English, Department of



Peter Brooks

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 37 (2006) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019 (37)


In 1884, Emile Zola wrote the preface to the catalogue for a retrospective exhibition of Edouard Manet's paintings. 'Forget ideas of perfection and of the absolute', the author implored: 'don't believe that something is beautiful because it is perfect, according to certain physical and metaphysical conventions. A thing is beautiful because it is living, because it is human'. While few today would dispute the intrinsic beauty of Manet's works, Zola's defense was necessary in its day; Manet's oeuvre constantly defied physical and metaphysical conventions of the Salons, critics, and public and was commonly charged with depicting ugliness in an unaccomplished manner.

In fact, the work of justifying realism's aims is never done. Peter Brooks seeks to 'make the case for realism' in his excellent latest work, defending it against criticism which claims that 'notions of representation that thinks of itself as an accurate designation of the world, are naIve and deluded' (6). Central to his argument is the visuality of realist genres, and that his approach comprises fiction and painting is an indication of his commitment to viewing the realist project as spanning disciplinary boundaries. Brooks turns to the usual suspects to make his claims - Balzac, Zola, Eliot, Courbet, and Manet - but also extends his reading to Caillebotte, Henry lames, loyce, Proust, and others. It is a welcome and much-needed expansion that acknowledges that the arts evolve in relation to each other, and without particular regard for national or generic borders. Because of the intellectual generosity implicit in his approach, what results are readings that open up the canonical versions of these canonical realist texts, and expand the boundaries of the High-Realist genre itself.

Part of his task is to defarniliarize the very strategies of realism; rhetorical or visual or narrative strategies that have become so ingrained in western art production and its analytical machinery that they seem transparent. Brooks achieves this effect by first accepting as a basis the idea which gives so many scholars pause: that no matter how sincere an artist's intention to duplicate reality faithfully, the result will only ever be an exercise in pretense. Brooks moves away from the binary distinction of truth/falsehood and instead considers what is being made in the works. If all realist texts and images are efforts of pretending, Brooks notes that 'it is how you pretend that counts' (6; 229), and nineteenth-century realists 'pretended' with characters and environments of daily life - elements theretofore excluded from artistic realms. This rise of the common coincides with other surges (social, philosophical, industrial and scientific), resulting in a new way of seeing, and, as provided by realists, new objects to see.