Novels & Human Rights Part 3: Realism

We’ve already talked a bit about Samuel Richardson and how Pamela was a new species of realistic novel. As I mentioned last week, Richardson purposefully designed his book to be realistic, and called his method “writing to the moment.” Using the epistolary style, writing in the form of letters, he could allow his character to speak directly to readers without the sensation of an author or narrator intervening. Exact descriptions of Pamela’s thoughts, surroundings, and actions allowed readers to imagine her life as if she were a real person. In The Rise of the Novel, an old and sometimes-problematic but still extremely useful book, literary scholar Ian Watt describes “formal realism” as the quality setting Pamela apart.The Rise of the Novel cover

Watt identifies four methods for achieving realism: Naming, time, space, and style. All four are associated with “particularity,” differentiating a character and situation from the general. Defoe initiated all four methods, Richardson took each a step further, and they became standard for novels. I just want to describe the four techniques in this post, because they’ll be important when we start talking about empathy.

  1. Naming. Rather than allegorical, historical, or stock names, Richardson used the everyday name “Pamela Andrews.” The name “Pamela” was not meant to stand for an idea or a type, but refer to a particular person.
  2. Time. Richardson considered the realities of time. Most previous fiction had aimed for a timeless quality, with only a loose interest in the actual time in which events took place. The specific year remains vague in Pamela, partly to avoid political implications, but Richardson takes great pains to mark each letter with the correct day and time. He relates daily minutiae that might have been irrelevant or impossible to portray in the great comedies and tragedies, but which possess great importance in the context of real life. The narrative rests on characters reacting to each other based on previous experiences, rather than the conventional system of elaborate coincidences. Other authors such as Henry Fielding mocked Richardson for taking such care over seeming irrelevancies, but Fielding went on to ensure that the cross-country journey in Tom Jones took the right amount of time, passed through the correct locations, referenced the correct stages of the moon, and corresponded properly to the Jacobite rebellion’s unfolding.
  3. Space. As the Tom Jones example illustrates, the portrayal of space is integral to the realistic time. Defoe was the first to visualize physical space that remained consistent and concrete throughout, specifically the island where Robinson Crusoe is marooned. Richardson took an even greater interest in space, having Pamela describe the different houses, rooms, and environments to the last detail as if they were real rooms.
  4. Style. Pamela used natural and lowbrow language like a real person of her stature would use. Some critics pointed out mistakes she had made referring to aristocratic titles and functions, or her colloquial language, but Richardson’s choice of words like “curchee” for “curtsey” were part of what made the book seem so lifelike.

Like I said, Richardson did all this on purpose. Next week, we’ll talk about the reaction he wanted from readers.

Have you ever read any novels that didn’t use formal realism? What did you think?

4 thoughts on “Novels & Human Rights Part 3: Realism

  1. I can’t think of a book off the top of my head that didn’t use formal realism… except for mythologies, which I’m not really sure count for comparison. 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t think of any books either, except for those myths and books like Pilgrim’s Progress that predated this whole development. Some plays and movies do it, though, like Waiting for Godot.

      Liked by 1 person


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