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Balzac and Kafka: From Realism to Magical Realism
French author Honore de Balzac defined the genre of realism in the early 19th century with his novel Old Man Goriot, which served as a cornerstone for his more ambitious project, The Human Comedy. Old Man Goriot also served as a prototype for realistic novels, with its setting of narrative parameters which included plot, structure, characterization, and point-of-view. The 20th century, however, digressed considerably from the genre of realism. Franz Kafka, for example, has been considered as one of the forerunners of the genre known as Magical Realism. Wendy B. Faris defines the genre of Magical Realism as the combination of "realism and the fantastic so that the marvelous seems to grow organically within the ordinary, blurring the distinction between them… [including] different cultural traditions" (1). Faris finds magical realism to exist at the crossroads of modernism and post-modernism, as a kind of fairy-tale reminder of existence that exists. This paper will analyze the narrative expectations of the novel of realism (through Balzac's Old Man Goriot) and show how they have changed in the 20th century (through Kafka's "The Metamorphosis").
Realism: Old Man Goriot
Plot and character in the realistic novel are derived from real-life situations and events and are meant to be comprehensive. Essentially, the realistic novel is meant to serve as a kind of document: more than a drama, it is an epic narrative that attempts to illustrate all aspects of a particular time and place. For Balzac in Old Man Goriot, that time and place is Paris in the early 19th century. In order to reflect the divisions of Paris, Balzac focuses on three central characters, all of whom have their own separate stories. There is Vautrin (the criminal with a secret past); Goriot, the pathetically doting father figure -- a kind of 19th century Lear, whose daughters are more interested in his money than in his kindness; and Rastignac, a representation of the ambitious young person, out to climb the social ladder through any means available. They are united together under the roof of a boarding house. The plot focuses on their experiences, which Balzac draws from his real-life observations, even going so far as to base the character of Vautrin on a real-life criminal turned police officer, with whom he was an acquaintance. Yet, even while the novel is realistic in its depiction of time and place, its characterization is somewhat Romantic -- but, of course, Balzac is writing in a Romantic era.
The expectations of the narrative of the realistic novel are set forth in Balzac's treatment of setting: he spends great care and time on describing scenes, the way the boardinghouse looks, who lives there, what their stories are. The realistic novel is detail-oriented and acts as a kind of literary photograph for a time period. Thus, the narrative of Old Man Goriot fluctuates from Vautrin to Rastignac to Goriot, creating parallels for dramatic effect (such as Goriot's death scene juxtaposed to his daughters and Rastignac's attendance at the ball). In Kafka's tale, however, the characters are considerably more grotesque. They are exaggerated so as to alarm and draw attention.
The realistic novel draws attention in a different way. The point-of-view of Old Man Goriot is meant to be objective: Old Man Goriot is written from the perspective of the third person omniscient narrator. Balzac's voice may be heard expounding the mysteries of life as they appeared to him in his own time and place. This exercise of third person perspective is less confident in the novels of the 20th century, especially in Kafka's, which are marked by an ironic and wondering tone.
The structure of the novel of realism does not allow for loose ends. It is meant to be definitive and strong. Balzac therefore weaves together several strands. Essentially, Balzac sets out to form a tapestry of events and lives; the structure is complex, in that it unites in one narrative three stories and combines realistic depictions with philosophical explanations and dramatic renderings. This model of the genre of realism would be used by all the great 19th century novelists, from Dickens to Melville to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. In many ways the 19th century novel is a sweeping illumination of mankind as it appeared to the author in all its many facets and traits. It was a vision that required great scope and imagination.
By the 20th century, however, literary focus was changing from outward to inward. The modern writers wanted to describe less of the world around them and more of the world they found within themselves.
Magical Realism: "The Metamporhosis"
Magical Realism is a genre that sets out not so much to describe as to criticize and wonder. Bruno Bettelheim might characterize "The Metamorphosis" as satirical commentary on the modern age's inability to properly assess itself. If children's literature deals with the transformation of a frog into a human (implying sexual and moral growth), Kafka's human transforms into a bug (implying not growth but regression): "The idea that as he grows up, his sexuality too must, in his own best interest, undergo a metamorphosis" (Bettelheim 290) can readily be applied to the inverted adult fairy tale that is "The Metamorphosis." Thus, one can see the change in the narrative expectations of the novel in the 20th century: fantasy is used in order to delve into the mind and the soul.
Nabokov attempts to trace out the structure of Kafka's tale by proclaiming "that since art and thought, manner and matter, are inseparable, there must be something of the same kind about the structure of the story, too." Gregor, the main character of "The Metamorphosis" is "endowed with a certain amount of human pathos among grotesque, heartless characters, figures of fun or figures of horror, asses parading as zebras, or hybrids between rabbits and rats…[The] intonation of '"I cannot get out, I cannot get out," said the starling'" is perfectly embedded in Kafka's structure. Again, the structure of Magical Realism is different from the structure of Realism: it is inward-looking -- but longs for escape or explanation.
The 20th century novel still grows out of the realistic novel, and thus fulfills, in a way, the structural expectations. As Nabokov indicates, the structure of "The Metamorphosis" can be divided into three parts. Characterization, however, departs from the expectations of the realistic novel -- as do plot and point-of-view. The plot is simple; the point-of-view is third person -- but much bleaker and less omniscient.
Part One deals with Gregor who wakes to find that he is a beetle still in possession of his human nature. His family attempts to speak to him through the closed door and they suspect he may be ill. Gregor reveals himself to his family and the chief clerk, who respond with fright and disgust. Gregor is driven back into his room, and is the only one to remain calm and obliging throughout the incident. Yet, Part Two of the developmental scheme shows how Gregor's family attempts to go on about their daily lives as though in disregard of the metamorphosis that has changed Gregor into an insect. The tone is ironic as Gregor goes out of his way to hide himself under the couch so as not to frighten members of his family. However, their antagonism does not subside; the mother and sister remove his belongings, and the father hurls an apple at him that becomes lodged in his body.
The third part of the plot details the family's disintegration. The family increases its aggression. The sister finally and forcefully insists that her brother must go. Gregor reflects on his rejection and dies. The family is relieved of its burden and now is free to think of itself. The family is described as cynical and self-centered. Nabokov observes…[continue]
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