The Illusion of Reality

One of my favourite writers died last week. James Herbert, thriller horror master, author of international bestsellers “The Rats” and “The Fog” amongst many others. They’re still not saying what he died from, and at the age of 69 his passing is a shock. In fact, his mysterious death would make a perfect plot for one of his novels. England has lost a visionary; a literary colossus. It was Herbert’s commentary and not-so-subtle portrayal of post-war industrialised Britain that ignited my interest in the realist novel, and literary realism has become my favourite genre. A difficult and often misunderstood beast. Admittedly, Balzac and Tolstoy do not make easy reading.


What is literary realism? One of the main misconceptions is that it attempts to describe reality. But the realist novel isn’t necessarily concerned with portraying life as it is. The concept of verisimilitude, where the author holds up a mirror along the road in a bid to record their own experiences, is only one way of interpreting the narrative. It throws questions about what realism purports to describe and whether the reality represented in the author’s mirror is one that is an objective truth unadulterated by the author’s experiences—or perhaps dependent on their angle and subjectivity. So what is the reality that the realist novel represents? One definition is that realism represents the complexity of modern life. Whereas in earlier literary genres stories were often didactic and moralistic in nature, the realist novel engages with developing cities, industrialisation and social classes. Modernity and the ever-encroaching urban reality is the subject of discourse. 

The historian and Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács described the realist novel as the epic of modernity. In this godless and commercially driven universe, where man faces his destiny in the glowing fires of industry and struggles to find meaning in this new transformative reality, narrative realism can provide a looking glass that simulates it. According to Lukács, “the novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God.” The objectivity of the novel is the mature man’s knowledge that meaning can never quite penetrate reality, but that without meaning, reality would disintegrate into the nothingness of inessentiality. It seems Lukács was a fan of Dostoevsky. 

So has the author-creator replaced God in this new reality as the demiurge of a brave new world? Can narrative realism ever succeed in representing the actual world it seeks to document?


“Scenes of Clerical Life” by George Eliot (above) is one of the first examples of the genre – and it is the first book that portrays alcoholism in great detail. The book contains three short stories and deals with the politics and societal effects of religious reform in rural England. Often cited as the most controversial of the collection, Janet’s Repentance brings several issues to the fore, chiefly alcoholism and domestic violence. The narrative introduces the reader to a torrid and often violent reality where the internalisation of repression and gradual breakdown of social and religious mores is demonstrated in all the main characters. Eliot weaves a form of idealism in her realist tapestry, where she is both loyal to her roots and her depiction of rural life (almost to the point of ethnography), but she also constructs a reality that is consciously created and knowingly fictive.

While realism seeks to represent modernity as a whole, modernity is in fact a fractured whole in which a plurality of voices and perspectives are expressed

The philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin argued that the realist novel has a heteroglossic form, i.e. that there are many voices to a novel and certainly several forces of signification that are mirrored and represented by the characters’ dilemmas. While realism seeks to represent modernity as a whole, modernity is in fact a fractured whole in which a plurality of voices and perspectives are expressed. Do you now see why literary realism can never truly be objectively descriptive of any “real” reality? Religion plays an integral part in the articulation of social conflict in the realist novel. Here the changing trends within religious discourse, no longer the life-threatening offense of yore, acquires a renewed social and political significance. This is faithfully mirrored in all of Eliot’s novels (“Middlemarch” is another example). Whereas in the Middle Ages society was unified by Christian symbolism that served to unite communities, in the modern world this sense of totality is lost and replaced with diligent steadfastness towards another goal, of a less celestial nature perhaps. In narrative realism, this religious paradox is often represented by tensions and anxieties within the community, even hostility. 


So is the scope of the novel limited by the scope of the author-creator’s experiences? And if this is the case, how can the realist novel ever be truly realistic? Perhaps this is the religious inheritance of narrative realism, a kind of godless literary limbo that can only ever distort reality and colour it with the author’s experience of the world.

The German realist novel is considerably different from its English counterpart in that its construction of the fictional world is more important. There is a greater psychological emphasis and preoccupation with innerlichkeit, a German word for the inner psychological life. The intensity of unconscious feelings have profound religious implications. German realism depicts an idealised, utopic representation of urban life, and this reality is often manifested in the way changing fortunes and experiences are represented. A wonderful example is Fontane’s “Irrungen Wirrungen” (translated as On Tangled Paths or Delusions Confusions). Published in 1888, the novel tells the story of a doomed romance between a beautiful orphaned seamstress, Lene, and a handsome young baron, Botho von Rienecker. The baron is unable to support himself and, in spite of his love for Lene, must heed the call of duty and marry his rich cousin. Interestingly, while finances are never mentioned, class is the underlying motif that fuels and eventually breaks their bond, each party accepting of their fate.


While losing the baron to the mores of aristocracy, Lene has the tools to recover from this and support herself in a way that the baron could never aspire to, and this is a consequence of the urban world that is represented in the German realist novel. For Fontane (right), realism could arise because the reader processed what was clearly a fictional text into the illusion of a common reality. While Eliot’s narratives (and indeed other English realist writers such as Hardy) are set in quaint rural communities, and the struggles are of a more existential nature, German realism explores life in the actual environment that it designs to represent: the city. 

G.K. Chesterton famously said that realism is romanticism that has lost its reason for existing. The lead characters in these two novels, while distinctly dissimilar in approach, have one thing in common: the eventual redemption and/or independence they find as a result of their painful experiences. But are their experiences a reflection of a reality that already exists in the ‘actual world’ or are they given life by the author-creator? If that is the case, they can never truly be measured or discerned to be wholly realistic, but merely artistic utterances. Perhaps this is why literary realism is so special; it illuminates the human condition with a precious lodestar of compassion. It gives rise to a kind of meta-realism, where the narrative balances a reality that is at once authentic and instructional, accurate and moral. And, most importantly, eternally forgiving. 


George Elliot – Scenes of a Clerical Life
Theodore Fontane – On Tangled Paths
Honoré de Balzac – The Human Comedy
Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary
Fyodor Dostoevsky – Brothers Karamazov
Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina



    • D'arcy

      I need to email you a crumpet… Sorry, I’m on holiday in the desertlands at the moment but normal services will be resumed soon. xo

  1. D'arcy

    Totally valid points! What you say about long-standing values is spot on. There’s a Pompeii exhibition!? Oh my, I would love to but I’m on holiday at the moment, let’s definitely do something when I’m back xoxo

  2. For me it was the French, but I was pondering realism in painting yesterday when I went to see the George Bellows exhibition at the Royal Academy. And I wholeheartedly agree with you that realism isn’t an objective depiction of reality. I don’t think that humans could do anything like that anyway: even photography is not truly realistic, because the act of choosing what to photograph, when and how is still a personal, individual choice and an artistic act (ie creation, or re-creation of a reality).

    Realist novels are interesting to read less as historical documents and more as documents of the reaction, individual and collective, to social, economic and cultural changes so big and so swift that people had difficulty in recognising their world and adapting to it. Then things precipitated even more with the advent of WWI and its unprecedented violence and destruction. We are the product of that and have learnt to adapt to change more quickly, but I think that, as a society, we are so superficial now because we can’t trust in any long-standing values anymore. That’s the price to pay for being on the edge of progress.

    By the way, I’m going to be at the British Museum on Saturday late morning for the Pompeii exhibition, so could meet you at some point in the afternoon, if you’re in the area. If not, we can meet up anoter time. xx

  3. Nice writing style, shall come here more often in the hope that one day you “will” haul your tush to mine. Thanks for coming over to my site, it’s new but it shall grow when I have more time for it. 🙂

  4. LHW

    The one thought I had reading through this is, it’s much the same as reading actual historical depictions. No matter how objective the writer/historian/biographer – it will always portray the point of view of the narrator.

    An author may try to represent the view point of a different class to his own, or a different people, but he will always see their alleged pov through his own eyes. Always perceive their alleged mentality through his own filters.

    A historian/ biographer may interview many people, or even cite them, but he will still be the one editing the final text according to the overall “reality” as he perceives it. In other words, it’s pretty much like the story of the blind men asked to describe what an elephant is. (The guy at the trunk thinks it resembles a rope, while the guy at the hind leg imagines it to be a pillar)

    In the end, however, same goes for the readers. Each reader will take the stories to mean exactly what they wish to find in them (or at least as far as you can stretch the interpretation). They will however give a fairly accurate glimpse of at least some of the mindsets and social norms of the times they were written as the writers cannot avoid being a product of their environment.

    • D'arcy

      Touché! Milim k’dorbanot. If I hear another half-baked rant about how any artistic style that seeks to “duplicate reality” is anathema (seriously, that’s what someone once said to me about the realist novel!) I will haul their tush to my Tush. 😉

  5. I’ve been ignoring a headache all day but now I’m going to slink off and nap on the couch, but before I do, may I add another novel to your excellent list? Émile Zola’s “Germinal”.

    • D'arcy

      Aw I hope you are feeling better this morning my dear! Émile Zola has been beckoning my attention for years now; I’m yet to discover him (a crime, I know!). I shall have to rectify this soon, in your honour. xoxo

  6. I have read Anna Karenina and Brothers Karamazov, both a long time ago. Also, quite a lot of Thomas Hardy, again mostly as a teenager.

    Your arguments are unimpeachable, and your use of words delightful; but then they always are. Can I propose ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist’ ? It had a profound affect on me, along with ‘Tale of two Cities’, and ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. Even greater effect on my younger mind, was the work of Mikhail Sholokhov, with the Russian classics; ‘And Quiet Flows The Don’, and ‘The Don Flows Home To The Sea’.

    Your work, as always, has the bearing of classical study, with the welcome addition of accessibility to all who read it. First class.

    • D'arcy

      Interesting how we both discovered literary realism through Russian writers – for you it was Sholokhov, for me Dostoevsky. I need to revisit Sholokhov; I remember reading an article about him a few years ago. He led an intriguing life.

      Comparing my prose to a classical study is a precious compliment, thank you x

  7. Vippy

    Mmm… delicious food for thought again, my dear! Your analysis is inspiring.

    My immediate reaction on reading Chesterton’s quote was: “What?! No way!”, but I need to give it another thought. I was indeed provoked!

    • D'arcy

      That’s so interesting that you mentioned Chesterton’s quote because I’m not sure how I feel about it either. But it’s SUCH a fascinating observation that I couldn’t resist referencing it. It’s provoking isn’t it? On one hand I can’t see it at all – and I actually resent the implication that realism is somehow borne out of a dying legacy or that romanticism is a wasteland in the waiting; surely that goes against what romanticism is all about! Anyway, Mr Chesterton aside, I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! Hugs.

      • Vippy

        Yep, I now wonder if it’s only because it was ‘someone important’ who said it that I hesitate to reject it comepletely as I would have done had I heard it as an incidental comment in, say, a social gathering. The feeling that maybe *I* am the one who doesn’t understand the profound depth of this saying. So I will think about it further, but it’s funny how these things work in regards to our judgment and confidence, isn’t it?

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