Realism and the Novel

As you saw in your readings for class today, a wide range of nineteenth-century writers experimented with just how close fiction could come to depicting real life. Nowhere is this more true than in the form of the novel, which gained increasing popularity and prestige in this period. But realism as a mode of fiction was not without its challengers. Some critics objected that literature always introduced distortions when depicting life; others worried that social realists, who claimed to document existing realities, ended up shaping those conditions with their prose. (Along these lines, you may recall our discussion of Abolitionist literature when we discussed Harriet Jacobs’s non-fictional account; here, of course, writers and supporters hoped literature could effect social change and even large-scale political reform.)

Victorian Realism readings

For this assignment, read the pages at the link above: first, a scholarly overview of the debate surrounding realism in Britain, and second, one chapter from the novel Adam Bede, by the British novelist George Eliot, in which she directly discusses her theory of realism and its effects. The chapter stands out from its context, but you should feel free to consult a synopsis if you’re interested.

In a post of your own (of roughly 500 words), due Thursday, make an argument that brings the two readings into conversation with each other. You may focus on any issue you like, but you may consider one of the following questions: what are realism’s limits (either aesthetically or socially)? what do you make of Eliot’s mixture of fiction and literary criticism in this chapter? why do you think Eliot compares her literary method to painting (in particular Dutch scenes like the one below)? how does realism intersect with the depiction of religion or religious subjects? how does realism intersect with the representation of social class?

Again, you can pursue any subtopic you find interesting as you read, but try to stay focused and make a case for a connection you see between the two readings. When discussing the readings, be sure to quote evidence from them and cite accurately. Be sure, also, to give your post an engaging title and to proofread the post carefully.

You’ll be contacted about readings for next week later this week. Happy Spring!

Gerard Dou, The Prayer of the Spinner

The Real Vs. The Fiction

Chapter 17 in Adam Bede is an interesting chapter indeed. It is a perplexing chapter in this novel that changes the perspective of what’s going on in the novel, instead of letting the novel advance further—the way it had been for the past sixteen chapters. This serves as a break from how the author had been going about telling this story, because it changed from a romanticized perspective to a realistic perspective. Instead of talking about the plot itself, it stops and analyzes the realistic truth about how the author, Eliot, reflects on the characters in a completely different time period. She goes off into a rant, practically, about how her characters are always demanded to fit perfectly within the lines of either a protagonist or an antagonist, and she decides to draw the line between realism and fantasy. She illustrates that in life, there’s a lot of grey area as opposed to this black vs. White mentality.

The idea of realism is also speculated in 19th Century British Critics of Realism. It starts off with the claim, “When a realist writer depicts a dressmaker, G.H. Lewes wrote, ‘she must be a young woman who makes dresses, not a sentimental “heroine”, evangelical and consumptive…” (Freedgood 1) On one hand there is a young woman in real life who has responsibilities and needs to work in order to support a herself. She is the opposite of a sentimental heroine because she has been forced to mature, instead of allowing herself to remain overdramatic and spoiled, like a child. She doesn’t look like a heroine, either—she looks like a normal girl with less than perfect features.

Eliot stresses how a real person isn’t someone who is beautiful, perfect and knows the right thing to do and say. She says, “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” (Eliot 1). A real person isn’t always admirable—and words certainly cannot always be put in the mouth of a real man. Fantasy and fiction is totally different from realism, in which real emotions come out at the wrong times and flaws are all over peoples’ faces. This chapter is all about realism being shown in a fiction story—for once. Showing that characters have flaws and have emotions and feelings like the rest of us makes us realize that we don’t have to be just like the people in the fiction world. We realize that we can be imperfect, instead of thinking that we are subject to a happy ending just like our favorite fairy tale.

Keeping it real

During the Romantic Era , the literature represented art , emotion and the Age of Enlightenment while Realism in literature represented a whole new movement of reality. In George Eliot’s theory of realism and Elaine Freegood’s reading depicts  its effects of realism arguing  that it is a real form of thinking . Realism is something we experience and are able to communicate it with out false claims. The position on realism is the human conception . In Adam Bede she displays the realism through a literary genre in which she developed.  The realism intersects with the representation of social class because it is nature and it is what humans go through on a daily basis. She believed that through writing, the fictional stories should be told through real life experiences and not be romanticise for our own pleasure, it’s simply not always glitz and glamour. Realism is a moral choice and it is ethical to represent the truths of society.

In chapter 17 of Adam Bede, she stresses the importance appreciating life at its finest but we should appreciate the pains of life. Art is the nearest form of life and through art , we learn to accept who we are. The Victorian era was a very difficult and strict period for women. The didn’t have the right to vote or own anything. The roles of men and women became sharply defined . Going back to the ideology of the roles of men and women of that time,  women were considered weak and men strong. These were faced because when it came literature, they had to realize they were women first and artists second. These were the sciences of human nature and according to Elaine Freegood, we should look beyond symbolism. Because the Victorian literature avoided deeper meanings, she tried to bridge the gap between the importance of meanings and realism.

Realistic vs Fictional

After reading both of the critiques on Victorian realism, along with Adam Bede, by George Eliot, one of the things that stood out to me the most was how much the ideas about realism went against and fought the ideas of what being fictional is. For instance if we were to take the exact definitions of what each one is, realism would be the writing of realistic stories, such as non fiction. But when comparing it to the ideas of what a fictional story is, it would be more about the writings of what isn’t true, and fake such as Frankenstein.


When it comes to the ways that they each viewed realism and fictional ism , each one of the authors took a different stance. Eliot took the stance of fiction is in a way parallel to real life. It could mirror what people are living and how they are feeling as they want to create a realistic story. For example when Eliot was writing her novel, she shows that she wanted to make the characters in it as close to the real thing as possible. This is so we, as the audience, are able to relate to the characters more and feel what they do.


However when it comes to the way that Elaine viewed the ideas, she took a different stance on it. She pointed out the the people who wanted to write novels with the ideas of realism, had their own responsibilities as authors. As the time period where many people were arguing over romanticism versus realism, the ones who wrote about realism were subject to listen to and respect the opinions of those who wrote these styles of novels. Yet because of this, there is a limit in the way that one can write.

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In her novel Adam Bede George Eliot establishes realism as a genre by using various aspects throughout the narrative.  I believe it is a fair assertion to believe that realism arose in literature because of a need to represent the middle class that people like Eliot belonged in.  There was a need to not just be romantic, but to illustrate all the nuances and details of ordinary life.  In a way, Eliot treats this kind of lifestyle as being noble, because it is a reflection of the wealth and success of the middle class.  However, realism does have its limits in both aesthetic and social terms; it is an attempt to illustrate the world as it exists to these authors, but it does not necessarily mean that the books are still “realistic.”  As stated by G.H. Lewes, a heroine must be “evangelical and consumptive…but she must be individually a dressmaker,” portrayed with enough recognizable traits (evangelical for example) but still “realistic” enough to fit the standards of the genre (Freedgood 325).  Furthermore, realism expects to capture life as it is, which can prove to be too challenging a task, “Realism is responsible for representing social and individual experience as it really occurs in the world outside of the novel” (326).

Here is where I think some of the limits of realism can come into effect; the characters are inherently fictional.  How could something fictional ever be as real as what realism attempts to be?  For another matter, why must characters even contain these generalized traits that Lewes mentions?  Doesn’t this take away from the originality of the character?

George Eliot’s writing is perhaps the foundation for realism as she carries on in critiquing art and literature within her novel; Eliot’s narrator also has an opinion of his/her own regarding events that happen in the story.  This is an example of the ways in which realism has aesthetic limitations.  In reality there is no narrator that expresses his/her opinions as events go on.  Likewise, Eliot’s characters all reflect people of different classes, but it does not reflect people of color, nor can it be truly effective in giving an objective viewpoint of the world.  As a middle class woman, Eliot has limitations by the lens she sees the world through.  Therefore, realism is impacted by the experiences of an author and cannot objectively provide a view for the world that is all inclusive.

Ultimately however, Eliot acknowledges this limitation, “The mirror is doubtless defective; the outline will sometimes be disturbed, the reflection faint or confused” (326).  What is important about realism are not just its limitations, but how truthful this reality is for the one writing it. Eliot attempts to show the reality that she knows and experiences in her writing because it is the only one that she knows.  Therefore the paradox of realism as a genre can be understood and resolved (at least somewhat). So long as the author’s representation of reality adheres by this example that Eliot sets, then it can pass for a realist novel.




Realism critics

People always compare realism with romanticism, argue that realism is what really happened and romanticism is about somehow fantasy. However, is it really true? I think this argue only rough limited both realism and romanticism. Things may work in different ways. I believe that realism is what we can tell from what we see.  Realism has been sharped so much by realism novelist. They tied to sharp the story that through it more reality would be reflected.  Then realism was limited by itself.


Elaine Freedgood had mentioned in her article Nineteenth-century British critics of realism realism novel were strong relied on characters. There must be some characters that are stand out so that the story can go on. But in realistic, there were not many resources for those realism novelists to write. At the same time, realism novelists were keeping sharping their story. Being loyal to realistic had been the biggest barrier for the novelist.  George Eliot had complained about the appalling lacking of empirical veracity purveyed.


Then Eliot opened up a paradox about fiction. Fiction may or may not reflect the reality. In another word, in fiction, there isn’t gap between aesthetic and realistic. But Eliot refused to accept the “arbitrary picture” that represent things as they never have been and never will be. George Eliot saw his work as Dutch painting that he delighted very much. Painting should be a mirror-like work present every sight that people can capture. He knew that the truth might be ugly and tough. But people shall do nothing but accept.


On the other hand, Eliot refused to be a “folly woman novelist”. He wanted the unexpected to do something unexceptional.

What’s Really Real?

After reading both of these literary critiques, I get a sense that the role of realism was very controversial in 19th century Britain. More specifically, it sounds like many critics judged novels based on their impact on readers and society as a whole. Elaine Freedgood included a quote from the novelist and critic Vernon Lee’s ‘Dialogue on Novels’ that expressed my own discomfort with the standards that were applied to realism: “[I]t is extraordinary how aesthetical questions invariably end in ethical ones when treated by English people.” Realist novels are limited in their ability to create real, quantifiable social change, and ethical standards are therefore somewhat inappropriate. Although many critics insisted on burdening these works of art with some sort of social responsibility, novels are better judged through aesthetic evaluation. Freedgood also points out that, in the absence of the social sciences, realist novels were partly viewed as sociological investigations. Considering that people expected a certain level of honesty from realist authors, it is easier to understand why these writers were often held responsible for ethical questions surrounding their portrayal of social conditions. It is important to note that both readers and writers were well aware of how subjective accounts can distort reality, and were likely to take any information presented in novels with a grain of salt.

George Elliot’s excerpt was also quite insightful. It was interesting to hear a celebrated author speak on this subject with such convincing rhetoric. Someone wrote to Elliot concerning one of his characters not exhibiting proper behavior, and the author’s response was very profound and compelling. Elliot argued that he was obliged to present the world as he perceived it, and to provide an honest testimony of what life was like from his point of view. According to Elliot, much nuance is lost when characters are flattened into ideal archetypes, and it is his job as an artist to portray real people with flaws: “great men are overestimated and small men are insupportable; that if you love a woman without ever looking back on your love as folly, she must die while you are courting her; and if you maintain the slightest belief in human heroism, you must never make a pilgrimage to see the hero.” Elliot argues that the reality of human nature is often unpleasant, but without realistic representation, his contemporaries may never be exposed to a sincere reflection of what makes people human.

The Ideas of Realism

Elaine Freedgood’s, Nineteenth-century British critics of Realism, depicts various ideas of Realism. Realism challenges the ideas of Romanticism by depicting real life situations while Romanticism portrays fictional stories. Freedgood states that Realism is “responsible for representing social and individual experience as it really occurs in the world outside the novel” (326). She incorporates Realism with individuality noting that you’re able to become a non literary character by becoming a recognized member of an actual, historical, social group. Freedgood merges fiction with reality staring that “Fiction may or may not be a re-presented of certain specific men and things” (327). She goes on to say that fiction isn’t a product of imagination and is intertwined with daily encounters. To Freedgood Realism was a way to communicate since multimedia wasn’t present.

Similarly, In Adam Bete, George Eliot depicts her views on Realism. In the middle of Adam Bete, Eliot interrupts her story to write a chapter on her literary style. She states “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” (1). Here she defends the choices she has made for the character in her book, reminding the audience that her goal is to demonstrate a true representation of life. Eliot also compares her writings to the Dutch painters who are realists as opposed to those who paint angels. To Elliot Realism has its own type of beauty and she uses the ideas of Realism to depict a relatable story.

Realism or Fictionalism?

After reading the article, Nineteenth-century British critics of Realism by Elaine Freedgood, and a chapter of the novel, Adam Bede by the George Eliot, the difference between Realism and Fictionalism are expressed when it comes to each author’s personal preference in their own writing. For instance, in the article, Elaine Freedgood explains that “realism is responsible for representing social and individual experience as it really occurs in the world outside the novel.” (Freedgood, 326) Therefore, she claims that this is her preference when it comes to her own writing. To summarize what she believes in, ultimately that extending the truth or writing fictional things just feeds the reader false information which defeats the purpose of her writing. When I first encountered this I found it incorrect because there is always a purpose for writing because even in a made up story you can still spread a subliminal message to your audience, but at the same time agreed with the fact that reading fictional stories kind of does defeat the purpose of writing because you’re just writing lies in a way. In the modern era, I have noticed that most of our society is interested in knowing the truth and not really interested in made up stories or in this case fictional stories. For example, when you take a look at novels and even movies that are airing, the ones that are revolved around being based on a true story have been proven to have more hits. Why is that? I think that society has realized that in order to I guess get further in life you must learn from the stories of others. This is shown when she states “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.” (Freedgood, 326) Stating that she is narrating her experiences just reflects a quote that says “you learn from your mistakes,” which in this case her audience learns throughout her mistakes and other words don’t commit the same ones in their life.

George Eliot on the other isn’t really a fan of realism, he prefers using fictionalism in his own writing. He even states that “Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult.” (Eliot, 2) In my opinion, he’s also right because when you focus your writing around fictionalism you can manipulate the story and basically drag it on to make it turn out however you want it to be, just for it to be a good story. Which in cases like if you were to base your writing around realism you can’t really do that because you would have to end the story explaining the truth. Let’s face it expressing everything that is real, isn’t always the best option being that real stories don’t have happy endings all the time. For example, when it comes to stories in general, most readers nowadays are big fans of a happy ending. Although this can be a possibility in real life, in some cases it isn’t and an audience encountering an ending like that for instance can end up being upset with the way the story ended.

Realism: Paintings

Realism was introduced because the world began to shift towards showing the reality of things. This was partly because of the invention of the camera and photography. Now that you could capture a moment and see exactly what it looks like, writers wanted to do the same thing and depict the truth with their writings. According to Elaine Freegood, it is not so easy to portray the truth without faultering at some point. Freegood goes on explaining that without being an actual dressmaker, it is hard to portray what a real dressmaker goes through in life. To do this, one must not forget to represent the social and individual experiences of the character in the novel in detail. Freegood goes on to talk about George Eliot and his fiction.

Although Eliot’s novel is fiction, the way she portrays the men in the novel are based on having dealing with them and the kinds of things encountered. Because it’s her own personal experience, I believe her criticism can be vouched for as true. Eliot endulges and find her writing to be like Dutch paintings because they show the ugliness of people. That there is beauty in a painting even if the subject is horrid like in her writings. The truth is of the same caliber. It can be ugly but where is the beauty in representing something of falsehood?

Realism x Reality

The specific definition of ‘realism’ has been debated by a number of scholars. According to readings as well as the art publications, the truthful, impartial reflection on reality is shown through a number of types of artistic creativity. Eliot described realism as ‘the principle that all beauty and truth are to be attained with a faithful and a humble study of nature.’ According to her, realism was not limited to mean a naïve concept which writing can be clearly taken to represent the world in reality, Eliot saw realism as an ethical choice as shown in her essay ‘The Natural History of German Life’ , when it says : ‘Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.’

Adam Bede is considered to be George Eliot’s earliest full-length publication, however not the first fiction:. Around 1865 Eliot considered herself an essayist, editor, and lastly reviewer, but she later mentions that ‘it had constantly been a vague illusion of mine on the fact that some time or other I may draft a novel’. She personally feared of being ‘deficient in dramatic power’, which is considered the limit of realism. On the other hand, Adam Bede’s story on the gripping of seduction showed that Eliot had no particular need in worrying. And as “Scenes of the Clerical Lifes” had a decent response, it was Adam Bede that became the bestseller.

The dictionary basically describes ‘Tradition’ as an ‘inherited, customary or established thought pattern, behavior or action (as a practice religious or a custom of social nature)’. Eliot starts the essay with a general take towards ‘Tradition’. She argues that every country and race does possess a creative and crucial turn of mind, as well as emphasizes the need of critical thinking.

Eliot made a comparison of her literature works to painting. This was because impressionism development was considered as a partial response by artists to the issues presented by painters. Both landscape and portrait types of paintings were considered somewhat lacking and lacking in reality as photography shaped lifelike imageries much more competently and reliably.

Realism intersects with the depiction of religious subjects or religion. Examining various faith traditions via devotional images and sacred spaces gives a framework on a thematic survey of societal duties and artistic styles and provides contemporary insight into the faith traditions and contemporary art.

Realism intersects with the representation of social class. Social realism is basically an international art of movement, which includes the painters work, printmakers, filmmakers and photographers, drawing attention to the daily conditions of the the poor and working class. Social realists are crucial of the social beliefs that maintain these conditions. In conclusion, the movement’s features vary from country to country; and almost utilize a kind of critical realism.