The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Realism: (1) Broadly speaking, a term that can be applied to the accurate depiction in any literary work of the everyday life of a place, person, and/or period. When the term realistic is applied to works that predate the nineteenth century, however, it usually refers more specifically to a writer’s accuracy in portraying the speech and behavior of a character or characters from a low socioeconomic class. (2) A literary movement that developed in the latter half of the nineteenth century in America, England, and France in reaction to the excesses of romanticism. Writers associated with this movement tried to “write reality.”

Realism differs from romanticism particularly in its emphasis on an objective presentation of details and events rather than a subjective concentration on the personal feelings, perceptions, and imaginings of various characters. Realists also reject the idealized presentations, fanciful and exotic settings, and improbable plot twists characteristic of the romance. Realists often rely heavily on local color, seeking to portray faithfully the customs, speech, dress, and living and working conditions of their chosen locale. Realists also stress characterization as a critical (if not the critical) element of a literary work.

Realism should also be distinguished from naturalism. Although naturalists’ emphasis on concrete details and the objective depiction of everyday life renders their fiction “realistic,” naturalists differ from realists in their deterministic outlook. Naturalists view all individuals as being at the mercy of biological and socioeconomic forces, whereas realists hold that humans have a certain degree of free will that they can exercise to affect their situations.

Realists (especially nineteenth-century realists) have tended to espouse democracy and pragmatism. They have implicitly expressed these beliefs by choosing to depict lower and middle-class subjects and characters more often than the noble ones associated with classicism or the fanciful ones characteristic of romanticism. Many early American realists depicted everyday life and the common person with a certain affection and respect; after the Civil War, however, a disillusioned strain developed in realistic fiction that portrayed ordinary men and women as having their share of petty vices.

Many realists, American and otherwise, have also embraced what might be termed psychological realism as they have turned from emphasizing the accuracy of external detail to reporting internal detail, the thought processes of the human mind or consciousness. Some authors, such as Virginia Woolf, have taken the reporting of internal detail to its extreme manifestation, using stream-of-consciousness narration to convey to the reader the jumble of thoughts and sensory impressions that flows unremittingly through the human mind.

Variants of realism that developed in the twentieth century include magic realism and socialist realism. Magic realists mix realistic and fantastic elements; in fact, magic realists arguably use such hallmarks of realism as its emphasis on detail to make their presentations of the dreamlike, mythic, or otherwise fantastic more plausible to readers. Socialist realists emphasized class struggle as the catalyst for historical change, employing techniques associated with nineteenth-century realism to depict the lives of average working-class citizens. In the 1930s, however, when socialist realism became the official literary form of the Soviet Union, it ceased to be a means of connecting with the masses and instead became chiefly a means of propagating doctrinally “correct” thinking.

Noted realists include Jane Austen, Honoré de Balzac, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), Gustave Flaubert, William Dean Howells, Henrik Ibsen, Henry James, Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton. Certain poems by Robert Browning, Walt Whitman, and Carl Sandburg can be called realistic insofar as they capture real people, places, or situations through an almost prosaic style. Pre-nineteenth-century writers who are generally realistic in their outlooks and depictions of life include Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe, and Henry Fielding.