Sometimes authors just want to keep it somewhat real with their audience - in comes realism! The perfect solution for a dose (or bucket-full) of reality in a story.

Get started Sign up for free
Realism Realism

Create learning materials about Realism with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account

Millions of flashcards designed to help you ace your studies

Sign up for free

Convert documents into flashcards for free with AI!

Table of contents

    Realism in literature

    Realism is a kind of literature that presents ordinary day-to-day experiences as they occur in reality. Realism is conveyed through the stylistic elements and the language used in a literary text. In works of realism, language is usually accessible and succinct, depicting people one would encounter in day-to-day life and everyday experience. Realism shies away from elaborate expression and instead focuses on reflecting the truth. Literary realism often focuses on middle and lower class members of society, and places familiar to many people.

    Realism: a style [in literature] that represents the familiar or 'typical' in real life, rather than an idealised, formalised, or romantic interpretation of it.¹

    There are different types of realism that focus on portraying a specific reality or experience for specific members of society. Magical realism portrays a reality where magic is the norm, hence that is the day-to-day experience for characters in that reality. Socialist realism is a movement sanctioned by the Soviet Union in the 1930s, in the arts. In literature, works of socialist realism underline the practices and beliefs of the movement as approved by the Soviet Union. This includes not only narrative techniques but also literary criticism and literary theory. The socialist realist novel depicts fictional narratives that embody socialist ideals and are critical of a capitalist society. Psychological realism portrays a reality according to a character's internal dialogue or thoughts and convictions. Social realism portrays the realities of the working class in a (usually capitalist) society. Kitchen sink realism portrays the realities of working-class Britons living in industrial areas in the North of England. Naturalism portrays a person's reality by showing how their social environment influences their reactions.

    Importance of realism in literature

    ‘Realism’ aimed to highlight the ‘reality’ or the ‘true nature of reality’ in works of literature. The aim of a text of literary realism is to portray real life as it is perceived around us. The world around us, according to pioneers of literary realism, is rich in meaning, depth, and objective perception. Authors of realism, particularly the realist novel, use narrative techniques to convey what the characters or narrators believe to be unbiased, objective truths

    Realism is important in literature because it shows the everyday experiences of regular, usually middle or lower class people in a society. These experiences show what life is like in that reality, so it is rather different from what literature typically does for readers – provide an escape from the mundanity of the everyday. Realism provides the average person with stories that they can relate to, as these stories can reflect their experiences.

    Realism contributed significantly to literature because it offered a contrast to romanticism, a literary movement with idealised portrayals of characters and their experiences. Realism focused instead on truthful storytelling and the everyday person, making these stories more relatable to the average person.

    Romanticism is a literary movement that peaked in England in the 19th century. It places value on the experiences of the individual, the expression of profound emotion and a communion with nature. Pioneers of Romanticism include William Wordsworth, John Keats and Lord Byron.

    In their mission to report and represent factual elements of everyday life, authors of realism were opposed to the exaggeration, flights of fancy and individualism that characterised the Romantic period. You could say that realism was a reaction against Romanticism.

    The Romantics employed exotic settings, supernatural elements, flowery language and ‘heroism’ in their works. They did this to break away from the Classicists and to ‘celebrate’ life and nature. In turn, literary realism developed to break away from Romantic ideals and prized the mundane, the ordinary, the plausible.

    Literary realists observed how the Industrial Revolution and rapid urbanisation were changing lives. As the middle class emerged and literacy spread, there was renewed interest in the ordinary and ‘everyday’ aspects of people’s lives. The ordinary man or woman found themselves represented in works of literary realism. Because they could relate to these texts, works of literary realism became increasingly popular.

    While Romantics often focused on the individual and the solitary, realists centred their work on groups of people – this could be a group of people going to the same school, or a group of people with the same social standing, for example, the upper-middle class. In doing so, realist authors were careful not to hint at their own judgments or biases towards the subject of their work. Realism largely tends to the novel genre (and of course, the occasional novella or short story) as the novel provides room and flexibility for the development of its characters.

    Realism in British literature

    Realism in British literature is particularly notable in the Victorian era (1837-1901). Charles Dickens was a major proponent of realism, as many of his stories depicted the lives of working-class people in Victorian England. In many of his stories, such as Great Expectations (1861) and Oliver Twist (1837), he explores how the working class navigate surviving in a hostile political and social environment where living and working conditions were often abysmal.

    Characteristics of realist literature

    The characteristics and themes of realist literature vary depending on the type of realism you use. Here are some of the most common characteristics and themes of realism across the various types:

    • Detailed accounts of everyday occurrences

    • Follows the lives of everyday people, often of the middle or lower class

    • Plausible plot

    • Realistic setting

    • Spotlight on characters’ ethical decisions

    • Characters with complex behaviours and motives (similar to how complex people are in real life)

    Types of realism in literature

    Here are 6 common types of realism in literature.

    Magical realism

    Magical realism is a type of realism that involves combining fantasy and magic with reality. The magical elements are depicted as though they were a normal part of reality. Magic is treated by characters as a regular part of their day-to-day lives. This has the effect of making the fantasy elements seem more realistic to readers.

    An example of magical realism is Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison. The novel is the tale of a formerly enslaved family living in Cincinnati after the American Civil War (1861-1865), haunted by a malevolent ghost. The combination of the historically accurate background of a formerly enslaved family combined with the fantasy element of ghosts is what makes this novel a great example of magical realism.

    Socialist realism

    Socialist realism was initially an art movement that was used as a propaganda tool by Soviet (USSR) political leader Joseph Stalin (1878-1953). Stalin used it to maintain control of the USSR by commissioning art that depicted life in the Soviet Union in a positive light. Its intent was to support the ideals portrayed by Stalin's government. Features of this type of artwork were depicting Stalin as the father of the nation and the heroic leader of workers and soldiers. The art movement of socialist realism was later used significantly by Communist movements. Socialist realism in literature focuses on reflecting the ideals of socialism. These ideals include having a classless society and centring on the experiences of the proletariat.

    Alexander Fadeyev's The Young Guard (1946) is an example of socialist realism. It tells the story of an anti-German organisation called the Young Guard as it carries out operations in Ukraine. Fadeyev had to rewrite the novel to better highlight the role of the strong Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He was strongly advised to do this and the edited version was published in 1951.

    Realism, Red sickle and hammer on a white background a Symbol of socialism, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Sickle and hammer, symbol of Socialism.

    Socialism: a political ideology which encourages community regulation of exchange, production and distribution of goods.

    Proletariat: the working-class.

    Psychological realism

    Psychological realism was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It focuses on the internal dialogue or thoughts and convictions of characters. Through psychological realism, authors can explain why characters do the things they do. How the authors shape these characters and their convictions is often a reflection of societal and political issues.

    An example of psychological realism is the novel A Portrait of a Lady (1881) by Henry James. The protagonist, Isabel, has inherited vast wealth. She is a woman who does not conform to societal norms, and the novel details her thoughts on the experiences she has in life, such as the possibility of her marrying and who she will choose to marry.

    Realism, Diagram of brain that looks like a green computer chip, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Brain, representative of psychology.

    Social realism

    Social realism showcases the conditions and experiences of the working class. Social realism often critiques power structures that dictate the world the working class have to survive in. It can show how the working class lives in poor conditions, whilst the government or ruling classes live in exponentially better conditions, profiting from the labour of the working class.

    A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens is a well-known example of social realism. The Cratchit family features in the novel, and Dickens shows their struggle for survival as a poor working-class family. Protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge is an example of a man who has the wealth to live in better conditions than the Cratchit family but chooses to leave them to their fate. Until the end, that is...

    Kitchen sink realism

    Kitchen sink realism is a type of social realism that focuses on the experiences of young, working class British men who live in the industrial north of England. The lifestyle of the characters featured in kitchen sink realism shows the cramped living spaces and the low quality of living they endure. It is called ‘kitchen sink realism’ as it is inspired by the art movement of kitchen sink realism which features everyday objects such as beer bottles. Domestic affairs are often a key component of this type of realism.

    A famous example of kitchen sink realism is Love on the Dole: a Tale of Two Cities (1933) by Walter Greenwood. This novel details the experience of the working-class Hardcastle family living in the north of England in 1930s. The Hardcastle family deal with working-class poverty as a result of mass unemployment in the North.


    Naturalism is a type of realism that was developed in the late 19th Century as a counter-movement to Romanticism. Naturalism shows how family, one’s environment and social conditions shape one’s character. A common aspect of naturalism is when characters experience a struggle for their survival in hostile environments.

    This theme takes its inspiration from Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution about the survival of the fittest members of a species in hostile environments. The key difference between realism and naturalism is that realism suggests that natural forces predetermine the decisions a character makes to survive and exist in a society. On the other hand, realism, in general, shows a character's response to their environment.

    The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck is an example of naturalism. The Joad family’s actions are influenced and directed by their environment and situation as they struggle to survive during the Great Depression of 1929 to 1939 in the United States.

    Realism, Charles Darwin's evolution of man, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Evolution of man, representative of Darwin's theory of evolution and survival of the fittest.

    The Great Depression: The Great Depression was a period of economic downturn from 1929 to 1939. It was mainly caused by the stock market crash in October 1929 in America. It lead to hunger, homelessness and despair for millions of people throughout America and across countries that relied on America for financial assistance, such as Germany, which relied on America for loans. Many millions of people lost their homes and lost their jobs.

    Modern Realist literature

    Modern realism literature refers to a type of realism that is set in the present day and the events featured could occur in readers’ reality, though they are fictional. This type of realism does not involve magic or any science fiction elements. Some themes within contemporary realism literature are social and political issues, romance, coming of age and illness.

    A well-known example of contemporary realism literature is The Fault in Our Stars (2012) by John Green. The novel features protagonists Hazel and Augustus who are both terminally ill teenagers. The novel details their experiences dealing with this, and their experiences with love.

    Examples of realism in literature

    Let's look at a few well-known examples of realism in fiction!

    Of Mice and Men (1937) John Steinbeck

    Of Mice and Men (1937) follows George Milton and Lennie Small, migrant ranch workers who travel across California in search of work. The novel is set during the Great Depression (1929-1939) in America. This novel shows the realities of workers at the time of the Great Depression as many people lost their jobs, their homes, and had to travel for any sort of work. Readers follow the two in their new post at a farm as they have to navigate the relationship with the farm owner’s son, Curley, and other workers on the farm. This is an example of social realism as it depicts the everyday reality of working people in the face of the political and social decline following the Great Depression in America.

    A Summer Bird-Cage (1963) Margaret Drabble

    This novel depicts the lives of sisters Sarah and Louise. Sarah considers what she could do with her life now, after recently graduating from Oxford University. She pines for her lover, Francis, a historian at Harvard. In the meantime, the relationship between the sisters is explored as Sarah does not approve of Louise’s husband, Halifax. Sarah soon discovers that Louise is having an extramarital affair and confronts her about it. The sisters navigate their relationship with each other and their romantic relationships, as well as what they want from their lives as ordinary people. This is an example of realism and does not completely fit into any of the specific sub-types of realism.

    Hard Times (1854) Charles Dickens

    Hard Times (1854) is a satirical critique of social and economic conditions in Victorian England. The action mainly occurs in Coketown, a fictional industrial town in the north of England. The novel follows wealthy merchant Thomas Gradgrind and his family, who live in Coketown. Josiah Bounderby is a wealthy banker and the owner of a factory in Coketown, and he prides himself on telling the tale of his upbringing in poverty. Stephen Blackpool works at Bounderby's factory during the time when the workers of the factory organise a union for better working conditions. This novel is an example of social realism, as it shows the discrepancies between the experiences of the poor to those of the rich.

    Realism - Key takeaways

    • Realism is a literary genre that presents ordinary day-to-day experiences.
    • Realism often focuses on middle and lower class members of society.
    • The purpose of literary realism is to tell truthful stories of everyday people and their day-to-day lives, and it does so without dramatising or romanticising these stories.
    • The 6 types of realism are magical realism, social realism, psychological realism, socialist realism, naturalism and kitchen sink realism.
    • Contemporary or Modern realist literature refers to a type of realism that is set in the present day and the events featured could occur in readers’ reality, though they are fictional.
    • The main features are detailed accounts of everyday occurrences, a plausible plot, a realistic setting, a depiction of the lives of everyday people, a focus on characters' ethical decisions, and the portrayal of characters with complex behaviours and motives.


    1. Collins English Dictionary (13th ed.) (2018).
    Realism Realism
    Learn with 13 Realism flashcards in the free StudySmarter app

    We have 14,000 flashcards about Dynamic Landscapes.

    Sign up with Email

    Already have an account? Log in

    Frequently Asked Questions about Realism

    What is realism in literature?

    Realism in literature is a genre of literature that presents ordinary day-to-day experiences as they occur in reality. This often focuses on middle and lower class members of society, and places familiar to many people.  

    What is the purpose of realism?

    The purpose of realism in literature is that it tells truthful stories of everyday people and their day-to-day lives. It does not dramatise or romanticise these stories.  

    How did realism change literature?

    Realism focused on truthful storytelling rather than symbolic and the idealised portrayals featured in romanticism. Its focus on the everyday meant these stories were more accessible to the average person, who could relate to them.   

    What is realism in British literature?

    Realism in British literature focuses on literature from the second half of the 19th Century, which was the Victorian era. 

    What are the characteristics of realism in literature?

    Some of the most common features of realism are: 

    • Detailed accounts of everyday life
    • Follows the lives of ordinary people, often of the middle or lower class
    • Plausible plot
    • Realistic setting
    • Spotlight on characters’ ethical decisions
    • Characters with complex behaviours and motives (similar to how complex people are in real life)

    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?


    Discover learning materials with the free StudySmarter app

    Sign up for free
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team English Literature Teachers

    • 14 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App
    Sign up with Email

    Get unlimited access with a free StudySmarter account.

    • Instant access to millions of learning materials.
    • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams, AI tools and more.
    • Everything you need to ace your exams.
    Second Popup Banner