From the Print Journal

The Persistence of Realism in Modernist Fiction by Paul Stasi

Book cover with abstract
The Persistence of Realism in Modernist Fiction. Paul Stasi. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 2022. Pp. 280.

© 2024 Johns Hopkins University Press

Northrop Frye argued that behind every realist narrative was a displaced mythic structure that could explain the deeper meaning of its themes and patterns. Frye’s archetypal theory was in many ways a modernist one. Had not James Joyce and T. S. Eliot themselves sought to unify the seemingly random data of modern experience by indicating for their readers deep mythic structures undergirding their works? Myth was not held on to so much as a system of belief as for its ability to give a kind of formal unity—even if only latently—to the otherwise centrifugal force of the new and diverse material of modern life. In modernism, myth allied with literary form against the messy, debased business of daily existence in post-traditional society. But what if this is the wrong way to tell the story? This is the question posed by Paul Stasi in The Persistence of Realism in Modernist Fiction, which discovers behind modernism not myth but the displaced form of the realist novel.

“Realism,” writes Stasi, “persisted not only in the realist texts that continued to be written in the period, but within modernist works of literature themselves” (7). Criticism, however, has largely ignored this persistence. In actuality, the so-called modernist “rejection of realism,” Stasi explains, existed “alongside the desire for a deeper reality” (3). From this perspective, what was being rejected was not so much realism per se as the representational machinery of the classical realist novel. Still, the problem with such cut-and-dried dichotomies is that realism often “appears as the naïve predecessor of a more sophisticated modernism, whose literary innovations are repeatedly cast in the heroic language of resistance” (7–8). “Resistance” here means not just resistance to the form of the classical novel but also its values, which are retrospectively characterized as conservative. In this critical paradigm, “realism becomes a disciplinary apparatus that can only be countered by modernism’s formal disruptions” (10).  Yet, as Stasi counters, “Formal disruption does not automatically lead to radical politics, just as the retention of earlier forms does not necessarily imply conservatism” (12).

For Stasi, we are not faced with an option between a formalist modernism, on one hand, and a naïve mimetic realism, on the other. Instead, he suggests we view these two aesthetic regimes as different orientations to reality, which he aligns with Georg Lukács’s and Theodor W. Adorno’s competing theories of how literature mediates “social totality” (20). Lukács, he explains, “argues for the placement of detail—persons and events—within the larger whole of the narrative, whereas Adorno finds history within the structure of the subject itself” (23). For Stasi, these are (pace Lukács’s and Adorno’s disagreements) both equally valid approaches to representation even if, in a particular historical conjuncture, one asserts itself as the more viable. Countering the charge that modernism champions solipsism, Stasi argues that modernism willingly subjects “crucial elements of the modernist ideology—aesthetic autonomy, epiphany, impersonality—to critical scrutiny,” by placing them “against the background of capitalist modernity” in a way that renders their rewards ambiguous (30).

We can take Stasi’s analysis of Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle” as emblematic of the basic procedure. The Jamesian bachelor-hero, John Marcher, has sought to create an immaculate existence for himself by avoiding the affective ties of matrimony, the nation, and altruism, all of which would bond him to others compromising his autonomy. Marcher, in short, tries to “impose” the values of modernist “aesthetic form on the inherent formlessness of life. But in doing so, he misses out on life itself” (49). In his old age, he becomes haunted by the ghost of what could have been. For Stasi, “James’s critique of autonomy suggests the abiding presence of the realist impulse” (42). The realist impulse, however, is manifest not in the representation itself, but in its absence—in “the presence of something hidden” that is nonetheless sensed to be “fundamental” (37).

A similar dynamic plays out in Stasi’s analysis of the Joycean hero in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses: “If Ireland seeks autonomy from Great Britain, so Stephen seeks autonomy from Ireland to pursue his art in ‘unfettered freedom’” (73). The Joycean hero rejects the ties of national belonging, which at the same time must be the basis for the political project of national autonomy that Joyce endorses; in this case, the demands of aesthetic and political autonomy pull “in two contradictory directions” (73). Here, Stasi underscores sympathy as the affective structure in which belonging most commonly takes shape, especially in the classically realist novels of Elizabeth Gaskell. However, sympathy, as Stephen Dedalus knows too well, “threatens . . . autonomy,” foisting the experiences of the other on to the self (70). Sympathy can also be manipulated, as in Gaskell’s Mary Barton, which anxiously draws boundaries around which members of the poor are worthy of fellow feeling. Thus, Joyce’s desire to have it both ways, to write a work of nationalist literature that refuses the idea of the nation as an organic totality, where some naturally belong and others don’t. Joyce instead “holds out hope for the possibility of a non-exclusive nationalism, one built not on abstractions but on an understanding of the commonalities that persist across differences”—a proto-society glimpsed only prefiguratively in the Blooms (100). The place of realism in Joyce’s modernism is that of a constitutive absence, sympathy for a nation that does not yet exist, the autonomy not of what is, but what isn’t.

Stasi’s chapter on Samuel Beckett turns on a dialogue with William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, which also deal with wandering “madmen and tramps” (145). However, where the “realist” impulse of Wordsworth’s poetry subsumes its vagrants in a poetic structure that exalts the liberal subjectivity of the poet who extends sympathy to the displaced and poor, Beckett’s works instead exalt the non-subsumability of his eccentric outsiders, creating a space for sympathy without subsumption. The result is that Beckett’s “scenes of suffering, absent any amelioration, are allowed to persist in their unending misery, never becoming the comfort a bourgeois subject can feel about its empowering response to those less fortunate” (162). The persistence of realism again registers its presence by way of absence, in this case, of poetic form that could render the suffering of the disenfranchised a gain for a sympathizing liberal subject.

In Stasi’s chapter on Virginia Woolf’s The Years, realism again haunts the margins of the modernist text and is drawn out through a cross-analysis with another author, Joseph Conrad. Woolf’s novel spans fifty years of history but focuses on only the most granular details of women’s domestic life and private experience with barely a passing mention of the kind of world-historical events that frame Conrad’s imperial adventures. Drawing on Social Reproduction Theory, Stasi argues that this narrow focus on the daily life of women registers in its own way the alienating effects of a mode of production—capitalism—that is bolstered by the feminization of unwaged and unrecognized labour hidden behind the doors of a separated domestic sphere. Woolf’s modernist innovation is not to connect the domestic and the public to show us how they form a totality (using objective narration), but to subtract the public sphere entirely and leave us with only the interwoven perspectives of those subjects separated from history and public life by the capitalist “logic of gender” (109).

Using a critical procedure similar to the one adopted in his analysis of The Years, Stasi’s chapter on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man discovers behind the novel’s “hallucinatory surrealism” another capitalist by-product: “the real abstraction that is race” (170, 172). At the same time that Ellison’s novel denaturalizes race, it shows over and over its intractable stickiness, the way in which repetitions of racial cliches and stereotypes start to make that hallucinatory abstraction “race” both real and nightmarishly present for the protagonist. Thus, although Ellison’s modernist novel is often juxtaposed to Richard Wright’s naturalism, Stasi argues both authors, in their own way, engage with the weight of social determination in their characters’ lives.

There is much here to commend: in particular, the insistence that realism is not formally naïve and that modernism is not superior (aesthetically or politically) simply because it is formally inventive. Especially intriguing are Stasi’s cross-analyses of different corpuses not to show the strength of his modernist authors over their “realist” counterparts but instead to draw into focus something internal to the modern text itself: a displaced realist concern or sympathetic subject matter. Yet one can’t help feeling that Stasi’s modernists do come off rather better in the end. The assertion that these two formalisms—realism and modernism—are both equal isn’t really sustainable unless one is also willing to talk about what makes them innovative and valid in their respective timeframes and potentially not in others. In fairness to Stasi, much has been said about the divergence of modernism from realism, so he is right to draw to our attention instead to the underexplored site of an overlap, of a persisting “realist” orientation within modernism, but we should not at the same time lose sight of what separates these two great traditions. I doubt that Stasi would disagree but this is precisely what the very ingenuity of The Persistence of Realism in Modernist Fiction threatens to obscure: the history also of their rupture.