Introduction - Depicting real life • 1855–1900

The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016

Depicting real life • 1855–1900

By the mid-19th century, the novel was firmly established as the predominant form of literature, with an unprecedented number of readers creating demand for new fiction across the world. No longer restricted to a cultural elite, reading had become a popular pastime, and readers increasingly sought books that were relevant to their own experiences and the world they lived in.


Realism gains momentum

The portrayal of believable characters and stories had been pioneered by the earliest novelists, such as Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding, and in the 19th century the trend towards ever greater authenticity continued, resulting in contemporary fiction about ordinary people and their everyday lives.

This literary approach, known as “realism”, began in earnest in France, where a generation of writers — uncomfortable with the tendency of Romanticism towards idealization and dramatization — sought to depict familiar scenes and characters as accurately as possible. One of the first to embrace the style was Honoré Balzac, whose monumental series of stories La Comédie Humaine was intended to provide an encyclopedic portrait of society, revealing the principles governing individual lives and their effects. This grand vision inspired not only French realist novelists such as Gustave Flaubert, but also a literary genre that spread across the Western world. By the latter half of the 19th century, elements of realism — and in particular the depiction of human preoccupations and fallibilities — could be found in novels from as far apart as Russia, Britain, and the USA.

Authors enhanced the realism of their novels by various means. Some used the roman à clef, presenting historical events as fiction; others wrote from an omniscient narrator’s perspective, enabling them to describe the thoughts and feelings, as well as the actions, of the characters. This emphasis on internal characterization developed into psychological realism, a subgenre that Russian authors in particular adopted, including Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Social protest

In their striving for authenticity, many writers turned their attention to the lives of working people rather than the middle classes. In contrast to the depiction of the humdrum existence of a character like Madame Bovary, Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens showed in graphic detail the grim conditions of the peasantry and industrial working class, not only for literary effect, but also as a form of social and political commentary. Others, including Émile Zola, emphasized the role that social conditions play in shaping character.

From Gothic to fantasy

The focus on the harsh, squalid realities of working-class life contributed to a gradual shift in perspective towards the dark side of city life. One result was the development of the Gothic tradition that became known as urban Gothic, epitomized by Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The hope that this distressing era of dirt, disease, and death might be transformed for the better by advances in science enthralled the public and inspired authors such as Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle to write “scientific romances”. These precursors of science fiction had plots that featured invented discoveries and technologies, presented as if they were real.

A taste for the fantastical was also a prominent feature in the growing number of children’s books that appeared at this time, notably in the “nonsense” fantasy of Lewis Carroll’s surreal Alice novels. This strange, adventurous material began a “golden age” of children’s literature, which included perennial favourites, such as Rudyard Kipling’s collection of fables The Jungle Book and the more down-to-earth yarn of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

Symbolist expression

Some writers argued that art should represent beauty and depict sensual pleasure rather than suffering. Writers of this Aesthetic movement used an indirect style influenced by the symbolism of French poets such as Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé. The symbolists had reacted against what they saw as the prosaic description of realist novels, instead emphasizing the importance of metaphor, imagery, and suggestion. Symbolist poets also explored new means of expression, experimenting with poetic techniques, which were later to inspire the coming generation of Modernist writers.