Realism (REEL-iz-um), or literary realism, is an era of literary technique in which authors described things as they are without embellishment or fantastical plots. Works of literary realism shun flowery language, exotic settings and characters, and epic stories of love and heroism. Instead, they focus on everyday lives and people in ordinary times and places.
Realism is also a style of visual art that focuses on producing a photographic quality through realistic lighting, color palettes, and subject matter.
The History of Realism
The advent of literary realism was a direct response to the over-the-top stories typical of romanticism, an extremely popular movement in European literature and art between the late 18th century and the mid-19th century.
France was at the epicenter of realism. The writer Stendhal created pioneering works that realistically portrayed French life. He and others drew on the then-emerging fields of biology and psychology—as well as history, sociology, and the advancing Industrial Age—to craft stories and characters with whom the average reader could identify. Author Honoré de Balzac became a French realism icon with the publication of La Comédie humaine, a series of more than 100 interconnected novels showing the reality of French life from 1815 to 1848. Novelist Gustave Flaubert was also highly influential with novels like Madame Bovary, establishing a quintessential narrative voice for literary realism.
Realism did not remain a uniquely French phenomenon. It spread throughout Europe, with works like British author George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and eventually the United States. William Dean Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, and Horatio Alger, Jr.’s Ragged Dick all depict realistic characters from various pockets of American life as they grapple with war, racism, materialism, and upward mobility. Other American realist authors include John Steinbeck, Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, and Upton Sinclair.
The impact of these early realist authors’ works shifted the larger literary focus away from explicitly romantic literature. They made realistic components essential to most genres of writing, even those that don’t meet the strictest definition of realism. Though literary realism as a movement died down around the mid-20th century, its impact lives on. Most modern writers seek to create characters and stories with which readers can, to some extent, relate.
But realism is not without its detractors. Critics say it is not possible to portray reality in literature because some amount of imagination and creative license is always necessary. Others argue that all literature—to one degree or another—has realist elements and can thus fall under the definition of realism. Finally, there are those who think reality is subjective, which would make a definitive label of realism virtually impossible.
The Components of Realism
Works of realism aim to represent a specific reality. They accomplish this goal by incorporating various components into the narrative, including:
- Realistic characters: Realist writers create characters who are rarely as black and white as the more cookie-cutter protagonists and antagonists of romanticism. In realism, characters are neither entirely righteous or totally corrupt—they are complex, with both positive and negative traits.
- Labor: This concept plays a prominent role in many kinds of literary realism. The protagonist’s job is a significant aspect of their identity, whether for good or ill. Matters of heart and acts of monumental courage take a backseat to the more pressing demands of earning a living.
- Internal motivations: In realist works, characters’ actions come less from external forces—for instance, honor, chivalry, or a noble effort to right a wrong—and more from internal needs like curiosity, desire, or greed.
- Genuine settings: Writers of realism zero in on specific environments and the impact they have on the story. Their settings lean toward the sobering or the stark, and they tend to be more focused on smaller locations.
- Society: This goes beyond a mere aspect of setting. Societies usually play a significant role in characters’ fates. Choices and events are dictated not by a grand idea of personal virtue and valor but by the conditioning imposed by society.
- Straightforward speech: Dialogue is not lofty or overtly cultured. Instead, it reflects the vernacular of the characters of the specific time and place in which the story is set.
- Verisimilitude: This is a philosophy that lends greater credibility and believability to the narrative. It concentrates on the details that accurately reflect human behavior and psychology.
Subgenres of Realism
A writer of literary realism might present their story through any of several subgenres.
In magical realism, the author integrates mystical or fantastical elements into a realistic setting and worldview. These elements don’t significantly alter the story’s logic and rationality, but they do add another dimension that gently pushes the boundaries of the possible. As a result, works of magical realism unearth magic in the everyday and celebrate the potential for transcendence amid the ordinary. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is a classic example of a magical realist work.
Naturalism utilizes scientific thought, especially the theories of Charles Darwin, to illustrate the inescapable influences that shape characters and their experiences. At the heart of all works of literary naturalism is the belief that science explains the conditions of reality and that metaphorical and supernatural elements have no credibility or presence in a story’s trajectory. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is a popular naturalist work.
Works of this genre take an interest in characters’ motivation. Rooted in psychological thought, authors examine characters’ interior lives—their thoughts, emotions, and mental processes—to provide a fuller understanding of human behavior. One of the best-known works is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
This era of literary technique involves telling stories about the poor and working classes. Social realism delves into the socioeconomic and political conditions to which these groups are subjected daily. This emphasis allows the author to comment on the political and social power structures that manufacture the challenges unique to characters’ demographics. An example of this subgenre is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
These works venerate the struggles of the working classes to support larger socialist ideals. In fact, it was the official literary style in the socialist Soviet Union. An important work in this subgenre is How the Steel Was Tempered by Nikolai Ostrovsky.
Theatrical realism applies to dramatic works written for the stage. Plays in this style aim to make theatrical stories truer to life. Theatrical realism might employ any of the aforementioned subgenres to provide a more authentic grounding for the drama, the characters, and their choices. One prominent play in the theatrical realist style is A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen.
Realism’s Relationship to Other Literary Eras
There are two prominent eras of literary technique that oppose or intersect with realism: romanticism and idealism.
Realism vs. Romanticism
Romanticism is realism’s polar opposite. Romantic works tell stories of larger-than-life characters who embark on ambitious adventures, pursue passionate love affairs, discover new worlds, conquer fearsome enemies, or otherwise make themselves paragons of virtue and nobility. Conversely, literary realism tells stories as truthfully and authentically as possible, without glamorizing or sentimentalizing key details. Jane Austen and Herman Melville are prominent romantic authors.
Realism vs. Idealism
Idealist literature spotlights characters who place substantial importance on pursuing their values and principles—whether moral, philosophical, or political. They will persist at the expense of all else, including practical behavior. In fact, a hallmark of idealism is imagining things not as they currently are but as they would be in a perfect world.
In this way, idealism is a separate, antithetical idea to realism. At the same time, idealistic tendencies can make their way into works of literary realism. In socialist realism, for instance, there is heavy-handed idealism; by integrating it, the authors extol the benefits of socialism to persuade the masses.
The Function of Realism
Literary realism presents an accurate depiction of reality to the reader. Consequently, the reader may better identify with the characters or situations because they’re seeing aspects of themselves or their own experiences in the work. Representation is important to readers, especially marginalized populations who don’t always see characters who look, act, think, or in any significant way mirror themselves or their lives. In this sense, realism can help readers find community and remind them they are not alone.
Realism also sheds light on important social and political issues that are frequently ignored. By presenting reality as it is, readers see the struggles others deal with, creating awareness, empathy, and understanding.
Notable Realist Authors
- Isabelle Allende, The House of the Spirits
- Anton Chekhov, The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard
- Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie
- George Eliot, Adam Bede, Middlemarch
- Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
- Alexander Pope, “The Rape of the Lock”
- Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
- Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons
- Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome
- Émile Zola, Germinal
Examples of Realist Literature
1. Frank Norris, McTeague: A Story of San Francisco
A prominent work of American literary realism, McTeague: A Story of San Francisco chronicles the moral descent of a young dentist, McTeague, and his wife, Trina. On the eve of their wedding, Trina wins $15,000 in the lottery. The couple settles into married life, but each partner spirals down a pit of greed and despair. McTeague grows abusive, and Trina increasingly fixates on money. In the end, McTeague kills Trina, as well as his best friend Marcus, and ends up stranded in Death Valley, handcuffed to Marcus’s corpse.
The novel illustrates in brutal detail that human lives and fates are not always determined by conscious choices but by external forces. This passage shows Trina’s increasing preoccupation with money:
At times […] she would lock her door, open her trunk, and pile all her little hoard on her table. By now it was four hundred and seven dollars and fifty cents. Trina would play with this money by the hour, piling it, and repiling it, or gathering it all into one heap, and drawing back to the farthest corner of the room to note the effect […]. She polished the gold pieces with a mixture of soap and ashes until they shone […]. Or, again, she would draw the heap lovingly toward her and bury her face in it, delighted at the smell of it and the feel of the smooth, cool metal on her cheeks. She even put the smaller gold pieces in her mouth, and jingled them there. […] She would plunge her small fingers into the pile with little murmurs of affection, her long, narrow eyes half closed and shining, her breath coming in long sighs.
2. Henry James, What Maisie Knew
This work tells the story of Maisie Farange, a little girl caught between her divorced, warring parents. The adults focus only on their own happiness and use Maisie as a pawn. The book is a scathing commentary on relationships, the dark side of human nature, and the untenable position in which children are often placed. This is evident in the following description of Maisie’s parents’ fighting—and of the society that created it:
This was a society in which for the most part people were occupied only with chatter, but the disunited couple had at last grounds for expecting a time of high activity. They girded their loins, they felt as if the quarrel had only begun. They felt indeed more married than ever, inasmuch as what marriage had mainly suggested to them was the unbroken opportunity to quarrel. There had been “sides” before, and there were sides as much as ever; for the sider too the prospect opened out, taking the pleasant form of a superabundance of matter for desultory conversation.
3. Margaret Drabble, A Summer Bird-Cage
A Summer Bird-Cage is an account of a marriage in shambles seen through the eyes of a third party. Sarah watches as her sister Louise enters a loveless marriage with the insufferable Stephen. Louise knows that her husband is arrogant but chooses to ignore it; she instead occupies her time by having an affair with his friend. Tensions build between the two sisters until Sarah confronts Louise about the latter’s damaging decisions and attitudes toward life and love.
Drabble concentrates less on plot and more on cultivating the psychological realism of the story and the two principal characters. The sisters share a barely concealed animosity. For example, Sarah says:
In the end she taught me the art of competition, and this is what I really hold against her: I think I had as little desire to outdo others in my nature as a person can have, until she insisted on demonstrating her superiority. She taught me to want to outdo her. And when, occasionally, I did so, her anger hurt me, but as I had won it by labour from indifference, I treasured it. And when, finally, I took over one of her men at Oxford, the game was out in the open, I thought, for the rest of our lives.
Further Resources on Realism
Goodreads has a list of Popular Realism Books.
English professor Ali Taghizadeh offers an academic perspective on A Theory of Literary Realism.
The British Library looks at realism in British literature.
Salon puts forth the theory that Literary Realism Is Dead.
Longwood University has compiled a comprehensive list of American realist authors and their works.