The Verisimilitude of Realism as a Democratic Form of Art

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Realism as an overarching concept, is the basic principle of the verisimilitude of human life without any illusory falsifications. Twentieth- century scholar Rene Wellek calls upon realism as “the objective representation of social reality”. As such, realism as a democratic art would entail an all-encompassing depiction of society, allowing for the perspectives of all classes, genders and races to be represented whilst preserving the lack of disillusionment intrinsic to the innate foundations of realism. In addition to this, it would also provide a representation of democracy that is fully functioning and plausible. The literary period of realism is one that requires a simple understanding of the harsh complexities of everyday life, depicting the classless, undistinguished nature of the common man. Its main intention being to balance the day to day euphoria with the gritty picture of its dire realities. In order to better understand the principles advocated by the movement of realism it’s important to understand its historical context in its retaliation against romanticism and the pitfalls of realism as a democratic art. This essay will be promoting a dystopian literary approach to democracy with a grounding in reality as fantasy takes flight.

The Romantic movement which began in the late 18th century reflected the irrational, illusory, exotic, naïve and untrained aspects of society. It presented human emotion with a complex natural grandeur which subtly transcends all human capacities and concerns. Dealing with the affairs of the upper classes. Its characteristics tend to borrow from Christianity with a secularised Christ-like hero that triumphs over industry, technology and civilisation. We see these themes staunchly presented in novels such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1774 ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’’ where Werther is enamoured with Charlotte and proceeds to have a passionate love affair with her despite her impending marriage to Albert, he also starkly rejects pressure from his family to join their stifling bourgeois life and ultimately, to release his sorrows and anger, Werther commits a tragic suicide due to an unobtainable pursuit of love. We sympathise with Werther’s impassioned and unconventional attitude to love however the story seems to be subtly underpinned by a sense of melodrama and impracticality. Romantic poetry in particular showcased some of the periods most prominent works. One of Wordsworth’s most famous poems of his canon ‘Daffodils’ staunchly reinforces this notion. In the poem the speaker is presented as being wholly immersed in nature, the reverse personification exhibited as they wander “lonely as a cloud” is paralleled in the personification of the naturalistic imagery such as the daffodils “fluttering and dancing in the breeze” as “ the waves around them danced”( footnote). The speaker goes on to describe the way nature counteracts the negativity and solidarity they feel, and that the speaker can think of the idyllic scene of the daffodils to restore balance to their life. The unification of man with nature epitomises the principles of romanticism, attempting to alter our sensibilities in a growing world of consumerism and technology. This sense of over idealisation of human capacity could perhaps create a strong sense of disillusionment for the reader. Romanticism creates an unobtainable reality in which the reader lives vicariously through feeling a sense of premature adolescence and excitement. However, there can also be a coldness and dogmatism towards all aspects of modernity that begin to override its illusion. Such criticisms of romanticism as well as a desire for change this illusory perception of life, gave birth to realism.

The literary movement of Realism began in the 19th century, specifically after world war one, in order to pull away from these ideas of romanticism, surrealism and neoclassicism. It was thought that life was being embellished and hyperbolised and there was a lack of representation of the middle and lower classes thus literature was lacking democracy. It was also thought there was a lack of focus on culture, government and politics as well as the psychological impacts of real-life events. Through realism other smaller movements such as naturalism were born, presenting more of a ‘chronicle of despair’ using realism to portray social issues and lifestyles. One of the most impressionable works of literature that sparked the movement of realism is Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 ‘Madame Bovary’, following a woman who through love affairs and debaucheries attempts to escape the mundanities of provincial domesticity. Emile Zola declared it to have “dealt romanticism its first blow” (footnote) subverting literary archetypes of the time. The lengthy descriptions which exist independently of the characters’, the characterisation and lack of symbolism except metaphors grounded in reality, give the novel its realistic rigour. The focus on its democratic nature stems from Emma’s dissatisfaction with the French bourgeoise longing to be part of the aristocracy, criticising moral conservatism and the petty lives of the middle class, thus it can be argued to have created democracy in its representation of the strive for social perpetuation in the lower classes as well as it’s accurate portrayal of the mundanities of life.

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Many playwrights of the period such as Anton Chekov, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Henrik Ibsen also dealt with the notion of dissatisfaction within the reality of a materialistic capitalist society. Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 ‘A Doll’s House” furthers this promoting a Marxist perspective that human thought is a result of the individual’s socioeconomic conditions, their relationships with others are often changed and altered by this, and that the less-fortunate are always exploited by the richer bourgeoisie. What is prevalent in Ibsen’s play is the exploitation of the weak and the poor by the strong and the rich, and an obsession with materialism and possession. Demonstrating life as bleak and unfulfilling even in the higher classes creates democracy as it criticises the hierarchal way in which the world is run and that ultimately how this leads to unhappiness. This can also be seen in Ibsen’s other plays such as ‘Hedda Gabler’ as well as Chekov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’, ‘Gusev’ or “The Cherry Orchard’. Finally, the concept of the ‘common man’ is one prevalent in realism and in ensuing democracy. This is perhaps most effectively portrayed by Arthur Miller, Miller effectively employs the hero who despite his character flaws and lack of impressionability is able to tragically triumph over societal constraints and expectations. The ease in which we’re able to relate to characters such as John Proctor, Eddie Carbone or Willy Lowman creates a direct opposition to the secularised figures of romanticism, instead of feeling an unattainable sense of heroism, we get a strong sympathy for societal figures and an irrepressible urge to make changes within the realms of possibility.

Despite this, there is a tendency for realist literature to not solely promote democracy but depict it as democratic socialism. Realism is often underpinned by a criticism of the hierarchal capitalist society we live in. The Crucibles John Proctor despite advocating for democracy through what we now know as freedom of speech and a right to a fair trial, is eventually overpowered by the embodiments of wealth, status and power. Much like in Uncle Vanya, Vanya’s life is nullified by the wealthy professor who supersedes him in every aspect of his being, merely due to their difference in wealth. Finally, in ‘Hedda Gabler’ Hedda’s suicide is a result of her inability to lead the life destined to a married upper-class woman, consumed by her fear of scandal and overcoming societal expectations, within her cosy bourgeois life she remains needlessly trapped in the patriarchy. If realism is essentially the democratic art, it alludes to the idea that democratic socialism is the best form of democracy. Which raises the question can realism be essentially democratic if it only portrays democracy through the eyes of a socialist perspective? Many arguments have been made for the lack of democracy in democratic socialism, notably, Friedrich Hayek, philosopher and economist, argued that democratic socialism can never be truly democratic as it empowers the state over the individual, destroying the freedom of the individual and simply replaces it with being part of a whole, whose role is to work within a planned economy. This inevitably leads to a dictatorial or totalitarian state. In Hayek’s ‘A road to Serfdom’ he declaratively states, “A claim for equality of material position can be met only by a government with totalitarian powers” (footnote). He emotively argues that a planned economy needs a government with absolute power to take decisions and there would be a lack of regularity of democratic majorities for it to be an efficient method of leadership. Therefore, it can be argued that Realism isn’t essentially a democratic art as it promotes an unrealistic view of democracy that can never be fully obtained or carried out.

Rather than Realist literature promoting democracy, you may take the view that dystopian literature is more effective, having a grounding within the realms of reality with a hypothetical yet believable extreme. George Orwell’s ‘1984’ materialises these views, creating within the reader not only an innate feeling of the importance of democracy, but also a clear example of how socialism leads to a totalitarian or dictatorial state. In ‘1984’, Winston, an ordinary middle-class member of society, is constantly under the watchful eye of big brother an omnipotent symbolic figure of the state who metaphorically also represents the dictators of the globe, and the party INGSOC which represents the principles of English socialism in the constructed language of the party, newspeak. Winston is stripped of all freedoms and is forced by the socialist ruling party, into becoming an undistinguished, indoctrinated and unthinking member of society. In ‘1984’ most of the world population have become victims of everlasting war, an omnipresent government and unremitting surveillance and propaganda. ‘1984’ effectively demonstrates the way in which democracy can be advocated for by creating a dystopian reality of the consequences of democratic neglect. It also depicts the way in which socialism can easily be manipulated into a higher power afflicting authority over the lesser citizens. Additionally, we see this in books such as Margaret Attwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” written in 1985. The United States government is overthrown by a theonomic military dictatorship where women are subjugated in a patriarchal society. The protagonist Offred is a ‘handmaid’, a woman existing in a time of increasing infertility due to pollution and radiation, Offred is used solely for the purpose of reproducing with the ‘commanders’, the ruling class of men. The dystopian world of Gilead shows the antithesis of democracy, women are restricted in their freedoms and the social hierarchy is more prevalent than ever. The harsh realities for Offred further demonstrate the potential ruination of society due to the demise of democracy. Dystopian literature allows writers to take society to its political extremes, the horrifying power of dystopian novels is the way in which they can exist within the realms of reality despite not being true to the society we currently live in. Both ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘1984’ are set in the future, allowing the reader to be instilled with the importance of democracy due a fear of the capacity of human nature. Whilst remaining faithful to the realms of reality, negating the supernatural and transcendental, the futurity and exaggeration of political extremes allow the imagination to wander as opposed to staying grounded in the day to day.

Conclusively, Gustave Courbet’s indication that realism is essentially a democratic art can be said to not be wholly true as it remains too grounded in verisimilitude, to expand the imagination to a lack of liberties and rights that would demonstrate the quintessential importance of democracy. Realism issues a very narrow, simplistic interpretation of democracy, rooted in democratic socialism without exploring any other possible facets to democracy, solely criticising the pitfalls of capitalist authoritarian formats of governing. Therefore, dystopian literature is a more efficacious way of allowing democracy to be portrayed through the arts as it expands the mind beyond the limits of reason whilst maintaining true to life and possibility. As modern author Ally Condie describes it “The beauty of dystopia is that it lets us vicariously experience future worlds – but we still have the power to change our own.’

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