The Portrayal of Realism

After reading a few of the pieces that start off this issue of The Little Review, I flipped to the back to see if I could find the advertisements. I found them, but then above the advertising section I found a little paragraph titled “The Criterion” on page 62. In it, the editors lambast a literary critic named William Dean Howells and his associates. Howells was a proponent of the school of Realism, and the quote that they ascribe to him (and I wasn’t able to confirm if he actually said it or not) demonstrates his opposition to works of art in which “the mind of the artist has moved more rapidly than my mind habitually moves”. It’s safe to say, then, that he would have not liked reading Ulysses or in listening to Stephen Dedalus as a character. “Proteus” in its essence is a transcription, or one way of transcribing, the perceptions of a character as they are translated through his mind. So as a literal depiction (whatever that phrase means) of the thoughts of a character whose mind moves as quickly as Stephen’s, this episode would not appeal to a member of the literary school of Realism.

But either that statement is wrong or it’s an ironic reality, because I think that Ulysses and this episode of it especially is a hyper-realistic novel, just not in the traditional sense of the term “realistic”. We see Stephen’s thoughts as they ‘really’ happen, and not just second hand from a disembodied narrator. For instance, near the beginning of the chapter, when Stephen closes his eyes to test its effects on the ineluctable modality of the visible, the language immediately becomes full of the sounds of his feet treading on the sand (crush crackling wrack…crush, crack, crick, crick), just as Stephen’s brain would be full of sound after removing the sense of sight. What is happening to him, rather than being described from an objective viewpoint, is transmitted directly into the language itself, so that the act of reading itself contributes to the apprehension of the scene Stephen inhabits, or that the reader inhabits. So I thought it fitting that “Proteus” was published in the same issue of The Little Review as this little paragraph criticising a critic for preferring literature that “move[s] more rapidly than [his] mind habitually moves”.


One thought on “The Portrayal of Realism

  1. jww92

    I think you’ve made a very good point here. Joyce, as I understand it, was steeped in a tradition of realist narration (Flaubert, particularly), and there is a striking precision in his prose which complements his metaphysical flights of fancy. There is something of a struggle, perhaps tending toward synthesis, between the mind and the body in Joyce, or to link it more explicitly to Stephen’s religious and moral conflict, the spirit and the flesh. There is a rigor and earthiness (as you note, the sounds of Stephen’s feet on the sand, unmistakably tethering us to the material world even as we spin off toward the eternal) underpinning the inward and upward voyages in “Proteus” and “Portrait.” What Joyce is offering us is an expansion of our conception of realism, one which perhaps seems paradoxical or incoherent at first but actually has a kind of harmony, because it stylistically enacts Stephen’s own endeavor, particularly in this episode of the novel, to define and comprehend reality, and its relation to subjectivity. (Recall that he indulges the common solipsistic fantasy that the universe vanishes when he closes his eyes. But instead: “See now. There all the time without you: and ever shall be, world without end.”) We might say that Joyce’s brand of realism, which encompasses psychic movements, sensory experience, and external, material existence, is expressing the tension between transcendence and immanence which is part of Stephen’s struggle.


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