What is Realism in Literature? Books for the Every Day Person

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The day was August 14, 2005. I borrowed a book from my 12 year old nephew. It had a dragon on the cover. I had officially become a complete dork.

My life was spinning out of control. I had spent my life ridiculing the Star Trek Convention, fantasy literature, and King Arthur’s knights with my football teammates at lumberjack camps. Now, I was reading books with dragons on the front. It was time for a change. I needed a return to realism.

I spent the next few weeks reading George Eliot, William Dean Howells, Henry James, Jack London, and Henrik Ibsen.

Definition of Realism in Books

A break from Romanticism, Realism is any effort to portray life as it truly is. In the middle of the 19th century, kings and queens, warriors and knights, demonic cats, ghosts, sea creatures, and monsters gave way to farmers, merchants, lawyers, laborers, and bakers. Realism in literature was part of a wider movement in the arts to focus on ordinary people and events

The following Realism writers find themselves oft anthologized in high school and middle school texts:

  • Ambrose Bierce
  • Kate Chopin
  • Stephen Crane
  • Theodore Dreiser
  • W.E.B. Dubois
  • Mary Wilkins Freeman
  • Hamlin Garland
  • Henry James
  • Jack London
  • Mark Twain
  • Charles Dickens
  • Emily Bronte
  • George Eliot
  • Oscar Wilde
  • John Steinbeck

Characteristics of Realistic Fiction

Still need some help? These characteristics are dead give aways you’re reading realism:

  1. Realists take their subject matter from ordinary life. Realists were influenced by the spread of democracy in Europe and North America. Middle and lower class citizens were becoming increasingly important. Detailed settings became important as a means of establishing the realistic nature of main characters and places. Dialect became popular as did an emphasis on local color.
  2. Realists placed an emphasis on characters. As democracy spread, so did the importance of the individual. As individuals became more important in the “real” world, characters became more important in Realist literature. Character, not plot, is the essence of Realism Literature.
  3. Realists concerned themselves with ethical issues. As with all literature, the conflict often involves a moral dilemma faced by one of its participants. In Realism Literature, this dilemma had to be portrayed accurately, honestly, and in detail. Realists avoided preachiness.

Practice or Essay Ideas

  • Analyze characters with a Strength and Weakness chart. Realism Literature incorporates characters with ordinary struggles that ordinary people relate to.
  • Judge characters. This could take the form of a pros/cons chart or can be as elaborate as a mock trial. Trifles by Susan Glaspell is an excellent often anthologized play for holding a mock trial.
  • Identify characteristics of Realism. Find several passages for students to analyze. Most high school texts have several stories that qualify.

This post is part of the series: Literary Movements

These brief descriptions of literary movements make an easy day of notes for you. Cut and paste. I don’t care.

  1. Let’s Be Realistic: What Puts Literature in the “Realism” Category?
  2. American Literature: American Romanticism Overview
  3. Modernism in Literature: Quick Overview
  4. Naturalism in Literature
  5. Overview of British Romanticism & Poets from That Era