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Use Of Realism By Short Story Writers English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3480 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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J.P Stern defined realism as being: ‘no more, and no less, than an undertaking to look all the relevant facts in the face’. [1] Literary realism is a trend that began in nineteenth century French literature. Realist authors such as Flaubert, Maupassant and Emile Zola depicted contemporary life and society, including everyday common duties in their stories. These writers sought to represent life without any type of exaggeration and attempted to write honestly about topics and themes. They preferred this style of writing to the romanticised literature that was more popular in the beginning of the nineteenth century. Romanticism was the opposite of realism and included more imaginative stories. However, their aim was to show the reality of their society and ‘the life and sufferings of the working class’. [2] Maupassant and Flaubert were key influential authors in this realist movement, and I will explore how both authors implemented the realist genre in their work and how their work differed from each other.

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One of Maupassant’s most popular realist stories was Boule de Suif, which was based on a real Rouen prostitute named Adrienne Legay during the Franco-Prussian war. The tale represents the sufferings of the working class and explores the morality and ethics of a divided society. Michael Lerner states how ‘Maupassant manages to convert what is a simple episode from the realities of 1870 into something highly critical and symbolic. It is the more humble, low life realism desired by the “Naturalists”‘. [3] It is true to say that this tale gives a deep and powerful meaning to the reader in the subtlest ways through the use of symbolism and description, which I will be discussing in further detail later on.

There are no major literary devices used by Maupassant. Instead he conveys the directness of the situation and gives a detailed description of the character’s appearance and personality ‘A good-natured fellow, though, inoffensive and obliging, he had devoted himself with incomparable enthusiasm to organising the defence of the town’. [4] This information gives the reader a vision of the characters. Peter Brooks writes about the use of senses when reading a realist story: ‘realist literature is attached to the visual, to looking at things, registering their presence in the world through sight’. [5] Maupassant especially uses the sense of sight to involve the reader in the story and play on their relationship with the characters. The reader is able to picture the character more successfully and decide whether they like the character or not.

Maupassant creates a hierarchy within the coach consisting of a democrat, a prostitute, two nuns, and the rest are of a socially high status. These respectable travellers look down upon the rest of the entourage. However, the differences between these classes are forgotten when they all accept to eat food from Boule de Suif. At this point they are all on an equal footing: ‘mouths opened and shut without pause, swallowing, chewing and gulping ravenously.’ [6] The author shows the generosity of Boule de Suif as she selflessly gives up her food for the rest of the group. We begin to forget our preconceptions of the prostitute and realise that she does have certain moral guidelines. Her personality is further portrayed as a giving human when she makes the biggest decision in the story. All of the characters in the story plan to manipulate Boule de Suif into committing an immoral act of sleeping with the enemy: ‘Boule de Suif… felt angry with all her neighbours, ashamed of having given way to their pleas, and defiled by the kisses of the Prussian into whose arms they had hypocritically thrown her.’ [7] The ‘respectable’ characters do not take the high moral ground and support her decision not to sleep with the Prussian, it is their selfishness and immorality that take over their reasoning and force her to go against her will. Not only do they want her to give up her food, they also want her to give up her body. Michael Lerner states that

For Maupassant the simple Norman peasant who throws a stone or takes a shot at the enemy is far worthier of our admiration than any of these more sophisticated types, who would prefer to sacrifice their country just as they do Boule de Suif rather than abandon or harm their commercial interests and own well-being [8] 

This statement depicts Maupassant’s own personal view of his bourgeois characters and emphasises the horridness of the scandal they have committed. We are shown a realist view of bourgeois human nature as selfish, arrogant and corrupt.

Although Boule de Suif is a prostitute of her own accord, she is faced with a difficult decision. At first she would give herself for the pleasure of other people, whereas now she is being forced to do so; and with the enemy. Maupassant conveys the consequences of her decision in a way that makes the reader sympathise with the prostitute rather than scold her. His choice of words when trying to portray Boule de Suif’s feelings are an accurate depiction of a real, victimised emotion: ‘…she found herself choking with rage and indignation….she opened her mouth to tell them what she thought of them…but her exasperation was so violent that she could not utter a word’. [9] Her utilitarian sacrifice has saved her companions from the Prussians yet her personal relationship with the hypocrites has diminished. Michael Lerner states that: ‘Maupassant relates the fate of both France and the naive but patriotic prostitute to the selfish attitude of the bourgeois’. [10] Lerner makes a clever statement and suggests that Maupassant was making a strong social point through his story. The realism depicted in this scene is that of manipulation and emotion. We are given an example of a high class act and a low class act and how they both differ morally and ethically. This is thought to depict the nature of both classes at the time.

Maupassant ‘s use of imagery in the carriage after the prostitute’s sacrifice is alarming: ‘she felt overwhelmed by the contempt of these respectable boors who had first sacrificed her, and then cast her aside like an unclean object for which they had no further use.’ [11] We are given an insight into her emotions and we also feel the tension within the confined space of the moving vehicle. As the prostitute’s emotions mirror as our own, that of disgust and anger, Maupassant has successfully portrayed his representation of humanity with the use of realist language. Richard Fusco states that Maupassant: ‘wanted to startle readers into recognising the pretensions of society and those within themselves.’ [12] As the rest of the characters pretend to Boule de Suif that her actions will also be in her own interest, Richard Fusco is correct in making this statement, however, the author also startles us into realising that our actions can be more consequential than heroic. Boule de Suif’s position is not created on her own accord but through the manipulation of her socially ‘respectable’ superiors.

Michael Lerner comments on Maupassant’s realism as: ‘fairly shallow; he went through the notions of it without fully committing himself’. [13] This comment is very disagreeable as we can see Maupassant has used very intricate realistic techniques to convey the message of the story: ‘everybody stayed in the kitchen, engaging in endless discussions and putting forward the unlikeliest theories’. [14] The language gives an indication of many different emotions and shows pathos, strong character representation and clarity in his writing, of life at the time. Maupassant manages to successfully portray a realistic character in his story.

Maupassant had studied under Flaubert for a number of years and it was through him that he met other literary geniuses such as Emile Zola and Ivan Turgenev. All of these influences contributed to Maupassant’s literary ideas and it is for this reason that his style mirrors Flaubert’s in many ways. I will be analysing Flaubert’s realist story A Simple Heart, which is set in the time and country of the author of nineteenth century France. Like Maupassant, the central figure is based on a real person whom Flaubert knew.

One of the similarities that both these authors hold, according to Agnes Rutherford Riddell, was symbolism. Maupassant used Boule de Suif as a symbol for the proletariat whilst Flaubert used the name Félicité in A Simple Heart as a suggestion for ‘both the peasant woman’s fatalistic acquiescence in circumstances and, by contrast, the real misery of her lot.’ [15] Such symbolism helps to portray a deeper message of the reality of the story.

Flaubert also used vivid, descriptive language within his stories: ‘her dresses hung in a row under a shelf containing three dolls, some hoops, a set of doll’s furniture, and the wash-basin she had used.’ [16] Like Maupassant, Flaubert creates a realistic sense of the reader being involved in the novel. However the difference between the two; is Flaubert’s use of more intricate detailing of surroundings and vision. Riddell argues that: ‘Maupassant appears to avoid this kind of mistake, perhaps through noticing its effect in his master’s work. On the whole, however, description through the eyes of a personage is consistent in both writers…’. [17] Both writers use description as a necessity in their work in order to give a more realistic account of their surroundings. Timothy Unwin is accurate in his belief that: ‘It is a well-accepted fact that, in the nineteenth century, realist novelists were less interested in telling stories than they were in describing them.’ [18] 

In A Simple Heart, Flaubert uses the technique of an omniscient narrator to his advantage. The reader is able to view the protagonist externally and internally. Externally through the attitudes of other characters towards Félicité: ‘Madam Aubain told her to stop kissing them all the time’ and internally through Félicité’s thoughts, told to us by the narrator: ‘which hurt her deeply’. [19] This allows the reader to view things as she does. H. Meili Steele states that: ‘the narrator has the ostensible traits of omniscience, such as the ability to move freely through space and time and to represent characters’ thoughts.’ [20] We can see that this is not the only advantage of an omniscient narrator. In terms of realist literature, the omniscient narrator acts as a device to give the reader more information on the characters and the setting. Thus resulting in a more pragmatic approach to the text.

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In A Simple Heart, the main character, Félicité, is used as an instrument of symbolism for the uneducated and the poor. She is repeatedly exploited by those around her, even by the people she loves and she is always hunted by sadness and sorrow. When she is stranded by her lover ‘…she hastened to her lover. In his place she found his friends. From him she learned that was never to see Théodore again’, we can see how concise and straight to the point the sentences are. [21] This abrupt structure makes the reader sense the shock and upset of the protagonist. These are the real feelings of the protagonist shown to us through concise sentence structure and normal, everyday language: ‘I haven’t had any for six months!’. [22] This is the main focus of Flaubert’s realist writing. Timothy Unwin states that: ‘…Flaubert the novelist steered clear of depicting contemporary literary life in detail.’ [23] This is correct in terms of dialogue between characters however, we have established that Flaubert was very intricate in the detailing of setting that the characters were placed in.

Flaubert remarks on the role of religion in the story, especially that of the Roman Catholic church in nineteenth century France. Félicité is devoted to the church and visits regularly yet her devotion is not based on its beliefs: ‘As for dogma, she did not understand, did not even attempt to understand a word of it.’ [24] Flaubert seems to be mocking the church in this sentence, implying that religion is a sanctity for the weak and poor who acquire some type of higher entity to depend on for support. Mary Orr states that: ‘Flaubert challenges the spiritual redundancy and irrelevance of Catholic theology…’, this shows how we are given an indication of Flaubert’s own personal views towards the Catholic church through his writing. [25] He shows not only the common realist thought of the time, but his own thought. Raymond Giraud comments that we have more of an insight as to Flaubert’s character through his stories ‘Flaubert reveals himself, positively or negatively, directly or indirectly, in the characters he creates’. [26] Flaubert’s presence in his literature is dominant and his thoughts represent the thoughts of many of the realist writers and thinkers.

We have already recognised that Maupassant’s descriptions involve the reader’s senses, yet Flaubert’s descriptions also involve the senses, but of the characters rather than the readers. Timothy Unwin points out that:

‘he watches and gathers information about the characters and the narrator less from what is said about them than from catching them looking….In Un Couer Simple the tall grass at the bottom of the stream which, we are told, is like the hair of dead bodies, explains what Félicité sees and thinks. Through her eyes we understand that she mistakenly assumes Victor died drowning (he died on a land of disease).’ [27] 

We can conclude from this quote that the author is using description from the character’s point of view to give us more information about the character’s state of mind. The fact that Félicité has made a mistake in her knowledge of Victor’s death shows us her naivety and overall, the simple-mindedness of the uneducated and poor class that Félicité represents.

Maupassant and Flaubert’s use of realism tends to be quite similar. Yet, there are many points where one stands out more than the other. We can conclude that Maupassant was strong in his realist representation of bourgeois behaviour, his use of symbolism and giving an informative description of the setting in his story. Whilst Flaubert is more descriptive in not only the setting of the story, but of the characters’ views and thoughts. Peter Brooks emphasises that: ‘Everything, as Flaubert understands it, depends on the detail’, thus, giving the reader more information on the text and allowing them to relate to the story more. [28] Both however, do not fall into the trap of over dramatising their realist descriptions and keep it as authentic as possible. Peter Brooks also notes how: ‘…we might ask ourselves: Why do we take pleasure in imitations and reproductions of the things of our world?’ [29] It seems very commonsensical to write about what we see, yet we take the easy approach of literature and write about fictional beings and wonders. Writing is a type of escapism, which realism does not allow, but we can see from the works of these two geniuses that realist literature is just as good and more educational than any other type of imaginary literature.

The verisimilitude is a device of entertainment and Timothy Unwin argues that: ‘Everything and everyone, in Flaubert’s view, had unique qualities that it was the artist’s duty to seek out’. [30] Realism puts more of an emphasis onto the small details of everyday living. Flaubert and Maupassant both understand this and equip this idea in their work.

The use of ‘le mot juste’ in realist literature is a handy tool to depict life and surroundings most accurately. Timothy Unwin points out that

This formula was valid for Flaubert, but the principle of mot juste does not imply that there is just one way of telling all stories. Rather, it suggests that each story has a privileged way of being told, through which it appears at its most persuasive. [31] 

Unwin’s comment here raises an interesting point. As each story has a privileged way of being told, this means that it is difficult to assume that what we read is all a precise account of reality at the time. The writer implements their own views and judgements into their work, ultimately, making their stories biased. What we must bear in mind when reading realist literature, is that the story is all someone’s interpretation of reality and this is the main difference between the authors. The text is a depiction of the author’s reality. Our interpretation of reality is likely to be more different.


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