(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

(All quotes by Erich Auerbach unless otherwise indicated)

“Art’s imitation of life: the imitation of life or nature in the techniques and subject matter of art and literature [Mid-16th century. From Greek mimēsis, from mimeisthai ‘to imitate,’ from mimos ‘mime.’]” Encarta World Dictionary

“In Aristotelianism, artistic portrayal not as literal copying but as representation of the essential nature of something.” Webster’s New World Dictionary

“Petronius’ literary ambition, like that of the realists of modern times, is to imitate a random, everyday, contemporary milieu with its sociological background, and to have his characters speak their jargon without recourse to any form of stylization. Thus he reached the ultimate limit of the advance of realism in antiquity.”

“Imitation of reality is imitation of the sensory experience of life on earth—among the most essential characteristics of which would seem to be its possessing a history, its changing and developing. Whatever degree of freedom the imitating artist may be granted in his work, he cannot be allowed to deprive reality of this characteristic, which is its very essence.”

“The suspense inherent in the yet unrevealed future—an essential element in all earthly concerns and their artistic imitation, especially of a dramatic, serious, and problematic kind.”

“While the frate swims the canal, the narrative becomes momentarily quieter, more relaxed, slower . . . no sooner has he reached the other side than the verbs begin jostling each other again.” on Boccaccio’s Decameron

“Here is a man whose conscious grasp of the principles of art enables him to stand above his subject matter and to submerge himself in it only so far as he chooses, a man who shapes his stories according to his own creative will. . . . It is in him that the world of sensory phenomena is first mastered, is organized in accordance with a conscious artistic plan, caught and held in words.” on Boccaccio

“Its most distinguishing characteristics, if we compare it with earlier narratives, are the assurance with which, in both perception and syntactical structure, it handles complex factual data, and the subtle skill with which it adapts the narrative tempo and level of tone to the inner and outer movement of the narrated events.” EA on Boccaccio’s Decameron

“During the fifteenth century realism becomes even more sensory, the colors become even more glaring. Yet the representation always remains within the bounds of medieval class-determination and of Christianity.”

“Graphic portrayal is now more immediately in the service of earthly events; it enters into their sensory content, it seeks their sap and their savor, it seeks the joy and torment which flow directly from life on earth itself” on Antoine De La Sale

“It is triumphant earthly life which calls forth his realistic and super-realistic mimesis.” on Rabelais

“In Rabelais there is no aesthetic standard; everything goes with everything. Ordinary reality is set within the most improbable fantasy, the coarsest jokes are filled with erudition, moral and philosophical enlightenment flows out of obscene expressions and stories.”

“Montaigne, who is alone with himself, finds enough life and as it were bodily warmth in his ideas to be able to write as though he were speaking.”

“It has often been said that the tragic was unknown to the Christian  Middle Ages. It might be more exact to put it that for the Middle Ages the tragic was contained in the tragedy of Christ.”

“Shakespeare mixes the sublime and the low, the tragic and the comic in an inexhaustible abundance of proportions.”

“The dramatic occurrences of human life were seen by antiquity predominantly in the form of change of fortune breaking in upon man from without and from above. In Elizabethan tragedy on the other hand—the first specifically modern form of tragedy—the hero’s individual character plays a much greater part in shaping his destiny. . . . Hamlet is Hamlet, not because a capricious god has compelled him to move to a tragic end, but because there is a unique essence in him which makes him incapable of behaving in any other way than he does.”

“In Elizabethan tragedy and specifically in Shakespeare, the hero’s character is depicted in greater and more varied detail than in antique tragedy, and participates more actively in shaping the individual’s fate. . . . Thus we are given a great deal of ‘supplementary information’ about the principal personages; we are enabled to form an idea of their normal lives and particular characters apart from the complication in which they are caught at the moment.”

“In Elizabethan tragedy we are in most cases confronted not with purely natural character but with character already formed by birth, situation in life, and prehistory (that is, by fate)—character in which fate has already had a great share before it fulfils itself in the form of a specified tragic conflict. The latter is often only the occasion which releases a tragic situation prepared long before.”

“Quite often Shakespeare makes the setting of a play some fairyland only loosely connected with real times and places. But this too is only a playing upon the perspective view. Consciousness of the manifold conditions of human life is a fact with him, and he can take it for granted on the part of his audience.”

“In the tragedies of French classicism . . . the strictest seclusion of the tragic personages and the tragic action from everything below them prevails. . . . Details of everyday living, references to sleeping, eating and drinking, the weather, landscape, and time of day are almost completely absent; and when they do occur they are fused into the sublime style. The fact [is] that no common word, no current term for any object of daily use, is permitted.”

“In Racine’s tragedies such things are inconceivable. For his generation it went without saying that everything bodily and natural or even creatural could be tolerated only on the comic stage, and even there only within certain limits. . . . The classic tragedy of the French represents the ultimate extreme in the separation of styles, in the severance of the tragic from the everyday and real, attained in European literature.”

“In the literature of the eighteenth century tears begin to assume an importance which they had not previously possessed as an independent motif. Their effectiveness in the border region between the soul and the senses is exploited and found to be especially suited to produce the then fashionable thrill of mingled sentiment and eroticism.”

“As Saint-Simon writes, memories of people and scenes come to him so urgently and with such abundance of details that his pen seems hardly able to keep up with it all.”

“[In Saint-Simon’s writing] the external characteristic is always expressive of character; the inner being is never or at least very seldom described without its sensory manifestations; and often the two are fused in a single world or image. . . . An intermingling of body and spirit which sometimes grasps the inmost essence of the whole.”

“In his level of style Saint-Simon is a precursor of modern and ultramodern forms of conceiving and representing life. He takes human beings in the midst of their everyday environment, with their background, their multifarious relations, their possessions, every particle of their bodies, their gestures, every nuance of their speech, their hopes, and their fears. Very often he expresses what we would nowadays call their inheritance, and here too he expresses both the physical and the spiritual factors. He notes the peculiarities of the milieu with absolute precision, scorning nothing. . . . Precisely the factors which account for the limited human and aesthetic effect of the others [contemporary writers]—the anecdotal, the personal, the idiosyncratic, the frequent insignificance of their themes—are his strength, simply because he alone knows how to use the random and idiosyncratic, the unselected, the at times absurdly personal and prejudiced, as points of departure for sudden descents into the depths of human existence.”

“The characters, attitudes, and relationships of the dramatis personae, then, are very closely connected with contemporary historical circumstances; contemporary political and social conditions are woven into the action in a manner more detailed and more real than had been exhibited in any earlier novel.” on Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir

“Insofar as the serious realism of modern times cannot represent man otherwise than as embedded in a total reality, political, social, and economic, which is concrete and constantly evolving—as is the case today in any novel or film—Stendhal is its founder.”

“Another writer of the romantic generation, Balzac, who had as great a creative gift and far more closeness to reality, seized upon the representation of contemporary life as his own particular task and, together with Stendhal, can be regarded as the creator of modern realism.”

“[Balzac’s] portrait of the pension mistress Madame Vauquer at the beginning of Le Pere Goriot . . . is preceded by a very detailed description of the quarter in which the pension is located, of the house itself, of the two rooms on the ground floor; all this produces an intense impression of cheerless poverty, shabbiness, and dilapidation, and with the physical description the moral atmosphere is suggested.”

“The description is controlled by a leading motif, which is several times repeated—the motif of the harmony between Madame Vauquer’s person on the one hand and the room in which she is present, the pension which she directs, and the life which she leads, on the other; in short, the harmony between her person and what we (and sometimes Balzac too, occasionally) call her milieu.”

“There seems to be no deliberate order for the various repetitions of the harmony-motif, nor does Balzac appear to have followed a systematic plan in describing Madame Vauquer’s appearance; the series of things mentioned—headdress, false hair, slippers, face, hands, body, the face again, eyes, corpulence, petticoat—reveal no trace of composition; nor is there any separation of body and clothing, of physical characteristics and moral significance. The entire description . . . is directed to the mimetic imagination of the reader, to his memory-pictures of similar persons and similar milieux which he may have seen.”

“The lack of order and disregard for the rational in the text are consequences of the haste with which Balzac worked, but they are nevertheless no mere accident, for his haste is itself in large part a consequence of his obsession with suggestive pictures. The motif of the unity of a milieu has taken hold of him so powerfully that the things and the persons composing a milieu often acquire for him a sort of second significance which, though different from that which reason can comprehend, is far more essential—a significance which can be best defined by the adjective demonic. . . . What confronts us, then, is the unity of a particular milieu, felt as a total concept of a demonic-organic nature and presented entirely by suggestive and sensory means.”

“In his entire work, as in this passage, Balzac feels his milieux, different though they are, as organic and indeed demonic unities, and seeks to convey this feeling to the reader.”

“In Stendhal and Balzac we frequently and indeed almost constantly hear what the writer thinks of his characters and events; sometimes Balzac accompanies his narrative with a running commentary—emotional or ironic or ethical or historical or economic. We also very frequently hear what the characters themselves think and feel, and often in such a manner that, in the passage concerned, the writer identifies himself with the character. Both these things are almost wholly absent from Flaubert’s work. His opinion of his characters and events remains unspoken; and when the characters express themselves it is never in such a manner that the writer identifies himself with their opinion, or seeks to make the reader identify himself with it. We hear the writer speak; but he expresses no opinion and makes no comment. His role is limited to selecting the events and translating them into language; and this is done in the conviction that every event, if one is able to express is purely and completely, interprets itself and the persons involved in it far better and more completely than any opinion or judgment appended to it could do. Upon this conviction—that is, upon a profound faith in the truth of language responsibly, candidly, and carefully employed—Flaubert’s artistic practice rests.”

“In this fashion subjects completely fill the writer; he forgets himself, his heart no longer serves him save to feel the hearts of others, and when, by fanatical patience, this condition is achieved, the perfect expression, which at once entirely comprehends the momentary subject and impartially judges it, comes of itself; subjects are seen as God sees them, in their true essence. With all this there goes a view of the mixture of styles which proceeds from the same mystical-realistic insight: there are no high and low subjects; the universe is a work of art produced without any taking of sides, the realistic artist must imitate the procedures of Creation, and every subject in its essence contains, before God’s eyes, both the serious and the comic, both dignity and vulgarity.” [my italics—UW]

“That love of his subjects which is comparable to the Creator’s love.”

“Flaubert never practices any ‘psychological understanding’ but simply lets the state of the facts speak for themselves. . . . It could be called ‘objective seriousness’ . . . he wishes, by this attitude . . . to force the language to render the truth concerning the subjects of his observation.”

“Zola knows how these people thought and talked. He also knows every detail of the technical side of mining; he knows the psychology of the various classes of workers and of the administration, the functioning of the central management, and competition between the capitalist groups, the cooperation of the interests of capital with government, the army. . . . He made himself an expert in all fields.”

“It seems that the Russians were naturally endowed with the possibility of conceiving everyday things in a serious vein; that a classicistic aesthetic which excludes a literary category of ‘the low’ from serious treatment could never gain a firm foothold in Russia.”

“The most essential characteristic of the inner movement in Russian realism is the unqualified, unlimited, and passionate intensity of experience in the characters portrayed. . . . It seems that the Russians have preserved an immediacy of experience which had become a rare phenomenon in western civilization of the nineteenth century.”

“When the great Russians, especially Dostoevski, became known in Central and Western Europe, the immense spiritual potential and the directness of expression which their amazed readers encountered in their works seemed like a revelation of how the mixture of realism and tragedy might at last attain its true fulfillment.”

“The writer as narrator of objective facts has almost completely vanished; almost everything stated appears by way of reflection in the consciousness of the dramatis personae . . . there actually seems to be no viewpoint at all outside the novel from which the people and events within it are observed.” on Virginia Woolf

“In Virginia Woolf’s case the exterior events have actually lost their hegemony, they serve to release and interpret inner events, whereas before her time (and still today in many instances) inner movements preponderantly function to prepare and motivate significant exterior happenings. . . . We are dealing with attempts to fathom a more genuine, a deeper, and indeed a more real reality.”

“I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across—not just to depict life or criticize it—but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can’t do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you can’t believe in it. Things aren’t that way. It is only by showing both sides—3 dimensions and if possible 4 that you can write  the way I want to.” Ernest Hemingway

“Remember to get the weather in your god damned book—weather is very important.” Ernest Hemingway

“Much of what a writer learns he learns simply by imitation. Making up a scene, he asks himself at every step, ‘Would she really say that?’ or ‘Would he really throw that shoe?’ He plays the scene through in his imagination, taking all the parts, being absolutely fair to everyone involved (mimicking each in turn, as Aristotle pointed out, and never sinking to stereotype for even the most minor characters), and when he finishes the scene he understands by sympathetic imitation what each character has done throughout and why the fight, or accident, or whatever, developed as it did.” John Gardner

“Fiction is supposed to represent life, and the fiction writer has to use as many aspects of life as are necessary to make his total picture convincing.” Flannery O’Connor

“You said something about my stories dipping into life—as if this were commendable but a trifle unusual; from which I get the notion that you may dip largely into your head.” Flannery O’Connor

“I think that the more the writer wishes to make the supernatural apparent, the more real he has to be able to make the natural world, for if the readers don’t accept the natural world, they’ll certainly not accept anything else.” Flannery O’Connor

“I know nothing harder than making good people believable.” Flannery O’Connor

“She certainly has a hard job making those CW [Catholic Worker] people at all believable. The one who is Dorothy Day is a little bodiless and I can’t decide if this was intentional or not. She keeps emphasizing that this is a large woman but the effect is different.” Flannery O’Connor

“The soul of art is celebration and discovery through imitation.” John Gardner

“The writing of fiction is a mode of thought because by imitating we come to understand the thing we imitate. Fiction is thus a convincing and honest but unverifiable science (in the old sense: knowledge): unverifiable because it depends on the reader’s sensitivity and clear sense of how things are, a sense for which we have no tests.” John Gardner

“Anybody who talks as much as he does and as much about trivia could hardly help having a facility for fiction, a lot of which depends on the ability to mimic the social scene.” Flannery O’Connor

“The kind of knowledge that comes from imitation depends for its quality on the sanity and stability of the imitator.” John Gardner

“For Aristotle, imitation was the primary way in which the writer of a fiction makes discoveries.” John Gardner

“So the writer continues, character by character, scene by scene, event by event, constantly insisting on concrete images, perhaps backing them with poetic suggestions, until the draft is complete.” John Gardner

“There is nothing worse than the writer who doesn’t use the gifts of the region, but wallows in them. Everything becomes so Southern that it’s sickening, so local that it is unintelligible, so literally reproduced that it conveys nothing. The general gets lost in the particular instead of being shown through it.” Flannery O’Connor

“Because novels are so compressed, allusory, so made up of token material and not entire reality, every word, every scene has to function as more than just itself. A scene does not merely depend on what has preceded it; the scene also enlarges that preceding by showing what resulted from it. Until, indeed, the end is in the beginning.” William Sloane

“The sensory texture of real life that one expects from a realistic short story.” Madison Smartt Bell

“One of Nabokov’s early novels, Laughter in the Dark, has an apparently simple, almost hackneyed plot: a foolish, wealthy, middle-aged man (Albinus) falls in love with a vulgar, heartless sixteen-year-old girl (Margot). She and her lover, Rex, proceed to destroy Albinus and his family in a ruthless, ultimately grotesque fashion. On the face of it, it’s a soap opera, but what makes it extraordinary, aside from the beauty of the prose, is the author’s gift for inhabiting every energetic strain of his breathing animal creations. Rex and Margot are absolutely evil, but they are also full of fierce life, wit, and supple, eel-like charm. Nabokov can step inside their cruelty and vitality almost as if it were an electrical current, then step out again and enter the much slower, cooler ambiance of their poor stooge Albinus, or the person of Albinus’s bland, taffy-sweet wife, and emerge again, all in a flash. His expanded and detached sensibility can hold them all in a state of dazzling and organic movement, which is a mimicry of life’s truth in the deepest sense. The ability to do this requires a great understanding of and regard for life that is, I think, a kind of love.” Mary Gaitskill

“In written stories, interior life is usually paramount, because that is where we make contact with the mystery of human personality.” Philip Gerard