This essay argues that the relationship between realism and supernaturalism in realist novels is more complicated—and more symbiotic—than critics generally acknowledge. Taking Walter Scott's Waverley, George Eliot's Silas Marner, and Charlotte Brönte's Jane Eyre as representative nineteenth-century realist novels, I show that the supernatural is not subversive but in fact constitutive of their respective realist projects. Scott's use of the Bodach Glas ghost to signal the novel's commitment to both historical facts and imaginative interventions in the plot of history, Eliot's foregrounding of the referential/nonreferential duality of realism and the semantic slipperiness of language via a debate on the existence of ghosts, and Brönte's deployment of extrasensory perception to advance an open-ended conception of reality and blur the distinction between “normal” and “paranormal” suggest that the supernatural is integral to realism's formal properties, thematic concerns, and critical self-reflections. Indeed, novel criticism frequently addresses readers in the idiom of the supernatural and paranormal, a language that seems particularly conducive to understanding how realist novels do what they do.
Srdjan Smajić; Supernatural Realism. Novel 1 May 2009; 42 (1): 1–22. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-2008-001
Download citation file: