Realism and Henry James

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Realism, in the broadest of definitions, is the faithful representation of reality or verisimilitude. The realist is considered to be the “philosophical extrovert” . Within the scope of American literature, ‘realism’ spans the time period from the Civil War to the turn of the century. Some claim that American realism was the product of a country shaken by war combined with technological advances and increased consciousness of nationhood. Realism, according to Weinberg, “denies the continuum of time as meaningful dimension of experience because time cannot be seen or touched” . In essence, realism was a solution to the problem of the past. It “made a religion out of newness and contemporaneity” . However, some critics of realism have criticized it as having been “exposed as an insidious agent of the capitalistic-imperialistic-bourgeois hegemony” .

The advent of realism was much appreciated by writers everywhere for it was a response to the changing cultural needs. William Dean Howells, Mark Twain and Henry James are few of the pioneers of American realism. With time, Howells abandoned the idea of the past and worked solely in the representation of American life. Twain, however, was in a limbo between his bonds with the past and a promise to the present. At this time it was James, who reconciled the ties of history and with an intellectual commitment to the present.

James wrote The Art of Fiction in 1884 in a critical response to Walter Besant’s lecture on the same topic. James’s basic aim in this critique was to critically analyze Besant’s thoughts on fiction whilst putting forward what he believed the art and form of fiction to be. James contends that fictional writing is the representation of real life. In The Art of Fiction he claims that a novel “is a proof of life and curiosity” . At another point in this discourse he writes, “The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life” . This is synonymous with the definition of realism that I have stated above which claims that realism in literature is the representation of life.

In the essay, James highlights the basis, which he believes, are essential for a piece of fiction to become art. According to him, a piece of fiction should be informative and should not carry with it the load of moral judgments or analysis. The characters and their psychological process should...

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