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Editor: Ira Mark Milne
Date: 2009
Document Type: Topic overview; Critical essay; Work overview; Brief biography
Pages: 28
Content Level: (Level 5)

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About this Person
Born: November 22, 1819 in Nuneaton, United Kingdom
Died: December 22, 1880 in London, United Kingdom
Nationality: British
Occupation: Novelist
Other Names: Evans, Marian; Lewes, Marian Evans; Evans, Mary Anne; Cross, Mary Anne Evans
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c. 1860


The realist movement in literature first developed in France in the mid-nineteenth century, soon spreading to England, Russia, and the United States. Realist literature is best represented by the novel, including many works widely regarded to be among the greatest novels ever written. Realist writers sought to narrate their novels from an objective, unbiased perspective that simply and clearly represented the factual elements of the story. They became masters at psychological characterization, detailed descriptions of everyday life, and dialogue that captures the idioms of natural speech. The realists endeavored to accurately represent contemporary culture and people from all walks of life. Thus, realist writers often addressed themes of socioeconomic conflict by contrasting the living conditions of the poor with those of the upper classes in urban as well as rural societies.

In France, the major realist writers included Honoreéde Balzac, Gustave Flaubert,Émile Zola, and Guy de Maupassant, among others. In Russia, the major realist writers were Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Leo Tolstoy. In England, the foremost realist authors were Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Anthony Trollope. In the United States, William Dean Howells was the foremost realist writer. Naturalism, an offshoot of Realism, was a literary movement that placed even greater emphasis on the accurate representation of details from contemporary life. In the United States, regionalism and local color fiction Page 655  |  Top of Article in particular were American offshoots of Realism. Realism also exerted a profound influence on drama and theatrical productions, altering practices of set design, costuming, acting style, and dialogue.


Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)

Honoréde Balzac is recognized as the originator of French Realism in literature and one of the greatest novelists of the nineteenth century. Balzac was born HonoréBalssa on May 20, 1799, in Tours, France. He spent much of his adult life in Paris, where he frequented many of the notable literary salons of the day and began to use the last name de Balzac. Balzac supported himself through writing, typically spending fourteen to sixteen hours a day on his craft. He was a man of great charisma and lived to the excesses of life, abusing coffee and rich food in order to work longer hours. His life's work comprises a series of some ninety novels and novellas collectively entitled La Comeédie humaine (The Human Comedy). Balzac died following a long illness on August 18, 1850, leaving his wife of five months with mountains of debt.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

Charles Dickens is known as an early master of the English realist novel and one of the most celebrated and most enduring novelists of all time. Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England, on February 7, 1812. He lived and worked in London as a law clerk, court reporter, and newspaper journalist. Following the publication of his first novel, Pickwick Papers (1836), Dickens soon became the most popular author in England.

Dickens's major novels include Oliver Twist (1838), Nicholas Nickleby (1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty (1841), The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation (1848), David Copperfield (1850), Bleak House (1853), Hard Times: For These Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1857), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Great Expectations (1861), and Our Mutual Friend (1865). His Christmas story A Christmas Carol (1843) remains an ever-enduring classic. Dickens died of a paralytic stroke in Kent, England, on June 9, 1870.

Guy de Maupassant Guy de Maupassant(Public Domain)

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)

Fyodor Dostoevsky (also spelled Dostoyevsky) is known as a major author of Russian realist fiction and one of the greatest novelists of all time. Dostoevsky was born October 30, 1821, in Moscow, Russia. He received a degree in military engineering in 1843 but resigned his post in order to pursue a career in writing. His first published work was a translation from French into Russian of Balzac's novel Eugénie Grandet. Dostoevsky's original novella Bednyye lyudi (Poor Folk), published in 1846, immediately gained the admiration of the leading Russian writers and critics of the day.

In 1849 Dostoevsky was arrested for his association with a group of socialist intellectuals. After eight months in prison, he was given a death sentence and, along with several other prisoners, led out to be shot by a firing squad. However, at the last moment the sentence was reversed, and the prisoners were allowed to live; this mock-execution had been designed as a form of psychological torture. Dostoevsky was then sentenced to four years in a Siberian prison followed by six years in the army. After serving this ten-year sentence, he went on to a successful career as a novelist and journalist.

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Dostoevsky's fiction had a profound influence on the literature, philosophy, psychology, and religious thought of the twentieth century. His novels are celebrated as masterworks of psychological Realism in their portrayal of individuals haunted by their own dark impulses. Dostoevsky's greatest works include the novels Prestupleniye I nakazaniye (1866), translated as Crime and Punishment; Idiot (1868); Besy (1872), translated as The Possessed; Dnevnik pisatelya (1873-1877), translated as The Diary of a Writer; and Brat'ya Karamazovy (1880), translated as The Brothers Karamazov, as well as the novella Zapiski iz podpolya (1864), translated as Notes from the Underground. Dostoevsky died in St. Petersburg, Russia, on January 28, 1881, of complications from emphysema.

George Eliot (1819-1880)

George Eliot is the pen name of Mary Ann (or Marian) Evans, one of the most outstanding novelists of English Realism. Eliot was born in Warwickshire, England, on November 22, 1819. After the death of her mother, Eliot took on the role of her father's caretaker. After her father died, she moved to London to support herself as a freelance writer and then as editor of the Westminster Review. In the role as editor she became acquainted with a circle of free thinkers, including some of the major philosophical and literary minds of the day, such as Herbert Spencer. Eliot's major works include Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Middlemarch (1871-1872), and Daniel Deronda (1876). Eliot died suddenly of heart failure in London, England, on December 22, 1880.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)

Gustave Flaubert is known as the consummate writer of French Realism. Flaubert was born on December 12, 1821, in Rouen, France. He spent most of his adult life at his family estate in Croisset, where he devoted his life to writing. Flaubert became acquainted with many of the important writers of the day, including George Sand, Émile Zola, Alphonse Daudet, Guy de Maupassant, and Ivan Turgenev. His major works include the novels Madame Bovary (1857), Salammbo (1863), and L'Education sentimentale (1869; Sentimental Education: A Young Man's History), as well as the volume Trois Contes (1877), a compilation of three short stories. Flaubert died from a stroke in Croisset on May 8, 1880.

William Dean Howells (1837-1920)

William Dean Howells is considered the foremost American realist writer of the nineteenth century. Howells was born March 1, 1837, in Martin's Ferry, Ohio. In 1860 he wrote a biography of then-presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln. After Lincoln was elected, Howells was given a consulship in Venice, Italy, which he held from 1861 to 1865. Upon returning to the United States, he worked as assistant editor of the Atlantic Monthly magazine from 1866 until 1871, then as chief editor until 1881.

Howells earned distinction as a highly influential literary critic, championing the realist writing of American authors Henry James, Mark Twain, and Stephen Crane as well as European authors Ivan Turgenev, Henrik Ibsen, Leo Tolstoy, and Émile Zola. Howells's major works include A Modern Instance (1882), TheRiseof Silas Lapham (1885), Annie Kilburn (1888), and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890). Howells died in New York City, New York, on May 11, 1920.

Henry James (1843-1916)

Henry James was born April 15, 1843, to an upper-class family in New York City. He had an affinity for literature and languages and traveled around Europe as a young man. He considered a career in law but decided upon writing instead. He was soon contributing to periodicals such as the Nation, the Atlantic Monthly, and the New York Tribune. He lived abroad from 1880 to 1905 and was a declared bachelor. In fact, James never married and his letters have revealed that he was discretely homosexual. He was good friends throughout his life with Edith Wharton, also a novelist and a socialite from New York City. James became a British citizen in 1915 in protest of the U.S. refusal to become involved in World War I. He died less than a year later, on February 28, 1916, in London, England, from complications from a stroke that occurred in December. "The Turn of the Screw," a famous ghost story by James, is about a governess working at an estate in rural England who tries to exorcise the ghosts from the lives of her two young wards. James's most prominent works include Daisy Miller (1878), Portrait of a Lady (1881), Wings of the Dove (1902), and The Ambassadors (1903). His work is characterized by depictions of conflict between American and European values.

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Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893)

Guy de Maupassant is known as a major practitioner of Naturalism and Realism and an exceptionally fine short story writer. Maupassant was born August 5, 1850, near Dieppe, France. When the Franco-German war broke out in 1870, he left law school to serve in the military effort. When the war ended in 1871, Maupassant continued his law studies and began a career in the French bureaucracy. Maupassant developed an important literary apprenticeship under Gustave Flaubert, who also served as a father figure. Flaubert introduced the young writer to major literary figures of the day, including Émile Zola, Ivan Turgenev, Edmond de Goncourt, and Henry James.

With the publication of his story "Ball of Fat" (1880), Maupassant gained immediate literary success and was able to quit his job in order to write full time. He went on to publish some three hundred short stories and six novels as well as several nonfiction books and a volume of poetry. Maupassant's major volumes of short stories include La maison Tellier (1881), translated as The Tellier House; Mademoiselle Fifi (1883); Contes de la bécasse (1883), translated as Tales of the Goose; Clair de lune (1884); Les soeurs Rondoli (1884), translated as The Rondoli Sisters; Yvette (1884); Toine (1886); Le Horla (1887); Le rosier de Madame Husson (1888), translated as The Rose-Bush of Madame Husson;and L'Inutile beauté (1890), translated as The Useless Beauty. His most important novels include Une vie (1883), translated as AWoman's Life; Bel-Ami (1885), translated as Good Friend;and Pierre et Jean (1888), translated as Pierre and Jean.

As a result of contracting syphilis, Maupassant suffered increasing mental and psychological instability. He died in a nursing home on July 6, 1893, at the age of forty-two.

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy (also spelled Tolstoi) is known as a major Russian realist writer and one of the most eminent novelists of all time. Tolstoy was born in the Tula Province of the Russian Empire on September 9, 1828. His mother died before he was two years old. By the time Tolstoy was nine, his father had also died. Tolstoy's first publication, Detstvo (1852; Childhood), is a nostalgic work of fiction based on the early years of his life.

In the early 1850s, Tolstoy joined the military and fought in the Crimean War (1853-1856). In the late 1870s, he experienced a religious conversion and developed ideas of Christian faith that were at odds with the Russian Orthodox church, from which he was excommunicated in 1901. His religious ideas included a devotion to nonviolence that later influenced Mahatma Gandhi, the great twentieth-century Indian nationalist and proponent of nonviolent resistance.

Tolstoy's greatest novels are Voini i mir (1869; War and Peace) and Anna Karenina (1877). His Smert Ivana Ilicha (1886; The Death of Ivan Ilyich) is considered one of the greatest examples of the novella, or short novel form. He died of pneumonia in the province of Ryazan on November 20, 1910.

Émile Zola (1840-1902)

Émile Zola, one of the greatest novelists of all time, was the founder of Naturalism in literature, which was a further development of Realism. Zola was born in Paris, France, on April 2, 1840, and grew up in Aix-en-Provence in southern France. Zola's father died when Zola was still in grade school. After his first novel was published in 1865, Zola quit his job as a clerk at a publishing company in order to support himself as a writer. Inspired by Balzac's The Human Comedy, Zola set out to write what became a twenty-novel series entitled Les Rougon-Macquart(The Rougon-Macquarts).

Zola became associated with the painters Paul Cézanne (a boyhood friend) and Edouard Manet as well as the French Impressionist painters Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Pierre-August Renoir. He also became acquainted with major literary figures of the day including Gustave Flau-bert, Edmond Goncourt, Alphonse Daudet, and Ivan Turgenev. In 1880 Zola oversaw the publication of a collection of short stories by six naturalist authors titled Les Soirées de Médan (Evenings at Médan), after the location of his home at Médan, outside of Paris, where his circle of naturalists met.

In 1888 Zola became famous for his literary intervention in the Dreyfus affair, a highly controversial political event that dominated French political debates for twelve years. In an article titled "J'Accuse" ("I Accuse"), Zola defended the rights of a Jewish military officer, Alfred Dreyfus, who had been falsely accused of espionage. Zola has since been celebrated as a champion Page 658  |  Top of Articleagainst anti-Semitism and an important influence on French public opinion. Zola died of accidental asphyxiation in Paris, France, on September 29, 1902.


Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina (1873-1877), by the Russian realist writer Leo Tolstoy, is considered one of the greatest novels of all time. The story concerns the intrigues of three Russian families: the Oblonskys, the Karenins, and the Levins. In the Oblonsky family, the husband, Stiva, is unfaithful to his wife, Dolly. The Oblonskys are the subject of Tolstoy's famous opening line in Anna Karenina: "All happy families resemble each other; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

The Karenin family is disrupted when Anna Karenina (the feminine version of the last name Karenin) leaves her husband and child because of an affair she is having with Aleksey Vronsky, a young military officer. The third element of Anna Karenina concerns the young Konstantin Levin and his courtship of Dolly's sister Kitty. The character of Konstantin embodies one of Tolstoy's major philosophical values: that the best life is lived through the daily events of honest work, a stable family, and a domestic situation, and that intellectualizing about life is useless.

"Ball of Fat"

"Ball of Fat," originally "Boule de suif," is considered the masterpiece of Guy de Maupassant. "Ball of Fat" was first published in 1880 in Les Soirees de Médan (Evenings at Médan), a volume of stories by six different authors writing on the subject of the Franco-German War of 1870-1871. In "Ball of Fat," a prostitute is traveling by coach with several other passengers, all of them French, to flee German occupation of the city of Rouen. At first the other passengers are friendly with the prostitute because she has food, which they want her to share with them. When they stop for the night at a hotel, a German military officer threatens to not let them continue their journey unless the prostitute satisfies his lust. Not wanting to consort with the enemy, the prostitute at first refuses to consent to his wishes. However, in order to ensure their own safe passage, the other passengers manipulate her into giving in to the German officer. Afterwards, the other passengers ostracize the prostitute for succumbing to the officer. "Ball of Fat" is a notable example of Maupassant's mastery at economical composition in the short story form.

Crime and Punishment

Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment), by the Russian realist writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, is considered one of the greatest novels of all time. In Crime and Punishment a young intellectual, Raskolnikov, uses philosophical reasoning to justify his plan of murdering an old woman for her money. After the murder, however, Raskolnikov is filled with a sort of spiritual dread. Meanwhile, a detective who believes Raskolnikov to be the murderer manipulates him into confessing his crime. When Raskolnikov is convicted and sent to prison in Siberia, the woman who loves him, Sonya Marmeladova, follows him to live near the prison. Influenced by Sonya, Raskolnikov experiences a religious conversion while in prison. Dostoevsky is celebrated for his detailed psychological study of the character Raskolnikov, tracing the complex and minute factors which motivate his crime.

Daisy Miller

Henry James's early novella Daisy Miller (1878) tells the story of a young, beautiful American woman abroad in Europe. In Switzerland, she is introduced by her brother to a man named Winterbourne. She is friendly and flirtatious, which confuses Winterbourne and displeases other Europeans in their social circle. Despite himself, Winterbourne pursues Daisy. After Switzerland, they reunite in Rome. Daisy's shocking behavior continues, and Winterbourne attempts to rein her in since it is clear that her family will not inter-cede. He finds her at the Colosseum one evening and tells her that they cannot be together because it is now clear to him that she is not his equal in status. He also warns her to not be out at night or she will catch a fever. Daisy indeed becomes ill and dies within days. Winterbourne regrets his decision to break with her. Daisy Miller was an immediate success and continues to be popular among James's works. James revised and republished the novella in 1909; however, many still prefer the original.

David Copperfield

David Copperfield (1849-1850) is one of the most popular and enduring of the novels of Charles Dickens, and it was the author's personal

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  • Many realist novels of Charles Dickens have been adapted to film in a variety of productions dating as far back as the 1930s. David Copperfield was adapted to film in 1935 (with George Cukor directing) and in 1970 (with Delbert Mann directing).
  • Many of Dickens's novels have been recorded on audiocassette. David Copperfield was recorded by Media Books Audio Publishing in 1999 with Ben Kingsley reading. In 2002, a twenty-six cassette edition was released by Audio Partners Publishing Corporation with Martin Jarvis as the reader.
  • The major works of Dostoevsky have been adapted to film in several different productions and recorded on audiocassette. Crime and Punishment was adapted twice to film in 1935 (one of these a French production) and in 1970 in a Russian production.
  • An audiocassette recording of Crime and Punishment was read by Michael Sheen for Naxos of America in 1994.
  • Many of Eliot's novels have been adapted to film and recorded on audiocassette. Middlemarch was adapted to film as a made-for-television movie, directed by Anthony Page, in 1994.
  • Middlemarch, read by Nadia May, was recorded on audiocassette by Blackstone Audio Books in 1994.
  • Flaubert's Madame Bovary has been adapted to film many times. The first English version appeared in 1949 and was directed by Vincente Minnelli. Tim Fywell directed a made-for-television version in 2000.
  • Madame Bovary was recorded by New Millennium Audio, read by Glenda Jackson, in 2002.
  • Tolstoy's Anna Karenina was adapted to film in 1935, starring Greta Garbo; in 1947, starring Vivien Leigh; in 1974, as a ballet; and in 1985, starring Christopher Reeve.
  • Anna Karenina was recorded on audiocassette by Bantam Books for the "BBC Radio Presents" series in 1999.

favorite. David Copperfield is a semi-autobiographical work. David Copperfield is most noted for the early chapters describing childhood experiences. Among these is a description of Dickens's experience of being taken out of school as a child to work in a factory in London while his father was imprisoned for unpaid debts. In David Copperfield, Dickens addresses the social injustices of urban poverty and industrial labor.


The novel Germinal (1885) is considered the masterpiece of Émile Zola, a French realist writer and the originator of the school of Naturalism in literature. Germinal is set in a mining town and portrays the socioeconomic tensions between the working-class miners and the upper-class mine owners. The novel depicts the effects of a workers' strike on the mining community and addresses major political theories of the day, such as Marxism, socialism, and trade unionism. Zola uses the metaphor of a monster to describe the coal mine, which devours the workers who enter it. In Germinal, Zola accurately represents the conditions of the two separate social spheres as well as tackling important political debates regarding inequalities in socioeconomic class.

A Hazard of New Fortunes

A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), by the foremost American realist, William Dean Howells, is regarded as one of the author's most important novels. A Hazard of New Fortunes takes place in New York City and concerns a group of people trying to start a magazine. Howells was inspired by his reading of Tolstoy's War and Peace to write a long novel, wide in scope and containing Page 660  |  Top of Article
A scene from a film adaptation of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens A scene from a film adaptation of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens(The Kobal Collection / The Picture Desk, Inc.) many characters. The result includes fifteen major characters and is notable for Howells's depiction of many sectors of society in New York City during the 1890s as well as his rendering of the flow of life in a city teeming with people. Howells expressed strong socialist views in A Hazard of New Fortunes, and many of the characters represent differing points on the spectrum of American political opinion.

The Human Comedy

The Human Comedy, originally La Comédie humaine (1842-1855), is the collective title for a grouping of some ninety novels and novellas by Honoréde Balzac. In his fiction, Balzac portrays all levels of French society with impressive accuracy. He is noted for the vast number of different characters created in his fiction, numbering some three thousand throughout The Human Comedy. Balzac introduced the literary device of including many of the same characters in several different novels. In managing this diverse range of characters, Balzac was a master of characterization, portraying in minute detail the psychological and sociological minutiae that make up each individual's personality and determine his or her actions. The Human Comedy addresses themes of socioeconomic class, ambition, and obsession.

Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary (1857), by Gustave Flaubert, is considered a masterpiece of French realist fiction. Madame Bovary is the story of a middle-class woman whose rampant consumerism, debt, and extramarital affairs lead to tragedy and her suicide. Madame Bovary was first published in installments in a magazine in 1856. In 1857 Flau-bert was taken to court by the French government which charged that the novel was obscene. However, his lawyer convincingly defended his case and Madame Bovary was published in book form soon afterward. The novel is noted for Flau-bert's narrative objectivity and the psychological detail by which he accounts for the course of events initiated by his characters.


Middlemarch (1871-1872), by George Eliot, is a masterpiece of English realism. Middlemarch is set in a small fictional town in rural England and is noted for the detail with which Eliot depicted characters from all walks of life. While Middle-march includes many major characters, the central figure of the story is Dorothea Brooke, a young woman who marries an older clergyman and religious scholar because she hopes to do something meaningful with her life. Eliot Page 661  |  Top of Articleexplores the idea that an individual may aspire to accomplishing something significant only to be defeated by the press of social convention or some flaw of character. Such individuals may leave small marks on history but in the larger social record they remain unknown. Middle-march is considered a high point in the development of the novel, elevating the form with its intellectual and metaphoric complexity.


Class Conflict

One of the major themes addressed by realist writers is socioeconomic class conflict. Many realist writers, in their efforts to depict characters from all levels of society, highlighted differences between the rich and the poor.

In David Copperfield, byDickens,the protagonist experiences the suffering of impoverished children forced to work in urban factories. In Germinal, Zola focuses on the conflict between working-class miners and wealthy mine owners, which erupts in a labor strike. In the process, Zola considers various political theories about the conditions of the working class. In AHazard of New Fortunes, Howell portrays characters from various places on the spectrum of American political thought who come into conflict over their efforts to start a magazine. At the end of A Hazard of New Fortunes, a young man is killed during the violence that erupts in a workers' strike. In War and Peace, Tolstoy portrays conflicts between the Russian landowners and the serfs who work their land. Many realist authors thus addressed social, economic, and political concerns through their depictions of socioeconomic class conflict.

The City

Many realist novelists sought to depict various aspects of life in the rapidly industrializing nineteenth-century city. Balzac, in the novels of The Human Comedy, is often noted for his extensive and accurate portrayal of society, culture, and commerce in Paris during the mid-nineteenth century. Howells, in A Hazard of New Fortunes, has been praised for his detailed depiction of the diverse flow of human life in New York City. Dickens set much of his fiction in London, describing specific streets, buildings, and neighborhoods in his novels. Russian realist

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  • The Parnassian poets were a major offshoot of the realist movement in literature. Research one of the following poets of the Parnassian movement: Leconte de Lisle, Albert Glatigny, Theodore de Banville, François Coppée, Leon Dierx, or Jose Maria de Heredia and provide a brief biography of this poet as well as an overview of his literary career and major works. Discuss how the poet employs the elements of Realism in the poem.
  • The realist movement in literature was first inspired by the paintings of the French artist Gustave Courbet, particularly his paintings "The Stone-Breakers" and "Burial at Ornans." Learn more about the life and work of Courbet. Write an essay providing a biography of Courbet and overview of his artistic career. Then describe one of his paintings and explain the elements of Realism in the painting.
  • Realism in literature developed simultaneously with major developments in still photography during the second half of the nineteenth century. Research the history of photography between 1830 and 1900. What major technical discoveries and inventions characterized photography during this period? What types of photographs were being taken during this period? Find reproductions of early photographs from this period and discuss the style of photography in comparison to photography in your own time and culture.
  • The nineteenth century was a time of significant industrial and political development. Choose an English novel of provincial life and analyze it as a portrait of how country people viewed the advent of the railroads or the redistricting of voting districts.

writers Tolstoy and Dostoevsky described various elements of society in Moscow and St. Petersburg in their novels. Realist fiction thus Page 662  |  Top of Articleoften has a documentary quality to the extent that these writers have accurately reported the details of a specific historical era in the development of the modern city.

Philosophy and Morality

Realist novelists often address the related themes of religion, philosophy, and morality in their works of fiction. While realist novels are known for their accurate descriptions of various physical details, many of them are also highly theoretical in their presentation of various religious and philosophical debates. The Russian realist Tolstoy, for example, included characters in his novels that grapple with complex questions regarding Christian faith and the meaning of life. The Russian realist Dostoevsky also created fictional characters who carry on extended philosophical discussions and debates about Christian morality. In such novels as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky was particularly concerned with the moral, ethical, and religious issues raised by characters who commit crimes such as murder. In a famous scene of The Brothers Karamazov, one character carries on an imaginary debate with the Devil, who visits him in the form of an aging gentleman. In Crime and Punishment a young man who has committed a murder that he justified by his philosophical reasoning later finds redemption through Christian faith.

Marriage and the Family

Realist novelists often focused on the dynamics of marriage and family life in different sectors of society. Extramarital affairs are the subject of such major works of realist fiction as Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, both novels about married middle-class women whose affairs lead to social catastrophe and suicide.

Realist fiction often focuses on several sets of families or couples within a single novel. Anna Karenina and War and Peace focus on three families. Eliot's Middlemarch also focuses on the family and marital dynamics within several different households. Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov focuses on four brothers (including one illegitimate half-brother) and their father, whom one of them has murdered. Dickens often wrote about orphans who were without family but who eventually find people who function as surrogate families. In their portrayals of marriages and families, realists explored various social and psychological factors contributing to the quality of domestic life in the nineteenth century.


Narrative Voice

The term narrative voice refers to the way in which a story is told. Many realist writers sought to narrate their fictional stories in an omniscient, objective voice, from the perspective of a storyteller who is not a character in the story but rather an invisible presence who remains outside the realm of the story. Realist writers hoped thereby to create accurate portrayals of objective reality. The French realists in particular-Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, and Maupassant-sought to describe the subject matter of their fiction in clear, detailed, accurate terms, devoid of judgment or moralizing on the part of the narrator.


Setting is an important element of Realism in literature. Realist writers sought to document every aspect of their own contemporary cultures through accurate representations of specific settings. Realist novels were thus set in both the city and the country, the authors taking care to accurately portray the working and living conditions of characters from every echelon of society. Thus, realist novelists documented settings from all walks of life in major cities such as London, Paris, New York, Boston, Moscow, and St. Petersburg. The living and working conditions of peasants and serfs in rural settings throughout England, Russia, and France were also depicted in great detail by major realist authors.

Realist writers also set their fictional stories in the midst of specific historical events of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities is set during the French Revolution. The volume Evenings at Médan contains six short stories by six different authors, all set during the Franco-German war of 1870-1871. Eliot's Middlemarch is set in a fictional town in the context of major political debates over social reform which took place in England during the first half of the nineteenth century. Tolstoy's War and Peace is set in the historical context of the Napoleonic wars between Russia and France during the early 1800s.

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Many realist writers have been celebrated for their masterful creation of a wide range of characters from all walks of life. Balzac, in his novel series The Human Comedy, created an encyclopedic range of characters representing every aspect of contemporary French society. In some ninety novels making up The Human Comedy, Balzac created over three thousand different characters. Balzac was also innovative in his use of the same characters in different novels, so that a character who is the protagonist of one novel may show up as a minor character in another novel.

Zola, inspired by Balzac's The Human Comedy, represented many aspects of French society through his twenty-volume series The Rougon-Macquarts, which centers on one family over several generations. Howells, inspired by the French and Russian realists, included in his novel AHazard of New Fortunes fifteen main characters, each representing a different place on the spectrum of American political thought. Dickens is also known for his many unforgettable characters, such as the miserable miser in AChristmas Carol,who have become enduring figures in Western culture.

Realist novelists are also celebrated for the impressive psychological detail by which their fictional characters are portrayed. Dostoevsky and Flaubert, in particular, are known for their mastery at delving into every nuance of a character's psychology in order to explain the complex array of factors which contribute to the motivation of that character. In their efforts to represent characters from all walks of life, realist novelists were masterful in their use of dialogue, capturing regional dialects as well as differences in the speech patterns of people from different socioeconomic backgrounds.



Naturalism was an important offshoot of Realism, although many critics agree that the differences between the two movements are so minimal that Naturalism is actually a subcategory of Realism. In fact, the two terms are often used interchangeably. Naturalism extended and intensified the tenets of Realism in that the naturalist writers sought to apply the evolutionary principles of Charles Darwin to their fiction. They believed that the course of each individual's life is determined by a combination of his or her hereditary traits and the historical and sociological environment into which she or he was born. Each character is thus essentially a victim of circumstance and has little power to change the course of his or her life.

The naturalist writers, led by the French novelist Zola, extended the values of Realism to even greater extremes of objectivity in their detailed observations and descriptions of all echelons of contemporary life. Zola's 1880 article "The Experimental Novel," the manifesto of literary Naturalism, describes the role of the author as that of a scientist examining a specimen under a microscope. In 1880 Zola edited the volume Evenings at Médan, a collection of stories by six authors in his circle of naturalists who met regularly at his home in Médan. Followers of Zola's school of Naturalism include Maupassant and Joris-Karl Huysmans in France as well as the German playwright Gerhart Hauptmann and the Portuguese novelist Jose Maria Eca de Queros.

The influence of Naturalism was not seen in American literature until the later writers Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser. Naturalism also found its proponents and practitioners in theater and painting.

The Parnassian Poets

The Parnassian poets who emerged in France during the 1860s were another offshoot of the realist movement in literature. The term Parnas-sian comes from the title of an anthology of poetry to which major poets of this movement contributed; the anthology Le Parnasse Contemporain was published in three separate volumes between 1866 and 1876.

The Parnassian poets developed their ideals as a reaction against the emotional outpouring of Romantic poetry. In their poetry, the Parnassians strove for emotional restraint and precise, objective descriptions of their subject matter. The leader of the Parnassian poets was Leconte de Lisle. Other major poets of the Parnassian movement include Albert Glatigny, Theodore de Banville, Francois Coppée, Leon Dierx, and Jose Maria de Heredia. The Parnassians exerted a significant influence on the poetry of Spain, Portugal, and Belgium.

American Regionalism and Local Color Fiction

In the United States, during the post-Civil War era, important subcategories of Realism were Page 664  |  Top of ArticleRegionalism (also called Midwestern Regionalism) and local color fiction. The regionalist authors were mostly from the Midwestern United States and wrote stories focused on the hardships of rural Midwesterners as well as the inhabitants of the Midwestern city of Chicago. Important regionalist authors are Hamlin Garland, Theodore Dreiser, and Sherwood Anderson. Local color fiction, which is similar to Regionalism, focuses on the local customs, traditions, dialects, and folklore of small town and rural America. Important local color writers include Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Kate Chopin.

Realism in Painting

The most important artist associated with Realism was the French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877). Courbet's works of art were the primary inspiration for the development of Realism in literature. Courbet brought new subject matter to painting when he depicted the realities of workers and peasants in stark, realistic images. Courbet asserted that art should accurately represent reality and the common man, rather than idealized images. His most famous paintings include "The Stone-Breakers" (1849), which depicts two men performing manual labor in a rural setting, and "Burial at Ornans" (1849), which depicts the funeral of a peasant and includes over forty individual figures. Because of his daring break with artistic convention, Courbet fought for recognition by the art world. In 1855, rejected by a major exhibition in France, Courbet put on his own exhibition of paintings that he labeled "realist." Courbet's Realism had a profound influence on many writers as well as artists throughout Europe. Realism exerted a major influence on nineteenth-century painting in the United States, where it was most notably practiced by Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins. Realism continued to exert a profound influence on various schools of painting of the early-twentieth century.

Socialist Realism

The socialist realism school of literary theory was proposed by Maxim Gorky and established as a dogma by the first Soviet Congress of Writers. It demanded adherence to a communist worldview in works of literature. Its doctrines required an objective viewpoint comprehensible to the working classes and themes of social struggle featuring strong proletarian heroes. A successful work of socialist realism is Nikolay Ostrovsky's Kak zakalyalas stal (How the Steel Was Tempered). Socialist realism is also known as social realism.

Urban Realism

Urban realism is a branch of realist writing that attempts to accurately depict the often harsh facts of modern urban existence. Some works by Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Emile Zola, Abraham Cahan, and Henry Fuller feature urban realism. Modern examples include Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land and Ron Milner's What the Wine Sellers Buy.


The realist movement in literature exerted a profound influence on the literature of France, Russia, England, and the United States in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. During this period, each of these nations experienced major political and social upheavals as well as periods of relative stability and liberal social reform.


France went through several major social and political upheavals during the second half of the nineteenth century. In the Revolution of 1848 Emperor Louis-Phillipe was deposed as a result of a popular uprising, and his nine-year old grandson was named as the new emperor of a new parliamentary government known as the Second Republic. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the more famous former emperor and military commander Napoleon Bonaparte, was elected the first president of the Second Republic. Louis-Napoleon ruled as president of France from 1848 until 1852. However, because the French constitution stated that no president could serve more than one four-year term, Louis-Napoleon staged a coup of his own government at the end of his term so that he could remain in power. In 1852, Louis-Napoleon proclaimed the Second Empire of France and had himself named Emperor Napoleon III. Napoleon III ruled the Second Empire until 1871, when a popular revolt heralded the end of the Second Empire and the beginning of the Third Republic, ruled by a popularly elected president. The Third Republic of France remained relatively stable until 1940

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  • 1840-1900: France experiences several major changes of government. With the Revolution of 1848, France enters the era of the Second Republic. From 1852 until 1870, the French government is known as the Second Empire. After the revolution of 1871, France enters the era of the Third Republic which lasts until 1940. During the periods of Republic, all adult males in France are granted the right to vote in political elections. Women in France do not have the right to vote.

    Today: Since 1959, the French government is known as the Fifth Republic, a constitutional democracy ruled by an elected president. Women as well as men have full voting rights. France is a member of the European Union, an organization that as of 2007 has 27 member nations united by common economic and political interests to promote peace, security, and economic prosperity.

  • 1850-1900: Russia is an empire ruled by a succession of autocratic czars. In 1861 a major societal reform is enacted with the emancipation of the serfs.

    Today: At the end of the twentieth century Russia emerged from the era of communist rule, which lasted from the revolution of 1917 until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Women and men have full voting rights. Since 1991 the former Soviet Union consists of some twelve independent nation states, of which Russia is the largest and most powerful. The nations of the former Soviet Union belong to a coalition known as the Commonwealth of Independent States.

  • 1850-1900: England is ruled by a parliament and prime minister under a sovereign queen. As of 1833 slavery has been abolished in England. Various reform laws vastly expand the number of white men granted the right to vote. Women in England do not have the right to vote.

    Today: England is ruled by a prime minister and parliament. The queen remains an important figurehead but holds little real political power. Women and men have full voting rights. England is a member of the European Union, a 27-member organization of member nations united by common social, economic, political, and security interests.

  • 1850-1900: The United States is a constitutional democracy ruled by an elected president. It experiences major internal conflict during the Civil War. After the Civil War, slavery is abolished and all African-American menaregrantedtherighttovote.Womendo not have the right to vote.

    Today: The United States government has remained a stable democracy since the revolution of 1776. Women and men have full voting rights.

when, during World War II, Germany invaded and occupied France. During periods of the various French republics, all adult males in France were granted the right to vote in political elections.


The Russian government was one of the few in Europe that remained relatively stable throughout the nineteenth century. While revolutions swept through Europe in the year 1848, the Russian Empire experienced no such political upheaval. Russia during this time was ruled by a succession of autocratic czars. Czar Alexander II ruled during the period of 1855 to 1881, when he was assassinated in a car bombing by an anarchist activist. Czar Alexander III ruled from 1881 to 1894. The last Emperor of Russia was Czar Nicholas II, who ruled from 1894 until the Russian Revolution of 1917, when he and his Page 666  |  Top of Articlefamily were assassinated. A major social reform took place in Russia in 1861, when the peasant serfs, who were essentially slaves under the control of wealthy landowners, were legally emancipated and granted the right to own land.


England during the nineteenth century was characterized and stabilized by the reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901, known as the Victorian era. While the queen remained the sovereign ruler of England, much of the nation's politics were carried out by Parliament under a prime minister. Toward the end of the century, the office of prime minister became the predominant political force in England, as the role of the queen in national politics receded.

Throughout the nineteenth century the English government diffused revolutionary pressures by passing a series of major reforms, including the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1885. These reforms included numerous changes in public policy and political structure, significantly expanding access to education, protecting the rights of laborers, and widening the sphere of political enfranchisement. Through expanded voting rights, an increasingly large segment of the adult male population was granted the right to vote in political elections. In addition, slavery was abolished in 1833. Toward the end of the century, organizations pressing for women's voting rights began to gain momentum.

United States

Although the United States has remained stable as a constitutional democracy with an elected president ever since the American Revolution of 1776, not every citizen in the nation had equal rights during the nineteenth century. In the beginning of the century, only white men had the right to vote. Until the end of the Civil War, most African Americans in the United States were slaves to white southern plantation owners. Because they were not considered full citizens, slaves did not have the right to vote. The United States experienced major social and political rupture in the mid-nineteenth century during the Civil War. In the Civil War the southern states seceded from the Union over the issue of slavery. The Civil War ended with victory by the North and the U.S. government thus asserting the Union and officially ending the institution of slavery in the United States.

The period after the Civil War is known as the era of Reconstruction, during which the South faced many social and political struggles over issues of race and the rights of the African Americans newly released from slavery. During this period, a constitutional amendment granted all adult males the right to vote, regardless of race. Women, however, were still denied the right to vote, and a national movement to lobby for women's right to vote, eventually known as the woman's suffrage movement, gained momentum.


The realist movement in literature had a broad-sweeping and profound affect on international literature throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century.

Many realist novelists were nationally and internationally recognized, within their lifetimes, to be among the greatest writers of the century. The public reception of many major realist novels was overwhelmingly positive. In general, realist novels were commercially successful throughout France, Russia, and England, to the extent that many major realist writers were able to support themselves entirely from the proceeds of their publications. In England, Dickens achieved unprecedented, and perhaps unsurpassed, popularity with the public. John R. Reed explains how Dickens employed metonymy, or the use of a name of an attribute to represent the thing itself, to create a kind of symbolism for the gritty, realistic worlds his characters inhabited. In Russia, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were widely revered for their literary accomplishments. In France, Balzac, Maupassant, Flaubert, and Zola were all recognized as major literary figures.

While many realist novels were popular with the reading public, the unabashed view of contemporary society and unadorned representation of contemporary culture expressed by the realists were criticized in some corners as indecent and morally repugnant. In France, for example, the forces of government censorship stepped in to prosecute Flaubert for the publication of Madame Bovary, a tale of marital infidelity, based on the grounds that it violated what are considered laws of morality and decency. In a court of law, however, Flaubert's novel was Page 667  |  Top of Article
Child labor was common in factories in the nineteenth century Child labor was common in factories in the nineteenth century(National Archives and Records Administration) found not guilty, and the scandal only increased the book's popularity.

Realist writers are widely celebrated for their mastery of objective, third-person narration. C. P. Snow, in The Realists, has described the powerful, "intelligent" narrative voice and sociological accuracy of realist novels as their most prominent contribution to literature. Snow observes in The Realists: Eight Portraits that "In great realistic novels, there is a presiding, unconcealed interpreting intelligence," by which the fictional characters are "examined with the writer's psychological resources and with cognitive intelligence." By contrast, some critics of the late-twentieth century have pointed out that the realist's ideal of narrative objectivity is belied by the personal style and subjective attitudes of the individual novelists. These commentators argue that the very notion of individual narration style implies the imprint of the author's subjective perceptions on the work he produces.

Many realist novels are considered to be reliable sociocultural documents of nineteenth-century society. Critics consistently praise the realists for their success in accurately representing all aspects of society, culture, and politics contemporary to their own. Critics often point to the work of Balzac as a representative example of this aspect of realist literature. Snow applies such statements in regard to Balzac to the entire body of realist fiction:

Engels said that Balzac told us more of the nature of French society in his time than all the sociologists, political thinkers, historical writers in the world. The same could be said of other realists as they dealt with their time and place.

In addition to literature, Realism has exerted a profound and widespread impact on many aspects of twentieth-century thought, including religion, philosophy, and psychology. Realist writers, particularly Flaubert and Dostoevsky, are celebrated for their acute attention to the complexities of human psychology and the many factors contributing to human motivation. Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology, attributed his own theories in part to the influence of Dostoevsky's psychological novels. In the mid-twentieth century, the pacifism espoused by Tolstoy in his novels profoundly influenced Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of India's nonviolent movement for national independence.

Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, the major realist novelists continue to be regarded as some of the greatest writers ever to have lived, and their masterpieces among the greatest literary accomplishments of all time.

However, the value of the realistic aesthetic to literature of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has become a topic of heated debate among contemporary literary critics. In a 1989 article, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast," published in Harper's magazine, novelist Tom Wolfe observed that, beginning in 1960, Realism fell out of fashion as a literary aesthetic in the United States. Wolfe traced the decline of Realism in American fiction, commenting, "By the early 1960s, the notion of the death of the realistic novel had caught on among young American writers with the force of a revelation." Wolfe, however, offered a counter argument to this antirealistic trend in American literature, asserting that a return to Realism in fiction, based on journalistic observations of contemporary life, is essential to the continuing vitality of American literature. Referring to the journalistic efforts of the nineteenth-century realist writers, Wolfe commented, "Dickens, Page 668  |  Top of ArticleDostoyevski, Balzac, Zola, and Sinclair Lewis assumed that the novelist had to go beyond his personal experience and head out into society as a reporter." It is this sociocultural, journalistic quality of realist fiction, Wolfe argued, that continues to be an essential ingredient of great fiction today. Wolfe asserted:

At this weak, pale, tabescent moment in the history of American literature, we need a battalion, a brigade, of Zolas to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hogstomping Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property.

Many critics have since responded, both positively and negatively, to Wolfe's landmark statement on the continuing value of Realism to the vitality of literature.


Liz Brent

Brent has a Ph.D. in American culture and works as a freelance writer. In this essay, Brent discusses the realist movement in theater and drama.


The realist movement in literature had a profound influence on all aspects of dramatic writing and theatrical production during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Realist theater moved away from exaggerated acting styles and overblown melodrama to create theatrical productions truer to the lives of the people in the audience. The major realist playwrights treated subjects of middle-class life in everyday, contemporary settings, featuring characters that face circumstances akin to those of average people. The term Realism, when applied to theater, is often used interchangeably with Naturalism.

Zola inaugurated the development of realist theater throughout Europe when, in 1867, he declared the need for a new type of theatrical production that eliminated artificiality and sought to accurately reproduce the details of daily life. His play Therese Raquin, a theatrical production of his 1867 novel, was produced on the stage in 1873 and marks the beginning of realist theater. Interestingly, several of the French authors who became major writers of realist fiction were failures as playwrights. Flaubert, Turgenev, Goncourt, and Daudet all wrote plays that failed in theatrical production. As a result, they

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  • Howells and the Age of Realism (1954), by Everett Carter, provides discussion of author and literary critic William Dean Howells and his significance to the development of Realism in American literature.
  • Kate Chopin is one of the most important realist writers of nineteenth-century fiction. Her most famous work is The Awakening (1899), which explores the conflicts between the traditional role of wife and the independent aspirations of a female artist.
  • Introduction to Russian Realism (1965), by Ernest J. Simmons, is a collection of essays on Realism in Russian literature and includes essays on Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov.
  • The Alienation of Reason: A History of Positivist Thought (1968), by Leszek Kolakowski, provides a history of positivism in nineteenth-century thought. Positivism was an important influence on the development of the realist movement in literature.
  • Mark Twain, the pen name for Samuel Langhorne Clemens, was a pioneer in the use of realistic speech patterns, notably through the use of dialectical speech. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer's Comrade (1884) illustrate his use of colloquial speech.
  • Romanticism and Realism: The Mythology of Nineteenth-Century Art (1984), by Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner, offers discussion of Romanticism and Realism in nineteenth-century art.
  • "Middlemarch": A Novel of Reform (1988), by Bert G. Hornback, is a discussion of the political and social views represented in Eliot's realist masterpiece Middlemarch.
  • "War and Peace": Tolstoy's Mirror of the World (1995), by Rimvydas Silbajoris, provides critical discussion of Tolstoy's famous novel.
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jokingly gave themselves the epithet auteurs sifflés, meaning "hissed authors," because their plays were so bad they got hissed off the stage by disgruntled audiences. Nonetheless, the realist movement in literature gave rise to some of the greatest playwrights and most celebrated plays in history.


The realist movement led to major changes in the dialogue written by playwrights and the manner in which actors delivered their dialogue. Playwrights began to write dialogue in a more natural style that mirrored the casual speech patterns of everyday conversation rather than the stilted, formalized speech of traditional theater. They addressed serious dramatic themes with plays set in contemporary times and concerning characters from everyday life. Realist playwrights often raised public controversy by addressing taboo social issues, such as marital infidelity and venereal disease. The greatest realist playwrights include Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorky in Russia, August Strindberg in Sweden, and Henrik Ibsen in Norway. Other realist playwrights of note include Henry Becque, Eugene Brieux, and Georges Porto-Riche in France, Gerhart Hauptmann in Germany, and B. M. Bjornson in Norway.

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) was the foremost Russian realist playwright of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Chekhov wrote in naturalistic detail about the uneventful lives of the Russian landed gentry in an era of economic and social decline. His play The Seagull was first performed in 1896, when it was so unfavorably received that it was nearly hissed off the stage. However, when the Moscow Art Theater performed The Seagull two years later, applying newly developed principles of realist acting and staging to their production, it was an immediate success. Chekhov's other major realist plays include Uncle Vanya (1896), Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904), the latter two written specifically for the Moscow Art Theater. Maksim Gorky (1868-1936) was another major Russian realist playwright. His most celebrated play, The Lower Depths (1902), concerns a character from the lower echelons of Russian society.

Two Scandinavian playwrights, Ibsen (1828-1906) and Strindberg (1848-1912), are among the most celebrated realist dramatists of their time. Ibsen wrote realist plays concerning dark moral undercurrents running beneath the placid, mundane surface of middle-class family life. He addressed such topics as infidelity, suicide, and syphilis in plays that were criticized in his home country as morally depraved but celebrated throughout Europe as masterpieces of realist drama. Ibsen's major plays include A Doll's House (1879), Ghosts (1881), The Wild Duck (1884), Hedda Gabler (1890), and The Master Builder (1892). The Swedish playwright Strindberg is equally celebrated for his works of realist drama. In his plays, Strindberg attacked conventional society in harsh terms of biting social commentary. He is also noted for his stark psychological Realism and mastery of naturalistic dialogue. Strindberg's major realist plays include The Father (1887), Miss Julie (1888), and Creditors (1888).


In accordance with the development of Realism, a number of small, private theaters were founded throughout Europe for the purpose of producing realist plays. The most influential of these new theaters were the Théatre-Libre ("Free Theater") in France, the Freie Bühne ("Free Stage") in Germany, The Independent Theatre Club in England, and the Moscow Art Theater in Russia.

The Théatre-Libre was founded in Paris in 1887 by Andre Antoine for the purpose of staging works of naturalist, or realist, drama. Antoine had been influenced by both the realist novels of Zola and the innovations of the Meiningen Theater Company in Germany. In its first season, the Théatre-Libre produced a set of one-act plays. With the production of a play by Tolstoy in the theater's second year, the Théatre-Libre became an international influence on the theater world. Page 670  |  Top of ArticleWorks by many of the major realist playwrights from throughout Europe were showcased at this theater, including those of Becque, Brieux, Ibsen, Strindberg, Hauptmann, Bjornson, and Porto-Riche. In less than ten years of its existence, the Théatre-Libre housed the production of some one hundred plays by fifty different playwrights. Although the Théatre-Libre eventually failed due to financial difficulties, Antoine went on to become an important film director in 1914.

In Berlin, the Freie Bühne theater, modeled after the Théatre-Libre, was founded in 1889 for the purpose of staging realist drama to a select private audience. The Freie Bühne,founded by Otto Brahm, staged plays by Ibsen, Hauptmann, Tolstoy, Zola, and Strindberg. Brahm's theatrical productions focused on the representation of everyday reality through naturalistic acting styles, dialogue, and set designs. Realist drama quickly caught on with the general public in Germany, and mainstream commercial theaters began to stage realist plays as well. In 1894 Brahm was made director of the Deutsche Theater and incorporated the Freie Bühne as an experimental division of this larger, established theater.

The Independent Theatre Club was founded in London in 1891 to produce works of realist drama. Jacob Grein, who founded the Independent Theatre Club, modeled it after the Théatre-Libre as a private theater catering to a small, select audience of writers and intellectuals. The Independent Theatre, as it is generally called, produced plays by Ibsen as well as by the English playwright and drama critic George Bernard Shaw. In 1891 the Independent Theatre was disbanded.

The Moscow Art Theater Company, founded in 1898, represents the pinnacle of realist theater. The Moscow Art Theater was founded by Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko for the purpose of producing dramas in accordance with their ideals regarding realist theater. Stanislavsky became the head of the Moscow Art Theater and its defining artistic force. One of the earliest productions of the Moscow Art Theater was Chekhov's The Seagull. The Seagull had been a complete failure in a production several years earlier, because traditional production was not suited to Chekhov's realist play. Under the direction of Stanislavsky, however, The Seagull was an instant success. Thereafter, the playwright Chekhov and The Moscow Art Theater under Stanislavsky became inextricably associated as representative of realist theater at its best. The Moscow Art Theater also produced the works of such major realist playwright's as Gorky, Hauptmann, and Tolstoy.


To accommodate the realist play, a new style of acting was needed. Acting styles in realist theaters were thus altered, instructing actors to deliver their dialogue in a more naturalistic manner, rather than the exaggerated, melodramatic style of traditional stage acting. In order to accomplish this, Stanislavsky developed an innovative method of acting that emphasized the natural expression of emotion on the part of the actor. This new acting method, known as the Stanislavsky Method, or Method Acting, exerted a profound influence on theatrical and film acting of the twentieth century.

Changes in theatrical acting style were facilitated by the introduction in 1885 of electric lighting on the stage. Since 1825, stages had been illuminated with gas lighting, but the use of electric lighting made small gestures and facial expressions of the actors more readily visible to the audience. As a result, exaggerated styles in acting were no longer a technical necessity for communicating with the audience.


The stagecraft of realist theater emphasized the representation of realistic details from everyday life. Long-standing traditions of set design were thus altered by realist dramatists in the effort to move away from artificiality and toward Naturalism.

One of the first innovations of realist stage design was in the shape of the stage itself. Traditionally, stage sets did not reproduce the dimensions of actual rooms but included a backcloth and stage wings. Realist stage sets, however, began to include a "box" shape, reproducing the dimensions of an actual room, with a ceiling and three walls—the fourth wall being open to face the audience. The first "box set" stage design was utilized by English actress and singer Madame Vestris in 1832.

Realist set design, costuming, and use of props were further characterized by excessive attention to the reproduction of realistic details from everyday life. The Théatre-Libre included in one production real meat hanging from hooks during a scene set in a butcher shop. The realist productions of the English dramatist T. W. Page 671  |  Top of Article
Russian peasants waiting for a ferry, circa 1905 Russian peasants waiting for a ferry, circa 1905(Hulton Archive / Getty Images) Robertson came to be called "cup-and-saucer" dramas, because they often included scenes of family meals in which the actors actually ate. Other realist productions included live animals. The American producer David Belasco, for example, once brought a real flock of sheep onto stage in a religious play.

Although the dominant works of realist literature were novels, the innovations of realist theater during the 1880s and 1890s exerted a profound and lasting influence on all aspects of playwriting and theatrical production throughout the twentieth century.

Source: Liz Brent, Critical Essay on Realism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

John R. Reed

In the following essay, Reed explores Dickens's use of metonymy, the naming of a thing by one of its attributes.

Very early in Oliver Twist, Oliver makes the famous blunder of begging for more food, an offense that promptly brings him before the board of commissioners of the workhouse. When Bumble the beadle confirms that Oliver has asked for more after consuming the supper allotted by the dietary, "the man in the white waistcoat" declares: "That boy will be hung . . . I know that boy will be hung." Nobody controverts the man in the white waistcoat; Oliver is instantly confined and a notice is posted on the outside gate of the workhouse advertising his availability for apprenticeship to any trade. The gentleman in the white waistcoat asserts himself again: "'I never was more convinced of anything in my life,' said the gentleman in the white waistcoat, as he knocked at the gate and read the bill next morning: 'I never was more convinced of anything in my life, than I am, that that boy will come to be hung'." This episode might have ended chapter 2, but the young

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Dickens does not drop the subject; instead, the narrator emphasizes his own relationship to the diegesis, linking his narrative task to the claims of the gentleman in the white waistcoat: "As I purpose to show in the sequel whether the white-waistcoated gentleman was right or not, I should perhaps mar the interest of this narrative (supposing it to possess any at all), if I ventured to hint, just yet, whether the life of Oliver Twist had this violent termination or no."

Since the full title of Dickens's novel is Oliver Twist, Or, The Parish Boy's Progress, there is room for doubt about his ultimate fate. How much can be expected of a child born in a workhouse and brought up on the rates at the mercy of a penny-wise middle-class bureaucracy? Poverty and squalor are more likely to produce a criminal than a law-abiding citizen among any orphans who happen to survive the conditions of the workhouse. Oliver's fate might be that of Bulwer's Paul Clifford or Ainsworth's Jack Sheppard. Nonetheless, the narrator's obvious sympathy for Oliver from the outset makes it unlikely that he will progress to the gallows. Thus the narrator's coy positioning of himself in relation to the gentleman in the white waistcoat seems to constitute an opposition, not a conundrum. At this point in the narrative, the narrator already knows the outcome of his narrative; the gentleman with the white waistcoat does not. He is simply confident that he does. Two unnamed individuals-the narrator and the man in the white waistcoat-present their forms of authority before their mutual audience, the novel's readers.

But this anonymous character has not finished his part in Oliver's drama. As chapter 3 begins, the narrator comments that, if the imprisoned Oliver had taken the gentleman with the white waistcoast's "sage advice," he would have hanged himself in his cell with his pocket handkerchief, except for the fact that, handkerchiefs being luxuries, workhouse boys have no access to them. This is an interesting proleptic moment, for a major part of the trade to which Fagin apprentices Oliver in London is the stealing of pocket handkerchiefs, potentially a hanging offense. So this apparent aside has a resonance known only to the narrator. This is a secret bit of metonymy-the luxury of handkerchiefs equals crime-that prepares for a similar metonymy involving the white waistcoat. Moreover, the connection to Fagin is not accidental, for the man in the white waistcoat acts for Oliver much in the way the Artful Dodger does-as an agent for a potential employer. He encourages Gamfield the chimney sweep, "exactly the sort of master Oliver Twist wanted," to apply for the boy and even becomes his advocate, introducing him to the board. Mr. Limbkin, the head of the board of commissioners, realizes what a dangerous and revolting occupation chimney sweeping is for the boys who must climb up the flues, and he expresses some sympathy along those lines, enough to drive a hard financial bargain with Gamfield. However, the sale of Oliver to the vile chimney sweep is prevented accidentally by a magistrate who is distracted from his doze and notices the terror in Oliver's face. He sends Oliver back to the workhouse with instructions that he be treated kindly. "That same evening," the narrator notes, "the gentleman in the white waistcoat most positively and decidedly affirmed, not only that Oliver would be hung, but that he would be drawn and quartered into the bargain."

The gentleman in the white waistcoat seems to be one of those gratuitous items that occur in Dickens's narratives, items that do not seem to have any integral function but merely extend or enhance a given situation. The man in the white waistcoat might be an intensifier, since he not only endorses the board's treatment of Oliver but seems to relish it with sadistic enjoyment. However, I suggest that the gentleman in the white waistcoat carries out a much more important function in the novel and is far from incidental because he illustrates what I take to be a conscious narrative technique that Dickens employs to distance his work from what we normally identify as realist fiction. Moreover, I believe that Dickens understood the rules for what came to be recognized as realism and that he purposely violated them for his own ends.

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In Hidden Rivalries in Victorian Fiction: Dickens, Realism, and Revaluation, Jerome Meckier places Dickens in the realist camp and argues that the major writers he examines—Dickens, Trollope, Gaskell, Eliot, Collins—were involved in a sly "realism war"; he declares that "the novelists themselves—professed realists all—read and reread one another" and then went on to overcome the version of realism of their competitors, most notably Dickens (2). Dickens had to respond in this war by reasserting his brand of realism in a constantly new way. But what I am suggesting is that Dickens's mode of evading the challenges of these contemporary rivals was to go beyond realism, to incorporate in his writings subversions of realism's stylistic assumptions to which they adhered. Many able critical studies, from John Romano's Dickens and Reality (1977) on, have argued pointedly that Dickens's fiction draws as much from romance, fairy tale, and allegory as it does from the mimetic tradition. Richard Lettis puts the situation well:

Above all, he thought that writing should enable the reader to see the essential affirmative "truth" of life—this was for him the best that writing could achieve. He disliked the obvious, and approved always of subtlety, but knew that judicious use of the commonplace, of carefully selected detail, could bring reality to a story—but it must always be the kind of reality he found in drama: "wonderful reality"—the world as we know it, but "polished by art" until it assumed values not felt in the dull settled world itself. For him reality was not what it was to the realists; it was neither commonplace as in Howells nor sordid as in so many others. (60-61)

In a hostile evaluation of Dickens's career David Musselwhite depicts a Dickens who begins as a truly original narrator in the role of Boz but transforms himself into a commodified author. He sees the anarchic, transparent world of Boz, along with some later passages, such as the description of Jacob's Island in Oliver Twist and of the Fleet Prison in Pickwick as preferable to the mannered prose of Bleak House,asinthe description of New Bleak House. The earlier work is impersonal and transparent in tone, whereas the later work is involved with the play of language itself, calling attention to itself. In a way, Musselwhite claims that Boz started as a realist and Dickens turned into a nonrealist, whatever we want to call that other entity. But again, my argument here is that Dickens became increasingly aware of how the various tropes of narration operated in what we call realism and he did not wish to be contained within those limits. Moreover, there are many moments in Boz's Sketches where Dickens has already grasped this notion. J. Hillis Miller showed in "Sketches by Boz, Oliver Twist, and Cruikshank's Illustrations" that what critics and readers had so long accepted as precise reportage in the Sketches must be read in a different way: "The Sketches are not mimesis of an externally existing reality, but the interpretation of that reality according to highly artificial schemas inherited from the past" (32). And again: "The metonymic associations which Boz makes are fancies rather than facts, impositions on the signs he sees of stock conventions, not mirroring but interpretations, which is to say lie" (35). Miller indicates that Dickens was at least partially conscious of his own methods in the way he organized the Sketches for book publication: "The movement from Scene to Character to Tale is not the metonymic process authenticating realistic representation but a movement deeper and deeper into the conventional, the concocted, the schematic" (35).

What happens as Dickens matures as a writer is that he does become more conscious of the play of language itself because he learns to use language in craftier ways. To recognize the double-edge of metonymy, for example, provides him with a powerful tool not merely for narration but for complexity of theme. To connect patterns of metonymy over whole novels is to raise his narrative from simple realism to a style that prefigures the leitmotif technique of Richard Wagner in music, or Thomas Mann's application of that technique to fiction, perhaps most self-consciously in Doctor Faustus. Mussel-white complains that in his description of Carker's room in Dombey and Son Dickens has moved away from surfaces and textures towards a concentration on inner malignity and thus heavily loads its details against Carker. But that is the point! Plain realism could describe the room and associate certain objects with malign intent, let us say, but Dickens goes beyond that to characterize the objects as metonymic of Carker's inner condition. It is the reverse of what the realist seeks to accomplish.

I cannot here go into detail about the mimetic tradition. It would be possible to discuss Dickens's departure from that tradition in his use of naming characters and places, his methods of description, and his stylistic redundancy, but, Page 674  |  Top of Articlefor the purposes of this essay, I would like to focus on one aspect of realism that seems to have received general agreement among critics over the years. That is the connection of metonymy with realist technique. Because metonymy is important in defining realism, I intend to show that Dickens used this trope in a manner contrary to its customary use in realist writing. Roman Jakobson formulated this identification of metonymy with realism when he opposed it to metaphor, which he allied to poetry:

The primacy of the metaphoric process in the literary schools of romanticism and symbolism has been repeatedly acknowledged, but it is still insufficiently realized that it is the predominance of metonymy which underlies and actually predetermines the so-called "realistic" trend, which belongs to an intermediary stage between the decline of romanticism and the rise of symbolism and is opposed to both. Following the path of contiguous relationships, the realistic author metonymically digresses from the plot to the atmosphere and from the characters to the setting in space and time. He is fond of synechdochic details. (77-78)

Virginia Woolf in her own way had already established the linkage of metonymy and realism in "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," with the purpose of showing its limitations. She divides up the writers of her day into Edwardians and Georgians, the former representing the realism of the past, the latter the modernism of the future. Bennett is one of the former, whose tools, Woolf says, no longer work for the present generation. The chief of these tools was elaborate description, so that character could be determined by what the human being was associated with among inanimate things. She concludes:

That is what I mean by saying that the Edwardian tools are the wrong ones for us to use. They have laid an enormous stress upon the fabric of things. They have given us a house in the hope that we may be able to deduce the human beings who live there. To give them their due, they have made that house much better worth living in. But if you hold that novels are in the first place about people, and only in the second about the houses they live in, that is the wrong way to set about it. (332)

Recently, Harry Shaw has examined the history of this relationship in some detail. He accepts Jakobson's ordering of metonymy with realism but extends the idea along his own lines:

To the extent, then, that we imagine ourselves back into a situation in which we can take seriously the claims of figural realism to capture the real, we find ourselves conceiving of the connections it makes as metonymical in nature. After Dante, figural realism appears to be founded in a species of metaphor-as does much of the literature we most prize. But that is because our culture's sense of the real has itself shifted. I draw from this the following moral, which extends Jakobson's contention that metonymy is the trope characteristic of nineteenth-century prose fiction: the defining trope of all realisms is metonymy-but it is metonymy as defined in the light of the ontology to which a given realism appeals.

If we return to our model of realism, then, I am suggesting that the mechanism that connects different levels in modern realism is a historicist metonymy. This metonymy assumes as many inflections as there are realist novelists. (103-04)

Without offering any particulars, Shaw excludes Dickens from his study, as I see it, correctly.

There are many ways in which realism does not and cannot conform to its own largely unwritten rules. Bruce Robbins has shown, for example, that British realism scarcely represents an entire part of the population. There are few significant representatives of "the people" in this literature, and, ironically, when "the people" are represented, it is servants, dependents within the households and thus extensions of their masters, who stand in for the lower classes. Robbins claims that servants are not even depicted as genuine representatives of their historical context but fulfill roles that existed in the earliest sources of Western literature, such as Greek drama. Servants thus serve an almost symbolic role in representing the rebellious, resistant, and otherwise challenging forces arrayed against the master class. For the most part, Robbins argues, realist novelists did not try to offer a genuine picture of the lower classes, but fell back upon a trusty convention. In a more recent study, Katherine Kearns argues that realism surreptitiously and unconsciously evokes those elements of experience that it seeks to repress. She has several different formulations of this idea, but here is one: "Realism's doubled intuitions for the social and the ineffable ensure both that the sublime will make itself attractive and that its attractions will be appropriately chastised; one ends up with authorial gestures that simultaneously acknowledge and repudiate the seductions of the sublime" (114). Many other studies indicate various qualifications of realism's claims to true mimesis.

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In a similar fashion, critics writing specifically on Dickens have examined ways in which his narratives must be seen as standing to one side of the realist tradition. A recent example is Juliet John's Dickens's Villains: Melodrama, Character, Popular Culture, which argues that the flatness of Dickens's characters is intentional. Dickens is not aiming primarily at the examination of internal states of mind but wishes to show that his characters are part of a larger community. Interiority is thus hostile to the communal drive of his narratives and is therefore associated primarily with villains and their like, a practice inherited from the stage, especially in its melodramatic modes.

My claim here, then, is not that I am making an original observation when I say that Dickens should not be placed within the mainstream realist tradition, if such a thing really exists, but that he appropriated devices associated with realism and used them to ends that operate against the realist program. Again, I do not mean to say that he defined himself against realism but that by hindsight we can recognize that he was resisting a mode of representation that came to dominance in fiction during his lifetime, fueled largely by the popularity of Sir Walter Scott's fiction. Elsewhere, I examine different ways in which Dickens sets himself against or outside of realist practice, but here I shall concentrate on the one feature of metonymy, and that returns us to the issue of the gentleman in the white waistcoat in Oliver Twist.

I have chosen the gentleman in the white waistcoat as my example because he is so rudimentary and he appears so early in Dickens's career. Dickens used metonymic devices brilliantly in his earliest writings. "Reflections in Monmouth Street" is an example, where, beginning with the old clothes exhibited in a ragshop, the narrator constructs from their appearance the lives of their former owners. The clothes bear the traces of a former life. Of course, this is the reverse of how metonymy usually works, where an article of clothing might indicate a person's function. A prominent example is the scene in Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd where Gabriel Oak goes to the market to find work as a farm agent only to encounter employers seeking shepherds instead. Oak identifies himself as a potential agent by wearing middle-class clothing, but changes to his shepherd's smock, hoping to find a place as a shepherd through this new identifying attire, only ironically to be passed over by an employer who is looking for an agent. Clothes mark the man.

The gentleman in the white waistcoat is interesting because he remains nameless and is identified chiefly by this one article of clothing and by his vicious sentiments. This is all the more striking since Dickens had declared in Sketches by Boz that viewing the exterior of a person was a surer guarantee of comprehending his character than written description can provide, thus to offer almost no description at all must be seen not as a disclaimer (as it is in the Sketches, where Boz amusingly goes on to provide the description he says is unnecessary) but as a conscious strategy. The gentleman in Oliver is thus entirely surface to us. We get no physical description of him as we do of Gamfield in detail to indicate his viciousness. We have just that white waistcoat as a token of his identity. Does the whiteness of the waistcoat signify anything, let us say, like the whiteness of Moby Dick, a whiteness Melville's narrator himself opens to multiple interpretations? Let us begin with the social significance of the waistcoat.

Dickens knew about waistcoats and in his early manhood favored elaborate examples. C. Willett Cunnington and Phillis Cunnington in their Handbook of English Costume in the Nineteenth Century note that in the 1820s and 1830s the waistcoat had become quite dramatic, with Dandies wearing all colors of the rainbow. They remark that the waistcoat "had become the most striking male garment; a gentleman's inventory of 1828 revealed 36 white waistcoats costing £54" (104). One might assume that, though this gentleman had white waistcoats, they were not necessarily plain, since many waistcoats described as white were of elegant fabrics, such as silk or satin. In the early part of the century a white satin embroidered waistcoat with gold thread was a standard article of Court dress. The Exquisites of the 1830s wore white waistcoats with elaborate costumes. Here are two examples quoted by the Cunningtons from magazines of the time:

In a light brown coat, white waistcoat, nankin pantaloons buttoned at the ankle with two gold buttons, yellow stockings with large violet clocks, shoes with buckles of polished cut steel.

. . . with green coat, broad velvet collar, white waistcoat, pantaloons of glazed white ticking tight to the knees. (107)

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Anne Buck points out that waistcoats, where "[m]ost of the colour and ornament of men's dress was concentrated," often "showed the fabrics and colours and woven and printed designs fashionable in the materials of women's dress" (188). Many of the waistcoats that survive from the nineteenth century were wedding waistcoats often "in white or cream figured silk, or white silk embroidered" (188).

It seems, then, that white waistcoats were quite a common feature of men's dress both for formal occasions, such as weddings and court appearances, and for ordinary use. Apparently a great deal depended upon the materials out of which these waistcoats were fashioned and the cut of their design. But Dickens tells us nothing more about the man in the white waistcoat's waistcoat except that it is white. The whole man thus depends upon this overwhelmingly identifying physical object and his dialogue, or nearly so. But I shall return to that in a minute. First I want to indicate that this trait in Dickens's method of characterization stayed with him throughout his career and took on interesting variations. I shall mention just a couple of instances here because my space is limited. In Little Dorrit, Merdle is intimidated by his butler, who is a grave and sober man, far more refined than his master. It is in Merdle's interest to demonstrate to Society all the trappings of wealth and high social status:

The chief butler was the next magnificent institution of the day. He was the stateliest man in company. He did nothing, but he looked on as few other men could have done. He was Mr. Merdle's last gift to Society. Mr. Merdle didn't want him, and was put out of countenance when the great creature looked at him; but inappeasable Society would have him—and had got him.

To this point, what we apparently have is some sharp social satire. Merdle's inferiority to his own servant makes a mockery of his supposed power. The butler should metonymically serve as a manifestation of the household to accomplish realist ends. And he does, except that in this case he does so ironically. So it would appear that this brief passage fulfills a realist purpose, though any reader should be wary of so quickly accepting it in that way, since it occurs in a chapter where the guests at Merdle's home are named as Treasury, Bar, and Bishop and fulfill typical, not individual, functions. Later we encounter Merdle wandering through his great house with "no apparent object but escape from the presence of the chief butler." And a few lines later we are introduced to his habit of "clasping his wrists as if he were taking himself into custody." Soon the "chief butler" becomes the "Chief Butler" and is described as "the Avenging Spirit of this great man's life."

Something similar happens in Great Expectations when Pip, feeling the need to confirm his status as a gentleman, hires an unneeded servant whose name is Pepper. In what might be mistaken as the typical metonymic device of associating character and social rank with clothing, Pip begins, "I had got so fast of late, that I had even started a boy in boots"—signifying that the boy's status as a servant is indicated by his livery, which Pip goes on to describe—"and had clothed him with a blue coat, canary waistcoat, white cravat, creamy breeches, and the boots already mentioned." The boy, however, is as much a nuisance as a help, and to indicate this Pip employs a language already strongly thematic throughout the novel. He says that he is "in bondage and slavery" after he has "made this monster." Since Pip later alludes to the Frankenstein creature, it is possible to link this reference to the later motif of the creature's avenging pursuit of Victor Frank-enstein. Hence, what begins with a "realist" ploy, quickly evolves into a symbolic function. Seeing Pepper as an "avenging phantom," he renames him the Avenger, and before long this function, which is a product of Pip's imagination and has nothing to do with the boy's own nature or conduct, becomes the major and metonymic way of referring to him. But he is no longer metonymically connected to the social world; he is now a part of Pip's internal realm which is peopled with images of convicts, chains of gold, punishment, revenge, and so forth. I need not catalog the well-known web of such references that make this novel such densely rich reading. The metonym in this very simple instance consciously transfers Pepper out of the range of servant-and-master social relations and into a symbolic range of references operating against the realist agenda. Metonym blends with metaphor and even suggests allegorical dimensions.

Late in his career, Dickens is able to turn this kind of trope into a brand of shorthand that blurs the difference between metaphor/simile and metonym. For convenience sake, I will use an example that almost reprises the instance of the butler above. At the Veneerings' house in Our Mutual Friend, we again have generic figures Boots and Page 677  |  Top of Article Brewer and an ominous servant, this time a retainer who "goes round, like a gloomy Analytical Chemist; always seeming to say, after 'Chablis, sir?'—'You wouldn't if you knew what it's made of'." By his next appearance and thereafter the simile disappears. Moreover, the gloom identified with him is transferred to those he serves; thus we see Eugene Wrayburn "gloomily resorting to the champagne chalice whenever proffered by the Analytical Chemist." In his next appearance, he has become simply "the Analytical." And this shift emphasizes a feature of the character that proves significant and fits him into the tenor of the novel as a whole. This apparently insignificant individual is capable of analyzing the situation around him accurately. In this novel crammed with secrets and mysteries, only a few individuals have this power of penetration and yet it is precisely this penetration that the narrator offers, especially in relationship to seeing past the surface of the Veneerings. Just as he knows better than others what the constituents of the Chablis are, the Analytical is equally acute about other domestic features. When Mrs. Veneering reports that Baby was uneasy in her sleep on the night of the election that will give Mr. Veneering a seat in Parliament, "The Analytical chemist, who is gloomily looking on, has diabolical impulses to suggest 'Wind' and throw up his situation; but represses them." In his last appearance, the Analytical Chemist feels he could give Veneering an apt answer to the question of how people live beyond their means. In his brief moments on stage he has become more and more judgmental, so it is not surprising that he departs the text as "the Analytical, perusing a scrap of paper lying on the salver, with the air of a literary Censor . . . " It might be said that Dickens here discloses his affiliation with this subversive character.

What is significant for the purposes of this essay is that Dickens calls attention to his non-realist joke on metonymy. A household servant is unlikely to have a metonymic connection with the science of chemistry. By converting a servant to an Analytical Chemist, Dickens aligns the servant with "scientific" analysis, something carried out methodically elsewhere in the novel by the police and others. The servant is a tiny image of the potential disclosure of untrue conditions that mirrors the effort of the novel as a whole. At his last appearance the Analytical Chemist has returned to simile, only now it is as the Analytical Chemist, not as a household retainer, that he is likened to a "literary Censor." This simile marks him as a literary artifact, thus marking him a product of fancy rather than fact and indicating that he has never been a participant in a "real" domain but a figure highjacked out of allegory. He becomes a sign pointing to a particular function of the narrative and thus resembles the allegorical figure on the ceiling of Tulking-horn's room with his ominous pointing hand.

This technique can operate in the reverse direction as well, as a simple example from A Christmas Carol shows. Near the opening of the story, the narrator asserts that "Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail" and then boldly calls our attention to the figurative expression: "Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade." This bit of self-conscious playfulness about the narrator's own language might have ended right here, but it is actually preparation for a far more important episode. When Scrooge arrives at his house that evening, he finds on his door "not a knocker, but Marley's face." The ironmongery simile that proved Marley dead becomes now an ironmongery that shows him not entirely dead at all. From being a dead character, Marley has become a real presence to Scrooge. More iron-mongery follows. The bells in the house begin to chime on their own, introducing the appearance of Marley's ghost wearing a chain made "of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel." Marley explains his bizarre ornament:

"I wear the chain I forged in life," replied the Ghost. "l made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?"

Marley's chosen attitude toward life has constituted this punishment in the hereafter, and Scrooge has been forging his own similar chain. By now the simple simile of ironmongery has become a forbidding symbolism. The metonymic items of Marley's business have been transmuted into a nearly allegorical object—an iron chain.

What is happening in Oliver Twist is simpler but depends upon the same irony that operates in the other examples I have cited. It is important that the narrator almost always refers to the man as the gentleman in the white waistcoat (his first Page 678  |  Top of Articlereference is the exception). There is no doubt about his status, but the repetition of this word, always linked to the white waistcoat, reinforces his social place as one that is privileged. To some degree, then, the gentleman in the white waistcoat is a counter for a whole class. It would be possible to provide a sociological analysis, indicating that only a gentleman comfortably well off could afford such a fashionable item that would require expensive laundering and so forth. White gloves similarly indicated station through the implication that they would have to be changed during the day and many of them laundered over time. Thus articles of clothing encode a certain social attitude and even ideology. But that kind of analysis is not my purpose here. I am concerned here with Dickens's style rather than his politics. The man in the white waistcoat is not most importantly a representative of his class but a peculiarly malign specimen. His prejudices completely overwhelm him. Oliver comes before the workhouse board which consists of "eight or ten fat gentlemen . . . sitting around a table." He is asked his name and hesitates to answer, being intimidated by so many gentlemen. The gentleman in a white waistcoat intervenes with an outburst that Oliver "was a fool. Which was a capital way of raising his spirits, and putting him quite at his ease." There is a great deal of obvious irony in this scene at the expense of the gentlemen. For example, this famous passage: "The members of this board were very sage, deep, philosophical men; and when they came to turn their attention to the workhouse, they found out at once, what ordinary folks would never have discovered—the poor people liked it!". But the gentleman in the white waistcoat is not merely stupid in this manner; he has a determined animus against the poor. He does not merely assume the worst about the poor, but wishes them ill. The head of the board instructs Oliver, but the gentleman in the white waistcoat adds his own view immediately after.

"Well! You have come here to be educated, and taught a useful trade," said the red-faced gentleman in the high chair.

"So you'll begin to pick oakum to-morrow morning at six o'clock," added the surly one in the white waistcoat.

This unexplained, gratuitous nastiness sums up the gentleman in the white waistcoat and raises him almost to the level of symbolic representation. In some ways we are faced with the mystery of whiteness similar to that in Moby Dick.

Near the beginning of this essay, I noted the narrative irony of the narrator's comment on the handkerchief that Oliver could not have hanged himself with because handkerchiefs were a luxury in the workhouse, and I suggested that this reference is the narrator's proleptic joke, because handkerchiefs will play an important role in Oliver's subsequent career. One prominent connection has to do with hanging, so that the gentleman in the white waistcoat is actually the first to voice a motif that proliferates through the text in a manner that becomes typical of Dickens's style, of which I have tried to give a few brief example from other novels above. Since Dickens was writing under great pressure while composing Oliver Twist, it cannot be assumed that he planned out that intricate pattern of handkerchief references, but it can be assumed that his imagination instinctively worked in this way. In later writings, it is clear that he consciously employs the technique.

Earlier I quoted from Katherine Kearns's Nineteenth-Century Literary Realism: Through the Looking-Glass. One chapter in this book, "A Tropology of Realism in Hard Times," is a very intriguing and valuable reading of Dickens's novel. At one point Kearns summarizes her perception of Dickens's dilemma—how Hard Times presents double messages at every level of its discourses, reflecting Dickens's anxiety about and his resistance to the realistic mode:

His apprehension of some alternative and unnameable energy brings his metonymies to challenge their own directional, propagandistic contiguities; people, their characters formed in some secret place, seem as much to create or to alter their surroundings as to be created or altered by them. (188)

Kearns is acute in noting the ways in which metonymy works in this novel. She sees that "the language that reveals character through metonymy in Hard Times must communicate Coke-town's essential nature as a fabricated construct, its strangeness only masked by the conventional linearities of its architecture . . . " (190). And she demonstrates that Bounderby's character, though dependent upon metonymies, refutes itself with its past, thus resisting the realistic program of the novel, for he is not what he is; his character has nothing to do with his past and thus is not explicable in terms of his own current realism. I couldn't agree more, but Kearns seems to feel that Dickens brings about this disjunction inadvertently, that he is unconsciously subverting Page 679  |  Top of Articlehis own attempt at realism. It seems to me more sensible to regard Dickens as intentionally bringing about exactly these deconstructions. After all, he is attacking the Utilitarian materiality represented by the Gradgrinds and Bounderbys, and he means to demonstrate its falseness. It is spectacularly evident that Bounderby, the enemy of fancy, is himself the most fanciful storyteller in the novel, having fabricated his entire early history. My argument is that Dickens employed metonymy in his fiction precisely to call attention to that part of experience that is not limited to materiality. He made his inclinations clear in his famous preface to Bleak House when he wrote: "In Bleak House, I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things."

In Hard Times, Dickens aggressively calls attention to the difference between the metonymic and the metaphoric, the "realistic" and the "fanciful," in his style. At the very opening of the story Mr. Gradgrind is described as having a "square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall." The square wall connects Grad-grind metonymically with the business/industry, no-nonsense aspect of Coketown. But the eyes in their cave associate him metaphorically with a different pattern in the novel that has to do with redemptive danger and with the capacity to imagine beyond the factual and the material. Kearns has called attention to the way in which the square wall pattern proliferates as the narrative proceeds:

Thus Gradgrind's "own metallurgical Louisa" is most literally a metonymic chip off the old block who lives in Stone Lodge, having been struck off the parent with a piece of the thing that names her; the implied syntagmatic progression goes nicely from the obdurate industrialism embodied in Coketown's red-brick buildings to Stone Lodge to the wall-and warehouse-like Mr. Gradgrind to his flinty offspring.

That is the metonymic development of the square wall, but the metaphoric development of the dark caves is equally complex and pervasive, though perhaps even subtler. It finds expression in the "ditch" that Bounderby claims to have been born in as well as in the "dark pit of shame and ruin at the bottom" of the mighty Staircase Mrs. Sparsit imagines Louisa descending, and in the uncovered shaft into which Stephen Blackpool falls. The ditch is the product of Bounderby's imagination, not a reality; the pit is the product of Mrs. Sparsit's imagination, and never becomes real; the shaft, though real enough, is the medium through which Stephen Blackpool, by the power of his positive imagination, conceives the central truth of the novel. While lying in the mineshaft he can see a star in the sky: "'I thowt it were the star as guided to Our Saviour's home. I awmust think it be the very star!"' The narrator endorses Stephen's perception: "The star had shown him where to find the God of the poor; and through humility, and sorrow, and forgiveness, he had gone to his Redeemer's rest."

This tendency to take a small detail from early in the narrative and elaborate it in an increasing network of allusions and similarities is typical of Dickens's narrative method and is related to the examples I have given in the narrator's mention of a handkerchief early in Oliver Twist, the butler in Little Dorrit, and Pepper in Great Expectations. Dickens does not disguise his purpose and his method from any careful reader. Even as McChoakumchild (and the name gives away the narrator's moral alignment) is calling for the schoolchildren to be filled with facts, the narrator obstinately contains his efforts within the realm of fancy.

He went to work in this preparatory lesson, not unlike Morgiana in the Forty Thieves: looking into all the vessels ranged before him, one after another, to see what they contained. Say, good McChoakumchild. When from thy boiling store, thou shalt fill each jar brimfull by-andby, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill outright the robber Fancy lurking within—or sometimes only maim him and distort him!

This is throwing down the gauntlet, as the shift to preacherly diction directly suggests. But if the narrator confines his Utilitarian characters within the circle of well-known fable, he does so in order to counteract a similar action perpetrated by these characters themselves. Here is what we learn of the young Gradgrinds, brought up through their father's fact-based training:

The first object with which they had an association or of which they had a remembrance, was a large black-board with a dry Ogre chalking ghastly white figures on it.

Not that they knew, by name or nature, anything about an Ogre. Fact forbid! I only use the word to express a monster in a lecturing castle, with Heaven knows how many heads manipulated into one, taking childhood captive, and dragging it into gloomy statistical dens by the hair.

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This reads like a parody of the Giant Despair in Pilgrim's Progress—one of the all-time great fictions illustrating the positive power of fancy—who captures and confines Christian and Hopeful in a dungeon because they have strayed out of the true way. Here, however, the children are innocent captives, and the den into which they are drawn bears a family resemblance to the caves of Gradgrind's eyes and the other ditches, pits, shafts, and so forth that emerge as the narrative proceeds, culminating in Stephen's release from his chasm into the freedom of death. In the contest between metonymy and metaphor, metaphor wins, but metonymy has also been drafted to the work of symbolic architecture which subverts and transcends what we call realism. J. Hillis Miller points out the way in which metonymy in Dickens crosses the line from its realistic function: "The metonymic reciprocity between a person and his surroundings, his clothes, furniture, house, and so on, is the basis for the metaphorical substitutions so frequent in Dickens's fiction. For Dickens, metonymy is the foundation and support of metaphor" (13). In Hard Times the work of subversion is planned, open, and direct, whereas in Oliver Twist, for example, it seems largely instinctive.

In the realist tradition, metonymic connections help to identify characters with social place, occupation, and mental or emotional ability. The details might be articles of clothing, tools, and so forth, but these articles are subordinate to the purpose of making sharper the nature of the human figure. For realism, metonymy reinforces materiality. By contrast, in Oliver Twist,Dickens uses a repetitive metonymy to obliterate any specific human identity and makes his gentleman in the white waistcoat instead the embodiment of a malign spirit, dispersing the materiality of the individual man into a class atmospheric. Realism is not supposed to take this leap, though in fact a number of supposed realists could not resist such moves at one time or another. But Dickens makes this a regular practice in his writing and seems to be doing so in resistance to the growing impulse in the writing of his time to favor elaborate examinations of internal states partly through metonymic connections, preferring instead to represent a world with symbolic overtones, no matter how deeply he was capable of giving the impression of rooting it in a palpable reality.

Source: John R. Reed, "The Gentleman in the White Waistcoat: Dickens and Metonymy," in Style, Vol. 39, No. 4, Winter 2005, pp. 412-26.


Edel, Leon, Henry James: A Life, HarperCollins, 1987.

Kaplan, Fred, Henry James: The Imagination of a Genius, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Pasco, Allan H., "Honoréde Balzac," in Dictionary of Literary Biography,Vol.119, Nineteenth-Century French Fiction Writers: Romanticism and Realism, 1800-1860,editedby Catharine Savage Brosman, Gale Research, 1992, pp. 3-33.

Reed, John R., "The Gentleman in the White Waistcoat: Dickens and Metonymy," in Style, Vol. 39, No. 4, Winter 2005, p. 424.

Snow, C. P., The Realists: Eight Portraits, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978, p. xi.

Wolfe, Tom, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel," in Harper's, November 1989, pp. 45-56.


Brown, Frederick, Zola: A Life, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1995.

Brown provides a biography of Émile Zola who was a preeminent writer of French realist fiction and the founder of the naturalist school of literature.

Hornback, Burt G., "The Hero of My Life": Essays on Dickens, Ohio University Press, 1981.

Hornback offers a series of essays in which he explains what Dickens has to teach readers about freedom, love, friendship, tragedy, and the powers of the imagination. Hornback focuses primarily on the novel David Copperfield, with additional discussion of Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Hughes, Kathryn, George Eliot: The Last Victorian, Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1998.

Hughes provides a biography of English realist novelist George Eliot in the context of English culture and society during the Victorian era.

Novick, Sheldon M., Henry James: The Young Master, Random House, 1996.

Volume 1 of Novick's accessible biography covers the years from James's birth in 1843 through 1881. James is drawn as a confident, established writer and not nearly as neurotic as other biographers have implied.

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———, Henry James: The Mature Master, Random House, 2007.

Volume 2 of Novick's biography illuminates the years between the publication of APortraitofa Lady (1881) and James's death in 1916. Novick discusses such relationships as James's rivalry with Oscar Wilde and his love for poet Arthur Benson.

Robb, Graham, Balzac: A Life, Norton, 1994.

In this biography, Robb provides extensive discussion of Balzac's novels in relation to the events of his life.

Thomas, Alan, Time in a Frame: Photography and the Nineteenth-Century Mind, Schocken Books, 1977.

Thomas offers an overview of popular subject-matter in nineteenth-century photography, including individual and family portraiture, travel photography, historical documentation, landscapes, and daily life.

Wilson, A. N., Tolstoy, Norton, 1988.

Wilson provides a comprehensive biography of Russian realist novelist Leo Tolstoy.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3279300034