For a term that promises access to something recognizably real, realism is a peculiarly slippery concept. It announces the grand ambition of nineteenth-century novelists to make a contemporary social world concretely representable and to establish forms of experiential common ground across mass reading publics, yet its definition and effects remain in contention after nearly two centuries of debate. Does it name a form, a style, a genre, a narrative mode, or an epistemology? What does it mean to characterize realist fiction as referential or mimetic, or how else might it be understood? Does it entail any definite formal properties, subject matter, aesthetic values, or ideological functions? Given the concept’s transnational circulation and its portability across languages, does it lend itself to comparative analysis—and how consistent is realist practice from one context to another? In taking up these questions, this graduate seminar will take seriously realism’s role in creating norms as well as its capacity to defamiliarize them, its interests in a status quo and its revolutionary potential, its periodization and its uses for our time. We will consider its logics of representation, reference, and form; its concern with totality (and the status of that concept in criticism, past and present); its practices of material and social description; its historiographic techniques; its interest in the natural and social sciences; its political commitments; its relation to the rise of capitalism, the nation-state, liberalism, and imperialism; its connection to media and theories of mediation; and its role in adjudicating between genres. We will approach literary realism in part via deliberately realist writing and in part by examining some of the major categories against which it defined itself: romance, the Gothic, idealism, utopia, sentimentalism, melodrama, and sensationalism, as well as the later phenomena of naturalism and of modernism that disengaged its truth-claims. Readings may include novels by Balzac, Gaskell, Trollope, Flaubert, Eliot, Tolstoy, Howells, Gissing, and Ferrante, with critical and theoretical writing by Edmond Duranty, G. H. Lewes, Georg Lukács, Virginia Woolf, Erich Auerbach, Roland Barthes, Naomi Schor, Fredric Jameson, Peter Brooks, Richard Menke, Elaine Freedgood, Tanya Agathocleous, Alison Shonkwiler, and others.