Realism and Henry James

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  • Topic: William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham, Mark Twain
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  • Published : May 16, 2005
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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 be open to the reader's interpretation. Rouse, in his critical comparison of James and Dickens, states "With James, the reader must be present, carefully and attentive, as the author reveals the inner existences as distinct from the outer appearance of his characters...James, paradoxically perhaps, seems to ask us to examine closely-from a distance" . For James, a ‘good' novel was not one with a happy ending and a virtuous morale but rather a one that depicts a faithful portrait of the society. This can be clearly observed from the ending of What Maisie Knew. The scene depicts Mrs. Wix and Maisie about to depart on a steamer.

They caught the steamer, which was just putting off, and, hustled across the gulf, found themselves on the deck so breathless and so scared that they gave up half the voyage to letting their emotion sink. It sank slowly and imperfectly; but at last, in mid-channel, surrounded by the quiet sea, Mrs Wix had courage to revert. ‘I didn't look back, did you?'

‘Yes. He wasn't there,' said Maisie.
‘Not on the balcony?'
Maisie waited a moment; then ‘He wasn't there' she simply said again. Mrs Wix was also silent a while. ‘He went to her,' she finally observed. ‘Oh I know!' the child replied.
Mrs Wix gave a sidelong look. She still had room for wonder at what Maisie knew .

The ending is typical of James. He leaves it to the interpretation of the reader. As Howells states, "it is the character, not the fate of his people which occupies him (James); when he has fully developed their character he leaves them to what destiny the reader...
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