Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

Realist Narratives as Meeting Places for the Sciences, Humanities - and People.

Bohumil Fořt

Czech Academy of Sciences, Brno

Let me start with the notion of realist narrative itself. The term is usually used to refer to a group of literary texts belonging to a specific period and having specific (realistic) features. Amongst others, the most frequent qualities commonly associated with the term are objectivity, descriptivity, plausibility, probability, punctuality and accuracy. Aditionally, from a more comprehensive point of view, realism is connected with specific historically social situations. The combined power of these views results in our ability to refer to particular literary artworks as realistic - though without actually defining the term itself.

The goal of this study is to demarcate realist narratives by using literary semiotic and theoretical terms and to connect those narratives with the specific field of knowledge articulated by the sciences and humanities.

First of all, the notion of realism is firmly connected to the very core of literary investigation in general, and fictional investigation in particular. Theory of fiction, developed as a part of literary theory, provides us, among other things, with an investigation of fictional reference and representation which are crucial for the further development of my thoughts here.

The category of (fictional) reference combines the issues of literature with those traditionally belonging to semiotics when locating a fictional text's reference. The set of possible solutions of the issue of fictional reference encompasses the whole range of investigation: from those  depriving fictional texts of any reference, through those which provide the text with a special fictional reference, to those which refuse to differentiate between fictional and non-fictional references. Among other theoretical results conjoining with the tradition of literary theoretical investigation and with concepts of reference I have decided to focus on fictional worlds as one of the possible solutions to the problem of fictional reference.

From a different theoretical point of view, fiction can be investigated in terms of its representational qualities. This branch of literary theoretical inquiry is based on Plato's distinction between diegesis and mimesis and through the work of Aristotle it is firmly bound to the traditions of poetics and rhetoric. One of the most important results of these traditions lies in the concept of poetic language. While modern literary theory, based on formalist and structuralist approaches, has rejected the idea of a specific poetic language serving as the essence of the fictionality of literature as its distinctive feature, at the same time, some theoretical approaches provide us with a pragmatic view of fictionality, which does not leave the linguistic features of literary artworks beyond the scope of their attention. As Ruth Ronen states: "Since the fictionality of texts cannot be identified a priori with a concrete set of textual features or with a stable given group of texts, the way is open for a pragmatic definition of fictionality, which would take into consideration an integrated system of world-constructing conventions, cultural beliefs and reading procedures." (88) According to these approaches, fiction can be identified with certain global textual regularities (features) which help to keep the pragmatic contract between the originator of the fiction and its user.

Conclusion: Realist narratives refer to specific realist worlds and display specific features recognisable on two basic levels: at the level of ideas (reference) as well as at the level of discourse.

At this point it is necessary to introduce another crucial concept useful for literary realist inquiry, that of authentication; or better, authentication moves  which illustrate the specific basis of literary realist artworks. The authentication moves are specific moves simultaneously or separately occupying several levels of a literary artwork and substantially contribute to the  reality effect produced by the works.

Realist narratives provide for realist fictional worlds (RFW). These worlds are theoretically accessible by combining the classical narratological approach to the story and to that of  fictional worlds theory.

The central category of this world is claimed by the literary character, a term crucial for the long tradition of poetic and narratological investigation. Two other categories need to be added: the category of mind and the category of society. Subsuming these two categories into fictional realist worlds enables us to connect them with the category of the character - as a result of this connection we obtain two important pairs of categories: character and mind, a nd character and society. Whereas the character is bound to the mind by the qualities of the individual-psychological which founds the first authentication move, the character is bound to society by the qualities of the social-ideological which founds the second authentication move. Thus, we can claim that at the level of the fictional realist world the authentication moves of the individual and the psychological, on the one hand, and social and ideological, on the other, are dominant.

Additionally, fictional worlds theory provides for a general idea of worlds based on narratives and introduces a theoretically important division between the extensional and intensional structures of fictional worlds: whereas extensional structures consist of entities refered to by fictional narratives, intensional structures consist of the language means used for this reference. This division thus enables us to view the proposed authentication moves at the level of ideas as well as at the level of their language realisation and therefore to investigate realist narratives in more detail and depth.

In order to describe authentification moves of RFW at the textual level, let me use a combination of two theoretical suggestions developed in the tradition of a narrative examination. Lubomír Doležel emphasizes the ability of narrative texts to display qualities of objectivity and subjectivity. These qualities, according to Doležel, are based on the traditionally given pragmatic contract between the text's originator and its user and have nothing to do with any epistemological rights: they are purely semantic entities based in conventions ruling narrative texts (as we can read in Narrative Modes in Czech Literature (12)). As a part of a different approach, Dorrit Cohn (who introduces the terms of psychonarration, quoted monologue and narrated monologue) stipulates that with regard to pre-realist prose this mind is either directly uncovered by the 3rd person narration (psychonarration) by means of description, or revealed by the fictional character's direct speech formed by 1st person narration (quoted monologue or dialogue). Let me state that in the case of realist prose we can identify certain variants of these narrative techniques and also, more importantly, some newly developed ones. The tendency to subjectivity expressed through specific narrative techniques is a general principle which actually influences the final shape of the realist narration.

The first signal of the tendency is the proportion between the 1st person narrative form and the 3rd person narrative form: simply, the former overrules the latter. This tendency influences the actual space provided for the revealing of fictional minds - not only that narrative minds are given more space but they are also given in different depth and detail.

Nevertheless, it has to be emphasized that identical narrative tendencies to subjectivity can also be well identified in romantic narratives which are also subject-focused - let me quote from one of the most famous romantic monologues:

"No sympathy may I ever find. When I first sought it, it was the love of virtue, the feelings of happiness and affection with which my whole being overflowed, that I wished to be participated. But now, the virtue has become to me a shadow, and that hapiness and affection are turned into bitter and loathing despair, in what should I seek for sympathy? I am content to suffer alone, while my sufferings shall endure; when I die, I am well that abbhorence and opprobrium should load my memory." (Shelley 213)

As much as Mary Shelley provides us with a stricking example of a narrative person, the poor Frankenstein, expressing the flow of his mind to the narrator of the novel,  let me suggest that in terms of realist prose, monologues tend to be interiorised and turn into the most striking form of inernal quoted monologue formally expressed as free indirect discourse. This narrative technique combines the subjectivity of the 1st person narration with the objectivity of the 3rd person narration and actually enables the reader to view the most intimate thoughts of a literary character with the strengh of an omniscient observer and thus represents an embodied authentication move in terms of subjects and their minds, as can be documented in the famous Jane Eyre's self perception:

"I was in my own room as usal - just myself, without obvious change: nothing had smitten me, or maimed me. And yet, where was the Jane Eyre of yesterday? - where was her life? - where were her prospects?" (Brontë 292)

As has been stated, in terms of realist prose we can witness a strong move towards subject and subjectivity - first, the subject becomes the main object of representation, second, subjectivity as a narrative technique is dominant in realist texts. It has also been said that putting a literary character into the centre of fictional worlds is not, as stated, unique for realist novels and applies to the tradition of romanticism. Nevertheless,  whereas romantic characters can be viewed as exclusive individuals with an exclusive origin, experience and fate, realist characters can be seen more as ordinary human types. The strong tendency to democratisation, connected with mass production and the perception of realist texts, makes realist characters more accessible and understandable. In somehow hyperbolical fashion we can claim that realist characters are among the objects of  a thought experiment based of the ideas of the enlightment and using the data collecting and interpreting strategies of positivism. Human beings became one of the most important objects of the rationalist grasp of reality during the period of the enlightment which provided the basis for the development of the modern sciences and humanities. As much as almost all handbooks and histories of psychology refer to Wilhelm Wundt and his Contributions to the Theory of Sensory Perception (1862), in which Wundt especially emphasizes the role of experiments in the investigation of human reception, as foundations of modern psychology, it is obvious that the path toward this stage of development begun a long time before Wundt. At this point I want to draw our attention to David Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature (1738) with its claim of  studying human nature as the centre of  all investigation, which had influenced many levels of human viewing and investigating of their minds. Among Hume's key suggestions regarding moral, philosophical and sociological issues, it is especially his methodological claim that experience and observation are the two most important tools for the investigation of human nature - from a practical point of view, Hume (particularly) emphasizes an introspective observation of man's own mind.

"And the science of man is the only solid foundation for the other sciences, so, the only solid foundation we give to this science itself must be laid on experience and observation [...] We must, therefore, glean up our experiments in this science from a cautious observation of human life, and take them as they appear in the common course of the world, by men's behaviour in company, affairs, and in their pleasures.Where experiments of this kind are judiciously collected and compared, we may hope to establish on them a science which will not be inferior in certainty, and will be much superior in utility, to any other of human comprehesion." (5-8)

Let us claim, at this point, that the free indirect discourse technique of realist prose also strives for a description of human minds often situated at a highly inrospective level and therefore able to play an important role in human self-conceptualisation. Indeed, as we know from the later development of both, prose and psychology, some of the introspective techniques developed in the field of psychology and psychotherapy can be found in works of fiction (stream of conscioussness), and vice versa. To summarise the above the above said up, realist prose can be viewed as a type of thought experiment during which characters are placed into certain activities as well as passive narrative roles and their minds are analysed and described as if they were human beings. The analysis and desription are deeply founded in ideas and strategies developed outside literary discourse - collecting detailed data and using them as evidence for the writer's own artistic purposes.

Not only did the relationship between characters and their social enviroment become the most important topic for realist authors but the way in which realist prose handles this topic and analyses and interprets it is mainly based on a deterministic world view growing from the field of the developing social sciences. Realist prose accomodates techniques deriving from experiments in social thinking in which the individual becomes an object situated amongst several dialectically shaped dichotomies: village against town, religious against agnostic, rich against poor, young against old or new against traditional - and also, ultimately, moral against immoral. These counter-qualities accessed from a social determinist point of view enables the authors to virtually analyze and interpret the overall social and political moves connected with changes in the 19th century world views - the issue of morality and its changing forms is especially investigated in the tradition of British social philosophical thought as can be evidenced in the work of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Herbert Spencer. The last mentioned name is also connected with one important achievement in the study of human society, which has important consequenes for the ways in which societies are represented in fiction: Spencer, so to speak, fully opens human society to scientific (morphological) investigation comparing societies to living organisms: finally, in his The Priciples of Sociology (1876) he describes in detail both the structural and functional qualities of the 'aggregates' (as he calls them) and emphasizes the similarity of their parts-to-whole relationships: "In either of these the changes in the parts are mutually determined, and the changed actions of the parts are mutually dependent." (469) Thus, organisms and societies can be investigated by similar sets of means. The strategy of social experimentation which enables one to analyse and describe the development and functioning of social structures binds realist novels to the tradition of political philosophical and social scientic thinking based on social constructionist strategies. Once again, during the period of the enlightenment the foundations of this mode of thinking were established. The idea of a social experiment, rationally shaped and eleborated on with the positivist emphasis of data and details, overgrows the framework of social modelling significant for the early stages of the developing social sciences and becames part and parcel of general philosophical, religious, and moral issues. Thus, in realist novels, metaphorically speaking, David Hume's experimental method meets with Auguste Comte's emphasis on the positivist investigation of real world phenomena: "Our real business is to analyse accurately the circumstance of phenomena, and to connect them by the natural relations of succession and resemblance." (75) 

As stated, this idelogical source of realist prose constructs the thematic level of realist texts, nevertheless the text themselves display certain regularities which support this specific authentication move: they are historical, analythical and documentary. The historicity of realistic texts is a quality which can be found at the level of story composition - when Ezra Pound in his essay "Date Line" from 1934 considers epic 'a poem including history', we may in turn conclude that in the case of realist prose this historicity is an important foundation for developing socially deterministic stories. The historicity of realist stories which explains all the individual and social preconditions of  the fictional world reffered to, is underlined by several textual techniques of which the most important are detailed descriptions of situations and acts with a strong explanatory function as well as a detailed description of characters' minds. On the other hand, the documentarity and analythicity of realist novels is firmly connected with general ideas developed in the area of positivist method and their textual realisation: by collecting data and details and by analysing social structures via thought experiments and ultimately by describing the final result of these processes realist novels achieve the maximal reality-effect. Nevertheless, realist prose does more than introduce detailed descriptions and analyses of specific social structures in a specific phase of their development - they actually show how social structures and their inner rules arise. Let me exemplify some of the above mentioned ideas in relation to the text of Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens - during the introductory description of the prison of debtors Dickens not only describes the inner social laws of a constructed society of debtors but also shows the ways in which these laws are established and carried - needless to emphasize that the detailed description of social behaviour between debtors enhances the reality effect:

"When I'm off the lock for good and all, you'll be the Father of the Marshalsee [.]"

The turnkey went off the lock of thisworld next day. His words were remembered and repeated; and tradition afterwards handed down from generation to generation - a Marshalsee generation might be calculated as about three months  - that the shabby old debtor with the soft manner and the white hair was the Father of the Marshalsee [.] All new-comers were presented to him. He was punctilious in the exaction of this ceremony. The wits would perform the office of introduction with overcharged pomp and politeness, but they could not easily overstep his sense of it gravity. He received them in his poor room [.] with a kind of bowed-down beneficence." (105)

Social constructivism, as seen in Dickens'es famous novel, is in terms of realist prose often supported by specific reality-effect means: the actual world penetrates the fictional worlds in the form of real time-spatial, cultural and ideological data, which in their fictionalized form have become parts of the fictional universes; and at the level at which fictional realistic texts mime non-fictional discourse and its power of presenting reality. This tendency is usually embodied in analytical descriptions of social and political phenomena at the level of text structure and also in using the fictional counterpart of documents, declarations, letters and others at the level of typographic forms. These techniques are undoubtly used deliberately as objectivity enhancers, documenting reality within fictional universes.

The following schema provides with the final shape of Realist Fictional Worlds as introduced in this study:


As far as the formal features of realist novels can be described to a satisfactory extent it is clear that further attempts to demarcate realist works must come from a functional point of view. Clearly, functions of literature differ and develop with regard to particular literary periods and literary genres. In terms of realist prose we actually witness a considerable turn: realist prose, from a functional point of view, is integral to a nineteenth century striving to describe, analyse and interpret a world undertaking major social, financial and moral changes. Newly developed ideas and strategies in the humanities and sciences are in realist novels investigated by the means of sicial and psychological modelling and experiments. Thus realist novels actually are meeting places for virtual human being (or people) with the real world and with its ideas.


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Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Comte, August. August Comte and Positivism: The Essential Writing. Ed.Gertrud Lenzer. New York: Harper and Row Publisher, 1975.

Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit. London: Penguin Books, 1985.

Doležel, Lubomír. Narrative Modes in Czech Literature. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

---. Heterocosmica. Fiction and Possible Worlds. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. London: Dent, 1964.

Pound, Ezra. "Date Line". In Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. London: Faber - Faber, 1963.

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