Forum for Posts on Reading

These are short, informal pieces of writing meant to get us started discussing the texts for a given day. You can focus on whichever texts you want—they’re meant to be your reactions to and observations and questions about a reading—but they are due by noon the day that we are to discuss whichever text you choose to write on. They should discuss a specific passage, character, image, etc., from the text we’re discussing that day, and I’ll use them to jumpstart particular discussions, so you should be ready to introduce the gist of your post in class that day. I will read them all before class and try to mold our discussion at least partly around those topics or concerns, so this is a chance for you to shape the direction of the seminar meetings. You should feel free to respond to your classmates’ posts (civilly!) so that we continue the conversation beyond the seminar.

Due dates for these are sprinkled throughout the semester at five-week intervals. These dates are marked on the calendar.


26 thoughts on “Forum”

  1. In Alex Woloch’s The One vs. the Many he focuses on what the importance of minor characters are in the novel. The beginning of his text brings up a discussion we had in one of our first class meetings if the minor characters of Sense and Sensibility, in Woloch’s words, were a “reasonable imitation of actual life” or “distorted and therefore, cannot be interpreted as the transparent reflections of credible persons” (43). Woloch’s claim however is that the minor characters have a more integral purpose providing a character for the protagonist to “develop…across social space” (56). The minor characters are there to juxtapose the protagonist who must learn to dismiss the undesirable traits those minor characters possess. However in Sense and Sensibility I believe Marianne’s development at the end of the novel is more of an emulation of Elinor rather than a rejection of any minor characters failings. While there are minor characters, such as their mother Mrs. Dashwood, who demonstrates a lack of sense and excessive amount of sensibility it seems Marianne learns more from Elinor’s example and her own misfortunes than them.


  2. Does this text seem “real”? I contemplated this question with a certain degree of difficulty, wondering what psychological and cognitive phenomena can in fact make a text seem real—because if we are to consider this question honestly, when I was eleven I fully expected to receive a letter of admittance from Hogwarts; Hogwarts was in fact real to me then, but when consider realism itself, I believe we cannot categorize the Harry Potter series as such.
    My first impulse was against the “realism” of a text—Sense and Sensibility did not seem real to me like Harry Potter did to my young mind, but of course the reality effect is a deeper question than simply believability, or maybe even the mind being entranced by its engagement with the text. So my refutation of the “realism” of a text drifted to the idea that a text is a constructed artifact, an object, it carries a “thingness” in which the contents of this thing is not convincing enough to be seen as real. More precisely, a book is a book, and the story within the book is of course not real. There is an author-god that has fabricated all the occurrences within the book, and as a reader I am not fooled.
    This was my first thought, about a week ago. Now as I read Pere Goriot, this refutation of realism has shifted (and this idea I might want to explore further)—because I am coming to believe that realism inevitably fails. Realism fails because it is constrained by language.
    Let me dissect exactly what I am trying to explain: realism will inevitably fail because the mode in which realism operates (for literature) is through language—and language, in the sense of creating a story, is one-dimensional; and reality, quite obviously, is multi-dimensional. This is one idea that will explain why language is insufficient to portray the real world in any acceptable manner. Because I can tell that I am sitting at my desk in my room and that I have a large Beatles picture hanging above me and I am also enjoying a cold Lagunitas—I can describe these objects and these occurrences as thoroughly as language will allow, but this is only through a one-dimensional lens—okay, bear with me: because as I sit and sip this cold Imperial Stout, so does the lamp exist next to me, and so does the wind outside drift lazily, and so does the city of Shanghai exist—but to capture this reality through language will inevitably fail because language operates through a singular, linear conveyance of information, whereas reality exists in a multi-dimensionality that cannot be captured by the insufficiency of language. To summarize, language only conveys what it is trying to describe in the moment, but reality exists as a multitude.
    This came to light when in Pere Goriot Vautrin entered the kitchen singing. The narrative would have to cut out and convey the lyrics that he was singing while there was a whole cacophony going on in the kitchen simultaneously—as I said before: as Vautrin sings, so does the cat slink, and so does the boardinghouse stand, and so does the fog rest—and in a sense, what I mean to say is that language can only describe the world “one at a time,” can only relay information in a linear pattern; ultimately, realism’s downfall is that language is organized and structured, and reality is flummoxing and chaotic!


    1. Hmm I definitely get what you’re saying. Since writing is on a single, flat medium, you can’t really (accurately or authentically) capture how time works in reality. BUT, one thing that I was pondering last class: Is Realism meant to present you with a full, actualized, authentic representation of the ~real world~, or is it supposed to convince you that it is recounting the real world.

      If that didn’t make sense, here’s this: Are we supposed to feel like we are really in Paris watching Vautrin walk into the kitchen as the cat slinks by? Or are we supposed to feel like Balzac was really there and attempting to commit that experience to paper? If it’s the second one, then the reader can forgive writing’s one-dimensional narrative constraints and still believe in the truth of the tale.

      Maybe we weren’t supposed to feel either of those, I don’t know…


      1. Just what is realism trying to do? Like Zach, I’m not entirely certain either, but I do think that it’s more about a recounting or a consideration of the real world, as opposed to being exactly the real world. When I read Sense & Sensibility I don’t find a direct parallel to the real world as I know it, but that doesn’t necessarily make it untrue. It’s a story, but in the story I perceive an impression of the truth, or what I recognize as real real human nature.


  3. “Responsorama – Zach Phillips

    In the chapter “Realism,” from his book The Realistic Imagination, George Levine observes that literary realism defies past romantic conventions. Balzac seems to be pretty comfortable with this convention of defying convention. In his novel Pere Goriot, he gives Romantic ideals ~the finger~ quite often. He’s kind of gross and funny about it, too.

    The first defiance that I noticed was right at the novel’s start. Before diving into the dismal setting, Balzac speaks directly to the reader. He denounces the “disrepute into which the word drama has fallen,” citing its overuse in “heart-rending literature” (Balzac 5). Right from the get-go, Balzac seems to be taking shots at Victorian narrative conventions. He sees this novel as a drama in the truest sense of the word, not by the watered-down definition that Romantic literature has spawned. He goes even further by poking fun at readers of dramatic/romantic fiction, saying that, “once the whole tale has been read, a few tears may well have dropped, perhaps privately, perhaps even in public” (Balzac 5). I can just see Balzac’s odd, bulbous face laughing at his readers’ stupidity as he writes. But then I picture him taking a nice big gulp of black coffee and I can’t help but feel like the big cosmic joke was really on him.

    Anyway, on to the next convention-defying moment. Just a few pages later, Balzac drops quite the literary bomb on top of Romanticism’s quiet, ivy-covered cottage. He describes a Cupid statue in the Maison Vauquer’s courtyard as “an allegorical representation of Parisian Love, which can be cured at the nearby Hospital for Venereal Disease” (Balzac 7). The lewdness, the vulgarity; Jane Austen can’t even…

    The last notable defiance that I’ll point out comes up later in the first chapter. As Balzac describes the Countess Anastasie de Restaud, he says, “‘A pure-blooded animal, a thoroughbred, a classic beauty’: these were the latest terms of fashionable praise, replacing the ‘angels of Heaven'” (28) and other lovely compliments that one would probably prefer to receive. In this passage, Balzac uses Parisian vocabulary to denounce Romanticism. Parisian’s themselves have drifted away from using celestial and magical terms to compliment a woman’s appearance. Instead, they see her as an expensive horse to be ridden. So there’s that…


  4. In class last week, we examined the question (in regard to Sense and Sensibility), “does this text seem real?” As I was reading Balzac’s Pere Goriot, this same question kept coming to mind. Early in Pere Goriot, the narrator exclaims, “All is true.” But what is truth? The mere instance of an author asking the reader to believe in a tale’s veracity because he says so raises red flags. But the lines dividing fiction and non are fluid, amorphous. Balzac goes on to define this reality in the next sentence–“So true that anyone can recognize its elements in his own circle, perhaps in his own heart.” While the accounts may not be true, the feelings rendered by them are, or can be. And in this way, I agree, this story rings true. However, I am dissuaded and pushed further from reality when the narrator interjects into his opening description and asks the reader for forgiveness for going on at length in description. This continual “breaking of the fourth wall,” to borrow theatre terminology, completely deflates any notion that this more than just a story. It seems that instead of presenting itself as “real,” Balzac is merely playing with the “realism” genres conventions.

    This reminds me of the “found footage” sub-genre craze of the last 15+ years. Early the in the sub-genres life, each film attempted to present itself as fully real, often lacking credits and score. As the years have progressed, those genre conventions have lapsed, and most “found footage” films no longer evince the verisimilitude presented by those early works. They are simply dabbling in a genre conceit.



    1. Interesting that you bring up film – as I felt like I was viewing this story through a lens, controlled by a cinema verite filmmaker, that starts with a broad view, and then focuses further and further in to the smallest and most specific details of place/environment, character, and plot. We’re told the year, that it’s Paris and then in incremental views going closer, we see the pension and Madame Vanquer, and then each boarder in the pension along with the walls, the interior, decrepit furnishings, the unpleasant aromas, and where each boarder is placed in the building. we learn each main character’s story in stages. Goriot is described physically, his behavior is noted, we read conjecture and criticism from others about him, and slowly, zeroing in we learn his inner story. I think Balzac writes each character and the plot and subplots with the same kind of movement – surface/appearance, behavior, how others view him/her/it, and then what is going on inside or psychologically. For me, this is what made this a fascinating story, the structure kept me engrossed, even though it was not a surprise where the story was going, towards a dismal end for Goriot, and Rastignac’s departure from Goriot’s grave back to the depravity of Parisian society.


    1. I wasn’t listening to music, but drank a gallon of coffee while reading, in honor of Balzac. The topic of indulging in substances to inspire or tap into creative work came up during our lunch today with the visiting Joyce scholar.

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  5. Under the wire – phew –

    Erich Auerbach in “Mimesis” touched on a lot of things in French realism that I never knew. The historical context of story was intriguing, the idea that placing characters within a specific historical time instantly gives the story a plethora of conditions (political, economic, industrial, etc.). This might surprise people but I had no idea that cementing characters in specific historical moments was a new concept for literature when realism first came along. But something that interests me about Auerbach’s reading is when he begins to talk about heroes in realism. His summary of Balzac’s use of the hero stunned me but started to put a different light on Père Goriot,

    “Balzac plunges his heroes far more (than Stendhal) deeply into time-conditioned dependency; he thereby loses the standards and limits of what had earlier been felt as tragic, and he does not yet possess the objective seriousness toward modern reality which later developed. He bombastically takes every entanglement as tragic, every urge as a great passion; he is always ready to declare every person in misfortune a hero or a saint; if it is a woman, he compares her to an angel or the Madonna; every energetic scoundrel, and above all every figure who is at all sinister, he converts to a demon… It was in conformity with his emotional, fiery, and uncritical temperament, as well as with the romantic way of life, to sense hidden demonic forces everywhere and to exaggerate expression to the point of melodrama,” (482).

    For me, this is a bit of a revelation. The existence of Heroes in realism, for some reason, never occurred to me. If realism is working to create a realistic world, which Auerbach seems to be saying is the reason guys like Balzac and Stendhal chose to place their stories within specific historical moments, are heroes a part of that realism? The idea of Eugène de Rastignac as a hero makes me want to go back and look for Auerbach’s observations. I suppose I took the idea of heroes in stories as a piece of romanticism.

    And the formulaic way Auerbach breaks down Balzac’s characters gives me another thought. If we accept that these guys writing realism in France was ahead of the game on that particular front are Balzac’s character archetypes his attempt to portray his culture? Also, is realism better with a little bombasticness? Is realism better represented by heroes being heroes because they are the misfortunate? Or scoundrels, demons? Auerbach does say there was backlash to Balzac’s methods but I noticed that what brought on that criticism was this idea that realism was to be objective and serious. Not that I’m arguing for either status for realism but I don’t know what to make of the idea that Balzac is putting his characters in specific historical moments. If Balzac was conforming his realism to his own personal vision of real life at that particular moment of history that seems a legitimate version of realism. After all, none of us see the “real” in the world in exactly the same way so representing realism as being “all-the-real” is problematic anyway.


  6. Hello, English 657:
    Thank you for taking the time to read my post. First of all I must say this course has proven to be interesting and difficult for me all at the same time. I have only heard of the term “realism” and am still a tad confused on its definition and its importance. This doesn’t mean I don’t understand anything completely, maybe, but rather don’t feel quite yet confident on the subject. Anyway in this blog I will be talking about Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.

    I want to address the first half of chapter 18 titled “In the Hotel De La Mole.” Auerbach gives us an excerpt of Stendhal’s novel Le Rouge et le Noir along with brief insights as to its meaning and importance to realism. On page 455 one of the first sections I circled was Auerbach mention that the novel would “be almost incomprehensible without a most accurate and detailed knowledge of the political situation, the social stratification, and the economic circumstances of a perfectly definite historical moment, namely, that in which France found itself just before the July Revolution.” (455) Thought that came to me was that perhaps I order to see increments of realism or whether to judge whether or not a novel is portraying reality is to have sufficient knowledge of historical context is that is important to the novel being read. I believe that that may be true for Pere Goriot. I think it is important to say though that although I may not know as much historical context I can follow any social and economic contexts that the author may be trying to use as a portrayal of realism.


  7. In our first discussion about Flaubert’s Madame Bovary we talked about how the text is not focalized since it is not always clear who the narrator at any given moment is. According to Hans Robert Jauss in his An Aesthetics of Reception, this was a new literary form that, “compelled Flaubert’s audience to an unfamiliar perception of the ‘well-thumbed fable’ was the principle of impersonal (or uninvolved) narration” (Jauss 42). For example, in the novel when Leon and Madame Bovary’s relationship begins to dwindle it says, “They knew one another too well to experience that wonderment in mutual possession that increases its joy a hundredfold. She was as sick of him as he was weary of her. Emma was rediscovering, in adultery, all the banality of marriage” (Flaubert 258). Flaubert’s use of impersonal narration causes an ambiguity of whether the phrase “banality of marriage” is the belief of Madame Bovary or of the narrator/author Flaubert himself. According to the footnotes this sentence was attacked at Flaubert’s trial once the novel was published because the prosecution interpreted the speaker to be the narrator, or Flaubert, commenting on marriage rather than Madame Bovary. Jauss also recounts another instance in the novel after Emma’s first “false step” that has this same vagueness of who is speaking and caused the prosecution to claim Flaubert as immoral:

    She repeated: ‘I have a lover! a lover!,’ delighting at the idea as at that of a second     puberty that had come to her. So at last she was going to possess those joys of love, that  fever of happiness of which she had despaired. She was entering upon something  marvelous where all would be passion, ecstasy, delirium.

    (note: I am using the quote from Jauss on page 42, if you want to compare it our book on page 144 you’ll notice the translation differs slightly).

    The prosecuting attorney believed this passage to be an objective depiction that included the narrators judgment of glorified adultery. Jauss states, “Flaubert’s accuser thereby succumbed to an error…for the incriminating sentences are not any objective statement of the narrator’s to which the reader can attribute belief, but rather a subjective opinion of the character, who is thereby to be characterized in her feelings that are formed according to novels” (Jauss 42). Jauss goes on to claim that in these instances without clear signals of direct or indirect discourse Flaubert created a new artistic device that forced the reader to make the decision of whether the sentence is a characters opinion or narrators declaration.

    This new use of perspective in fiction is similar with George Levine’s ideas that realist novels experiment with form and styles and create complications with different perspectives. Levine says these experiments, “are not aberrations from some realistic norm, but intrinsic to nature…the realistic novel persistently drives itself to question not only the nature of artificially imposed social relations, but the nature of nature, and the nature of the novel” (Levine 21). Flaubert’s narrative style forced his readers to perceive things differently and make their own judgments rather than have the narrator blatantly provide them as was the previous convention in novels.

    This new use of impersonal narration “broke through an old novelistic convention-the moral judgment of the represented characters that is always unequivocal and confirmed in the description-the novel was able to radicalize or to raise new questions of lived praxis” (Jauss 43).
    With this impersonal form we don’t have a narrator jumping into the story and making everything clear for the reader. There is no Austen pausing the narration and telling us what really happened between Elinor and Colonel Brandon’s conversation. There is no Droste-Hülshoff breaking the fourth wall where the narrator addresses the reader, telling us “I cannot subtract or add anything”.

    If a sense of genuine life is truly to be found only from a muddled experience outside of all patterns Flaubert’s formal innovation of narrative style certainly is a step in that direction.

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  8. Last week, we discussed Frederic Jameson’s “The Realist Floor-Plan” and his ideas of literature’s desacralization and disenchantment. If I were to sum up Jameson’s argument, I would call it the Law of the Conservation of Enchantment. Enchantment, within literature, is neither created, nor destroyed. It simply shifts and squeezes into various forms to fit a novel’s needs, much like the temple-esque clock from Flaubert. Religion and faith, we decided, is one of several mutations that enchantment undergoes throughout the 19th century Realist novel, and I think that Eliot’s “Prelude” and her first description of Dorothea Brooke illustrates this perfectly.

    Eliot begins with what feels almost like an invocation, referencing Theresa of Avila, a well known saint and mystic. Her reference to Theresa starts off about as dramatic as you can get: two children barely thwarted in their quest to achieve martyrdom. Eliot continues with her dramatic rhetoric and storytelling, stating “Theresa’s passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life,” and then in a moment that feels rather editorialized, asks, “what were many-volumed romances of chivalry and the social conquests of a brilliant girl to her?” (Eliot 3). This excerpt openly testifies to the uselessness of Romantic literature, and instead replaces chivalry, adventure, and courtly romance with Theresa’s own “epic” life of piety. I think it would be false to claim she she completely undoes Romanticism, though, because she is actively using one of the most romantic cultural symbols of her time, one that still permeates our own: the Christian martyr.

    Eliot then takes her “disenchantment” even further when she claims that there are hundreds of Saint Theresa’s who never find fame or recognition, simply because their circumstances don’t call for it. They are only looked upon by common eyes, rather than the eyes of a poet. In acknowledging the trials of destiny, in requiring the services of the poet, in situating the average woman as a martyr to her own constricting life circumstances, Eliot mutates old school romanticism. She exchanges the dragon for the nun, the magic talisman for the rosary, I could go on…

    And all of this, really, leads directly and obviously into her description of Dorothea Brooke, the smart and pretty heroine with a heart of gold who dresses like a nun but still looks damn good doing. Romanticism seems to be alive and well, only hiding beneath a habit.

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  9. Keeping in the spirit of the season I would just like to share how glorious I think it is that we’re finally getting to read a story with this much magic in it! Between the wizards casting fire-balls that decimate whole villages and the dragon with a drinking problem I am simply enchanted by George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”. Now I was a little afraid, just from the cover being so bland with a girl in frumpy clothes sowing, that this would be an epic snorefest. Thankfully the constant saga-like battles fill every page with action packed sequences that mystify at every hairpin turn. I can say with great joy that I have fallen for our femme fatale, Dorothea Brooke and her deceptive clothing choices. Who knew such drab, nun-like garb could actually hide that many shotguns?

    April 1st is truly an interesting holiday for seeing who pays attention to whom and to what.

    In Hans Jauss’ bit we read he points to his thesis that an analysis of aesthetic influences is capable of approaching the meaning of a work of art, that by looking at the reader’s approach to the work can lead to fruitful analysis (22). Further on in his thesis 2 we find this passage, “A literary work, even when it appears to be new, does not present itself as something absolutely new in an informational vacuum, but predisposes its audience to a very specific kind of reception by announcements, overt and covert signals, familiar characteristics, or implicit allusions,” (23). This passage leads us to “the reader’s horizon of expectation” which I feel like we talked about a little (a week is a long time to remember things these days).
    So with Jauss firmly in mind I opened “Middlemarch”. Then flipped through the fifty odd pages of introductions. The read the first two pages. Then I read the first sentence,

    “Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how that mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of a little girl walking forth one morning hand-in-hand with her still small brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors?” (3).

    Using Jauss’ thesis can we not clearly see that Eliot is, in fact, giving her readers a horizon of expectation with her very first breath? Also, who starts their epic-not-epic with a question? It actually works out well for her considering she immediately draws her reader in by assuming something about them, a deft psychological move. The quicker the narrator draws themselves close to the reader the more ready the reader will be to trust the narrator. I mean, who didn’t know that? But what interests me most of all is the expectations are spelled out in the first paragraph of the introduction. I could quote the whole thing but here’s a quick rundown of what I now expect (and some I know because I’ve read further than the introduction): Our young Ms. Dorothea Brooke has a heart similar to that of a sainted woman who spent much of her life reading and in seclusion. Dorothea will apparently dress the part in a literal sense and fall for a guy with religious ties. He will most likely have zero passion leaving her to isolation that she actually wants and lastly, Dorothea will likely lead a boring life (made boring by a combination of her choices and circumstances outside of herself) and will be forgotten. Forgotten – in the sense that we’re reading about her now because she’s a stand in for all the girls of her time that led similar lives.

    I’m not certain I’m reading either Jauss or Eliot correctly as there could very well be horrendous happenings waiting just a few hundred pages beyond where I’ve put it down for now and Jauss feels like a crapshoot every time I try to figure him out. Still, it brings be to a question of sorts for myself. With Eliot being considered a pro at this realism gig she makes some moves right off that set up a rather long novel to be a rather tragic, figuratively, decent into the doldrums. It makes me wonder about the target audience of her time and their “reader horizon of expectations”. It wasn’t just Eliot, as we’ve already noted in class, working on this provincial life setting, what was it about the country people that so fascinated the readership of that day? If you are going to sit down and write a work such as “Middlemarch” was Eliot banking on the fact that she could sell her readers on the downward spiral of these “pretty” country lasses? The more I work it out the closer I get to this being the early stages of what we now call “Reality T.V.”, this desire to be able to entertain ourselves by reading about how absolutely foolish these country bumpkins are.

    Also, here’s a fun instrumental, just ‘cause:

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  10. As this semester continues, I am becoming more aware of what exactly Realism means and what this entails. This states exactly the opposite of my last blog where I was still weary of the whole subject. For this blog post I want to mention the aspects of history and the portrayal of women in George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

    It is interesting to look at how the historical time period and the female characters are approached in this novel. Taking what we have talked about in past theoretical, an author is attempting to capture a piece of reality and make it as real as possible on the page. As I come to the final stages of my thesis work I have been thinking a lot about this very topic. As an author of nonfiction, I am asked how exactly I create these characters on the page who may be real people in life, but on the page they become characters that are created. Although Eliot is a fiction writer and I am a nonfiction writer, I believe this is a question that we both have in common: how do we capture reality on the page?
    For my own writing. In order to create a character it is all about description and word choices. I see Eliot making these same choices especially when it comes to describing Dorothea Brooke. The first sentence that the reader sees in chapter one is a description on Miss Brooke,

    “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the bible-” (7).

    What is happening in this quote is Eliot describing this female character and her background. In this one description he has made reference to her life in the provinces and also equates her to that of image or “quotation” from the bible. This is very poetic language but at the same time descriptive, and perhaps even realistic.


  11. Last week when we discussed Zola’s “Preface” and “The Experimental Novel” we talked about how in the naturalistic novel the scientific details are highlighted and in the case of “Nana” the focus on the body. At the end of the novel as Nana’s dead body is left in the hotel room the narrator goes into great detail about her deterioration:

    “What lay on the pillow was a charnel-house, a heap of pus and blood, a shovelful of putrid flesh. The pustules had invaded the whole face, so that one pock touched the next. Withered and sunken, they had taken on the greyish colour of mud, and on that shapeless pulp, in which the features had ceased to be discernible, they already looked like mould from the grave. One eye, the left eye, had completely foundered in the bubbling purulence, and the other, which remained half open, looked like a dark, decaying hole. The nose was still suppurating. A large reddish crust starting on one of the cheeks was  invading the mouth, twisting it into a terrible grin. And around this grotesque and horrible mask of death, the hair, the beautiful hair, still blazed like sunlight and flowed in a stream of gold. Venus was decomposing. It was as if the poison she had picked up in the gutters,   from the carcasses left there by the roadside, that ferment with which she had poisoned a whole person, had now risen to her face and rotted it” (470).

    Every disgusting element of her disintegration is depicted explicitly, reminding me of Zola’s idea of authorship as autopsy as we are literally being given the examination of a dead body. It is as if we are looking at Nana though a magnifying glass noting each deformity that is taking place on her body. Furthermore, we are also once again given the idea of the supernatural in the novel being attacked by naturalism with the final image of Nana as Venus. When Nana first appears as Venus she is described, “with her hand on her hip, she brought Venus down to street level and sat her in the gutter” (39). Now as she lays decaying she once again is compared to the goddess in the sewers, mocking the romantic notions of the legends about gods and the supernatural in the novel. Similar to Balzac’s description of Cupid in “Pere Goriot” both these supernatural representations of love have been defiled and corrupted.

    Earlier on in the novel there is another attack on the ideas of romanticism as Nana herself seems to reject the realistic novel in favor of the romantic. Nana is reading a story that caused a sensation in society about “a prostitute, and Nana inveighed against it, declaring it was all untrue, and expressing an indignant revulsion against the sort of filthy literature which claimed to show life as it was – as if a writer could possibly describe everything, and as if novels weren’t supposed to be written just to write away the time! On the subject of books and plays Nana had very decided opinions: she like tender, high-minded works which would set her dreaming and uplift her soul” (336-337). Just as Madame Bovary champions romanticism in Flaubert’s novel Nana’s preference is also in favor of the romantic novel. Having such flawed characters show their denouncement of works of realism and their inclination for romanticism instead only adds to the criticism against their character. By having an adulteress and a courtesan advocating for romanticism it further brings romantic notions down into the gutter next too the defiled body of Nana’s Venus.


    1. Interesting summation of some of what we talked about last week, with some fresh insights, too. It’s interesting to talk about Zola in conjunction with Levine’s reading of realism as an attack on romantic conventions, because Zola, too, attacks Romanticism. (And then we have American naturalist Frank Norris, who reads Zola as a romantic writer!


  12. For Wilde. realism is never more than a boring misrepresentation of the truth. Art doesn’t and shouldn’t provide a mirror for reality, rather life imitates art. Wilde’s stance against realism takes an interesting, multivalent approach. For starters, he’s working with Plato and Aristotle in mind, bringing in the notion of artist as “maker in the third degree.” This can seen in the form this piece takes. Wilde has invented two characters to convey his points through a dialogue. This both apes Plato’s dialogues in structure and immediately evinces Wilde’s claim about how lying, creation, and fiction can and do speak to a more universal, representational truth as opposed to supposedly recording the objective truth. Instead of giving his audience his treatise against realism, he formulates two personas to do it for him. This structure speaks to Wilde’s ideas about people in reality aligning with “types” in literature. This sets the reader up to potentially agree with his sentiments by aligning with a particular character (“This character is me!”), and allows for Wilde, like Balzac and Zola, to distance himself from his creation. While Balzac and Zola used their supposed “scientific” recordings of reality to skirt responsibility in regard to obscenity, Wilde avoids owning his thoughts by way of creation (“Don’t blame me, these are fictional characters discussing such matters”).

    One aspect of “The Decay of Lying” that gives me some trouble is the opening, seemingly ironic attack on nature. This may be an attempt to set Vivian up as an unreliable (lying) character, but I am unsure what to do with it outside of that.


  13. re: the attack on nature – I think Oscar is just being satirical and flip — as only he can — in Vivian’s disparaging remarks about Nature,to both amuse the reader and to drive home the point that life/nature imitates art, What I appreciate in both Wilde’s essay and Woolf’s is the idea that art isn’t necessarily reflective of the time in history, or that it simply builds upon what has come before, but that it’s more fluid. I appreciate Woolf’s complaint about those tyrants who demand the literary conventions from their authors, so their works can be sold, thus adding to the decay of literature. She writes “The writer seems constrained, not by his own free will but by some powerful and unscrupulous tyrant who has him in thrall, to provide a plot, to provide a comedy. . .” She asks, “Is life like this?” (106). She advocates for freedom of expression and for looking within, where she answers the question by noting that in examining inner thoughts, life is far from being “like this.” She concludes by saying that there are no specific rules or conventions but instead, everything, all thoughts and feelings, are fiction. In her argument that the writers she calls “materialists” focus on unimportant things, I question that in focusing on the seemingly unimportant, they are attributing a significance that is in a way spiritual or imaginative. In Zola’s close observations of the physical world and body, with excruciating detail, I don’t think they are devoid of symbolic meaning or are unimportant.


  14. “The justification of a character in a novel is not that other persons are what they are, but that the author is what he is. Otherwise the novel is not a work of art.” – Oscar Wilde

    I’ll tackle Nic’s struggle with Vivian as I have a theory. First though, Wilde is my brand of humor only more so and that made this reading, if not easier, more enjoyable. Part of Wilde’s humor goes into the theory I have of Vivian’s stance against nature and the beginning. It is fairly obvious to all of us that Wilde is well read and his quick-fire quips are more than up to the task of laying many a writer low.

    One theory for Vivian: I see her tirade against Nature as the physical representation of what Realism claimed to be attempting. The idea that Nature in its true state is as boring and uncomfortable as the realist novels which Wilde was about to (through Vivian) tear into. It goes a little deeper too when I think about Wilde lining himself up early on with Aristotle and Plato. I see it as almost taking the Greeks at their word and Wilde is pointing out that Nature’s physical presence is the copy. That the idea of Nature is so much better than what it actually is puts Realism in a tough place. If you are reporting on the copy then you are really just making a copy of the copy and therefore diminishing.

    It would be different if Wilde did not go on to pick apart the realist writers of his day using mainly the point that they were all boring. That imagination had left and therefore we were being inundated with copies of copies and being told that the diminished art was somehow beautiful. It’s the respect Wilde gives Balzac that made me pause. He truly seemed, through Vivian, to hold Balzac in a place reserved for few and he didn’t pull any punches when it came to those that claimed to be Balzac’s disciples. Wilde compares Zola and Balzac saying the difference between them is, “…the difference between unimaginative realism and imaginative reality” (221-222). This is such an interesting distinction that it caught my eye. Wilde reveals his love for Balzac’s work on the very basis that Balzac creates his reality rather than reports it. He points to the differences in characters as his basis for this. The idea that Balzac’s characters are full and human, that each one of them has a thinking mind verses Zola’s characters are that are simply pieces of a reality, flat and terribly predictable. I think Wilde’s real message in this is really rather romantic, that we should, as writers/novelist, be creating our realities rather than relying on the world. That beauty and art is in creation or at least lying to ourselves that we are creating.


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Associate Professor of Literature :: Yale-NUS College

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