In Music and Art
As intellectual and artistic movements 19th-Century Realism and
Naturalism are both responses to Romanticism but are not really
comparable to it in scope or influence.
For one thing, "realism" is not a term strictly applicable to music. There are verismo (realistic) operas like Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier created in the last decade of the 19th century in Italy, but it is their plots rather than their music which can be said to participate in the movement toward realism. Since "pure" untexted music is not usually representational (with the controversial exception of "program" music), it cannot be said to be more or less realistic.
In contrast, art may be said to have had many realistic aspects before this time. The still lifes and domestic art of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin1 (1699-1779) anticipate many of the concerns of the 19th-Century Realists, and he in turn owes a debt to the Netherland school of still-life painting of the century before him, and one can find similar detailed renderings of everyday objects even on the walls of 1st-century Pompeii. Realism is a recurrent theme in art which becomes a coherent movement only after 1850; and even then it struggles against the overwhelming popularity of Romanticism.
In mid-19th century France, Gustave Courbet2 set forth a program of realistic painting as a self-conscious alternative to the dominant Romantic style, building on earlier work by the painters of the Barbizon School (of which the most famous member was Jean-François Millet), which had attempted to reproduce landscapes and village life as directly and accurately as possible. Impressionism can be seen as a development which grew out of Realism, but in its turn still had to battle the more popular Romanticism. Realism has never entirely displaced the popular taste for Romantic art, as any number of hotel-room paintings, paperback book covers and calendars testify. It became just one more style among others.
Realism's most important influences have been on fiction and the theater. It is perhaps unsurprising that its origins can be traced to France, where the dominant official neoclassicism had put up a long struggle against Romanticism. Since the 18th century the French have traditionally viewed themselves as rationalists, and this prevailing attitude in intellectual circles meant that Romanticism led an uneasy existence in France even when allied with the major revolutionary movements of 1789 and 1830.
Novelist Honoré de Balzac3 is generally hailed as the grandfather
of literary Realism in the long series of novels and stories he
titled La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy), and
which attempted systematically to render a portrait of all aspects
of the France of his time from the lowest thief or prostitute
to the highest aristocrat or political leader. The title of the
series was chosen to contrast with Dante's Divine Comedy,
which had portrayed everything except the earthly human realm.
His attention to detail was obsessive, with long passages of description
of settings being a characteristic feature of his work. Today
readers resist such descriptive writing, but before films and
television were invented, it had a magical effect on people,
causing the world depicted to explode from the page in an almost
tangible fashion. It is important to remember in reading all 19th-century
fiction that those people who had the time and inclination to
read novels at all generally had a lot of time to kill, and none
of the cinematic and electronic distractions which have largely
replaced recreational reading in our time. They welcomed lengthy
novels (often published serially, over a series of weeks or even
months) in the same way we greet a satisfying television series
which becomes a staple of our lives.
Like such a television series, his works also incorporated a device
for maintaining his audience: the continual reappearance of certain
characters from one work to the next--now as protagonists, now
as secondary figures. The idea is an old one, going back to classic
bodies of work such as the Homeric epics and the Medieval Arthurian
romances; but it had a different effect in Balzac's work: readers
could recognize a slightly altered version of the world they themselves
inhabited as they moved from story to story.
What is not realistic about Balzac's fiction is his plots, filled with sensational conspiracies and crimes and wildly improbable coincidences. Balzac's works are still essentially Romantic creations with a Realistic veneer.
It was Gustave Flaubert who in 1857 produced the seminal work
from which later literary Realism was to flow: Madame Bovary.4
Flaubert had begun his writing career as most young authors in
his time did, as a Romantic, laboring on a tale of Medieval mysticism
which was eventually published as La Tentation de Saint Antoine
(The Temptation of Saint Anthony). When he read an early
draft of this work to some friends, they urged him to attempt
something more down to earth. He chose the story of an adulterous
woman married to an unimaginative country physician unable to
respond to--or even comprehend--her romantic longings. Drawing on
the real-life stories of two women--Delphine Delamare and Louise
Pradier--whose experiences he was intimately familiar with, Flaubert
labored to turn journalism into art while avoiding the romantic
clichés he associated with his heroine's fevered imagination.
Like Balzac, he engaged in systematic research, modeling the village
in his novel on an actual country town and even drawing a map
of it detailed enough to allow scholars to catch him when he has
Emma Bovary turn in the wrong direction on one of her walks. Unlike
Balzac, he avoided the sensational sort of plot lines characteristic
of Romantic novels. To modern readers a married woman carrying
on two adulterous affairs and then committing suicide may seem
fairly sensational, but it is important to note that there was
a long tradition of tales of female adultery in French literature
stretching back as far as the Middle Ages. What Flaubert did with
the theme was give adultery the shocking impact of the tabloids
by stripping his tale of the high romantic idealism that usually
justified adultery; instead he systematically satirized his heroine's
bourgeois taste for exotic art and sensational stories. The novel
is almost an anti-romantic tract.
Despite the fact that it is generally agreed to be one of the
most finely crafted works to be created in the 19th century,
it would probably never have had the impact it did if Madame
Bovary had not also been the subject of a sensational obscenity
trial. So restrained were the standards of polite fiction in mid-19th-century
France that many modern readers go right past the big "sex
scenes" which got Flaubert into trouble without noticing
them (hints: look for Rodolphe to smoke while working on his harness
just after making love with Emma for the first time while she
experiences the afterglow, and for Emma to toss torn-up pieces
of a note out of her carriage during her lovemaking with Léon).
However, they were enough to outrage the defenders of middle-class
morality. The prosecution was particularly indignant that Emma
did not seem to suffer for her sins. Flaubert's clever lawyer
successfully argued that her grotesquely described death made
the novel into a moral tale; but the fact is that she dies not
because she is an adultress but because she is a shopaholic.
It is not only the literary style of Madame Bovary that
is anti-Romantic, it is its subject as well. The narrative
clearly portrays Emma as deluded for trying to model her life
after the Romantic fiction she loves. The novel is a sort of anti-Romantic
manifesto, and its notoriety spread its message far and wide.
It is worth noting, however, that Flaubert returned to Romanticism
from time to time in his career, for instance in Salammbo,
a colorful historical novel set in ancient Carthage.
Influence of Realism
Realism had profound effects on fiction from places as far-flung
as Russia and the Americas. The novel, which had been born out
of the romance as a more or less fantastic narrative, settled
into a realistic mode which is still dominant today. Aside from
genre fiction such as fantasy and horror, we expect the ordinary
novel today to be based in our own world, with recognizably familiar
types of characters endowed with no supernatural powers, doing
the sorts of things that ordinary people do every day. It is easy
to forget that this expectation is only a century and a half old,
and that the great bulk of the world's fiction before departed
in a wide variety of ways from this standard, which has been applied
to film and television as well. Even comic strips now usually
reflect daily life. Repeated revolts against this standard by
various postmodernist and magical realist varieties of fiction
have not dislodged the dominance of realism in fiction.
The emergence of Naturalism does not mark a radical break with
Realism, rather the new style is a logical extension of the old.
The term was invented by Émile Zola partly because he was
seeking for a striking platform from which to convince the reading
public that it was getting something new and modern in his fiction.
In fact, he inherited a good deal from his predecessors. Like
Balzac and Flaubert, he created detailed settings meticulously
researched, but tended to integrate them better into his narrative,
avoiding the long set-piece descriptions so characteristic of
earlier fiction. Again, like Balzac, he created a series of novels
with linked characters and settings ("Les Rougon-Macquart:
Histoire naturelle et sociale d'une famille sous le second Empire"--"The
Rougon-Macquart: Natural and Social History of a Family During
the Second Empire") which stretched to twenty novels. He
tried to create a portrait of France in the 1880s to parallel
the portrait Balzac had made of his own times in the Comédie
humaine. Like Flaubert, he focussed on ordinary people with
often debased motives.
He argued that his special contribution to the art of fiction
was the application to the creation of characters and plot of
the scientific method. The new "scientific novel" would
be created by placing characters with known inherited characteristics
into a carefully defined environment and observing the resulting
behavior. No novelist can actually work like this, of course,
since both characters and setting are created in the distinctly
unobjective mind of the writer; but Zola's novels do place special
stress on the importance of heredity and environment in determining
character. They are anti-Romantic in their rejection of the self-defining
hero who transcends his background. History shapes his protagonists
rather than being shaped by them. This leads to an overwhelming
sense of doom in most of his novels, culminating in a final catastrophe.
Zola further tends to create his principal characters as representative
types rather than striking individuals. He also places great emphasis
on people acting in groups, and is one of the few great writers
of mob scenes. Humanity in the mass is one of his chief subjects,
and his individuals are selected to illustrate aspects of society.
Zola can be said to have created in Germinal the disaster
narrative exemplified in the 20th century by Arthur Hailey's novels
(Airport) and movies like The Towering Inferno and
Titanic. The formula is a classic one: assemble a varied
group of representative characters together in some institution
or space and subject them to a catastrophe and watch how they
individually cope with it.
Zola also took frankness about sexual functions much further than
the early Realists had dared; and it is this, combined with a
pervasive pessimism about humanity, which chiefly characterizes
the Naturalist novel.
Unlike Flaubert, Zola was not a meticulous craftsman of beautiful
prose. At times it seems as if he is writing with a meat ax; but
he undeniably infused French fiction with a refreshing vigor,
giving it a tough, powerful edge far removed from the vaporings
of high romanticism.
If Zola often startled the French with his frankness, he shocked
readers in other lands, where his works were often banned, regarded
as little more than pornography (an assessment which is quite
unfair, but unsurprising given the temper of the times).
Zola has had an enormous impact on the American novel. Americans
with their preference for action over thought and for gritty realism
were strongly drawn to his style of writing. Early 20th-century writers
like Theodore Dreiser applied his approaches to American themes
successfully, and Frank Norris practically stole large chunks
of Zola's novels in some of his own works. The mainstream American
novel is preponderantly naturalistic, and gives rise to another
genre which still lives on: the hard-boiled detective story.
For all these reasons, Zola strikes us as far more "modern"
than Balzac, or even Flaubert. It can be argued that the "default" style of modern narrative is Realist, with the various forms of fantastic narratives which dominated the writing of earlier ages relegated to the margins; and even fantasy is often judged as to its plausibility. Without altogether banishing Romanticism, Realism and Naturalism have had considerable success.
1 For a brief survey of Chardin's work with examples, see http://sunsite.unc.edu/wm/paint/auth/chardin/.)
2 For more on Courbet's life and works, see http://sunsite.unc.edu/cjackson/courbet/.
3 For more information about Balzac, see http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/balzac.htm.
4 For more information about Madame Bovary, see http://fajardo-acosta.com/worldlit/flaubert/bovary.htm.
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Created by Paul Brians March 13, 1998.
This page has been accessed times since December 17, 1998.
Last revised March 1, 2006.