Sunday 30 November 2014

English Literature Study Skills: What is Realism?

Rosamond Vincy and Tertius Lydgate
At some point, probably quite early, in your degree in English Literature, you’ll be asked to write an essay on realism. You might already have a pretty good idea what that’s likely to mean (chunky novels, lots of characters, attention to the ‘ordinary’), but, being a good student, your first port of call is likely to be a dictionary (read Google or Wikipedia) where you are likely to learn that realism is ‘the attempt to depict subjects truthfully’ and literary realism a ‘literary movement stressing the depiction of life and society as it exists or existed’.

So far – so straightforward. What could be simpler than art holding a mirror up to life? So influenced are we by the success of the nineteenth-century realist novel that its conceit not only seems obvious, but uncontroversial. And so, to get to the heart of realism in the period, as a literary critic, rather than a lexicographer, it is best to look to discussions of the movement in the novels themselves and to the figurehead of English literary realism – George Eliot.

 Your lecturers will often point you to the following paragraph:

 Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent.

At this point in Middlemarch (1871-2), Eliot’s ‘parable’ plays a dual role – the candle at once stands for the egotism of the individual (particularly here Rosamond Vincy) and the act of writing a realist work of fiction. The novelist illuminates how the world actually is (holding up the candle), but at the same time brings an apparent order and organisation to events (the scratches) which in fact must extend beyond the confines of a single story, if they are indeed realistic. The novel – champion of the realist form – is a flattering illusion, which cannot help but elevate the writer (all-knowing, all-present and most importantly an organisational force), even as it claims to prioritise the everyday and the unexceptional.

Starting here, though, as many discussions of realism do, can be difficult. For any students tackling Eliot and co for the first time, my advice would be to hold off on Middlemarch and turn first to Chapter XVII of the earlier Adam Bede (1859), unpromisingly titled ‘In Which the Story Pauses a Little’. Here, rather than delving straight into a central ‘problem’ or ‘conflict’ within realism, Eliot gives an eloquent defence of its importance.

 "This Rector of Broxton is little better than a pagan!" I hear one of my readers exclaim.

 "How much more edifying it would have been if you had made him give Arthur some truly spiritual advice! You might have put into his mouth the most beautiful things—quite as good as reading a sermon."

Certainly I could, if I held it the highest vocation of the novelist to represent things as they never have been and never will be. Then, of course, I might refashion life and character entirely after my own liking; I might select the most unexceptionable type of clergyman and put my own admirable opinions into his mouth on all occasions. But it happens, on the contrary, that my strongest effort is to avoid any such arbitrary picture, and to give a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind. The mirror is doubtless defective, the outlines will sometimes be disturbed, the reflection faint or confused; but I feel as much bound to tell you as precisely as I can what that reflection is, as if I were in the witness-box, narrating my experience on oath.

Here, Eliot imagines readers’ responses to Adolphus Irwine, a flawed but kind clergyman, and uses this as an opportunity to praise the real, over the ideal. The same egotism suggested by the parable of the candle is present here – Eliot cannot keep herself, her mind and her act of creation, out of the discussion, as it is central. And she admits that this will warp what appears (‘the mirror is doubtless defective’). Yet, interestingly, the language of faith and witness which she goes on to replace the reflective imagery with, turns this very interference into an additional virtue. And one, she goes on to tell us, which is difficult to achieve:

 So I am content to tell my simple story, without trying to make things seem better than they were; dreading nothing, indeed, but falsity, which, in spite of one's best efforts, there is reason to dread. Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult. The pencil is conscious of a delightful facility in drawing a griffin—the longer the claws, and the larger the wings, the better; but that marvellous facility which we mistook for genius is apt to forsake us when we want to draw a real unexaggerated lion. Examine your words well, and you will find that even when you have no motive to be false, it is a very hard thing to say the exact truth, even about your own immediate feelings—much harder than to say something fine about them which is NOT the exact truth.

What Eliot is getting at here, isn’t just the impressiveness of her own achievement. She’s showing how realism must tap into a deeper layer of truth. Simple reportage of events and people isn’t enough, when people struggle constantly to voice the ‘exact truth’. Is realism achievable? Could the levels of empathy required to understand life and society be dangerous? Latimer, the protagonist in her short horror story The Lifted Veil, published the same year as Adam Bede, is tortured by his ability to understand the minds of his fellow men and, in Middlemarch, Eliot would go on to write:

 If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

For students sitting down to their first essay on realism, maybe here is a more inspiring place to start – not with realism as some ‘obvious’ movement, but as a philosophy for approaching how you live, how you think and how you write, which throws into relief the difficulties of relating to other people.

 Students, what topics would you like the Secret Victorianist to write on? Let me know here, on Facebook or, as ever, by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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