Literary Realism

Literary Realism is all about the everyday, the every person, and ordinary language. Moving away from Romanticism and its interest in the supernatural, Literary Realism sought to simply capture real-life. The truth, however humble, was considered more important than grandiose embellishment. 

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    Literary Realism Definition

    Literary Realism is a movement within the broader arts movement called, Realism. Starting in 19th century France after the French Revolution, the movement began as a reaction against Romanticism and its focus on emotions, the supernatural, and the spiritual. It can be broadly defined as the 'representation of reality'.

    The French Revolution (1789 - 1799) was an era of radical change that established the basic foundations for the type of liberal democracy that exists in France today.

    It's guiding principles of 'liberte, egalite and fraternite' (liberty, equality, brotherhood or fraternity) have been adopted by other movements from the Russian Revolution (1917 - 1923) to the abolition of slavery and the Suffragette movements.

    Literary Realism Characteristics

    Realism across all artistic fields chose to represent real life without unnecessary embellishments or artificial constructs. Depending on the field, this could be achieved through choice of subject matter, use of hyper-realistic narrative techniques, or an avoidance of stylization or caricature.

    In literature specifically, the Literary Realist movement was tied to the scientific idea of an empirical approach and an attempt to reproduce 'objective reality'. This central idea infers that reality is separate from the author's conceptual understanding and so can be accurately observed and represented. With this new direction, the focus shifted away from Romantic movement themes such as subjectivity, the imagination, the exotic, and the transcendental.

    In the books of Literary Realism, the banality of everyday life was closely examined and represented in an unflinching, methodical, and secular way. The romantic hero was replaced by the middle or working class everyperson. Another shift was the restructuring of importance between the plot and character development. Literary Realism tends to prioritise the characters over the plot. This device contributes towards building greater reader affinity for the everyday personalities that feature in works of Literary Realism.

    In a nutshell, a key characteristic of the works in this movement is an attempt at objective authenticity.

    Do you think that objectivity in literature is possible? Or do you think that authors add their own viewpoints and biases, even if unconciously?

    Literary Realism Authors

    Examples of Realism in literature sprung up across the globe, including in America, Europe, what is now the United Kingdom and Russia. Although linked by themes such as objective reality and an interest in the mundane, each region had its well-known authors with a unique approach.

    Literary Realism: examples of authors from Europe

    Some of the books written by Gustave Flaubert, particularly Madame Bovary (1856), are considered key European examples of books in the Literary Realism movement. His focus was entirely on the boredom and vulgarity of provincial people but he still came under some criticism for not being close enough to the most relatable aspect of everyday existence, i.e., common speech.

    Another giant of European Literary Realism is Honore de Balzac. His multi-volume collection, La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy) (1842) took a look at subjects previously considered ugly or even crass. His interlinked characters were so diverse, nuanced, and relatable that many became archetypes. An astute observer of human nature, Balzac's books are considered by some to be an education in themselves.

    I have learned more [from Balzac] than from all the professional historians, economists, and statisticians put together. ' - Friedrich Engels 1

    Literary Realism: examples of authors from Russia

    Authors of the Literary Realism movement later also included Russians, namely Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Tolstoy is well known for his epic door-stoppers like War and Peace (1869). Although this novel focused on an aristocratic family, Tolstoy also used devices associated with the movement like gritty realism. He highlighted the ways in which reality adjusts his character's idealism into a more practical outlook.

    Dostoyevsky, although focusing on a different stratum of society in novels like Crime and Punishment (1866), uniquely uses psychological realism. In Crime and Punishment, the protagonist is disconnected from reality. Instead of an objective reality, the book explores the reality of his particular psychology in an attempt at authentic representation.

    Literary Realism: examples of authors from America

    Mark Twain was one of the earlier American authors pioneering the Literary Realist novel. His characters like Huckleberry Finn personified an interior vernacular that was particular to that time and place. The cause of controversy to this day, the novel was originally scorned for its colloquial language and having a protagonist that was more than a little uncouth.

    Huck not only itched, but scratched, and . . . said sweat when he should have said perspiration.' 2

    This was all generally considered obscene. Although the novel was perhaps intended as a scathing satire of the era's racist reality, it has also been more recently criticised for its use of stereotypes and racial slurs in dialogue.

    Later American writers in the Literary Realism movement include Nobel Prize winner, John Steinbeck. His works focused on working-class people, from migrant farmworkers in Of Mice and Men (1937) to the diverse residents of Cannery Row (1945). Steinbeck primarily used realism and character development to create a sense of empathy for people otherwise marginalised by mainstream society.

    John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men was made into a 1992 Hollywood film directed by Gary Sinise. He also plays the role of George Milton, while John Malkovich plays Lennie Small. Sherilyn Fenn is the actress who plays the key but the unnamed character of Curly's wife.

    Gary Sinise was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Festival but did not win.

    Literary Realism Examples of Books

    As a pioneer of Literary Realism, Honore de Balzac changed how novels were written. He influenced literary greats from Dostoyevski to Proust with his depictions of the variety of human lives in society. His books are regarded as classics of the Western Canon and are still revered by many modern authors, with the notable exception of the Nouveau Roman movement.

    The Nouveau Roman movement was an avant-garde French movement of the mid 20th century. Closely aligned with French New Wave cinema, it reacted against 'Balzacian realism'.

    Specifically, they wanted to move away from the clear causality, linear plots, and multi-faceted, seemingly realistic characterisations that defined Literary Realism, especially Balzac's work.

    Literary Realism: The Human Comedy

    Balzac's magnum opus, the collection of books, The Human Comedy is regarded as a seminal work of Literary Realism. Featuring short stories about mental illness, ill-gotten gains, illicit love, and crime, The Human Comedy is a Modernist classic full of splendour and more than a little squalor.

    Literary Realism, a sketch of Honore de Balzac's face, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Honore de Balzac is a pioneering author of Literary Realism.

    Literary Realism: Another Study of Womankind

    This short story in The Human Comedy is a satirical tale about the role of women in pre and post-revolution French society. Four different narrators narrate it in four parts. Set in Paris, the book introduces a particular private soiree as a place where guests can freely speak their minds.

    Prime Minister Henri de Marsay begins by telling how a youthful betrayal left him cynical about the potential of loyalty in women. He relays how he now leads women on, pretending to be faithful while strategically hedging his bets with other women too.

    Next, journalist Emile Blondet mocks the pre-revolution 'Grand Lady', satirising their frivolity and casual abuse of power. The post-revolution, 'Modern Ladies' are not spared his scorn either. He laughs at their pretensions and lack of lineage.

    Then it is the turn of General de Montriveau, who tells a tale about Italian honour. A Colonel avenges a Captain by killing the man who slept with the Captain's wife, Rosalind. The Colonel later demands the right to sleep with Rosalind, as she and the Captain now owe him a favour. In defiance, the Captain locks his wife, Rosalind, and the Colonel in his house and sets it on fire.

    The narrator, m. Bianchot completes the book with the story of de Marsay's first wife, who died of consumption. He was, by all accounts, devoted to her and she asked on her deathbed who would understand the statesman when she was gone.

    Balzac cheekily infers that de Marsay has happily moved on.

    How do you think this portrayal of women holds up today? What about the inferences Balzac makes about human nature?

    Literary Realism The Importance

    Literary Realism redefined the modern novel by focusing on character development over plot. Its elevation of the everyday and the everyperson to subjects of literary significance was ground-breaking at the time.

    Although a movement of the 19th century, as a style Literary Realism remains popular with authors today, indicating longevity in line with the significance of its impact on literature.

    Literary Realism - Key Takeaways

    • Literary Realism is a movement that began in France after the French Revolution in 1898.

    • It is characterised by a focus on the lives of the middle and lower classes, mundane, everyday occurrences, and dialogue that is as close to natural speech as possible.

    • The main goal of Literary Realism is to reproduce 'objective reality'.

    • Famous Literary Realist authors include Honore de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Mark Twain, and Leo Tolstoy.

    • Famous books of the Literary Realism genre include de Balzac's The Human Comedy and even Austen's Emma (1815).

    1. Burt, Daniel, The Literary 100, Checkmark Books, 2008.

    2. Flocken, Corrine. 'Bad Books: Censorship's role examined in the Fullerton Display'. LA Times.

    Literary Realism Literary Realism
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Realism

    Why is realism in literature important?

    Literary Realism redefined the modern novel by switching the focus onto multi faceted character development over plot. 

    The elevation of the everyday and the everyperson to subjects of literary significance was ground breaking at the time.


    The approach is still in use today, indicating how significant its impact has been.

    What are the characteristics of Literary Realism?

    The Literary Realist movement was aligned with the scientific idea of an empirical approach and an attempt to reproduce 'objective reality'.

    What is an example of realism in literature?

    An example of Literary Realism is Jane Austen's Emma and Honore de Balzac's La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy).

    What is Literary Realism?

    Literary Realism is a movement that started in the 19th century  after the French Revolution in 1898. 


    The movement was a reaction against Romanticism and its themes of emotions, the supernatural, and the spiritual. 


    It can be defined as the 'representation of reality'. 

    When did Literary Realism begin?

    Literary Realism started in the late 19th century, soon after the French Revolution in 1898.


    As a style, it is still in use today.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Did Literary Realism aim to be subjective or objective?

    Which movement did Literary Realism react against?

    What are defining characteristics of Literary Realism?

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