The realist movement in literature first developed in France in the mid-nineteenth century, soon spreading to England, Russia, and the United States. Realist literature is best represented by the novel, including many works widely regarded to be among the greatest novels ever written. Realist writers sought to narrate their novels from an objective, unbiased perspective that simply and clearly represented the factual elements of the story. They became masters at psychological characterization, detailed descriptions of everyday life in realistic settings, and dialogue that captures the idioms of natural human speech. The realists endeavored to accurately represent contemporary culture and people from all walks of life. Thus, realist writers often addressed themes of socioeconomic conflict by contrasting the living conditions of the poor with those of the upper classes in urban as well as rural societies.
In France, the major realist writers included Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Émile Zola, and Guy de Maupassant, among others. In Russia, the major realist writers were Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Leo Tolstoy. In England, the foremost realist authors were Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Anthony Trollope. In the United States, William Dean Howells was the foremost realist writer. Naturalism, an offshoot of Realism, was a literary movement that placed even greater emphasis on the accurate representation of details from contemporary life. In the United States, Regionalism and local color fiction in particular were American offshoots of Realism. Realism also exerted a profound influence on drama and theatrical productions, altering practices of set design, costuming, acting style, and dialogue.
Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850)
Honoré de Balzac is recognized as the originator of French Realism in literature and one of the greatest novelists of the nineteenth century. Balzac was born Honoré Balssa on May 20, 1799, in Tours, France. He spent much of his adult life in Paris, where he frequented many of the notable literary salons of the day and began to use the last name de Balzac. Balzac supported himself through writing, typically spending fourteen to sixteen hours a day on his craft. He was a man of great charisma and lived to the excesses of life, abusing coffee and rich food in order to work longer hours. His life’s work comprises a series of some ninety novels and novellas collectively entitled La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy). Balzac died following a long illness on August 18, 1850, leaving his wife of five months with mountains of debt.
Charles Dickens (1812–1870)
Charles Dickens is known as an early master of the English realist novel and one of the most celebrated and most enduring novelists of all time. Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England, on February 7, 1812. He lived and worked in London as a law clerk, court reporter, and newspaper journalist. With the publication of his first novel, Pickwick Papers (1836), Dickens soon became the most popular author in England.
Dickens’s major novels include Oliver Twist (1838), Nicholas Nickleby (1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of ’Eighty (1841), The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation (1848), David Copperfield (1850), Bleak House (1853), Hard Times: For These Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1857), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Great Expectations (1861), and Our Mutual Friend (1865). His Christmas story A Christmas Carol (1843) remains an ever-enduring classic. Dickens died of a paralytic stroke in Kent, England, on June 9, 1870.
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881)
Fyodor Dostoevsky (also spelled Dostoyevsky) is known as a major author of Russian realist fiction and one of the greatest novelists of all time. Dostoevsky was born October 30, 1821, in Moscow, Russia. He received a degree in military engineering in 1843 but resigned his post in order to pursue a career in writing. His first published work was a translation from French into Russian of Balzac’s novel Eugénie Grandet. Dostoevsky’s original novella Bednyye lyudi (Poor Folk), published in 1846, immediately gained the admiration of the leading Russian writers and critics of the day.
In 1849 Dostoevsky was arrested for his association with a group of socialist intellectuals. After eight months in prison, he was given a death sentence and, along with several other prisoners, led out to be shot by a firing squad. However, at the last moment the sentence was reversed, and the prisoners were allowed to live; this mock-execution had been designed as a form of psychological torture. Dostoevsky was then sentenced to four years in a Siberian prison followed by six years in the army. After serving this ten-year sentence, he went on to a successful career as a novelist and journalist.
Dostoevsky’s fiction has had a profound influence on the literature, philosophy, psychology, and religious thought of the twentieth century. His novels are celebrated as masterworks of psychological Realism in their portrayal of individuals haunted by their own dark impulses. Dostoevsky’s greatest works include the novels Prestupleniye I nakazaniye (1866), translated as Crime and Punishment; Idiot (1868); Besy (1872), translated as The Possessed; Dnevnik pisatelya (1873–1877), translated as The Diary of a Writer; and Brat’ya Karamazovy (1880), translated as The Brothers Karamazov, as well as the novella Zapiski iz podpolya (1864), translated as Notes from the Underground. Dostoevsky died in St. Petersburg, Russia, on January 28, 1881, of complications from emphysema.
George Eliot (1819–1880)
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