- Alison ShonkwilerAlison ShonkwilerDepartment of English, Rhode Island College
Realism is a historical phenomenon that is not of the past. Its recurrent rises and falls only attest to its persistence as a measure of representational authority. Even as literary history has produced different moments of “realism wars,” over the politics of realist versus antirealist aesthetics, the demand to represent an often strange and changing reality—however contested a term that may be—guarantees realism’s ongoing critical future.
Undoubtedly, realism has held a privileged position in the history of Western literary representation. Its fortunes are closely linked to the development of capitalist modernity, the rise of the novel, the emergence of the bourgeoisie, and the expansion of middle-class readerships with the literacy and leisure to read—and with an interest in reading about themselves as subjects. While many genealogies of realism are closely tied to the history of the rise of the novel—with Don Quixote as a point of departure—it is from its later, 19th-century forms that critical assumptions have emerged about its capacities and limitations. The 19th-century novel—whether its European or slightly later American version—is taken as the apex of the form and is tied to the rise of industrial capitalism, burgeoning ideas of social class, and expansion of empire. Although many of the realist writers of the 19th century were self-reflexive about the form, and often articulated theories of realism as distinct from romance and sentimental fiction, it was not until the mid-20th century, following the canonization of modernism in English departments, that a full-fledged critical analysis of realism as a form or mode would take shape. Our fullest articulations of realism therefore owe a great deal to its negative comparison to later forms—or, conversely, to the effort to resuscitate realism’s reputation against perceived critical oversimplifications. In consequence, there is no single definition of realism—nor even agreement on whether it is a mode, form, or genre—but an extraordinarily heterogenous set of ways of approaching it as a problem of representation.
Standard early genealogies of realism are to be found in historical accounts such as Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel and György Lukács’ Theory of the Novel and The Historical Novel, with a guide to important critiques and modifications to be found in Michael McKeon’s Theory of the Novel. This article does not retrace those critical histories. Nor does it presume to address the full range of realisms in the modern arts, including painting, photography, film, and video and digital arts. It focuses on the changing status of realism in the literary landscape, uses the fault lines of contemporary critical debates about realism to refer back to some of the recurrent terms of realism/antirealism debates, and concludes with a consideration of the “return” to realism in the 21st century.