Notebook, 1993-



The introduction/Realism, from Ellmann, Richard and Charles Feidelson, Jr, eds. The Modern Tradition, Backgrounds of Modern Literature. New York: Oxford University Press. 1965.


The Introduction to this section is presented below [notes have not yet been transcribed]. The following is a list of the articles presented in this section of The Modern Tradtion on Realism:



Historical Determinism

Natural Determinism

Melioristic Realism

Socialist Realism

A New Realism

Realism - Introduction
In all schools of realism objectivity of some kind is a main tenet. The realist, in his most elementary guise, wishes to present "reality" by allowing characters and events to appear in his work with as little sign of his personal intervention as possible. While he does not deny the imaginative faculty, he often minimizes its importance. Opposing symbolist predilections for an esoteric subject-matter, for perfection of form, and for an elite audience, the realist offers his work as a means of communication among men, dealing with large subjects in a comprehensible way, form subordinated to content. Frequently he upholds a theory of historical or natural determination to explain the objective conditions that control both his characters and himself as writer.

George Eliot proclaims the duty of the novel to describe the commonplace, even though that may be unbeautiful, because the only thing worth portraying is what really is. She commends the Dutch painters for their affectionate interest in homely scenes. Her form of realism may be considered one of love in that it offers its attention and sympathy particularly to imperfect beings, those neglected by "romantic" art. Bernard Shaw asserts with more impatience the writer's obligation to expose the falsity of ideals--glorified conventions which, though some may have had an original usefulness, are now coercive and destructive. Responding strongly to Ibsen's influence, Shaw instructs the artist to let in fresh air by unmasking pretense, by freeing himself and his readers from allegiances which are the more absurd the more high-minded they pretend to be. Flaubert and Chekhov are less polemical than Shaw in their advocacy of realism. Flaubert affirms that the writer must describe what he detests with utter accuracy and, since society will be sure to object, heroic honesty. Chekhov agrees that the dunghill may be a necessary subject for the artist, who must always defeat the inclination in himself and others to prettify and conceal. Instead of the social conscience which underlies Shaw's attitude, Flaubert and Chekhov have a kind of aesthetic conscience which obliges them to be realists.^

A conception of man as the prey of circumstances has had an imaginative [p. 229] attraction for modern writers, including both artists and critics. Balzac framed his Human Comedy as an almost scientific classification of human types, comparable to zoological varieties among the lower animals. Men are modified by a combination of nature and social conditions. As he says elsewhere, "Tell me what you possess and I will tell you what you think."

Literature is the history of manners, and the writer is not a creator but a secretary to society. But Balzac allows some room for the self-direction of individuals, and is not so strict a determinist as he sometimes seems to claim. Taine made an equally elaborate and more dogmatic effort to represent man as a convergence of forces rather than a self-mover. In his History of English Literature he studies literature as a "transcript" of contemporary manners. Rejecting the picture of the artist as isolated and godlike, arbitrarily composing autonomous works, Taine finds the writer to be shaped by three factors. These are his race, with its inherited characteristics; the milieu in which he lives; and the moment of history when he appears. Influences such as climate, geographical position, political situation, and social conditions are among the operative forces which oblige an artist to write in his distinctive way. Taine's metaphors are often mechanical: the race is an inner mainspring, the milieu is pressure from without, the moment is the impulsion already acquired. Behind the work of art lies the man, and behind the visible man is the invisible man, whose traits in turn are the product of the three forces which stand behind him. Flaubert, though not altogether hostile to this reduction of individual authority, resisted TaineÍs theory as a deprivation of the last vestiges of freedom which the imagination could claim. He thought the theory could explain only a writer's general characteristics, never the special features which constituted his individuality.

The form of determinism that appears in some of Tolstoy's writings is closer to Taine than to Balzac. For Tolstoy men are instruments of history, sums of tendencies that emerge in them inexorably. Napoleon, who prided himself on being the master of events, was as much their plaything as his lowliest soldier. But whereas Taine thinks the causes of each human action can be minutely ascertained, Tolstoy explicitly denies this possibility. History moves too mountainously, he thinks, for this to be possible. Tolstoy implies that the surrender of the egoistic will, and the submission to the larger will of humanity [or, it may be, of God] as embodied in historical forces, is the restricted form of our possible freedom. The heroes of his fiction are those who surmise their almost involuntary places in this great scheme.^

A second school of realists also acknowledges the force of determinism, but of a naturalistic rather than historical kind.^ Man is nature's creature. In his youth Theodore Dreiser came painfully to the belief that man could only be [p. 230] regarded as a function of nature, manipulated without consideration. The human image, as it appears in naturalistic fiction, is often that of the helpless victim. This image can be represented most sharply in "the lower depths" of society, where helplessness is magnified by economic stress. An early pronouncement of the naturalists, the preface by the brothers Goncourt to Germinie Lacerteux, sees the novel as a clinic specializing in the diseased conditions of the lower classes, and conducted in the hope that sympathy may be aroused for curing those conditions.

This theory is carried to its outward bound in Zola. Developing the Goncourts' clinical metaphor, with some appeals to Balzac's theories, Zola proposes to apply to the human animal the experimental method of the natural sciences, and especially that of medicine.^ He scoffs at the notion that there may be reaches of the mind not subject to such investigation or somehow undetermined. The mind is now seen to be a part of the body: "Metaphysical man has given way to physiological man." He wishes to reveal the mechanism which sways animate beings as well as inanimate things. Zola rebuffs the charge that he advocates photographic realism. It is true that the experimental method begins with what has been observed and may require a special investigation of a particular set of circumstances. But it proceeds then to modify or vary phenomena so as to study them more perfectly; having done so, it directs the phenomena to their necessary conclusion on the basis of probability and of nature's "fixed laws." A fictional situation is such an experiment, and the novel a laboratory [the naturalists' counterpart to the symbolists' labyrinth].

Zola agrees with the Goncourts that the ultimate object of naturalism is to know phenomena and to make ourselves masters of them. The novelist establishes his experimental results as guideposts to enable society to avoid aberrations signaled by them. While he grants that a novelist should possess genius, a word he prefers to imagination, Zola considers that this works more splendidly in naturalistic than in romantic fiction, because the former is more directly responsive to natural laws. The style of a novel is secondary; the best writing is not the most lyrical, but the most scientifically straight-forward. The artist and the scientist are professional colleagues.

Not all novelists in this school share Zola's enthusiasm for literature as physiological experimentation; they generally take pride, however, in probing further than other writers do. For Strindberg the virtue of naturalism is its rejection of simple explanations, its willingness to examine the complex motivations of every action. Individuals are largely determined, he thinks, by heredity, by the situations in which they find themselves, by health or disease, by their unwilled proclivities. These act upon them in varying degrees. Individuals are not personifications of fixed traits; they alter their composition [p. 231] as the forces brought to bear upon them shift their weight. Consequently Strindberg prefers to represent his characters as somewhat characterless. He also discards many of the formal aspects of drama, such as traditional sets and lighting, because they are not suited to the unheroic, almost will-less, personages of his plays.

Some of the naturalists have themselves rebelled against the absolute determinism of nature. The Goncourts thought they might "dematerialize" naturalism by allowing into it dreams, symbols, moral ideas, and romantic feelings which puristic theory had outlawed. Flaubert, who was sometimes considered the leader of the school although in many ways he was closer to the symbolists, complained that Zola had elevated a method into a program.

According to Zola, determinism could be distinguished from fatalism by the fact that it considered the human condition to be alterable and improvable. This aspiration is to be found also in the Goncourts, and it becomes the dominant theme in what can be called melioristic realism. If naturalism moves toward science, this form of realism moves toward ethics. Its eye is always on what life should be. While the naturalists emphasize a book's honesty and accuracy, these realists attach more weight to its sincerity and loftiness of purpose. In "What Is Art?" Tolstoy, a chief exponent of this form of realism in his later life, finds art to be the ethical communication of feelings, binding men together in the brotherhood that comes from the shared sympathy of writer and readers. The value of art is therefore measurable in terms of infectiousness. Tolstoy says nothing here of the historical determinism so prominent in War and Peace, but the ills again concerned with a supra-personal force, identified now more specifically with the divine and manifested in brotherhood. Here individual life finds its genuine expression. Art is the creation of a community of feeling to unite men everywhere, and in all times, with each other and with God.

The consequence of his theory is that Tolstoy depreciates beauty, which most symbolists have exalted as the sole end of art, and celebrates goodness instead. He declares that the two often run in opposite directions, because beauty is linked to the passions, while goodness is bound to man's religious perceptions. By this standard Tolstoy condemns most of the art of his time as decadent, including many of his own works. He particularly objects to the idea that art can be written for an elite; to do so is to deny the first principle of art, since society is thereby split instead of being joined. The decadent artist confirms his own isolation and that of his readers.

Dostoevsky's emphasis is furiously prophetic, a quality which seems to impugn his realism for some readers. Against this objection, which he knew, he defended his writing as based upon the only kind of realism that is genuine. For there is no purpose in describing the commonplace; a writer in search of radical truth must be prepared to make use of the most outlandish situations and characters. Doestoevsky distinguishes between the ordinary and the typical; the typical is the unforeseen embodiment of movements that the artist recognizes to be occurring in society. So he defends his invention in The [p. 232] Idiot of Prince Myshkin, a Christlike figure who at first sight might appear fantastic, because, on the basis of all Dostoevsky has seen and felt, such a man must exist. For Dostoevsky, true realism is permeated by a sense of life as a battlefield between the extremes of Christian hope and unchristian chaos, and the situations and personages must reflect this violent conflict in its most flagrant forms. He is more peremptory than Tolstoy in fusing his sense of what should and should not be into what is.^

Other versions of melioristic realism make their appearance in writings of George Sand and, later, of H. G. Wells. George Sand remonstrated with Flaubert for creating a religion of art, detached from moral concerns and natural sympathies. She accused him of treating reality as if it were inert and unimprovable. His dispassionateness was merely self-isolation, and necessarily emerged as pessimism. He sought learning, not wisdom. In short, she said, he had sold his soul to false gods of aestheticism, when the true religion was that of humanity. Only here could one embrace the good and the true as well as the beautiful, value life more highly than the form in which it was put, acknowledge virtue as well as vice and folly, and devote oneself to the improvement of man's lot. Flaubert's reply was courteous but unyielding. He declined to commit his art to the current fine phrases, knowing that they conflicted with both historical and psychological evidence. He wished to go beyond timely notions of good and evil, of heroism and villainy, to the truth, the essence of things. His object was indeed beauty, but to write well is to think well, and so to eschew with severity every opinion that had only a humanitarian claim upon him.

A later stage of this controversy is to be found in the debate of H. G. Wells and Henry James. In defense of his own theory, Wells argued that the novel was a help to conduct because it aided people in their adjustments to their environment and to each other. Moreover, the novel is life, and so must reflect something of the unschematic, disorganized way in which relationships compose life. The novel is not a monumental addendum to reality; in fact, its claim to be art is minor and incidental. To this Henry James replied that a novel cannot be merely saturation in circumstances; its subject does not matter, but whatever it is about, it must be achieved by deliberately cultivated form.^

The principal heir of the realistic school of Tolstoy is socialist realism. This derives not only from sympathy with the proletariat, but from the particular kind of historical determinism propounded by Marx and Engles. According to them, as feudalism gives way to capitalism, and the middle-class triumphs, moral obligations between the classes disappears, and only a cash nexus is left.^ But under capitalism productive forces are developed to such an extent that the proletariat comes into being, gathers strength, and eventually [p. 233] will overthrow the middle class. Since there is then no other class to be exploited, the inhuman relationship of money will fade, and the free development of each and all will be at last possible. Marx and Engels emphasize that economic production molds the institutions and ideologies at a given time; life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by material life.^ As the economic basis of society has shifted, so has the whole "superstructure" of ideas, sentiments, modes of thought, views of life, and artistic works. In the new era, art will necessarily be proletarian and serve the new society as a moral instrument.

Later writers have elaborated upon this foundation. The best Marxist criticism is of course far from the simple-minded, nationalistic realism which Soviet officials sometimes call for in public. Leon Trotsky explains that the new art of communist society will not necessarily deal only with workers, but will keep the struggles of the proletariat at the center of its attention. Against the formalists, who claim for art an independent, homeless status, Trotsky asserts that artistic creation turns old forms inside out under the influence of new stimuli which originate outside of art. So the deed antedates the word; changes in living conditions give rise to new ways of feeling which find expression in art as in other activities.

George Luk&aaccute;cs applies himself specifically to the form socialist realism may take. He is sure it will supplant earlier forms of fictional presentation because it can do more than they. Naturalism failed to achieve the objectivity for which it strove because it dealt with the lifeless average; and subjectivity, seeking to elicit the truth of individual life, created nuance-ridden individuals with no firm footing in material existence. The inner life of man can only be portrayed, Luk&aaccute;cs thinks, when organically connected with social and historical realism. He finds a model in Balzac, who in spite of his monarchical sympathies had a keen sense of this connection. What is required above all in the writer is accuracy of response to historical conditions.

In the writings of Alain Robbes-Grillet a new form of realism is put forward. Like Luk&aaccute;cs, he objects to naturalism, but on quite other grounds. He maintains that we have forced nature into complicity with man by our habit of pathetic fallacy, the conferral, in metaphor, of human qualities upon nature. This confusion must now end; nature is not man, and Robbe-Grillet calls upon the two worlds to keep their distance from each other. All our assumptions of relationship, and of pre-established orders, have to be abrogated if we are to reach the truth of man and of being. Robbe-Grillet differs from most realists in emphasizing the discontinuity of man and nature. He focuses upon the situation of men shorn of their illusions of harmony with nature or even with society.^ [p. 234]

[The introduction/Realism, from Ellmann, Richard and Charles Feidelson, Jr, eds. The Modern Tradition, Backgrounds of Modern Literature. New York: Oxford University Press. 1965.]



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