I was talking with another faculty member (Professor Richard Eichman) today about some research he’s doing. He’s studying the way that Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary changed everyone’s idea of what good literature should be.
As I understand it, before Flaubert, novels were expected to point to truths that were bigger than ordinary life. If characters in the story were good or bad people, the story was supposed to highlight that goodness or badness and celebrate or condemn it. It was supposed to present a noble picture of the great moral truths, to lift the reader above the humdrum view of things.
Madame Bovary had “bad people” in it but deliberately refrained from evaluating them in any way. It took a just-the-facts approach. Behind this realism is the idea that beauty in literature comes from truth. The story that needs to be told is the story of how things really are. Adding an artificial layer of moralizing to make it more beautiful only gets in the way of its real beauty.
One of the major areas of philosophy is the philosophy of aesthetics — analyzing what art is, what makes something good or bad art (if anything does), and so on. I would love to look at it in our PHL 102 class some semester, but so far I haven’t come across any good readings to use, and I don’t know enough about it to teach it on my own.
By the way, here’s my view about realism. I think there is beauty in truth, but I think that storytelling differs from life in that there is a story-teller. Trying to pretend that we can tell a story that shows how things really are without a slant imposed by the author, is not possible, and is not itself really “truth”. I think truth means recognizing that the story is not only about how things are but about a particular way of interpreting them. “Moralizing” can be a good thing — a beautiful and even an especially truthful thing — if it faithfully reflects the author’s vision of how to interpret the events in the story. It goes wrong when it’s done badly or when the moral isn’t true to the author’s own vision of things. I think realism can be done very beautifully, slanting the story in its own special way. So it works well as a technique to tell a story, but not very well as a rule about what all artists should do.