What Is Literary Realism? Definition and Examples of the Realism Genre in Literature

Written by MasterClass

Aug 15, 2019 • 4 min read

The realism art movement of the nineteenth century was a dramatic shift from the exotic and poetic Romanticism that dominated the art world in the decades prior. Literary realism, in particular, introduced a new way of writing and a new generation of authors whose influence can still be seen in American literature and English literature to this day.



What Is Literary Realism?

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. Literary realism seeks to tell a story as truthfully as possible instead of dramatizing or romanticizing it.

What Is the History of Literary Realism?

Literary realism is part of the realist art movement that started in nineteenth-century France and lasted until the early twentieth century. It began as a reaction to eighteenth-century Romanticism and the rise of the bourgeois in Europe. Works of Romanticism were thought to be too exotic and to have lost touch with the real world.

The roots of literary realism lie in France, where realist writers published works of realism in novels and in serial form in newspapers. The earliest realist writers include Honoré de Balzac, who infused his writing with complex characters and detailed observations about society, and Gustave Flaubert, who established realist narration as we know it today.

What Is the History of Literary Realism in the United States?

The first American realist author was William Dean Howells, who was known for writing novels about middle-class life.

Another early American realist was Samuel Clemens (pen name Mark Twain), who was the first well-known author to come from middle America. When he published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884, it was the first time a novel captured the distinctive life and voice of that part of the country.

Similarly, Stephen Crane’s 1895 Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage told the real but previously untold stories of life on the battlefield. These stories encouraged more American writers to use their voices to speak truth to the real conditions of what life was really like, whether at war or in poverty.

Other well-known realist American authors include John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Edith Wharton, and Henry James.

What Is the History of Literary Realism in the United Kingdom?

Literary realism existed, in some form, in England before the genre was fully defined. Some critics credit the first British novelists, like Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson, as realists, because they wrote about issues related to the middle class.

Once realism took shape, George Eliot published Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life in 1871, which is considered the most famous work of literary realism to come from the United Kingdom. The genre developed in parallel with the U.K.’s new middle class and authors took the opportunity to echo their interests and concerns. Other well-known British realism authors include George Gissing, Arnold Bennett, and George Moore.

6 Types of Literary Realism

There are a few different types of literary realism, each with its own distinct characteristics.

  1. Magical realism. A type of realism that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. Magical realism portrays the world truthfully plus adds magical elements that are not found in our reality but are still considered normal in the world the story takes place. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967) is a magical realism novel about a man who invents a town according to his own perceptions. Learn more about magical realism here.
  2. Social realism. A type of realism that focuses on the lives and living conditions of the working class and the poor. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (1862) is a social novel about class and politics in France in the early 1800s.
  3. Kitchen sink realism. An offshoot of social realism that focuses on the lives of young working-class British men who spend their free time drinking in pubs. Room at the Top by John Braine (1957) is a kitchen sink realist novel about a young man with big ambitions who struggles to realize his dreams in post-war Britain.
  4. Socialist realism. A type of realism created by Joseph Stalin and adopted by Communists. Socialist realism glorifies the struggles of the proletariat. Cement by Fyodor Gladkov (1925) is a socialist-realist novel about the struggles of reconstructing the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution.
  5. Naturalism. An extreme form of realism influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Naturalism, founded by Émile Zola, explores the belief that science can explain all social and environmental phenomena. A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner (1930), a short story about a recluse with a mental illness whose fate is already determined, is an example of naturalism.
  6. Psychological realism. A type of realism that’s character-driven, focusing on what motivates them to make certain decisions and why. Psychological realism sometimes uses characters to express commentary on social or political issues. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866) is a psychological realist novel about a man who hatches a plan to kill a man and take his money to get out of poverty—but feels immense guilt and paranoia after he does it.

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