Definition of Realism

Realism is a movement in art and literature that began in the 19th century as a shift against the exotic and poetic conventions of Romanticism. Literary realism allowed for a new form of writing in which authors represented reality by portraying everyday experiences of relatable and complex characters, as they are in real life Literary realism depicts works with relatable and familiar characters, settings, and plots centered around society’s middle and lower classes. As a result, the intent of realism developed as a means to tell a story as truthfully and realistically as possible instead of dramatizing or romanticizing it. This movement has greatly impacted how authors write and what readers expect from literature.

For example, playwright Anton Chekhov reflects in most of his writing a rejection of his romantic contemporaries and predecessors that tended to falsely idealize life. Chekhov’s plays and stories, instead, are made up of characters that are frustrated by the realities of their social situations and their own behaviors and feelings. His characters represent real, ordinary people who want happiness but are limited by and entangled in everyday circumstances.

Common Examples of Themes in Realism

Like most genres and literary movements, realism features fundamental, common, and recurring themes and motifs. Here are some common examples of those themes and conventions in literary realism:

  • close, detailed, and comprehensive portrayal of reality
  • emphasis on appearance of what is real and true
  • importance of character over action and plot
  • complex ethical decisions are often the subject matter
  • characters appear real in their complexity, behavior, and motives
  • characters appear natural in their relation to each other and their circumstances
  • importance of economic and social class, especially “middle” class interests
  • plausible, logical events (not overly sensational  or dramatic)
  • natural speech patterns among characters in terms of diction and vernacular (not overly poetic in language or tone)
  • presence of “objective” and impartial narration of story
  • subsets include: magical realism, social realism, “kitchen sink” realism, psychological realism, socialist realism

Examples of Novels in Literary Realism

Due to the changes in class structure with the developments of the second half of the 19th century, the novel became extremely popular. Literacy grew and written works were more accessible. Realism also enhanced the prevalence of novels since their subject matter often focused on characters and themes important and relatable to the working class, middle class, and social mobility.

Here are some examples of novels that helped to shape this literary movement:

Famous Authors’ Perspectives Regarding Literary Realism

It is beneficial, for understanding literary realism, to get a sense of how well-known writers feel about this technique and movement. Here are some famous authors’ perspectives regarding literary realism.

  • The monster I kill every day is the monster of realism. (Anais Nin)
  • Realism, n. The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads. The charm suffusing a landscape painted by a mole, or a story written by a measuring-worm. (Ambrose Bierce)
  • Would it not be better to have it understood that realism, in so far as the word means reality to life, is always bad art — although it may possibly be very good journalism? (Sherwood Anderson)
  • Nothing is more real than nothing. (Samuel Beckett)
  • Realism is a very sophisticated form of literature, a very grown-up one. And that may be its weakness. But fantasy seems to be eternal and omnipresent and always attractive to kids. (Ursula K. Le Guin)
  • I don’t want realism. I want magic! (Tennessee Williams)
  • Realism can break a writer’s heart. (Salman Rushdie)
  • It’s all lies. Some of them are just prettier than others, that’s all. People see what they think is there. (Terry Pratchett)
  • It seems to us that the readers who want fiction to be like life are considerably outnumbered by those who would like life to be like fiction. (Sara Caudwell)
  • When I work, I’m just translating the world around me in what seems to be straightforward terms. For my readers, this is sometimes a vision that’s not familiar. But I’m not trying to manipulate reality. This is just what I see and hear. (Don DeLillo)

Difference Between Realism and Naturalism

There is often confusion in trying to differentiate literary works that feature realism and those that feature naturalism. Naturalism is considered a form or subcategory of realism that is heavily influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The writers that pioneered the realist movement created complex, relatable characters, while presenting detailed and realistic observations of society. In addition, realism encouraged narration that shifted away from romanticized and poetic language. This allowed writers to adopt a more truthful voice and address conditions of real life, including the realities of war, poverty, etc.

Naturalism, as a post-Darwinian movement of the late 19th century, attempted to apply the “laws” of scientific determinism to fiction. This movement upheld the belief that science provides explanation for social and environmental phenomena. Naturalist writers extended the objective presentation of the details of everyday life as an insistence that literary works should reflect a deterministic universe in which a character is a biological entity controlled by environment and heredity.

Here are some examples of themes and conventions that reflect literary works of naturalism and differentiate them from realist works:

  • grim, animalistic environment
  • antisocial behavior and rough language of characters belonging to lower class
  • Themes of survival
  • deterministic theory that genetic endowment is inescapable
  • lack of ability to impose individual will
  • pessimistic, tragic view of life

Examples of Realism in Literature

Realism is a literary technique and movement that revolutionized literature. Literary realism creates the appearance of life as it is actually experienced, with characters that speak everyday language and are representative of everyday life as a reader would understand it. Here are some examples of realism in literature and how they enhance the value of a literary work:

Example 1: East of Eden (John Steinbeck)

There’s more beauty in truth, even if it is dreadful beauty.

Steinbeck encapsulates the scope of literary realism with this quote from his novel. The objective of most realist writers is to open the eyes and minds of readers to find comfort in the truth, without exaggeration, over-dramatization, or romanticism. Steinbeck’s novel traces generations of a family that faces realistic issues such as jealousy, betrayal, disappointment, and other struggles. However, rather than overdramatizing these circumstances or romanticizing the characters, Steinbeck portrays them as objectively and truthfully as possible for fiction. This allows readers to identify and relate to the novel as a form of literary realism.

Example 2: A Doll’s House (Henrik Ibsen)

Nora: And then I found other ways of making money. Last winter I was lucky enough to get a lot of copying to do. I locked myself in and sat writing every evening till late in the night. Ah, I was tired so often, dead tired. But still it was wonderful fun, sitting and working like that, earning money. It was almost like being a man.

In his play, Ibsen presents a harsh criticism of Victorian marital expectations and the traditional roles that men and women play in society. In this work, Ibsen portrays the main character, Nora, as a woman who is treated like a child by her husband and other characters. As a result, the play exposes Nora’s restricted role as a woman with respect to choosing an individual path, earning income, and making important household decisions.

Ibsen’s drama is a realistic exposition of societal problems that come about due to the drastic imbalance of power between women and men. The characters are relatable in the way they speak, feel, and behave. In addition, their decisions and actions are realistic and complex. This realism is significant in terms of the way the reader/audience understands the underlying themes of the play.

Example 3: The Story of an Hour (Kate Chopin)

She knew that she would weep again when she saw the kind, tender hands folded in death; the face that had never looked save with love upon her, fixed and gray and dead. But she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely. And she opened and spread her arms out to them in welcome.

Initially, it appears that Chopin’s work of short fiction is a form of Romanticism with idealized characters and overdramatic depictions of events. As the main character Louise receives news that her husband has died, she isolates herself in a room with what the reader believes is the intention to overcome the shock and mourn her very recent loss. In a Romantic literary work, Louise’s reaction and behavior would have been described through poetic language and dramatic depictions.

Instead, Chopin creates a realistic and relatable, though surprising, reaction within Louise at hearing of her husband’s death. She is sad that he is gone and knows she will miss his love. However, Louise looks to the future and understands suddenly that she is free of the entrapments of marriage and her role as a wife. Chopin reveals a complexity in Louise’s character that is realistic. In addition, as a form of realism, the story confirms many of the societal issues present at the time–particularly for women in terms of personal, economic, and social freedom. For readers, this realistic portrayal of Louise’s complex character and conflicting feelings is an assertion that, as a woman, she is an individual and not exclusively enmeshed in her role as a wife.