Study Guide

Realism Top Authors

  • Honoré de Balzac

    Balzac is widely credited with being one of the founders of Realism. During his lifetime, he undertook a gigantic project, which he called La Comédie humaine, or The Human Comedy. It's series of novels and short stories—over 80 works, folks!—that depicted all aspects of French society. To pull that off, he often worked 14 to 16 hours a day, with little sleep and with loads and loads of coffee.

    His schedule was so intense that people think it's what finally did him in.

    Although his fiction represented all classes of French society, Balzac was one of the first authors to focus his work on the lives of ordinary French citizens. He tried to depict life and society as they truly were. He used detail to great effect, and he was also one of the first authors to make character and psychology one of the central concerns of his writing. It's no wonder that he influenced a huge number of important authors, from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Marcel Proust.

    Cousin Bette

    Considered to be one of the masterpieces of La Comédie humaine, this novel tells the story of Cousin Bette, a poor relative of the Hulots, French aristocrats who don't treat her very nicely.

    So she takes revenge on them. And it's awesome.

    Cousin Bette is a great example of Balzac's ability to move between and depict all spheres of French society: from the very rich to the very poor. It's also a great study in psychology and character—that Cousin Bette is one angry old lady.

    Father Goriot

    Another one of Balzac's masterpieces, this novel tells the story of Eugène de Rastignac, a poor but ambitious law student, and Goriot, an old man whose children take advantage of him.

    Like a lot of Balzac's works, this novel also focuses on class: characters come from all spheres of French society, and they move up or down the social ladder depending on how lucky, unlucky, or—let's face it—ruthless they are. There's lots of great detail and description of French society here as well, as well as a boatload of wonderful characters.

    Chew on This

    Check out how Balzac writes about class in Cousin Bette.

    Balzac's Father Goriot is another classic study of French society, giving it to us all in great detail.

  • Gustave Flaubert

    If Balzac was one of the founders of the Realist movement, then it was Gustave Flaubert who perfected Realism as an art form in France. Flaubert is especially known for honing the use of detail in Realism: this guy knew how to write about the tiniest aspects of daily life in a way that was unprecedented—and actually interesting. His writing served as an important model for many of the Realist writers who came after him.

    Flaubert was a slow writer: he could spend days and days agonizing over a sentence. He was an author who was obsessed with finding le mot juste, or "the right word," to express his observations of and ideas about daily life. He brought style and elegance to the relatively simple and straightforward language of Realist novels.

    Madame Bovary

    It's the story of a bored housewife living in a provincial town in France who has affairs as a way of escaping her suffocating routine. This was Flaubert's first full-length novel, and many consider it be his greatest masterpiece.

    Brilliant use of detail? Check. Great characterization? Check. The dramas of daily life? Check. A great example of 19th-century Realism? Triple check.

    Sentimental Education

    Sentimental Education tells the tale of Frédéric Moreau, a young man who falls in love with an older woman. The novel depicts Parisian society following the years of the 1848 revolution. Here, we see different levels of French society.

    All of the hallmarks of Flaubert's Realist style are to be found in this novel: sharp observation, stylish prose, and wonderful characterization. It's another of his masterpieces.

    Chew on This

    Flaubert's use of detail is a key aspect of his writing style. Check out his use of detail in these quotations from Madame Bovary.

    Flaubert is also a master of writing about class. See him put the focus on class and society in these quotations from Sentimental Education.

  • Leo Tolstoy

    We can't talk about Realism without talking about Leo Tolstoy. Why? Because he wrote two of the greatest works of Realism… ever: War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

    Tolstoy was a Russian aristocrat who, despite his upper-class status, had a real interest in the lives of peasants. His work often deals with big moral and philosophical questions, and his novels are truly epic in scope.

    War and Peace

    That's right, folks: this is one of the longest novels ever written. But it's also one of the best. And, after you get past the first couple of hundred pages, it's a legit page-turner.

    War and Peace tells the story of various members of Russian society during the Napoleonic invasion of Russia in the early 19th century. It provides a panoramic view of Russian society and history at the time, and it's full of rich details, philosophical discussions, and even romance. It's also got over 500 distinct characters, and not just one but two epilogues.

    Talk about epic.

    Anna Karenina

    You've probably heard of Anna Karenina: she's the tragic heroine of Tolstoy's second great novel, married to a man she doesn't love and in love with a man she can't marry. Sigh.

    But believe it or not, only half the novel is actually about Anna herself. It's actually all about a couple of distinct, vividly characterized families, and they way they deal with love and marriage. It's also, like War and Peace, a panoramic view of Russian society and the issues it was facing in the 1870s. Who said a tragic love story couldn't also be an epic meditation on society, religion, family, and the meaning of life?

    Chew on This

    War and Peace isn't just about war and peace. It's about family, domestic life, everyday life, and even the meaning of life. Check out how Tolstoy deals with the family theme in the novel.

    Anna Karenina is all about class and the hypocrisy of Russian high society. Here's an analysis of the theme in the novel.

  • George Eliot

    George Eliot—surprise, surprise—was actually a woman named Mary Ann Evans who published under a male pen name so that her work would be taken more seriously. She was one of the most important English novelists of the Victorian era, and she's widely credited with popularizing Realism within the English literary tradition.

    Eliot's mostly known for the great psychological insights of her novels, but she's also famous for her detailed depiction of life in provincial England. She's here to tell us that those people living out in the country have dramas and crises, too.

    Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life

    All of Eliot's novels are big, but this is the big Eliot novel. As you can tell by the title, its focus is life in the provincial town of Middlemarch, which was a fictional location Eliot made up for the purposes of the story.

    The novel follows the personal dramas of several characters, including Dorothea Casaubon, a young bride stuck in a marriage to a much older, sullen Mr. Casaubon. In this novel, you'll find Eliot's customary psychological nuance and insight, as well as a focus on the mundane details of provincial life.

    The Mill on the Floss

    One of Eliot's early novels, The Mill on the Floss tells the story of Maggie Tulliver and her brother, Tom, who grow up in a small town in Lincolnshire, England.

    This novel is a great portrait of daily life in an English provincial town, full of lots of Realist detail. It's also a great study in gender issues facing people at the time.

    Chew on This

    In Middlemarch, George Eliot goes behind the scenes of a marriage, and married life, it turns out, is pretty complicated. Who knew? Check out this theme in the novel.

    In The Mill on the Floss, Eliot focuses on provincial life. Have a look at how Eliot writes about provincial society in the novel here.

  • Charles Dickens

    While George Eliot focused on life in the country, Charles Dickens focused on life in the city. He's famous for providing a view of English society across a spectrum of classes, from the very poor to the very rich, especially in London.

    Dickens's novels are especially well known for their critique of Victorian society. Dickens was particularly interested in portraying the terrible way Victorian society treated the poor, the orphaned, and the downtrodden.

    Great Expectations

    In this novel, Pip, the protagonist and narrator of Dickens's most famous work, tells of his struggles as an orphaned child growing into adulthood. Along the way, he comes across a number of different characters who help—or hinder—his progress. These include Magwitch, a scary convict who actually turns out to be Pip's benefactor, and Miss Havisham, a rich old lady who goes around wearing an old wedding dress all the time.

    In Great Expectations, you'll find a detailed depiction of Victorian English society, as well as Dickens's characteristic critique of social and economic inequalities.

    The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby

    This novel tells the story of Nicholas Nickleby, a poor guy has to look after his mom and his sister after his father dies. He also has a nasty uncle who just doesn't want to let him get on with it.

    This novel, one of Dickens's earliest, showcases many of the author's characteristic themes and concerns: urban life in London, social critique of Victorian society, wealth and class issues.

    Chew on This

    Class mobility is a big theme in Dickens's Great Expectations. Have a look at these quotations on class and wealth.

    Dickens was big on social critique. In Bleak House, he critiques the miserable conditions that poor people lived in in Victorian England.