Friday, November 14, 2014

Realism: The Brontë Sisters & Charles Dickens


Realism was the literary movement that started in the 1850s as a reaction against Romanticism and aimed at showing "life as it was" in literature all over Europe. Although the concept of Realism is questioned by some critics, it is a useful term to understand the general spirit of the second half of the 19th century: a reaction to Romanticism, a stress on reason and positivism, and a faith in the power of the artist to show reality. Interestingly enough, some of the writers from Romanticism were also considered to be Realistic authors due to the way in which they deal with the reality in their books. Two of the authors we are going to study in this lesson, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, are referred to as both Romantic and Realist writers but it was our choice to deal with their works as representative of Realism due to the degree of realism they added to them. Charles Dickens, on the other hand, is considered a true representative of what was known as “critical Realism” due to the way he described the British capitalist society of his time.
Generally speaking, some of the features of Realism include:
·         Reality being rendered closely and in detail. It is described selectively with an emphasis on verisimilitude;
·         Characters being more important than the action or the plot and often having to deal with complex and ethical choices; they appear in their real complexity of temperament and motive and are in inexplicable relation to nature, to each other, to their social class, to their own past;
·         Social issues portraying different social classes; the novel served the interest and aspirations of a rising middle-class;
·         Plot dealing with plausible events which avoid the sensational and dramatic elements of naturalistic novels;
·         Language being natural, not poetic; being a real representation of the way people really spoke.

The Brontë Sisters

            Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855), Emily Brontë (1818-1848) and Anne Brontë (1820-1849), the Brontë Sisters, were born in Thornton in the West Yorkshire, England. They are well known both as poets and novelists and published their poems and novels under masculine pseudonyms, following the custom of the times practised by female writers. Many of the novels written by Charlotte, Emily, and Anne were based on women in Victorian England and the difficulties that they faced such as: few employment opportunities, dependence on men for support, and social expectations. The Bronte's novels can be seen as expressions of early feminism where the protagonist struggles to gain independence and self-reliance. 

We will focus on the works of Charlotte and Emily Brontë and the features of Realism in their works.

Charlotte Brontë and Jane Eyre

Charlotte was the oldest of the three sisters. Amongst her works we find Jane Eyre, Villette, Emma, The Professor and other pieces of poetry.
In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte portrays a woman's desperate struggle to attain her identity in the mist of temptation, isolation, and impossible odds. She possesses a strong soul but she must fight not only the forces of passion and reason within herself, but the will of others which were constantly imposed on her.  In its first publication, it outraged many for its realistic portrayal of life during that time.  Ultimately, the controversy of Bronte's novel lied in its realism, challenging the role of women, religion, and mortality in the Victorian society.
In essence, Bronte's novel became a direct assault on Victorian morality. Controversy based in its realistic exposure of thoughts once considered improper for a lady of the 19th century. Emotions any respectable girl would repress. Women at this time were not to feel passion, nor were they considered sexual beings. To conceive the thought of women expressing rage and blatantly retaliating against authority was challenged the traditional role of women.  Jane Eyre sent controversy through the literary community. For not only was it written by a woman but marked the first use of realistic characters.  Jane's complexity lied in her being neither holy good nor evil.  She was poor and plain in a time when society considered "an ugly woman a blot on the face of creation." It challenged Victorian class structure in a strictly hierarchal society. A relationship between a lowly governess and a wealthy nobleman was simply unheard of. Bronte drew criticism for her attack on the aristocracy who she deemed as hypocritical. She assaulted individual's already established morals by presenting a plausible case for bigamy. Notions which should have evoked disgust and outrage from its reader. Yet its most shocking aspect was its open treatment of love. The passionate love scenes were extremely explicit for their day.
Other features in Jane Eyre include:
·         depiction of feminist ideals (women being responsible for her own destiny, equal rights in marriage, marriage for love) which would shock the Victorian society;
·         rejection of the catholic doctrine of self-sacrifice; and,
·         a desire to indulge in a few earthly pleasures.

In the following extract, Jane considers her appearance in several different ways. She starts by thinking about being dressed as neatly and carefully as it would be expected from a woman at her time. But this pride in her appearance quickly turns into a lament that she isn’t more of a classic beauty. The passage also shows her inner conflict of being such a simple person and that was what society expected.

“I rose; I dressed myself with care: obliged to be plain – for I had no article of attire that was not made with extreme simplicity – I was still by nature solicitous to be neat. It was not my habit to be disregardful of appearance, or careless of the impression I made: on the contrary, I ever wished to look as well as I could, and to please as much as my want of beauty would permit. I sometimes regretted that I was not handsomer: I sometimes wished to have rosy cheeks, a straight nose, and small cherry mouth; I desired to be tall, stately and finely developed in figure; I felt it a misfortune that I was so little, so pale, and had features so irregular and so marked. And why had I these aspirations and these regrets? It would be difficult to say: I could not then distinctly say it to myself; yet I had a reason, and a logical, natural reason too.” (Jane Eyre, Chapter 11)

Jane Eyre was made into a movie in 2011 and starred by Mia Wasikowska, Jamie Bell and Su Elliot. You can watch the trailer at
You can download the pdf version to the book at

Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights

Like the other Brontë sisters, Emily was also born in Thornton, Yorkshire, England. She lived a quiet life in Yorkshire with her father, brother, Branwell Brontë, and the two sisters, Charlotte and Anne. Under the pseudonym of "Ellis Bell," Emily wrote Wuthering Heights, which gained wide critical and commercial acclaim. She died one year after the publication of her first and only novel, in Haworth, Yorkshire, England, on December 19, 1848.
Wuthering Heights is a novel of revenge and romantic love. It tells the stories of two families: the Earnshaws who live at the Heights, at the edge of the moors, and the genteel and refined Lintons who live at Thrushcross Grange. When Mr. Earnshaw brings home Heatcliff, a young man, to live with the family, complex feelings of jealousy and rivalry as well as a soulful alliance between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw develops. Believing that he has been rejected by Catherine, Heathcliff leaves to make his fortune. When he returns, Catherine is married to Edgar Linton, but she still feels deeply attached to Heathcliff. Disaster follows for the two families as Heathcliff takes revenge on them all. Only the second generation, young Cathy and Hareton Earnshaw, survive to go beyond this destructive passion in their mutual love.
Some of the Realistic elements in the novel include:
·         Social classes: the main characters belong to the middle and lower class with clear cut lines drawn e.g. between haves (Lintons) vs. have nots (Earnshaws, peasants);
·         “Domestic" subjects focused on key stages, relationships, conflicts, socio-economic factors that characterize and affect ordinary human life (e.g. birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, death; family relations, love, courtship & marriage; money, class, social status, security, etc);
·         Cultural geography featured and chronology of family history are carefully worked out;
·         Regional descriptive detail accumulates to realistically particularize the time, place, culture of the setting – e.g. Wuthering Heights landscape of the moors;
·         Plot: despite incursions of irrational excess in some characters and super-natural elements, the plot and conflicts of the novel advance by plausibly logical chain of cause-effect events traceable to the characters' natures, choices/decisions, interactions, and their consequences;
·         Narrative Frame structure of Double Narrators (Lockwood & Nelly Dean):  the narrative frame structure helps monitoring readers "suspend disbelief" by providing a plausible scenario for the telling of the story (e.g. Nelly Dean helps make this "strange story" believable, because she has been a direct witness to many of the scenes in the story she relates); besides Nelly’s character is conventional, down-to earth, and ruled by common sense.  
Below, you can read the extract from Wuthering Heights in which Heathcliff gets to the Earnshaws’ home. It’s told through Nelly’s point of view and is a clear example of a Realistic text:

“We crowded round, and over Miss Cathy's head I had a peep at a dirty, ragged, black-haired child, big enough both to walk and talk. Indeed, its face looked older than Catherine's; yet when it was set on its feet it only stared round, and repeated over and over again some gibberish that nobody could understand. I was frightened, and Mrs. Earnshaw was ready to fling it out of doors. She did fly up, asking how he could fashion to bring that gipsy brat into the house, when they had their own barns to feed and fend for; what he meant to do with it, and whether he were mad. The master tried to explain the matter; but he was really half dead with fatigue, and all that I could make out, amongst her scolding, was a tale of his seeing it starving, and houseless, and as good as dumb, in the streets of Liverpool, where he picked it up and inquired for its owner. Not a soul knew to whom it belonged, he said; and his money and time being both limited, he thought it better to take it home with him at once, than run into vain expenses there, because he was determined be would not leave it as he found it. Well, the conclusion was that my mistress grumbled herself calm; and Mr. Earnshaw told me to wash it, and give it clean things, and let it sleep with the children.” (Wuthering Heights, Chapter 1)

If you are interested in more information on the novel, go to or download the original text from
Like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights was also made into a movie in 1992 and starred by Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes. The trailer is available at .

Charles Dickens

Dickens (1812 –1870) was an English writer and social critic. He created some of the world's most memorable fictional characters and is considered to be one of the greatest novelists of the Victorian period. During his life, his works enjoyed unprecedented fame, and by the twentieth century his literary genius was broadly acknowledged by critics and scholars. His books gained an enormous popularity all over the world and were edited in millions of copies, translated into hundreds of languages. Among his works we can cite: The Pickwick Papers (1836), Oliver Twist (1838), A Christmas Carol (1843), David Cooperfield (1850), Bleak House (1853), Hard Times (1854), A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1860).His novels attracted attention of film producers and many of them were screened (e.g. David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son, Great Expectations,) and had many remakes.
Dickens is a representative of what is known as the critical realist literature, due mostly to its distinct and forceful exposure and criticism of reality.  Dickens' main idea was that of the capitalist humanitarianism. He was sympathetic towards the oppressed, although he could not think of effective measures to solve the social problems except that he hoped that people could change the situation by reform. He in favor of freedom, equality, and charity, thinking that human nature decided human value.

Great Expectations

Great Expectations is Dickens’ thirteenth novel, and the second novel to be fully narrated in the first person (the first one had been David Copperfield). It depicts the growth and personal development of an orphan named Pip. It is set among the marshes of Kent and in London from the early to mid-1800s. Since the very beginning, the reader is faces the terrifying encounter between Pip, the protagonist, and the escaped convict, Abel Magwitch. Great Expectations is a graphic book, with lots of extreme imagery, poverty, prison ships, barriers and chains, and fights to death. It therefore combines intrigue and unexpected twists of autobiographical detail in different tones. Regardless of its narrative technique, the novel reflects the events of the time, Dickens' concerns, and the relationship between society and man.
Realism is a relative concept, a representation of reality which holds to a loose collection of conventions. Many of these conventions can be found in Great Expectations, a narrative which follows the life and struggles of the protagonist and narrator, Pip. Dickens uses techniques such as a chronological linear narrative, an omniscient narrator, the celebration of the ordinary, and the resolution of the enigma to drive the moral conditions of Pip's everyday existence. This constructed realism is essentially a representation of reality based on Dickens ideology, offering social commentary and reflecting the values and attitudes of nineteenth century England.
The basic structure of Great Expectations follows a chronological development of Pip's life; from his childhood innocence, to his disillusioned expectations, finally his rejection of the high life and a circular succession ending back at the beginning. This chronological structure of which Dickens narrates exemplifies Pip's learning process through his moral and emotional turmoil and complies with the opportunity to generate a realistic setting. For example, Pip's description of his journey to London is full of details and provides the reader with a very peculiar portrait of the city:

THE journey from our town to the metropolis, was a journey of about five hours. It was a little past mid-day when the four- horse stage-coach by which I was a passenger, got into the ravel of traffic frayed out about the Cross Keys, Wood-street, Cheapside, London.
We Britons had at that time particularly settled that it was treasonable to doubt our having and our being the best of every- thing: otherwise, while I was scared by the immensity of London, I think I might have had some fuint doubts whether it was not rather ugly, crooked, narrow, and dirty.
Mr Jaggers had duly sent me his address; it was, Little Britain, and he had written after it on his card, `just out of Smithfield, and close by the coach-office.' Nevertheless, a hackney-coachman, who seemed to have as many capes to his greasy great-coat as he was years old, packed me up in his coach and hemmed me in with a folding and jingling barrier of steps, as if he were going to take me fifty miles. His getting on his box, which I remember to have been decorated with an old weather-stained pea-green hammercloth moth-eaten into rags, was quite a work of time. It was a wonderful equipage, with six great coronets outside, and ragged things behind for I don't know how many footmen to hold on by, and a harrow below them, to prevent amateur footmen from yielding to the temptation.
I had scarcely had time to enjoy the coach and to think how like a straw-yard it was, and yet how like a rag-shop, and to wonder why the horses' nose-bags were kept inside, when I observed the coachman beginning to get down, as if we were going to stop presently. And stop we presently did, in a gloomy street, at certain offices with an open door, whereon was painted MR. JAGGERS. (Great Expectations, Chapter 20)

Great Expectations was made into a movie in 2012 and starred by Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes, among others. You can watch the trailer at .

You can download the pdf version to the book at .

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