English 203

Graduate Readings: Realism

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Spring 2021 Duncan, Ian
MW 10:30-12


Realism achieves critical mass in England in 1856: the year George Eliot turned to writing fiction. Reviewing Ruskin’s Modern Painters, Eliot comments: "The truth of infinite value that he teaches is realism – the doctrine that all truth and beauty are to be attained by a humble and faithful study of nature." A hundred years later, the term acquires massive critical heft in studies in the novel – even as it splinters into an array of different, often vigorously contested uses and meanings. Realism is “a hybrid concept, in which an epistemological claim (for knowledge or truth) masquerades as an aesthetic ideal, with fatal consequences for both of these incommensurable dimensions” (Fredric Jameson); it depicts “the organic, indissoluble connection between man as a private individual and man as a social being” (Georg Lukács); it constitutes the “real” as “an object of desire and… therefore, necessarily, [as] a fantasy” (Audrey Jaffe); it persuades readers to “relinquish a beautiful fantasy and face a discomforting truth about the inadequacy of their own material existence” – by showing them that “the possible [is], after all, desirable” (Grace Lavery); it is “a speculative, abstract, nonmimetic form amenable to formalist address” which “mediates and theorizes the making of worlds” (Anna Kornbluh); by “[wobbling] between the antinomy of fictionality and reference, [it splits] off a seemingly infinite number of worlds” (Elaine Freedgood).  

We will bring these and other claims on, for, and against realism to bear on the nineteenth-century novel, the canonical vehicle of a realist aesthetic. We’ll consider the period's major genres of realist fiction – the Bildungsroman, the historical novel, and the novel of provincial life – within and also beyond the (soi-disant) core Anglo-French tradition. Alongside them, we’ll read some of the classic accounts of realism (Lukács, Eric Auerbach, Ian Watt) as well as more recent accounts, by Jameson, Lauren Goodlad, Freedgood, Kornbluh, et al, and in the recent collections Peripheral Realisms, ed. Jed Esty and Colleen Lye (MLQ, 2012), and Worlding Realisms, ed. Goodlad (Novel, 2016). 

Novels include (a provisional selection): Jane Austen, Emma; Walter Scott, Redgauntlet; Hannah Crafts, The Bondwoman’s Narrative; Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary; Charles Dickens, Great Expectations; Bankim Chatterjee, Rajmohan’s Wife; María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, Who Would Have Thought It?; George Eliot, Middlemarch

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