Literary realism  

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Realism, according to latter-day French lights, means nothing short of sheer beastliness; it means going out of the way to dig up foul expressions to embody filthy ideas; it means ... the laying bare of social sores in their most loathsome forms; it means the alternation of the brutal directness of the drunken operative of today with the flabby sensuality of Corinth in the past. In a word, it is dirt and horror pure and simple. --National Vigilance Association

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Literary realism most often refers to the trend, beginning with certain works of nineteenth-century French literature and extending to late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century authors in various countries, towards depictions of contemporary life and society "as they were."

In the spirit of general "realism," Realist authors opted for depictions of everyday and banal activities and experiences, instead of a romanticized or similarly stylized presentation. An important term in literary realism is verisimilitude. Verisimilitude was introduced in literature when - in the later half of the second millennium - the novel replaced the romance as primary literary genre and stories and characterization became more believable and true to life.

Jorge Luis Borges, in an essay entitled "The Scandinavian Destiny", attributed the earliest discovery of Realism in literature to the Northmen in the Icelandic Sagas, although it was soon lost by them along with the continent of North America.



The growth of literary realism occurred simultaneously with the development of the natural sciences (especially biology), history and the social sciences and with the growth of industrialism and commerce. The "realist" tendency is not necessarily anti-romantic; romanticism in France often affirmed the common man and the natural setting (such as the peasant stories of George Sand) and concerned itself with historical forces and periods (as in the work of historian Jules Michelet). The novels of Stendhal, for instance, including The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma, address issues of their contemporary society while also using themes and characters derived from the romantic movement.

Honoré de Balzac is the most prominent representative of 19th century realism in fiction. His La Comédie humaine, a vast collection of nearly 100 novels, was the most ambitious scheme ever devised by a writer of fiction -- Balzac's intention was that it should be nothing less than a complete record of his contemporary society. Balzac's realism arguably provided the first literary representations of a number of social experiences and phenomena which were particular to modern (that is, post-revolutionary) society.

Many of the novels in this period (including Balzac's) were published in newspapers in serial form, and the immensely popular realist "roman feuilleton" tended to specialize in portraying the hidden side of urban life (crime, police spies, criminal slang), as in the novels of Eugène Sue. Similar tendencies appeared in the theatrical melodramas of the period and, in an even more lurid and gruesome light, in the Grand Guignol at the end of the century. In addition to melodramas, popular and bourgeois theater in the mid-century turned to realism in the "well-made" bourgeois farces of Eugène Marin Labiche and the moral dramas of Émile Augier. Also popular were the operettas, farces and comedies of Ludovic Halévy, Henri Meilhac and, at the turn of the century, Georges Feydeau.

George Eliot and her important novel Middlemarch stand as great milestones in the realist tradition, and are also important for transferring the French ideas to the United States.

William Dean Howells was the first American author to bring a realist flair to the literature of the United States. His stories of 1850s Boston upper-crust life are highly regarded among scholars of American fiction and by anyone who has an appreciation for realist writing. His most popular novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham, depicts a man who, ironically, falls from materialistic fortune by his own mistakes. The novel ends with his return to the farm he once left behind. Howells is known for his wry humor and wit, as well as characters that seem so tangible that one ends his novels feeling as if one had made many new friends.

Gustave Flaubert is regarded by many critics as representing the zenith of the realist style with his unadorned prose and attention to the details of everyday life. Later "realist" writers included Guy de Maupassant, Bolesław Prus and, in a sense, Émile Zola, whose naturalism is generally regarded as an offshoot of realism.


Avant la lettre

The novel and the modern novel introduced realism in fiction, at a time when much fiction was marked by fantasy (romances such Amadís de Gaula, Le Morte d'Arthur). The devices used to introduce realism were the epistolary technique (Pamela), true adventure (Crusoe) and psychological development of the characters (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, The Red and the Black). On of the first literary genres to full embrace realism was the picaresque novel.

Samuel Johnson remarked on the impossibility of identification with the Romance genre:

"In the romances formerly written, every transaction and sentiment was so remote from all that passes among men, that the reader was in very little danger of making any application to himself; the virtues and crimes were equally beyond his sphere of activity; and he amused himself with heroes and with traitors, deliverers and persecutors, as with beings of another species, whose actions were regulated upon motives of their own, and who had neither faults nor excellences in common with himself."

Après la lettre

Literary realism as a full-fledged literary movement (first called realism and then naturalism) came into being in Europe in the 19th century. In France the movement's main exponents were Honoré de Balzac and Émile Zola, in Scandinavia there was August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen and in Russia Chekhov. The novelist George Eliot introduced realism into English fiction; as she declared in Adam Bede (1859), her purpose was to give a "faithful representation of commonplace things." Mark Twain and William Dean Howells were the pioneers of realism in the United States.

See also


everyday life - fiction - modernist literature - modern novel - Naturalism (literature) - psychological novel - reality - representation - social realism - verisimilitude (literature)


mythology - fantastic literature - surrealist literature - suspension of disbelief

Early literary realists

Honoré de Balzac - Charles Dickens - Gustave Flaubert - Thomas Hardy - Émile Zola


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