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Aaron Matz. Satire in an Age of Realism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-521-19738-0. Price: US$85.00/£50.00

  • Eileen Gillooly

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  • Eileen Gillooly
    Columbia University

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Aaron Matz’s engaging, elegantly written, often counterintuitively insightful, study of the late nineteenth-century British novel begins by distinguishing between the two literary modes that preoccupy him:

Satire exists to isolate a condition or a sector of human life and hold it up for ridicule. Realism, in its nineteenth-century literary sense, is a method or an attitude seeking to represent experience, especially everyday experience, without implausibility. But toward the end of the Victorian period, these two modes blurred into one another beyond easy division. . . . [T]o describe the world in starkly realist detail . . . is to expose this same world’s essential folly and error. Realism cannot help being satirical.


This passage not only concisely expresses Matz’s basic claim—that in a handful of novels (most prominently, Jude the Obscure [1895], New Grub Street [1891], and The Secret Agent [1907]), the high realism of the mid-Victorian period, depleted of its wish-fulfilling powers, collapses into what he calls “satirical realism”—but it also gives a fine sense of his argumentative style, his historical perspective, his formalist interests and ethical investments (ix). Matz aims to persuade his reader that epistemologically, aesthetically, and ethically—though, significantly, not affectively—these novels are essentially satires, being the logical outcome of an unflinchingly realistic perspective on the sociopolitical conditions of the time. But unlike satire, which castigates its victims with scornful laughter in the belief that such shaming and disciplining may have a corrective effect, satirical realism maintains no such confidence in its rehabilitative capacity. Indeed, satirical realism takes a view of mankind so bleak and caustic as to make many of those who trade in it literally sick: Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Gustave Flaubert (“the most instinctive practitioner” [170] of satiric realism, in Matz’s view), all complain variously of “affliction,” “depression,” “nausea,” and “disgust” provoked by the “troop of swine” that “populate their stories” (154-55). Because realism induces us to empathize with its characters, when those characters are despicable or degraded, queasiness may result.

Although satirical realism only achieved full generic status at the fin de siècle, Matz traces its origins back to Menippean satire. In contrast to Aristophanes’s comedies, which targeted known persons (Socrates, for example, with famously fatal consequences), Menippean satire sets its sights on character types and, while drawing variously from epic, tragedy, allegory, and satiric comedy, appears itself in prose form. According to Matz’s genealogy, Menippean or Juvenalian satire (Juvenal having been the first major exponent of the type) fell into disuse for centuries, rarely surfacing until Jonathan Swift took it up with such force in A Tale of a Tub (1704) and Gulliver’s Travels (1726) as to have given his name to the type in the modern period: Swiftian satire, that is, essentially rebrands the Juvenalian strain. But then came the rise of the realist novel, with its particular insistence on sympathetic engagement, so contrary to the affective distancing of satire. Satire as a genre was overshadowed in consequence for most of the nineteenth century, until—and this is Matz’s highly original argument—it “fused” with the novel in what we might call a late stage of advanced realism, producing hybrid texts in which the DNA of realism and satire have so combined as to yield a literary product that is satiric in looks, but not in temperament, satiric in structure, but not in feeling (3). Thomas Hardy’s rendering of Father Time’s murder-suicide at the end of Jude the Obscure is perhaps the most arresting example of what Matz means by satirical realism.

The idea that Jude is a satire of any sort, however, is likely to arouse resistance. That Matz manages to persuade his reader to his point of view owes much to his resourcefulness as both a researcher and a writer. Throughout his study, but especially in his chapter on Hardy, Matz makes inventive use of biographical evidence—not only letters, but also reading records at the time of composition—to show, for example, that Jude emerged from a mind steeped in satire (Hardy reports having read more than a dozen satirists from Horace to William Makepeace Thackeray in the months before commencing Jude). For each of his case studies, Matz constructs a history of reception, revealing that contemporaries, such as the ever-astute G. K. Chesterton, were often more alert to the underlying presence of satire than later critics have shown themselves to be. Though historically minded, Matz is also a committed formalist. He moves easily from theorizing about genre to closely analyzing textual particulars. In one exceptionally impressive instance, he points out the magnified attention paid to skin by both Swift and George Eliot, demonstrating how its symbolic value in Augustan satire and its representational value in Victorian realism are neither stable nor discrete: “microscopic vision,” a standard “tool for realist technique,” is “also a conduit for satirical disgust” (14). And his observation that “the preposition is the most basic grammatical unit of Hardyan satire”—that “to be located in some place, to take up space on a particular plot of land somewhere in Wessex, is already to fall into the error that draws the wrath of an elusive comic satire” (52)—is both discerning and delightful.

While Matz’s discussion touches at least briefly on a dozen or so writers from the eighteenth to the twentieth century—from Swift and Alexander Pope to George Bernard Shaw and Louis-Ferdinand Celine—he devotes full chapters to readings of George Gissing and Conrad, as well as to Hardy and—rather surprisingly—to Henrik Ibsen. The Norwegian playwright’s importance to late Victorian fiction is no doubt prodigious, and I am willing to believe, as Matz argues, that it has been insufficiently recognized. But I wonder whether this critical oversight is best addressed by giving Ibsen a chapter of his own, especially since the chapter digresses at some length to discuss both Max Nordau’s Degeneration (1892) and Shaw, in his various capacities as novelist, critic, and playwright. Shaw, indeed, plays so prominent a role that he ought by rights to be named in the chapter title, rather than simply in a section heading. I suspect that Shaw fails to share top billing because he is, in Matz’s estimation, too committed to “the comic principle of correction” (34) to be a true satirical realist: “the repudiation of a corrective purpose is the central fact of satirical realism in the nineteenth century” (115-16).

And yet, though I take Matz’s point both that satirical realism “has relinquished the qualities most often attributed to satire”—“humor” and “betterment” (139-40)—and that it is far too cynical to believe it can ameliorate the conditions it uncovers, it seems to me that “relinquish[ing] any hope of correction (xiv) and the “repudiation of a corrective purpose” (115) are not identical forms of renunciation. In his discussion of Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879), Matz judges the protagonist’s intention of “scorning to infinity’” to be both a “flawed enterprise and a necessary one” (23). But it is only “flawed” if Theophrastus’s goal were to correct the behavior he observes, whereas “scorning to infinity” is, by definition, a mission without end: a lifelong ethical commitment to combating apathy and complacency, without any regard to outcome. My point is that there is a difference between exposing folly and the belief that one’s doing so will be effective. Just because one has no hope of success does not mean that the act of holding up a mirror to one’s audience is without “corrective purpose”: why bother engaging in such acts unless to force one’s audience to reflect upon its values and behaviors—if only to shame them? It seems to me that maintaining the distinction between a “corrective purpose” and “hope of correction” would go far to explain why it is that “sympathy, oddly, so often seems to exist alongside . . . all-encompassing satire” (23)—as well as to make their coexistence seem less odd.

I sympathize with the difficulty of discussing a concept such as “satirical realism” for which there is no critical history, no commonly held definition—no agreement even that the phenomenon itself exists (as there is, say, with humor, which enjoys ontological certainty in the abstract if not in the particular). And I think Matz is wise in seeking to sidestep a definitional dispute in favor of thick description. But the descriptive route is seldom direct, and there are moments when his argument appears to stall—when he seems to be repeating his “conviction” that “nineteenth-century realism reached its limit when it blurred irrevocably into satire” (175) rather than proving its validity or drawing out its implications: how does satirical realism function as a link between Victorian and Modernist sensibilities, for example? Is there a qualitative difference between satirical realism and “satirical hyperrealism,” a term he occasionally uses? And what—beyond a name—do the gritty realism of the Naturalists, the realism of verisimilitude, and the realism of the satirical hold in common?

Yet even though one senses that Matz may have won his case as much by the appeal and manner of his argument as by its cogency, he nevertheless persuades us that his intuitions are correct: not simply that “scrupulous description and unrelenting ridicule” (144) converge in a handful of late nineteenth-century novels, but that a number of Victorian writers themselves—reaching at least as far back as Eliot—felt a moral disappointment and growing disgust with the failings and hypocrisies of their culture that we have only recently in our critical practice begun to acknowledge.