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Realism in literature

Parents: realism - literature

In literature realism refers to verisimilitude of narrative (whether or not a story is believable) or to verisimilitude of characterization (whether or not the characters are believable). Verisimilitude was introduced in literature when - in the latter half of the second millenium - the novel replaced the romance as primary literary genre. [Jan 2007]

The novel or the modern novel introduced realism in fiction, at a time when much fiction was marked by fantasy (romances such Amadís de Gaula, Le Morte d'Arthur). The devices used to introduce realism were the epistolary technique (Pamela), true adventure (Crusoe) and psychological development of the characters (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, The Red and the Black). Literary realism as a full-fledged literary movement (first called realism and then naturalism) came into being in Europe in the 19th century. In France the movement's main exponents were Honoré de Balzac and Émile Zola, in Scandinavia there was August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen and in Russia Chekhov. The novelist George Eliot introduced realism into English fiction; as she declared in Adam Bede (1859), her purpose was to give a "faithful representation of commonplace things." Mark Twain and William Dean Howells were the pioneers of realism in the United States. [Jan 2007]

Related: everyday life - fiction - modernist literature - modern novel - Naturalism (literature) - psychological novel - reality - representation - social realism - verisimilitude

Contrast: mythology - fantastic literature - surrealist literature - suspension of disbelief

Early literary realists: Honoré de Balzac - Charles Dickens - Gustave Flaubert - Thomas Hardy - Émile Zola

The generic status of realism

In search of the nature of literary realism.

The predominance of ideologies of realism in our culture tends to mean that, unless marked as high art, many avowedly non-realist genres are viewed as frivolously escapist, as ‘mere fantasy', and thus as suitable only for children, or for ‘mindless', ‘irresponsible' adults. This, of course, is to refuse to acknowledge the generic status of realism itself (Todorov 1981: 18—20) quoted in Genre and Hollywood by Steve Neale

See also: Todorov - realism - genre theory

Realism in French 19th century literature

Literary realism most often refers to the trend, in early 19th century French literature, towards depictions of contemporary life and society as it is, in the spirit of general "Realism", instead of a romanticized or similarly stylized presentation.

The expression "Realism", when applied to literature of the 19th century, implies the attempt to depict contemporary life and society. The growth of realism is linked to the development of science (especially biology), history and the social sciences and to the growth of industrialism and commerce. The "realist" tendancy is not necessarily anti-romantic; romanticism in France often affirmed the common man and the natural setting (such as the peasant stories of the woman writer George Sand) and concerned itself with historical forces and periods (as in the work of historian Jules Michelet).

Linked to the development of science

The growth of literary realism has been linked to the development of science (especially biology), history and the social sciences and to the growth of industrialism and commerce. The "realist" tendency is not necessarily anti-romantic; romanticism in France often affirmed the common man and the natural setting (such as the peasant stories of George Sand) and concerned itself with historical forces and periods (as in the work of historian Jules Michelet).

Stendhal, Balzac and Dumas

The novels of Stendhal (including The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma) address issues of their contemporary society while also using themes and characters derived from the romantic movement. Honoré de Balzac is the most prominent representative of 19th century realism in fiction. His La Comédie humaine, a vast collection of nearly 100 novels, was the most ambitious scheme ever devised by a writer of fiction -- nothing less than a complete contemporary history of his countrymen. Realism also appears in the works of Alexandre Dumas fils.

"Roman feuilleton"

Many of the novels in this period (including Balzac's) were published in newspapers in serial form, and the immensely popular realist "roman feuilleton" tended to specialize in portraying the hidden side of urban life (crime, police spies, criminal slang), as in the novels of Eugène Sue. Similar tendancies appeared in the theatrical melodramas of the period and, in an even more lurid and gruesome light, in the Grand Guignol at the end of the century.


In addition to melodramas, popular and bourgeois theater in the mid-century turned to realism in the "well-made" bourgeois farces of Eugène Marin Labiche and the moral dramas of Émile Augier. Also popular were the operettas, farces and comedies of Ludovic Halévy, Henri Meilhac, and, at the turn of the century, Georges Feydeau.


From the 1860s on, critics increasingly speak of literary "Naturalism". The expression is imprecise, and was frequently used disparagingly to characterize authors whose chosen subject matter was taken from the working classes and who portrayed the misery and harsh conditions of real life. Many of the "naturalist" writers took a radical position against the excesses of romanticism and strove to use scientific and encyclopedic precision in their novels (Zola spent months visiting coal mines for his Germinal and Flaubert was famous for his years of research for historical details). Hippolyte Taine supplied much of the philosophy of naturalism: he believed that every human being was determined by the forces of heredity and environment and by the time in which he lived. The influence of certain Norwegian, Swedish and Russian writers gave an added impulse to the naturalistic movement.

Naturalism is most often associated with the novels of Emile Zola (such as his Les Rougon-Macquart novel cycle, which includes Germinal, L'Assommoir, Le Ventre de Paris and La Bête humaine) in which the social success or failure of two branches of a family is explained by physical, social and heriditary laws. Other writers who have been labeled naturalists include: Alphonse Daudet, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Edmond de Goncourt and his brother Jules de Goncourt, and Paul Bourget.

Gustave Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant

Gustave Flaubert's great novels Madame Bovary (1857) -- which reveals the tragic consequences of romanticism on the wife of a provincial doctor -- and Sentimental Education, and the short stories of Guy de Maupassant are often tagged with the label "naturalist", although neither author was devoid of comic irony or certain romantic tendancies. Flaubert's romanticism is apparent in his fantastic The Temptation of Saint Anthony and the baroque and exotic scenes of ancient Carthage in Salammbô. Maupassant used elements derived from the gothic novel in stories like Le Horla. This tension between portrayal of the contemporary world in all its sordidness, detatched irony and the use of romantic images and themes would also influence the symbolists and would continue to the 20th century.


An attempt to be objective was made in poetry by the group of writers known as the Parnassians -- which included Leconte de Lisle, Théodore de Banville , Catulle Mendès, Sully-Prudhomme, François Coppée, José María de Heredia and (early in his career) Paul Verlaine -- who (using Théophile Gautier's notion of art for art's sake and the pursuit of the beautiful) strove for exact and faultless workmanship, and selected exotic and classical subjects which they treated with rigidity of form and emotional detachment (elements of which echo the philosophical work of Arthur Schopenhauer whose aesthetic theories would also have an influence on the symbolists).

Jules Verne

Modern science and geography were united with romantic adventure in the works of Jules Verne and other writers of popular serial adventure novels and early science-fiction.

Sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary_realism [Nov 2006] and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_literature_of_the_19th_century#Realism.2C_Naturalism_and_Parnasse [Sept 2005]

See also: French literature - 19th century literature - frealism

Roman à clef

A roman à clef or roman à clé (French for "novel with a key") is a novel describing real-life events behind a façade of fiction. The "key", not present in the text, is the correlation between events and characters in the novel and events and characters in real life. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_a_clef

Realism (2003) - Pam Morris

Realism (2003) - Pam Morris [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Book Description
Coming to prominence with the nineteenth-century novel, literary realism has most often been associated with the insistence that art cannot turn away from the more sordid and harsh aspects of human existence. However, because realism is unavoidably tied up with the gnarly concept of 'reality' and 'the real', it has been one of the most widely debated terms in the New Critical Idiom series.

This volume offers a clear, reader-friendly guide to debates around realism, examining:
*ideas of realism in nineteenth-century French and British fiction
*the twentieth-century formalist reaction against literature's status as 'truth'
*realism as a democratic tool, or utopian form.

This volume is vital reading for any student of literature, in particular those working on the realist novel.

See also: realism - literature

“Realism in the Balance” (1938) — Lukacs’ defense of literary realism

The initial intent of Lukacs’ essay “Realism in the Balance,” stipulated at its outset, is to debunk the claims of those who defend Expressionism as a valuable literary movement. Lukacs plays on the dissonance that existed within the community of modernist critics, whom he regarded as unable to decide which writers were Expressionist and which weren’t, and jibes that “perhaps there is no such thing as an Expressionist writer.”

But although his aim is ostensibly to criticize what he perceived as the over-valuation of modernist schools of writing at the time the article was published, Lukacs uses the essay as an opportunity to advance his formulation of the desirable alternative to these schools. He rejects the notion that modern art must necessarily manifest itself as a litany of sequential movements, beginning with Naturalism, and proceeding through Impressionism and Expressionism to culminate in Surrealism. For Lukacs, the important issue at stake was not the conflict that results from the modernists’ evolving oppositions to classical forms, but rather the ability of art to confront an objective reality that exists in the world, an ability he found almost entirely lacking in modernism.

Citing Nietzsche, who argues that “the mark of every form of literary decadence…is that life no longer dwells in the totality,” Lukacs strives to debunk modernist portrayals, claiming they reflect not on objective reality, but instead proceed from subjectivity to create a “home-made model of the contemporary world.” The abstraction (and immediacy) inherent in modernist portrays “essences” of capitalist domination divorced from their context, in a way that takes each essence in “isolation,” rather than taking into account the objective totality that is the foundation for all of them. Lukacs believes that the “social mission of literature” is to clarify the experience of the masses, and in turn show these masses that their experiences are influenced by the objective totality of capitalism, and his chief criticism of modernist schools of literature is that they fail to live up to this goal, instead proceeding inexorably towards more immediate, more subjective, more abstracted versions of fictional reality that ignore the objective reality of the capitalist system. Realism, because it creates apparently subjective experiences that demonstrate the essential social realities that provoke them, is for Lukacs the only defensible or valuable literary school of the early twentieth century. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georg_Luk%C3%A1cs#.E2.80.9CRealism_in_the_Balance.E2.80.9D_.281938.29.E2.80.94Lukacs.E2.80.99_defense_of_literary_realism [Jul 2006]

See also: realism in literature

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