What makes a literary work truly realistic? In Book 10 of The Republic, Socrates says of the artist: “if he does not make that which exists, he cannot make true existence, but only some semblance of existence” (Plato, 2004). This statement is one that recognizes the self-limiting problem of realism in art, a complication that is addressed in the work Six Characters in Search of An Author by Luigi Pirandello. Literary works are mimetic by nature, with even the most fantastical and outlandish stories often needing to borrow some elements from the existing world. Literary realism, as a mode, includes texts that aim for as transparent a depiction of reality as possible, often subverting idealistic conventions which romanticize the world or ignore its less palatable aspects. Instead, the realism genre often centers around themes of poverty and suffering, featuring characters that are more human than archetypal. The epic and exotic are shunned in favour of a more mundane but truthful reflection of real experience. Yet Plato’s sentiments on art being but a semblance of existence leads one to the question of whether any work, no matter how strictly the conventions of realism are adhered to, can ever truly be ‘realistic’. Given the artificiality of art itself, and the fictive quality of literature in general, do the objectives of literary realism reflect an oversimplification and naivete on the part of the writer?
Pirandello’s works, while oriented toward a greater degree of realism, also exhibit a level of self-consciousness about the intricacies of their endeavors to do so. They offer critiques against the reductionist aims of literary realism by straying from genre conventions and incorporating elements of ‘anti-realism’ – but with the interesting effect of more precisely capturing the fabric of experience. To proceed, however, it is necessary to first address the terminological complexity of realism: specifically, to distinguish between literary ‘realism’, the set of genre conventions aimed at creating a mirror-like representation of life, and the quality of being ‘realistic’, which allows the work to more closely imitate the texture of objective reality. Establishing a distinction demonstrates that a work can be ‘realistic’, even when it departs from ‘realism’.
The meta-narrative features of Six Characters brings into focus that reality itself is often elusive and slippery. The irony of a play within a play, for example, speaks to the inchoate basis of literary realism. When an audience watches a play, they must be conscious of two realities at once: the fact that they are watching actors on stage, and that of the story being performed. Usually, the former must be discarded in order to better appreciate the latter. The audience are aware that the story they are watching is only an ‘illusion’, temporarily being accepted as a ‘reality’. This understanding is inverted in Six Characters, as Father says, “what for you is an illusion, to be created, is for us our unique reality”. Here, the ‘reality’ is the story being told by the characters, and the ‘illusion’ is the play being performed by the actors.
By giving the characters corporeal forms and by making them coexist with the actors onstage, the separation of ‘reality’ from ‘illusion’ – or ‘actor’ from ‘character’ – is made starkly visible to the audience. Yet the distinction between them becomes less clear than ever, as seen when Stepdaughter says “watch me live it!” of her story, and the Leading Lady retorts, “I’ll know how to live it too, don’t worry, once I put myself in the role!”. The whole atmosphere when the actors perform the scene they were just shown by the characters seems rather chaotic, which closely resembles the actuality of theatre rehearsals – this is a form of literary realism. However, the stage directions also indicate that “From the first speeches, the performance of the scene by the Actors is quite a different thing, without, however, any element of parody in it – rather, it seemed corrected”. This implies that the actors’ rehearsal was more life-like (less parodical) than that of the characters; here the play departs from realism, which normally depicts reality being dramatized through performance, instead of the other way around. As the characters protest and bicker over the actor’s portrayal of them, the audience is made to question which of the two versions of the scene they should consider more real – the story being told by the characters, or the performance being given by the actors?
Stepdaughter asks, “Tomorrow you will make of us the show you have in mind. […] But would you like to really see – our drama? Have it explode – the real thing?”. For the characters, the story is neither a pretense nor a performance. Towards the end of the play, even the director and actors grow confused between what reality is, chanting, “Fiction? Reality! Reality! He is dead!”. Pirandello uses the fantastical concept of characters being alive on the stage to demonstrate that the seam separating reality from fiction can often shift and reposition itself, and if reality itself is not objective, how can it be possible for literature to be truly realistic?
The fragmentation of a single story into multiple narratives also adds to this. Each of the characters has their own version of the drama, each of which are necessary in order to build a complete picture of what happened. If the audience were to take Father’s version, for example, while ignoring that of Stepdaughter, they would only receive a falsified, rudimentary account of events. Father delivers a monologue about the interpretive complexities of language: “how can we understand each other, sir, if in the words I speak, I put the sense and value of things as they are inside me, whereas the man who hears them inevitably receives them in the sense and value they have for him”. His own account of what happened with Stepdaughter is different from the way that she presents it, and so whose version of events is to be taken as the truth? By splitting the narrative, the audience is encouraged to engage with the play more actively (rather than passively), to take on a much more intimate role in their interpretation of the drama. Will they be like the characters, who are each only capable of accepting their own reality, and thus reduced to mere fragments that exist in a state of restlessness and confusion as a result? Or will they instead be more like the actors, who take the given pieces of the story to shape it into a more well-rounded and holistic narrative? Pirandello warns his audience against the former, suggesting that assimilating only a single viewpoint leads to subjectivity bias, as when Father says, “Phrases! Phrases! As if they were not a comfort to everyone” and Stepdaughter responds that the twisting of phrases “quiets our guilt feelings too”. The audience is shown that they are being handed a shattered narrative, which they must pick up and form into a multifaceted truth for themselves. This relays the pointlessness of realism in trying to portray life as a single objective truth; in actuality, a single truth may have many sides, depending on whose perspective it is being told from. The deliberately embedded narrative disjunction imposes a greater responsibility on the part of the reader to continually challenge their own interpretation of everything they’re to look past textual clues toward features in the work that “imply all the rest, suggest what remains inside”.
One such feature is the use of symbolism to add aspects of realism. In the play, the theatre is a stage for the performance of life – “you play the part assigned you, and you’re your own puppet – of your own free will”. This is represented by the fact that the characters are aware of the tragic climax of the story they have been written around, and perhaps seek some form of catharsis in being able to live it out anyway. Their desire to live their stories in front of an audience might also be taken as commentary on the voyeuristic fascination of watching terrible events unfold upon others, which explains the morbid appeal of tragic plays and novels. The characters’ very presence as living entities is not realistic, and the use of masks emphasizes their limited fictional existence. However, they are still constrained by elements of realism relating to the theatre itself.
Their drama can only take place when the setting is as it was written – when Madam Pace suddenly materializes, for example, once all the hats are hung up, to the great dismay of the actors. This “miracle of reality that is born of the stage itself” is evidently a departure from realism, but is realistic in the sense that her character, who is present exclusively in this one scene of the drama, can only appear under the correct conditions. Another example of such restrictions being abided to is when Mother moans while watching Father in his scene with Stepdaughter, and he “is momentarily turned to stone by the moaning; then he reassumes the previous tone”. The scene is essentially frozen at the interruption by Mother’s moans, then resumes as normal. This is an example of realism overlapping with symbolism (non-realism) to depict the self-contained nature of the theatre, because the story cannot proceed except in the way it was written.
The idea that most people are made of shades of grey is proposed by Father’s in Six Characters, when he says “if we could only foresee all the evil that results from the good we believe we’re doing”, and again when he soliloquizes on his own weakness, “one gives way, gives way to temptation”. Through the representation of characters who act selfishly, have vengeful, tainted motivations, but who generally evade classification into the either categories of good or evil, the play accurately captures the reality of human experience. This serves as an important reminder that while it is thoroughly conscious of the self-limiting problem of realism in literature, often departing from it as a means of rejecting genre restrictions, it’s still effective at mirroring the actual texture of experience. In other words, although it isn’t always operating within the conventions of ‘realism’, it nonetheless does come across exceedingly ‘realistic’