Study Guide

Realism Characteristics

  • Detail

    Detail is that special something, that je ne sais quoi that sets Realism apart from other literary schools. Detail is the stuff that Realist writers use to weave their magic with: these writers immerse us in so much detail that we can't help but believe that what we're reading is real.

    How did this technique start? With a couple of Frenchies, actually. Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert took the use of detail to a new level in their novels about French life. Open up Cousin Bette or Madame Bovary, and you'll find an encyclopedia of teeny-tiny details: food, clothes, landscapes, social habits: you name it. These works became models of Realist technique, both in France and abroad.

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    Check out how Gustave Flaubert dishes the details about Madame Bovary's appearance in order to indicate aspects of her character and mood in Madame Bovary.

    And here we have Lev Tolstoy going inside his characters' heads to detail their thoughts and emotions in Anna Karenina.

  • Transparent Language

    One big innovation of Realist literature was the use of simple, transparent language. No Realist novel is going to begin with some fancy-shmancy phrase like, "Behold, thy life and love are the true crown upon the pinnacle of my heart."

    Realist writers fit their style to their subject: given that a lot of them were writing about ordinary people, they used ordinary language. Writing in language that echoed the way regular people spoke to each other was revolutionary in the mid-19th century, when Realism really got going. Before that, literary language was often supposed to be elevated, a little bit highfalutin'. But is that kind of language realistic? Not really—so the Realist writers tried something new.

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    Anton Chekhov, famous for his Realist short stories, used simple, clear language, as we can see in these examples from his short story The Lady with the Dog.

    Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was revolutionary in its use of ordinary, spoken language—including slang and ungrammatical usages—in the narration of a tale. Check out these quotations from Huckleberry Finn to see how Huck's narrative voice works.

  • Omniscient Narrator

    Realist writers really rocked the omniscient narrator. What's that, you ask?

    Omniscient narrators are sort of like the superheroes of narrators, and that's because they know everything. They can jump from one character's head to another, they can tell us about one town on this page and then jump to a completely new town on the next. They know when you've been sleeping, they know when you're awake, they know when you've been good and bad, so… Well, yeah. They move from character to character, from scene to scene, from one place to another—because they just know it all.

    Knowing it all means these narrators know the details of pretty much everything, which is a pretty convenient thing if what you're trying to do is create a sense of reality in your novel.

    Of course, not all Realist literature is told from the omniscient narrator point of view—there are plenty of first-person narrators, for example, in Realist literature. But the fact is that most of the great 19th-century Realist authors wrote from an omniscient narrative point of view: Leo Tolstoy, Honoré de Balzac, George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, Charles Dickens, to name just a few.

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    Leo Tolstoy is famous for his use of the omniscient narrator. Check out how the omniscient narrator moves between different characters in these examples from Anna Karenina.

    The omniscient narrator of George Eliot's Middlemarch makes all kinds of general statements about men and women in these quotations from the novel.

  • Verisimilitude

    Verisimilitude is a sexy word meaning truthiness. Realist literature is famous for the way it tries to create a world that seems real or true; Realist writers want us to believe that we're watching real life unfold on the page.

    Hey, it's called Realism. Is anyone surprised?

    Realist writers go out of their way to make sure that they get their facts straight. If a Realist writer is writing about London in 1870, you can bet that writer either lives in London or has done some serious research on London, because he or she would want the London of the novel to be as true to life as possible.

    In fact, Realism was heavily influenced by journalistic techniques, and that's no surprise, given that journalism at the time was also taking off. Realist writers often write like journalists, and their attention to specific facts and specific details only adds to the sense of verisimilitude in their fictional works.

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    Check out how Leo Tolstoy creates verisimilitude when writing about warfare and battlefields in War and Peace (Quotes #2 and #3).

    And here is Tolstoy again, this time showing us just how horrible it is to visit the doctor in his novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

  • The Novel

    You can't talk about Realism without talking about the novel. The novel is the one genre that is most closely associated with the rise of Realism as a movement: if we tick off on your fingers the most famous works of Realist literature, you'll probably come up with the titles of a bunch of novels, like Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Middlemarch, The Brothers Karamazov, and so on.

    Realist writers do write in other genres, too, but it's the novel that is at the heart of the Realist tradition. Realist writers were drawn to the novel for several reasons, but most of all, the novel is big, and it's flexible. Realism is all about detail, after all, and you can fit a whole lot more detail into 300—or 1,300—pages of writing than you can fit into the fourteen lines of a sonnet.

    The novel also gives you space to talk about loads of different issues and different characters. In Tolstoy's gigantic novel War and Peace, for example, there are over 500 different characters. That's like having all of your Facebook friends covered in one single book. Do you even know all of your Facebook friends? Tolstoy sure does.

    Chew on This

    Want to see one of the greatest Victorian novelists in action? Check out Charles Dickens's Great Expectations here.

    How about delving into one of the longest works of Realism ever written? Yup, it's Tolstoy's War and Peace.

  • The Quotidian

    You wake up. You pour your Cheerios into a bowl. You add milk. You eat and think about all the stuff you have to do today: walk the dog, finish your English essay, grab a coffee with your friend. Yeah, not that exciting right?

    Guess again. The daily stuff that we all live through is the meat of Realist literature.

    One reason Realism was so revolutionary when it emerged in the mid-19th century was that it rejected the idea that literature had to be about larger-than-life heroes doing heroic deeds. Realist writers wanted literature to reflect the true, daily reality of our lives—stuff that smarty-pants scholars like to call the quotidian. One of the biggest preoccupations of Realism is the depiction of daily life, the dramas and routines of regular people.

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    Here is Gustave Flaubert's heroine Emma Bovary reflecting on how dull daily life is in this quote (Quote #2) from Madame Bovary.

    Marriage is a pretty ordinary thing in George Eliot's Middlemarch.

  • Character

    Realist writers are really into describing, analyzing, and dramatizing personality. They delve deep into their characters' psychologies and dig into their motivations, actions, and emotions. Realism was all about understanding life, society, and the world. Often, the first place these writers started was with the psychological reality of individual people.

    It's good to remember that when Realism was emerging, psychology as a discipline was also emerging. Towards the end of the 19th century, Sigmund Freud—whom you may know as the dude who came up with the theory that we all want to sleep with our parents—was developing many of the central concepts in psychology, including theories about the unconscious, dream life, and repression.

    Realist writers during this period—and even before Freud (one person said that everything Freud said was already in Dostoevsky's novels)—were already interested in psychology, and this is reflected in Realism's obsession with character.

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    Check out how Fyodor Dostoevsky presents his protagonist Raskolnikov, the tortured (anti-)hero of Crime and Punishment.

  • Social Critique

    Realist writers are all about critiquing the social and political conditions of the worlds that they write about. Authors like Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Honoré de Balzac, and Fyodor Dostoevsky depicted economic and social inequalities in their novels as a way of raising awareness about the plight of poor people, for example, or about the inequalities that affect women.

    In fact, there's a whole subset of Realism called Social Realism, which developed in the early 20th century and was inspired by the work of the big guns of early Realism like Tolstoy and Dickens. Social Realism comments on social and political conditions in a uniquely straightforward and hard-hitting way. John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath is a great example of Social Realism as it developed into the 20th century.

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    Want to see how Realist authors engage in social critique? Look no further than these quotations from Charles Dickens's Bleak House.

    Fyodor Dostoevsky was also big on social critique. Check out these quotations on poverty and suffering from his novel Crime and Punishment.

  • Class

    Class is a huge deal in Realist literature. Sometimes Realist writers will delve into the intricate etiquette of the upper classes, and sometimes they'll focus on the trials and tribulations of the lower classes.

    But the class that Realism is most concerned with, at least in Western Europe, is the middle class. Now, it's important to remember that the middle class didn't always exist. Way back in the day, there was the aristocracy (all of those rich landowners with powdered faces and fancy wigs) and there was everyone else (peasants, mostly, who worked their butts off on land owned by the aristocracy).

    Well, in the 19th century, the middle class began to rise. Thanks to industrialization and the rise of capitalism, a peasant could, over a little time, become a wealthy merchant and start living a little more comfortably. Society was changing, social structures and classes were being transformed, and Realism reflected these changes.

    The rise of the middle class also meant that there was a rise in literacy. Suddenly, the audience for literature expanded: it wasn't just rich people who had the time and the ability to read—now the middle class could, too. It's no surprise, then, that Realist literature often reflected the concerns of the middle class.

    Realism's emphasis on class, and on society in general, is a departure from the concerns of the literary movement that preceded Realism: Romanticism. In fact, Realism was partly a reaction against Romanticism. While the Romantics liked to write, for example, about solitary individuals independent from society, Realists chose to focus on social networks and the individual's place within these social networks.

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    Here is Leo Tolstoy delving into the nuances of class etiquette in Anna Karenina.

    Charles Dickens's hero Pip is intent on making his way up the British class system, as you can see in these quotations from Great Expectations.

  • Rising Literacy

    Around the time that Realism got going as a literary movement in the mid-19th century, more and more people were reading. Education was no longer the special privilege of fancy aristocrats wearing wigs and face powder. Thanks to the printing press, books and reading materials had become much more accessible.

    In fact, many of the early Realist authors didn't even publish their works as "books." Their novels were serialized in journals for mass readership, which meant that the journal would publish one installment of a novel with each issue. Realist literature was popularized in this way: it was easily accessible, and it provided long-term entertainment for a growing reading public.

    Chew on This

    Charles Dickens's novel Bleak House was published in serialized installments that appeared in a journal between 1852 and 1853.

    Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina was also serialized in a journal between 1873 and 1877, and the Russian reading public gobbled it up installment by installment.