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Realism

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English Literature

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.

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 and themes 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, StudySmarterSickle and hammer, symbol of Socialism, pixabay

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, StudySmarterBrain, representative of psychology, pixabay

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

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, StudySmarterEvolution of man, representative of Darwin's theory of evolution and survival of the fittest, pixabay.

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.

References

  1. Collins English Dictionary (13th ed.) (2018).

Realism

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.  

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.  

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.   

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

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)

Final Realism Quiz

Question

What is socialist realism? What is an example of socialist realism? 

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Answer

Socialist realism focuses on reflecting socialist ideals in a socialist society. These ideas include showcasing socialism, a classless society, and centring the experiences of the proletariat.

An example of socialist realism is Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered (1936), which tells the story of a soldier injured in the Russian Civil War (1917-1923).

Show question

Question

What is psychological realism? What is an example of psychological realism? 


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Answer

Psychological realism focuses on the internal dialogue or thoughts and convictions of characters. 

An example of psychological realism is Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoevsky. It focuses on protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov, who is a Russian student who plans to murder a pawnbroker who he believes to be unethical. 

Show question

Question

What is magical realism? What is an example of magical realism?



Show answer

Answer

Magical realism is a type of realism that involves combining fantasy and magic with reality. The magical elements are depicted as though they are a normal part of reality. 

An example of magical realism is Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison, which depicts a formerly enslaved family's experience in their home haunted by a ghost.

Show question

Question

What are common characteristics/themes of realism literature?


Show answer

Answer

Common characteristics/themes of realism literature are:

  • 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

Show question

Question

What are the 6 types of realism in literature?


Show answer

Answer

The 6 types of realism in literature are:

  • Magical realism
  • Socialist realism
  • Psychological realism
  • Social realism
  • Naturalism
  • Kitchen sink realism

Show question

Question

What is realism in British literature?


Show answer

Answer

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

Show question

Question

How did realism change literature?


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Answer

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

Show question

Question

What is the purpose of realism?


Show answer

Answer

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, so readers gain a true understanding of what life could have been like at the time.  

Show question

Question

Why is realism important in literature?


Show answer

Answer

Realism is important in literature because it shows the experiences of everyday people in a society in a particular era. Realism provides the average person with stories that they could relate to, as these stories reflected their experiences. 

Show question

Question

What is contemporary realism literature? What is an example of contemporary realism literature?


Show answer

Answer

Contemporary 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.

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

Show question

Question

What is naturalism? What is an example of naturalism?


Show answer

Answer

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 work to shape one’s character. 

An example of naturalism is The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck, which details the Joad family's struggles during the Great Depression in America. 

Show question

Question

What is kitchen sink realism? What is an example of kitchen sink realism? 


Show answer

Answer

Kitchen sink realism is a type of social realism that particularly centres on young working-class Britons- usually young men- disillusioned with modern society. These tales often occur in the industrial north of England.

An 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.

Show question

Question

What is social realism? What is an example of social realism? 


Show answer

Answer

Social realism showcases the conditions and experiences of the working class. 

An example of social realism is A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens, which shows the struggles of the working-class Cratchit family in comparison to the wealthier Ebenezer Scrooge. 

Show question

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