Lukács, Williams, Auerbach: Tragedy and Mimesis

  • John Orr
Part of the Edinburgh Studies in Sociology book series (ESIS)


If one wished to be cruel, one might argue that, by and large, realism is a twentieth-century concept applied to a nineteenth-century phenomenon. 1 In actual fact, its terms of reference are very wide indeed. It is an artistic phenomenon typical of the modern capitalist and industrial age as a whole. Even then, it appears historically time-bound compared with our idea of tragedy. For tragedy goes back to ancient Greece, to the origins of European culture itself. The real seems culturally conditioned, the tragic timeless. Yet the intersection of realism and tragedy has been one of the great events of literature since the middle of the nineteenth century. To sense the importance of this, one has to dispense with the commonsense idea of real. In everyday language, it is used to imply a constraint upon the imagination, the very opposite of visionary thinking. Cliches such as ‘Let’s be realistic’, or ‘He’s not living in the real world’ are of little use in discourse about art. For realism is about a particular form of artistic imagination. The link between tragedy and realism is vital. It involves the synthesis of a relatively modern and a profoundly classical sensibility. Nowhere are its effects more profoundly revealed than in the relationship between the novel and modern society.


Literary Text Literary Form Ancien Regime Bourgeois Society Degenerate Version 
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  1. 1.
    See René Wellek, ‘Realism in literary scholarship’ in Concepts of Criticism (London 1963), p. 222ffGoogle Scholar
  2. Raymond Williams, Keywords (London 1976), p. 216ffGoogle Scholar
  3. George J. Becker, Documents of Modern Literary Realism (Princeton 1963).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    The Historical Novel (trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell) (London 1969).Google Scholar
  5. Cited in T. Burns and E. Burns (ed.), Sociology of Literature and Drama (London 1973), p. 287.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    Lukacs writes: ‘Obviously one cannot call Gregor’s fate tragic in spite of certain tragic features.’ Der russische Realismus in der Weltliteratur (Berlin 1952) (3rd ed.), p. 363.Google Scholar

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© John Orr 1977

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  • John Orr

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