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What is Realism?

ENGL 2050.301
TR 1:45-3:14pm

What does it mean to call art “realist”? How did this term, first used to describe a controversial movement in French painting, quickly become a keyword in literature and other media? In fiction, is realism a question of subject matter or of style and form? What modes of perception, ways of knowing, aesthetic values, or attitudes toward the world does realist representation entail? How does it relate to probability, empiricism, and historical time; to topics like money, marriage, and social norms; to ideas of ordinariness or “the everyday” as they shape character, setting, and plot; or to frameworks like the domestic sphere, the nation-state, empire, and the global market? What happens when we apply the concept of realism forward or backward in time, or when it moves across geographies and cultural contexts? In this seminar we can approach these and other questions partly by examining realist novels and other artworks, and partly by considering some categories and genres that realism seems to oppose (romance, the Gothic, idealism, sentimentalism, melodrama, sensationalism, utopia), as well as movements like naturalism and modernism that questioned realism’s claims to artistic truth. Readings may include Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Machado de Assis’ Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, George Gissing’s New Grub Street, and Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, along with selections of critical and theoretical writing on realism, past and present.


English Major Requirements
  • Literature Seminar pre-1900 (AEB9)
  • Sector 5 19th Century (AE19)
English Concentration Attributes
College Attributes