Two Methods of Exhibiting the Truth: Although all writers of fiction who take their work seriously and do it honestly are at one in their purposenamely, to embody certain truths of human life in a series of imagined factsthey diverge into two contrasted groups according to their manner of accomplishing this purpose, their method of exhibiting the truth. Consequently we find in practice two contrasted schools of novelists, which we distinguish by the titles Realistic and Romantic.
Every Mind Either Realistic or Romantic. The distinction between realism and romance is fundamental and deep-seated; for every man, whether consciously or not, is either a romantic or a realist in the dominant habit of his thought. The reader who is a realist by nature will prefer George Eliot to Scott; the reader who is romantic will rather read Victor Hugo than Flaubert; and neither taste is better than the other. Each reader’s preference is born with his brain, and has its origin in his customary processes of thinking. In view of this fact, it seems strange that no adequate definition has ever yet been made of the difference between realism and romance. Various superficial explanations have been offered, it is true; but none of them has been scientific and satisfactory.
Marion Crawford’s Faulty Distinction.One of the most common of these superficial explanations is the one which has been phrased by the late F. Marion Crawford in his little book upon “The Novel: What It Is”: “The realist proposes to show men what they are; the romantist (sic) tries to show men what they should be.” The trouble with this distinction is that it utterly fails to distinguish. Surely all novelists, whether realistic or romantic, try to show men what they arewhat else can be their reason for embodying in imagined facts the truths of human life? Victor Hugo, the romantic, in “Les Misérables,” endeavors just as honestly and earnestly to show men what they are as does Flaubert, the realist, in “Madame Bovary.” And on the other hand, Thackeray, the realist, in characters like Henry Esmond and Colonel Newcome, shows men what they should be just as thoroughly as the romantic Scott. In-deed, it is hardly possible to conceive how any novelist, whether romantic or realistic, could devise a means of showing the one thing without at the same time showing the other also. Every important fiction-writer, no matter to which of the two schools he happens to belong, strives to accomplish, in a single effort of creation, both of the purposes noted by Marion Crawford. He may be realistic or romantic in his way of showing men what they are; realistic or romantic in his way of showing them what they should be: the difference lies, not in which of the two he tries to show, but in the way he tries to show it.
A Second Unsatisfactory Distinction.Again, we have been told that, in their stories, the romantics dwell mainly upon the element of action, while the realists are interested chiefly in the element of character. But this explanation fails many times to fit the facts: for the great romantic characters, like Leather-Stocking, Don Quixote, Monte Cristo, Claude Frolic), are just as vividly drawn as the great characters of realism; and the great events of realistic novels, like Rawdon Crawley’s discovery of his wife with Lord Steyne, or Adam Bede’s fight with Arthur Donnithorne, are just as thrilling as the resounding actions of romance. Furthermore, if we should accept this explanation, we should find our-selves unable to classify as either realistic or romantic the very large body of novels in which neither elementof action or of charactershows any marked preponderance over the other. Henry James, in his genial essay on “The Art of Fiction,” has cast a vivid light on this objection. “There is an old-fashioned distinction,” he says, “between the novel of character and the novel of incident which must have cost many a smile to the intending fabulist who was keen about his work. What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character? . It is an incident for a woman to stand up with her hand resting on a table and look out at you in a certain way; or if it be not an incident I think it will be hard to say what it is. At the same time it is an expression of character.”
A Third Unsatisfactory Distinction.We have been told also that the realists paint the manners of their own place and time, while the romantics deal with more remote materials. But this distinction, likewise, often fails to hold. No stories were ever more essentially romantic than Stevenson’s “New Arabian Nights,” which depict details of London and Parisian life at the time when the author wrote them; and no novel is more essentially realistic than “Romola,” which carries us back through many centuries to a medieval city far away. Thackeray, the realist, in “Henry Esmond,” and its sequel “The Virginians,” departed further from his own time and place than Hawthorne, the romantic, in “The House of the Seven Gables” ; and while the real. istic Meredith frequently fares abroad in his stories, especially to Italy, the romantic Barrie looks upon life almost always from his own little window in Thrums.
Bliss Perry’s Negative Definition.In his interesting and suggestive “Study of Prose Fiction,” Professor Bliss Perry has devoted a chapter to realism and another to romance; but he has not succeeded in defining either term. He has, to be sure, essayed a negative definition of realism:”Realistic fiction is that which does not shrink from the commonplace or from the unpleasant in its effort to depict things as they are, life as it is.” But we have seen that the effort of all fiction, whether realistic or romantic, is to depict life as it really (though not necessarily as it actually) is. Does not “The Brushwood Boy,” although it suggests the super-actual, set forth a common truth of the most intimate human relationship, which every lover recognizes as real? Every great writer of fiction tries, in his own romantic or realistic way, to “draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They Are.” We must therefore focus our attention mainly on the earlier phrases of Professor Perry’s definition. He states that realistic fiction does not shrink from the commonplace. That depends. The realism of Jules and Edmond de Goncourt does not, to be sure; but most assuredly the realism of George Meredith does. You will find far less shrinking from the commonplace in many passages of the romantic Fenimore Cooper than in the pages of George Meredith. Whether or not realistic fiction shrinks from the unpleasant depends also on the particular nature of the realist. Zola’s realism certainly does not; Jane Austen’s decidedly does. You will find far less shrinking from the unpleasant, of one sort, in Poe, of another sort, in Catulle Mendèsboth of them romanticsthan in the novels of Jane Austen. What is the use, then, of Professor Perry’s definition of realism, since it remains open to so many exceptions? And in his chapter on romance the critic does not even attempt to formulate a definition.
The True Distinction One of Method, Not of Material. We have now examined several of the current explanations of the difference between romance and realism and have found that each is wanting. The trouble with all of them seems to be that they attempt to find a basis for distinguishing between the two schools of fiction in the subject-matter, or materials, of the novelist. Does not the real distinction lie rather in the novelist’s attitude of mind toward his materials, whatever those materials may be? Surely there is no such thing inherently as a realistic subject or a romantic subject. The very same subject may be treated realistically by one novelist and romantically by another. George Eliot would have built a realistic novel on the theme of “The Scarlet Letter”; and Hawthorne would have made a romance out of the materials of “Silas Marner.” The whole of human life, or any part of it, offers materials for romantic and realist alike. Therefore no distinction between the schools is possible upon the basis of subject-matter: the real distinction must be one of method in setting subject-matter forth. The distinction is not external, but internal; it dwells in the mind of the novelist; it is a matter for philosophic, not for literary, investigation.
Scientific Discovery and Artistic Expression.If we seek within the mental habits of the novelist for a philosophic distinction between realism and romance, we shall have to return to a consideration of that threefold process of the fiction-making mind which was expounded in the preceding chapter of this book. Scientific discovery, philosophic understanding, and artistic expression of the truths of human life are phases of creation common to romantics and realists alike; but though the writers of both schools meet equally upon the central ground of philosophic understanding, is it not evident that the realists are most interested in looking backward over the antecedent ground of scientific discovery, and the romantics are most interested in looking forward over the subsequent ground of artistic expression? Suppose, for the purpose of illustration, that two novelists of equal abilitythe one a realist, the other a romantichave observed and studied carefully the same events and characters of actual life; and suppose further that they agree in their conception of the truth behind the facts. Suppose now that each of them writes a novel to embody this conception of the truth, in which they are agreed. Will not the realist regard as most important the scientific process of discovery by means of which he arrived at his conception; and will he not therefore strive to make that process clear to the reader by turning back to the point at which he began his observations and then leading the reader forward through a similar scientific study of imagined facts until the reader joins him on the ground of philosophic understanding? And, on the other hand, will not the romantic regard as most important the artistic process of embodying his conception; and will he not therefore be satisfied with any means of embodying it clearly and effectively, without caring whether or not the imagined facts which he selects for this purpose are similar to the actual facts from which he first induced his philosophic understanding?
The Testimony of Hawthorne.This thought was apparently in Hawthorne’s mind when, in the preface to “The House of the Seven Gables,” he wrote his well-known distinction between the Romance and the (realistic) Novel:”When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume had he professed to be writing a Novel. The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience. The formerwhile, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation.”
A Philosophic Formula.But Hawthorne’s statement, although it covers the ground, is not succinct and definitive; and if we are to examine the thesis thoroughly, we had better first state it in philosophic terms and then elucidate the statement by explanation and by illustration. So stated, the distinction is as follows: In setting forth his view of life, the realist follows the inductive method of presentment, and the romantic follows the deductive method.
Induction and Deduction.The distinction between inductive and deductive processes of thinking is very simple and is known to all: it is based upon the direction of the train of thought. When we think inductively, we reason from the particular to the general; and when we think deductively, the process proceeds in the reverse direction and we reason from the general to the particular. In our ordinary conversation, we speak inductively when we first mention a number of specific facts and then draw from them some general inference; and we speak deductively when we first express a general opinion and then elucidate it by adducing specific illustrations. That old dichotomy of the psychologists which divides all men, according to their habits of thought, into Platonists and Aristotelians (or, to substitute a modern nomenclature, into Cartesians and Baconians) is merely an assertion that every man, in the prevailing direction of his thinking, is either deductive or inductive. Most of the great ethical philosophers have had inductive minds; from the basis of admitted facts of experience they have reasoned out their laws of conduct. Most of the great religious teachers have had deductive minds: from the basis of certain sublime assumptions they have asserted their commandments. Most of the great scientists have thought inductively: they have reasoned from specific facts to general truths, as Newton reasoned from the fall of an apple to the law of gravitation. Most of the great poets have thought deductively: they have reasoned from general truths to specific facts, as Dante reasoned from a general moral conception of cosmogony to the particular appropriate details of every circle in hell and purgatory and paradise. Now is not the thesis tenable that it is in just this way that realism differs from romance? In their endeavor to exhibit certain truths of human life, do not the realists work inductively and the romantics deductively?
The Inductive Method of the Realist.In order to bring to our knowledge the law of life which he wishes to make clear, the realist first leads us through a series of imagined facts as similar as possible to the details of actual life which he studied in order to arrive at his general conception. He elaborately imitates the facts of actual life, so that he may say to us finally, “This is the sort of thing that I have seen in the world, and from this I have learned the truth I have to tell you.” He leads us step by step from the particular to the general, until we gradually grow aware of the truths he wishes to express. And in the end, we have not only grown acquainted with these truths, but have also been made familiar with every step in the process of thought by which the author himself became aware of them. “Adam Bede” tells us not only what George Eliot knew of life, but also how she came to learn it.
The Deductive Method of the Romantic.But the romantic novelist leads us in the contrary directionnamely, from the general to the particular. He does not attempt to show us how he arrived at his general conception. His only care is to convey his general idea effectively by giving it a specific illustrative embodiment. He feels no obligation to make the imagined facts of his story resemble closely the details of actual life; he is anxious only that they shall represent his idea adequately and consistently. Stevenson knew that man has a dual nature, and that the evil in him, when pampered, will gradually gain the upper hand over the good, In his story of the “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” he did not attempt to set forth this truth inductively, showing us the kind of facts from the observation of which he had drawn this conclusion. He merely gave his thought an illustrative embodiment, by conceiving a dual character in which a man’s uglier self should have a separate incarnation. He constructed his tale deductively: beginning with a general conception, he reduced it to particular terms. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is, of course, a thoroughly true story, even though its incidents are contrary to the actual facts of life. It is just as real as a realistic novel; but in order to make it so, its author, because he was working deductively, was not obliged to imitate the details of actual life which he had studied. “I have learned something in the world,” he says to us: “Here is a fable that will make it clear to you.,,
Realism, Like Inductive Science, a Strictly Modern Product.This philosophic distinction between the methods of romance and realism shows two manifest advantages over all the other attempts at a distinction which have been examined in this chapter: first, it really does distinguish; and secondly, it will be found in every case to fit the facts. Furthermore, it is supported In an overwhelming manner by the history of human thought. Every student of philosophy will tell you that the world’s thought was prevailingly deductive till the days of Francis Bacon. Bacon was the first philosopher to insist that induction, rather than deduction, was the most effective method of searching for the truth. Science, which is based upon induction, was in its infancy when Bacon taught; since then it has matured, largely because he and his successors in philosophy pointed out the only method through which it might develop. Deduction has of course survived as a method of conducting thought; but it has lost the undisputed empery which it held over the ancient and the medieval mind. Now, if we turn to the history of fiction, we shall notice the significant fact that realism is a strictly modern product. All fiction was romantic till the days of Bacon. Realism is contemporaneous with modern science and the other applications of inductive thought. Romance survives, of course; but it has lost the undisputed empery of fiction which it held in ancient and in medieval times. If Bacon had written fiction, he would have been a realist the first realist in the history of literature; and this is the only reply that is necessary to those who still maintain (if any do) that he was capable of writing the romantic plays of Shakespeare.
If it be granted now that the realist, by induction, leads his reader up from a consideration of imagined facts to a comprehension of truth, and that the romantic, by deduction, leads his reader down from an apprehension of truth to a consideration of imagined facts, we may next examine certain advantages and disadvantages of each method in comparison with the other.
Advantages of Realism.In the first place, we notice, that, while the imagined facts of the romantic are selected merely to illustrate the truth he wishes to convey, the imagined facts of the realist are selected not only to illustrate, but also to support, the truth that lies inherent in them. The realist, then, has this advantage over the romantic in his method of expressing truth: he has the opportunity to prove his case by presenting the evidence on which his truth is based. It is therefore less difficult for him to conquer credence from a skeptical and wary reader: and we must remember always that even though a story tells the truth, it is still a failure unless it gets that truth believed. The romantic necessarily demands a deeper faith in his wisdom than the realist need ask for; and he can evoke deep faith only by absolute sincerity and utter clearness in the presentation of his fable. Unless the reader of “The Brushwood Boy” and “They” has absolute faith that Mr. Kipling knows the truth of his themes, the stories are reduced to nonsense; for they present no evidence (through running parallel to actuality) which proves that the author does know the truth. Unless the reader has faith that Stevenson deeply understands the nature of remorse, the conversation between Markheim and his ghostly visitant becomes incredible and vain. The author gives himself no opportunity to prove (through analogy with actual experience) that such a colloquy consistently presents the inner truth of conscience.
Advantages of Romance.But this great advantage of the realistthat he supports his theme with evidencecarries with it an attendant disadvantage. Since he lays his evidence bare before the reader, he makes it simpler for the reader to detect him in a lie. The romantic says, “These things are so, because I know they are”; and unless we reject him at once and in entirety as a colossal liar, we are almost doomed to take his word in the big moments of his story. But the realist says, “These things are so, because they are supported by actual facts similar to the imagined facts in which I clothe them”; and we may answer at any point in the story, “Not at all! On the very basis of the facts you show us, we know better than to take your word.” In other words, when the reader disbelieves a romance, he does so by instinct, without necessarily knowing why; but when he disbelieves a realistic novel, he does so by logic, with the evidence before him.
A great romantic, therefore, must have the wisdom that convinces by its very presence and conquers credence through the reader’s intuition. Who could disbelieve the author of “The Scarlet Letter”? We do not need to see his evidence in order to know that he knows. A great realist, on the other hand, while he need not have the triumphant and engaging mental personality necessary to a great romantic, must have a thorough and complete equipment of evidence discerned from observation of the actual. He must have eyes and ears, though he need not have a soul.
The Confinement of Realism.-A novelist of realistic vent is, therefore, almost doomed to confine his fiction to his own place and time. In no other period or nation can he be so certain of his evidence. We know the enormous labor with which George Eliot amassed the materials for “Romola,” a realistic study of Florence during the Renaissance; but though we recognize the work as that of a thorough student, the details still fail to convince us as do the details of her studies of contemporary Warwickshire. The young aspirant to the art of fiction who knows himself to be an incipient realist had therefore best confine his efforts to attempted reproduction of the life he sees about him. He had better accept the common-sensible advice which the late Sir Walter Besant gave in his lecture on “The Art of Fiction”: “A young lady brought up in a quiet country village should avoid descriptions of garrison life; a writer whose friends and personal experiences belong to what we call the lower middle class should carefully avoid introducing his characters into society; a South-countryman would hesitate before attempting to reproduce the North-country accent. This is a very simple rule, but one to which there should be no exceptionnever to go beyond your own experience.”
The Freedom of Romance.The incipient realist is almost obliged to accept this advice; but the incipient romantic need not necessarily do so. That final in-junction of Besant’s-“never to go beyond your own experience”seems somewhat stultifying to the imagination; and there is a great deal of very wise suggestion in Henry James’ reply to it: “What kind of experience is intended, and where does it begin and end? . . . The young lady living in a village has only to be a damsel upon whom nothing is lost to make it quite unfair (as it seems to me) to declare to her that she shall have nothing to say about the military. Greater miracles have been seen than that, imagination assisting, she should speak the truth about some of these gentlemen.” The romantic “upon whom nothing is lost,” may, “imagination assisting,” project his truth into some other region of experience than those which he has actually observed. Edgar Allan Poe is indubitably one of the great masters of the art of fiction; but there is nothing in any of his stories to indicate that he was born in Boston, lived in Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York, and died in Baltimore. “The Assignation” indicates that he had lived in Venicewhere, in fact, he had never been; others of his stories have the atmosphere of other times and lands; and most of them pass in a dream-world of his own creation, “out of space, out of time.”
So long as the romantic is sure of his truth and certain of his power to convince the reader, he need not support his truth by an accumulation of evidence imitated from the actual life he has observed. But on the other hand, there is nothing to prevent his doing so; and unless he be very headstrongso headstrong as to be almost unreliablehe will be extremely chary of his freedom. He will not subvert the actual unless there is no other equally effective means of conveying the truth he has to tell. Many times a close adherence to actuality is as advisable for the deductive author as it is for the inductive; many times the romantic writer gains as much as the realist by confining his fiction to his own environment of time and place. Scott, after all, was less successful with his medieval kings and knights than with his homely and simple Scottish characters. Hawthorne, in “The Marble Faun,” lost a certain completeness of effect by stepping off his own New England shadow. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” with its subversion of the actual, is the sort of story that might be set out of space, out of time; but Stevenson enhanced the effect of its imaginative plausibility by setting it in contemporary Lon-don. More and more, in recent years, the romantics have followed the lead of the realists in embodying their truth in scenes and characters imitated from actuality. The early stories of the thoroughly romantic Mr. Kipling were set in his own country, India, and in his own time; and it was not until his actual experience had broadened to other lands, that, to any great extent, his subjects broadened geographically. In his stories of his own people, Mr. Kipling just as faithfully portrays the every-day existence he has actually observed as any realist. His method is romantic always: he deduces his details from his theme, instead of inducing his theme from his details. He is entirely romantic in the direction of his thought; but it is very suggestive of the tenor of con-temporary romance, to notice that he has taken the advice of the realists and seldom gone beyond his own experience.
The range of romance is therefore far wider than the range of realism; for all that may be treated realistically may be treated romantically also, and much else that may be treated romantically is hardly susceptible of realistic treatment. Granted that a romantic have truths enough in his head, there is scarcely any limit to the stories he may deduce from them; while, on the other hand, the work of the inductive novelist is limited by the limits of his premises. But the greater freedom of romance is attended by a more difficult responsibility. If it be easier for the romantic to tell the truth, because he has more ways of telling it, it is surely harder for him to tell nothing but the truth. More often than the realist he is tempted to assert uncertaintiestempted to say with vividness and charm things of which he cannot quite be sure.
Neither Method Better Than the Other.-But what-ever may be the comparative advantages and disadvantages of each method of exhibiting the truth, it is absolutely certain that either method of presentment is natural and logical; and hence all criticism that aims to exalt romance above realism, or realism above romance, must be forever futile. Guy de Maupassant, in his valuable preface to “Pierre et Jean,” has spoken very wisely on this point. The ideal critic, he says, should demand of the artist merely to “create something beautiful, in the form most convenient to him, according to his temperament.” And he states further:”The critic should appraise the result only according to the nature of the effort. He should admit with an equal interest the contrasted theories of art, and judge the works resultant from them only from the standpoint of their artistic worth, accepting a priori the general ideas from which they owe their origin. To contest the right of an author to make a romantic or a realistic work is to wish to force him to modify his temperament, refuse to recognize his originality, and not permit him to employ the eye and the intellect which nature has given him. Let us allow him the liberty to understand, to observe, and to conceive in whatever way he wishes, provided that he be an artist.”
Surely this is the only sane view of the situation. Therefore, when Mr. W. D. Howells, in his dexterous little book on “Criticism and Fiction, pleads engagingly for realism as the only valid method for the modern novelist, and when Stevenson, in many an alluring essay, blows blasts upon the trumpet of romance, and challenges the realists to show excuse for their existence, each is fighting an unnecessary battle, since each is at the same time right and wrong. Each is right in asserting the value of his own method, and wrong in denying the value of the other’s. The minds of men have always moved in two directions, and always will; and as long as men shall write, we shall have, and ought to have, both inductive and deductive fiction.
Abuses of Realism.Neither of the two methods is truer than the other; and both are great when they are well employed. Each, however, lends itself to certain abuses which it will be well for us to notice briefly. The realist, on the one hand, in his careful imitation of actual life, may grow near-sighted and come to value facts for their own sake, forgetting that his primary purpose in setting them forth should be to lead us to understand the truths which underlie them. More and more, as the realist advances in technic and gains in ability to represent the actual, he is tempted to make photographs of life instead of pictures. A picture differs from a photograph mainly in its artistic repression of the unsignificant; it exhibits life more truly because it focusses attention on essentials. But any novel that dwells sedulously upon non-essentials and exalts the unsignificant obscures the truth. This is the fallacy of the photo-graphic method; and from this fallacy arise the tedious minuteness of George Eliot in her more pedestrian moments, the interminable tea-cups of Anthony Trollope, and the mire of the imitators of Zola. Realism latterly, especially in France, has shown a tendency to degenerate into so-called “naturalism,” a method of art which casts the unnatural emphasis of photographic reproduction upon phases of actual life which are base in themselves and unsignificant of the eternal instinct which leads men more naturally to look upward at the stars than downward at the mud. The “naturalistic” writers are deceived in thinking that they represent life as it really is. If their thesis were true, the human race would have dwindled to extinction long ago. Surely a photograph of a slattern in the gutter is no more natural than a picture of Rosalind in the Forest of Arden; and no accuracy of imitated actuality can make it more significant of truth.
Abuses of Romance: The romantic, on the other hand, because he works with greater freedom than the realist, may overleap himself and express in a loose fashion general conceptions which are hasty and devoid of truth. To this defect is owing the vast deal of rubbish which has been foisted on us recently by feeble imitators of Scott and Dumas pereimitators who have assumed the trappings and the suits of the accredited masters of romance, but have not inherited their clarity of vision into the inner truth of things that are. To such degenerate romance, Professor Brander Matthews has applied the term “romanticism”; and though his use of the term itself may be considered a little too special for general currency, no exception can be taken to the distinction which he enforces in the following paragraph: “The Romantic calls up the idea of some-thing primary, spontaneous, and perhaps medieval, while the Romanticist suggests something secondary, conscious, and of recent fabrication. Romance, like many another thing of beauty, is very rare; but Romanticism is common enough nowadays. The truly Romantic is difficult to achieve; but the artificial Romanticist is so easy as to be scarce worth the attempting. The Romantic is ever young, ever fresh, ever delightful; but the Romanticist is stale and second-hand and unendurable. Romance is never in danger of growing old, for it deals with the spirit of man without regard to times and seasons; but Romanticism gets out of date with every twist of the kaleidoscope of literary fashion. The Romantic is eternally and essentially true, but the Romanticist is inevitably false. Romance is sterling, but Romanticism is shoddy.”
But the Scylla and the Charybdis of fiction-writing may both be avoided. The realists gain nothing by hooting at the abuses of romance; and the romantics gain as little by yawning over realism at its worst. “The conditions”to use a phase of Emerson’s”are hard but equal”: and at their best, the realist, working inductively, and the romantic, working deductively, are equally able to present the truth of fiction.