Broadly defined as "the faithful
representation of reality" or "verisimilitude," realism is a literary
technique practiced by many schools of writing. Although strictly
speaking, realism is a technique, it also denotes a particular kind of
subject matter, especially the representation of middle-class life. A
reaction against romanticism, an interest in scientific method, the
systematizing of the study of documentary history, and the influence of
rational philosophy all affected the rise of realism. According to
William Harmon and Hugh Holman, "Where romanticists transcend the
immediate to find the ideal, and naturalists plumb the actual or
superficial to find the scientific laws that control its actions,
realists center their attention to a remarkable degree on the immediate,
the here and now, the specific action, and the verifiable consequence"
(A Handbook to Literature 428).
Many critics have suggested that
there is no clear distinction between realism and its related late
nineteenth-century movement, naturalism. As Donald Pizer notes in his
introduction to The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and
Naturalism: Howells to London, the term "realism" is difficult to
define, in part because it is used differently in European contexts than
in American literature. Pizer suggests that "whatever was being
produced in fiction during the 1870s and 1880s that was new,
interesting, and roughly similar in a number of ways can be designated
as realism, and that an equally new, interesting, and roughly similar
body of writing produced at the turn of the century can be designated as
naturalism" (5). Put rather too simplistically, one rough distinction
made by critics is that realism espousing a deterministic philosophy and
focusing on the lower classes is considered naturalism.
American literature, the term "realism" encompasses the period of time
from the Civil War to the turn of the century during which William Dean
Howells, Rebecca Harding Davis, Henry James, Mark Twain, and others
wrote fiction devoted to accurate representation and an exploration of
American lives in various contexts. As the United States grew rapidly
after the Civil War, the increasing rates of democracy and literacy, the
rapid growth in industrialism and urbanization, an expanding population
base due to immigration, and a relative rise in middle-class affluence
provided a fertile literary environment for readers interested in
understanding these rapid shifts in culture. In drawing attention to
this connection, Amy Kaplan has called realism a "strategy for imagining
and managing the threats of social change" (Social Construction of
American Realism ix).
Realism was a movement that encompassed the
entire country, or at least the Midwest and South, although many of the
writers and critics associated with realism (notably W. D. Howells)
were based in New England. Among the Midwestern writers considered
realists would be Joseph Kirkland, E. W. Howe, and Hamlin Garland; the
Southern writer John W. DeForest's Miss Ravenal's Conversion from
Secession to Loyalty is often considered a realist novel, too.
(from Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition)
Renders reality closely and in comprehensive detail. Selective
presentation of reality with an emphasis on verisimilitude, even at the
expense of a well-made plot
# Character is more important than action and plot; complex ethical choices are often the subject.
Characters appear in their real complexity of temperament and motive;
they are in explicable relation to nature, to each other, to their
social class, to their own past.
# Class is important; the novel has
traditionally served the interests and aspirations of an insurgent
middle class. (See Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel)
# Events will
usually be plausible. Realistic novels avoid the sensational, dramatic
elements of naturalistic novels and romances.
# Diction is natural vernacular, not heightened or poetic; tone may be comic, satiric, or matter-of-fact.
Objectivity in presentation becomes increasingly important: overt
authorial comments or intrusions diminish as the century progresses.
# Interior or psychological realism a variant form.
In Black and White Strangers, Kenneth Warren suggests that a basic
difference between realism and sentimentalism is that in realism, "the
redemption of the individual lay within the social world," but in
sentimental fiction, "the redemption of the social world lay with the
The realism of James and Twain was
critically acclaimed in twentieth century; Howellsian realism fell into
disfavor as part of early twentieth century rebellion against the
W. D. Howells. As editor of the Atlantic Monthly and of Harper's New
Monthly Magazine, William Dean Howells promoted writers of realism as
well as those writing local color fiction.
Other Views of Realism
basic axiom of the realistic view of morality was that there could be
no moralizing in the novel [ . . . ] The morality of the realists, then,
was built upon what appears a paradox--morality with an abhorrence of
moralizing. Their ethical beliefs called, first of all, for a rejection
of scheme of moral behavior imposed, from without, upon the characters
of fiction and their actions. Yet Howells always claimed for his works a
deep moral purpose. What was it? It was based upon three propositions:
that life, social life as lived in the world Howells knew, was valuable,
and was permeated with morality; that its continued health depended
upon the use of human reason to overcome the anarchic selfishness of
human passions; that an objective portrayal of human life, by art, will
illustrate the superior value of social, civilized man, of human reason
over animal passion and primitive ignorance" (157). Everett Carter,
Howells and the Age of Realism (Philadelphia and New York: Lippincott,
"Realism sets itself at work to consider characters and
events which are apparently the most ordinary and uninteresting, in
order to extract from these their full value and true meaning. It would
apprehend in all particulars the connection between the familiar and the
extraordinary, and the seen and unseen of human nature. Beneath the
deceptive cloak of outwardly uneventful days, it detects and endeavors
to trace the outlines of the spirits that are hidden there; tho measure
the changes in their growth, to watch the symptoms of moral decay or
regeneration, to fathom their histories of passionate or intellectual
problems. In short, realism reveals. Where we thought nothing worth of
notice, it shows everything to be rife with significance."
-- George Parsons Lathrop, 'The Novel and its Future," Atlantic Monthly 34 (September 1874):313 24.
is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of
material.” --William Dean Howells, “Editor’s Study,” Harper's New
Monthly Magazine (November 1889), p. 966.
"Realism, n. The art of
depicting nature as it is seen by toads. The charm suffusing a
landscape painted by a mole, or a story written by a measuring-worm."
--Ambrose Bierce The Devil's Dictionary (1911)