In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Realism

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Victorian Literature Realism
Megan Ward
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0031


“The concept of verisimilitude is no longer fashionable,” admitted Tzvetan Todorov in 1968. From roughly the late 1960s to the late 1990s, when research in the humanities was dominated by a succession of theories that can loosely be characterized as postmodernist, realism as a mode of representation became something of an intellectual embarrassment. In this climate, it acquired the cartoonish reputation of a simplistic, literal-minded aesthetic premised on the naive conviction, associated with the idea of verisimilitude, that literature is capable of reproducing “reality” by replicating it in transparent language. In short, realism came to seem hopelessly premodernist, and the 19th-century novel, superficially less self-referential than the 20th-century novel, was therefore often demeaned. As this article testifies, the postmodernists’ pervasive embarrassment about realism did not prevent a number of scholars from producing highly significant studies of its techniques, thus demonstrating that it was every bit as self-conscious and sophisticated in its treatment of the problems of representation as subsequent, more properly modernist forms. But it is nonetheless evident that, more recently, realism has become considerably less unfashionable. Scholars of 19th-century literature have recently pioneered a reconsideration of realism, often productively combining poststructuralist interpretations of language and scrupulous historicist studies of the social, institutional, and ideological contexts in which realism developed its distinctive, if constantly evolving, grammar of representation. Realism is a notoriously difficult aesthetic to pin down, in part because the concept of reality itself is constantly changing and being recontested (moreover, as Brecht once said, “the situation is complicated by the fact that less than ever does the mere reflection of reality reveal anything about reality”). The essays, chapters, and books listed in this article nonetheless provide precise reconceptions of realism, in addition to expanding our sense of its ambitions, and its possibilities, in the 19th century. The categories that structure this article are intended to offer a range of contexts or perspectives within which 19th-century realism has been and might be further configured for both scholarly and pedagogic purposes.

General Overviews

There are many general overviews providing direct and indirect introductions to realism: under Sociocultural Introductions, those that offer overviews of the sociohistorical and cultural setting that framed the development of realism; and, under Author-Based Introductions, those that focus on specific authors’ achievements.

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