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  • 7/4/2004



In Music and Art

As intellectual and artistic movements 19th-Century Realism and Naturalism are both responses to Romanticism but are not really comparable to it in scope or influence.

For one thing, "realism" is not a term strictly applicable to music. There areverismo (realistic) operas like Umberto Giordano"sAndrea Chéniercreated in the last decade of the 19th century in Italy, but it is their plots rather than their music which can be said to participate in the movement toward realism. Since "pure" untexted music is not usually representational (with the controversial exception of "program" music), it cannot be said to be more or less realistic.

In contrast, art may be said to have had many realistic aspects before this time. The still lifes and domestic art of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779) anticipate many of the concerns of the 19th-Century Realists, and he in turn owes a debt to the Netherland school of still-life painting of the century before him, and one can find similar detailed renderings of everyday objects even on the walls of 1st-century Pompeii. Realism is a recurrent theme in art which becomes a coherent movement only after 1850; and even then it struggles against the overwhelming popularity of Romanticism.

In mid-19th century France, Gustave Courbet set forth a program of realistic painting as a self-conscious alternative to the dominant Romantic style, building on earlier work by the painters of the Barbizon School (of which the most famous member was Jean-François Millet), which had attempted to reproduce landscapes and village life as directly and accurately as possible. Impressionism can be seen as a development which grew out of Realism, but in its turn still had to battle the more popular Romanticism. Realism has never entirely displaced the popular taste for Romantic art, as any number of hotel-room paintings, paperback book covers and calendars testify. It became just one more style among others.

In Fiction

Realism"s most important influences have been on fiction and the theater. It is perhaps unsurprising that its origins can be traced to France, where the dominant official neoclassicism had put up a long struggle against Romanticism. Since the 18th century the French have traditionally viewed themselves as rationalists, and this prevailing attitude in intellectual circles meant that Romanticism led an uneasy existence in France even when allied with the major revolutionary movements of 1789 and 1830.



Novelist Honoré de Balzac is generally hailed as the grandfather of literary Realism in the long series of novels and stories he titledLa Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy),and which attempted systematically to render a portrait of all aspects of the France of his time from the lowest thief or prostitute to the highest aristocrat or political leader. The title of the series was chosen to contrast with Dante"sDivine Comedy, which had portrayed everything except the earthly human realm.

His attention to detail was obsessive, with long passages of description of settings being a characteristic feature of his work. Today readers resist such descriptive writing, but before films and television were invented, it had a magical effect on people, causing the world depicted to explode from the page in an almost tangible fashion. It is important to remember in reading all 19th-century fiction that those people who had the time and inclination to read novels at all generally had a lot of time to kill, and none of the cinematic and electronic distractions which have largely replaced recreational reading in our time. They welcomed lengthy novels (often published serially, over a series of weeks or even months) in the same way we greet a satisfying television series which becomes a staple of our lives.

Like such a television series, his works also incorporated a device for maintaining his audience: the continual reappearance of certain characters from one work to the next--now as protagonists, now as secondary figures. The idea is an old one, going back classic bodies of work such as the Homeric epics and the Medieval Arthurian romances; but it had a different effect in Balzac"s work: readers could recognize a slightly altered version of the world they themselves inhabited as they moved from story to story.

What is not realistic about Balzac"s fiction is his plots, filled with sensational conspiracies and crimes and wildly improbable coincidences. Balzac"s works are still essentially Romantic creations with a Realistic veneer.

Gustave Flaubert


It was Gustave Flaubert who in 1857 produced the seminal work from which later literary Realism was to flow:Madame Bovary Flaubert had begun his writing career as most young authors in his time did, as a Romantic, laboring on a tale of Medieval mysticism which was eventually published asLa Tentation de Saint Antoine (The Temptation of Saint Anthony).When he read an early draft of this work to some friends, they urged him to attempt something more down to earth. He chose the story of an adulterous woman married to an unimaginative country physician unable to respond to--or even comprehend--her romantic longings. Drawing on the real-life stories of two women--Delphine Delamare and Louise Pradier--whose experiences he was intimately familiar with, Flaubert labored to turn journalism into art while avoiding the romantic clichés he associated with his heroine"s fevered imagination.

Like Balzac, he engaged in systematic research, modeling the village in his novel on an actual country town and even drawing a map of it detailed enough to allow scholars to catch him when he has Emma Bovary turn in the wrong direction on one of her walks. Unlike Balzac, he avoided the sensational sort of plot lines characteristic of Romantic novels. To modern readers a married woman carrying on two adulterous affairs and then committing suicide may seem fairly sensational, but it is important to note that there was a long tradition of tales of female adultery in French literature stretching back as far as the Middle Ages. What Flaubert did with the theme was give adultery the shocking impact of the tabloids by stripping his tale of the high romantic idealism that usually justified adultery; instead he systematically satirized his heroine"s bourgeois taste for exotic art and sensational stories. The novel is almost an anti-romantic tract.

Despite the fact that it is generally agreed to be one of the most finely crafted works to be created in the 19th century, it would probably never have had the impact it did ifMadame Bovary had not also been the subject of a sensational obscenity trial. So restrained were the standards of polite fiction in mid-19th-century France that many modern readers go right past the big "sex scenes" which got Flaubert into trouble without noticing them (hints: look for Rodolphe to smoke while working on his harness just after making love with Emma for the first time while she experiences the afterglow, and for Emma to toss torn-up pieces of a note out of her carriage during her lovemaking with Léon). However, they were enough to outrage the defenders of middle-class morality. The prosecution was particularly indignant that Emma did not seem to suffer for her sins. Flaubert"s clever lawyer successfully argued that her grotesquely described death made the novel into a moral tale; but the fact is that she dies not because she is an adultress but because she is a shopaholic.

It is not only the literarystyle of Madame Bovarythat is anti-Romantic, it is itssubject as well. The narrative clearly portrays Emma as deluded for trying to model her life after the Romantic fiction she loves. The novel is a sort of anti-Romantic manifesto, and its notoriety spread its message far and wide. It is worth noting, however, that Flaubert returned to Romanticism from time to time in his career, for instance in Salammbo,a colorful historical novel set in ancient Carthage.

Influence of Realism

Realism had profound effects on fiction from places as far-flung as Russia and the Americas. The novel, which had been born out of the romance as a more or less fantastic narrative, settled into a realistic mode which is still dominant today. Aside from genre fiction such as fantasy and horror, we expect the ordinary novel today to be based in our own world, with recognizably familiar types of characters endowed with no supernatural powers, doing the sorts of things that ordinary people do every day. It is easy to forget that this expectation is only a century and a half old, and that the great bulk of the world"s fiction before departed in a wide variety of ways from this standard, which has been applied to film and television as well. Even comic strips now usually reflect daily life. Repeated revolts against this standard by various postmodernist and magical realist varieties of fiction have not dislodged the dominance of realism in fiction.

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