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The Journal of English Language and Literature , Vol.67, No.1, 45 ~ 66, 2021
Bowen, Rhys, and the Anachronisms of Realism
Seo Hee Im
In light of the recent resurgence of realism in African and Asian literatures, this essay returns to the mid-twentieth century, when colonial writers engaged critically with realism as an alien metropolitan import. Theorists have noted that realism is a literary epistemology that must be distinguished from modernism, which is an aesthetic category; realism, unlike modernism, functioned as a means to make knowable the workings of a given social world. This essay claims that, by revising early English realist classics by Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, respectively, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea reveal European realism’s failure to function as literary epistemology in Ireland and the Caribbean. Both writers put pressure on basic realist conventions such as the use of descriptive metaphor, the public verbalization of private emotion, and the marriage plot to suggest that realism operates as a belated and contrived aesthetic category (and not as a working epistemology) outside of metropolitan centers. In other words, both writers suggest that realism’s epistemological function is historically and spatially contingent. In closing, this essay turns to the question of why and how realism, so skeptically received then, has gained traction now. Where Bowen’s and Rhys’s negate realism from within imperial political and cultural hierarchies, contemporary African and Asian writers return to that seemingly superannuated form in order to construct what Edouard Glissant called an aesthetics of the earth. As optimistic attempts to forge new networks of relations among tricontinental cultures, contemporary realisms decouple realism from its historical practice so that it may function, once again, as a medium to understand the world.
Key Words
Elizabeth Bowen, Jean Rhys, Realism, Genre, Postcolonial Studies
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