Study Guide

Realism Timeline

How It All Went Down

1760-1860: The Industrial Revolution

Life in Europe changes dramatically when industrial machines transform the way people work and live. The Industrial Revolution is the catalyst that leads to the rise of the middle class in the 19th century.

1830: Honoré de Balzac begins work on La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy)

This gigantic series of novels and stories, depicting all aspects of French social life, kick-starts the Realist craze.

1856: Gustave Flaubert publishes Madame Bovary

With the publication of this novel, Flaubert officially makes Realist literature stylish.

1860: Charles Dickens publishes Great Expectations

The story of orphaned Pip growing up to adulthood cements Dickens's status as the great Realist writer of Victorian Britain.

1861: The emancipation of the serfs in Russia

Those poor serfs who've been slaving away—yes, "serfs" were peasant slaves in Russia—on the lands of the Russian aristocracy for centuries are finally freed. It's a huge theme in Russian Realist literature, and it had a huge impact on Russian society in the second half of the 19th century.

1864: Fyodor Dostoevsky publishes Notes from Underground

It's a study of the twisted mind of a petty government official, and it shows how well Realist authors can write about character and psychology.

1869: Leo Tolstoy publishes War and Peace

Can we talk about epic? Epic Realism, that is. Tolstoy's War and Peace is one of the longest novels ever written, and it's a panorama of Russian social and political life in the early 19th century.

1870: The British Parliament passes a bill providing public elementary education in England and Wales

Rising literacy in England reflects rising literacy all over Europe. There's a whole new reading public, and Realist literature reflects their interests.

1871: George Eliot publishes Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life

Who knew life in the provinces could be so full of drama? Eliot's novel about a group of characters living in the fictional town of Middlemarch puts all the focus on country folk.

1877: Leo Tolstoy publishes Anna Karenina

We've all heard of Anna Karenina. She's the tragic heroine of Tolstoy's second great Realist novel, and Tolstoy uses her story as a springboard to talk about all kinds of issues: society, religion, family, education, gender issues—you name it.

1890: Literacy continues spreading throughout Europe

By 1890, more than 90% of the citizens of Britain, France, and Germany can read. And guess what? They're picking up Realist novels and devouring them.