- Term Papers, Book Reports, Research Papers and College Essays

Realism and Henry James

Essay by   •  February 3, 2011  •  Research Paper  •  1,780 Words (8 Pages)  •  1,132 Views

Essay Preview: Realism and Henry James

Report this essay
Page 1 of 8

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, Ð''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 Ð''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.

Ð''I didn't look back, did you?'

Ð''Yes. He wasn't there,' said Maisie.

Ð''Not on the balcony?'

Maisie waited a moment; then Ð''He wasn't there' she simply said again.

Mrs Wix was also silent a while. Ð''He went to her,' she finally observed.

Ð''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 pleases" .

James claimed that a novelist is the fusion of a historian and a painter. According to him, historians are interested in the representation of facts, a painter is interested in the representation of characters and a novelist is interested in the representation of incidents. He claims that an incident is the product of facts and characters for all incidents have facts and revolve around characters. James, in essence, was trying to claim that all fictional pieces have Ð''real' as well as artistic qualities attached to them. He believed that these are the qualities that are of utmost importance in the creation of any novel.

Henry James came to fiction after a brief stint in criticism Ð'- perhaps the reason why his approach was more consciously that of an artist's. James's realism consisted precisely in the verisimilitude of his characters, whose depth and wholeness were achieved by his rejecting the traditional primacy of story. He became more and more involved in the penetration of the meanings of human relationships through the psychological unraveling of his characters. This led to the creation of James's approach to fiction Ð'- the inspection of humanity at a microscopic level.

James has always held an interest in the contrasting European and the American etiquettes and being a realist, he explored the ways in which psychologically complex characters deal with ambiguous social and intellectual problems. James has often been criticized for creating situations that are either extremely rare or too complex to exist in reality. Some claim that he was more interested in the psychological apprehensions and complications of his over-privileged, self absorbed characters, than with the problems faced by middle-class individuals in real life. However, for James, the core value of writing fiction lay in "a direct impression of life" . According to him, this was best achieved by exploring the complex psychological realities of humans rather than examining their social and material conditions.

James wrote What Maisie Knew in 1897 which was after he had written The Art of Fiction (1984). What Maisie Knew was a psychological novel which, for James, was an attempt to delve into the depths of a child's psychological process rather than an investigation into the



Download as:   txt (10.8 Kb)   pdf (129.4 Kb)   docx (13.4 Kb)  
Continue for 7 more pages »
Only available on
Citation Generator

(2011, 02). Realism and Henry James. Retrieved 02, 2011, from

"Realism and Henry James" 02 2011. 2011. 02 2011 <>.

"Realism and Henry James.", 02 2011. Web. 02 2011. <>.

"Realism and Henry James." 02, 2011. Accessed 02, 2011.