Realism is a literary movement that portrays everyday life exactly how it is.
Experiences described in these works, most of which are mundane and seemingly un-noteworthy, are described in detail allowing the reader to get attached to the characters, places, and events. The stories told in literary realist works are as close to the truth as possible. These writers do not romanticize or dramatize anything.
Definition and Explanation of Realism
Literary realism was part of the broader realist movement that started in the nineteenth-century, in France, as a reaction to Romanticism. It lasted until the early twentieth century and was determined to focus on the real world, allowing readers and viewers, or art, novels, plays, and more, to encounter their lives, worlds, and an accurate depiction of others, in the movement. Some of the best-known realist writers were:
- Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)
- Stephen Crane
- Daniel Defoe
- John Steinbeck
- George Moore
- Arnold Bennett
- Jack London
- Edith Wharton
- Henry James
- George Eliot
Types of Literary Realism
There are several different types of realism. Each tries to accomplish something different and has interesting characteristics that are important to understand.
- Social realism—focuses on the lives of the poor. These stories might describe their living conditions, jobs, relationships, and dreams. One of the best-loved examples is Les Misérables by Victor Hugo.
- Magical Realism— one of the best and most interesting types of realism in that it combines reality with dream-like, fantastical elements. The world is described as it is, but with additional elements that are not found in nature. For example, one person in a town might be able to fly, tell the future, or live well-past their years. Gabriel García Márquez is the best-known writer in this genre.
- Socialist Realism—created by Joseph Stalin that celebrates the work and lives of the proletariat, or the working classes. Some of the best-known novels were written in the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution.
- Kitchen Sink Realism—related to social realism. It focuses specifically on working-class British men who spend much of their time in pubs. The men in these novels work to make their dreams a reality in the wake of war.
- Naturalism—explores science and the belief that it can make sense of all phenomena, social and environmental. It was influenced by Charles Darwin’s and Émile Zola’s writings. Ex. A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner
- Psychological Realism— focuses on what motives people to make the decisions they do. Many of the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky can be categorized in this genre. In his works, readers learn about the lives of men and women who struggle with their decisions (such as that to kill a man and steal his money) while also allowing the reader to learn something about that person’s society.
Themes and Elements in Realism
- The detailed portrayal of the world as it is.
- Characters are natural in their interactions with one another, as well as their general behavior.
- Natural speech patterns.
- Plausible events and choices.
- Complex ethical decisions.
- Characters’ well-being socially and economically is at stake.
- Emphasis on what is true.
Examples of Realism
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
In The Call of the Wild, Jack London describes Yukon, Canada in the 1890s during the Klondike Gold Rush. During this period, sled dogs were in high demand. Ones that were just like Buck, the main character of the story. Buck is stolen from his home and sold into service in Alaska. There, Buck changes. He becomes more aggressive and must fight to survive alongside other dogs. London’s depiction of places and events is extremely realistic, influenced by the time he spent there observing life. Here is a thoughtful passage from the novel:
There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.
Read poetry from Jack London.
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Middlemarch a novel that was first published between 1871 and 1872 in installments, this store decides a fictitious English town and the stories of the men and women who live there. Eliot, whose real name was Mary Anne Evans, explores themes of political reform, education, the role of women in society, religion, and many more. In the novel, readers encounter real events like the 1832 Reform Act and the use of medicine at the time. Here is one well-known line from the novel:
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.
Read poetry by George Eliot.
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
The Red Badge of Courage is a war novel that takes place during the American Civil War. The story follows Henry Fleming who flies from battle and then is plagued by shame. He seeks out a “red badge of courage,” or injury, to prove that he isn’t a coward. This novel is noted for its realistic depiction of the time and the emotions of the main character. Here is a quote from the novel:
This landscape gave him assurance. A fair field holding life. It was the religion of peace. It would die if its timid eyes were compelled to see blood. He conceived Nature to be a woman with a deep aversion to tragedy.
Read poems by Stephen Crane.
Why Do Writers Write Realist Literature?
Writers choose to write in the realist style when they want to convey the truth of their world or another’s worth. By not dramatizing or romanticizing events, places, people, and relationships, readers get a truthful (and some would argue even more impactful) depiction of life. Realist novels require the writer to have a comprehensive understanding of the place and people they’re writing about, such as can be seen in The Call of the Wild.
Related Literary Terms
- Romanticism: a movement that originated in Europe at the end of the 18th century and emphasized aesthetic experience and imagination.
- Magical Realism: a genre of fiction writing that is interested in imbuing the modern realistic world with magical, fantastical elements.
- Surrealism: a movement of literature, art, and drama in which creators chose to incorporated dreams and the unconscious
- Transcendentalism: literature that focuses on nature and opposition to the destruction of the individual that came with industrialism.