Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
Like other writing, realist literature consists at its most basic level of words on pages. The pages are usually bound into magazines or books (or, these days, reproduced on screens). When we read novels or stories, we generally do so sitting down or reclining in a physical space – a living room or bedroom, a café, an airplane – that bears little resemblance to the scene portrayed in the text we are reading. No matter whether we are reading in a bus full of noisy people or alone in bed, however, we will be unable fully to enter into the fictional narrative unless we can shut out the world around us, at least temporarily. In a more complex process, we also must simultaneously keep looking at but, in another sense, stop “seeing” what is literally in front of our eyes – the gray or black ink, the quality of the paper, our own thumbs as they hold the book open – in order to “see” instead the fictional world (the place, the people, the objects) the author uses those physical materials to evoke.
Among the differences that distinguish the fictional modes of literary realism, literary sentimentalism, and literary sensationalism from one another are the techniques that each employs to help the reader enter imaginatively into the worlds they create. Sensationalist works use, among other devices, a quick succession of dramatic, even shocking events with the aim of creating such bodily responses in the reader as shortened breath and a pounding pulse. Chapters frequently end on suspenseful notes to encourage the reader to quickly turn the next page. Sentimental literature strives to prompt strong emotional responses, often manifested in physical tears, as readers sympathize with characters’ suffering. Realist writers certainly included both sentimental and sensational elements in their work, and they were by no means averse to provoking strong responses in readers. At the same time, however, realist authors such as William Dean Howells, Henry James, and Edith Wharton publicly defined their writing against these (in Howells’s derisive term) “romanticistic” genres (see Chapter 1). If romanticistic fiction can appeal to readers’ desires temporarily to escape their own quotidian existences for fantasized lives of passion, danger, and excitement, where good and evil are easily identifiable (and good usually prevails), realism has the burden of inviting readers into a world whose governing claim to their interest is to be as plausible, as actual, as the readers’ own world.