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Psychological Realism

Psychological realism is a type of realism that focuses on why a character does what they do.

The main characters in these stories are often troubled men and women who struggle with their choices or are plagued by one particular thing they did. For example, a book about a criminal who spends the novel contemplating why they committed a murder, stole something, etc. This may be emphasized by the impact they have on the people around them and the way those secondary characters view their actions. The genre was popularized in the early 1900s in the United States and remains popular to this day. 

Psychological Realism Definition and Examples

Psychological Realism Definition

Psychological realism is a genre of writing that focuses on why a character takes a certain action.

Unlike some novels that depict actions for the sake of the reader’s entertainment or to simply forward the plot, in these stories, authors delve into why a character did what they did and make that the focus of the story. This may relate to a larger theme in the story (perhaps one of a social or political nature). 

Sometimes, this genre is related to psychoanalytic writing and surrealism. It shares qualities with both, but it is not the same. These forms of writing focused on psychology in a different way. Surrealism was interested in tapping into one’s unconscious, while psychoanalytic writing was more scientific, accurately breaking down actions and effects. In psychological realism, the author was not as strictly tied by scientific principles. 

Examples of Psychological Realism in Literature 

Crime and Punishment by Fydor Dostoevsky 

This novel is one of the best-known examples of psychological realism. The novel focuses on the actions and mental state of Rodion Raskolnikov. He spends the story formulating a plan to kill a pawnbroker for her money. At first, he believed the money could save him from his unhappiness and poverty. Once it’s done, though, he’s racked with guilt and feelings of disgust for what he did. He struggles with this guilt in an obvious way, making this a great example of psychological realism. Here is a quote from the book: 

I used to analyze myself down to the last thread, used to compare myself with others, recalled all the smallest glances, smiles, and words of those to whom I’d tried to be frank, interpreted everything in a bad light, laughed viciously at my attempts ‘to be like the rest’ –and suddenly, in the midst of my laughing, I’d give way to sadness, fall into ludicrous despondency and once again start the whole process all over again – in short, I went round and round like a squirrel on a wheel.

This book is famed for its depiction of crime and the way it affected a particular person. Readers learn so much about Rodion that they find themselves sympathizing with what he’s feeling. Plus, Rodion is not the only character whose actions in the novel are questionable. Secondary characters like his sisters are also depicted. 

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton 

Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is her best-known novel. It was published in 1920 and won the author the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. She was the first woman to win this prize. The book focuses on upper-class New York society and the way men and women in this environment live their lives. It is an example of psychological realism in how it analyzes peoples’ motives, and the certain impact events have on them. The story focuses primarily on Newland Archer. A young lawyer engaged to marry May Welland. After meeting her cousin, Ellen Olenska, everything changes. Here is a quote from the book: 

I couldn’t have spoken like this yesterday, because when we’ve been apart, and I’m looking forward to seeing you, every thought is burnt up in a great flame. But then you come; and you’re so much more than I remembered, and what I want of you is so much more than an hour or two every now and then, with wastes of thirsty waiting between, that I can sit perfectly still beside you, like this, with that other vision in my mind, just quietly trusting it to come true.

Here, readers can see Wharton’s skill with dialogue and imagery. She allows readers an insight into the minds of various characters throughout the novel to make this novel a classic of the genre. 


What is an example of psychological realism?

Examples include Crime and Punishment by Fydor Dostoevsky and Henry James’ novels. These include The Turn of a Screw and The Portrait of a Lady. Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is also a good example. 

Who created psychological realism?

Henry James is often credited as the creator of psychological realism, especially in the United States. His works are usually cited as the best examples of the genre in English. 

What is psychological realism in art?

This genre is defined by an artist’s depiction of a character’s inner motives and feelings in art. It isn’t easy to accomplish in art but it is something that many artists have achieved and succeeded at. 

Related Literary Terms 

  • American Realism: a style of writing, music, and art during the 20th century in the United States, specifically in New York.
  • Dirty Realism: a literary movement of the 20th century in North America. The movement’s authors use concise language and clear descriptions of the darkest parts of reality.
  • Expressionism: a literary and artistic reaction against realism and naturalism. Writers were interested in emotion and psychology.
  • Magical Realism: a genre of fiction writing that is interested in imbuing the modern realistic world with magical, fantastical elements.
  • Novel: a long, written, fictional narrative that includes some amount of realism.
  • Realism: a literary movement that portrays everyday life exactly how it is.
  • Surrealism: a movement of literature, art, and drama in which creators chose to incorporated dreams and the unconscious, and fuse reality and pure imagination.

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