Spanish Realist literature  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Spanish Realist literature is the literature written in Spain during the second half of the 19th century, following the Realist movement which predominated in Europe.

When the Romantic movement waned, a new literary movement arose in Europe in the middle of the 19th century: Realism. It was a style that originated in France around 1850 which developed from some aspects of Romanticism, mainly costumbrismo. Romanticism slowly declined and artists began to rebel against "art for art's sake"; The literary imagination of the moment grew tired of fanciful and colorful depictions, and now focused objectively on people, actions, and society. The main precursor was Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), who, with works like The Human Comedy, imposed a moral and social objective on the novel. This purpose, which became the almost exclusive concern of the writers of the time, soon led to Naturalism.

The term realist was used for the first time in 1850, referring to painting, but it was adopted later by literature. In literature it was applied mainly to the novel. One of the reasons for the popular success of novels is their publication in newspapers of the time. The publishers issued the novel in installments to encourage the public to buy the newspaper daily. The attitude of the realistic writer is analytical and critical, and usually remains objective. The important novels of the 19th century were of social character, and the writers considered themselves to be "historians of the present".


Historical context

During the 19th century, Spain experienced one of the most tumultuous periods of its history. The century opened with the War of Independence against France and ended with the Spanish-American War and the "Disaster of '98"—the loss of Cuba and Puerto Rico in America and the Philippines in Asia. The Borbón (Bourbon) dynasty, after the reigns of Fernando VII (1814-1833) and Isabel II (1833-1868), was overthrown in the revolution of 1868, the Glorious Revolution. The rule of Serrano (1869-1870) and the brief reign of Amadeo de Saboya occurred (1871-1873). Later, the short era of the First Republic began (1873-1874), which was followed by the Restoration of the Borbón dynasty under Alfonso XII (1874-1885), son of Isabel II, after the uprising of Martínez Campos. After the death of Alfonso XII, his second wife, María Cristina assumed the regency until 1902, the year in which Alfonso's son Alfonso XIII began to reign.


This literary movement began in France and its initiator was Émile Zola (1840-1902). This style descends from the positivist philosophy of Auguste Comte (1798-1857), the methods of the physiologist Claude Bernard (1813-1878), and many distinctive achievements of the modern spirit: democracy, experimental methods (Claude Bernard) and theories of heredity(Charles Darwin). Zola, a socialist, looks for the cause of social problems in society, and of the individual's problems rooted in biological heredity. Thus,Naturalism adopts a materialist and determinist concept of people, who are not morally responsible for their actions and situations, because they are the result of environment and heredity. While the realist writer is conscious of what happens, the naturalist investigates cause and effect. Alcoholics, the insane, and psychopaths were common in his works, predicated on Zola's belief that environment was to blame for many of society's ills.

Zola introduced the naturalistic theory in The Experimental Novel (1880). In this essay on literary criticism, he maintains that the novelist is an observer and an experimenter. From the point of view of the observer, the writer offers the facts as he has seen them, and establishes the environment which the characters inhabit and where the facts are developed. From the point of view of the experimenter, the novelist "institutes the experience", that is to say, he moves the characters through a particular story to show that the succession of facts will be the one that is demanded by the determinism of the studied phenomena.

In Spain, the contradictions between naturalistic theories and religious beliefs reduced Naturalism's manifestation. Some critics even wondered whether Naturalism in the strictest sense ever occurred in Spain. Emilia Pardo Bazán, who was considered inside the movement, deals with this in her article La cuestión palpitante (The Burning Question) in 1883. Additionally, passages of authors such as Benito Pérez Galdós have been considered naturalistic, but that has been explicitly rejected by the majority of literary critics. When speaking of Spanish Naturalism, the border with the Realism is not clear and, because theories were not adopted, it is not easy to differentiate both movements well.

Characteristics of Realism

In Spain, the best literary fruit of the second half of the 19th century was the novel, consequence of the international blossoming of the genre at this time, as expression of the uprising of the middle-class, that throughout successive revolutions (1789, 1820, 1830, 1848) was conquering the political power. The values and inquietudes of the middle-class appear reflected in the literature of the Realism like in a mirror: individualism, materialism, desire of social ascent, and esteem of daily and immutable things.

The themes of the literary Realism are fundamentally the contrast between the traditional and farming values and the modern and urban values, the exodus from the field to the city and the social and moral contrasts that it causes, the fight for the social ascent and the moral and economic success, the insatisfied condition of the woman who already has right to the basic education but cannot access the world of job, and the middle-class independence and individualism; with all which the theme of adultery and the folletinesque and sentimental fantasy appears, as a way to escape. There are two tendencies in the Realism: the progressist and the conservative.

The realistic novel of this period is characterized by:

  • Objective vision of the reality through direct observation of customs or psychological characters. Any subjective aspect, fantastic events and every feeling that moves away from the reality, is eliminated: "The novel is the image of the life" (Galdós), "an artistic copy of the reality" (Clarín).
  • Defense of a thesis: the narrators write their works focusing the reality from their moral conception. That is called the omniscient narrator. The defense of a thesis usually compromises the objectivity of the novel.
  • Themes near the reader: marital conflicts, infidelity, defense of the ideals, etc.
  • The colloquial and popular language acquires great importance since it locates the personages in their real environment.

Realism and Naturalism in Spain

In Spain, Realism installed itself with extreme facility, since a precedent in picaresque novels and Don Quixote existed. It reached its maximum splendor in the second half of the 19th century (Juan Valera, Pereda and Galdós), although not reaching the rigor of the canons established by the school of Balzac.

  • In Galdós, and later in Clarín, Pardo Bazán and Blasco Ibáñez, clear naturalistic influences exist, but without the scientific and experimental foundations that Émile Zola wanted to imprint in its works. They solely share the spirit of fight against the conservative ideology and, in many occasions, its subversive behavior.
  • The realistic novel generally reflects regional ambients, like that of Pereda in Cantabria, Juan Valera in Andalusia, Clarín in Asturias, etc. Benito Perez Galdós is an exception, because he prefers to acclimate himself in the Madrilenian urban space.

The Naturalism in Spain, like in France, had also its detractors and great controversies were created. Between the opponents, Pedro Antonio de Alarcón and José María de Pereda are found, who got to describe it as immoral. Its most exalted defenders were Benito Perez Galdós and Emilia Pardo Bazán. The hardest controversy took place as of 1883, as a result of the publication of La cuestión palpitante (the trembling question) of Pardo Bazán.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Spanish Realist literature" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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