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Realism

ordinary nineteenth century world

is a word with many meanings and uses, in philosophy, history of art, literary criticism, and ordinary language. In literature it is most often used to describe the great achievements of the European novel in the nineteenth century: the work of, for instance, Balzac. Tolstoy, and George Eliot. This writing characteristically depicts a large and complex social world from the point of view of a shared sanity. Author, reader, and characters inhabit the same implied universe, what Raymond Williams calls a knowable community. The heroes and heroines of realist novels are often idealists rather than realists themselves, but they are disappointed in their hopes, if not actually destroyed, and learn to come to terms with the limits of historical possibility. Realism in fiction is thus related to the ambition of nineteenth-century (and other) historians to describe things ‘as they really are’—a laudable but problematic programme—and to the philosophical concept of the way things ‘usually’ look, on an ordinary day to ordinary eyes in ordinary lighting. When the notion of the ordinary becomes questionable, when the world we live in no longer seems knowable, or discussable in terms that can count on being understood, realism in this sense is usually abandoned for another mode. Grandly proclaiming that Dostoevsky was not a novelist, the critic Georg Lukács meant, among other things, that Dostoevsky had begun to leave the shared world of realism behind. In nineteenth-century painting realism refers to the work of Courbet and others, and reflects a new interest in ordinary life and in working people, a reaction against the grandiose historical subjects which had dominated earlier art. Inherent in all forms of realism is the idea of a corrected view or assumption, a response to an exaggerated romanticism, idealism, or sentimentalization. Realism, even in vague and everyday uses, is always an argument, suggesting that some form of unreality is in the ascendancy and needs combatting. Whenever we hear it we need to ask, as the philosopher J. L. Austin suggests, which particular lack of reality is being attacked or remedied.

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