France during the early 1800s.


Many realist writers have been celebrated for their masterful creation of a wide range of characters from all walks of life. Balzac, in his novel series The Human Comedy, created an encyclopedic range of characters representing every aspect of contemporary French society. In some ninety novels making up The Human Comedy, Balzac created over three thousand different characters. Balzac was also innovative in his use of the same characters in different novels, so that a character who is the protagonist of one novel may show up as a minor character in another novel.

Zola, inspired by Balzac's The Human Comedy, represented many aspects of French society through his twenty-volume series The Rougon-Macquarts, which centers on one family over several generations. Howells, inspired by the French and Russian realists, included in his novel AHazard of New Fortunes fifteen main characters, each representing a different place on the spectrum of American political thought. Dickens is also known for his many unforgettable characters, such as the miserable miser in AChristmas Carol,who have become enduring figures in Western culture.

Realist novelists are also celebrated for the impressive psychological detail by which their fictional characters are portrayed. Dostoevsky and Flaubert, in particular, are known for their mastery at delving into every nuance of a character's psychology in order to explain the complex array of factors which contribute to the motivation of that character. In their efforts to represent characters from all walks of life, realist novelists were masterful in their use of dialogue, capturing regional dialects as well as differences in the speech patterns of people from different socioeconomic backgrounds.



Naturalism was an important offshoot of Realism, although many critics agree that the differences between the two movements are so minimal that Naturalism is actually a subcategory of Realism. In fact, the two terms are often used interchangeably. Naturalism extended and intensified the tenets of Realism in that the naturalist writers sought to apply the evolutionary principles of Charles Darwin to their fiction. They believed that the course of each individual's life is determined by a combination of his or her hereditary traits and the historical and sociological environment into which she or he was born. Each character is thus essentially a victim of circumstance and has little power to change the course of his or her life.

The naturalist writers, led by the French novelist Zola, extended the values of Realism to even greater extremes of objectivity in their detailed observations and descriptions of all echelons of contemporary life. Zola's 1880 article "The Experimental Novel," the manifesto of literary Naturalism, describes the role of the author as that of a scientist examining a specimen under a microscope. In 1880 Zola edited the volume Evenings at Médan, a collection of stories by six authors in his circle of naturalists who met regularly at his home in Médan. Followers of Zola's school of Naturalism include Maupassant and Joris-Karl Huysmans in France as well as the German playwright Gerhart Hauptmann and the Portuguese novelist Jose Maria Eca de Queros.

The influence of Naturalism was not seen in American literature until the later writers Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser. Naturalism also found its proponents and practitioners in theater and painting.

The Parnassian Poets

The Parnassian poets who emerged in France during the 1860s were another offshoot of the realist movement in literature. The term Parnas-sian comes from the title of an anthology of poetry to which major poets of this movement contributed; the anthology Le Parnasse Contemporain was published in three separate volumes between 1866 and 1876.

The Parnassian poets developed their ideals as a reaction against the emotional outpouring of Romantic poetry. In their poetry, the Parnassians strove for emotional restraint and precise, objective descriptions of their subject matter. The leader of the Parnassian poets was Leconte de Lisle. Other major poets of the Parnassian movement include Albert Glatigny, Theodore de Banville, Francois Coppée, Leon Dierx, and Jose Maria de Heredia. The Parnassians exerted a significant influence on the poetry of Spain, Portugal, and Belgium.

American Regionalism and Local Color Fiction

In the United States, during the post-Civil War era, important subcategories of Realism were Regionalism (also called Midwestern Regionalism) and local color fiction. The regionalist authors were mostly from the Midwestern United States and wrote stories focused on the hardships of rural Midwesterners as well as the inhabitants of the Midwestern city of Chicago. Important regionalist authors are Hamlin Garland, Theodore Dreiser, and Sherwood Anderson. Local color fiction, which is similar to Regionalism, focuses on the local customs, traditions, dialects, and folklore of small town and rural America. Important local color writers include Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Kate Chopin.

Realism in Painting

The most important artist associated with Realism was the French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877). Courbet's works of art were the primary inspiration for the development of Realism in literature. Courbet brought new subject matter to painting when he depicted the realities of workers and peasants in stark, realistic images. Courbet asserted that art should accurately represent reality and the common man, rather than idealized images. His most famous paintings include "The Stone-Breakers" (1849), which depicts two men performing manual labor in a rural setting, and "Burial at Ornans" (1849), which depicts the funeral of a peasant and includes over forty individual figures. Because of his daring break with artistic convention, Courbet fought for recognition by the art world. In 1855, rejected by a major exhibition in France, Courbet put on his own exhibition of paintings that he labeled "realist." Courbet's Realism had a profound influence on many writers as well as artists throughout Europe. Realism exerted a major influence on nineteenth-century painting in the United States, where it was most notably practiced by Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins. Realism continued to exert a profound influence on various schools of painting of the early-twentieth century.

Socialist Realism

The socialist realism school of literary theory was proposed by Maxim Gorky and established as a dogma by the first Soviet Congress of Writers. It demanded adherence to a communist worldview in works of literature. Its doctrines required an objective viewpoint comprehensible to the working classes and themes of social struggle featuring strong proletarian heroes. A successful work of socialist realism is Nikolay Ostrovsky's Kak zakalyalas stal (How the Steel Was Tempered). Socialist realism is also known as social realism.

Urban Realism

Urban realism is a branch of realist writing that attempts to accurately depict the often harsh facts of modern urban existence. Some works by Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Emile Zola, Abraham Cahan, and Henry Fuller feature urban realism. Modern examples include Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land and Ron Milner's What the Wine Sellers Buy.


The realist movement in literature exerted a profound influence on the literature of France, Russia, England, and the United States in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. During this period, each of these nations experienced major political and social upheavals as well as periods of relative stability and liberal social reform.


France went through several major social and political upheavals during the second half of the nineteenth century. In the Revolution of 1848 Emperor Louis-Phillipe was deposed as a result of a popular uprising, and his nine-year old grandson was named as the new emperor of a new parliamentary government known as the Second Republic. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the more famous former emperor and military commander Napoleon Bonaparte, was elected the first president of the Second Republic. Louis-Napoleon ruled as president of France from 1848 until 1852. However, because the French constitution stated that no president could serve more than one four-year term, Louis-Napoleon staged a coup of his own government at the end of his term so that he could remain in power. In 1852, Louis-Napoleon proclaimed the Second Empire of France and had himself named Emperor Napoleon III. Napoleon III ruled the Second Empire until 1871, when a popular revolt heralded the end of the Second Empire and the beginning of the Third Republic, ruled by a popularly elected president. The Third Republic of France remained relatively stable until 1940


  • 1840-1900: France experiences several major changes of government. With the Revolution of 1848, France enters the era of the Second Republic. From 1852 until 1870, the French government is known as the Second Empire. After the revolution of 1871, France enters the era of the Third Republic which lasts until 1940. During the periods of Republic, all adult males in France are granted the right to vote in political elections. Women in France do not have the right to vote.

    Today: Since 1959, the French government is known as the Fifth Republic, a constitutional democracy ruled by an elected president. Women as well as men have full voting rights. France is a member of the European Union, an organization that as of 2007 has 27 member nations united by common economic and political interests to promote peace, security, and economic prosperity.

  • 1850-1900: Russia is an empire ruled by a succession of autocratic czars. In 1861 a major societal reform is enacted with the emancipation of the serfs.

    Today: At the end of the twentieth century Russia emerged from the era of communist rule, which lasted from the revolution of 1917 until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Women and men have full voting rights. Since 1991 the former Soviet Union consists of some twelve independent nation states, of which Russia is the largest and most powerful. The nations of the former Soviet Union belong to a coalition known as the Commonwealth of Independent States.

  • 1850-1900: England is ruled by a parliament and prime minister under a sovereign queen. As of 1833 slavery has been abolished in England. Various reform laws vastly expand the number of white men granted the right to vote. Women in England do not have the right to vote.

    Today: England is ruled by a prime minister and parliament. The queen remains an important figurehead but holds little real political power. Women and men have full voting rights. England is a member of the European Union, a 27-member organization of member nations united by common social, economic, political, and security interests.

  • 1850-1900: The United States is a constitutional democracy ruled by an elected president. It experiences major internal conflict during the Civil War. After the Civil War, slavery is abolished and all African-American menaregrantedtherighttovote.Womendo not have the right to vote.

    Today: The United States government has remained a stable democracy since the revolution of 1776. Women and men have full voting rights.

when, during World War II, Germany invaded and occupied France. During periods of the various French republics, all adult males in France were granted the right to vote in political elections.


The Russian government was one of the few in Europe that remained relatively stable throughout the nineteenth century. While revolutions swept through Europe in the year 1848, the Russian Empire experienced no such political upheaval. Russia during this time was ruled by a succession of autocratic czars. Czar Alexander II ruled during the period of 1855 to 1881, when he was assassinated in a car bombing by an anarchist activist. Czar Alexander III ruled from 1881 to 1894. The last Emperor of Russia was Czar Nicholas II, who ruled from 1894 until the Russian Revolution of 1917, when he and his family were assassinated. A major social reform took place in Russia in 1861, when the peasant serfs, who were essentially slaves under the control of wealthy landowners, were legally emancipated and granted the right to own land.


England during the nineteenth century was characterized and stabilized by the reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901, known as the Victorian era. While the queen remained the sovereign ruler of England, much of the nation's politics were carried out by Parliament under a prime minister. Toward the end of the century, the office of prime minister became the predominant political force in England, as the role of the queen in national politics receded.

Throughout the nineteenth century the English government diffused revolutionary pressures by passing a series of major reforms, including the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1885. These reforms included numerous changes in public policy and political structure, significantly expanding access to education, protecting the rights of laborers, and widening the sphere of political enfranchisement. Through expanded voting rights, an increasingly large segment of the adult male population was granted the right to vote in political elections. In addition, slavery was abolished in 1833. Toward the end of the century, organizations pressing for women's voting rights began to gain momentum.

United States

Although the United States has remained stable as a constitutional democracy with an elected president ever since the American Revolution of 1776, not every citizen in the nation had equal rights during the nineteenth century. In the beginning of the century, only white men had the right to vote. Until the end of the Civil War, most African Americans in the United States were slaves to white southern plantation owners. Because they were not considered full citizens, slaves did not have the right to vote. The United States experienced major social and political rupture in the mid-nineteenth century during the Civil War. In the Civil War the southern states seceded from the Union over the issue of slavery. The Civil War ended with victory by the North and the U.S. government thus asserting the Union and officially ending the institution of slavery in the United States.

The period after the Civil War is known as the era of Reconstruction, during which the South faced many social and political struggles over issues of race and the rights of the African Americans newly released from slavery. During this period, a constitutional amendment granted all adult males the right to vote, regardless of race. Women, however, were still denied the right to vote, and a national movement to lobby for women's right to vote, eventually known as the woman's suffrage movement, gained momentum.


The realist movement in literature had a broad-sweeping and profound affect on international literature throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century.

Many realist novelists were nationally and internationally recognized, within their lifetimes, to be among the greatest writers of the century. The public reception of many major realist novels was overwhelmingly positive. In general, realist novels were commercially successful throughout France, Russia, and England, to the extent that many major realist writers were able to support themselves entirely from the proceeds of their publications. In England, Dickens achieved unprecedented, and perhaps unsurpassed, popularity with the public. John R. Reed explains how Dickens employed metonymy, or the use of a name of an attribute to represent the thing itself, to create a kind of symbolism for the gritty, realistic worlds his characters inhabited. In Russia, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were widely revered for their literary accomplishments. In France, Balzac, Maupassant, Flaubert, and Zola were all recognized as major literary figures.

While many realist novels were popular with the reading public, the unabashed view of contemporary society and unadorned representation of contemporary culture expressed by the realists were criticized in some corners as indecent and morally repugnant. In France, for example, the forces of government censorship stepped in to prosecute Flaubert for the publication of Madame Bovary, a tale of marital infidelity, based on the grounds that it violated what are considered laws of morality and decency. In a court of law, however, Flaubert's novel was found not guilty, and the scandal only increased the book's popularity.

Realist writers are widely celebrated for their mastery of objective, third-person narration. C. P. Snow, in The Realists, has described the powerful, "intelligent" narrative voice and sociological accuracy of realist novels as their most prominent contribution to literature. Snow observes in The Realists: Eight Portraits that "In great realistic novels, there is a presiding, unconcealed interpreting intelligence," by which the fictional characters are "examined with the writer's psychological resources and with cognitive intelligence." By contrast, some critics of the late-twentieth century have pointed out that the realist's ideal of narrative objectivity is belied by the personal style and subjective attitudes of the individual novelists. These commentators argue that the very notion of individual narration style implies the imprint of the author's subjective perceptions on the work he produces.

Many realist novels are considered to be reliable sociocultural documents of nineteenth-century society. Critics consistently praise the realists for their success in accurately representing all aspects of society, culture, and politics contemporary to their own. Critics often point to the work of Balzac as a representative example of this aspect of realist literature. Snow applies such statements in regard to Balzac to the entire body of realist fiction:

Engels said that Balzac told us more of the nature of French society in his time than all the sociologists, political thinkers, historical writers in the world. The same could be said of other realists as they dealt with their time and place.

In addition to literature, Realism has exerted a profound and widespread impact on many aspects of twentieth-century thought, including religion, philosophy, and psychology. Realist writers, particularly Flaubert and Dostoevsky, are celebrated for their acute attention to the complexities of human psychology and the many factors contributing to human motivation. Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology, attributed his own theories in part to the influence of Dostoevsky's psychological novels. In the mid-twentieth century, the pacifism espoused by Tolstoy in his novels profoundly influenced Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of India's nonviolent movement for national independence.

Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, the major realist novelists continue to be regarded as some of the greatest writers ever to have lived, and their masterpieces among the greatest literary accomplishments of all time.

However, the value of the realistic aesthetic to literature of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has become a topic of heated debate among contemporary literary critics. In a 1989 article, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast," published in Harper's magazine, novelist Tom Wolfe observed that, beginning in 1960, Realism fell out of fashion as a literary aesthetic in the United States. Wolfe traced the decline of Realism in American fiction, commenting, "By the early 1960s, the notion of the death of the realistic novel had caught on among young American writers with the force of a revelation." Wolfe, however, offered a counter argument to this antirealistic trend in American literature, asserting that a return to Realism in fiction, based on journalistic observations of contemporary life, is essential to the continuing vitality of American literature. Referring to the journalistic efforts of the nineteenth-century realist writers, Wolfe commented, "Dickens, Dostoyevski, Balzac, Zola, and Sinclair Lewis assumed that the novelist had to go beyond his personal experience and head out into society as a reporter." It is this sociocultural, journalistic quality of realist fiction, Wolfe argued, that continues to be an essential ingredient of great fiction today. Wolfe asserted:

At this weak, pale, tabescent moment in the history of American literature, we need a battalion, a brigade, of Zolas to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hogstomping Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property.

Many critics have since responded, both positively and negatively, to Wolfe's landmark statement on the continuing value of Realism to the vitality of literature.


Liz Brent

Brent has a Ph.D. in American culture and works as a freelance writer. In this essay, Brent discusses the realist movement in theater and drama.


The realist movement in literature had a profound influence on all aspects of dramatic writing and theatrical production during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Realist theater moved away from exaggerated acting styles and overblown melodrama to create theatrical productions truer to the lives of the people in the audience. The major realist playwrights treated subjects of middle-class life in everyday, contemporary settings, featuring characters that face circumstances akin to those of average people. The term Realism, when applied to theater, is often used interchangeably with Naturalism.

Zola inaugurated the development of realist theater throughout Europe when, in 1867, he declared the need for a new type of theatrical production that eliminated artificiality and sought to accurately reproduce the details of daily life. His play Therese Raquin, a theatrical production of his 1867 novel, was produced on the stage in 1873 and marks the beginning of realist theater. Interestingly, several of the French authors who became major writers of realist fiction were failures as playwrights. Flaubert, Turgenev, Goncourt, and Daudet all wrote plays that failed in theatrical production. As a result, they


  • Howells and the Age of Realism (1954), by Everett Carter, provides discussion of author and literary critic William Dean Howells and his significance to the development of Realism in American literature.
  • Kate Chopin is one of the most important realist writers of nineteenth-century fiction. Her most famous work is The Awakening (1899), which explores the conflicts between the traditional role of wife and the independent aspirations of a female artist.
  • Introduction to Russian Realism (1965), by Ernest J. Simmons, is a collection of essays on Realism in Russian literature and includes essays on Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov.
  • The Alienation of Reason: A History of Positivist Thought (1968), by Leszek Kolakowski, provides a history of positivism in nineteenth-century thought. Positivism was an important influence on the development of the realist movement in literature.
  • Mark Twain, the pen name for Samuel Langhorne Clemens, was a pioneer in the use of realistic speech patterns, notably through the use of dialectical speech. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer's Comrade (1884) illustrate his use of colloquial speech.
  • Romanticism and Realism: The Mythology of Nineteenth-Century Art (1984), by Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner, offers discussion of Romanticism and Realism in nineteenth-century art.
  • "Middlemarch": A Novel of Reform (1988), by Bert G. Hornback, is a discussion of the political and social views represented in Eliot's realist masterpiece Middlemarch.
  • "War and Peace": Tolstoy's Mirror of the World (1995), by Rimvydas Silbajoris, provides critical discussion of Tolstoy's famous novel.


jokingly gave themselves the epithet auteurs sifflés, meaning "hissed authors," because their plays were so bad they got hissed off the stage by disgruntled audiences. Nonetheless, the realist movement in literature gave rise to some of the greatest playwrights and most celebrated plays in history.


The realist movement led to major changes in the dialogue written by playwrights and the manner in which actors delivered their dialogue. Playwrights began to write dialogue in a more natural style that mirrored the casual speech patterns of everyday conversation rather than the stilted, formalized speech of traditional theater. They addressed serious dramatic themes with plays set in contemporary times and concerning characters from everyday life. Realist playwrights often raised public controversy by addressing taboo social issues, such as marital infidelity and venereal disease. The greatest realist playwrights include Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorky in Russia, August Strindberg in Sweden, and Henrik Ibsen in Norway. Other realist playwrights of note include Henry Becque, Eugene Brieux, and Georges Porto-Riche in France, Gerhart Hauptmann in Germany, and B. M. Bjornson in Norway.

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) was the foremost Russian realist playwright of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Chekhov wrote in naturalistic detail about the uneventful lives of the Russian landed gentry in an era of economic and social decline. His play The Seagull was first performed in 1896, when it was so unfavorably received that it was nearly hissed off the stage. However, when the Moscow Art Theater performed The Seagull two years later, applying newly developed principles of realist acting and staging to their production, it was an immediate success. Chekhov's other major realist plays include Uncle Vanya (1896), Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904), the latter two written specifically for the Moscow Art Theater. Maksim Gorky (1868-1936) was another major Russian realist playwright. His most celebrated play, The Lower Depths (1902), concerns a character from the lower echelons of Russian society.

Two Scandinavian playwrights, Ibsen (1828-1906) and Strindberg (1848-1912), are among the most celebrated realist dramatists of their time. Ibsen wrote realist plays concerning dark moral undercurrents running beneath the placid, mundane surface of middle-class family life. He addressed such topics as infidelity, suicide, and syphilis in plays that were criticized in his home country as morally depraved but celebrated throughout Europe as masterpieces of realist drama. Ibsen's major plays include A Doll's House (1879), Ghosts (1881), The Wild Duck (1884), Hedda Gabler (1890), and The Master Builder (1892). The Swedish playwright Strindberg is equally celebrated for his works of realist drama. In his plays, Strindberg attacked conventional society in harsh terms of biting social commentary. He is also noted for his stark psychological Realism and mastery of naturalistic dialogue. Strindberg's major realist plays include The Father (1887), Miss Julie (1888), and Creditors (1888).


In accordance with the development of Realism, a number of small, private theaters were founded throughout Europe for the purpose of producing realist plays. The most influential of these new theaters were the Théatre-Libre ("Free Theater") in France, the Freie Bühne ("Free Stage") in Germany, The Independent Theatre Club in England, and the Moscow Art Theater in Russia.

The Théatre-Libre was founded in Paris in 1887 by Andre Antoine for the purpose of staging works of naturalist, or realist, drama. Antoine had been influenced by both the realist novels of Zola and the innovations of the Meiningen Theater Company in Germany. In its first season, the Théatre-Libre produced a set of one-act plays. With the production of a play by Tolstoy in the theater's second year, the Théatre-Libre became an international influence on the theater world. Works by many of the major realist playwrights from throughout Europe were showcased at this theater, including those of Becque, Brieux, Ibsen, Strindberg, Hauptmann, Bjornson, and Porto-Riche. In less than ten years of its existence, the Théatre-Libre housed the production of some one hundred plays by fifty different playwrights. Although the Théatre-Libre eventually failed due to financial difficulties, Antoine went on to become an important film director in 1914.

In Berlin, the Freie Bühne theater, modeled after the Théatre-Libre, was founded in 1889 for the purpose of staging realist drama to a select private audience. The Freie Bühne,founded by Otto Brahm, staged plays by Ibsen, Hauptmann, Tolstoy, Zola, and Strindberg. Brahm's theatrical productions focused on the representation of everyday reality through naturalistic acting styles, dialogue, and set designs. Realist drama quickly caught on with the general public in Germany, and mainstream commercial theaters began to stage realist plays as well. In 1894 Brahm was made director of the Deutsche Theater and incorporated the Freie Bühne as an experimental division of this larger, established theater.

The Independent Theatre Club was founded in London in 1891 to produce works of realist drama. Jacob Grein, who founded the Independent Theatre Club, modeled it after the Théatre-Libre as a private theater catering to a small, select audience of writers and intellectuals. The Independent Theatre, as it is generally called, produced plays by Ibsen as well as by the English playwright and drama critic George Bernard Shaw. In 1891 the Independent Theatre was disbanded.

The Moscow Art Theater Company, founded in 1898, represents the pinnacle of realist theater. The Moscow Art Theater was founded by Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko for the purpose of producing dramas in accordance with their ideals regarding realist theater. Stanislavsky became the head of the Moscow Art Theater and its defining artistic force. One of the earliest productions of the Moscow Art Theater was Chekhov's The Seagull. The Seagull had been a complete failure in a production several years earlier, because traditional production was not suited to Chekhov's realist play. Under the direction of Stanislavsky, however, The Seagull was an instant success. Thereafter, the playwright Chekhov and The Moscow Art Theater under Stanislavsky became inextricably associated as representative of realist theater at its best. The Moscow Art Theater also produced the works of such major realist playwright's as Gorky, Hauptmann, and Tolstoy.


To accommodate the realist play, a new style of acting was needed. Acting styles in realist theaters were thus altered, instructing actors to deliver their dialogue in a more naturalistic manner, rather than the exaggerated, melodramatic style of traditional stage acting. In order to accomplish this, Stanislavsky developed an innovative method of acting that emphasized the natural expression of emotion on the part of the actor. This new acting method, known as the Stanislavsky Method, or Method Acting, exerted a profound influence on theatrical and film acting of the twentieth century.

Changes in theatrical acting style were facilitated by the introduction in 1885 of electric lighting on the stage. Since 1825, stages had been illuminated with gas lighting, but the use of electric lighting made small gestures and facial expressions of the actors more readily visible to the audience. As a result, exaggerated styles in acting were no longer a technical necessity for communicating with the audience.


The stagecraft of realist theater emphasized the representation of realistic details from everyday life. Long-standing traditions of set design were thus altered by realist dramatists in the effort to move away from artificiality and toward Naturalism.

One of the first innovations of realist stage design was in the shape of the stage itself. Traditionally, stage sets did not reproduce the dimensions of actual rooms but included a backcloth and stage wings. Realist stage sets, however, began to include a "box" shape, reproducing the dimensions of an actual room, with a ceiling and three walls—the fourth wall being open to face the audience. The first "box set" stage design was utilized by English actress and singer Madame Vestris in 1832.

Realist set design, costuming, and use of props were further characterized by excessive attention to the reproduction of realistic details from everyday life. The Théatre-Libre included in one production real meat hanging from hooks during a scene set in a butcher shop. The realist productions of the English dramatist T. W. Robertson came to be called "cup-and-saucer" dramas, because they often included scenes of family meals in which the actors actually ate. Other realist productions included live animals. The American producer David Belasco, for example, once brought a real flock of sheep onto stage in a religious play.

Although the dominant works of realist literature were novels, the innovations of realist theater during the 1880s and 1890s exerted a profound and lasting influence on all aspects of playwriting and theatrical production throughout the twentieth century.

Source: Liz Brent, Critical Essay on Realism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

John R. Reed

In the following essay, Reed explores Dickens's use of metonymy, the naming of a thing by one of its attributes.

Very early in Oliver Twist, Oliver makes the famous blunder of begging for more food, an offense that promptly brings him before the board of commissioners of the workhouse. When Bumble the beadle confirms that Oliver has asked for more after consuming the supper allotted by the dietary, "the man in the white waistcoat" declares: "That boy will be hung . . . I know that boy will be hung." Nobody controverts the man in the white waistcoat; Oliver is instantly confined and a notice is posted on the outside gate of the workhouse advertising his availability for apprenticeship to any trade. The gentleman in the white waistcoat asserts himself again: "'I never was more convinced of anything in my life,' said the gentleman in the white waistcoat, as he knocked at the gate and read the bill next morning: 'I never was more convinced of anything in my life, than I am, that that boy will come to be hung'." This episode might have ended chapter 2, but the young


Dickens does not drop the subject; instead, the narrator emphasizes his own relationship to the diegesis, linking his narrative task to the claims of the gentleman in the white waistcoat: "As I purpose to show in the sequel whether the white-waistcoated gentleman was right or not, I should perhaps mar the interest of this narrative (supposing it to possess any at all), if I ventured to hint, just yet, whether the life of Oliver Twist had this violent termination or no."

Since the full title of Dickens's novel is Oliver Twist, Or, The Parish Boy's Progress, there is room for doubt about his ultimate fate. How much can be expected of a child born in a workhouse and brought up on the rates at the mercy of a penny-wise middle-class bureaucracy? Poverty and squalor are more likely to produce a criminal than a law-abiding citizen among any orphans who happen to survive the conditions of the workhouse. Oliver's fate might be that of Bulwer's Paul Clifford or Ainsworth's Jack Sheppard. Nonetheless, the narrator's obvious sympathy for Oliver from the outset makes it unlikely that he will progress to the gallows. Thus the narrator's coy positioning of himself in relation to the gentleman in the white waistcoat seems to constitute an opposition, not a conundrum. At this point in the narrative, the narrator already knows the outcome of his narrative; the gentleman with the white waistcoat does not. He is simply confident that he does. Two unnamed individuals-the narrator and the man in the white waistcoat-present their forms of authority before their mutual audience, the novel's readers.

But this anonymous character has not finished his part in Oliver's drama. As chapter 3 begins, the narrator comments that, if the imprisoned Oliver had taken the gentleman with the white waistcoast's "sage advice," he would have hanged himself in his cell with his pocket handkerchief, except for the fact that, handkerchiefs being luxuries, workhouse boys have no access to them. This is an interesting proleptic moment, for a major part of the trade to which Fagin apprentices Oliver in London is the stealing of pocket handkerchiefs, potentially a hanging offense. So this apparent aside has a resonance known only to the narrator. This is a secret bit of metonymy-the luxury of handkerchiefs equals crime-that prepares for a similar metonymy involving the white waistcoat. Moreover, the connection to Fagin is not accidental, for the man in the white waistcoat acts for Oliver much in the way the Artful Dodger does-as an agent for a potential employer. He encourages Gamfield the chimney sweep, "exactly the sort of master Oliver Twist wanted," to apply for the boy and even becomes his advocate, introducing him to the board. Mr. Limbkin, the head of the board of commissioners, realizes what a dangerous and revolting occupation chimney sweeping is for the boys who must climb up the flues, and he expresses some sympathy along those lines, enough to drive a hard financial bargain with Gamfield. However, the sale of Oliver to the vile chimney sweep is prevented accidentally by a magistrate who is distracted from his doze and notices the terror in Oliver's face. He sends Oliver back to the workhouse with instructions that he be treated kindly. "That same evening," the narrator notes, "the gentleman in the white waistcoat most positively and decidedly affirmed, not only that Oliver would be hung, but that he would be drawn and quartered into the bargain."

The gentleman in the white waistcoat seems to be one of those gratuitous items that occur in Dickens's narratives, items that do not seem to have any integral function but merely extend or enhance a given situation. The man in the white waistcoat might be an intensifier, since he not only endorses the board's treatment of Oliver but seems to relish it with sadistic enjoyment. However, I suggest that the gentleman in the white waistcoat carries out a much more important function in the novel and is far from incidental because he illustrates what I take to be a conscious narrative technique that Dickens employs to distance his work from what we normally identify as realist fiction. Moreover, I believe that Dickens understood the rules for what came to be recognized as realism and that he purposely violated them for his own ends.

In Hidden Rivalries in Victorian Fiction: Dickens, Realism, and Revaluation, Jerome Meckier places Dickens in the realist camp and argues that the major writers he examines—Dickens, Trollope, Gaskell, Eliot, Collins—were involved in a sly "realism war"; he declares that "the novelists themselves—professed realists all—read and reread one another" and then went on to overcome the version of realism of their competitors, most notably Dickens (2). Dickens had to respond in this war by reasserting his brand of realism in a constantly new way. But what I am suggesting is that Dickens's mode of evading the challenges of these contemporary rivals was to go beyond realism, to incorporate in his writings subversions of realism's stylistic assumptions to which they adhered. Many able critical studies, from John Romano'sDickens and Reality (1977) on, have argued pointedly that Dickens's fiction draws as much from romance, fairy tale, and allegory as it does from the mimetic tradition. Richard Lettis puts the situation well:

Above all, he thought that writing should enable the reader to see the essential affirmative "truth" of life—this was for him the best that writing could achieve. He disliked the obvious, and approved always of subtlety, but knew that judicious use of the commonplace, of carefully selected detail, could bring reality to a story—but it must always be the kind of reality he found in drama: "wonderful reality"—the world as we know it, but "polished by art" until it assumed values not felt in the dull settled world itself. For him reality was not what it was to the realists; it was neither commonplace as in Howells nor sordid as in so many others. (60-61)

In a hostile evaluation of Dickens's career David Musselwhite depicts a Dickens who begins as a truly original narrator in the role of Boz but transforms himself into a commodified author. He sees the anarchic, transparent world of Boz, along with some later passages, such as the description of Jacob's Island in Oliver Twist and of the Fleet Prison in Pickwick as preferable to the mannered prose of Bleak House,asinthe description of New Bleak House. The earlier work is impersonal and transparent in tone, whereas the later work is involved with the play of language itself, calling attention to itself. In a way, Musselwhite claims that Boz started as a realist and Dickens turned into a nonrealist, whatever we want to call that other entity. But again, my argument here is that Dickens became increasingly aware of how the various tropes of narration operated in what we call realism and he did not wish to be contained within those limits. Moreover, there are many moments in Boz's Sketches where Dickens has already grasped this notion. J. Hillis Miller showed in "Sketches by Boz, Oliver Twist, and Cruikshank's Illustrations" that what critics and readers had so long accepted as precise reportage in the Sketches must be read in a different way: "The Sketches are not mimesis of an externally existing reality, but the interpretation of that reality according to highly artificial schemas inherited from the past" (32). And again: "The metonymic associations which Boz makes are fancies rather than facts, impositions on the signs he sees of stock conventions, not mirroring but interpretations, which is to say lie" (35). Miller indicates that Dickens was at least partially conscious of his own methods in the way he organized the Sketches for book publication: "The movement from Scene to Character to Tale is not the metonymic process authenticating realistic representation but a movement deeper and deeper into the conventional, the concocted, the schematic" (35).

What happens as Dickens matures as a writer is that he does become more conscious of the play of language itself because he learns to use language in craftier ways. To recognize the double-edge of metonymy, for example, provides him with a powerful tool not merely for narration but for complexity of theme. To connect patterns of metonymy over whole novels is to raise his narrative from simple realism to a style that prefigures the leitmotif technique of Richard Wagner in music, or Thomas Mann's application of that technique to fiction, perhaps most self-consciously in Doctor Faustus. Mussel-white complains that in his description of Carker's room in Dombey and Son Dickens has moved away from surfaces and textures towards a concentration on inner malignity and thus heavily loads its details against Carker. But that is the point! Plain realism could describe the room and associate certain objects with malign intent, let us say, but Dickens goes beyond that to characterize the objects as metonymic of Carker's inner condition. It is the reverse of what the realist seeks to accomplish.

I cannot here go into detail about the mimetic tradition. It would be possible to discuss Dickens's departure from that tradition in his use of naming characters and places, his methods of description, and his stylistic redundancy, but, for the purposes of this essay, I would like to focus on one aspect of realism that seems to have received general agreement among critics over the years. That is the connection of metonymy with realist technique. Because metonymy is important in defining realism, I intend to show that Dickens used this trope in a manner contrary to its customary use in realist writing. Roman Jakobson formulated this identification of metonymy with realism when he opposed it to metaphor, which he allied to poetry:

The primacy of the metaphoric process in the literary schools of romanticism and symbolism has been repeatedly acknowledged, but it is still insufficiently realized that it is the predominance of metonymy which underlies and actually predetermines the so-called "realistic" trend, which belongs to an intermediary stage between the decline of romanticism and the rise of symbolism and is opposed to both. Following the path of contiguous relationships, the realistic author metonymically digresses from the plot to the atmosphere and from the characters to the setting in space and time. He is fond of synechdochic details. (77-78)

Virginia Woolf in her own way had already established the linkage of metonymy and realism in "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," with the purpose of showing its limitations. She divides up the writers of her day into Edwardians and Georgians, the former representing the realism of the past, the latter the modernism of the future. Bennett is one of the former, whose tools, Woolf says, no longer work for the present generation. The chief of these tools was elaborate description, so that character could be determined by what the human being was associated with among inanimate things. She concludes:

That is what I mean by saying that the Edwardian tools are the wrong ones for us to use. They have laid an enormous stress upon the fabric of things. They have given us a house in the hope that we may be able to deduce the human beings who live there. To give them their due, they have made that house much better worth living in. But if you hold that novels are in the first place about people, and only in the second about the houses they live in, that is the wrong way to set about it. (332)

Recently, Harry Shaw has examined the history of this relationship in some detail. He accepts Jakobson's ordering of metonymy with realism but extends the idea along his own lines:

To the extent, then, that we imagine ourselves back into a situation in which we can take seriously the claims of figural realism to capture the real, we find ourselves conceiving of the connections it makes as metonymical in nature. After Dante, figural realism appears to be founded in a species of metaphor-as does much of the literature we most prize. But that is because our culture's sense of the real has itself shifted. I draw from this the following moral, which extends Jakobson's contention that metonymy is the trope characteristic of nineteenth-century prose fiction: the defining trope of all realisms is metonymy-but it is metonymy as defined in the light of the ontology to which a given realism appeals.

If we return to our model of realism, then, I am suggesting that the mechanism that connects different levels in modern realism is a historicist metonymy. This metonymy assumes as many inflections as there are realist novelists. (103-04)

Without offering any particulars, Shaw excludes Dickens from his study, as I see it, correctly.

There are many ways in which realism does not and cannot conform to its own largely unwritten rules. Bruce Robbins has shown, for example, that British realism scarcely represents an entire part of the population. There are few significant representatives of "the people" in this literature, and, ironically, when "the people" are represented, it is servants, dependents within the households and thus extensions of their masters, who stand in for the lower classes. Robbins claims that servants are not even depicted as genuine representatives of their historical context but fulfill roles that existed in the earliest sources of Western literature, such as Greek drama. Servants thus serve an almost symbolic role in representing the rebellious, resistant, and otherwise challenging forces arrayed against the master class. For the most part, Robbins argues, realist novelists did not try to offer a genuine picture of the lower classes, but fell back upon a trusty convention. In a more recent study, Katherine Kearns argues that realism surreptitiously and unconsciously evokes those elements of experience that it seeks to repress. She has several different formulations of this idea, but here is one: "Realism's doubled intuitions for the social and the ineffable ensure both that the sublime will make itself attractive and that its attractions will be appropriately chastised; one ends up with authorial gestures that simultaneously acknowledge and repudiate the seductions of the sublime" (114). Many other studies indicate various qualifications of realism's claims to true mimesis.

In a similar fashion, critics writing specifically on Dickens have examined ways in which his narratives must be seen as standing to one side of the realist tradition. A recent example is Juliet John's Dickens's Villains: Melodrama, Character, Popular Culture, which argues that the flatness of Dickens's characters is intentional. Dickens is not aiming primarily at the examination of internal states of mind but wishes to show that his characters are part of a larger community. Interiority is thus hostile to the communal drive of his narratives and is therefore associated primarily with villains and their like, a practice inherited from the stage, especially in its melodramatic modes.

My claim here, then, is not that I am making an original observation when I say that Dickens should not be placed within the mainstream realist tradition, if such a thing really exists, but that he appropriated devices associated with realism and used them to ends that operate against the realist program. Again, I do not mean to say that he defined himself against realism but that by hindsight we can recognize that he was resisting a mode of representation that came to dominance in fiction during his lifetime, fueled largely by the popularity of Sir Walter Scott's fiction. Elsewhere, I examine different ways in which Dickens sets himself against or outside of realist practice, but here I shall concentrate on the one feature of metonymy, and that returns us to the issue of the gentleman in the white waistcoat in Oliver Twist.

I have chosen the gentleman in the white waistcoat as my example because he is so rudimentary and he appears so early in Dickens's career. Dickens used metonymic devices brilliantly in his earliest writings. "Reflections in Monmouth Street" is an example, where, beginning with the old clothes exhibited in a ragshop, the narrator constructs from their appearance the lives of their former owners. The clothes bear the traces of a former life. Of course, this is the reverse of how metonymy usually works, where an article of clothing might indicate a person's function. A prominent example is the scene in Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd where Gabriel Oak goes to the market to find work as a farm agent only to encounter employers seeking shepherds instead. Oak identifies himself as a potential agent by wearing middle-class clothing, but changes to his shepherd's smock, hoping to find a place as a shepherd through this new identifying attire, only ironically to be passed over by an employer who is looking for an agent. Clothes mark the man.

The gentleman in the white waistcoat is interesting because he remains nameless and is identified chiefly by this one article of clothing and by his vicious sentiments. This is all the more striking since Dickens had declared in Sketches by Boz that viewing the exterior of a person was a surer guarantee of comprehending his character than written description can provide, thus to offer almost no description at all must be seen not as a disclaimer (as it is in the Sketches, where Boz amusingly goes on to provide the description he says is unnecessary) but as a conscious strategy. The gentleman in Oliver is thus entirely surface to us. We get no physical description of him as we do of Gamfield in detail to indicate his viciousness. We have just that white waistcoat as a token of his identity. Does the whiteness of the waistcoat signify anything, let us say, like the whiteness of Moby Dick, a whiteness Melville's narrator himself opens to multiple interpretations? Let us begin with the social significance of the waistcoat.

Dickens knew about waistcoats and in his early manhood favored elaborate examples. C. Willett Cunnington and Phillis Cunnington in their Handbook of English Costume in the Nineteenth Century note that in the 1820s and 1830s the waistcoat had become quite dramatic, with Dandies wearing all colors of the rainbow. They remark that the waistcoat "had become the most striking male garment; a gentleman's inventory of 1828 revealed 36 white waistcoats costing £54" (104). One might assume that, though this gentleman had white waistcoats, they were not necessarily plain, since many waistcoats described as white were of elegant fabrics, such as silk or satin. In the early part of the century a white satin embroidered waistcoat with gold thread was a standard article of Court dress. The Exquisites of the 1830s wore white waistcoats with elaborate costumes. Here are two examples quoted by the Cunningtons from magazines of the time:

In a light brown coat, white waistcoat, nankin pantaloons buttoned at the ankle with two gold buttons, yellow stockings with large violet clocks, shoes with buckles of polished cut steel.

. . . with green coat, broad velvet collar, white waistcoat, pantaloons of glazed white ticking tight to the knees. (107)

Anne Buck points out that waistcoats, where "[m]ost of the colour and ornament of men's dress was concentrated," often "showed the fabrics and colours and woven and printed designs fashionable in the materials of women's dress" (188). Many of the waistcoats that survive from the nineteenth century were wedding waistcoats often "in white or cream figured silk, or white silk embroidered" (188).

It seems, then, that white waistcoats were quite a common feature of men's dress both for formal occasions, such as weddings and court appearances, and for ordinary use. Apparently a great deal depended upon the materials out of which these waistcoats were fashioned and the cut of their design. But Dickens tells us nothing more about the man in the white waistcoat's waistcoat except that it is white. The whole man thus depends upon this overwhelmingly identifying physical object and his dialogue, or nearly so. But I shall return to that in a minute. First I want to indicate that this trait in Dickens's method of characterization stayed with him throughout his career and took on interesting variations. I shall mention just a couple of instances here because my space is limited. In Little Dorrit, Merdle is intimidated by his butler, who is a grave and sober man, far more refined than his master. It is in Merdle's interest to demonstrate to Society all the trappings of wealth and high social status:

The chief butler was the next magnificent institution of the day. He was the stateliest man in company. He did nothing, but he looked on as few other men could have done. He was Mr. Merdle's last gift to Society. Mr. Merdle didn't want him, and was put out of countenance when the great creature looked at him; but inappeasable Society would have him—and had got him.

To this point, what we apparently have is some sharp social satire. Merdle's inferiority to his own servant makes a mockery of his supposed power. The butler should metonymically serve as a manifestation of the household to accomplish realist ends. And he does, except that in this case he does so ironically. So it would appear that this brief passage fulfills a realist purpose, though any reader should be wary of so quickly accepting it in that way, since it occurs in a chapter where the guests at Merdle's home are named as Treasury, Bar, and Bishop and fulfill typical, not individual, functions. Later we encounter Merdle wandering through his great house with "no apparent object but escape from the presence of the chief butler." And a few lines later we are introduced to his habit of "clasping his wrists as if he were taking himself into custody." Soon the "chief butler" becomes the "Chief Butler" and is described as "the Avenging Spirit of this great man's life."

Something similar happens in Great Expectations when Pip, feeling the need to confirm his status as a gentleman, hires an unneeded servant whose name is Pepper. In what might be mistaken as the typical metonymic device of associating character and social rank with clothing, Pip begins, "I had got so fast of late, that I had even started a boy in boots"—signifying that the boy's status as a servant is indicated by his livery, which Pip goes on to describe—"and had clothed him with a blue coat, canary waistcoat, white cravat, creamy breeches, and the boots already mentioned." The boy, however, is as much a nuisance as a help, and to indicate this Pip employs a language already strongly thematic throughout the novel. He says that he is "in bondage and slavery" after he has "made this monster." Since Pip later alludes to the Frankenstein creature, it is possible to link this reference to the later motif of the creature's avenging pursuit of Victor Frank-enstein. Hence, what begins with a "realist" ploy, quickly evolves into a symbolic function. Seeing Pepper as an "avenging phantom," he renames him the Avenger, and before long this function, which is a product of Pip's imagination and has nothing to do with the boy's own nature or conduct, becomes the major and metonymic way of referring to him. But he is no longer metonymically connected to the social world; he is now a part of Pip's internal realm which is peopled with images of convicts, chains of gold, punishment, revenge, and so forth. I need not catalog the well-known web of such references that make this novel such densely rich reading. The metonym in this very simple instance consciously transfers Pepper out of the range of servant-and-master social relations and into a symbolic range of references operating against the realist agenda. Metonym blends with metaphor and even suggests allegorical dimensions.

Late in his career, Dickens is able to turn this kind of trope into a brand of shorthand that blurs the difference between metaphor/simile and metonym. For convenience sake, I will use an example that almost reprises the instance of the butler above. At the Veneerings' house in Our Mutual Friend, we again have generic figures Boots and Brewer and an ominous servant, this time a retainer who "goes round, like a gloomy Analytical Chemist; always seeming to say, after 'Chablis, sir?'—'You wouldn't if you knew what it's made of'." By his next appearance and thereafter the simile disappears. Moreover, the gloom identified with him is transferred to those he serves; thus we see Eugene Wrayburn "gloomily resorting to the champagne chalice whenever proffered by the Analytical Chemist." In his next appearance, he has become simply "the Analytical." And this shift emphasizes a feature of the character that proves significant and fits him into the tenor of the novel as a whole. This apparently insignificant individual is capable of analyzing the situation around him accurately. In this novel crammed with secrets and mysteries, only a few individuals have this power of penetration and yet it is precisely this penetration that the narrator offers, especially in relationship to seeing past the surface of the Veneerings. Just as he knows better than others what the constituents of the Chablis are, the Analytical is equally acute about other domestic features. When Mrs. Veneering reports that Baby was uneasy in her sleep on the night of the election that will give Mr. Veneering a seat in Parliament, "The Analytical chemist, who is gloomily looking on, has diabolical impulses to suggest 'Wind' and throw up his situation; but represses them." In his last appearance, the Analytical Chemist feels he could give Veneering an apt answer to the question of how people live beyond their means. In his brief moments on stage he has become more and more judgmental, so it is not surprising that he departs the text as "the Analytical, perusing a scrap of paper lying on the salver, with the air of a literary Censor . . . " It might be said that Dickens here discloses his affiliation with this subversive character.

What is significant for the purposes of this essay is that Dickens calls attention to his non-realist joke on metonymy. A household servant is unlikely to have a metonymic connection with the science of chemistry. By converting a servant to an Analytical Chemist, Dickens aligns the servant with "scientific" analysis, something carried out methodically elsewhere in the novel by the police and others. The servant is a tiny image of the potential disclosure of untrue conditions that mirrors the effort of the novel as a whole. At his last appearance the Analytical Chemist has returned to simile, only now it is as the Analytical Chemist, not as a household retainer, that he is likened to a "literary Censor." This simile marks him as a literary artifact, thus marking him a product of fancy rather than fact and indicating that he has never been a participant in a "real" domain but a figure highjacked out of allegory. He becomes a sign pointing to a particular function of the narrative and thus resembles the allegorical figure on the ceiling of Tulking-horn's room with his ominous pointing hand.

This technique can operate in the reverse direction as well, as a simple example from A Christmas Carol shows. Near the opening of the story, the narrator asserts that "Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail" and then boldly calls our attention to the figurative expression: "Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade." This bit of self-conscious playfulness about the narrator's own language might have ended right here, but it is actually preparation for a far more important episode. When Scrooge arrives at his house that evening, he finds on his door "not a knocker, but Marley's face." The ironmongery simile that proved Marley dead becomes now an ironmongery that shows him not entirely dead at all. From being a dead character, Marley has become a real presence to Scrooge. More iron-mongery follows. The bells in the house begin to chime on their own, introducing the appearance of Marley's ghost wearing a chain made "of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel." Marley explains his bizarre ornament:

"I wear the chain I forged in life," replied the Ghost. "l made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?"

Marley's chosen attitude toward life has constituted this punishment in the hereafter, and Scrooge has been forging his own similar chain. By now the simple simile of ironmongery has become a forbidding symbolism. The metonymic items of Marley's business have been transmuted into a nearly allegorical object—an iron chain.

What is happening in Oliver Twist is simpler but depends upon the same irony that operates in the other examples I have cited. It is important that the narrator almost always refers to the man as the gentleman in the white waistcoat (his first reference is the exception). There is no doubt about his status, but the repetition of this word, always linked to the white waistcoat, reinforces his social place as one that is privileged. To some degree, then, the gentleman in the white waistcoat is a counter for a whole class. It would be possible to provide a sociological analysis, indicating that only a gentleman comfortably well off could afford such a fashionable item that would require expensive laundering and so forth. White gloves similarly indicated station through the implication that they would have to be changed during the day and many of them laundered over time. Thus articles of clothing encode a certain social attitude and even ideology. But that kind of analysis is not my purpose here. I am concerned here with Dickens's style rather than his politics. The man in the white waistcoat is not most importantly a representative of his class but a peculiarly malign specimen. His prejudices completely overwhelm him. Oliver comes before the workhouse board which consists of "eight or ten fat gentlemen . . . sitting around a table." He is asked his name and hesitates to answer, being intimidated by so many gentlemen. The gentleman in a white waistcoat intervenes with an outburst that Oliver "was a fool. Which was a capital way of raising his spirits, and putting him quite at his ease." There is a great deal of obvious irony in this scene at the expense of the gentlemen. For example, this famous passage: "The members of this board were very sage, deep, philosophical men; and when they came to turn their attention to the workhouse, they found out at once, what ordinary folks would never have discovered—the poor people liked it!". But the gentleman in the white waistcoat is not merely stupid in this manner; he has a determined animus against the poor. He does not merely assume the worst about the poor, but wishes them ill. The head of the board instructs Oliver, but the gentleman in the white waistcoat adds his own view immediately after.

"Well! You have come here to be educated, and taught a useful trade," said the red-faced gentleman in the high chair.

"So you'll begin to pick oakum to-morrow morning at six o'clock," added the surly one in the white waistcoat.

This unexplained, gratuitous nastiness sums up the gentleman in the white waistcoat and raises him almost to the level of symbolic representation. In some ways we are faced with the mystery of whiteness similar to that in Moby Dick.

Near the beginning of this essay, I noted the narrative irony of the narrator's comment on the handkerchief that Oliver could not have hanged himself with because handkerchiefs were a luxury in the workhouse, and I suggested that this reference is the narrator's proleptic joke, because handkerchiefs will play an important role in Oliver's subsequent career. One prominent connection has to do with hanging, so that the gentleman in the white waistcoat is actually the first to voice a motif that proliferates through the text in a manner that becomes typical of Dickens's style, of which I have tried to give a few brief example from other novels above. Since Dickens was writing under great pressure while composing Oliver Twist, it cannot be assumed that he planned out that intricate pattern of handkerchief references, but it can be assumed that his imagination instinctively worked in this way. In later writings, it is clear that he consciously employs the technique.

Earlier I quoted from Katherine Kearns's Nineteenth-Century Literary Realism: Through the Looking-Glass. One chapter in this book, "A Tropology of Realism in Hard Times," is a very intriguing and valuable reading of Dickens's novel. At one point Kearns summarizes her perception of Dickens's dilemma—how Hard Times presents double messages at every level of its discourses, reflecting Dickens's anxiety about and his resistance to the realistic mode:

His apprehension of some alternative and unnameable energy brings his metonymies to challenge their own directional, propagandistic contiguities; people, their characters formed in some secret place, seem as much to create or to alter their surroundings as to be created or altered by them. (188)

Kearns is acute in noting the ways in which metonymy works in this novel. She sees that "the language that reveals character through metonymy in Hard Times must communicate Coke-town's essential nature as a fabricated construct, its strangeness only masked by the conventional linearities of its architecture . . . " (190). And she demonstrates that Bounderby's character, though dependent upon metonymies, refutes itself with its past, thus resisting the realistic program of the novel, for he is not what he is; his character has nothing to do with his past and thus is not explicable in terms of his own current realism. I couldn't agree more, but Kearns seems to feel that Dickens brings about this disjunction inadvertently, that he is unconsciously subverting his own attempt at realism. It seems to me more sensible to regard Dickens as intentionally bringing about exactly these deconstructions. After all, he is attacking the Utilitarian materiality represented by the Gradgrinds and Bounderbys, and he means to demonstrate its falseness. It is spectacularly evident that Bounderby, the enemy of fancy, is himself the most fanciful storyteller in the novel, having fabricated his entire early history. My argument is that Dickens employed metonymy in his fiction precisely to call attention to that part of experience that is not limited to materiality. He made his inclinations clear in his famous preface to Bleak House when he wrote: "In Bleak House, I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things."

In Hard Times, Dickens aggressively calls attention to the difference between the metonymic and the metaphoric, the "realistic" and the "fanciful," in his style. At the very opening of the story Mr. Gradgrind is described as having a "square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall." The square wall connects Grad-grind metonymically with the business/industry, no-nonsense aspect of Coketown. But the eyes in their cave associate him metaphorically with a different pattern in the novel that has to do with redemptive danger and with the capacity to imagine beyond the factual and the material. Kearns has called attention to the way in which the square wall pattern proliferates as the narrative proceeds:

Thus Gradgrind's "own metallurgical Louisa" is most literally a metonymic chip off the old block who lives in Stone Lodge, having been struck off the parent with a piece of the thing that names her; the implied syntagmatic progression goes nicely from the obdurate industrialism embodied in Coketown's red-brick buildings to Stone Lodge to the wall-and warehouse-like Mr. Gradgrind to his flinty offspring.

That is the metonymic development of the square wall, but the metaphoric development of the dark caves is equally complex and pervasive, though perhaps even subtler. It finds expression in the "ditch" that Bounderby claims to have been born in as well as in the "dark pit of shame and ruin at the bottom" of the mighty Staircase Mrs. Sparsit imagines Louisa descending, and in the uncovered shaft into which Stephen Blackpool falls. The ditch is the product of Bounderby's imagination, not a reality; the pit is the product of Mrs. Sparsit's imagination, and never becomes real; the shaft, though real enough, is the medium through which Stephen Blackpool, by the power of his positive imagination, conceives the central truth of the novel. While lying in the mineshaft he can see a star in the sky: "'I thowt it were the star as guided to Our Saviour's home. I awmust think it be the very star!"' The narrator endorses Stephen's perception: "The star had shown him where to find the God of the poor; and through humility, and sorrow, and forgiveness, he had gone to his Redeemer's rest."

This tendency to take a small detail from early in the narrative and elaborate it in an increasing network of allusions and similarities is typical of Dickens's narrative method and is related to the examples I have given in the narrator's mention of a handkerchief early inOliver Twist, the butler in Little Dorrit, and Pepper in Great Expectations. Dickens does not disguise his purpose and his method from any careful reader. Even as McChoakumchild (and the name gives away the narrator's moral alignment) is calling for the schoolchildren to be filled with facts, the narrator obstinately contains his efforts within the realm of fancy.

He went to work in this preparatory lesson, not unlike Morgiana in the Forty Thieves: looking into all the vessels ranged before him, one after another, to see what they contained. Say, good McChoakumchild. When from thy boiling store, thou shalt fill each jar brimfull by-andby, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill outright the robber Fancy lurking within—or sometimes only maim him and distort him!

This is throwing down the gauntlet, as the shift to preacherly diction directly suggests. But if the narrator confines his Utilitarian characters within the circle of well-known fable, he does so in order to counteract a similar action perpetrated by these characters themselves. Here is what we learn of the young Gradgrinds, brought up through their father's fact-based training:

The first object with which they had an association or of which they had a remembrance, was a large black-board with a dry Ogre chalking ghastly white figures on it.

Not that they knew, by name or nature, anything about an Ogre. Fact forbid! I only use the word to express a monster in a lecturing castle, with Heaven knows how many heads manipulated into one, taking childhood captive, and dragging it into gloomy statistical dens by the hair.

This reads like a parody of the Giant Despair in Pilgrim's Progress—one of the all-time great fictions illustrating the positive power of fancy—who captures and confines Christian and Hopeful in a dungeon because they have strayed out of the true way. Here, however, the children are innocent captives, and the den into which they are drawn bears a family resemblance to the caves of Gradgrind's eyes and the other ditches, pits, shafts, and so forth that emerge as the narrative proceeds, culminating in Stephen's release from his chasm into the freedom of death. In the contest between metonymy and metaphor, metaphor wins, but metonymy has also been drafted to the work of symbolic architecture which subverts and transcends what we call realism. J. Hillis Miller points out the way in which metonymy in Dickens crosses the line from its realistic function: "The metonymic reciprocity between a person and his surroundings, his clothes, furniture, house, and so on, is the basis for the metaphorical substitutions so frequent in Dickens's fiction. For Dickens, metonymy is the foundation and support of metaphor" (13). In Hard Times the work of subversion is planned, open, and direct, whereas in Oliver Twist, for example, it seems largely instinctive.

In the realist tradition, metonymic connections help to identify characters with social place, occupation, and mental or emotional ability. The details might be articles of clothing, tools, and so forth, but these articles are subordinate to the purpose of making sharper the nature of the human figure. For realism, metonymy reinforces materiality. By contrast, in Oliver Twist,Dickens uses a repetitive metonymy to obliterate any specific human identity and makes his gentleman in the white waistcoat instead the embodiment of a malign spirit, dispersing the materiality of the individual man into a class atmospheric. Realism is not supposed to take this leap, though in fact a number of supposed realists could not resist such moves at one time or another. But Dickens makes this a regular practice in his writing and seems to be doing so in resistance to the growing impulse in the writing of his time to favor elaborate examinations of internal states partly through metonymic connections, preferring instead to represent a world with symbolic overtones, no matter how deeply he was capable of giving the impression of rooting it in a palpable reality.

Source: John R. Reed, "The Gentleman in the White Waistcoat: Dickens and Metonymy," in Style, Vol. 39, No. 4, Winter 2005, pp. 412-26.


Edel, Leon, Henry James: A Life, HarperCollins, 1987.

Kaplan, Fred, Henry James: The Imagination of a Genius, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Pasco, Allan H., "Honoréde Balzac," in Dictionary of Literary Biography,Vol.119, Nineteenth-Century French Fiction Writers: Romanticism and Realism, 1800-1860,editedby Catharine Savage Brosman, Gale Research, 1992, pp. 3-33.

Reed, John R., "The Gentleman in the White Waistcoat: Dickens and Metonymy," in Style, Vol. 39, No. 4, Winter 2005, p. 424.

Snow, C. P., The Realists: Eight Portraits, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978, p. xi.

Wolfe, Tom, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel," in Harper's, November 1989, pp. 45-56.


Brown, Frederick, Zola: A Life, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1995.

Brown provides a biography of Émile Zola who was a preeminent writer of French realist fiction and the founder of the naturalist school of literature.

Hornback, Burt G., "The Hero of My Life": Essays on Dickens, Ohio University Press, 1981.

Hornback offers a series of essays in which he explains what Dickens has to teach readers about freedom, love, friendship, tragedy, and the powers of the imagination. Hornback focuses primarily on the novel David Copperfield, with additional discussion of Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Hughes, Kathryn, George Eliot: The Last Victorian, Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1998.

Hughes provides a biography of English realist novelist George Eliot in the context of English culture and society during the Victorian era.

Novick, Sheldon M., Henry James: The Young Master, Random House, 1996.

Volume 1 of Novick's accessible biography covers the years from James's birth in 1843 through 1881. James is drawn as a confident, established writer and not nearly as neurotic as other biographers have implied.

———, Henry James: The Mature Master, Random House, 2007.

Volume 2 of Novick's biography illuminates the years between the publication of APortraitofa Lady (1881) and James's death in 1916. Novick discusses such relationships as James's rivalry with Oscar Wilde and his love for poet Arthur Benson.

Robb, Graham, Balzac: A Life, Norton, 1994.

In this biography, Robb provides extensive discussion of Balzac's novels in relation to the events of his life.

Thomas, Alan, Time in a Frame: Photography and the Nineteenth-Century Mind, Schocken Books, 1977.

Thomas offers an overview of popular subject-matter in nineteenth-century photography, including individual and family portraiture, travel photography, historical documentation, landscapes, and daily life.

Wilson, A. N., Tolstoy, Norton, 1988.

Wilson provides a comprehensive biography of Russian realist novelist Leo Tolstoy.


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In the early history of philosophy, particularly in medieval thought, the term realism was used, in opposition to nominalism, for the doctrine that universals have a real, objective existence. In modern philosophy, however, it is used for the view that material objects exist externally to us and independently of our sense experience. Realism is thus opposed to idealism, which holds that no such material objects or external realities exist apart from our knowledge or consciousness of them, the whole universe thus being dependent on the mind or in some sense mental. It also clashes with phenomenalism, which, while avoiding much idealist metaphysics, would deny that material objects exist except as groups or sequences of sensa, actual and possible.

The Polemic against Idealism

At the close of the nineteenth century, idealism was the dominant Western philosophy, but with the opening of the twentieth century, there was an upsurge of realism in Britain and North America, associated in the former with G. E. Moore, Bertrand Russell, and Samuel Alexander and in the latter with William James (despite his pragmatism), the new realists, and later the critical realists. Before a discussion of realist doctrine, a brief survey may be given of its attack on idealism.

The claim that material objects cannot exist independently of mind had been made on various grounds. First, the analysis of perception, especially of illusions, was held to show that our knowledge was limited to groups of sensations "in the mind" or to products of the synthesis or interpretation of sensory data. Later idealists, under the slogan "all cognition is judgment," stressed the role of judgment and interpretation in perception, concluding that objects as we know them must be largely or even wholly the work of the mind. Second, physical objects cannot exist independently of the mind, for whatever is known is relative to the mind that knows it. This is the "egocentric predicament"that one can never eliminate the "human mind" from knowledge and discover what things are like apart from one's consciousness or, indeed, whether they exist when they are not known, for the discovery itself involves consciousness and thus would be knowing. This may also be stated in terms of the doctrine of internal relationsthat the nature of anything is grounded in and constituted by the relations it has with other things; no two related things could be what they are if the relation between them did not exist, and so, as a special case of this, physical objects could not be as they are apart from their relation to the mind that knows them.

status of the objects of perception

Concerning the analysis of perception, realist philosophers have devoted considerable attention to showing that in perception we obtain knowledge of external physical objects either directly or by means of sensa. Their accounts of perceiving and their solutions to the problems raised by illusions and other facts of perception differ greatly, but they agree in rejecting the view that things cannot exist unperceived. G. E. Moore's influential "Refutation of Idealism" consisted in an attack on this thesis, which, following George Berkeley, he stated as "esse is percipi " ("to be is to be perceived"). He claimed that in maintaining this the idealists had failed to distinguish between the act and the object in sensation. They had confused the sensation of blue with its object blue or, when claiming to distinguish them, inconsistently treated them as identical.

Sensations are alike in being acts of awareness but differ in what they are awareness of. Once the object is distinguished from the awareness of it, there is no reason to deny its existence unperceived. Further, in no other situation have we a better claim to be aware of something distinct, so that if sensations are not cases of awareness of objects, no awareness is ever awareness of anything, and we cannot be aware of other persons or even of ourselves and our own sensations. Fundamentally, Moore's thesis concerning sensations rested on introspection; it has been denied on a similar introspective appeal by upholders of the adverbial analysis of sensing, and Moore himself later had grave doubts about it. Commonsense realists would say that he conceded too much in talking of sensations and interpreting "being perceived" (percipi ) as "being sensed" (sentiri ); the proper starting point is our awareness of material objects. But Moore was no doubt accepting the usual conclusions from the argument from illusion. From his analysis arises the question: "What is the object of sensation?" The answer, "A sense datum," posed the problem, which he never solved, of the relation between sense data and material objects. It was met by others with some form of representative realism or, more usually, phenomenalism. Phenomenalism, however, particularly if coupled with the adverbial analysis of sensing, means the abandonment of realism. The idealist stress on judgment in perception was at first little discussed, but critical realism and the sense-datum theory later offered more plausible alternatives.

the egocentric predicament

The realist attack on the egocentric predicament involved considerable discussion, particularly in the United States, and led to some close argumentfor example, in attempts to show that the idealist principle led to self-contradiction or circularity when developed. The egocentric predicament was claimed to have no idealist implications. To infer from it that nothing exists outside consciousness is simply fallaciousthat one cannot discover X does not mean that X does not exist or even that it is unreasonable to suppose that X exists. Indeed, if it were true that things could not exist apart from a person's consciousness of them, neither, presumably, could other persons; the predicament would imply an incredible solipsism.

Nor is there any evidence of the lesser conclusion that objects outside consciousness would be quite different. No conclusion about the degree of distortion introduced by our consciousness follows from its ubiquity, and it may be negligible; one can only try to discover the degree by comparing various methods of knowing. (Distortion by the method of observation may be serious in atomic physics, but the same argument that establishes distortion there shows it to be negligible for objects larger than atoms.)

The predicament is sometimes stated in terms of the privacy of experiencea person can never know anything that is not a content of his private experience. This, however, is question-begging in that it simply denies the ordinary assumptions that we are aware of other persons and external public objects. There may be grounds for denying these assumptions in certain cases, but such grounds rest on evidence of causal processes and of illusions, evidence that is largely obtained from other persons, or with the aid of public objects, or from comparisons with perceptions of public objects. Further, though more dubiously, Wittgenstein has argued that if we had only private experiences, not only would they be incommunicable, but also we could not describe or speak about them even to ourselves, for the use of language implies rules that are communal and have to be established and checked with respect to public objects.

Against the doctrine of internal relations it was claimed that relatedness is compatible with independence, that the same thing can enter into a variety of relations without losing its identity. This seemed so obvious that James confessed to finding it "weird" to have to argue for it. (Anticipating a contemporary approach, he accused the idealists of confusing linguistic or conceptual differences with factual ones; in referring to two relations of an object, our phrases and thoughts differ, but there is no corresponding difference in the object itself.) As the realists were defending what in their eyes was obvious, they were forced into detailed criticism rather than into the kind of positive thesis that can be readily summarized.

This battle was certainly won by the realists in that few English-speaking philosophers in the twentieth century espoused idealism. Indeed, to anyone coming from contemporary discussions, the controversy has an air of unreality. Partly this is because in a climate of thought that respects common sense and science, realism seems so obvious a starting point that it is difficult to explain how the idealist view ever seemed plausible; partly it is because current idioms, issues, and logical presuppositions are so different from earlier ones. Granted, however, that material objects exist independently of our perception, the difficulties facing a realist account of this perception still remain and cause serious divisions among realists.

Direct Realism

Direct realism is the general view that perception is a direct awareness, a straightforward confrontation (or in touch, contact) with the external object. It may be further subdivided according to the various attitudes then taken toward illusions and hallucinations. In contrast, there are the various types of indirect or dualist realism, which claim that perception is primarily of mental representations of the external object, as in traditional representative realism, or that our perception of the external object is by means of private, mental sensa.

naive realism

Naive realism is the simplest form of direct realism and is usually alleged by philosophers to be an innocent prejudice of the average person that has to be overcome if philosophical progress is to be made. It is normally stated in terms of sensible qualities or sensa. When we look around us, we can distinguish various colored, shaped expanses that we suppose to be the surfaces of material objects, we may hear various sounds that we suppose to come from such objects, we may feel something smooth and hard that we suppose to be a table top, and so on. Naive realism claims that these suppositions are all correctthat the shapes, colors, sounds, and smooth, hard expanses (the sensible qualities) are always the intrinsic properties of material objects and in sight and touch are their surfaces.

Such a claim can easily be shown to be erroneous by the argument from illusion. When A looks at the table from above, he sees a round expanse; when B looks at it from a distance, he sees an elliptical one. Without self-contradiction, however, the round and elliptical shapes cannot both be the surface of the tablethat is, an intrinsic property. Similarly, when C, who is color-blind, looks at a red book, he sees a black shape that, again, cannot be the surface of that red book; when D, a drunkard, sees snakelike shapes on the bed, they are not real snakes. Such examples may be multiplied indefinitely and dispose of naive realism as thus stated, but commonsense realists would say that the doctrine misrepresents the views of the average person and that philosophical discussions of it beg the question in favor of dualism by speaking of sensible qualities or sensa as distinct from physical objects.

new realism and the selective theory

The new realistsE. B. Holt, W. T. Marvin, W. P. Montague, R. B. Perry, W. B. Pitkin, and E. G. Spauldingare notable chiefly for a common realist platform published in 1910 and expanded in 1912 and for their polemic against idealism. Their realism was carried to the Platonic extreme of claiming real existence for logical and mathematical entities, and they had difficult and conflicting views about consciousness. Without, however, pursuing these, we may note their main attempt (by Holt) to deal with illusions, which is a version of what is often called the selective theory. The essential points of this theory are, first, all the various appearances of an object are its intrinsic, objective properties and are directly apprehended by the percipient. For example, the table that looks round to A and elliptical to B is intrinsically both round and elliptical; the mountain that looks green close up and blue in the distance is both green and blue. There is nothing private or mental about such appearances, for they can be photographed, as can mirror images and various optical illusions. Second, the function of the nervous system and of the causal processes in perception is to select and reveal to the percipient one property from each set of properties, for example either the elliptical or the round shape of the table.

One difficulty in this is that it does not really account for error. If we are always directly aware of actual characteristics of objects, what sense does it make to talk, as we do, of illusions, mistakes, or misperceptions? Another lies in the weakness of the selective theory compared with the generative theory, adopted by dualist realism, which states that the sensible qualities, or sensa, are "generated," by the action of the object on the sense organs and nervous system and thus are not intrinsic properties of external objects. The usual reasons for preferring the generative theory are, on the one hand, that it is self-contradictory to say the table is intrinsically both round and elliptical or the mountain is intrinsically both green and blue. Furthermore, objects must be incredibly complex if they are to possess all these shapes and colors, plus, presumably, qualities corresponding to the queer appearance of objects when one has taken mescaline or suffers from giddiness or double vision. On the other hand, it is not clear how the nervous system specifically responds to or selects one of the various shapes, colors, and so on. This is particularly so in such cases as color blindness, drugs, and double vision, where the different appearances are the result of differences in the percipient and where the pattern of light waves can be detected as already differentiated for the shape and color normally perceived.

The generative theory, however, fits the facts of the causal processes quite well; it is natural to suppose that the generation of the sensory experience and its sensum occurs at the end of the causal chain that extends from object to brain by way of sense organ and nerves. This is confirmed by the reproduction of such experiences in mental imagery (presumably because the appropriate brain activity recurs), by the sensations resulting from electrical stimulation of the brain, and by the time lag that may occur between an event and our perception of itall things that the selective theory cannot explain. Also, the generative theory can explain how voluntary selection occurs. When we turn our head to look at X rather than Y, we are allowing light from X rather than Y to strike our eyes and thus bring into being the sensa appropriate to X. As to photographing appearances, the photograph corresponds to the retinal image, not the sensumthat is, it reproduces not the perceived appearance but an intermediate cause of it; to enter into human experience, it must, in turn, be perceived by generating sensa.

perspective realism and theories of appearing

The first objection to the selective theorythat it makes objects possess contradictory qualitiesmight be met by stressing that shapes, colors, and other qualities are not intrinsic but relative properties. The table is round from here, elliptical from there; the mountains are green in this light, blue in that light, and so on. This idea has been coupled with direct realism in a number of similar theories: perspective realism (E. B. McGilvary), objective relativism (A. E. Murphy), or the theory of appearing. (This last name was given by H. H. Price to a view put forward by H. A. Prichard. Roderick M. Chisholm, however, uses it more widely, and it is convenient to class all these views as theories of appearing.) Their central point is that direct realism can deal with illusions, or at least perceptual relativity, by saying that sensible qualities are not possessed by the object simpliciter but are always relative to some point of view or standing conditions. We always perceive sensible qualities in some perspectivespatial, even temporal (we see the distant star as it is from here and now), or illuminative (the object as it is in this light). (In such theories the shape, color, and so on are possessed by the object at its own location but are perceived subject to perspective, meaning from a viewpoint. In contrast, Bertrand Russell had a phenomenalistic theory of "perspectives" that were spread through space as possible sensa and actualized by or in the percipient.)

Such perspective-realist statements as "The table is round from here" sound forced, for the natural word to use is looks, not is, and it is possible to express this kind of direct realism in terms of looking or appearing. Physical objects simply are such that they appear different from different positions, and we see them as they appear from a viewpoint or in certain conditions. Thus, we may see the round table looking elliptical from here, but even so it is still the table that we see.

Thus far the theory is trite and does little more than state the situation in a way that dualists could accept and then claim to analyze. To be distinctive, it must, as its essential characteristic, separate directness and incorrigibility. Sense-datum theory links the two, assuming that if we see an object directly, we must see it as it actually is. Thus, when the round table looks elliptical, we do not see it directly; what we see directly is an elliptical datum belonging to it.

In contrast, theories of appearing must simply claim that seeing an object directly is compatible with variation or even error in perception, so that we still see it directly when according to viewpoint, lighting, and similar factors, it appears really different from what it is. (Some might object that the theory cannot admit that perceiving is ever erroneous. Perspective realism treats all properties as relative and all perspectives as equalthe table is round from here, elliptical from there, but not round in itself; similarly all appearances should be treated as equally valid. Nevertheless, it seems more plausible to treat some appearances as privileged; in some conditions we see the real shape, the round object appearing as it isthat is, round. It may be considered a weakness of the perspective theory that it does not take into account the fact that objects do seem to have real [measured] shapes and volumes absolutely, not relative to a viewpoint.)

The approach of theories of appearing may deal plausibly with perspectival and similar variations, but it has two main defects. First, not all variations are of this nature. In double vision or mescaline illusions there seems to be existential appearingthere may appear to be two or even many tables when we look at one table. Price has argued that this cannot really be a case of directly seeing one table, for it differs significantly from seeing something merely with different properties, such as seeing a brown table instead of a black one. Also, many illusions are the result of subjective factors, so that it is difficult to say that one has a genuine perspective.

Talk of physiological perspectives is little help. "The bottle from here" is not on a par with "the bottle as it is to someone who has taken mescaline," for mescaline may cause a range of different experiences. Similarly, when a sentry at night is convinced he sees the enemy approaching but only a shadow is there, is he directly seeing the shadow in some special perspective, such as "the way it is to an anxious sentry" or "looking like a man"? Another anxious sentry might see it as a shadow and say it does not look like a man. And in a full hallucination there is no object at all. Second, theories of appearing cannot deal plausibly with the causal processes in perception since they have to adopt the selective theory. Further, we do know with varying degrees of completeness why things suffer perspectival distortion or how they cause illusion. The explanations concerned are often in terms of the causal processes and so seem to call for the generative theory and the abandonment of direct realism.

commonsense realism

In the tradition of Thomas Reid, revived by G. E. Moore, many twentieth-century British philosophers defended what they took to be a commonsense view of perception. Moore's defense was primarily of the certainty of such simple perceptual statements as "This is a hand"; he argued that denial of these statements leads to inconsistency in beliefs and behavior and that the grounds for their denial involve propositions less certain than they are. However, his analysis of such statements in terms of sense data led away from direct realism and the commonsense view of the nature (as opposed to the reliability) of perception.

Defense of common sense became particularly associated with the Oxford linguistic analysts. Strong critics of the sense-datum theory (unlike Moore), they also reject the traditional naive realism as unfair to common senseafter all, we do not think that everything we see is the surface of a physical object (certainly not lightning flashes or rainbows) and are quite ready to admit that we often see things looking different from what they are. Although quarreling with the common philosophical uses of appear, direct, and real, they maintain a direct realism not unlike the theories of appearing and attempt to show in detail that in so-called illusions, including reflection and refraction, we do actually see the physical object concerned. Criticism has been made of the view that hallucinations are indistinguishable from normal perception, and more positively it may be claimed that hallucinations are mental images confused with perceptions owing to such special circumstances as drugs or fever. It is doubtful whether this can explain all the cases, and the role of the psychological processesfor example, in attention or in the influence of expectation and past experiencethrows doubt on the directness of perceiving.

Some attempt has also been made to deal with the causal processes, but not very convincingly. Attacks have been made on the dualist interpretation for making it seem that we perceive something in our heads and not external objects and for the view that perceiving involves awareness of sensations. But linguistic analysts have said little of a positive nature; their main attitude is that the causal processes are at most only the conditions of perception and are the concern of the scientist but that the philosopher is concerned with perception itself, which is a skill or instantaneous achievement, not a physical process or the final stage of one. Unfortunately, scientists generally claim that the study of the causal processes requires representative realism, and even if the average person does not bother about them, an adequate philosophical theory cannot ignore the causes and conditions of perceiving, particularly since the explanation of illusions depends on them.

Indirect or Dualist Realism

Many realists are persuaded by the argument from illusion and by their study of the causal and psychological processes in perception to reject direct realism and to distinguish between external material objects as the causes and ultimate objects of perceiving and private sensa that are the mental effects of brain processes due to the action of those objects on the sense organs. The classic form of this general view was the representative realism (also called the representative or causal theory) of René Descartes and John Locke, which is still maintained in principle by many scientists. From Berkeley on it suffered much criticism, and its defects led to its being unpopular among philosophers. Modern attempts have been made, however, to remedy these defects and to propose an acceptable theory. The resultant position we shall discuss as critical realism. Although they start from an analysis of perceptual experience and do not argue from the causal processes underlying it, supporters of the sense-datum analysis who are not phenomenalists are forced into one of these kinds of dualist realism.

representative realism

In what is loosely called "seeing a table," light rays reflected from the table strike the eye, cause chemical changes in the retina, and send a train of impulses along the optic nerve to the brain. The resultant brain activity is then said to cause the mind of the percipient to be directly aware of private sensa (Locke called them "ideas") that represent the shape, color, and other visual properties of the table. A similar account is given for the other senses. The essential point is that perceiving proper is the direct awareness of sensa; perceiving external objects is redefined as perceiving sensa caused by them, and so all our awareness is strictly limited to sensa. "Represent" is usually interpreted in accordance with the doctrine of primary and secondary qualitiesthat is, the sensa resemble the object in spatiotemporal properties but not insofar as colors, sounds, smells, and other secondary qualities are concerned. Modern analogies of "representing" are the relation between a map or radar screen and the region they cover or between television or movies and the studio events reproduced.

Merits of representative realism

Representative realism has important merits. It is the easiest inference from the scientific account of the causal processes up to the brain in all perceiving and fits other scientific evidence. Thus, color blindness and deafness are the result of defects in the sense organs that so affect all subsequent stages in the causal transmission that the resultant sensa are different from normal. That electrical stimulation of the brain causes sensations of color, smell, and so on, according to location, seems to confirm the theory, and it can easily accommodate the time lag in perception. Further, by holding that representation does not amount to resemblance in the case of secondary qualities, it can be made to fit the distinction between the world as we see it (that is, the sensa grouped as ostensible objects) and the scientific account of material objects, which is in terms of colorless, tasteless, and smell-less elementary particles.

Representative realism also accounts for illusions, dreams, images, hallucinations, and the relativity of perception. Relativity and many illusions result from changes in the stimulation of the sense organs because of distance, medium, angle of sight, and other relevant factors; such changes affect all that follows and so vary the sensa caused. Other illusions are the result of misinterpretation of sensa. In imagery and dreams the brain activity that occurred in corresponding perceptions is reactivated as the result of internal causes and so brings about the recurrence of similar sensa. (The reactivation may be only partial, and the resultant data may be consciously or unconsciously altered by the mind.) Hallucinations are also imagery. Since the images are of a similar character to normally perceived data and are the result of a similar immediate cause in the brain, it is easy to see how they may merge in integrated or triggered hallucinations or how perception may be imaginatively supplemented. The standard explanation of phantom limbsthat they are sensations caused by irritation at the stump of nerves normally coming from the amputated limbis also accommodated. As perception is confined strictly to the effects of the causal chain, interference with it en route may readily deceive us.

Finally, representative realism has also traditionally been part of the widely accepted interactionist or dualist account of the relation of mind and body: The body affects mind in perception, mind affects the body in voluntary action. Not all who accept that theory realize that they are saddled with representative realism.

Defects of representative realism

Despite its merits, representative realism has some serious defects. If, as it claims, our perceiving is strictly awareness of the mental ideas or sensa, it is difficult to see how we can break out of the circle of sensa and observe external objects. How can we tell what these objects are like; indeed, how do we know that there are such objects? If we try to verify the existence of the table by touching it, we simply obtain more sensatactile onesand if we see our hands touching the table, we are just having visual sensa. Whenever we try to peer over the barrier of sensa, we just get more sensa. This difficulty undermines the analogies used in the theory. Representation is conceived of as something like mapping or photographing, but we know a map represents or a photograph resembles an object because we can observe both and compare them; ex hypothesi, however, we can never strictly observe both objects and sensa to compare them. Observing objects is just observing sensa, so we do not know that objects and sensa resemble each other in primary but not in secondary qualities.

It is often said that representative realism not only leads to skepticism but is also self-refuting, cutting off the branch on which it sits. Its premises and evidence assume that we discover the action of the objects on the sense organs by observing them. Its conclusionall our perception is of sensadenies that we can do this. However, there would be self-refutation only if the conclusion contradicted the premises, which it need not do if carefully stated. The theory may be regarded as really distinguishing two types of perceiving: perception in its everyday meaning, which is discovering about external objects by means of the senses, and perception properdirect awareness of sensa. It is saying that the first type really amounts to or, better, is really effected by the second type. Thus, granted that by perceiving sensa we do discover the nature of objects (at least insofar as their primary qualities are concerned) and their interaction, the first type of perception and the evidence it gives still hold good, and there is no self-refutation. Nevertheless, the skepticism remains, for since our direct awareness is limited to sensa, we do not know that there are objects or what they are like; we only suppose or guess that and what they are.

Even though representative realism need not be self-refuting, it is open to the charge of circularity if considered as an attempt to explain perceiving. It appears simply to transfer perceiving as ordinarily conceived (a face-to-face confrontation) from outside to inside the person; perceiving external objects is now put forward as perceiving private replicas of them, for we look at maps and television pictures in the same way that we look at the countryside. Even if we say perceiving objects is achieved by perceiving sensa, there is the same duplication of perceiving, which is thus explained in terms of itself.

Representative realism's view of the mind is rather crude, for it tends to speak almost as if the self or mind were a little person in the head looking at pictures of the outside world. It is not clear how sensa can exist in an unextended mind, since they apparently possess shape and size; nor is any serious attempt made to fit the psychological processes of perception into the general scheme.

There are special difficulties for those versions of the theory that claim that in perceiving objects we infer the existence or nature of external objects from our sensa. Apart from the inevitable dubiety of such inference, the main objection is that we are never conscious of these inferences nor are we aware of sensa as suchthat is, as private mental data. If we were, it is difficult to see how the notion of publicly observable causes would occur to us. But the representative theory may simply say that the sensa seem to be external (or externally caused) from the start and that any inference is justificatory to deal with skeptics. (This seems to have been Locke's view in his Essay concerning Human Understanding, Bk. IV, Ch. xi, Sec. 2.)

critical realism

Critical realism is the name primarily given to the views expressed by the American authors of Essays in Critical Realism namely, that the data in perception (that is, what is intuited, what we are directly aware of) are not actually part of external objects but are "character-complexes irresistibly taken, in the moment of perception, to be the characters of existing outer objects" (p. 20). In veridical perception these characters are the characters of external objects; in illusions they are not. The authors were unfortunately divided over the nature of this datum or character complex, Durant Drake, A. K. Rogers, George Santayana, and C. A. Strong claiming that it was not a mental existent or any kind of existent, but only an essence, a mere logical entity or universal, whereas A. O. Lovejoy, J. B. Pratt, and R. W. Sellars held that it was a mental existent, a content of sensory experience. It is difficult to grasp what the datum can be if it is not a mental content or existent, and so the second version is the more plausible and is adopted here. Although clearly dualist, it should not be confused with representative realism; in fact, it provides remedies for representative realism's main faults.

The critical realists held that the root of the troubles of representative realism lay in its failure to analyze perceiving or perceptual knowledge. Accepting the ordinary notion of perceiving as intuiting, which means a direct awareness or confrontation, and finding that because of the causal processes and of illusions such awareness was not of external objects, Locke concluded that it must be of intramental ideas and so imprisoned us in the circle of such ideas. The more reasonable conclusion, however, would be that this ordinary notion of perceiving is wrong and that a more careful analysis is needed. This will show that an essential feature of perceiving, even as ordinarily understood, is that it is the way we discover the existence and nature of external objectsthat it is, in fact, a claim, often justified, to knowledge. If we appreciate this from the start, we shall not be tempted by the apparently intuitive character of perceiving into an analysis that limits it to ideas, and if we remember that this knowledge claim is not always justifiedthat is, that there are illusions and errorswe shall avoid the other pitfall of direct realism, in which error becomes inexplicable.

The next step is to realize that though it involves an intuition or direct awareness, perceiving is much more than this. It also involves an active external reference, as is implied by the knowledge claim; we refer this intuited mental content or character complex to an external objectthat is, we explicitly judge that it is, or is the character of, an external object or we unreflectingly take it to be this or we immediately react to it as if it were an external object. These modes of reference are differently stressed by different writers, but the point seems to be that they occur in varying degrees according to circumstances. Our perception is sometimes an explicit identification or judgment, or at least it immediately issues in onefor example, we say, "Here's our bus" or "There's Tommy"; more often we just see that it is Tommy without formulating any judgment, or our perception that it is our bus and our starting to go and catch it seem indistinguishable, for the reference to the external object is manifest in an immediate physical response.

All the same, in contrast to the behaviorists, the critical realists stressed that there was an intuited mental content, the character complex of which we were directly aware. Attempts were made to fit the analysis in with current psychology by explaining how this external reference arose in childhoodthe apparent externality of the content was with us from the beginning of perceptual discrimination, largely because the external reference was founded in physical response to the object.

There is some similarity between this "reference of an intuited datum to an external object" and the "taking for granted that a sense datum belongs to a material object" of Price's sense-datum theory, especially since both stress that no distinction between datum and object is drawn by the percipient at the time. But there is a difference in starting point and emphasis. Price began with sense data, treating them as distinct existents and willing to allow that material objects consisted of them. This branch of critical realism began with knowledge of external objects, but, being mental, the content or datum distinguished within it was not regarded as capable of distinct existence and was very difficultmuch more so than Price thoughtto isolate even subsequently from the associated reference. Also, reference covered a wider set of activities than taking for granted, for it also involved the bodily reactions. In order to stress the relative subordination of the datum, some critical realists spoke of perceiving external objects by means of, guided by, or mediated by, the datum.

Since critical realism can agree that the datum is generated, it is free from the difficulties of the selective theory and can share in the advantages of representative realism. In this version it seems able to avoid the latter's worst faults. There is no self-refutation, for from the start perceiving is always perception of external objects by means of the intuited data, an analysis that does not deny that we perceive such objects. There is no duplication or circularity, for the direct awareness of the datum is not a replica of perceiving; insofar as it can be distinguished at all, it is much less complex than perceiving, for it involves no identification with external objects and is not in itself directed on themhence, the map and movie analogies are essentially faulty. Common sense is not being offered an explanation of perceiving in terms of perceiving; it is being shown that perceiving is far more complex than common sense supposes, involving not only causal processes that bring about the datum or mental content but also the psychological processes of reference or response.

Moreover, there need be no skepticism. True, in perceiving we only take the datum to be an external object or its properties, and this may, of course, be erroneous. In a sense it is always erroneous in that the datum or content is never the object, but normally the taking or reference is correct to the extent that we are perceiving an external object and that the intuited characters also do characterize the external object insofar as primary qualities are concerned; to that extent we are perceiving actual properties or at least projections of them. In general, the claim that perceiving is thus far veridical and amounts to knowledge is said to be the best hypothesis to explain the order and nature of our sense experiences. The realist claim is simply that once ordinary errors and illusions are ruled out by comparing the evidence of different senses or of different persons, the simplest explanation of the situation is that there are external objects causing the sense data or contents and corresponding to them in primary qualities. And this is plausible because if we dismiss as incredible solipsism the view that only oneself and one's own sense experiences exist, then the only real alternative is phenomenalism, a view that has fatal weaknesses and really amounts to proposing a series of deceptive coincidences.

Critical realism is not fully satisfactory, however, particularly if regarded as a theory of perceptual consciousnessthat is, as an account of the mental activity that goes on in perception. Thus, the alleged datum or character complex suggests a group of sense data and invites the objections discussed under the entry Sensa. A closer examination is required not only of the concepts of datum and reference but also of the general relation of mind and body presupposed in perception and of the nature of mental contents; above all, the theory must take full account of the numerous quasi-interpretative activities that modern psychology has found to be involved in perception.

See also Illusions; Sensa.



A clear, simple introduction to the philosophical problems of perception is Bertrand Russell, Problems of Philosophy (London: Williams and Norgate, 1912), and a fuller one is W. P. Montague, The Ways of Knowing (New York: Macmillan, 1928). A good account of modern positions on perception is given by T. E. Hill, Contemporary Theories of Knowledge (New York: Ronald Press, 1961). Detailed summaries of many realist works are given by W. H. Werkmeister, A History of Philosophical Ideas in America (New York: Ronald Press, 1949). Less detailed but more intelligible is John Passmore, A Hundred Years of Philosophy (London: Duckworth, 1957); also see Rudolf Metz, A Hundred Years of British Philosophy (New York: Macmillan, 1938). Many of the works listed below deal with the topics of more than one section.

the realist polemic and new realism

The main source for new realism is E. B. Holt and others, The New Realism (New York: Macmillan, 1912), but new realism owed much to William James; see the papers (dating from 1904) collected in his Essays in Radical Empiricism (London and New York: Longman, 1912). For a useful collection of articles from this early period see Roderick M. Chisholm, Realism and the Background of Phenomenology (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1960). Among other important and often closely reasoned articles are R. B. Perry, "The Ego-centric Predicament," Journal of Philosophy 7 (1) (1910): 514; Bertrand Russell, "On the Nature of Truth," PAS 7 (19061907): 2849; and G. E. Moore, "The Refutation of Idealism," in his Philosophical Studies (London: Routledge, 1922), to which compare W. T. Stace's counterattack, "The Refutation of Realism," Mind 43 (170) (1934): 145155. For a general summing up in favor of realism, see D. C. Williams, "The A Priori Argument for Subjectivism," Monist 43 (1933): 173202, "The Inductive Argument for Subjectivism" and "The Inductive Argument for Realism," Monist 44 (1934): 80107, 186209. For a once influential direct-realism treatment of perceptual problems, see T. P. Nunn, "Are Secondary Qualities Independent of Perception?," PAS 10 (19091910): 191218. Ludwig Wittgenstein's language arguments are in his Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1958), Secs. 256ff.; for criticisms see Carl Wellman, "Wittgenstein and the Ego-centric Predicament," Mind 68 (270) (1959): 223233, or the symposium "Can There Be a Private Language?," PAS, Supp. 28 (1954).

perspective realism and allied theories

Perspective realism and allied theories are stated by Evander Bradley McGilvary in Toward a Perspective Realism (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1956) and in "Perceptual and Memory Perspectives," Journal of Philosophy 30 (1933): 310ff. Older versions are by Samuel Alexander, "On Sensations and Images," PAS 10 (19091910): 135, and H. A. Prichard, Kant's Theory of Knowledge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909), Ch. 4. Despite its title, G. Dawes Hicks, Critical Realism (London: Macmillan, 1938), gives a theory of appearing. Such theories are lucidly discussed by Roderick M. Chisholm, "The Theory of Appearing," in Philosophical Analysis, edited by Max Black (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1950). C. D. Broad, The Mind and Its Place in Nature (London: Kegan Paul, 1925), and H. H. Price, Perception (London: Methuen, 1932), criticize these theories carefully from a sense-datum standpoint, though Price's article "Illusions," in Contemporary British Philosophy, edited by H. D. Lewis (London, 1956), Vol. 3, defends a limited perspective realism.

commonsense realism

For commonsense realism see G. E. Moore's "A Defense of Common Sense" and "Proof of an External World," which are in his Philosophical Papers (London: Allen and Unwin, 1959), but also see his Some Main Problems of Philosophy (London: Allen and Unwin, 1953). The staunchest more recent defender of common sense against the argument from illusion is J. L. Austin in his lucid and lively Sense and Sensibilia (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), and somewhat similar views are clearly and concisely expressed by Anthony M. Quinton, "The Problem of Perception," Mind 64 (253) (1955): 2851. Gilbert Ryle's "Sensations," in Contemporary British Philosophy, edited by H. D. Lewis (London, 1956), Vol. III, and Ryle's Dilemmas (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1954) try to deal also with the causal argument in a nontechnical manner. D. M. Armstrong, Perception and the Physical World (London: Routledge and Paul, 1961), defends direct realism but in so doing is driven toward behaviorism.

representative realism (or the causal theory)

For early statements of representative realism, see René Descartes, Principles of Philosophy, Pt. IV, and John Locke, Essay concerning Human Understanding. Bk. 2, Ch. 8.

Representative realism is assumed by many modern neurologists, though often not under its philosophical title. Walter Russell Brain states and discusses it as "physiological idealism" in "The Neurological Approach to the Problem of Perception," Philosophy 21 (79) (1946): 133146, reprinted with further consideration of perception in his Mind, Perception and Science (Oxford: Blackwell, 1951); he gives a further defense of his position in his The Nature of Experience (London: Oxford University Press, 1959). J. C. Eccles, The Neurophysiological Basis of Mind (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953), pp. 279281, outlines the theory as if it were fact. J. R. Smythies, Analysis of Perception (London: Routledge and Paul, 1956), puts forward an improved form of it closer to critical realism.

critical realism

The main source for critical realism is Durant Drake et al., Essays in Critical Realism (London: Macmillan, 1920), which reveals the differences as well as agreements; see also other works by the essayists, especially R. W. Sellars's comprehensive The Philosophy of Physical Realism (New York: Macmillan, 1932), his general apologia, "A Statement of Critical Realism," Revue internationale de philosophie 1 (19381939): 472498, and A. O. Lovejoy's impressive general defense, The Revolt against Dualism (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1930). R. J. Hirst, The Problems of Perception (London, 1959), also discusses commonsense and representative realism and reaches a somewhat similar position. A primarily pragmatist view that has affinities to and criticism of critical realism is C. I. Lewis, Mind and the World Order (New York: Scribners, 1929).

other recommended titles

Almeder, Robert. Blind Realism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1992.

Alston, William. A Realist Conception of Truth. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Benacerraf, P. "Mathematical Truth." Journal of Philosophy 70 (1973): 661680.

Brink, D. Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Carnap, Rudolf. "Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology." In his Meaning and Necessity. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.

Churchland, Paul M. Scientific Realism and the Plasticity of Mind. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Devitt, Michael. Realism and Truth. Oxford: Blackwell, 1984.

Dummett, M. A. E. "Realism." In Truth and Other Enigmas. London: Duckworth, 1963.

Goodman, Nelson. Ways of Worldmaking. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1978.

Moser, Paul K. Philosophy after Objectivity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Putnam, Hilary. The Many Faces of Realism. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1987.

Quine, W. V. O. Word and Object. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960.

Quinton, Anthony. The Nature of Things. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977.

Searle, John R. The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Free Press, 1995.

Sellars, Wilfrid. Science, Perception, and Reality. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview Press, 1991.

Smart, J. J. C. Philosophy and Scientific Realism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963.

van Fraassen, Bas. The Scientific Image. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Wright, C. J. G. Realism, Meaning, and Truth. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987.

Wright, Crispin. Truth and Objectivity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

R. J. Hirst (1967)

Bibliography updated by Benjamin Fiedor (2005)


views updated Jun 27 2018


The era of American realism is most commonly defined as the period from the end of the Civil War to about 1900. Within this, the somewhat shorter span of 1870–1890 can be delineated as the time when realism was clearly the dominant literary idea in the United States. Yet even during this shorter period its dominance was more as a topic of critical debate than as a pervasive practice. Theorists such as William Dean Howells (1837–1920), Thomas Sergeant Perry (1845–1928), and Henry James (1843–1916) laid out the tenets of realism in the 1870s and 1880s—emphasizing the near-at-hand as opposed to the remote, the probable rather than the extraordinary, the ethically complex in preference to the idealized. They believed that literature should portray people such as one might meet, in situations that those people might actually encounter. Realism concerned itself almost entirely with fiction, although the work of the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen was influential, especially in the movement's later stages, and the work of the period's two major American poets, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, was to some degree compatible with realist theories. Howells, James, and Mark Twain (1835–1910) are often specified as the great trio of American realistic novelists—though it might be more accurate to say that Twain and James are great novelists who can be identified with realism, while Howells is a great realist who (among other things) wrote novels.


The literary mode known as realism began not in the United States but in France and Russia. Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert were early exemplars in France, and Émile Zola became one of the most controversial figures in the American critical debate. Ivan Turgenev and Leo Tolstoy were the most influential Russian figures. Among British novelists, Howells pointed to Jane Austen as exemplary for her uncompromisingly hardheaded portrayals of the conflicts that arise in ordinary life, and both Howells and James saw George Eliot (though in James's case with some reservations) as a positive force among their contemporaries. In the United States the pre–Civil War vogue for regional fiction—like that of Washington Irving, Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Washington Harris, and Thomas Bangs Thorpe—moved toward an interest in the distinctive characteristics of individuals and cultural settings, though there was little attention to the nuances of psychological experience. In poetry, Whitman's description of actual people in ordinary situations and his broadly democratic embrace of those people were important realistic elements, and his Drum-Taps poems explored the gritty actuality of suffering in the Civil War, while Dickinson's poetry turned inward to explore the landscape of individual psychology in moments of joy, perplexity, and pain.

Realism also had its origin in a repudiation of romanticism, with novelists Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) and James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) as favorite targets. Scott was criticized for his interest in distant times and places, especially the medieval, and for the lack of subtlety in his characterizations. His novels were seen to promote a kind of exaggerated notion of aristocracy, both false in its depiction of humankind and antithetical to the democratic ideals that Americans revere. A truer depiction of humanity would focus on the natural dignity and innate equality of all human beings without elevating a few individuals to heroic status. As for Cooper, he was attacked for inattention to detail in plot construction, stereotyping of characters, improbability of events, and stylistic imprecision. In "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" (1895), Twain states that "Cooper's eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly. He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly" (p. 1244). From the point of view of the realists, the most important failing of Romantics like Cooper and Scott was sentimentality—seeming emotion that was not, in fact, true to the ways in which actual human beings respond to events and situations. The realists wanted to set this matter right. In an oftenquoted definition, Howells called realism "nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material" ("Editor's Study," p. 966). Realists tried to present the truth of human experience without the distortions of sentimentality.


The great theorist of American realism was unquestionably William Dean Howells. In fact, it might be said with some justice that without Howells there is little basis for identifying an "Age of Realism" in the United States at all. Howells was himself a prolific novelist who crafted his works in accordance with realist principles. But more important, as assistant editor (1866–1871) and then editor (1871–1881) of the Atlantic Monthly and later (1886–1892) as columnist ("Editor's Study") for Harper's New Monthly Magazine, he both articulated the principles of realism and promoted the careers of the great figures of the period—especially James and Twain, but also including (among others) Hamlin Garland, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Stephen Crane. Howells persistently and effectively argued for "realistic" fiction that would leave behind the sentimental excesses of many popular nineteenth-century novelists, representing instead the situations and experience of "real" people and truthfully exploring problems and possibilities pertinent to actual existence. Fiction, by this view, emerges more as a matter of fact than of genius—a departure from the Romantic view of the writer as a sort of mystical seer. Indeed, Howells confided to his readers that the belief in "genius" seemed to him "rather a mischievous superstition."

In the 1870s and early 1880s, Howells's friend Thomas Sergeant Perry produced a series of critical reviews praising the European realists and, along with Howells, working out the principles for an American realism. In a very early essay titled "American Novels" (1872), Perry proposed that the important action in a novel lies in the experience of its characters, not in the structure of events the novel describes: "In the true novel the scene, the incidents, are subordinated to the sufferings, actions, and qualities of the characters" (p. 369). The novel, then, is not an adventure story but a study in ethical behavior, and the trajectory of the study is inward: "the real story lies beneath the hats and bonnets of those concerned, not in the distant cataracts that wet them, nor the bullets that scar them" (p. 369). It might be said that what both Howells and Perry were calling for was greater patience on the part of both author and reader—the patience to get to know the characters and to attend not just to the events in the story but to the characters' anticipations, responses, and afterthoughts concerning those events. For Perry the novel should—by means of its careful description of physical details, realistic rendering of conversation, and attention to nuance—take readers deep into the psyches of its characters. Another essay by Perry, "Ivan Turgénieff," which appeared two years later in the AtlanticMonthly, praises the Russian novelist Turgenev for the naturalness of his characters, his keen observation, the vividness of detail in his work, and the absence of an "avowed purpose" (p. 567) to be read between the lines. Turgenev wrote, according to Perry, "as if his aim were entirely of another sort, simply to describe certain Russian peculiarities" (p. 567). He also praised Turgenev for "hiding himself " (p. 569) in his narrative, avoiding unnecessary authorial comment and simply presenting his characters as living people who could speak for themselves. These qualities were among those that realists were expected to exhibit, and Turgenev came to be regarded by American realists as a model to emulate.

Another very early advocate of realism, George Parsons Lathrop (1851–1898), in an 1874 essay titled "The Novel and Its Future," proposed that while the improbable may produce potent momentary effects, attention to the more usual occurrence and the more commonplace character can take one deeper into the true nature of things. The realist takes characters and events that seem to have little of interest to offer and, by "profound and sympathetic penetration" (p. 318) reveals their "full value and true meaning," bringing to light "the connection between the familiar and the extraordinary, and the seen and unseen of human nature" (p. 321). This, Lathrop believed, is an exercise of imagination far higher than the creation by Romantic writers of fantasies with little connection to the lives of ordinary people. The heroes and heroines of fiction of realist fiction were "taken from the rank and file of the race" and thus would "represent people whom we daily encounter" (p. 324).


Howells believed that American fiction should reflect the American character and American conditions. Since life in the United States is predominantly pleasant, a realistic portrayal would emphasize the "smiling aspects."

Whatever their deserts, very few American novelists have been led out to be shot, or finally exiled to the rigors of a winter at Duluth; and in a land where journeymen carpenters and plumbers strike for four dollars a day the sum of hunger and cold is comparatively small, and the wrong from class to class has been almost inappreciable, though all this is changing for the worse. Our novelists, therefore, concern themselves with the more smiling aspects of life, which are the more American, and seek the universal in the individual rather than the social interests. It is worth while, even at the risk of being called commonplace, to be true to our well-to-do actualities; the very passions themselves seem to be softened and modified by conditions which formerly at least could not be said to wrong any one, to cramp endeavor, or to cross lawful desire.

Howells, Criticism and Fiction, p. 62.

In Criticism and Fiction (1894), Howells himself maintained that in fiction, "we must ask ourselves before we ask anything else, Is it true?—true to the motives, the impulses, the principles, that shape the life of actual men and women" (p. 49). And in this focus on the "truthful," he believed, the "marvelous" would be revealed in a new and unsentimental light. The "foolish man," Howells quotes Emerson, "wonders at the unusual, but the wise man at the usual" (p. 40). A cornerstone of this realist approach to fiction was his rejection of the falsely "ideal"—a rejection that he conveyed by comparing the writing of fiction to studying a grasshopper. The realistic novelist in this analogy is a scientist in the tradition of Baconian and Cartesian reasoning who does not begin with an idea of a grasshopper (thus, the "ideal") but by looking at a real one. The Romantic, on the other hand, gives us a perfected grasshopper, beautiful to look at but not real. For Howells, "what is true is always beautiful and good" (p. 10). He concludes that the artist (and the artist's audience) must "reject the ideal grasshopper wherever he finds it, in science, in literature, in art, because it is not 'simple, natural, and honest,' because it is not like a real grasshopper" (p. 13). It can be objected, of course, that, like Howells's definition of realism as "the truthful treatment of material," this emphasis on "truth" as a clearly identifiable entity ignores the epistemologically problematic status of both "truth" and "the real." After all, the Romantics, like the realists, believed that their creations were profoundly truthful in ways that their predecessors' had not been. It would be more philosophically accurate to say that Howells is recommending that the writer attend not to the "real" itself but to the appearances of things. There is a faith here that appearances bear a relation to the truth that is not ironic—as opposed, for instance, to the Platonic view that appearance conceals truth (a view romanticism generally accepts). The realist tends to believe that appearances are in important ways straightforwardly revealing to the observer who can read them accurately. The great novelists and their comprehending readers must be such insightful observers.

If the accurate observation recommended by Howells is crucial to the novelist's art, it readily follows that the novelist must write about things within his or her field of vision. This means for the American author that, as a rule, the subject should be American, and this is particularly so in Howells's opinion because accurate seeing and actions based on such seeing are characteristic of Americans. Howells also believed that life in the United States, as compared to that in other countries, consists for the most part of pleasant experience: "the sum of hunger and cold is comparatively small, and the wrong from class to class has been almost inappreciable" (Criticism and Fiction, p. 62). It is therefore appropriate for American fiction to "be true to our well-to-do actualities," concerning itself with "the more smiling aspects of life, which are the more American, and to seek the universal in the individual rather than in the social interests" (p. 62). In this Howells formulates what came to be known as "smiling realism"—his belief that optimistic tone and subject matter in fiction are appropriate to the happy destinies of life in the United States. For Howells's later detractors, this made him an easy target for the claim that his doctrines had the effect of trivializing fiction.

As for the ethics of fiction writing, aside from the ethical implications of the emphasis on "truthfulness," Howells portrays realism as being in some sense devout because it cherishes God's creation as it is, rather than escaping into unreal fantasy. The true realist, in Howells's opinion, finds significance in everything that he or she encounters: "All tells of destiny and character; nothing that God has made is contemptible. He cannot look upon human life and declare this thing or that thing unworthy of notice" (Criticism and Fiction, p. 15). And while fiction should bring individual experience to light, the result for Howells is to reveal how much all humanity has in common and to "make them know one another better, that they may all be humbled and strengthened with a sense of their fraternity" (p. 87).


Henry James, like other realists, maintained that the primary task of the writer of fiction is to show life as it really is—not to substitute for that reality a contrived version of life. In "The Art of Fiction" (1884), he expressed this as "life without rearrangement" versus "life with rearrangement."

Catching the very note and trick, the strange irregular rhythm of life, that is the attempt whose strenuous force keeps Fiction upon her feet. In proportion as in what she offers us we see life without rearrangement do we feel that we are touching the truth; in proportion as we see it with rearrangement do we feel that we are being put off with a substitute, a compromise and convention.

Henry James, "The Art of Fiction," p. 16.


James made his most important contribution to realism theory in his essay "The Art of Fiction" (originally published in Longman's Magazine in September 1884), which is regarded as one of America's classic statements of literary criticism. In this essay James proclaims the writing of fiction to be one of the fine arts and examines at length the comparison between fiction and painting (whereas many of Howells's detractors compared his approach to photography). James, like Howells and Perry, regarded the novelist more as a craftsman than as a creative genius. The writer of fiction must meticulously observe, and turn his or her impressions into art. For James the only reason for existence of a novel or short story is that it "represents life." The "supreme virtue of the novel," in his view, is "the air of reality," which he explains as "solidity of specification" (p. 12). That is, the novelist must create a convincing image of life, one that seems as if it might really happen. James also agrees with Perry that the crucial action in a story should be internal. Extending the comparison between fiction and painting he remarks, "A psychological reason is, to my imagination, an object adorably pictorial; to catch the tint of its complexion—I feel as if that idea might inspire one to Titianesque efforts" (p. 19). Here we see James's conversion of realism to something less literal than Howells's model. James advocated and practiced what came to be known as "psychological realism"—a devotion not to the precise reproduction of external detail but to a rendering of the nuances of the inner lives of his characters. However, for all his advocacy of careful observation, he gave at least equal weight to what he called in 1909 the "crucible of the imagination"—a notion not far removed from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "secondary imagination," which "dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate." Thus, James effected a sort of fusion (sometimes identified with impressionism) of the realistic with the Romantic that moved in the direction of twentieth-century modernism.

Howells identified James as the "chief exemplar" of a "new school" of fiction writing deriving from Nathaniel Hawthorne and George Eliot. James's fiction, like Howells's, avoids the exotic and the superficially dramatic, but he plumbs the psyches of his characters much more deeply than Howells. His fictions revolve around such situations as a governess trying to understand the moral and psychological forces that have been working on the children in her charge (The Turn of the Screw); a man wondering what his life might have been like if he had stayed in America and had a "career" instead of going to Europe and having none ("The Jolly Corner"); a man too obsessed with his own destiny, failing to make the human connection that he might have made if he had simply been attentive to the world around him ("The Beast in the Jungle"). In each case James gives readers a "central consciousness" through whom they can understand the events not simply in terms of the details of their occurrence but also in terms of their significance. James's fiction satisfies his own and Perry's criterion that the real action of the story should be in the minds of the characters, yet he makes that action visible by means of symbolic entities that he uses, as he says, to "paint" the "psychological reasons"—entities such as ghosts, "the beast," the subtly flawed golden bowl in the novel by that title, and so forth. In this, again, he is part realist and part "modernist."

Other important writers who produced works related to Jamesian psychological realism were Ambrose Bierce, Stephen Crane, and Edith Wharton. Bierce mined his own traumatic experiences in the Civil War to craft stories that explored the psychological effects of violence and the nearness of death. Crane (1871–1900), who was himself too young to have personally experienced the Civil War, nonetheless chose it as his setting for The Red Badge of Courage (1895), which considers how an ordinary person might react to being thrown into a bewildering situation that demands heroic courage and stamina. Wharton is often characterized as a lesser version of James himself, though her works were actually more popular than his. Like James she wrote stories that treated the psychological nuances of social life among the culturally sophisticated, in whose conversations the unsaid was frequently as significant as the said.


Twain's novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)—notable for its realistic detail, the psychologically realistic portrayal of its protagonist (and other characters), the meaningful ethical dilemmas that the novel poses, and the effective use of dialect—is undoubtedly one of the great literary achievements of American realism. Although Huck Finn is an uncommon character in an uncommon situation, such moments as his decision to try to save the lives of the murderers trapped on the Walter Scott and his efforts to free the slave Jim, in spite of his acceptance of the primacy of property rights over human rights, reach deep into the ethical and psychological realms for any human being. Perry, in his review of Twain's novel in Century Magazine, found that it demonstrates how "Life teaches its lessons by implications, not by didactic preaching; and literature is at its best when it is an imitation of life and not an excuse for instruction" (p. 171). Twain's realistic disposition is revealed, albeit humorously, in his prefatory materials, which on one hand deny the existence of plot or moral in the novel but on the other hand self-consciously insist on the accuracy of the dialects. Twain also broke new ground in the use of realism in his quasi-fictional travel books, which played off the standard travel book conventions to deflate conventional expectations. The Innocents Abroad (1869), for instance, was regarded as offensive by some because it accurately described the desolate barrenness of the Holy Land, in direct contradiction of the romanticized portraits that travel books usually offered.

Unlike Howells and James, whose work tends to move within mainstream culture, Twain, in Huckleberry Finn and in other novels and tales, takes the reader to more remote and primitive locations, such as the Mississippi River valley and the California mining camps. In doing so he demonstrates his ties to regionalism and regional literature, a variety of realistic literature that attempts to capture the flavor of particular regions of the United States—an attempt particularly congenial to Howells's and Perry's notion that realism is democratic in its interest in ordinary people in common situations. However, regionalism also adds the element of the exotic—that is, it takes its readers on an exploration of cultural settings with which they are not likely to be familiar; one of its attractions is the opportunity to travel to new places through the experience of reading. Local color fiction was a particularly popular species of regionalism that thrived at the same time (1870–1890) as realism proper. Local color stories attempted to capture the uniqueness of the regions in which they were set. Twain began his career as a local colorist writing about the Far West, earning his first national fame for "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (1865), set in a mining camp in California. Bret Harte likewise wrote local color stories capturing the curious characters and settings of the mining camps and the West in general. Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman were important local colorists using New England settings, and George Washington Cable, Joel Chandler Harris, and Mary N. Murfree wrote local color fiction set in the South. Although local color tended to be nostalgic, often to the point of sentimentality, for the lifestyles of the areas in which it was set, it was realistic in its attention to actual settings and speech patterns, often including a heavy reliance on dialect to produce its effects.


By the early 1880s Howells, Perry, and other realists were engaged in a resolute battle against sentimental, "undemocratic," "untruthful" literature. Perry's essay "William Dean Howells," published in Century Magazine in March 1882, praises Howells as America's great practitioner of realism, whose work "has proved that realism does not mean groping in the mire" (p. 685). Howells's fiction, Perry says, fulfills the novelist's responsibility "to tell us what he sees, not to pervert the truth according to his whims or prejudices" (p. 684). And he praises realism itself as the enemy of superstition, injustice, and the old-fashioned: "Just as the scientific spirit digs the ground from beneath superstition, so does its fellow-worker, realism, tend to prick the bubble of abstract types. Realism is the tool of the democratic spirit, the modern spirit by means of which the truth is elicited" (p. 683). In the same year Howells proclaimed the triumph of realism and the resulting elevation of fiction writing: "The art of fiction has, in fact, become a finer art in our day than it was with Dickens and Thackeray. . . . These great men are of the past" ("Henry James, Jr.," p. 28). Realism was of the present. Richard Watson Gilder (1844–1909) remarked in an essay several years later (New Princeton Review, 1887), "Realism is, in fact, something in the air which even those who do not think of it by name must necessarily feel" (p. 3). Yet even as the triumph and current predominance of realism were being proclaimed, there was an equally vigorous and vocal countercurrent of critical opinion condemning the new "realistic" literature as unentertaining, immoral (or at least amoral), and even atheistic. The clash between these two sometimes violently opposed camps became known as the "realism war."

Charles Dudley Warner (1829–1900), best remembered as the coauthor of Mark Twain's first novel, The Gilded Age (1873), issued one of the first answering shots, remarking in an 1883 essay titled "Modern Fiction": "One of the worst characteristics of modern fiction is its so-called truth to nature" (p. 464). Art, in Warner's view, requires idealization, but realism prides itself on a "photographic fidelity to nature" (p. 464), which he regards as an insufficient criterion for art. Warner complains that the realists, writing in a style that lacks the elevating enrichment of imaginative seeing, appear intent on representing the most sordid aspects of society: "it is held to be artistic to look almost altogether upon the shady and the seamy side of life, giving to this view the name of 'realism'; to select the disagreeable, the vicious, the unwholesome" (p. 471).

The realism war heated up with the publication of Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), which was viewed by critics, both friendly and hostile, as the purest application to date of the principles espoused by Howells and Perry. As such, it became a center of critical controversy between those who agreed with realist principles and those who opposed them. The novel is set in contemporary Boston, Howells's home base while he was working for the Atlantic Monthly. Its protagonist, Silas Lapham, is a successful businessman who encounters a situation that forces him to choose between his material well-being and his desire to do the right thing. Howells succeeds in embedding a dilemma that calls for heroism within an ordinary, seemingly unheroic context, and in doing so suggests that heroism is not something removed from everyday life. The events of the novel are mundane—business transactions and domestic arrangements—and trace what is in material terms the fall of the protagonist, but the title ironically implies that the rises and falls that matter are the moral ones. Howells's other novels of the 1870s and 1880s, including Their Wedding Journey (1872) and A Modern Instance (1882), follow similar trajectories. James said of Howells, in a piece published in Harper's Weekly in June 1886, "He is animated by a love of the common, the immediate, the familiar and vulgar elements of life, and holds that in proportion as we move into the rare and strange we become vague and arbitrary" ("William Dean Howells," p. 394). In listing Howells's intentions and the qualities for which he was striving, James might also have mentioned a kind of authorial objectivity that would reveal the mixture of strength and weakness typical of actual human beings.

Fellow realist H. H. Boyesen (1848–1895) exclaimed, "In 'A Modern Instance,' and 'The Rise of Silas Lapham,' [Howells] has penetrated more deeply into the heart of reality, as it manifests itself on this side of the Atlantic, than any previous novelist" ("Why We Have No Great Novelists"). A less sympathetic critic calling himself "R. P." conceded in his essay "Novel-Writing as a Science" that Silas Lapham was "the most scientifically realistic novel that has yet been written" (p. 276), that Howells's fictional methods were revolutionary, and that he believed Howells intended his novels to serve admirable purposes. But such a scientific approach was, in his view, "a descent, a degradation" (p. 278). He saw in Howells's novel "the logic of the downward progress of godless science" (p. 279). Howells, according to R. P., studied "men and women as a naturalist does insects. . . . he investigates and expounds his theme with the same soullessness and absence of all emotion" (p. 277).

The editor and literary critic Hamilton Wright Mabie (1845–1916), in his review of Silas Lapham, agreed with R. P. on the matter of soullessness. While granting that the novel was often precise in its depictions, he found that it remained cold, lacking the "vital spark" that brings literature to life. Mabie accused Howells and the other realists of "crowding the world of fiction with commonplace people; people whom one would positively avoid coming in contact with in real life" ("A Typical Novel," p. 423). True art, according to Mabie, reveals spiritual laws and universal facts, embodying them in noble forms. He found in Howells's fiction a "lack of unforced and triumphant faith in the worth, the dignity, and the significance for art of human experience in its whole range" (p. 421). Without this faith, he believed, Howells was unable to communicate a deep feeling for his subject and, thus, "A true art is impossible" (p. 421). For Mabie (and others) the problem was not so much a matter of subject matter or of style, but of the lack of an intention to promote a certain view of the world. In Mabie's view realism was "practical atheism applied to art" (p. 426).

Like Mabie, Maurice Thompson (1844–1901), in The Ethics of Literary Art (1893), perceived a need for what he called a "moral bias" transcending the objectivity that realists like Howells were striving for. Moral bias, he believed, is "the initial impulse" from which "every art movement springs; for it is moral bias that controls every conception of the form and the function of art" (p. 16). However, Thompson suggested that Howells's saving grace, to the extent that he had one at all, was that his novels were not entirely in keeping with the theories he articulated. Thompson, himself a novelist and poet, found in Howells's novels substantial evidence of "romance disguised as realism." In his judgment Howells must not be a realist after all but a Romantic in disguise, since "his literary tissue is healthy, the spirit of his work is even, calm, just, and his purpose is pure." The work of genuine realists, like Émile Zola (1840–1902), he found to be decadent, focusing on "the vulgar, the commonplace, and the insignificant."

The dramatist and biographer William Roscoe Thayer (1859–1923), who held a similar opinion of Zola, coined the term "epidermism" to describe realism in his essay "The New Story-tellers and the Doom of Realism" (1894). He claimed that the French authors and their American imitators investigated "only the surface, the cuticle of life, usually with a preference for very dirty skin" (p. 477). Referring to Howells as one of the epidermists, he condemned Howells's work as photographic reproduction that revealed only the surface appearance and not the meaningful depth of things. Realism/epidermism was doomed, he judged, because the human element was missing; the realists had "mistaken the dead actual for reality" (p. 477). This decadence of fiction could lead only to moral anarchy because "the Real without the Ideal is as the body without life" (p. 480). In the same year, H. C. Vedder, a Baptist clergyman and literary critic, asked, after exclaiming over the flatness of Howells's fiction, "Has he never known anybody who has a soul above the buttons?"

In fairness to the American realists it should be noted that they for the most part shared their attackers' disdain for the "filth" of French realism, especially Zola. Although Thayer rather bizarrely pictured Howells "smacking his lips" over Zola's "filth" during the composition of The Rise of Silas Lapham, Howells actually condemned Zola's uncritical depiction of vice, as did James and Perry. Perry, in "Zola's Last Novel" (1880), maintained that the men and women in Zola's novels were "beasts" and that his work was "more shameless and disgusting than anything in modern literature" (p. 694). Nonetheless, the accusation of moral decadence, carrying over from Americans' shock at such French "realists" as Zola—who are more accurately described as naturalists—continued to be applied to American realists, especially to Howells.

Along with the realists' continued justifications of their methods and theories, there also were some efforts at peacemaking. Gilder proposed that the differences between Romantics and realists had been exaggerated because all fiction contains elements of both: "There are few realists who have no ideality, and few idealists, few romanticists, who do not make use of the real" (p. 1). George Pellew, who had been a student of Perry at Harvard, agreed. In "The New Battle of the Books" (1888), he maintained that the ultimate intentions of Romantics and realists were not significantly different, although they employed different methods. He found that, while the Romantic approached the object as a "mechanical draughtsman" (p. 572) and the realist was like a photographer, both wanted to reveal the truth of the object.


In time the steady attention to truthful reproduction of reality became wearisome even to the realists, who were also troubled by the social-economic turmoil of the 1880s, and—led by Howells, Boyesen, and Hamlin Garland—the turn was made from a nonideological fiction to one intended to foster social progress. The term given to this new direction was "critical realism." Critical realism, which thrived especially in the 1890s, was in some ways a more reasonable application of Howells's and Perry's ideas, because culture-specific fiction is likely to speak more directly to culture-specific issues than to universal concerns. Howells himself was drawn into the notion of fiction as a force for reforming society partly as a reaction to the Haymarket labor riot in 1886, which demonstrated the willingness of those in authority to harshly repress labor uprisings—and in their aftermath showed the general lack of sympathy that Americans held for the plight of the workingman or workingwoman. His response was to turn his attention toward fiction that would show the true complexity of societal problems and in a way that would move people to try to find solutions. A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), which some regard as his best novel, was the most notable result in his own work. Howells was also a mentor to the promising young novelist Stephen Crane and greatly admired Crane's brutal account of life in the urban slums in his first novel, Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893).

Hamlin Garland (1860–1940), another novelist who found a supportive friend in Howells, championed what he called "veritism," a variant of realism that, by its reference to veritas, changed the focus more specifically to truthfulness. In his essay, "Productive Conditions of American Literature" (1894), Garland proposed that "American literature must be faithful to American conditions. . . . It should rise out of our conditions as naturally as the corn grows" (p. 690). This emphasis on "our conditions" reflects his concern with the effects of environment on the individual, and his fiction chronicles the lives of ordinary people making their way under difficult circumstances. Garland was also a local colorist, setting his fiction in what he called the "middle border"—the north central portion of the United States. His best-known work is Main-Travelled Roads (1891), a book of short stories that, like many of his works, exposes the harsh lives led by farmers in the middle border region but finds in those lives a heroism unappreciated by the world at large. His commitment to revealing sympathetically but unflinchingly the grim actuality of his characters' lives is very much in line with Howells's intention in the turn to critical realism. Boyesen, in 1894, judged Garland to be "the most vigorous realist in America" (Literary and Social Silhouettes, p. 77).

Boyesen, a Norwegian immigrant known in his own time as both novelist and critic, believed that American novelists had paid too little attention to the "strong forces which are visibly and invisibly at work in our society, fashioning our destinies as a nation" (p. 46). Like Garland and Crane, Boyesen took a somewhat deterministic view of human conduct, emphasizing its direct relation to environment and heredity, and like other realists he complained about the persistence of sentimentality in American fiction. In an essay titled "Why We Have No Great Novelists" (1887), Boyesen offered the provocative opinion that the market for American fiction revolved around the delicate sensibilities of adolescent girls: "The readers of novels are chiefly young girls, and a popular novel is a novel which pleases them" (p. 616). Thus, the young American girl functioned, in his view, as an "Iron Madonna who strangles in her iron embrace the American novelist" (p. 619). The result was, he thought, an insipid body of literature, momentarily entertaining but reluctant to face issues seriously. But eight years later, perceiving a turn in the direction of critical realism, he offered, in "The Progressive Realism of American Fiction," the judgment that American fiction had "devoted itself to the serious task of studying and chronicling our own social conditions" and consequently "is to-day commanding the attention of the civilized world" (Literary and Social Silhouettes, p. 78).

Another strong advocate of critical realism was the lawyer Clarence Darrow (1857–1938), a real-world activist and defender of those prosecuted in the Haymarket affair. Darrow, in an essay titled "Realism in Literature and Art" (1893), disagreed with Howells's notion of "smiling realism," maintaining, "The true artist has no right to choose only the lovely spots, and make us think that this is life" (p. 118). Rather the novelist should face the ugly truths in the world and, by bringing those truths to the world's attention, contribute to their correction. Instead of beginning with the Romantic faith that the good, the true, and the beautiful inherently coincide, the novelist must work to make them so. He or she must "write and work until the world shall learn so much, and grow so good, that the true will be all beautiful, and all the real be ideal" (p. 118).

The turn to critical realism also brought the realists closer to a contemporaneous literature of social activism directed toward special issues. Rebecca Harding Davis was an early practitioner of such fiction, focusing on issues of gender, race, and poverty, and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, with its debunking of the myths of the happy slave and the benevolent slave-holder, likewise was a precursor of critical realism. The fiction of Charles Waddell Chesnutt (himself an African American) also turned a realistic eye on the life of African Americans in the slaveholding and post-slaveholding South, as did the fiction of George Washington Cable on the mixed racial situation in New Orleans and vicinity. Meanwhile, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Kate Chopin wrote fiction that showcased the problems of women caught in the rigid framework of stereotyped gender expectations.


Just as realism led naturally into critical realism, the same trajectory led logically from critical realism into naturalism—which took the realistic tendency to the opposite pole of Howells's "smiling realism." Writers such as Crane, Frank Norris, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser examined the lives of characters in society's lowest reaches. Whereas realism had tried for a sort of philosophical neutrality, naturalism posited a universe indifferent, or even hostile, to the fate of humanity, and its characters tended to be driven by internal or external forces that they could neither understand nor control. It was, in other words, the philosophical counterpoint to romanticism's belief in the inherent rightness and connectedness of all things. Realism had experimented with an idea of truthfulness that attempted to record the actualities of human experience without fitting them into a preconceived mold. But in the progression to critical realism and then to naturalism, the photographic method fell more and more into the service of the thematizing intention.


Clarence Darrow, a prominent lawyer and social activist, in his essay "Realism in Literature and Art" (1893), maintained that realism does teach morality—a morality that springs naturally from the truthful treatment of its characters and situations. In fact, he suggests that this is the most compelling sort of moral lesson.

The realist would teach a lesson, too, but he would not violate a single fact for all the theories in the world, for a theory could not be true if it did violence to life. He paints his picture so true and perfect that all men who look upon it know that it is a likeness of the world that they have seen; they know that these are men and women and little children whom they meet upon the streets, and they see the conditions of their lives, and the moral of the picture sinks deeply into their minds.

Clarence Darrow, "Realism in Literature and Art," p.109.

See alsoAdventures of Huckleberry Finn; The Ambassadors; The Atlantic Monthly; A Hazard of New Fortunes; Naturalism; The Portrait of a Lady; Regionalism and Local Color Fiction


Primary Works

Crane, Stephen. Maggie, A Girl of the Streets. New York: D. Appleton, 1896.

Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. New York, D. Appleton, 1895.

Garland, Hamlin. Main-Travelled Roads: Being Six Stories of the Mississippi Valley. Cambridge, U.K.: Stone and Kimball, 1893.

Howells, William Dean. A Hazard of New Fortunes. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1891.

Howells, William Dean. The Rise of Silas Lapham. Boston: Ticknor, 1885.

James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1881.

James, Henry. The Two Magics: The Turn of the Screw, Covering End. New York: Macmillan, 1898.

Thompson, Maurice. The Ethics of Literary Art. Hartford, Conn.: Hartford Seminary Press, 1893.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Charles L. Webster, 1885.

Twain, Mark. Sketches, New and Old. Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing, 1875.

Secondary Works

Anesko, Michael, ed. Letters, Fictions, Lives: Henry James and William Dean Howells. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Bell, Michael D. The Problem of American Realism: Studies in the Cultural History of a Literary Idea. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Benardete, Jane, ed. American Realism. New York: Putnam, 1972.

Berthoff, Warner. The Ferment of Realism: American Literature, 1884–1919. New York: Free Press, 1965.

Boyesen, H. H. Literary and Social Silhouettes. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1894.

Boyesen, H. H. "Why We Have No Great Novelists." Forum 2 (February 1887): 615–622.

Cady, Edwin H. The Light of Common Day: Realism in American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971.

Carter, Everett. Howells and the Age of Realism. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1954.

Darrow, Clarence. "Realism in Literature and Art." The Arena (December 1893): 98–113.

Fishkin, Shelley F. From Fact to Fiction: Journalism and Imaginative Writing in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.

Garland, Hamlin. "Productive Conditions of American Literature." Forum 27 (August 1894): 690–694.

Glazener, Nancy. Reading for Realism: The History of a Literary Institution. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997.

Gilder, Richard Watson. "Certain Tendencies in Current Literature." New Princeton Review (July 1887): 1–13.

Greenwald, Elissa. Realism and the Romance: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, and American Fiction. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1989.

Hochman, Barbara. Getting at the Author: Reimaging Books and Reading in the Age of American Realism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.

Howells, William Dean. "Criticism and Fiction." 1894. In Criticism and Fiction and Other Essays, edited by Clara Marburg Kirk and Rudolf Kirk. New York: New York University Press, 1959.

Howells, William Dean. "Editor's Study." Harper's New Monthly Magazine (November 1889): 962–967.

Howells, William Dean. "Henry James, Jr." Century 25 (November 1882): 24–29.

James, Henry. "The Art of Fiction." 1884. In The Art of Fiction and Other Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, 1948.

James, Henry. "William Dean Howells." Harper's Weekly, 19 June 1886, pp. 394–395.

Kaplan, Amy. The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Lathrop, George Parsons. "The Novel and Its Future." Atlantic Monthly 34 (September 1874): 313–324.

Lucie-Smith, Edward. American Realism. New York: Abrams, 1994.

Mabie, Hamilton Wright. "A Typical Novel." Andover Review 4 (November 1885): 417–429.

McKay, Janet H. Narration and Discourse in American Realistic Fiction. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Nagel, James, and Tom Quirk, eds. The Portable American Realism Reader. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Parrington, Vernon L. The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America, 1860–1920: Completed to 1900 Only. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1930.

Pellew, George. "The New Battle of the Books." Forum 5 (July 1888): 564–573.

Perry, Thomas Sergeant. "American Novels." North American Review 115 (October 1872): 366–379.

Perry, Thomas Sergeant. "Ivan Turgénieff." Atlantic Monthly 33 (May 1874): 565–576.

Perry, Thomas Sergeant. Review of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Century Magazine 30 (May 1885): 171–173.

Perry, Thomas Sergeant. "William Dean Howells." Century Magazine 23 (March 1882): 680–685.

Perry, Thomas Sergeant. "Zola's Last Novel." Atlantic Monthly 45 (May 1880): 693–699.

Pizer, Donald. Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966.

Pizer, Donald, ed. The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism, Howells to London. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Pizer, Donald, ed. Documents of American Realism and Naturalism. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998.

Pizer, Donald, and Earl Harbert, eds. American Realists and Naturalists. Vol. 12 of Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982.

Quirk, Tom, and Gary Scharnhorst, eds. American Realism and the Canon. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994.

Rawlings, Peter, ed. Americans on Fiction, 1776–1900. 3 vols. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2002. Contains many of the essays from nineteenth-century literary magazines quoted here.

R. P. "Novel Writing as a Science." Catholic World 42 (November 1885): 274–282.

Smith, Christopher, ed. American Realism. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 2000.

Sundquist, Eric J., ed. American Realism: New Essays. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Thayer, William Roscoe. "The New Story-Tellers and the Doom of Realism." Forum 18 (December 1894): 470–480.

Twain, Mark. "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses." 1895. In The Unabridged Mark Twain, edited by Lawrence Teacher, pp. 1239–1250. Philadephia: Running Press, 1976.

Vedder, H. C. American Writers of Today. New York: Silver Burdett and Co., 1894.

Warner, Charles Dudley. "Modern Fiction." Atlantic Monthly 51 (April 1883): 464–474.

Warren, Kenneth. Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

James S. Leonard


views updated May 29 2018



Realism has become one of the most contested terms in the history of cinema. Cinematic realism is neither a genre nor a movement, and it has neither rigid formal criteria nor specific subject matter. But does this mean that realism is simply an illusion, and that, as Werner Herzog has declared: "the so called Cinéma Vérité iśrité?" Probably not, as realism has been an extremely useful concept for asking questions about the nature of cinematographic images, the relation of film to reality, the credibility of images, and the role cinema plays in the organization and understanding of the world. Realism, at the very least, has been a productive illusion.

In film history, realism has designated two distinct modes of filmmaking and two approaches to the cinematographic image. In the first instance, cinematic realism refers to the verisimilitude of a film to the believability of its characters and events. This realism is most evident in the classical Hollywood cinema. The second instance of cinematic realism takes as its starting point the camera's mechanical reproduction of reality, and often ends up challenging the rules of Hollywood movie making.


In spite of the fact that contemporary film and Greek drama are radically different modes of representation, one model for the rules for realism in movies comes to us from Aristotle's Poetics. In the Poetics, Aristotle staked the success of dramatic representation on what he called the play's probability (eikos). For Aristotle, dramatic action was a form of rhetoric, and the role of the play-wright was to persuade the audience of the sense of devoid of ve reality, or verisimilitude, of the dramatic work. From here flowed rules about characters, the words they speak, and the actions they perform on stage. For characters in a tragedy to be believable, for instance, they must be noble, that is to say slightly more virtuous than the citizens watching the play, and they must act and speak in accordance with their rank in society. If the characters were not more virtuous than the spectators, and if their actions were not consistent with their rank, the audience would feel neither the pity nor the fear, which, for Aristotle, justify the creation of drama. As for events, to be believable they must meet three criteria: 1) they must be logically justified, what today we call this motivation; 2) they must conform to the rules of genre; and 3) they must have, as Aristotle famously said, a beginning, middle, and end.

Aristotle's Poetics is a brilliant defense of the art of fiction and at the heart of this defense is a plea for the importance of verisimilitude. Small wonder, then, that Hollywood plots are so closely tied to Aristotelian notions of believability. As David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson have shown, verisimilitude in Hollywood cinema is supported by very specific forms of filmmaking that have remained remarkably consistent over the years. From George Cukor's Dinner at Eight (1933) to John Ford's The Searchers (1954), the "excessively obvious" style of the classic Hollywood period is bound up with modes of production and with technical or stylistic elements that insure a film's continuity and stylistic transparency. First and foremost, the films that constitute classical Hollywood cinema are driven by narrative causality. More often than not, they center on individual characters, who are often subject to the whims of fate and who undergo dramatic reversals of fortune, even if the films end happily. In Hollywood films, narration is determined by a rigorous chain of cause and effect, with scarcely any room for events that do not, somehow, announce future actions.

Ultimately, for narrative causality to seem real, it must be ushered in by a series of technical elements that maintain the film's continuity. The historical accuracy of wardrobe has long been a key to the realism of Hollywood's period pieces. Extra-diegetic music plays an important role in narrative causality by announcing on-screen action and smoothing over gaps in the narration. Irises, fades, and dissolves serve to mark the passage of time and maintain narrative flow. Match-on-action editing, shot/reverse-shot, the 180 degree rules, and synchronized sound serve to create the illusion of spatial continuity. All these technical elements that dominated classical Hollywood but also regularly appeared throughout the cinema of the world work to make cinematic fiction more believable. Even the star system served to maintain the verisimilitude of a film—central casting and spectators came to expect stars to play certain roles—hero, villain, femme fatale—and attempts to get beyond typecasting were often met with skepticism.

Within the confines of this verisimilitude, Hollywood films have defied the laws of nature, challenged scientific objectivity, and promoted a vision of life as an unending melodrama, but this matters little. Once verisimilitude is established, spectators enter into a rhetorical contract with a work of cinematic fiction wherein, to reprise Samuel Coleridge's formulation, they temporarily suspend their disbelief. Rules of verisimilitude may change over time, but this rhetorical illusion nonetheless helps to explain why spectators in the 1930s felt the frisson of evil when watching The Invisible Man (1933), which seems so dated to contemporary audiences. Understanding the rules of verisimilitude is a key to understanding audience reactions to films.

The term "realism" was first applied to painting and literature in the 1830s to describe new forms of art that developed in parallel with the rise of nineteenth-century democracies and claimed a privileged relation to material reality. If Romanticism glorified the imagination, realism, as Peter Brooks has said "makes sight paramount." Thus the novels of Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850), George Eliot (1819–1880), Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880), and Émile Zola (1840–1902) emphasize description and luxuriate in the details of everyday life. But realism also brought with it new subject matter, in particular the everyday existence of ordinary people, and it closely linked character development to social factors. In painting, Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) first developed this new form of realism, bringing to his canvases a concern for the present, a representation of the working class, a refusal to slavishly reproduce established genres—there are no historical or mythological scenes in Courbet's paintings—a move away from neoclassical idealization of the human body, a representation of bodies at work, and an emphasis on description at the expense of narration.

Nineteenth-century realism was an immensely successful artistic movement. Dominating literature and painting, it spurred scientific positivism and encompassed the invention of photography and film. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that the invention of these forms of mechanical reproduction was less a great technological leap than a symptom of an age when representation of the real became tantamount. Many of the scenes of the early films by Auguste (1862–1954) and Louis Lumière (1864–1948), such as the workers leaving the factory, men playing cards, a middle class family having breakfast, or a barge on a river, could have figured in the pages of a realist novel or the paintings of Edgar Degas, Gustave Caillebotte, or Courbet.


Realism in painting and literature passed on many aesthetic preoccupations to what Siegfried Kracauer called cinema's "realist tendency." First, realist films often define themselves in opposition to dominant commercial cinema. "The American position is the antithesis of our own," wrote Cesare Zavattini (1902–1989) in 1953. "While we are interested in the reality around us … reality in American films is unnaturally filtered." This means that films that inscribe themselves within the realist tendency often challenge the rules of verisimilitude that dominate Hollywood realism. In this sense, realism is often situated somewhere between the codes of classical cinema and the innovation of the avant-garde. Though these kinds of realist films do not entirely do away with plot and plausibility, they often bend the rules of continuity, motivation, and genre that characterize commercial filmmaking. In particular, realist films often include moments of narrative ambiguity that would never be allowed in the classical Hollywood narrative. The scene in Vittorio De Sica's (1902–1974) Umberto D (1952) in which Maria Pia Casilio grinds coffee in the boarding house kitchen does not establish the setting, develop her character, or further the plot; rather, it trades plausibility, motivation, and narrative continuity for what André Bazin called "visible poetry," the lyricism of everyday life.

Wary of Hollywood's "filters," filmmakers in the realist tendency are also suspicious of Hollywood's budgets. One would be hard-pressed to say which comes first, the realist aesthetic or the low budget, but the results are the same. In 1995, the Danish filmmakers of Dogma swore to what they called, in all seriousness, their "vow of chastity," a vow to reject what they considered the technical screens that cinema has imposed between the spectator and "truth." This "vow" serves well to characterize the realist tendency's desire to do more with less. In a sense, the films and manifestos of the realist tendency hark back to the famous imperative of Henry David Thoreau to "Simplify, simplify."

Realism brings to the screen individuals and situations often marginalized by mainstream cinema and society. This is what Raymond Williams has called the "social extension" of realism, its intention to represent not just people of rank but also the spectators' "equals"(p. 63). Realism makes visible unseen groups, and makes audible unheard voices. In this sense, realism has been considered a fundamentally political art form. If cinema participates in the construction of what a society knows and says about itself, realist films make visible individuals and situations previously left unseen. Like the avantgarde, realism invents new configurations of the visible and new forms of representing the real. It is for this reason that a proponent of cinematic realism such as Bazin could tie realism to techniques such as the long take, depth of focus, and panchromatic film. These techniques provide viewers with new ways of seeing the world. So too with the use of non-professional actors. Showing actors, faces, people who had rarely or never been shown on the screen, or who had only been seen through stereotypes, was part of cinematic realism's way of reconfiguring the world. Realism situates its characters socially and economically, and economic hardship is often one of the motivating forces of the realist films' plot, from F. W. Murnau's Tabu (1931) to De Sica's Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thieves, 1948) to Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Rosetta (1999).

Finally, while realist films are not documentaries, they claim a privileged relation to a reality outside of the movie theater. This reality can be defined in a Marxist sense as the economic structures of society or ontologically as the presence of a physical and visible world, but in all cases realism bases its claims on the camera's ability to reveal to the spectator something outside of the screen. Hence, realism's concern with the present. Realism foregoes historical dramas and period pieces in order to focus on the actions of the contemporary world.


For Kracauer, the realist tendency begins with the very first cinématographes of the Lumière brothers. Kracauer opposes the Lumières' realism to the "formative" tendency of their contemporary Georges Méliès (1861–1938), but he also insists that the Lumière films are not just documentaries. Many of these short films, such as L'Arroseur arrosé, were staged performances. Still, Kracauer was making a "medium specific argument" in that the Lumières not only invented cinema but exploited its specific attribute: to record and reproduce the world around us.

Bazin traces the origins of the realist tendency in fiction films to the works of Erich von Stroheim (1885–1957) and F. W. Murnau (1888–1931), films that he opposed to the more formalist works of Soviet cinema and to the polished works of 1930s Hollywood. Murnau began his career as one of the leading innovators of German expressionism, directing the classic Nosferatau, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror) in 1922. Despite its melodramatic quality, Tabu relied on non-professional actors, including Tahitians in important roles, location shooting, and a sparse use of titles. In addition, Murnau weaves into the plot the economic reality and colonialist exploitation of the pearl trade.

While Murnau was filming Tabu in the South Pacific, a movement known as "poetic realism" began to take shape in France. Starting in the early 1930s, films such as Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934); Marie Epstein's La Maternelle (Children of Montmartre, 1934); Jean Renoir's Toni (1935), Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (The Crime of Monsieur Lange, 1935), and La Bête humaine (The Human Beast, 1938); Julien Duvivier's Pépé le Moko (1937); and Marcel Carnés Le Jour se lève (Daybreak, 1939) constituted one of the most successful movements in European cinema. Poetic realism may be seen as realist in its refusal of some of the conventions of Hollywood (most notably the happy end), its strong sense of place (which included both location shooting and the sets of designers such as Alexandre Trauner [1906–1993]), its tackling of the social questions of the day (such as unemployment, poverty, and alcoholism), and its depiction of the lives of the working poor. As early as 1930, Jean Vigo (1905–1934), director of L'Atlante, had called for a social cinema that would reject both the Hollywood romance and the "pure cinema" of the avant-garde and instead be "continuously replenished by reality" (p. 60). The skipper of a river barge, Italian immigrant workers, laundresses, mechanics, a melancholy sand blaster, were the subjects of poetic realist films. The actor Jean Gabin (1904–1976) was in the paradoxical position of having become the most famous male star of French cinema in large part thanks to roles where he played downtrodden and ill-fated workers. Poetic realism may sound like a contradiction in terms, but for its advocates and practitioners the French movement exemplified realism's basic tenet that creating new, lyrical forms of representation was the best way to create new forms of visibility and new ways of thinking about the world.

Certainly this credo was one of the forces behind Italian neorealist cinema. As different as the Italian neorealist movies were, films such as Roberto Rossellini's (1906–1977) Rome, città operta (Rome, Open City, 1945), Paisà (Paisan, 1946), Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero, 1948), and Europa '51 (The Greatest Love, 1952), De Sica's The Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D (1952), Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (Obsession, 1942) and Terra trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948), and Alberto Lattuada's Senza pietà (Without Pity, 1948) all clearly belonged to and helped reignite the realist tendency in post–World War II Europe.

With few exceptions, Italian neorealism set its characters in the historical and economic reality of postwar Europe: Germany Year Zero shows us the effects of Hitlerism on a young boy in a rubble-filled Berlin. De Sica's Sciuscià (Shoe-Shine, 1946) builds its plot around the American occupation of postwar Europe. The very plot of The Bicycle Thieves is driven by the poverty of postwar Italy. If Antonio Ricci, the main character of The Bicycle Thieves, is so distraught when his bicycle is stolen, it is because this bicycle is the key to his livelihood. In this movie, De Sica and his screenwriter Zavattini (1902–1989) insisted upon giving us the figures we need to understand the poverty affecting Antonio: we hear that a bicycle costs 6,500 lire and that Antonio receives 6,000 lire for the first two weeks of work. Italian neorealism was an intensely materialist mode of filmmaking.

Some scholars have argued against understanding Italian neorealism as a radical break with the past. After all, Cinecittà, the famous studio where some of these films were shot, was inaugurated by Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in 1937, and the Alfieri Law of 1939, which granted government subsidies to filmmakers, was still in effect after the war. Furthermore, De Sica, Zavattini, and Rossellini all got their start in the film industry under the fascist regime, and some of their films still have recourse to the standard techniques of melodrama that dominated pre-1944 Italian cinema. Still, it is difficult to confuse neorealist films with the high society dramas that preceded them. Neither the so-called telefoni bianchi ("white telephone") films nor, for that matter, the Hollywood films that replaced them on Italian screens after the war, had much patience for economic depression and gloomy outsiders. Neorealist films quite consciously set themselves in opposition to more mainstream cinema, a tendency metaphorically expressed in the scene in The Bicycle Thieves when Antonio never quite manages to do his job of putting up Rita Hayworth publicity posters.

b. Paris, France, 15 September 1984, d. 12 February 1979

French director, screenwriter and actor, Jean Renoir is one of the most original filmmakers in the history of French cinema. A poet of realism and a master of artifice, a revolutionary and a classicist, he is a key figure in the history of European modernism. Renoir has influenced filmmakers as varied as François Truffaut and Robert Altman, Satyajit Ray, and Wes Anderson.

Though he made some ten silent films, Renoir hit his stride with the arrival of sound. The savagely witty Boudu sauvé des eaux (Boudu Saved From Drowning, 1932) was a biting satire of the duplicitous French bourgeoisie. With the creation of films such as Toni (1934), Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (The Crime of Monsieur Lange, 1936), and La Marseillaise (1938), Renoir participated in the struggle for workers' rights that culminated in the Popular Front in June 1936. But even at their most political, Renoir's films are also meditations on artistic performance. He often preferred actors trained in the music hall tradition and his films often include a theatrical representation of some sort. Even as politically committed a film as The Crime of Monsieur Lange, which depicts the creation of a worker's collective, centers around a fantasy cowboy melodrama titled Arizona Jim. La Grande illusion (The Grand Illusion, 1937), starring Jean Gabin and Erich von Stroheim, remains Renoir's most widely seen film. A condemnation of war, this film also reveals Renoir's ideas about the role of performance in the construction of national and social identities.

With La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939) Renoir created one of the great works in the history of cinema. Often cited as a masterpiece of realism for its use of dolly shots, depth of focus, and outdoor photography, Renoir's film is a complex portrait of a society ruled by social masks and illusions. It was an incredibly bold film to make on the eve of World War II.

Exiled from Nazi-occupied France in 1940, Renoir made several films in Hollywood, including The Southerner (1945) in collaboration with William Faulkner. In India after World War II, Renoir filmed The River (1950), which although it has been criticized for its colonialist point of view, nevertheless, is intent upon showing the complexity of human relations caught in a moment of national upheaval.


Nana 1926, La Chienne (The Bitch, 1931), Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), Toni (1934), The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), Une Partie de Campagne (A Day in the Country, 1936), Les Bas-fonds (The Lower Depths, 1936), La Bête humaine (The Human Beast, 1938), La Grande illusion (The Grand Illusion, 1937), La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939), The Southerner (1945), The River (1951), The Golden Coach (1953), French Can Can (1955), Elena et les hommes (Elena and Her Men, 1956), Le Petit Théâtre de Jean Renoir (The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir, 1970)


Bazin, André. Jean Renoir. Edited with an introduction by François Truffaut. Translated by W.W. Halsey II and William H. Simon. New York: De Capo, 1992.

Bergan, Ronald. Jean Renoir: Projections of Paradise. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1994.

Braudy, Leo. Jean Renoir, The World of His Films. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

Faulkner, Christopher. The Social Cinema of Jean Renoir. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Renoir, Jean. My Life and My Films. Translated by Norman Denny. New York: Atheneum, 1974. Translation of Ma vie et mes films (1974).

Phil Watts

It is not just the glamour of Hollywood that Italian neorealism defied. This movement also challenged the laws of verisimilitude that dominated commercial cinema. The Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D both rely upon the thinnest story lines. About Umberto D, Zavattini said that he had wanted to make a film about nothing. In Germany Year Zero there is no plot to speak of, and viewers can only speculate about the motivation for Edmund's suicide at the end. Plot is not entirely absent from these films, but they all de-emphasize the logical sequence of events in order to develop the characters' discovery of the material reality that surrounds them.

The realist tendency, while international in scope, develops within national cinematic contexts. Certainly this is the case with the British New Wave and social realist cinema. British realism, which harkens back to the documentary movement of the 1930s, has flourished from the 1950s to the present in films as varied as Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1958), Poor Cow (Ken Loach, 1967) and Career Girls (Mike Leigh, 1997). These films tend to have relatively low budgets and to share such qualities as an emphasis on location, the use of unknown and non-professional actors, an intention to educate, and a focus on marginal characters and social problems. For all their differences, Ken Loach's (b. 1936) made-for-TV film Cathy Come Home (1966) and Stephen Frears's My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) have in common the desire to show the faces of individuals that had been kept off the screens of Britain up to that point: a woman and her family pushed into poverty and homelessness in Cathy Come Home, and the son of South Asian immigrants in love with a British punk in My Beautiful Laundrette. These claims to a privileged relation to reality have been contested, however. Scholars have criticized British social realism of the 1960s for its masculine, patriarchal point of view.

The idea that cinematographic realism is tied to political struggle has inspired national cinemas emerging in the wake of European colonialism. The Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene (b. 1923), for instance, perceived his work as a tool for representing the new African reality, seeing film as a mirror for self-understanding and empowerment. In place of the Hollywood and French jungle melodramas through which colonialist ideology imposed itself, Sembene made pared-down films in which characters are set in the economic and social reality of contemporary Africa. Films such as La Noire de … (Black Girl, 1966), Xala (Impotence, 1975), Guelwaar (1992), Faat Kiné (2000), and Moolaadé (2004) are not strict realist works. Sembene often includes elements of melodrama and even musical comedy that might irk purists. But the films' sparse style, their open-ended plots, their refusal of standardized forms of cinematic production, and especially their intense social criticism, situate them within the realist tendency.

The same desire to counter colonialist representations motivated the early realist work of Satyajit Ray (1921–1992) in India. According to what has now become legend, during a trip to London, Ray saw some 90 films in two months. Of all the films he saw, De Sica's The Bicycle Thieves left the greatest impression and pushed Ray to start making his own, based on the credo that "the filmmaker must turn to life, to reality. De Sica and not Cecil B. DeMille, should be his ideal." And so, in films such as the "Apu Trilogy"—Pather Panchali (Song of the Road, 1955), Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956) and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959)—Ray's camera reveals the daily life of a family struggling against poverty in post-independence India. His straightforward style shared neorealism's openness to the everyday world.


Film critics and theorists have long given their intellectual support to the practice of realist filmmaking. For Rudolph Arnheim, writing in the early 1930s, film offered the possibility of "the mechanical imitation of nature" in which original and copy become indistinguishable in the eyes of the public. Yet it was Bazin who, a decade later, would transform the mechanical reproduction of the cinematic image into a prophecy. A prolific critic, Bazin is best known for his defense of cinematic realism. For Bazin, what filmmakers as different as Robert Bresson (1901–1999), De Sica, Renoir, Rossellini, and Orson Welles (1915–1985) had in common was a desire to put cinema at the service of what Bazin called a fundamental faith in reality. The credibility of a film did not come from its verisimilitude but from the identity between the photographic image and its object. In "The Ontological Realism of the Photographic Image" (1945), Bazin sketches a brief history of art, in which he identifies cinema as the fulfillment of the human craving for realistic representation. Cinema's mission was thus to fulfill this goal. For Bazin, realism was a style whose chief elements were the long take, deep focus, limited editing and, when possible, the use of non-professional, or at least relatively unknown actors. Realism for Bazin was both the essence of cinema—its ontology—and a rhetoric whose keys were simplicity, purity, and transparency.

In 1960, two years after Bazin's death, Kracauer continued and radicalized Bazin's project in his book Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. Like Bazin, Kracauer argued that of all the arts, film is uniquely qualified to record physical reality. Kracauer conceded that many films combine realist with formalist tendencies, but he concluded the films that make us "experience aspects of physical reality are the most valid aesthetically." Thus for Kracauer, the best moment in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948) is not Shakespeare's text, or Olivier's acting, or even his direction, but a moment when the camera, almost by inadvertence, frames a window of Elsinore castle and lets us see the "real ocean" in all its force (p. 36). In his previous book, From Caligari to Hitler (1947), Kracauer traced the rise of Nazism through the psychological terror of German expressionist cinema. It is possible his conclusions for the redemption of physical reality through cinema were a reaction against films whose formalism he deemed tainted by its association with totalitarianism and racism. For, in the end, the realist tendency is a form of humanism. In Kracauer's vision, cinema's ontological realism reasserts the fundamental equality of all before the camera.

Philosopher Stanley Cavell also has argued for the ontological realism of cinema, even though his main references are the films of classical Hollywood. For Cavell as for Bazin and Kracauer, the basis of the film medium is photographic. A photograph, and by extension film, always implies the presence of the rest of the world. Film "displaces" people and objects from the world onto the screen. This is not only proof, for Cavell, of film's ontological realism, it is also the beginning of our reconciliation with the world. Movies permit us to view the world unseen, at a distance, and this sets in motion the intellectual process that will bring us back to the world and will reaffirm our participation in it. More than any other film critic or theorist, Cavell insists that film's fundamental realism makes it an art of contemplation, an intellectual and spiritual exercise meant to restore our relation to the world.

Also among the proponents of the realist tendency are a number of figures associated with left-wing politics. From Williams to Zavattini, from Walter Benjamin to Loach, the realist tendency has often been tied to forms of democratic thought for two reasons. First, realism tends toward a Marxist critique of illusion. The Marxist critique of forms of art that obfuscate economic and social inequalities resonates with filmmakers, technicians, and writers for whom cinematic realism is way of cutting through the artifice of standard cinema. This does not mean that Communist filmmakers had a privileged access to truth, but rather that because they put their faith in what Bazin called the "ontological realism" of the image, realist films could perform the type of demystification often associated with leftist intellectual goals. Not coincidentally, two of Bazin's wittiest articles—"Entomology of the Pin-Up Girl" (1946) and "The Myth of Stalin in the Soviet Cinema" (1950)—are clever attacks on the ideological mystifications in films coming from Hollywood and Moscow, respectively.

The second reason to associate the realist continuum with a reflection on democracy is its tendency to give equal time to anonymous voices and unknown faces. Hollywood films may have regularly put ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, but did so through a codified system of well-known actors and stereotypes. Realism's desire to show what had heretofore remained invisible challenges such images and the values that underlie them. To take just one example, Gillo Pontecorvo's La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers, 1965) is considered by many to be one of the last instances of Italian neorealism. But of all the realist techniques that Pontecorvo (b. 1919) uses, the most radical departure of the film, at least for European audiences, was his decision to show the faces and amplify the voices of the Algerian men and women who had led the Algerian revolution. The realist tendency is not sociology; rather, it sees itself as a democratic form of art.


In the 1850s, the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) condemned realism as a "war on imagination." In the 1960s, cinematic realism came under sustained attack for being an imaginary construct. This attack took several forms, all of which argue against the ontological realism of cinema. Realism, in these views, was nothing more than the product of what Roland Barthes called a "reality effect." The realist tendency may very well have been associated with leftist politics, but for all these critics and scholars its insistence upon the transparency of the cinematographic image was little more than a pernicious bourgeois illusion.

b. Angers, France, 8 April 1918, d. 11 November 1958

Fifty years after his death, André Bazin remains the world's most important film critic and theorist. Bazin started writing about film in Paris in 1943 and went on to produce an extremely varied and prodigiously enthusiastic body of work. During his short career, he authored nearly 3,000 articles, published in a variety of journals, including, most famously, Cahiers du cinéma, which he cofounded in 1952. An indefatigable defender of filmmakers such as F. W. Murnau, Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, and Roberto Rossellini, Bazin also influenced a generation of French filmmakers who cut their teeth as critics at Cahiers du cinéma and went on to become the French New Wave, including François Truffaut to whom he was mentor and adoptive father.

Bazin wrote about such varied topics as Hollywood westerns and musicals, theater, film, and animation, but he is best remembered for his spirited defense of realism. In his famous article, "The Ontology of the Photographic Image" (1945), Bazin presented his core argument for cinematographic realism: photography and cinema allow a mechanical reproduction of reality unseen in any previous art form. Photography differs from painting in that it produces not a likeness, but the object itself snatched from "the conditions of time and space that govern it."

For Bazin, this realism was enhanced through certain stylistic techniques and choices, including its tendency toward on-location shooting, which helped confirm the existence of a world beyond the screen. Deep focus and minimal editing promoted an ambiguity of vision that more closely resembled the spectator's perception of reality. According to Bazin, films that use depth of focus allow the spectator's eye to wander around the picture and to determine the importance of each object on the screen. Starting in the late 1960s, theorists under the influence of Lacanian psychoanalysis and Louis Althusser's Marxism argued that what Bazin called realism was nothing more than an illusion. More recently, the philosopher Noël Carroll has judged that Bazin's realism is based on logically inconsistent assumptions about resemblance.

Throughout his essays, Bazin tied the films he loved most to a form of asceticism. This austerity was a way of cutting through the rhetorical artifice that had invaded commercial cinema and modern life itself. The cinematic image, for Bazin, allows just enough detachment for us to contemplate the mysteries of the world, whether they take the form of "a reflection on a damp sidewalk," the pockmarks on a character's face, or Ingrid Bergman walking through the ruins of Pompeii.


Andrew, Dudley. André Bazin. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Bazin, André. Bazin at Work: Major Essays and Reviews from the Forties and Fifties. Edited by Bert Cardullo. Translated by Alain Piette and Bert Cardullo. New York: Routledge, 1997.

——Cinema of Cruelty: From Buñuel to Hitchcock. Edited with introduction by François Truffaut. Translated by Sabine d'Estrée. New Haven: University of Connecticut Press, 1985. Translation of Cinéma de la cruauté (1982).

——French Cinema of the Occupation and the Resistance: the Birth of a Critical Esthetic. Translated by Stanley Hochman. New York: Ungar Press, 1981. Translation of Cinéma de l'occupation et de la résistance (1981).

Phil Watts

Perhaps the most systematic questioning of the premises of realism came from Christian Metz, a film scholar who had studied with Barthes. Metz argues that realism and its attendant belief in the transparency of the photographic image is an illusion. Borrowing from semiotics and psychoanalysis, Metz sets out to show that the cinematic image brings together a series of visual, musical, and verbal codes that the spectator then deciphers in an attempt to make meaning. Film and the photographic image do not provide any type of direct access to the real, according to Metz, but are rather one instance of a symbolic system whose model is language. Resemblance, in this view, is based upon codes and conventions; the screen is not a window onto the world, but a mirror, reflecting back to spectators their own ideologies and sense of identity. Metz's radical reformulation of cinema spectatorship coincided with the writings of Marxists, working at Cahiers du cinéma and of feminist cinéphiles associated with the British journal Screen. For critics such as Jean-Louis Comolli, realism was simply a bourgeois ordering of the world that served to maintain capitalist ideology, while for British feminist scholar Laura Mulvey realism, as all film forms, is structured by the unconscious of patriarchal society. Mulvey insists that film should not be understood as a record of reality, but rather as a reorganization of reality in a way that is fundamentally unjust to certain people, most particularly women and minorities because of its informing patriarchal ideology.

A more formalist questioning of the tenets of the realist tendency has been offered by theories of intertextuality. Basing themselves on the findings of Russian formalists and French theorists, proponents of an intertextual approach see film not as an opening on the world, but as a series of references to other films and other works of art. Michael Iampolski, for instance, describes films as a series of "quotes" that interrupt the narrative and send the spectator back to other texts. Spectators understand what they are watching by patching together all these references, not by referring to a world off-screen. For the analytic philosopher Nelson Goodman, realism is entirely relative to the culture from which it issues. "Realistic representation," writes Goodman, "depends not upon imitation or illusion or information but upon inculcation." Bazin's belief that cinema's ontological realism opened up the world as it is, reveals itself, in Goodman's argument, to be a culturally biased conception.

The most recent questioning of the realist tendency has come from cognitive film theory, in particular its consideration of digital images. A strictly Bazinian approach would view computer-generated imagery (CGI) as a form of animation or painting. But for Stephen Prince, CGI poses new challenges to realism and the theories of resemblance on which it is based. For Prince, it no longer makes sense to think of an image or a sequence in a film as either realist or formalist. Whether they are watching documentaries, epics, or romantic comedies, individuals make meaning out of films in much the same way, basing their evaluations on the same set of assumptions, visual cues, and experiences.

All these critiques of realism have almost put the ideal of film out of reach as a threshold to the world. Still, certain movies have recently renewed with the realist tradition, while at the same time developing reflection on the status of the image. The American director Charles Burnett (b. 1944), whose works include Killer of Sheep (1977) and To Sleep with Anger (1990) claims that the films of Italian neorealism and the work of Renoir made possible his own filming of the stories of African Americans today. In films such as Bread and Roses (2000) and Sweet Sixteen (2002), Loach has maintained a fidelity to the political project and the stylistic innovation of British social realism, all the while foregrounding the politics of representation. In Belgium, the Dardenne brothers have made films such as La Promesse (The Promise, 1997) and Rosetta, effectively employing the hand-held camera, minimal makeup, relatively unknown actors, and the natural lighting of cinéma vérité. Richard Linklater's Slacker (1991) is a series of seemingly random long takes offering both a portrait of Austin, Texas and a subtle reflection on how images organize the world around us. And in films such as Nema-ye Nazdik (Close Up, 1990) and Ta'm e guilass (Taste of Cherry, 1997), Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami (b. 1940) has tied realism's revelation of the world to a meditation upon the filmmaking process by which this world is framed, captured, and constructed.

SEE ALSO Expressionism;Ideology;Marxism;Narrative;Neorealism


Arnheim, Rudolph. Film as Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.

Barthes, Roland. "The Reality Effect." In The Rustle of Language, translated by Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Bazin, André. What Is Cinema, 2 vols. Edited and translated by Hugh Gray, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Brooks, Peter. Realist Vision. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

Cavell, Stanley. The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Iampolski, Mikhail. The Memory of Tiresias: Intertextuality and Film. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Kracauer, Siegfried. Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960; reprinted, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

MacCabe, Colin. "Theory and Film: Principles of Realism and Pleasure." Screen 17, no. 3 (Autumn 1976): 7–27.

Metz, Christian. Film Language: A Semiotics of Cinema. Translated by Michael Taylor, New York, Oxford University Press, 1974, reprinted by University of Chicago Press, 1991. Translation of Essais sur la signification au cinéma.

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen 16, no. 3 (Fall 1975): 6–18.

Nelson, Goodman. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968.

Prince, Stephen. "True Lies: Perceptual Realism, Digital Images, and Film Theory." Film Quarterly 49, no. 3 (Spring 1996): 27–38.

Williams, Christopher, ed. Realism and the Cinema: A Reader. London: Routledge, 1980.

Williams, Raymond. "A Lecture on Realism." Screen 19, no. 1 (Spring 1977): 61–74.

Zavattini, Cesare. "Some Ideas on the Cinema" (1953). In Film: A Montage of Theories, edited by Richard Dyer MacCann, 216–228. New York: Dutton, 1996.

Phil Watts


views updated May 11 2018



Realism as a nameable phenomenon in Western thought and culture emerged in France during the mid-nineteenth century. Primarily a movement in art and literature, it claimed to represent common people and their everyday circumstances based on accurate observation. Realism challenged centuries of tradition, when the highest art aspired to idealized pictorial forms and heroic subjects. Supporters of realist art considered its veracity to be an indication of an artists sincerity, a moral judgment. It acquired a democratic political dimension from its inclusiveness and from the accessibility of its imagery to ordinary people unversed in the classics but capable of recognizing truth. These appeals were informed by progressive attitudes and an empirical concept of knowledge, as in the social theories of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) and the scientific epistemology and the positivist philosophy of Auguste Comte (1798-1857). The leader of artistic realism was the French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877). Its advent revolutionized the history of art, leading to impressionism. In literature, various writers represented realism, from Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) to Henry James (1843-1916). Unlike in art, literary realism was rarely self-conscious or polemical.

The movement realism must be distinguished from the generic term realism the latter an aspect of much art and literature throughout time. In its general meaning, the word can refer to an optical or descriptive realism, in which forms or details appear to be drawn from life or produce an illusion of reality. In art, this type of realism is an ingredient in the high classicism of the Greek age of the Parthenon, in Roman portraiture, in certain Renaissance and Baroque styles, in Pre-Raphaelitism, and in photorealism, among many others. In literature, it is an aspect in certain passages of Homers Iliad, in the early novel generally, and in the provincial settings of Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) or the urban settings of James. Indeed, in literature, prose generally developed as a realist genre, as opposed to epic or lyric poetry. In theater, realism was associated primarily with comedy, whereas tragedy was considered more ideal. Following a related hierarchy, realism in art developed in opposition to academic classicism, which looked back to antiquity and the conventions of the French classical theater of Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) and Jean Racine (1639-1699) for its idealist forms.

The realism movement was a response to two interrelated factors. On the one hand, there was an increasing demand for rational and eventually scientific empiricism, which since the Enlightenment had been regarded as intellectually and socially progressive. The invention of photography in 1839, which introduced a new standard for optical realism, can be considered in the light of the same spirit, for there would otherwise have been no incentive or use for it. Second, the same rationalism encouraged the rights of the individual against both coercive political regimes and their art academies. Realism represented a rebellion, said to be grounded in truth, against academic recipes and conventions. When Courbets paintings of 1849 to 1855 made such attitudes militant, he adopted the term realism, which was being used by both his critics and supporters. A later term, naturalism, was developed as a more scientific-sounding, less-politicized alternative by the French novelist Émile Zola (1840-1902) and the art critic Jules Castagnary (1830-1888).

Realisms most coherent artistic manifestation occurred in mid-nineteenth-century France. It followed romanticism, which was already encouraging artistic freedom and self-expression, with artists looking to nature as their source. In his Realist Manifesto (1955), Courbet stated his aim as: to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch according to my own appreciation (Rubin 1997, pp. 157-158). Linking a faithful portrayal of his times with artistic independence (from teachings based on imitations of classical art), he made both elements the basis for the movement of which he became the undisputed leader. In the 1840s, Courbets generation drew on two related artistic trends. First was the Barbizon school of landscape painters, who studied people and places from a recognizable countryside, usually near Paris. Second was the recent popularity in literature and art of rural and provincial life. As a contrast to urban materialism and its inequities, the virtues and innocence of country folk were extolled in novels by George Sand (1804-1876) and stories by Courbets friend Champfleury (Jules Husson, 1821-1889). Painters like the Leleux brothers and Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) embodied this ethos in their representations of peasants. In addition, simple, often crude folk art and poetry were admired as naive expressions of popular culture and the working class.

The difference between Courbet and these artists was that, beginning with his Stonebreakers (1849, destroyed during World War II), the people, places, and activities in Courbets paintings appeared specifically contemporary, devoid of antimodern nostalgia, whereas his predecessors evoked a timelessness associated with romantic innocence and virtue. Courbets workers alluded to the harsh conditions of the 1840s, when failing harvests drove many off the land into day-wage labor, providing raw materials for modern roads, railroads, housing, and industry. A Burial at Ornans, painted in 1850, showed a ceremony outside Courbets hometown in the region of Franche-Comté near Switzerland. Against their rugged landscape, some thirty odd friends and neighbors gathered at the open grave of a respected citizen. Courbet portrays death as a prosaic, literally down-to-earth event whose meaning goes no further than laying the body in the ground. The huge canvas with life-sized figures flaunted Courbets challenge to assumptions about what was worthy of large-scale artistic representation, and his ostensibly coarse technique evoked a workers handicraft. Combined with their ostensible politics, the lower-class content and unrefined surfaces of his paintings caused a scandal. In 1855 Courbet challenged authority in a solo exhibition outside the grounds of the Universal Exposition. The central painting in his Realist Pavilion was The Studio of the Painter, in which he showed himself at the easel, supported by friends on the right and facing on the left a mix of figures embodying various ideas he considered outdated. The purpose of this much-interpreted painting was a declaration of both artistic freedom and solidarity with his own community.

Similar scandals shook the realm of literature. Earlier in the nineteenth century, Stendhal (Henri Beyle, 1783-1842) began the study of contemporary manners as a way to expose hypocrisy. In 1856 and 1857 respectively, Flaubert and the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) were brought to trial for offending public morality. Flauberts novel Madame Bovary (1856) was about an adulterous housewife bored by her conventional husband. Poems from Baudelaires Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) were often set in contemporary Paris and sometimes described erotic experience in a highly suggestive manner. A decade later, Zola considered his own novels analytic. In a preface to his notorious murder story Thérèse Racquin (1867), he compared his way of representing subjectsan adulterous woman and her lover plotting to murder her husband to the scientific analysis performed by surgeons in medical dissections. In his art criticism, Zolas interpretation of the painting of Édouard Manet (1832-1883) was similar. Calling Manet a child of his times, in which the direction was toward positivism, Zola praised the artists Olympia (1863-1864), a painting of a naked prostitute that was obviously meant to shock. Zola wrote that this picture, drawn from modern life, was sincerely observed by a dispassionate artist whose sole interest was to observe forms, colors, light, and shade.

Realism was associated with impressionism when the latter first appeared, since impressionism took up the commitment to modern life and contemporary manners flaunted by Manet and the contemporary novel. The young Claude Monet (1840-1926) was friendly with and drew upon Courbet and his technique, as did several other impressionists. Their imagery ranged from sailboats, promenades, and other forms of modern leisure to representations of industrial riverbanks, railroads, and factories. But the greater legacy of realism was to free artists to paint sincerelythat is, from their personal vision, which they indicated by a highly individualized style, often loosely handled as if the performance of representation were as important as the subject matter being painted. Hence, impressionism, praised by many for capturing the reality of a fleeting moment, contained the seeds of the demise of realism. The artifice of its execution was in constant tension with its illusion of the real. Yet realism successfully undermined doctrinal academicism once and for all by legitimizing images of modern life, heroic or anecdotal, rural or urban, and painted in whatever way the artist chose. It even entered sculpture, though as a more literal medium sculpture was far less challenging to traditional modes of representation than was painting, until the liberties with form taken by the impressionist sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917).

Russian linguist Roman Jakobson (1896-1982) theorized that at the core of realism in art and literature is metonymy, a mode of figuration in which the part stands for the physical whole. The metonym is opposed to metaphor, in which an object stands for an idea; it is, in other words, a wholly concrete means of expression. Roland Barthes (1915-1980), in his famous short essay The Reality Effect (1968), pointed out that a profusion of observed detail in the realist novel slows the narrative, making it seem to advance almost unnoticeably, as if in real time, and making it appear to be the result of the concrete context established by such extensive description. In realist and impressionist painting, a sense of materiality and a dispersion of interest were achieved by a profusion of detail and a fragmentation of form across the entire image, along with subject matter from everyday modernity. Such painting was often compared to photography, the latter considered no more than a mechanical exercise, devoid of imagination and creativity. Painting was expected to emphasize certain truths in order to uplift and educate its audience, whereas photographys lack of selectivity made the edges of a composition as interesting as the center and seemed to negate the possibility of moral content.

The response to realism by establishment artists was to employ their labor toward a finished optical realism, as in the work of Léon Bonnat (1833-1922), or to incorporate occasional free paint handling, as did Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884). In other countries, realism reinforced existing trends in genre painting, as occurred in Holland (e.g., Jozef Israëls [1824-1911]) and England. The macchiaioli movement in Italy paralleled realism and impressionism, especially in outdoor scenes. Verismo in opera followed later, near the turn of the century. In Germany, where Courbet was popular, realist images acquired a grander scale and avant-garde technique, as seen in the work of Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900) and Max Liebermann (1847-1935). Artists in the United States adopted realism, as exemplified by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), then impressionism, as national styles, although usually without the avant-garde connotations. Later realisms, such as in Richard Estess displays of photograph-like technique or Eric Fischls suburban psycho-realism, were often ostentatious. Even in politics, first with Klemens von Metternich (1773-1859) in Austria, then with Willy Brandt (1913-1992) in Germany, there emerged a so-called realpolitik that looked to facts on the ground rather than ideology for its goals. Whatever its manifestations, then, realism continues to have a grip on consciousness thanks to its claim to represent reality truthfully, compared to forms of thought that defy material verification.

SEE ALSO Naturalism


Auerbach, Erich. 1953. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Becker, George J., ed. 1963. Documents of Modern Literary Realism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Nochlin, Linda. 1971. Realism. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.

Rubin, James H. 1997. Courbet. London: Phaidon.

Rubin, James H. 1999. Impressionism. London: Phaidon.

Weisberg, Gabriel P., ed. 1981. The Realist Tradition: French Paintings and Drawings, 1830-1900. Exhibition catalog. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Museum of Art.

James H. Rubin


views updated May 14 2018


Realism, in the language of modern and contemporary philosophy, is a general theory concerning the relationship between the mind of man and what is commonly called reality. Because of this, a doctrine affirming or denying realism pertains to the branch of philosophy known as epistemology, which treats of the subject of knowledge. Although philosophers are not in agreement as to whether epistemology is a philosophical discipline distinct from metaphysics, the nature of the subject under discussion permits one to abstract from this question. In any event, the epistemologist must ultimately square his conclusions about knowledge with his metaphysics of being.

Realism vs. Idealism. In its broadest terms, realism asserts that the ultimate factor or principle in being is not the mind of man, but rather what exists in reality beyond the mind or "outside" the mind. The word "outside" is not here taken in a spatial sense, as though the mind were located within the human brain and reality were situated outside it. Although this may be true in a qualified sense, spatial localization has little to do with the meaning the Western philosophical tradition has given to extramental reality. Nor must realism be taken to imply that the contents understood by the mind are real and the mind itself is not. Realism, in its many forms, does not deny the reality of mind in order to assert the reality of what is not mind. On the contrary, realism maintains that the term of the act of knowing is not to be identified with that very act. Knowledge is always about something that is not itself knowledge. Hence realism attributes an independent existence to the term of knowledge. In a word, realism maintains that there is a world and that the function of the mind consists primarily in coming to terms with that world in order to understand it as it is in itself.

In its most general notion, realism is opposed to idealism. Idealism, prescinding from differences existing between idealist philosophers, maintains that the ultimate principle from which philosophy takes its point of departure is mind, whether mind is differentiated into individual intelligences or is itself an undifferentiated principle. Idealism therefore asserts that reality issues forth from intelligence or from spirit, and is ultimately nothing more than a dimension of that same spirit. The idealist begins with the "I" thinking reality, whereas the realist affirms that thinking or knowing depends upon the reality known or thought.

Absolute Realism vs. Nominalism. Historically, such differences did not arise as a result of the modern idealist-realist controversy but as a result of a controversy that centered around the status of universals. The dispute originated in Greek philosophy, and its underlying presupposition is the evident truth that man possesses universal concepts or networks of meaning that are applicable indifferently to many subjects of judgment. What, precisely, is the status of "man" as predicated of John and of Paul? The answer of plato gave birth to what the philosophical tradition of the West calls absolute realism (Soph. 242264B; Parm. ). Reasoning from the data at hand, Plato concluded that both John and Paul participate in a common meaning designated by the word "man." But since no individual man exhausts the meaning of man, this intelligibility or form cannot be identified with either John or Paul. Plato's problem hinged upon his having to discover the status of a predicate that is participated among many subjects. He concluded that meanings or forms (ideas) have an absolute status quite apart from the things that participate in them. He thus postulated two orders of reality: an order of absolutely real being that corresponds to the judgment of identity, "A is A "; and an order of second-rate reality that imperfectly shares in the being of the forms and that corresponds to the judgment of participation, "A is B. " In the latter judgment the predicate is not identified completely with the subject. What is most important for an understanding of Plato's absolute realism in his contention that the universal concept in all its universality is being, and that the role of the mind is reduced to ascertaining this being.

Plato's doctrine entered into early medieval philosophy through the writings of boethius and through the Isagoge of porphyry; here it was opposed by nominalism, which asserted a position in flat contradiction to that of Plato. Nominalism in its earlier phase is associated with abelard, and in its later stages with william of ockham. Whereas Plato had attended to the evident reality of meanings in things, nominalists looked to the evident reality of singularly existing things. Outside the mind there simply are no universal realities. The universal, by definition, is a community of meaning predicable of many singulars. But a community of meaning can never be found in actual existence. Man never encounters the universal. Arguing thus, and urged on by their insistence that only the singular is real, nominalists concluded by denying any reality whatsoever to the universal. The universal was reduced to the spoken or written or imagined word, which itself is singular. Thus all meaning disappeared from the universe. The more sophisticated nominalism of the 20th century, associated with logical positivism, states that universals are convenient tools with which man organizes the continuum of sensation. But all nominalists, both medieval and modern, agree that universal meaning has no extramental or metaphysical status whatsoever.

Conceptualism and Scotism. conceptualism is a position between that of absolute realism and nominalism. While granting that the mind does in fact possess universal ideas, conceptualism maintains that there is no basis outside the mind for this universality. The universal serves as an instrument for grouping singular objects. Conceptualism thus bears an affinity to both nominalism and to logical positivism.

A late medieval attempt to close the gap between Platonic absolute realism and the nominalistic insistence upon the ultimate reality of the singular was that of John duns scotus. While agreeing with Plato that the form or idea has an extramental or metaphysical status, Scotus took account of the irreducibility of the singular to the universal. The form of man, let us say, must receive the additional form of "thisness" (haecceitas ) or of individuality that seals reality and binds existent meaning to this concrete singular reality. The difficulty in Scotus's position would seem to reside in the impossibility of conceiving a form that is a form and at the same time individual.

Aristotle's Moderate Realism. The realism of Aristotle, as distinguished from that of Plato, is usually called moderate realism. The Aristotelian critique of Platonic realism can be divided methodologically into two moments, one experimental and the other metaphysical (Cat. 210; Meta. 101718; Part. animal. 642b644b). In the order of experience man does not discover universals as he discovers things. Slavery is not experienced, but rather slaves. It follows that Plato's theory of participation is useless in man's search for the universal.

Induction and Abstraction. For Aristotle, the universal emerges in the mind as the result of an accumulation of experience that serves to form an induction. When the experience in question is sufficient, the universal is produced by an intellectual power or faculty known in the scholastic tradition as the agent intellect. The universal, being the product of an act of mind, is made by the mind; therefore its metaphysical status as a universal is owed strictly to the intellect. But the mind is able to form the universal, and thus predicate it of the singular, because within reality itself there is a basis or foundation for the universal. This foundation is the energizing principle that organizes each thing, giving it consistency and direction or finality. Aristotle called this principle the form. Form in extramental reality is always individualized by matter, which functions as a passive limitation upon form. Granted that forms are repeated throughout nature, the basis for the universal is reality itself, and reality as form or as act.

Ultimately what separates Aristotelian from Platonic realism is Aristotle's insistence that human knowledge is basically abstractive, and that abstraction depends upon a series of confrontations or experiences with reality through the medium of the senses. For Plato knowledge is basically intuitive, and hence proceeds from the general to the particular, at least ideally.

Objections to Plato. Aristotle's metaphysical objection to Platonic realism rests upon Aristotle's conviction that nature is essentially active or dynamic (Meta. 1013a1017a). Even if there were Platonic ideas, these could not explain a changing universe. What does not initiate activity does not itself have being. The Aristotelian form not only structures a thing; it is its internal energy or actuality. Since Plato's ideas do not do anything, they are incapable of serving as a basis for such explanation. The Platonic form is, however, a model or an exemplary cause; as such, it does have meaning in a world of art where the carpenter, for example, fashions a chair from the preexistent idea of chair that he entertained (see exemplary causality). In the world of art and technology, the idea precedes the reality; in this order Plato's theory of participation applies with perfect justice. But the world of nature would seem to correspond more closely to the Aristotelian position.

Inherent Difficulties. Aristotle's realism nonetheless contains a number of difficulties that were pointed out by both nominalists and realists during the famous medieval controversy. The chief difficulty in Aristotelian moderate realism is one of explaining how the selfsame form can exist in two orders of reality, in extramental being as actuality and in the mind as universality. The difficulty is rooted in Aristotle's theory of being. For Aristotle, being is ultimately reducible to substance, itself a composition of an active principle (form) and a passive principle (matter). Being must serve to answer the question "what is a thing"; and this "what" (quiddity) or essence is ultimately the form as related to matter. But if being is substance, and especially substance as form, there is no difference between the being of a man and that man himself (Meta. 1003b 28). How then is it possible that man "be" (i.e., exist) in the mind, if being is defined as identical with substance?

Aquinas's Moderate Realism. The metaphysics of St. thomas aquinas is probably the most ambitious attempt within Western philosophy to preserve the doctrine of moderate realism by surmounting difficulties of this type. While conserving in its fullness Aristotle's notion of substance as composed of matter and form, as well as the Aristotelian theory of abstraction, St. Thomas Aquinas made important emendations in the Aristotelian doctrine relating to being. His principal contribution in this area was the clear and explicit distinction he introduced between essence and existence (see essence and existence).

Since essence (and therefore form) is not identically its own existence, nothing prohibits the selfsame form from existing in different individuals. The form remains identically the same within any given species, while it is existentially diverse because of its different acts of existing. Thus the form that exists singularly in the order of being can come to exist within the human intelligence as universal. The latter special mode of existence is known within Thomism as intentional existence [see Y. R. Simon, Introduction à l'ontologie du connaître (Paris 1934)].

Within a Thomistic context, intentionality must not be thought of simply as an act of being. Intentional existence does not make a thing exist; rather it makes a thing be known. The knower is thus literally the thing known; yet the union between them is not physical. Neither knower nor thing known loses its proper identity in the world of being. The act of knowledge is thus conceived to be a relational act; the term of the relation is the reality grasped in knowledge.

Critical Realism. The moderate realism of Aristotle and the medievals was challenged first by the nominalism of Ockham and others, and then in the Renaissance by René descartes. The position of Descartes may be identified as a critical realism, an attempt to justify realism on grounds that belong strictly to the intelligence. Strongly influenced by the success of mathematics in reducing the complex to the simple, Descartes professed a systematic and universal doubt about everything he had hitherto accepted as true, and then proposed to remove that doubt through the application of mathematical methods. Fixing upon the irreducible certitude of the "I" or ego, the existence of which cannot be doubted, Descartes wished to proceed from the ego to the world, rather than from the world to the ego. This marked a radical departure from the Thomistic and Aristotelian contention that man's knowledge of self, as revealed in his consciousness, is a consequence of the knowledge he already possesses of the world.

Descartes established his realism by direct appeal to divinity; for him, the idea of God, whose existence is guaranteed by an identification of His perfection with the concept of existence or being, combines with the fact of experience to prove the existence of the world. All men reason spontaneously to the being of the world from the sensations they possess. The only adequate cause of these sensations is the things represented by them. God's veracity guarantees the validity of the reasoning process, because God would not permit the whole human race to be deceived.

Critical Idealism. The critical realism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was an attempt to improve the Cartesian thesis by transcending its weakness. Nevertheless, Descartes's realistic intentions were soon absorbed into the idealism of the classical German philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Immanuel Kant affirmed the extramental reality of the world, but he denied that there was any necessary relationship between such reality and the laws of the mind. He admitted that the human intelligence is forced to think in terms of the law of causality, which declares an inexorable link between propositions and ideas. But, for him, causality itself is not found in reality; rather, the real is made up of discrete elements that are not related by causal necessity. Nature contains no laws within itself. Law, being universal and necessary, comes from reason and is thus prior to experience. Kant, of course, did speak of a "thing-in-itself" beyond experience. But this escapes the order of judgment, which is restricted, according to him, to the phenomena of experience; the mind ought therefore not to affirm or deny the existence of the "thing-in-itself." Kant's critical idealism, itself containing a minimum of realism, was thereupon expanded into the absolute idealism of J. G. fichte and G. W. F. Hegel, which denied the "thing-in-itself" as superfluous.

The realist objections to the Kantian position can be stated under two headings. (1) Kant's sharp opposition between the phenomena, or the events of experience that are always singular, and the noumena, or laws of the mind that are always universal, is itself an opposition between two mental concepts. The universal is not opposed to the singular, except logically; rather the universal is discovered by the mind in the singular. Realism thus denies the basis upon which Kant built his system by denying an existential opposition between singularity and the universality. Universality is grounded in form or actuality; this is always individuated in matter, before the mind abstracts its formal intelligibility and sees it as a complexity of meaning common to many things. (2) The Kantian insistence that human knowledge is restricted to phenomena introduces a distinction between "things-in-themselves" and "things-in-man's-sensibility" that is purely assumed and in no sense evident.

Nonscholastic Realism. Contemporary nonscholastic realism has taken many forms, most of which reflect the influence of Kant and his insistence that law belongs to the mind and not to things. Thus H. bergson and W. james reduce the mind to a tool that is capable of working out human problems but is incapable of coming to grips with reality itself. Reality must be grasped, according to Bergson, by an intuition that bypasses the logical structure of the intelligence. A similar philosophy has been developed by George santayana. Asserting the reality of the idea as of an essence given whole and entire to the human intelligence, Santayana asserts that the reality of the existent is accepted on a purely animal faith. It follows that the less existence an idea or an essence has, or the less it is involved in the world, the more real it becomes. Santayana's explanation through animal faith, while differing in many respects from the phenomenology of F. brentano, E. husserl, and M. scheler, has in common with this doctrine a realism of essence that prescinds from a realism of existence. From a scholastic point of view the realist philosophies proffered by G. E. Moore, B. russell, A. N. whitehead, S. alexander, and N. hartmann also force an excessive separation between essence and that of existence.

Modern existentialism has attempted to surmount the traditional opposition between realism and idealism by its insistence upon the truth that man always encounters himself within a world. This situation of "being-in-a-world" belongs to the very constitution of man, who, for M. heidegger, is a project or a "being-towards-and-ina-world." It is impossible to conceive of man and of the world in isolation; man and world essentially involve one another.

The criticism leveled against realism by these thinkers is prompted by the basic realist contention that the world is not man. Existentialists deny the supposed opposition, and thus claim to have transcended the dispute between idealism and realism. The strength of the existentialist position would seem to reside in its insistence that man is meaningless apart from the world, a thesis that seems, however, to strengthen rather than weaken the realist position. The ambiguity in the existentialist transcendence of both realism and idealism is located in the concept of world. If this means a related, meaningful whole, actually intelligible or known, then the existentialist notion of world corresponds roughly to the realist. But if world is taken to exclude actual intelligibility, then the existentialist position can be reduced to an idealism, and thus it in no sense transcends the dispute between realism and idealism.

See Also: knowledge, theories of; aesthetics.

Bibliography: f. d. wilhelmsen, Man's Knowledge of Reality (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1956). f. van steenberghen, Epistemology, tr. m. j. flynn (New York 1949). j. maritain, Distinguish to Unite: The Degrees of Knowledge, tr. g. b. phelan (New York 1959). b. j. f. lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (New York 1957). l. m. rÉgis, St. Thomas and Epistemology (Milwaukee 1946). e. h. gilson, Le Réalisme méthodique (Paris 1936); Réalisme thomiste et critique de la connaissance (Paris 1939). i. m. bocheŃski, Contemporary European Philosophy, tr. d. nicholl and k. aschenbrenner (Berkeley 1956). f. h. parker, "Realistic Epistemology," The Return to Reason, ed. j. d. wild (Chicago 1953). m. m. gorce, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350) 13.2:18331910. a. colombo and v. mathieu, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 3:18891901. r. eisler, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe, 3 v. (4th ed. Berlin 192730) 2:62225.

[f. d. wilhelmsen]


views updated May 23 2018


Realism was a movement in nineteenth century Western culture that claimed to represent ordinary people and their everyday reality based on accurate observation. It challenged centuries of tradition when the highest art aspired to idealized pictorial forms and heroic subjects. Supporters considered its visual veracity to be an indication of an artist's "sincerity." Realism acquired a democratic political dimension from its inclusiveness and the accessibility of its imagery to ordinary people unversed in the classics but capable of recognizing "truth." Its moral appeal was informed by progressive attitudes and an empirical concept of knowledge. Social theory and scientific epistemology, as in the writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (18091865) and Auguste Comte (17981857), converged in what was called Positivism. The leader of artistic Realism was the French painter, Gustave Courbet (18191877). Its advent revolutionized the history of art.

The artistic movement Realism must be distinguished from "realism"the latter an aspect of most figurative art throughout time. In its general meaning, the word can refer to optical realism (in which forms or details are based on nature, as in Pre-Raphaelitism or Photo-Realism); psychological realism (in which sometimes distorted forms convey emotion, as in Expressionism); or illusionism (in which careful technique makes even imagined forms seem present, as in Surrealism). Realism paralleled the invention of photography in 1839, which introduced a new standard for optical realism while also being a technological response to the same conditions as artistic Realism. A later term, Naturalism, was developed as a more scientific-sounding, less politicized alternative by the novelist Emile Zola and the art critic Jules Castagnary.

Realism's most coherent artistic manifestation was in mid-nineteenth century France. It followed Romanticism, which encouraged artistic freedom and self-expression, looking to nature as their source. In his Realist Manifesto, Courbet stated his aim as: "to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch according to my own appreciation." Linking faithful portrayal of his times with artistic independence (from teachings based on imitations of classical art), he made both elements the basis for the movement of which he became the undisputed leader.

In the 1840s, Courbet's generation drew on two related artistic trends. First was the Barbizon School of landscape painters, who studied people and places from a recognizable countryside, usually near Paris. Second was the recent popularity in literature and art of provincial and rural life. As a contrast to urban materialism and its inequities, the virtues and innocence of country folk were extolled in novels by George Sand and stories by Courbet's friend Champfleury (Jules Husson). Painters such as the Leleux brothers and Jean-François Millet embodied this ethos in their representations of peasants. In addition, simple, often crude folk art and poetry were admired as naïve expressions of popular culture and the working class.

The difference between Courbet and these artists was that, beginning with his Stonebreakers (1849, Dresden, Kunstmuseum, destroyed, World War II), Courbet's people, places, and activities appeared specifically contemporary, devoid of anti-modern nostalgia, whereas his predecessors evoked a timelessness associated with Romantic innocence and virtue. Courbet's workers alluded to the harsh conditions of the 1840s, when failing harvests drove many off the land into day-wage labor. They were providing raw materials for modern infrastructureroads, railroads, housing, and industry. Courbet's direction was encouraged by the left-wing Revolution of 1848, and thereafter his work was associated with Socialism.

A Burial at Ornans (Paris, Musée d'Orsay) painted in 1850, showed a ceremony outside Courbet's hometown in the region of Franche-Comté, near Switzerland. Against their rugged landscape, some thirty odd friends and neighbors gather at the open grave of a respected citizen. Courbet portrays death as a prosaic, literally "down-to-earth" event whose meaning goes no further than laying the body in the ground. Lacking the traditional apparatus of pictorial composition or religious interpretation, Courbet's picture would normally have been considered a genre paintinglower on the scale of values than academic history painting. His rows of mourners seemed merely additive rather than dramatically coherent, hence related to folk imagery. Yet the huge canvas with life-sized figures flaunted Courbet's challenge to assumptions about what was worthy of large-scale artistic representation, and his ostensibly coarse technique evoked a worker's handicraft. Both the Stonebreakers and the Burial earned Courbet heated criticism, making him a public figure and Realism a powerful force.

In 1855, Courbet challenged authority in a solo exhibition outside the grounds of the Universal Exposition of 1855. The central painting in his "Realist Pavilion" was The Painter's Studio (Paris, Musée d'Orsay) in which he showed himself at the easel, supported by friends on the right and facing on the left a mix of figures embodying various ideas he considered outdated. The purpose of this much-interpreted painting was a declaration of artistic freedom, accompanied by the "Realist Manifesto," mentioned earlier.

Elsewhere, Courbet declared "Realism is the negation of the ideal" and that through it, he would "arrive at freedom." He saw Realism as a liberation of human consciousness from false ideology in order to take control of one's destiny. His ideas drew on the writings of his countryman and acquaintances, the radical philosopher Proudhon, who introduced materialist social thought to France in the 1840s, at the same time as Karl Marx's early writing.

Realism was associated with Impressionism when the latter first appeared, since Impressionism took up the commitment to modern life and contemporary surroundings. Edouard Manet was guided by these principles, although he looked to the example of Spanish realism and concentrated on urban leisure rather than rural labor. The young Claude Monet was friendly with and drew upon Courbet and his technique, as did several other Impressionists. But the greater legacy of Realism was to free artists to paint "sincerely,"from their personal vision. Realism successfully undermined doctrinal academicism by legitimizing images of modern life, heroic or anecdotal, rural or urban, and painted as the artist chose. Realism even entered sculpture, as in the work of Jules Dalou.

The response of establishment artists was to employ their labor toward a finished optical realism, as in Léon Bonnat, or to incorporate occasional free paint handling, as did Jules Bastien-Lepage. In other countries, Realism reinforced existing trends in genre painting, as in Holland (such as Jozef Israëls) and England. I Macchiaoli in Italy paralleled Realism and Impressionism, especially in outdoor scenes. Verismo in opera followed later. In Germany, where Courbet was popular, Realist images acquired a grander scale and avant-garde technique, as in William Leibl and Max Liebermann. The United States adopted Realism, as in Thomas Eakins, then Impressionism, as national styles, though usually without the avant-garde connotations. Later Realisms were often ostentatious, as in Richard Estes's displays of photograph-like technique, or Eric Fischl's Suburban Psycho-Realism.

Courbet's militancy during the Paris Commune led to exile in Switzerland, where he died. In an effort to rehabilitate him, writers even during his lifetime minimized Realism's politics in favor of an aesthetic of the sincere and natural eye. Around the mid-twentieth century, Meyer Schapiro and Linda Nochlin pointed out the historical origins of Realism, with its links to popular imagery and Dutch art implying its democratic cast. Nochlin's general book on Realism remains the standard. In the mid 1970s, Marxist art historian T. J. Clark's work on Courbet and his contemporaries faced the political issues directly, launching a revitalization in art history referred to as the Social History of Art. Since then, various noted scholars have sought to rehabilitate as Realists the many painters of contemporary life who were overshadowed by Courbet.

Whatever its manifestations, Realism continues to have a grip on consciousness thanks to its claim to represent "reality" more truthfully than other forms of art.

See also Impressionism ; Naturalism ; Naturalism in Art and Literature ; Periodization of the Arts .


Clark, Timothy J. Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the Second French Republic, 18481851. London: Thames and Hudson, 1982.

Herding, Klaus. Courbet: To Venture Independence. Translated by John William Gabriel. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991.

Nochlin, Linda. Realism. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1971.

Rubin, James Henry. Coubert. London: Phaidon Press, 1997.

Seigel, Jerrold E. Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life. New York: Viking Press, 1986.

Weisberg, Gabriel P., ed. The Realist Tradition: French Painting and Drawing, 18301900. Cleveland, Ohio: Cleveland Museum of Art; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.

James H. Rubin


views updated May 17 2018


Realism is the doctrine that existence is separate from conceptions of it. People may think and talk of different entities, but the entities themselves have a reality that is logically independent of thought and language. This may seem a matter of common sense; surely chairs and tables do not exist only in so far as one thinks of them, or perhaps perceives them. People do not conjure things into existence through their minds, in the way that dreams create a world that vanishes when one wakes up. Yet to appeal to common sense is to appeal to the philosophical views of previous generations that have gained common currency. The position itself needs some philosophical justification. Dr. Samuel Johnson is supposed to have dealt with Bishop George Berkeley's idealism by simply kicking a stone and exclaiming "I refute it thus!": This is hardly an argument.

Contention with idealism

Realism is in fact most often opposed to idealism. The latter claims that all reality is a construction out of mental processes. As Berkeley (16851753) said in his Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, "To be is to be perceived." In other words, what exists does so because it is perceived, and is not perceived because it exists. The latter would be the realist position. Yet Berkeley's position not only makes all reality mental, it also restricts what can exist to what is within the range of someone perceiving it. Berkeley met this by appealing to the omniscience of God, so that everything is perceived by God, and therefore exists. The danger is that God is removed from the picture; this is a move empiricism tends to encourage. The view then becomes one that ties reality to actual or possible human experience. This, in turn, makes reality anthropocentric. What humans cannot perceive cannot exist. Since contemporary physics wishes to deal with subatomic particles and other unobservable entities, such as, say, the interior of a black hole, this does not seem to give an adequate account of the assumptions of present-day science.

Although realism may be classically opposed to idealist tying of existence to mind, realism comes in many shapes and sizes. It can be a global, metaphysical doctrine, or it can be limited to particular areas of human activity. One could be a realist about the objects of scientific investigation, but not about the concerns of morality. The main point of realism, though, is always to pull apart the fact of existence from issues concerning how anyone can know what exists. Ontology and epistemology should not be confused. (So-called critical realism tends to link the two). The metaphysical realist will stress the objectivity of the "world" or whatever exists. It cannot depend in any way on the way people think about it or discover it. Even scientific realism may seem realist in its insistence on the independent reality of the objects of science. It can, however, become antirealist when it asserts that only the objects of science can exist. In other words, existence is then restricted to what lies within the scope of actual or conceivable science. Because that must be human science, reality is being artificially restricted to what is within the scope of human capabilities to discover.

Ontological bases of science and religion

The focus of realism must always be reality, and not issues of how one can come to know reality. Otherwise questions about existence become changed into questions about human abilities. What lies beyond human abilities cannot even be conceived to exist. A major motive for scientific research is the knowledge of human ignorance. The world is not limited to present knowledge, nor to what people are able to discover. This becomes of crucial importance in the field of religion, which is normally understood as attempting to talk of what is transcendent, or ontologically separate, from the world with which people are normally familiar. Empiricist philosophy from the time of David Hume (17111776) has attempted to restrict language to what is within human experience. This is always to change the subject from reality to human knowledge. Yet realism cannot rest content with metaphysical assertions about the status of reality. A reality to which people are oblivious is no better than nothing at all. Ontology needs epistemology: It is just not identical to it.

Both science and religion need a strong realist underpinning. They must be about something. Science has to assume that it is investigating a world that has an independent existence. Otherwise it is a mere social construction reflecting the conditions of particular societies at a particular time. Similarly, any religion must assume that it is concerned with a reality that is not the creation of human imagination. Theism must have a realist outlook. It is making claims about an objective reality that are contradicted by atheism, itself also a realist view. Indeed, if God or other spiritual realities are mere projections of human thought or language, religion is guilty of a massive bout of wishful thinking. If the realities described do not actually exist, there is no ground for any cosmic optimism. The antirealist may complain that this is already assuming a realist interpretation of religion. Yet, the idea that neither religion nor science engage with anything beyond themselves seems to negate their most important function of claiming truth. If they are conceived of as conceptual schemes, practices, or forms of life, with no external justification, there seems no point in taking part in them. There can be no justification or reason for being religious, or doing science.

According to realist understanding, however, there is an independent world for both science and religion to relate to. Moreover, each purports in various ways to describe parts of the same objective world. This in itself provides sufficient ground for trying to show connections between the two. Whatever their distinctive methods, one can not rule out either the possibility of conflict or of mutual support. For example, if this is God's world, this might give an explanation for the inherent order and regularity, which science needs to assume, in order to generalise from particular findings.

See also Critical Realism


altson, walter. "realism and the christian faith." international journal for philosophy of religion 38 (1995): 1-3, 37-60.

hick, john. an interpretation of religion. london: macmillan, 1989.

phillips, d.z. "on really believing." in wittgenstein and religion. london: macmillan, 1993.

phillips, d. z. "philosophy, theology, and the reality of god." in wittgenstein and religion, london: macmillan, 1993.

polkinghorne, john c. beyond science. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 1996.

runzo, joseph, ed. is god real? new york: st. martin's press, 1993.

trigg, roger. reality at risk: a defence of realism in philosophy and the sciences, 2nd edition. hemel hempstead, uk: harvester wheatsheaf, 1989.

trigg, roger. rationality and religion: does faith need reason? oxford and malden, mass.: blackwell publishers, 1998.

roger trigg


views updated May 18 2018

realism In everyday use realism is commonly attributed to caution, or moderation in one's aspirations—the converse of utopianism. The word is also used to describe a variety of approaches in literature and the visual arts in which accurate depiction of reality is the aim. Each of these uses involves a contrast between human thought or imagination, on the one hand, and an external reality independent of mind, on the other. The notion that reality has a cognitive or normative authority over the mind is also generally present. In philosophy, realism signifies the assertion of the existence of a reality independently of our thoughts or beliefs about it. Controversy has centred especially on the question of whether universals (for example properties such as ‘redness’ or ‘softness’) really exist, or whether they are functions of our use of language (‘nominalism’).

Realism as a metaphysical doctrine is challenged by a range of sceptical arguments. Both in classical Greek philosophy and in the early modern period, sceptical arguments commonly began by appealing to our experience of such phenomena as dreams, illusions, and hallucinations, in which our senses mislead us. Since this does, unquestionably, sometimes happen, how do we know that it does not always do so? How can we be sure that, on any particular occasion, what we seem to observe may not turn out to have been illusory? More recently these arguments have been supplemented by analogous challenges to our ability to secure reliable reference to external reality in the use of language. Since we have no access to the world that is not mediated by thought or language, what independent check have we upon the reliability of what we think or say?

Such sceptical arguments do not necessarily lead to a denial of a reality independent of thought. It is possible to hold that there is a such a reality, but that we cannot know its nature (or, perhaps, that we cannot know that we know). More commonly, such epistemological scepticism lapses into phenomenalism, solipsism, or some other form of denial of the existence of a reality independent of mind, thought, or language.

In the philosophy of science, empiricists tend to be sceptical about the existence of the entities (many of them unobservable) postulated by scientific theories. On this view, the concepts of such entities are just convenient summaries of actual or possible observations, or grounds for prediction. Scientific realists, on the other hand, argue that the theories in question should be understood as claiming existence for the entities (sub-atomic particles, retroviruses, or whatever) they postulate. These claims may, of course, be either true or false. Many sociological opponents suppose that scientific realists are committed to an uncritical acceptance of the knowledge claims of science. This is not so. They are, rather, committed to an interpretation of those claims as claims about the nature of a reality which exists and acts independently of our knowledge or beliefs about it. Realists may be as sceptical as anyone else about whether those claims are true. The problem for the anti-realists is to make any sense at all of what science is about; and, in particular, of what it might be for scientific knowledge-claims to turn out to be false.

The leading British figure in the late twentieth-century revival of realist metatheory in philosophy and the social sciences is Roy Bhaskar. He and his associates have recently developed a form of scientific realism (variously termed ‘transcendental’ or ‘critical’ realism) which is offered as a comprehensive alternative to both empiricism and conventionalism in the philosophy of science. (The reference to critical is intended to indicate that the pursuit of knowledge is or should be emancipatory.) Activities such as scientific experimentation and the application of scientific knowledge are held to be unintelligible except on the assumption of a world independent of our beliefs about it. It is also necessary to distinguish the real causal powers and mechanisms of which science seeks knowledge, from the actual flow of events triggered by the activity of these mechanisms. The actual must, in turn, be distinguished from the empirical—that small sub-set of events which are observed by someone. Bhaskar claims that this view of science is applicable to both the human and the natural sciences in a way which is able to take fully into account the radical differences in the natures of their objects. Chief among his many publications are A Realist Theory of Science (2nd edn. 1978), The Possibility of Naturalism (1979), Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation (1986), and Reclaiming Reality (1989).


views updated May 18 2018

re·al·ism / ˈrēəˌlizəm/ • n. 1. the attitude or practice of accepting a situation as it is and being prepared to deal with it accordingly: the summit was marked by a new mood of realism. ∎  the view that the subject matter of politics is political power, not matters of principle: political realism is the oldest approach to global politics.2. the quality or fact of representing a person, thing, or situation accurately or in a way that is true to life: the earthy realism of Raimu's characters. ∎  (in art and literature) the movement or style of representing familiar things as they actually are.Often contrasted with idealism (sense 1).3. Philos. the doctrine that universals or abstract concepts have an objective or absolute existence. The theory that universals have their own reality is sometimes called Platonic realism because it was first outlined by Plato's doctrine of “forms” or ideas. Often contrasted with nominalism. ∎  the doctrine that matter as the object of perception has real existence and is neither reducible to universal mind or spirit nor dependent on a perceiving agent. Often contrasted with idealism (sense 2).DERIVATIVES: re·al·ist / ˈrēəlɨst/ n.