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Realism in Defoe and Swift

Does the eighteenth century witness the emergence of ‘realism’ in the English novel?
Literature Essay

  • Assessment: Essay
  • Mark: A
  • Year: 2006
  • Wordcount: 1629

George Levine (1981: 240) defines realism in the English novels “as a self-conscious effort, usually in the name of some moral enterprise of truth telling and extending the limits of human sympathy, to make literature appear to be describing directly […] reality itself”. In Roland Barthes (1986: 260) view “realism is only fragmentary, erratic, confined to ‘details’” and one has to bear in mind that even “the most realistic narrative imaginable develops along unrealistic lines”. Ian Watt defines realism in different ways. One definition is that realism portrays “all the varieties of human experience” (Watt 2000: 11) and identifies “a belief in the individual apprehension of reality through the senses” (Watt 2000: 14).
Hence, each approach focuses on a specific characteristic of the genre and identifies its link with realism. The text’s characters within their environment, the used language, a realistic plot and the author’s claim of truth, all attempt to reflect a “correspondence between life and literature” (Watt 2000: 12). In analysing Moll Flanders and Lemuel Gulliver within their “play between illusion and reality” (Davis 1983: 11) the emergence of realism in the 18th century is, on the one hand, examined and, on the other hand, questioned in this essay.

Swift frames Lemuel Gulliver as a simple and honest seaman, who is “neither a fool nor a genius; resourceful, energetic and brave, though not on the grand heroic scale;” (Ward 1973: 121-122). Yet, according to Ward (1973:125) Gulliver cannot be identified as a fully developed human personality because he is “representing some aspects of humanity, or ourselves, never the whole”. Despite of some biographical records the reader does not obtain “any sort of expression of Gulliverian personality in anything Gulliver says” (Rawson 2005: 23). Swift uses Gulliver as the observing and framing tool through which the satire develops. He equips Gulliver with curiosity and an obsession for travelling but he does not unfold Gulliver’s personal story and feelings or present an understandable mental development within his character (Rawson 2005: 22-23). As long as the reader is willing to identify with some aspects of Gulliver he has fulfilled his purpose.
Like Gulliver also Moll Flanders lacks attitude…

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