The Realist Novel

The Realist Novel

The Realist Novel

The Realist Novel


Studying "genre" is perhaps one of the most familiar ways of approaching literary texts, and the realist novel is one of the most distinct genres of all. It guides the student through the fundamentals of this enduring literary form.


This book is the first of a four-volume series, which has been designed to offer a range of different but current approaches to the study of literature. The emphasis throughout is upon practice, not theory. The idea is that the reader will learn about a specific approach by seeing it applied to a selection of texts. Of course, it is important to say something about the origins and assumptions of an approach, but the main focus will be on how helpful it is to study texts in a particular way. By this we mean how much it will enable us to add to our understanding and pleasure in reading. You may-and we hope you will-come to question the usefulness and value of the different approaches, but to find out what each has to offer, you need to adopt it for yourself.

The approach we use in this book is both ancient and familiar. It involves asking the question: what kind of work is this? In other words, to what literary type or genre does a particular text or piece of writing belong? Literary genres are classes of literature, grouped according to method or subject. For example, a piece of writing may be a poem, a play or a novel and if it is, say, a novel, it may be one of several kinds of novel. Genres can be interpreted through their formal characteristics, or in terms of their historical context, or both.

In this book, we emphasize the historical dimension. This seemed to us most appropriate when dealing with the realist novel, because it was in a specific historical period-the first half of the nineteenth century-that this type of writing became one of the dominant and most popular forms of English literature. We have had to be very selective and we have decided to focus upon detailed 'readings' of just four novels from the period, although you will find frequent reference made to other, related novels. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Charles Dickens's Great Expectations (1860-1) are 'classic', accessible and entertaining examples of the development of the realist form in fiction. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) is a provocative counter-example in which realist strategies are employed to render a story of myth and horror. Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons (1862), one of the greatest Russian novels, shows how realism was a European and not merely an English phenomenon. All the novels are available in paperback, and we have indicated the editions that we have found most useful, accurate and easily obtainable.

In the first part of the book, the chapters on the novels are interwoven with chapters of a more general nature. Where appropriate, further reading sections have been included to indicate where to look for more information if you have time. The second part of the book contains a number of extracts from critical writings, which are used in the discussions with the aim of developing understanding of the issues raised and giving an idea of the origins of those issues. The texts have been chosen to provide a 'taste' of some of the most influential critical material.

The authors would like to thank their Open University colleagues for helpful discussion and comment, in particular Nora Tomlinson, who is a tutor assessor, and the course external assessor Judie Newman. The course manager Julie Dickens helped to make the book possible on time, and the editors Julie Bennett and Peter Wright helped to make it intelligible.

Dennis Walder

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