The names of literary periods are thrown around as if they’re self-explanatory, but they’re often quite complex! In our ongoing series Name That Literary Period, we want to really explore each literary period in order to better understand the historical context of our favorite books.
In this installment, we look at realism, which is actually pretty self-explanatory: it’s the literary movement focused on depicting the real world, realistically. Realism became prominent in Europe and the United States in the later half of the 19th century as a reaction to the Romantic era. Realists had had enough of the fluff and the fanciful—they wanted to get down to the nitty-gritty reality.
Time Period: 1850–1914
While Romanticism focused on the ideal and sublime, realism examines the lives of average people, depicting events and places as accurately as possible. While Romantics loved the lyrical poetic form, realists preferred the novel. The novel form allowed for realist writers to develop detailed descriptions of settings, extensive dialogue, and lengthy character developments as they sought to represent real life. While the novel form was used in earlier periods, realist writers shaped it into the form we recognize and use today.
One of the most significant innovations of realism was “free indirect discourse,” a style of narration in which third-person narration is accompanied by first-person thoughts of the protagonist or sometimes multiple characters. This allowed the narrator to keep a broader narrative perspective while entering the interior world of the characters, rather than having to choose between being a distanced observer or taking on a limiting first-person persona. This style is common today, but it was developed first by Jane Austen and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who both preceded the main wave of realist literature.
Let’s look at these 8 realist masterpieces to get a sense of what life and literature was really like during the age of realism:
1.) Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1856)
In this novel, originally written in French, Emma Bovary is a dissatisfied wife and mother who begins having increasingly reckless love affairs to escape her secluded life. When her lies are discovered, she kills herself with arsenic. In realist style, Flaubert explores the everyday details of a humble country family’s life, focusing on the disappointments and delusions of an unhappy woman.
2.) Silas Marner by George Eliot (1861)
George Eliot, a pen name for Mary Ann Evans, writes in Silas Marner a story of a young man who loses everything, including his faith, when he is framed for a crime by a friend. He re-establishes himself in a small town as a linen-weaver, where he again encounters misfortune. Finally, he finds hope in the form of a young girl, whom he adopts. The focus on misfortune and small-town life make this an exemplary realist work.
3.) A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen (1879)
In Ibsen’s play, originally written in Norweigan, housewife Nora hides her debt from her husband, Torvald. When Torvald discovers her secret, he is angry that she has harmed his reputation, despite the fact that she borrowed the money to save his life. She cannot overcome her disgust at his selfishness, and she leaves him and their children. The realist play was initially controversial for its frank portrayal of a dissatisfied and unconventional woman.
4.) The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (1881)
In this serialized novel, James tells the story of a young American woman, Isabel Archer, who inherits a large amount of money and becomes the victim of two scheming American expatriates. The novel explores the clash between the so-called New and Old Worlds through a realist lens, focusing on themes of personal responsibility, freedom, and corruption.
5.) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)
Mark Twain’s classic novel follows Huck Finn’s journey down the Mississippi River as he escapes from his abusive father. He travels with Jim, a young man who escaped slavery and is on the run. Adventures ensue as they encounter two conmen, and the story ends anticlimactically as Huck and his friend Tom Sawyer learn that Jim’s previous owner freed him, and Huck decides to continue traveling. This book is a classic work of American realism, focusing on the ugly realities and hardships of everyday people, including enslaved people like Jim.
6.) The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy (1886)
Tolstoy’s classic Russian novella tells the story of Ivan Ilyich, a high-court judge in Russia, who is dying of a terminal illness. As his suffering increases and Ilyich is forced to leave his job, which he has used over the years to escape his unhappy home life, Ilyich ponders what he has done to deserve such an end. The short realist work closely follows Ilyich’s emotional turmoil as he abruptly faces his mortality and the tenuousness of relationships in the face of hardship.
7.) Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1891)
This realist novel follows Tess, a peasant girl who is sent by her father to work for the noble d’Urberville family when he learns he may be a descendent. She is raped by Alec d’Urberville and gives birth to his child, who dies. Much later, she falls in love with the kind and loving Angel Clare; but he abandons her on the night of their wedding when he learns of her impurity. The novel becomes only more dismal from there, as Hardy takes a realist approach to the plight of the poor, and the harsh scrutiny of women in rural England.
8.) The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905)
Edith Wharton’s novel follows a high-society woman, Lily Bart, who has become impoverished. Lily knows she must marry well to maintain her status, but her prospects are becoming more limited as she grows older. The novel details her messy descent from privilege to poverty, and her desperate attempts to climb back up the social ladder until she finally is forced to confront her fate. Wharton presents a realistic portrayal of the pressures Lily faces and the dark side of New York’s high society.
Stay tuned for the next installments in this series to learn more about the literary movements that preceded and followed realism!