Realism and revolution : Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, and the performances of history


Realism and revolution : Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, and the performances of history

Sandy Petrey

Cornell University Press, 1988

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Bibliography: p. 203-206

Includes index



Sandy Petrey here looks at the emergence of nineteenth-century French realism in the light of the concept of speech acts as defined by J. L. Austin and as exemplified by the history of the French Revolution. Through analysis of the techniques of representation in works by Balzac, Stendhal, and Zola, Petrey suggests that the expression of a truth depends on the same collective forces necessary to change a regime. According to Petrey, political legitimacy in the Revolution, the Empire, and the Restoration was established by means of a series of demonstrations that what words say cannot be interpreted without reference to the community to which they speak. Petrey first discusses the creation of France's National Assembly in 1789 as a foundational example of how speech acts can bring about historical transformation. He then challenges the most powerful twentieth-century assault on realist aesthetics, Roland Barthes's S/Z, and also considers the views of such contemporary critics as Jacques Derrida, Barbara Johnson, and Stanley Fish. During the Revolution, Petrey says, statements of truth were not descriptions of what was, but rather exhortations to produce what was not. Nineteenth-century French fiction represents in literary form a similar collectively authorized linguistic performance; the "real" in realism comes from representing facts not as they are in themselves but as they are produced and rejected in society. In the course of illuminating readings of three central realist works-Balzac's Pere Goriot, Stendhal's The Red and the Black, and Zola's Germinal-Petrey takes the position that the dilemmas of representation, far from being one of realism's blind spots, figure among its major narrative subjects.

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