Let’s start by observing that, when it comes to realism, there seem to be two sorts of people. To people in Group 1, realism is no big deal. They mostly want to be entertained. So if the situations and the characters are sometimes a little contrived, they don’t get too upset. As long as the book holds their attention and doesn’t seriously insult their intelligence, they’re fine with it.
To people in Group 2, realism is a great big deal—maybe the biggest deal of all, in fact. some students just could not abide any departure from the highest, strictest standards of realism. If they saw a character doing something, anything, that they couldn’t imagine doing themselves—well, let’s just say they had a hard time finishing that book.
Group 2 includes many people for whom the fact of the story’s “fictionality”—the fact that the characters aren’t real—is itself a major stumbling block. Some of these readers prefer nonfiction (history, biography, current events) for precisely that reason. Holding this view doesn’t make you stupid, by the way.
When they start to complain about unrealistic characters and situations, I usually ask them to define their terms more carefully. What do you mean by “realistic” or, for that matter, “unrealistic”? How do you know that something like this could never happen in real life? Why, in the end, does realism matter so much to you?
Those questions don’t necessarily quiet the skeptics, but they do make for productive discussion.
With the help of C. S. Lewis, we’ll see that there is actually more than one kind of realism. As we move through this part of the lecture, we will delineate four distinct kinds of realism: realism of presentation, realism of content, psychological realism, and moral realism.
Then, with those concepts in mind, we’ll look at a writer who may not seem to fit any reasonable definition of realism: H. G. Wells. If we can convince ourselves that Wells offers some sort of realism in a book like ‘The War of the Worlds’, we’ll know that we’ve accomplished a lot.
Why do we need to know that there’s more than one kind of realism? For starters, it helps us to see why it can be difficult to label some books as either “realistic” or “unrealistic.” A book can be realistic in one sense, and equally unrealistic in another sense.
This very useful point is raised by C. S. Lewis in ‘An Experiment in Criticism’. Lewis contrasts realism of presentation—or, as he sometimes calls it, “presentational realism”—with realism of content, and I think that his distinction holds up pretty well.
Lewis explains that realism of presentation depends on how things are presented to us. If they’re presented or described in detail, if we get a vivid sense of how they look, or feel, or taste, or smell, he says, we’re dealing with some sort of “presentational realism.”
If realism of presentation is expressed through physical description, then realism of content is expressed through the plot. If the events of the plot seem true to life, the sort of thing that might actually happen to people like you, people you know—then, Lewis says, the work is “realistic in content.”
Think about that distinction for a minute—and then consider a pair of hypothetical situations. Situation l: The descriptions in a book are sharp and vivid, but the plot is totally far-fetched. Should that book be labeled “unrealistic”? Situation 2: The descriptions are sketchy—maybe there’s not much description at all—but the plot is largely believable. What then? Should that sort of book be labeled “unrealistic”?
If these situations seem a little complicated—if it’s not easy to say what’s realistic and what’s not—that’s good. At least I think so. Because that means that you’re beginning to see how much goes into our sense of realism. It takes a lot to convince us that a book can and should be described as “realistic.”
Let’s start with psychological realism—which, as you’ve probably guessed, is closely tied to the treatment and development of the characters.
A psychological realist tries to give us a persuasive account of how the characters think and feel. Psychological realists often trace feelings back to past experiences, suggesting that the human personality is formed in childhood and early adolescence.
In thinking about psychological realism, then, you should probably be looking for the sort of thing you get from authors like Faulkner and Woolf: internal conflicts, an interest in tracing such conflicts back to their origins, and an obsession with the inner workings of the mind.
What, then, about moral realism? In works fitting this description, characters who appear to be selfish usually turn out to be motivated by insecurity or fear. In the end, it may be impossible to label any of the characters as a hero or a villain, a good guy or a bad guy.
Well, OK—but does that mean that anything goes? That all moral distinctions are thrown out the window? Not in the least.
Works of moral realism do not ask us to dispense with morality; they just want us to move beyond snap judgments. How do you know that people don’t have good reasons for doing bad things? What makes you so sure that you’re incapable of doing those same things yourself? These are the sorts of questions raised by works of moral realism.
Yet even though he does some bad things, Gurov in Chekov’s “The Lady with the Dog” who lies, cheats on his wife and refers to all women as ‘the lower race”— never really seems like a bad guy. He has no intention of hurting anyone—not even his wife—and at the end, he shows himself to be capable of love, forgiveness, and compassion.
Another interesting case might be ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ by Thomas Hardy. That one begins with a shockingly immoral act. As you’ll recall, the main character gets drunk and sells his wife to another man.
Through much of the book, we watch him try to expiate this scene—to make up for it—and in the end, he fails. By that point, however, we have to ask if he really deserves such a terrible punishment. After all, he knows he’s done wrong, and he’s been trying—in his way—to make up for it.
To sum up, then: There are at least four different kinds of realism—realism of presentation, realism of content, psychological realism, and moral realism. What’s more, each kind of realism is connected to a different feature or element of the work: Realism of presentation is linked to the use of description; realism of content to plotting; psychological realism to characterization; and so on.
With all of this in mind, we’re ready to look at ‘The War of the Worlds’. As said earlier, H. G. Wells is the sort of writer who might easily be dismissed as unrealistic. After all, he writes about time machines, invisible men, and alien invasions. In other words, he’s a science-fiction guy—one of the first and, still, one of the most influential.
Even so, I think it’s possible to argue that Wells is practicing his own sort of realism. He certainly seems to be a master of presentational realism. His descriptions are always sharp and vivid—and as we’ll see, they play a very important role in shaping our response to his work.
In addition—though this is perhaps less obvious—Wells also seems to be a practitioner of moral and psychological realism. At least that’s what I’ll be trying to argue in this lecture.
Consider, for example, the narrator’s description of the Martian invaders. Here’s how it begins:
“They were, I now saw, the most unearthly creatures it is possible to conceive. They were huge round bodies—or, rather, heads—about four feet in diameter, each body having in front of it a face. This face had no nostrils—indeed, the Martians do not seem to have had any sense of smell—but it had a pair of very large dark-coloured eyes, and just beneath this a kind of fleshy beak.”
The passage is full of the sort of detail that Lewis associates with presentational realism. The Martian bodies are not just “huge”—they’re “about four feet in diameter.” Their eyes are not only “large,” but also “dark-coloured.” Their beaks are not just beaky, but also “fleshy.”
That last detail is especially important. For here, once again, we see an author choosing his words carefully—using them to make a very specific impression on the reader.
By choosing “fleshy”—as opposed to, say, “scaly” or “slimy”—Wells conveys an odd, unexpected sense of vulnerability. That’s important because it helps to suggest that–despite their overwhelming firepower—the aliens are not completely invincible. They have a soft spot, something like an Achilles’ heel—and maybe, just maybe, they can be defeated.
Through this passage, Wells seems to feel that he can’t afford to be vague. If he wants his readers to believe in this at all—to go on reading, in other words he’s got to commit to it fully. He’s got to make us feel as if those Martians are—well, real.
As he continues his description of the Martians, Wells also continues to be as specific and concrete as possible. To heighten the sense of realism, he includes a reference to a real-life person. This person, Professor Howes, was the author of a textbook Wells had used in a college biology course.
“In the back of this head or body, the narrator says … was the single tight tympanic surface, since known to be anatomically an ear, though it must have been almost useless in our denser air. In a group round the mouth were sixteen slender, almost whip-like tentacles, arranged in two bunches of eight each. These bunches have since been named rather aptly, by that distinguished anatomist, Professor Howes, the hands. Even as I saw these Martians for the first time they seemed to be endeavouring to raise themselves on these hands, but of course, with the increased weight of terrestrial conditions, this was impossible. There is reason to suppose that on Mars they may have progressed upon them with some facility. ”
Just look at what he gives us here: 16 tentacles—not 12 or 20, but 16—and they’re arranged in “two bunches of eight.” What’s more, the tentacles are not just “slender”—they’re “whip-like.” More important, they’re too weak to support the weight of the Martians’ big, giant heads.
In the earlier passage, Wells encourages us to start thinking of the Martians as vulnerable, capable of being defeated. Don’t get me wrong here. At this point, things still look pretty bad for the old human race. The Martians are a lot smarter than we are—and their technology makes our equipment look like a joke. Nevertheless, they aren’t really at home here on earth. As we noted earlier, they’re the “strangers in town.” The atmosphere on their home planet is different—and maybe that fact will give us some cause for cautious optimism.
What we’re discovering, as we take a close look at these passages, is that they are absolutely crucial to the larger effect of the book. If we believe in the reality of those Martians, we’ll keep on reading to the end—and if we don’t, we might not even get into the middle.
As an aside, I might note that the situation here is not unlike the one in the movie ‘Jaws’. According to movie legend, the director—a young Steven Spielberg—realized that the fate of his film depended on the appearance of the mechanical shark. If the shark looked fakey, no matter how good the rest of the film might be, the whole thing would go right down the drain.
The really important point here is that in the description of the Martians, we have a terrific example of presentational realism. Objects are described in great detail, and those descriptions prove crucial to the success or failure of the story as a whole.
Extending the argument for realism in ‘War of the Worlds’, I might make a few points about the setting. As I said earlier, the aliens land in England—in Spielberg, it’s Newark, New Jersey, and their battles with the earthlings unfold against a familiar, ordinary backdrop. Wells’s book is full of familiar English placenames, as well as references to real-life newspapers and magazines.
The setting in time is no less specific. Wells could have placed the action at some indefinite point in the future—but he didn’t. Instead, he puts it only a few years off. In the opening pages, the narrator tells us that the Martian invasion is already a thing of the past, which means that he’s writing for an audience that knows how the war ended. Since we don’t possess that knowledge, we spend much of the story wondering if and how the aliens were defeated.
Here, as in those descriptive passages, Wells has very good reason to be precise. By choosing to set the story in modern England, then the most powerful nation in the world, he asks his readers to imagine themselves as suffering from—rather than perpetrating—an attack, an invasion, and an occupation.
Through these choices, he forces us to confront the possibility that we are not alone in the universe. More subtly, he forces us to reconsider our treatment of animals, other people, and other cultures—practicing what I’d be willing to call a sort of moral realism.
Consider, for example, this passage from the opening pages, in which the narrator tries to imagine how humans must look to Martians: “And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us.”
Note that in that sentence, there’s a quick trip from “men,” to “creatures,” to “monkeys and lemurs.” Wells is attacking our tendency to place ourselves on a biological and historical pedestal—to assume that we have nothing in common with the other creatures on this planet. It’s a kind of proto-environmental message, really, and it’s carried through the rest of the paragraph as well:
Before we judge of them that is, the Martians too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?
See what I mean? Before asking for mercy from the Martians, we need to remember our role in the extinction of the dodo and the bison. Perhaps even more urgently, we need to think about our treatment of native peoples in places like Tasmania.
With all of this, Wells encourages his readers to re-examine some basic moral assumptions. Who is civilized, and who is not? Who deserves mercy, and why? What responsibility do we have to other creatures and other peoples? Like all good moral realists, he’s encouraging us to question our own virtue and take responsibility for our shortcomings and failures.
So, we’ve got presentational realism and moral realism. More importantly, we can see why the question of realism is a tricky one. Once you realize how many different kinds of realism there are, and once you see how each kind can figure in to your overall impressions, you can begin to understand why familiar labels don’t always get the job done.
What, then, about psychological realism in Wells? Didn’t I say something about that earlier? Indeed, I did.
So, in making that point, am I claiming that Wells explores inner conflicts and traces those conflicts back to childhood?
No, that’s not my argument. He doesn’t do those things. What he does instead, though, is explore the psychology of the mob, devoting several early chapters to the evacuation of London.
These passages can’t help but make you think of 9/11, or Hurricane Katrina, or any number of natural disasters. In these passages, we see the news of the invasion spread through the city—some people don’t believe it at first, and some others decide to hunker down and wait it out.
Here, and elsewhere, Wells explores the experience of panic and fear. How do people behave under extreme stress? Why do some people crack and others pull through? What happens after the fact, when people return to their normal lives?
All of these questions are raised along the way—and the answers aren’t always pretty. The narrator, a rational and decent man, bludgeons another person while hiding from the Martians. His act is one of self-preservation, but it’s still pretty brutal, and it makes you wonder what else he might be capable of.
Before moving on, we might note that in his handling of these matters, Wells anticipates many later writers. While working on this lecture, I was reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and I couldn’t help noticing a connection there.
As you may know, McCarthy explores the aftermath of some unspecified, terrible disaster—following one man and his son as they make their way through the wreckage. In McCarthy, as in Wells, much of that wreckage is psychological. How can the characters remain recognizably human? What, under these circumstances, does humanity count for or amount to?
So, moving back to Wells himself, we’ve got psychological realism—of a sort—along with presentational realism and moral realism. But what, finally, about realism of content? You remember—the idea that the events of the story are probable, believable, more or less true to life. Can that concept be applied to something like The War of the Worlds?
C. S. Lewis might say “yes.” In talking about works like the Iliad or King Lear, Lewis speaks of “hypothetical probability—what would be probable if the initial situation occurred.” This is exactly the sort of probability that Wells is going for. Once you grant him that initial situation—and assume that Martians could, indeed, invade our planet—the rest of the story is entirely probable.
In the end, Wells may not care if we believe in Martians or not. That’s not the kind of realism that matters to him. What he does want is for us to agree that this is how people would behave under these circumstances. This is exactly what they would do and exactly how they would feel. What’s more, this is exactly what we should learn about ourselves and our species. These are the right moral lessons for us to draw from the experience of fighting a war of the worlds.
If, after all of this, you’re not quite convinced—and Wells still strikes you as an unlikely realist—that’s OK with me, although I would ask you to consider another interesting possibility: Perhaps no work of fiction is entirely realistic. Perhaps realism is more like an ideal than a reality.
Look at it this way: All stories have to begin somewhere, right? They also tend to suggest that there is a structure, or an order, or a pattern to life—beneath its apparent chaos and randomness. One thing has to lead to another. Everything has to be connected in the end. Certain outcomes are possible, while others are not.
How realistic is any of that? We’ve wrestled with this question before, right? It came up at the end of Lecture Eight, when we were talking about “A Temporary Matter,” and it came up again in Lecture Twelve, when we were summing up The Waves.
In this lecture, I’d like to deepen our engagement with the question by reminding you that historians and biographers are also storytellers. Like fiction writers, they have to give us a beginning, middle, and an end.
Let’s just say for a moment, that you’re writing the history of the Civil War. Where do you begin that one? With the firing on Fort Sumter? The election of Abraham Lincoln? The Kansas-Nebraska Act? The Missouri Compromise?
Where exactly would you end the story? With the surrender at Appomattox? The assassination of President Lincoln? Would you carry the story forward, so that you could talk about Reconstruction and Jim Crow?
This is a tricky one. After all, there are some people who believe that we’re still reckoning with the effects of that war. “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” Seems like we’ve heard that one before.
Now do you see why I’m suggesting that the problem of realism is not just a problem for fiction writers? Do you see why it might seem to be an inescapable, insurmountable problem? In the most basic narrative structures, those employed—either consciously or unconsciously—by anyone who writes anything, we may find limitations on our ability to
I think that a good reader, an intelligent reader, needs to know that—and needs to think about it every once in a while, too. If it does nothing else, that thought may keep you from coming down too hard on writers like H. G. Wells.