Realism in Literature Essay (2023)

Realism can be broadly defined as the truthful depiction of reality and is a literary technique practiced by many writers in different historical periods. As William Dean Howells put it, “Realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material.” More narrowly defined, literary realism is a movement in art, which started in the nineteenth century in France, from where it has spread to many other countries and lasted until the beginning of the twentieth century. Realist authors described their contemporary life as it was, portraying everyday activities and experiences without embellishment or interpretation. Before the nineteenth century, major literary characters were royalty, dukes, knights, ghosts, monsters and other supernatural creatures. In the middle of the nineteenth century attention shifted to common people – farmers, merchants, lawyers and peasants. George Eliot, William Dean Howells, Honoré de Balzac, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Gustave Flaubert, Ivan Turgenev, Guy de Maupassant, Anton Chekhov, Bolesław Prus and Émile Zola are all representatives of the realism movement in literature.

Artists and literary realists were heavily influenced by political and social changes that were taking place in Europe and in the United States, in particular by the development of science, the growth of commerce and the spread of democracy. Representatives of middle and lower class were becoming increasingly important in the life of the countries and in literature as well. Society was placing more value on an individual and, as a response to this, in literature characters were becoming more important than plot. Writers started using dialects and local vernaculars to make their stories even more realistic. The realists wanted to bring literature closer to science and assumed they can obtain truth by the simple observation and recording of reality.

Ethical issues were another big topic in realist literature. The authors accurately and in detail depicted moral dilemmas and choices of their characters, but did not try moralize or to teach its audience. Explicit authorial comments and interpretations diminished by the end of the nineteenth century as objectivity became increasingly important. “The basic axiom of the realistic view of morality was that there could be no moralizing in the novel.”

(Video) Get Real: An Introduction to Realism in American Literature

Some of the writers felt that realism focused too much on external reality. Henry James, for example, was one of the authors who turned to a psychological realism, which laid more emphasis on intricate work of the human mind.

Realism in France
As it has already been mentioned, realism started in France in the middle of the nineteenth century as a reaction to romanticism. The first major works of realism began with the novels of Gustave Flaubert and the short stories of Guy de Maupassant.

Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a realistic portrayal of bourgeois life, was one of the cornerstones of Realism. Flaubert managed to turn journalism into art, carefully depicting all his characters and settings in great detail. Flaubert does not judge his character Emma Bovary, a bored, middle-class housewife, for her lifestyle and for having love affairs with two men. The author only describes her feelings and behaviour in objective and impersonal tone: “What exasperated her was that Charles did not seem to notice her anguish. His conviction that he was making her happy seemed to her an imbecile insult, and his sureness on this point ingratitude. For whose sake, then was she virtuous? Was it not for him, the obstacle to all felicity, the cause of all misery, and, as it were, the sharp clasp of that complex strap that bucked her in on all sides.” Flaubert’s approach to writing was that the novelist should not judge, teach, or explain but remain neutral.

(Video) Literary Realism in English Literature: Meaning, Characteristics, Types, Elements & Examples

Honoré de Balzac is one of the most prominent representatives and is often considered the grandfather of literary Realism. In his series of novels, The Human Comedy, Balzac tried to depict various aspects of contemporary French society between the years 1789 and 1848, portraying thieves, prostitutes, aristocrats and political leaders. The title of the book is chosen in contrast to Dante's Divine Comedy, which had described everything but the earthly human reality. Obsession with details and long description of settings is characteristic of both Balzac and Flaubert, making their writing almost tangible.

Realism in the United States
Realism in American fiction lasted from 1865 to the turn of the century. The Civil War just, reconstruction and urbanization, industrialization and technological advances were changing American society. Mark Twain and William Dean Howells were the pioneers of realism in the United States. The novelist Henry James, one of the greatest realists, developed a subgenre, the psychological novel, which is concerned with motivation and behaviour of the characters.

Theodor Dreiser is an exceptional American writer, journalist, and a pioneer of naturalism in the American literature. Though, not only is he known as a contributor to the literary naturalism. Dreiser’s precise descriptions and analytical observations, as well as characters that are portrayed to be the product of their environment, integrated harmoniously with and contributed greatly to American literary realism.

(Video) Realism in Art and Literature in the 19th Century

Dreiser’s works show the emergence of capitalism and desire of consumption being two leading forces behind people’s actions, as opposed to the earlier important, outdated sentiment. His characters usually change in class and status over the course of the narration, and fall for the risk of being trapped in the machine of the cruel society. “Sister Carrie” is a text grounded upon the conventions of realism, though built with the addition of interesting traits of naturalism. According to Nicole Smith, the characters in the novel are “creatures not only of the natural world, but also of the environment”. The environment of capitalism, urbanism, and class inequalities. In fact, naturalism is usually set in an urban setting, where the characters are wisps in a sea that are brought from shore to shore, by forces stronger than them, like capitalism. If to believe the above to be the textbook definition of naturalism in literature than “Sister Carrie” should be seen as a perfect example of it.

Realism in Russia
In Russia, realism was represented in the plays and short stories of Anton Chekhov and novels of Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s two most famous works, the novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, are considered among the greatest novels of all time and masterpieces of realist literature.

Anton Chekhov portrayed the Russian life of his time, and he is regarded as the outstanding representative of the late nineteenth-century Russian realist school. Chekhov himself was born in a small town and was familiar with the realities of lower-middle-class and peasant life, whose feelings and tragedies he reflected objectively and unsentimentally in his writings. Themes that dominate in Chekhov's writing are petty tyranny of government officials; the sufferings of the poor as well as their rudeness; unpredictability of feeling; the ironical misunderstandings and disillusionments. Many of the Chekhov’s stories don’t have a real plot, as for example, “The Huntsman." In this story, a peasant refuses to go home with his wife because he prefers the freedom of a sporting life and living with another woman. There is nothing in the story that actually changes the relationship between the husband and wife. Details of the scene, the heat and stillness, reflect the hopeless stagnation of the couple's marriage. In his works, Chekhov maintained strict authorial detachment. His stories “Grisha,” “The Witch,” “Easter Night,” “Heartache,” and “The Kiss” all demonstrate Chekhov's ability to show life from within the minds of his characters, describing significant details and experiences without preaching or moralizing. Chekhov’s life has greatly influenced his depiction of peasant life, for example in “Peasants” and “In the Ravine.” Chekhov refused to idealize his peasants as many other writers did. In “Peasants,” the author shows the reality of low-class life with all its brutality, greed, and sordidness.

(Video) Realism Essay

Chekhov has been often criticized for choosing not to pass judgment. To his critics the writer has answered: "To think that it is the duty of literature to pluck the pearl from the heap of villains is to deny literature itself. Literature is called artistic when it depicts life as it actually is.... A writer should be as objective as a chemist."

The work of all these writers, who were mentioned, illustrates the main principle of realism, that writers must not select facts in accord with defined aesthetic, ethical or moral believes, but must write down their observations impartially and objectively. Concerned with the faithful representation of life, which frequently lacks form, the realists tended to downplay plot in favor of character and to concentrate on middle-class life and preoccupations, avoiding larger, more dramatic issues.

In “The Novel and its Future,” George Parsons Lathrop said, “Realism sets itself at work to consider characters and events which are apparently the most ordinary and uninteresting, in order to extract from these their full value and true meaning. It would apprehend in all particulars the connection between the familiar and the extraordinary, and the seen and unseen of human nature.”

(Video) Realism Essay Walkthrough

Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its Tradition. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1957.
Everett, Carter. Howells and the Age of Realism. Philadelphia and New York: Lippincott, 1954.
Smith, Nicole. ““Sister Carrie” by Theodore Dreiser: Naturalism, Capitalism and the Urban Sea”. Accessed on June 07, 2011 from

Yarmolinsky, Avrahm, editor. Letters of Anton Chekhov, translation by Bernard Guilbert Guerney and Lynn Solotaroff, Viking, 1973.


What is realism short answer? ›

realism, in the arts, the accurate, detailed, unembellished depiction of nature or of contemporary life. Realism rejects imaginative idealization in favour of a close observation of outward appearances.

What is the main idea of realism in literature? ›

Literary realism is a literary movement that represents reality by portraying mundane, everyday experiences as they are in real life. It depicts familiar people, places, and stories, primarily about the middle and lower classes of society.

What is the main goal of realism? ›

"Realism aims at an exact, complete and honest reproduction of the social environment, of the age in which the author lives, because such studies are justified by reason, by the demands made by public interest and understanding, and because they are free from falsehood and deception.

What are 3 qualities of realism? ›

Realism Art Characteristics:
  • Rejected Romantic ideals.
  • Represented subjects “as they were”
  • Focused on everyday people, settings, and situations.
  • Responded to a new national emphasis on workers.
5 Jun 2022

What is realism Summary? ›

realism, In the visual arts, an aesthetic that promotes accurate, detailed, unembellished depiction of nature or of contemporary life. Realism rejects imaginative idealization in favour of close observation of outward appearances.

What is realism essay? ›

Realists believe in the external world which is true as against the idealist world-a world d this life. It is a world of objects and not ideas. It is a pluralistic world. Ross has commented, “Realism simply affirms the existence of an external world and is therefore the antithesis of subjective idealism.”

What is the most important in realism? ›

For realists, the highest goal is the survival of the state, which explains why states' actions are judged according to the ethics of responsibility rather than by moral principles. The dominance of realism has generated a significant strand of literature criticising its main tenets.

What is the most important aspect of realism? ›

Realism was primarily concerned with how things appeared to the eye, rather than containing ideal representations of the world. The popularity of such "realistic" works grew with the introduction of photography—a new visual source that created a desire for people to produce representations which look objectively real.

How did realism influence literature? ›

Literary realism hit the scene late in the 19th century, and there was a dramatic shift in style. Instead of romanticized stories and scenes, literary realism was a literary movement that portrayed everyday life and experiences as they happened, with minimal symbolism but instead a focus on truthful storytelling.

What are the main types of realism? ›

realist thought can be divided into three branches: human nature realism, state-centric realism and system-centric realism.

What are the 7 characteristics of realism? ›

Realism Characteristics
  • Detail. Detail is that special something, that je ne sais quoi that sets Realism apart from other literary schools. ...
  • Transparent Language. ...
  • Omniscient Narrator. ...
  • Verisimilitude. ...
  • The Novel. ...
  • The Quotidian. ...
  • Character. ...
  • Social Critique.

Who started realism in literature? ›

In literature, the novelist Honoré de Balzac was the chief precursor of realism, given his attempt to create a detailed, encyclopaedic portrait of the whole range of French society in his La Comédie humaine.

What is an example of realism in literature? ›

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.

Who is realism greatest inspiration? ›

The notable development of literary realism did not occur until the 1850s and was heavily inspired by the aesthetic works of artist Gustave Courbet. The critical manifesto, Le Réalisme, was written in 1857 by a popular French author who was known as Champfleury, which went on to define Realism within writing.

Why did realism start in literature? ›

American Realism began as a reaction to and a rejection of Romanticism, with its emphasis on emotion, imagination, and the individual. The movement began as early as the 1830's but reached prominence and held sway from the end of the Civil War to around the end of the nineteenth century.

What is the effect of realism? ›

H3: The proposed realism effect (hypothesis 1) is mediated by uncertainty in judgment. That is, the product characteristics of unrealistic (versus realistic) images are judged less intensely because unrealistic (versus realistic) images increase uncertainty in judgment of product characteristics.

How do you know if literature is realism? ›

Realism is characterized by the use of realistic characters over a complicated plot. Elements of Realism include the focus of social issues, struggles of everyday life, truths of everyday life, and focus on mostly middle- and lower-class people.

What are the themes of realism? ›

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.

What is the nature of realism? ›

Realism philosophy is the view that an object or thing really exists and has certain attributes, independently of what people think about it. In other words, realism is the view that an object or thing has mind-independent reality.

What are the core concepts of realism? ›

The key concepts found in realist theory are anarchy, the balance of power, and the national interest.

Where does realism come from? ›

The term realism was coined by the French novelist Champfleury in the 1840s and in art was exemplified in the work of his friend the painter Gustav Courbet.

What influenced realism writing? ›

A reaction against romanticism, an interest in scientific method, the systematizing of the study of documentary history, and the influence of rational philosophy all affected the rise of realism.

Who gave concept of realism? ›

Hans J. Morgenthau (1904–1980) developed realism into a comprehensive international relations theory. Influenced by the Protestant theologian and political writer Reinhold Niebuhr, as well as by Hobbes, he places selfishness and power-lust at the center of his picture of human existence.

What is realist simple? ›

noun. re·​al·​ist ˈrē-ə-list. plural realists. : a person who recognizes what is real or possible in a particular situation : one who accepts and deals with things as they really are.

What is a realist in simple terms? ›

countable noun. A realist is someone who recognizes and accepts the true nature of a situation and tries to deal with it in a practical way.

What is real in realism? ›

Realism can also be a view about the properties of reality in general, holding that reality exists independent of the mind, as opposed to non-realist views (like some forms of skepticism and solipsism) which question the certainty of anything beyond one's own mind.

What is called realistic? ›

: able to see things as they really are and to deal with them in a practical way. a sensible, realistic person/attitude. trying to be realistic about their chances for success. 3. : based on what is real rather than on what is wanted or hoped for : not impractical or visionary.

What are the characteristics of realism? ›

Realism Characteristics
  • Detail. Detail is that special something, that je ne sais quoi that sets Realism apart from other literary schools. ...
  • Transparent Language. ...
  • Omniscient Narrator. ...
  • Verisimilitude. ...
  • The Novel. ...
  • The Quotidian. ...
  • Character. ...
  • Social Critique.

When did realism begin? ›

Realism was an artistic movement that emerged in France in the 1840s, around the 1848 Revolution. Realists rejected Romanticism, which had dominated French literature and art since the early 19th century.

What are types of realism? ›

realist thought can be divided into three branches: human nature realism, state-centric realism and system-centric realism.

Why is it important to be a realist? ›

Studies have shown that having realistic beliefs can mean better well-being. Researchers have looked at the level of expectations and compared that with an observed range of expectations. Within these parameters, studies see the highest-ranking of well-being associated with realistic thinking.

How do realist see the world? ›

Realists view human beings as inherently egoistic and self-interested to the extent that self-interest overcomes moral principles. At the debate in Sparta, described in Book I of Thucydides' History, the Athenians affirm the priority of self-interest over morality.

What does a realist believe in? ›

Realists believe that our selfishness, our appetite for power and our inability to trust others leads to predictable outcomes. Perhaps this is why war has been so common throughout recorded history. Since individuals are organised into states, human nature impacts on state behaviour.

How does realism view reality? ›

Realism. Realism is the view that a "reality" of material objects, and possibly of abstract concepts, exists in an external world independently of our minds and perceptions. Historically, realism is a metaphysical claim about this independently existing world.

Is realism positive or negative? ›

Although our modern notion of 'being realistic' is much closer to standard pessimism, i.e. downplaying the good things and seeing the bad as inevitable, a true realist is someone who makes completely unbiased judgements and who doesn't see things through any kind of filter, neither a positive nor a negative one.

Who started realism? ›

Henrik Ibsen was a Norwegian playwright in the 19th century who became well-known throughout the world for his significant influence on decades of authors and playwrights after him. Considered the father of realism, he holds a place in history as a founder of modernism in theatrical works.

What is another name for realism *? ›

What is another word for realism?
veritytelling it like it is
71 more rows

When did realism start and end? ›

American Realism began as a reaction to and a rejection of Romanticism, with its emphasis on emotion, imagination, and the individual. The movement began as early as the 1830's but reached prominence and held sway from the end of the Civil War to around the end of the nineteenth century.

What are the 4 types of realism? ›

The four propositions of realism are as follows.
  • State-centrism: States are the most important actors.
  • Anarchy: The international system is anarchic. ...
  • Egoism: All states within the system pursue narrow self-interests. ...
  • Power politics: The primary concern of all states is power and security.


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