ENGL 657

Comparative Literature :: Nineteenth-Century Realism from A(usten) to Z(ola) :: Spring 2015

Wednesdays 4.00 – 6.50 p.m., Butte Hall 327

Abbreviated calendar here with links to assignments and readings
Complete syllabus here with all class policies and calendar

One of the many early claims made about literature in Europe is that it represents or should represent the world as we know it. As Marshall Brown points out in a 1981 essay, “elements of realism can undoubtedly be found in the literature of all ages, though it seems undeniable that their frequency and prominence increased in the nineteenth century.” What do we mean by “realism”? What caused this increased prominence in the nineteenth century? How did it register in some of the texts canonically considered realist ones? How did authors at the time view their own representational agendas, and how have we assessed them since?

In this seminar, we’ll read an array of works representative, in different ways, of nineteenth-century European realism, as well as key theoretical and critical pieces. The novels (and novella) we’ll discuss together can also be clustered around some important currents or even central issues within realist narrative: the tension between the free indirect discourse used so often by Flaubert and, to a lesser extent, earlier figures like Austen, and the objective narration often prized by Balzac; the relationship between the urban and the rural, and between the domestic and the foreign, and between the private and public; realist fiction’s particular mode of forging an imagined psychological and material world, of fostering what Roland Barthes calls “the reality effect”; and the relationship between historical context and fictional attempts to reproduce that context. Finally, we’ll look at some late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century reprisals against realism.

Grade Breakdown

Assignments (details in syllabus, unless hyperlinked):

  • Posts :: 150 points :: 15%
  • Passage intros :: 100 points :: 10%
  • Presentation :: 150 points :: 15%
  • Short Assignment :: 150 points :: 15%

Research Project:

  • Annotated bibliography :: 150 points        15%
  • Proposal :: 50 points :: 5%
  • Paper :: 250 points :: 25%

Course readings

All of the course books are available at the campus bookstore, but feel free to buy them used if you can save a few bucks. Please have the edition listed, so that you can fully participate in and follow class lectures and discussion.

Required texts:

  • Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility (Oxford) ISBN: 9780199535576
  • Honoré de Balzac, Père Goriot (Norton, Burton Raffel translation) ISBN: 9780393971668
  • Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (Oxford, Margaret Mauldon translation) ISBN: 9780199535651
  • George Eliot, Middlemarch (Oxford) ISBN: 9780199536757
  • Émile Zola, Nana (Penguin, George Holden translation) ISBN: 9780140442632

Strongly recommended:

MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th edition ISBN: 1603290249


3 thoughts on “ENGL 657”

  1. I found Rouault’s description of his grief experience at the beginning of chapter 3 interesting in that it is, in my opinion, an accurate, spot on telling of the depths of despair, albeit with some grotesque description,”. . . I want to be like the moles that I saw on the branches, their insides swarming with worms, dead, and an end of it.” He gives advice to Charles and which he follows, he thinks of his wife and feels depressed. But then coffee is served and he “thought no more about her.” At the end of the brief chapter, he has proposed and Emma is imagining her wedding. I’m noticing how the events of the story happen very quickly, but at the same time there are these pauses, or moments, with details like hearing the chicken cluck, how laid an egg that morning, or looking out of a window to see the stars, feel a warm breeze,that slow time down, and bring the reader into the tiniest moment of reflection.
    I also am noticing the description of clothing throughout that conveys status, or emotional state as in Emma at the hearth with her shoulders exposed, and the wedding guests arriving in all manner of dresses, shirts, coats cut every way that demonstrate the wearer’s socio-economic status. The long listing of outfits by wedding guests ends with another grotesque image of the enflamed cuts from shaving on men’s faces. This insertion of the physical ugliness of specific, minute details on faces seems quite intentional.


  2. What I wish to talk about in this post is the use of narrator in Middlemarch. The narrator is multifaceted and malleable. At times it feel like I am reading “just the facts”—the narrator acting as a camera and simply relaying, without bias, the scene before us, as if we are reading a video recording of the real world. At times I see the narrator dip into the heads of characters, relay their feelings, understand the complexities of the situations, and relays these events effortlessly to the reader. I have also seen the narrator be woefully ignorant, resorting to speculation, musing about the past, as if standing idly by watching with wonderment. The narrator has also addressed me directly, has pleaded on the part of her characters, for us to accept what they have done or at least take a walk in their shoes. I wonder how this multifaceted enhanced or perhaps hinders the “realism” of the novel. I find it jarring in many places, taken out of the story, but also at times I find the tactics to be refreshing and masterful. Some passages to consider: “Dorothea felt a shock of alarm: every one noticed her sudden paleness as she looked up immediately at her uncle, while Mr. Casaubon looked at her” (308). This seems to say that the narrator can know what is happening in the minds of her characters. To “notice” would imply that the narrator can read minds. “‘Dodo!’ said Celia, in her quiet staccato; then kissed her sister, whose arms encircled her, and said no more. I think they both cried a little in a furtive manner, while Dorothea ran down-stairs to greet her uncle” (259). This shows ignorance on the part of the narrator. The narrator, it seems, can only speculate, and we see this many times. I will provide no further quotes at this time. I have plenty to bring up in class, but I want to notice first and foremost the different modes through which the narrator presents herself, the different tones, manners, and approaches that we all find in Eliot’s work. And again, what this does for the “realism” of the work I would be interested to discuss.


  3. I suppose with the cancellation of class and being bogged down with multiple papers from all my seminars, the third post has evidently slipped my mind, but judging from the home page of this website, I appear to not be the only person that forgot? I found some of the ideas from Wilde and Woolf to be compelling. Especially Woolf’s idea of the mind being reality—and her bold claim that Joyce is more of realist than any of those other novelists. Although this is of course true—that reality exists inside (and perhaps this is the only certain reality), but I would contend that the world outside of our own minds is also worthy of examination—and while the realists were concerned with the world outside of the mind, and the modernists were concerned with the inside of the mind, it seems to me that a literary depiction of reality would a balance between the two. The world affects the mind and the mind interprets the world. They seem to constantly be informing each other and imposing on each other—as if to say that without the mind the world would not exist to our own individual perception, and without the world the mind would have no ground on which to stand. They are interrelated and reliant on each other.
    It has always fascinated me that the mind can be so elusive when it is readily available. How has philosophy been so unable to define man? All the information we need is within our own experience. It is remarkable that this experience, ever-present and right at our doorstep, remains undefinable and mysterious. And the world as well!—the world is ever-present to our experience and examination, so how is it that these two elements are so mysterious to us? It seems that realist literature should seek to answer these questions. Ultimately the world and the mind coexist, and the extremism of both the realists and the modernists must find a medium. Perhaps this is the next step for literature: examining how the world imposes itself on the mind, and how the mind devours the world with experience and curiosity. I think I’ll have my poetry aim for that.


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Associate Professor of Literature :: Yale-NUS College

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