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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 8 - 19th Century Prose Narrative 


The Camera and the Realist Movement

The invention of the camera in 1839 transformed the manner in which reality could be recorded and viewed. This rather simple mechanism greatly influenced the development of literature, and in some important way helped to bring about a new literary movement known as realism. By 1850, realism took hold of Europe and reached the shores of the United States some twenty years later. The rapid proliferation of photographers and photographs produced satisfying and complete miniatures of reality, seemingly free from direct intervention of any human agent. It appeared as if all the photographer had to do was engage the mechanism and shoot to produce a photograph. Therefore, a common belief was that cameras were able to see all by themselves; the artist was rendered almost superfluous, even invisible. Photographers and photographs, in contrast to painters and paintings, were more like manufacturers and mass-produced goods.

Photography legitimized and sanctioned the virtues of seeing for seeing's sake. The ease with which photographs could document and reproduce reality without having to neglect the minutest of details created a desire on the part of realist writers to capture the truth. While it may not be easy to agree exactly about what truth is, photographers and realist writers perceived truth as an objective and neutral recording of reality. Although the modern-day student of photography or of literature clearly understands that "objective," "neutral," and "reality" are loaded words that usually convey a multitude of meanings, realists nevertheless seemed to preoccupy themselves with representing the ordinary and routine in the lives of their characters and subjects in an unassuming and natural manner. No wonder Emile Zola remarked, after having been an ardent photographer himself for fifteen years, that no one could truly claim to have seen something until he or she had photographed it.

Most of the leading European writers of the realist movement, including William Thackeray (1811-1863), Charles Dickens (1812-1870), and George Eliot (1819-1880) in England; Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) and his predecessors, Henri Beyle, who took the pen name Stendhal (1783-1842), and Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), often called Romantic Realists, in France; Theodor Fontane (1819-1898) in Germany; Giovanni Verga (1842-1922) in Italy; Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883), Fyodor Dostoevsky(1821-1881), and Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) in Russia; and Juan Valera (1824-1905), Benito Perez Galdos (1843-1920), and Clarin, born Leopoldo Alas (1852-1901), in Spain, were in some way influenced by photography. Of course, not all realist writers approached reality in exactly the same manner, or with precisely the same emphases. Just as a variety of Romanticisms developed, so also did a number of realisms. For example, Russian realists such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and the Spanish novelist Perez Galdos in his later writings, were more interested in spiritual matters than were their French and British counterparts, who were concerned primarily with psychological and sociological issues and the representation of the material world. These same issues, not coincidentally, interested a burgeoning middle class which had just appropriated political and financial power.

The middle class, with its mercantile concerns, had aspirations and beliefs far different from those of the dying upper class. The aristocracy wished to maintain the status quo by supporting the monarchy, conservative politics, orthodox religion, and outmoded institutions of the former regime that had prevented democratic reforms. Having little sympathy for the aristocracy, and recognizing that the "new order" would require a fresh way of seeing the world, the realist novelists sought to reproduce with camera-like objectivity and exactitude all aspects of society. Their novels were a democratic inventory of the epoch, a photograph of normal life populated by "ordinary people" portrayed just as they are. Perhaps Stendhal best articulates the need for photographic fidelity in The Red and the Black (1830), where his narrator makes the observation that "a novel is a mirror riding along a highway."

The Historical Perspective

The shift to realism in the mid-nineteenth century resulted from writers and intellectuals who were tired of the subjective excesses of the Romantics, which had dominated the literary scene for some forty years. In France, where many of the innovative theories about realism first originated, the emerging middle class no longer rallied around the broken and fallen idols of the French Revolution, nor were they attached to the memory of the defeated patriarchal figure of Napoleon. Liberal and national revolutions in the 1830s strengthened the position of the liberal middle class against the conservative aristocracy. Many writers supported liberal European governments that initiated political reforms in the name of Liberalism and even democratic values.

In 1848, a series of national and social revolutions extended the civil community to include the lower middle class and even some workers, but by the next year a conservative reaction had set in against the liberal segments of society. The collapse of these revolutions separated the privileged or upper middle class, which embraced traditional values and materialist forces as the moral basis of its success, from the unprivileged middle class as well as from the underprivileged and exploited working class and peasantry. As a result, many liberal and reform-minded realist writers experienced a perplexing paradox -- novelists began to despise the bourgeoisie, the very class that read their novels in the largest numbers (and, in general, to which they themselves belonged), disgusted by the materialism, crassness, and vulgarity of the nouveaux riches.

Literacy, Censorship and Readership

Understanding the composition of the reading public during the second half of the nineteenth century helps explain the social impact of the realistic novel, which reached an audience of unprecedented size. In the most progressive countries of Europe -- Scandinavia, Holland, Germany, England, and France -- between 50%-58% of the population could sign their name, proof, according to most researchers, of some type of literacy. In this respect, women's skills were slightly worse than men's, and the wealthy fared much better than the poor.

Yet only a small segment of the literate public could afford to own books, which were simply too expensive to buy. For the most part, publishing houses specialized in deluxe editions, luxury items marketed to those with large disposable incomes. For the less wealthy, however, novels were available either in serialized versions in popular magazines, or from one of the newly established lending libraries that loaned books for a modest fee. Finally, with the manufacture of cheaper editions in the 1890s, purchasing rather than borrowing novels became the rule.

Novels were monitored closely by governmental agencies and ad hoc watchdog groups that discouraged any moral laxity or political unorthodoxy and regularly pressured magazines and lending libraries. Magazine editors or library owners who failed to convince authors to revise passages questioned by the censors could not handle their books, thereby cutting authors off from their reading public and income. Consequently, many writers grudgingly agreed to make temporary changes that they would revoke later with the publication of the deluxe editions.

This careful scrutiny should not come as any great surprise, for novels were extremely popular and had great impact on the lives and thoughts of their readers who were, to a great extent, women. Precisely because novels were read primarily by women, moralistic groups of society insisted on monitoring them carefully to protect "the weaker sex." Novels, after all, were the soap operas of the nineteenth century, mostly catering to women who presumably wanted to read about matters of the heart and private emotions. Some popular novelists like Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) worried about the novel's "proper notions," on account of the predominant female readership. Women, Trollope thought, ought to be protected against immorality and all impropriety.

Governments and the self-appointed guardians of morality also were rigorous in keeping realist novels under surveillance because the works usually dealt with the most recent events of society. Novels, in fact, were news (the word novel comes from the French word nouvelle, which literally means "news"). The shift from Romanticism to realism marked in fiction a shift from epic matters that were far away to matters of the immediate society which were unmistakably near. The realist novel, then, became a collective expression of society that was not merely a result of social change but rather a cause of it.

Literature on Trial: Two Case Studies

Madame Bovary, written by the French realist Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), was first published in six installments in the popular magazine, Revue de Paris, in 1856, a year before its formal publication in a deluxe edition of two volumes. Almost immediately the novel became a center of controversy. In January of 1857, Flaubert was indicted for "offense to public and religious morality and to good morals," a charge of which he was eventually acquitted.

This was not the fate, however, of the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-67), who was brought to trial in August of that same year for publishing a revolutionary book of poetry called Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil). Six poems from this collection of morbidly erotic verses, full of images that are simultaneously gorgeous and disgusting, were censored until 1949. Although political tensions at a particular moment in French history brought about the indictments of Flaubert and Baudelaire, these two cases continue to be relevant, for they heralded a deep schism that has opened between the artist and society in the contemporary Western world. It is instructive to compare these nineteenth-century French lawsuits with similar litigation in the United States today.

In 1851, as we have seen, the liberal Second Republic established in the revolution of 1848 disappeared in a coup d'état. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (1808-1873), who in 1848 traded on the republican sentiment that might still be evoked by memories of the first half of his grandfather's regime when he became President of the Second Republic, mimicked the second stage of the first Napoleon's career and transformed himself into Napoleon III of the Second Empire three years later. Like many of today's reigning politicians, Louis-Napoleon secured his position by offering peace and prosperity to the growing middle class and encouraging greed in the well-to-do, while discouraging any criticism of the social codes which guaranteed the comfort of these privileged classes.

French officials of the Second Empire brought Flaubert to trial on the grounds that novels like Madame Bovary negated "the beautiful and good," warning that they would "feminize" male readers and lead women to follow Emma Bovary's adulterous example. Flaubert successfully defended himself by insisting that his novel was, in fact, highly moral, noting the severe punishment his heroine suffers at the end of the book. Yet the governmental functionaries who prosecuted Flaubert did not mistake their adversary, for Madame Bovary scathingly satirizes the smug society that drives Emma Bovary to sin.

Flaubert's technique probably invited this legal attack as much as his choice of subject. The court censured his work for failing "to enrich and to refresh the spirit" while instilling "a loathing of vice by offering a picture of the disorders that may exist in society."(1) His painstaking realism exposes the reader to an unvarnished portrait of vanity and selfishness, not only in Emma Bovary herself, but also in the paragons of middle-class morality who profit from her efforts to escape the mundane world that bolsters them. In his sometimes icily neutral portraits of people and events and through his ironic, unsentimental narrators and the "objective" distance they create, Flaubert, like a merciless photographer, forces his readers to contemplate images they might prefer to ignore. Ruling bureaucracies rarely appreciate artists who pay such close attention to the ugly aspects of the societies they support.

Althoèugh the Second Empire has long since vanished, an official readiness to censor what some perceive to be socially offensive art has not. The increasing distance between the artist and the general public in the century and a half since Flaubert and Baudelaire wrote has sharpened the adversarial climate that puts artists like them at risk. Indeed, a basic misunderstanding, which reduces art to its choice of subject matter, periodically fuels fresh assaults on its creators. "Realistic" art seems especially vulnerable to such assault, in contrast to abstract art, which is harder to "read." Thus while critics of the latter may simply ridicule and dismiss works they deem fundamentally unintelligible, they feel they have a right to suppress as pornographic any recognizable image that disquiets them.(2)

While it is true that Flaubert's fiction in one sense defines realism, his central concern was not mere accuracy in reporting. An expert on the habits of the provincial world he depicts in Madame Bovary, Flaubert certainly researched it thoroughly, going so far as to consult medical books for the details of a clubfoot operation or a case of arsenic poisoning. As his technique approximates photography, his analysis resembles the scientific rigor which gained prominence in the nineteenth century. But he would have agreed with Baudelaire, who disdained the label "realism" for his own work, although Fleurs du Mal frightened the reading public with its keenly observed images of violence and depravity. In the second draft of a preface never published in his lifetime, Baudelaire insists on separating art from its subject, explaining the title of his poems by noting that the artist's goal is "to extract beauty from Evil."

Similarly, Flaubert, a doctor's son who described himself as wielding a pen the way a surgeon wields a scalpel, goes beyond satire. Although he hated the bourgeois world with a passion, his solution was not to try to escape from it into fantasy, as did Emma Bovary, nor, as satirists in earlier centuries had sought, to reform it. For Flaubert, for Baudelaire, and for many of the most challenging creative artists of the recent past, art became an alternative to life, a preserve of beauty in a world dominated by ugliness. Flaubert in particular dedicated himself to writing with an almost religious devotion, spending several days on one troublesome paragraph, managing at most five or six pages a week, and endlessly revising his prose, so that the composition of Madame Bovary cost him five years of work.

"Art for art's sake," Flaubert's motto, disturbs the censors as much as explicit social criticism. A society that worships material well-being and secure property distrusts the artist who undermines the material by shining too clear a light on it. Censors in an age when worldly position is avidly pursued applaud pretty images of that world. They resent artists like Baudelaire, who began Fleurs du Mal by addressing his audience as "--Hypocrite lecteur,--mon semblable,--mon frère!"(3) It is worth considering whether censors are merely hypocrites who refuse to acknowledge their share in the corrupt world depicted in art or whether they are more fundamentally affronted by the proposition that the imagination can confer order on and create beauty from the depraved and the horrible.

The Industrial Revolution and Consumerism

The Industrial Revolution introduced a new set of socio-economic realities to Europe. While many newly rich entered the ranks of the bourgeoisie, the poor also grew in number; impoverished and landless inhabitants of the countryside streamed into the cities in search of fortunes that they rarely made. Most of these new arrivals quickly joined the hordes of exploited workers whose problems engaged the sympathies of many writers. Yet in spite of these problems, the years between 1850-1870, which corresponded roughly to France's Second Empire, were oddly enough years of stability, prosperity and social balance. The new order, in which realism flourished, eagerly supported and encouraged science, technology, and the accumulation of material goods. In short, the era was one of dizzying progress.

The Universal Exposition of 1853 in Paris showcased the accomplishments of the bourgeoisie and the realist movement. The new technology, which spurred numerous inventions and gadgetry in mid-century, along with the officially sanctioned academic painting of the moment, was an impressive witness to an age of modern comforts and acquisitiveness. But many writers, as we have seen, reacted with disdain to the burgeoning materialism and "manufactured" art.

Flaubert, for example, abhorred what he saw at the Exposition, and several years later, Emma Bovary would emerge as a victim of her own conspicuous consumption. However, not all so-called realist novelists shared the same attitudes towards "consumerism." For instance, Juan Valera's novel, Pepita Jimenez (1874), ends with its title figure marrying and living happily ever after, as she and her husband busily furnish their new home with tasteful antiques joyfully acquired on trips in foreign lands. For Valera, such activity represented a sign of well-being. In any case, it seems only fitting for a period of such frenzied material accumulation and commercialism to produce a literary mode, realism, that captured external reality in such minute detail.

The New Methodology

Another important influence on the realist writers were the essays of Auguste Comte (1798-1857), the French philosopher responsible for Positivism, an ideology that sought to limit the scope of human inquiry to observable phenomena. Comte believed that only what could be seen and proven through experimentation was proper material for investigation. The spiritual, invisible, and metaphysical aspects of man therefore were to be avoided.

Against this background, then, realism emerged and began to grow. Because the power base of society moved from the courts of the aristocracy to the cities and large industrialized towns of the bourgeoisie and middle class, literary themes and interests began to change. One's relationship to God, to the chief of state, or even to one's inner self counted for less; instead, the study of each person as an individual within the context of observable activities was emphasized. Therefore, a new priority of literary themes appeared: writers judged harshly characters who suppressed sincerity of feeling in favor of ambition, pride, avarice, and vanity. Human beings were observed up close in a most inductive and precise manner, and from a more believable psychological point of view. This is not to say that all realist writers took the same paths. Tolstoy and his fellow Russian writers, as stated earlier, had more mystical and cosmic concerns, as did the Spanish novelist Perez Galdos in the latter part of his career.

The realist movement actively smashed literary conventions. Writers tried to avoid the overuse of coincidence and melodrama in their works; dramatists avoided verse, over-theatricalized situations, and the use of the aside in their plays. In most cases, writers wished to disappear into their work but not necessarily from it. Therefore, problems of interpretation arose because narrators had the heavy burden of telling a story and of expressing opinions that were not necessarily those of the actual author. While Flaubert made it a point not to intrude in his novels, that is, never to turn directly to the readers in order to address them, other authors, like George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans, one of the greatest English novelists), or Trollope often did. The skilled reader, however, must always be on the alert for irony and sarcasm, because even in the case of unveiled authorial intrusions, the chance always exists that such intrusions or opinions are not the express sentiments of the actual authors.(4)


(1) As quoted by Dominick LaCapra in "Madame Bovary" on Trail (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1982), p.51.

(2) In the United State today, the "reallistic" images that incite censorship have tended to be visual rather than literary, the work of photographers rather than writers. in other words, critics judge photography by what it represents. If they dislike the subject matter, they label it pornographic, and ignore the work's formal properties. By contrast, in totalitarian regimes, where the government worries about art's political content, abstract forms which permit multiple interpretations seem more vulnerable to censorship.

(3) "Hypocrite reader, my double, my brother."

(4) This is notably the case in the highly ironic works of Stendhal.