In the first chapter of his 2005 book, Realist Vision , Peter Brooks writes:
With the rise of the realist novel in the nineteenth century, we are into the age of Jules Michelet and Thomas Carlyle, of Karl Marx and John Ruskin, of Charles Darwin and Hippolyte Taine: that is, an age where history takes on new importance, and learns to be more scientific, and where theories of history come to explain how we got to be how we are, and in particular how we evolved from earlier forms to the present. It is the time of industrial, social and political revolution, and one of the defining characteristics of realist writing is I think a willingness to confront these issues. England develops a recognizable "industrial novel," one that takes on the problems of social misery and class conflict, and France has its "roman social," including popular socialist varieties.
To the extent that Brooks wants to link the rise of realist fiction to the rise of science and "theories of history," I can't really see how the former is influenced much by the latter, except specifically in the fiction of naturalist writers such as Emile Zola or, in the United States, Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser. These writers did indeed try to depict human behavior as it was defined by science—especially Darwinism—and by the forces of history. But these were writers who were deliberately using realism to illustrate a view of human life as determined by such external forces, not exploring the purely literary possibilities of realism as a still relatively new aesthetic strategy. They may have in a sense been portraying "things as they are," but they were doing it from an abstract philosophical perspective, not as an attempt to first of all render life in all of its particularities.
I equally don't understand why a defining feature of realism would be the willingness to "confront" issues or to "take on" social problems. If works of fiction are truly "realistic," immersed in the details of life as lived, they will naturally, sooner or later and in one way or another, engage with the issues and the problems of the times. There is no need to take that extra step, to insist that "issues" be confronted, unless the writer's (and the critic's) real interest lies in "taking on" social problems, on using fiction as a tool of social amelioration rather than regarding it as a self-sufficient form of literary art. To me, a "defining characteristic" of any fiction that can make a claim to be literary art, that can still be taken seriously in the long run, after the "social problems" of the day have been replaced by the next set, is that it not "confront" any issues or problems other than the literary problems immediately at hand.
Brooks's own insistence here that realism must "take on" larger social and cultural questions is actually contradicted, it seems to me, by what he asserts just a few paragraphs later:
You cannot, the realist claims, represent people without taking account of the things that people use and acquire in order to define themselves--their tools, their furniture, their accessories. These things are indeed part of the very definition of "character," of who one is and what one claims to be. The presence of things in these novels also signals their break from the neoclassical stylistic tradition, which tended to see the concrete, the particular, the utilitarian as vulgar, lower class, and to find beauty in the generalized and noble. The need to include and to represent things will consequently imply a visual inspection of the world of phenomena and a detailed report on it--a report often in the form of what we call description. The descriptive is typical--sometimes maddeningly so, of these novels. And the picture of the whole only emerges--if it does--from the accumulation of things.
This seems to me a pretty good account of what the best realist novels do: Draw the reader into a meticulously described world that the reader can accept as like the "real" world (keeping in mind that realistic description in fiction is just another device the writer can use, no more "authentic" than any other, given that what the reader is finally "confronted" with are just words on a page) and allow the reader to "see" the approximated world as fully as possible. If this sort of realism does bear philosophical implications, they are centered around the idea that the real is what is perceived. (Later, the "psychological" realists such as Woolf and Joyce would reject this; their fiction finds the real in how things are perceived, by focusing on the internal processes of consciousness.) But finally the art of realism lies in the way "things" are organized, in the manner and the skill with which the writer entices the reader to take note of the illuminating details.
Such an approach seems wholly at odds with the notion that realist fiction makes the reader aware of historical abstractions and social "issues." (The "generalized" rather than the "concrete.") "Things as they are" in the one seem on a wholly different scale than "things as they are" in the other. We can be made aware in fiction, subtly if implicitly, of historical change or social conflict, but only by acknowledging that the "defining characteristic" of realism is its particular approach to aesthetic representation, not its willingness to "take on" non-literary "problems.”
Thus, an analysis of realism that emphasizes taking on social problems as a defining characteristic requires a skeptical attitude toward the literary art of two of realism's ostensible founding figures, Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert. Brooks writes of Dickens's Hard Times, perhaps his own most concentrated portrayal of the social conditions of Victorian England:
By its play on the streets and surfaces of Coketown, the narratorial prose upholds that ideal evoked in the allusion to the Arabian Nights: the play of fancy, of metaphor, of magic and the counterfactual. The narratorial language is constantly saying to Coketown, as to Gradgrind and company, I am not prisoner of your system, I can transform it, soar above it, through the imaginative resources of my prose.
This is Brooks's ultimate judgment on Dickens as a writer who evokes the surfaces of realistic description, at times soars above them, but doesn't really grapple with the "issues" behind them: he writes too much. As Brooks puts it a little later, Dickens engages in "the procedure of turning all issues, facts, conditions, into questions of style." Rather than acknowledging that "Everything in the conditions of Coketown. . .cry out for organization of the workers," Dickens just plays his grandiose language games. He makes "the questions posed by industrialism too much into a trope."
For Brooks, Hard Times is not so much a "taking on" of the harsh realities of 19th century England but a retreat from them into. . .literature. Dickens doesn't attempt the politically-directed representation of these forces but instead the "nonrepresentation of Coketown in favor of something else, a representation of imaginative processes at work, a representation of transformative style at play on the world." It is difficult at times in reading this chapter to remember that Brooks intends such words as criticism. The "representation of imaginative processes at work" that Brooks describes here has always seemed to me one of the triumphs of Dickens's fiction.
Brooks gestures at granting Dickens his artistic preferences, but it's pretty clear from his discussion of Hard Times that he doesn't value these preferences in the same way he values fiction "that takes on the problems of social misery and class confict," or at least that does so without turning them into tropes. Certainly Brooks doesn't want to admit Dickens's fiction, with its out-of-control "narratorial prose" and its stubborn insistence on imagination, into the club of respectable realism.
With Flaubert, Brooks is less impatient with his style per se but still essentially accuses Flaubert of writing too much--of being preoccupied with writing, in this case of being fixated on structure and on detail ("le most juste"). According to Brooks:
. . .it may be precisely in this disciplining of his imagination to something he loathes that the arduous perfection of Madame Bovary is forged. There is nothing natural about this novel. It is absolutely the most literary of novels, Henry James said--which he did not mean entirely as praise. There is indeed something labored about the novel, its characters, plot, milieux are all constructed with effort. Everything, as Flaubert understands it, depends on the detail.
Flaubert's insistence on detailed description makes Brooks think that Madame Bovary "is the one novel, among all novels, that deserves the label 'realist'," but this conclusion does not leave him sanguine. Flaubert's sort of realism is too insular, too much the excuse for building an elaborate aesthetic construction where "everything depends on the detail." Unfortunately, the detail doesn't add up to a "confrontation" with the world, doesn't even add up to a coherent whole at all:
Rhetorically, I suppose you would call all of those riding crops and cravats and shirt buttons in Balzac's world synecdoches: they are parts that stand for an intelligible whole. In Flaubert's world, however, they seem more like apparent synecdoches, in that often the whole is never given, never quite achieved. While Emma is frequently described, we never quite see her whole. She and her world never quite cohere.
Further: "It is as if the parts of the world really are what is most significant about it—the rest may simply be metaphysics." Flaubert's very approach to realism, then, precludes a fiction that takes on problems other than the problems of representation themselves, beginning with the representation of Emma Bovary: "Emma is surely one of the most memorable 'characters' of the novels we have read, we want to construct her fully as a person, we live with her aspirations, delusions, disappointments. Yet we repeatedly are given to understand that as a living, breathing, character-construction, Emma is a product of language—of her reading, and reveries on her reading, and of the sociolects that define her world." When Brooks claims there is "something labored" about Madame Bovary, he intends it as "le mot juste" in describing Flaubert's relationship with language: "Writing was such a slow and painful process for Flaubert because he had to make something new, strange, and beautiful out of a language in essence commonplace."
"New, strange, and beautiful," it would seem, are finally incommensurate with "realism" as Peter Brooks would have us define it. Despite their importance as writers moving fiction toward a greater realism of representation—the attempt to create the illusion of life as lived by ordinary people—neither Dickens nor Flaubert can finally be embraced as true-blue realists dedicated to confronting the issues of the age. Both of them seem too interested in writing to be reliable social critics, the role Brooks appears to think supersedes all else in the realist's job description. Brooks almost seems to suggest that "art" and "realism" are mutually exclusive terms.