Once upon a time, literary historians depicted the “rise of novel” as the triumph of realism over other modes of fiction. Recent scholarship has called into question the absoluteness of this triumph, demonstrating that the distinctions between romance, realism, and history remain blurry in various permutations of fiction. But we still tend to use the term “realism” as if its meaning is transparent and we’re all agreed on what it describes. This class will take as its starting point Raymond Williams’s observation in Keywords that “Realism is a difficult word, not only because of the intricacy of the disputes in art and philosophy to which its predominant uses refer, but also because the two words on which it seems to depend, real and reality, have a very complicated linguistic history.”
We will begin by briefly examining the origins of the aesthetic and philosophical disputes surrounding the concept of realism in Aristotle’s Poetics and Plato’s Republic. Together, we’ll trace changing definitions of realism from Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1953) and Georg Lukács’s The Historical Novel (1962) to Franco Moretti’s “Serious Century” (2007) and Fredric Jameson Antinomies of Realism (2013). We’ll also examine how novels theorize their own relationship to the real, taking a few select works as case studies. These works, chosen for their status as touchstones in discussions of literary realism, will include Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814),Jane Austen’s Emma (1815), Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (1866) and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927). While we will glance at the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, then, the course will focus primarily on the nineteenth century, the heyday of the realist novel. My hope is that rather than simply using criticism and theory to read these novels, we will use the novels to question theoretical definitions of realism.
This course will be particularly useful for students who are interested in the history of the novel, genre theory, and nineteenth-century literature, but it requires no prior background in these areas.