Realism and romance

Francis O'Gorman*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Contrasts between realism and romance appear easy to make. Realism is a mode of writing embedded in history. It attaches itself to empirical and observable life. Its watchword is credibility. In the nineteenth century realism belongs among the agnostics. It is unconvinced that there is more than what can be known on the earth. It is quintessentially the achievement of the mid-Victorian novel, though its roots and its influence stretch far. Realism proposes the reality of tangible experience. It offers language as that which can call up simulacra of existence in which its readers can believe. The empiricist Aristotle is its remote figurehead. Romance is realism's quirky counter, its opposite number. Romance belongs with Plato and belief in forms and meaning beyond visibility. In the nineteenth century romance makes imaginative enthrallment out of implausibility. It assumes a world beyond what can be touched and tested; its laws are not merely those of the earth. The preoccupations of romance are fantasy, imagination, and strangeness: romance is a mode in which literary language presents phenomena that cannot be measured against what readers think they already know. Realism easily turns to politics; romance to religion. Realism can solicit readers for tears; romance, for surprise, curiosity, bafflement. Realism is a discourse of the senses; romance of the sensational. Realism belongs with satire: a mode of writing rooted in experience. Realism persistently feels the drag of tragedy: it is an expression of the painfulness of being alive.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge History of the English Novel
EditorsRobert L Caserio, Clement Hawes
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781139013796
ISBN (Print)9780521194952
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2012


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