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To what extend does Cranford validate and/or complicate the idea of the Classic Realist text?

Realism is what, in some shape or form, we might encounter, whereas romanticism is something we never encounter. Henry James In this essay we will examine whether or not Elisabeth Gaskells novel Cranford matches our idea of a Classic Realist text. We will take a look at the novels realistic style of writing, characteristics of realism and at realism as a historical epoch to then deduce to what extend Cranford challenges our understanding of realism. However, let us first take a look at the content and the structure of Cranford. The novel was published in nine instalments in Household Words a literate magazine edited by Charles Dickens (Ingham 2005). The edition to which we will be referring was published in 2005 and contains 16 chapters, all of which are independent episodes of Gaskells description of life in the fictitious town called Cranford. The plot of the novel is rather short. It tells the story of the Cranford society, some elderly women who morally and socially rule the town. The main characters are Mrs. Matty and Mrs. Deborah Jenkins, two sisters, the poor Captain Brown and two daughters of his and the long-lost Peter Jenkins, who is an Indian war veteran and returns to Cranford at the end of the story. The whole story is narrated by Mary Smith, a woman frequently staying with the Cranford society. This leads us to the first aspect of our investigation. Is the presence of Mary Smith as a narrator accurate for a realistic novel? How does the fact, that all of what the implied reader knows is narrated not by an independent third-person narrator, but an actual character, matches Cranford as a realistic novel? Clearly, all what Mrs. Mary Smith narrates to the implied reader is inevitably influenced by her (implied) prior knowledge of the events or even her (internal) speculations about possibilities that lie outside of her knowledge. Either way, the presence of a first-person narrator who happens to have no godlike knowledge seems quite unsuitable for a literate genre which claims to describe the world as it is. From that perspective we have to carefully analyse what Mrs. Smith communicates to us and look at some examples:

I had, however, several correspondents who kept me au fait to the proceedings of the dear little town. Cranford (2005, S.18) This passage is very interesting in two particular ways. First there is the obvious fact that the narrator herself is not witnessing the events at Cranford herself but relies for her narration on two other characters, namely Miss Matty and Miss Deborah. Although the reader is given first hand information in form of letters Mrs. Smith explains the background of the letters which then again distorts the image the implied reader gets from Cranford. The implied reader looks at Cranford through the eyes of Smith additionally to those of Mrs. Matty or Mrs. Deborah. The second, not so obvious, personification lies within the word dear. This word clearly reminds the reader, quite subconsciously, of the fact that he or she listens to a first-person narrator. If we had another narrator who tells us about Cranford, we would most certainly not hear about Cranford as a dear little town. Lets think of Captain Brown or Lord Mauleverer who would describe this town as perhaps great or otherwise boring. Also, the word dear implies taste. And taste is always determined by the four concepts to which we will refer later as well: Gender, class, race and handicap. The personification becomes even more clearly as we read further: ... had been talking over the subject with Deborah, and was quite convinced that, &c.; - (here, probably, followed a recantation of every opinion she had given in the letter) Cranford (2005, S.18) In this last quotation of our first analyses there is quite an obvious expression which indicates that what we know from the Cranford society is influenced by a character and is not objective (besides, one can find these indicators on every other page). It is the word probably. In an objective description of the world as it is there is no probability, no speculation done by the narrator. So what can we conclude from this first, brief analyses? Speculations about the state of the world undertaken by the narrator clearly contradict the idea of a realistic text. If there was an objective, thirdperson narrator, the reader could get a full, independent understanding of the events and situations taking place in Cranford. With a narrator as in this case, we have to be aware of the fact that we cannot possibly know what is really happening in Cranford but only conclude the implied events. Therefore, this literate construction challenges the idea of Cranford being a realistic text. Even if the narrator Mrs. Mary Smith was

all-knowing, we still could not say for sure whether the Cranford society is behaving in a realistic manner. Remember: A realistic novel tries to describe the world as it is. We can only speculate how Mrs. Jenkins et al. would act, if the narrator was no part of the Cranford society but above all human business. It is a crucial fact established by Levi-Strauss in the world of sociology (Tristes Tropique) and Schrdinger in the world of physics (Schrdingers cat): The presence of an observer, even if he is not taking part, influences the outcome of the observation. Therefore, we have to conclude that Cranford (even if it was a non-fictitious place within a non-fictitious story) could have never taken place as we read it. Let us now come to the second part of our analyses. At its best the realist novel was like life itself - complex in appearance, rich in character, diverse in outlook, teeming with ideas and operating on several levels. It was a forum for the confusions of the Victorian age over Christianity and Darwinism, economics, morality and psychology, yet it was also a domestic novel concerned with the individuality of human relationships. BBC Radio, Homepage (2010) Looking at Cranford through the lenses of Mrs. Mary Smith as we did above makes us aware of four approaches how we can gain a particular view on what the narrator is telling us: Gender, class, race and handicap. From what Mrs. Smith communicates to the implied reader we know that all protagonists in Cranford are more or less healthy, bourgeois, white English women (with the exemptions of the Captain, Signor Brunoni and Peter Jenkins who are obviously male). To deduce our second conclusion we have to focus on one or more of these four aspects. The easiest to be accessed would be the Gender-aspect of this novel, since it is quite obvious that Cranford is in the hands of Amazons, as Mrs. Smith herself calls her fellow society. The first industrial revolution overthrew the dominant view on family and social life. In the earlier tripartite society, especially in the agricultural order, women actually did have power and were helping men with stock and on the field, while, despite from that, raising children and housekeeping. It still remained a patriarchal system, but without a strong woman, the man was lost. This changed rapidly with the upcoming industrialisation. Whereas proletarian women still needed to work, the bourgeois women were domesticated. With all the philosophical and pedagogical theories which evolved in the bourgeoisie regarding children and education, the role of women now was upbringing and education of children and obtaining and maintaining social

capital1. Elisabeth Gaskells work is a partial reproduction of that view. It is very unlikely that the entire town of Cranford is without any men. It is more likely that Mrs. Smith tells us the story of Cranford as a place where financially independent women arranged themselves without men. Men are so in the way when being at home. Describing the Cranford (lady-) society as Amazons and men, once having moved to Cranford, literally vanishing from public space could be interpreted in two different ways which are both equally important to our examination of Cranford as a realistic novel: Either Mrs. Smith communicates the absolute truth and men really play a subordinate role in Cranford (as brilliantly indicated by the figure of the post-(wo)man early in chapter 13). Or Mrs. Smith and her fellow company just dont perceive men as a part of the social setting in Cranford, which is more likely. In the first case, there is no doubt that the gender-aspect of Cranford mirrors the world as it is (or at least as it most realistically could be) quite well and therefore validates our understanding of realistic texts. In the second case however the reality that is being narrated to us by Mrs. Smith is just one of many possible versions of reality. If the narrator was a male member of Cranford, a butcher for example, we would get a totally different picture of Cranford. The image of Cranford which is being narrated to the implied reader depends on the perception of the narrator. This does not necessarily mean that one version of reality is more valid than another. It is more like an offset of the same picture in a different colour. This concept clearly complicates the idea of classic realist texts. Realism in art, literature as well as in philosophy implies that there is one absolute truth, one absolute reality and that it can be pictured accurately. The role of gender as one out of 24 combined possibilities to look at the world complicates classic realism but, most important, does not contradict it for all versions of reality are still equally valid. There is a very significant genderaspect to Cranford which makes it a particularly valuable example for these kinds of examinations. Last but not least we want to quickly focus on the biggest paradox that comes with Cranford and respond to that in the shortest answer. Cranford is a fictitious novel. At the same time, Cranford is considered a realistic text. How can a fictitious novel possibly belong to realism? This paradox could be seen as rather challenging but we dont want to investigate too deeply into this matter. When we take realism in the very sense of the word it clearly forbids any fiction, yet even speculation. Naturally, fiction could be seen as the other side of the extreme.

Even today, middle class women contact more often members of the family in order to maintain social relationship than men do. Surprisingly they do not simply care about their own family but are even more likely to keep in touch with their spouses family than the spouse himself (acc. Pierre Bourdieu).

So we need to think of a formula to describe Cranford as a fictitious, realistic novel. The variable which most certainly needs to be introduced in order to qualify either of the extremes is plausibility. Cranford could have happened. We all agree on that because it is not only possible or probable but plausible that the events we witnessed through the eyes of Mrs. Mary Smith could have taken place. Therefore we can define Cranford as a novel belonging to realism although it is entirely fictional (BBC Stream). Too frequently, the imaginative power of a work of art is measured in terms of its departure from ordinary experience, its distance from ordinary experience. (...) It is more complicated to imagine the life of a milkmaid (...) than to invent the fantastic life of a fairy or a demon. George Henry Lewes To address the question to what extend Cranford validated and/or complicated the idea of the Classic realist text, we now have to conclude the following: Based on our deduction from the novel itself, the attributes of the narrator and a constructivist approach, Cranford complicates the idea of the Classic realist text by creating an obvious lack of alternative perspective than the one of the female narrator. At the same time, regarding the plausibility, the socio-cultural background, the epoch and the style of writing we can state without a single doubt that Cranford validates our understanding of a realistic novel for it has all ordinary characteristics one expects a realistic novel to have.

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I hereby state that I did this work on my own and that I only used acknowledged sources.

CRANFORD, Elisabeth Gaskell, Penguin Books 2005, London INGHAM, Patricia, Penguin Books 2005, London BBC, downloaded on 12.12.2010

JAMES, Henry LEWES, George Henry

BBC Time_Victorian_Realism, streamed on 12.12.2010