In the greatest work of criticism and literary history, Auerbach places the conclusion of the European history of realistic representation in the French 19th century, specifically in Madame Bovary. Flaubert’s novel culminates the development of what Auerbach calls “objective seriousness,” in which the serious treatment of everyday life is finally achieved. Here, the everyday—from the vulgar aspects of street life to the crude desires that often rule people’s actions to the cloistered rooms in which intellectuals toil in search for whatever it is that they consider valuable—is freed from its artistic association with the comic and the low and comes to be treated as something that is capable of expressing the tragic or transcendent. The everyday, boredom, and even stupidity are then seen as not only worthy of artistic representation but as perhaps the privileged themes for depicting the truth of the times.
The rise of the everyday in literature is related to a broader shift in European culture. The early modern period saw a transformation toward what Charles Taylor calls “the sanctification of ordinary life” in Western Europe. The Protestant rejection of the Catholic idea of higher vocations made the prosaic world in which we live as sanctified as any other. While the church remained the place in which people could congregate to praise the Lord, the ordinary became the space in which one lived a religious life. This democratized religion because no longer was one’s spiritual existence necessarily mediated through a dominant church. The entire world became Jesus’ temple. But even as the everyday seemed like an eminently spiritual domain, the spread and consolidation of capitalist modernity also turned that domain into a space marked by consumption and routine. Everyday life from the late 18th century on has become more and more determined by routinized labor and domesticity. Everyday life has been subjected to strict schedules and the homogenizing pressures of consumer culture and mass media. Art has focused on the everyday precisely in order to show the hypocritical disconnection between the promise of the elevation of the prosaic as a sacred space and the crudeness, banality, and hollowness that often marks bourgeois life. If the everyday once promised the possibility of encountering the holy, it has become the arena in which stupidity, repetition, and the surrender to crass materiality rule. Literature’s objective seriousness and art’s insistence on depicting the prosaic attend to this reality.