When you think about the classics of world literature, some of the first things you think of are probably humungous novels like War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Great Expectations, Madame Bovary, or Middlemarch.
So do those meganovels have anything in common besides the fact that they are mega and novels?
Sure do. They're also works of Realism.
Realism is a literary movement that developed in the middle of the 19th century in France and then spread like wildfire throughout the rest of Europe, all the way to Russia, and then overseas to the US.
Realism, as you might guess by its title, is all about portraying real life. Realist writers write about regular folks—bored housewives, petty government officials, poor spinsters, poor teenagers—living ordinary lives. Let's face it: most of us don't live crazy exciting lives, after all. What Realist writers are really good at doing is showing us how even ordinary lives are meaningful, and—hello—always full of drama.
Some of these writers were reacting against the Romantic movement, which often stressed nature over culture, the solitary individual against society. Realist writers, unlike the Romantics, like to focus on groups of people. They give us the big picture: a panorama of a village, a city, or a society. And because Realism is about giving us the big picture, it tends to be associated with the novel genre, which is huge and flexible. Most of the famous Realists—like Tolstoy and Dickens—were novelists, who wrote pretty gigantic works.
Realism as a movement with a capital R ended sometime around the turn of the century, but the techniques of Realism have lived on. Lots of novels written today are written in straightforward language about contemporary issues, for example. Hey, who can resist the soap operas of daily life, all packaged up as a 500-page slice-of-life novel?
Ever get curious about the lives of people you don't know? Like, what's up with those neighbors of yours who scream at each other all the time? And what about that cute boy in biology class, who never says a word to anyone? Does he have friends? And what about that woman you see laughing to herself every day on the subway platform? Is she crazy? Or just crazy happy?
Strangers are fascinating. We know that they're like us, but we also know that they're different from us. They've got their own little dramas, dilemmas, crises, hang-ups. We're always interested in hearing about why that woman left her husband, or why that guy ended up an alcoholic, or why that kid ran away from home.
This is why Realist literature is so great. Reading it is like peeping through a keyhole into the lives of others: these may be ordinary lives, but like ours they're full of drama. After all, who doesn't have family drama, or boyfriend or girlfriend drama, or frenemy drama? When you read Realist literature, you don't just learn about other people, you also also learn a whole lot about yourself.
The Literature Network presents… well, okay, it's a comprehensive discussion of Realism, tracing it from its origins through to its development in Europe and America.
Realism in American Literature, 1860-1890
If what you're into is specifically American Realism, this site's got you covered.