Realism is associated mainly with the 19c. Having began in the 18c., realism and naturalism came as response to Romanticism. The purpose and main distinctive feature of realism was to represent “life as it is” as opposed to romanticism which was based on feelings. Realism in literature was derived from art , especially painting. In Europe, this mode of thinking is associated with Balzac, who is considered the father of literary realism, Gustave Flaubert, whose novels -following Balzac- were based on observation of real life. Then, came Emile Zola, the father of Naturalism, who build up his novels on scientific discoveries, and focussed on ordinary people who turned to be the product of their environment. In England, the realist movement was associated with writers as Daniel Defoe, the father of the realist novel, Moll Flanders- , Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding.
Realism in art deals with scenes of ordinary people in their humble life: it represents life as it is and not as it should be. John Ruskin in Modern Painters stated that what is important in painting is what is expressed through the act of painting. That is, a painter who simply copies faithfully objects of the reality out-there has just learnt the basic techniques/language of art through which the artist’s ideas are to be expressed. Therefore, for Ruskin, greatness in art is not achieved through the exact imitation of nature, it is more importantly achieved through the many ideas that are expressed though that imitation. Put otherwise, greatness in art is the artist’s capacity to convey reality through great ideas by virtue of the expressive and mimetic skills. This is John Ruskin’s theory of “expressive realism”.
Realism in literature is mode of writing which bases itself on rationalism and represents the subject as an illusion that looks like reality. The heroes of the realist fiction are the figures that have been neglected by the romantic writer. They are common people, uprooted from lower and working classes, living under ordinary or humble circumstances. By way of example, Daniel Defoe’s heroin Moll Flanders under whom the novel is titled, is a female outcast who after many failed experiences turns to an adulterous, whore, thief, and ends up in the prison. The pioneers of the English realist fiction are Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. Those three have broken with the old fashion romance, adopting a new method of writing which shapes up its structure on a real human experience with a realistic aspect of life. This realistic aspect of life does not only reside in the kind of life under study or the identity of the character who acts the experience, but also in the way this life-experience in represented. In short, Realism is one feature that differentiates between the new form –namely the novel- and the other forms of writing.
The major novelty brought about with the rise of realism is the novel genre. More than any other literary form, the novel raises the question of the correspondence between the literary work and the imitated reality. The novel came as to assert that the individual experience which is free from any past assumptions or traditional beliefs may lead to the “truth”. Accordingly, the novelist rejects literary traditionalism: he moves away from the traditional plots, adopting the individual experience, which guarantee the novel its originality. The realist writer, unlike all those who have preceded, does not plot their narratives on reliance on mythologies or histories; he uses original plots. He also stresses the fact that this plot should be acted by particular people in particular circumstances. This new tendency has the effect of individualizing the fictitious characters and giving them a detailed presentation of their environment, as it is demonstrated in the novel of Emile Zola. Adding to that, the focus on the character’s real personal identity with contemporary name and surnames and not with traditional ones.
Other specificities of the novel form are the correlation of space as well as time dimension and the referential language. On the one hand, the realist writer defines their characters by referring to space and time, for those element have a great impact on shaping up the personality of the character. On the other hand, the type of language that realism uses is prose style, which gives a sense of authenticity. Hardly composed of the rhetorical and figurative images, the language becomes more corresponding to the things it describes . By so doing, the realist writer wants to convey the concrete reality of words. And by this exhaustive presentation rather than elegant concentration, the writer is enabled to get closer to what he describes.
F.R. Leavis : The Great Tradition
F.R. Leavis attempts to fix a definition of greatness in literary fields. For so doing, he traces a traditional going to Fielding and Richardson, the ones who led to Jane Austan, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and D.H. Laurence. Those novelists are , in Leavis’s view, great because they through their literary productions promote human ‘awareness of the possibility of life’. For leavis, Jane Austan is great not because she has individual talent, but because she successfully carried out the tradition, in the sense that she led to appearance of other great literary figures who learnt from her. Also, because she, together with George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad, have a conveyed ideology that teach the reader. Their work is great because it is involved with the tradition of Morality. Another element that helped those figure to attain greatness, in Leavis’s stand, is their concern with “form”. All the above-mentioned novelists were chiefly concerned with “form” as well as the question of how morality is revealed through “form”. Charles Dickens was also a great writer, however his writings tend more to entertain than to teach morality.
Indeed, leavis’s judgements have paved the way for a whole critical discourse along with the notion of the ‘canon’. He permeated a whole literary culture, a whole educational system, which produced a high degree of consensus concerning the criteria if greatness in literature. He is the one who defined the great tradition which, in return, produced the notion of the ‘canon’, for people wanted to be taught something worthwhile at universities. Hence, the old religious ideology, which had lost force, has been replaced by the entity of literature which now provide the reader with a morally correct ideology, aiming at guiding people toward universal human values, and thus to the truth. Leavis’s ‘tradition’ has challenged the moral set up of aristocracy, and questioned the assumptions of the upper classes.