American Realism - what can we learn from different definitions?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

22 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of Contents

0 Introduction

1 Harry Levin “What is Realism?”
1.1 Defining “realism”
1.2 Types of realism
1.3 The realistic novel
1.4 Imitation of reality

2 Winfried Fluck “Realismus als Fiktion”
2.1 Function of the novel
2.2 Characters

3 What has realism to do with “reality”?
3.1 What have Aristotle and Plato to do with realism and reality?

4 Conclusion: “What can we learn from different definitions?”

List of Works Cited

0 Introduction

If it comes to the question of what realism is most people connect the term with “reality”. In fact there is no global definition of what realism is. Anyhow realism is commonly associated with “reality“. Some describe it as “verisimilitude”.

The representation of realism varies in fields like philosophy, art and literature. For the field of philosophy we can say that there were lots of controversies whether there is a reality. In terms of art we can say that the realistic painters are those who painted the ordinary life. Pictures, which show war or people working, are the most common themes in America. In literature we find the realistic novel, which was written for the lower class. It became famous because of the alphabetisation after the invention of the letterpress. What all of them have in common is that there exists no idealization of objects. Novelists would describe any detail in their stories while painters would paint as most details as possible, too. Nevertheless there exist lots of definitions about what the term realism is. Some theses shall be discussed in this essay.

I will show different definitions given by Harry Levin, Winfried Fluck and other authors and novelists. This is followed by an overview about the equivalents of all theses. There is also a paragraph in how far according to my opinion realism has something to do with “reality”. In the end I will discuss the question what we can learn from the different definitions.

1 Harry Levin “What is Realism?”

In his introduction for his five essays of realism Levin gives a historically overview. Besides, he gives information about writers and their novels considered as “realistic”. As an example: Emerson cited the term „realism“ in 1856 from the New English Dictionary as “synonymous with materialism”. One year later Ruskin cited it synonymously with “grotesquerie”[1].

Levin also tells us what according to him is considered to be “realistic”. At least he tries to define how realism can be defined in relation to romanticism and naturalism. To undermine his thoughts he cites a lot of authors and their conclusions about the period of realism. At this point it turns out that Levin gives no clear definition about how long the realistic period lasted. Quite the contrary, he ends with the assumption that there is a new realistic term, which has been rediscovered during the twentieth century.

1.1 Defining “realism”

Right in the beginning Levin asks “What is reality?” and comes to the conclusion that the term “cannot bear precisely the same significance for any two human beings […]”[2]. Within his texts Levin writes down a lot of utterances authors made about “realism”. The following passage shows some of these utterances.

The first author mentioned by Levin is Thomas Carlyle[3]. He declared, “reality escapes us”[4]. Levin defines this as the “x” or “the unknown element in whatever formulation we may reach”[5]. He goes on saying that the answer can be found among the testimonies of the witnesses. Karl Mannheim is mentioned next and he says, “Realism means different things in different contexts”[6]. Levin remarks that this statement had deterred “its would-be historians”. As one of “those religions in –ism”[7] Champfleury explained the term realism in 1848. Schiller wrote Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung in which he contrasted antique realism with “the idealistic outlook of the romantics”[8]. Duranty called for “the exact, complete, and sincere reproduction of the social milieu in which we live”[9]. But he said that the realists were “too individualistic to establish a school”[10], whereas Champfleury considered the realists as “transitional”. In the 1870s, Zola wrote a manifesto for naturalism. Levin calls Zola’s novels „experimental“. The reason why he comes to that conclusion is maybe the fact that Zola wrote about the “Second Empire”. This was not a story but reality. One of Zolas works was entitled “Histoire naturelle et sociale d'une famille sous le Second Empire"[11]. With his descriptions of life during the Second Empire Zola wrote a kind of realistic novel because he described the things as they actually were. Harriet Beecher Stowe was another author who wrote a “realistic” novel. Her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not a true story but it reflects life as it was. Levin writes that her works “treat a theme hitherto ignored by associations of polite and refined society”. As to the realistic novel, which was read by the middle and lower classes, Stowe wrote about a realistic topic and can therefore also be described as “experimental” like Zola.

1.2 Types of realism

Levin describes that there was the “trend of modern thought towards empiricism, materialism, pragmatism [and] naturalism”[12]. There existed two new terms of realism: the so-called “New Realists” and the so-called “Critical Realists”. According to V.L. Parrington critical realists belonged to the “recent period in America”[13]. Another type of realism mentioned by Levin is “naïve realism”[14]. Naïve realism or “common sense realism” is the way of looking at things as they really are. This kind of realism states that your senses give you the possibility to have knowledge of the reality.

1.3 The realistic novel

In the middle of his essay Levin explains what parody has to do with realism. According to Viktor Shklovsky “parody is the basis of the novelistic form”[15]. Levin argues that “many realists have begun as parodists”[16] and that this makes it “polymorphous”. Nevertheless, the novel can neither be considered as “formless” nor as “easily or spontaneously” written by novelists who wanted to express “themselves in a realistic mode”[17]. The assignment of every novel was to “distinguish what is real and what is counterfeit”[18]. That means that novelists had to show the realistic elements in their works. An example for that is Diderot who entitled one of his works “Ceci n’est pas un conte”[19] to show explicitly that his story tells the truth. It cannot be seen as a fantastic story like the romantic ones. Levin says “the novelist must always be disclaiming the fictitious” and end with the statement “La vraie éloquence se moque de l'éloquence”[20].


[1] Levin, “Comparative Literature”, p. 196.

[2] Levin, “Comparative Literature”, p. 193.

[3]Thomas Carlyle: * December 4, 1795 UFebruary 5, 1881; Scottish essayist and historian.

[4] Levin, “Comparative Literature”, p. 193.

[5] Levin, “Comparative Literature”, p. 193.

[6] Levin, “Comparative Literature”, p. 194.

[7] Levin, “Comparative Literature”, p. 196.

[8] Levin, “Comparative Literature”, p. 196

[9] Levin, “Comparative Literature”, p. 197.

[10] Levin, “Comparative Literature”, p. 197.

[11] Natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire; Levin, p. 193.

[12] Levin, “Comparative Literature”, p. 193.

[13] Levin, “Comparative Literature”, p. 194.

[14] Levin, “Comparative Literature”, p. 196.

[15] Levin, “Comparative Literature”, p. 196.

[16] Levin, “Comparative Literature”, p. 196.

[17] Levin, “Comparative Literature”, p. 196.

[18] Levin, “Comparative Literature”, p. 196.

[19] ceci n'est pas un conte = this is not a tale; Levin, “Comparative Literature”, p. 196.

[20] The true eloquence makes fun of the eloquence; Levin, “Comparative Literature”, p. 196.

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American Realism - what can we learn from different definitions?
University of Koblenz-Landau
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Babette Lippmann (Author), 2005, American Realism - what can we learn from different definitions?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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