The realist movement in literature exerted a profound influence on the literature of France, Russia, England, and the United States in the mid- to latenineteenth century. During this period, each of these nations experienced major political and social upheavals as well as periods of relative stability and liberal social reform.
The nation of France went through several major social and political upheavals during the second half of the nineteenth century. In the Revolution of 1848 the Emperor Louis-Phillipe was deposed as a result of a popular uprising, and his nine-year old grandson named as the new emperor of a new parliamentary government known as the Second Republic. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the more famous former emperor and military commander Napoleon Bonaparte, was elected the first president of the Second Republic. Louis-Napoleon ruled as president of France from 1848 until 1852. However, because the French constitution stated that no president could serve more than one fouryear term, Louis-Napoleon staged a coup of his own government at the end of his term so that he could remain in power. In 1852, Louis-Napoleon proclaimed the Second Empire of France and had himself named Emperor Napoleon III. Napoleon III ruled the Second Empire until 1871, when a popular revolt heralded the end of the Second Empire and the beginning of the Third Republic, ruled by a popularly elected president. The Third Republic of France...
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The term narrative voice refers to the way in which a story is told. Many realist writers sought to narrate their fictional stories in an omniscient, objective voice, from the perspective of a storyteller who is not a character in the story but rather an invisible presence who remains outside the realm of the story. Realist writers hoped thereby to create accurate portrayals of objective reality. The French realists in particular—Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, and Maupassant—sought to describe the subject matter of their fiction in clear, detailed, accurate terms, devoid of judgment or moralizing on the part of the narrator.
Setting is an important element of Realism in literature. Realist writers sought to document every aspect of their own contemporary cultures through accurate representations of specific settings. Realist novels were thus set in both the city and the country, the authors taking care to accurately portray the working and living conditions of characters from every echelon of society. Thus, realist novelists documented settings from all walks of life in major cities such as London, Paris, New York, Boston, Moscow, and St. Petersburg. The living and working conditions of peasants and serfs in rural settings throughout England, Russia, and France were also represented in great detail by major realist authors.
Realist writers also set their fictional stories in the midst of specific...
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Naturalism was an important offshoot of Realism, although many critics agree that the differences between the two movements are so minimal that Naturalism is actually a subcategory of Realism. In fact, the two terms are often used interchangeably. Naturalism extended and intensified the tenets of Realism in that the naturalist writers sought to apply the evolutionary principles of Charles Darwin to their fiction. They believed that the course of each individual’s life is determined by a combination of his or her hereditary traits and the historical and sociological environment into which she or he was born. Each character is thus essentially a victim of circumstance and has little power to change the course of his or her life.
The naturalist writers, spearheaded by the French novelist Zola, extended the values of Realism to even greater extremes of objectivity in their detailed observations and descriptions of all echelons of contemporary life. Zola’s 1880 article “The Experimental Novel,” the manifesto of literary Naturalism, describes the role of the author as that of a scientist examining a specimen under a microscope. In 1880 Zola edited the volume Evenings at Médan, a collection of stories by six authors in his circle of naturalists who met regularly at his home in Médan. Followers of Zola’s school of Naturalism include Maupassant and Joris-Karl Huysmans in France as well as the German playwright Gerhart...
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Compare and Contrast
1840–1900: France experiences several major changes of government. With the Revolution of 1848, France enters the era of the Second Republic. From 1852 until 1870, the French government is known as the Second Empire. After the revolution of 1871, France enters the era of the Third Republic which lasts until 1940. During the periods of Republic, all adult males in France are granted the right to vote in political elections. Women in France do not have the right to vote.
Today: Since 1959, the French government is known as the Fifth Republic, a constitutional democracy ruled by an elected president. Women as well as men have full voting rights. France is a member of the European Union, an organization of some fifteen European nations united by common economic and political interests to promote peace, security, and economic prosperity.
1850–1900: Russia is an empire ruled by a succession of autocratic czars. In 1861 a major societal reform is enacted with the emancipation of the serfs.
Today: Russia has recently emerged from the era of communist rule, which lasted from the revolution of 1917 until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Women and men have full voting rights. Since 1991 the former Soviet Union consists of some twelve independent nation states, of which Russia is the largest and most powerful. The nations of the former Soviet Union belong to a coalition known as the Commonwealth of...
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Topics for Further Study
The Parnassian poets were a major offshoot of the realist movement in literature. Research one of the following poets of the Parnassian movement: Leconte de Lisle, Albert Glatigny, Theodore de Banville, François Coppée, Leon Dierx, or Jose Maria de Heredia and provide a brief biography of this poet as well as an overview of his literary career and major works. Discuss how the poet empolys the elements of Realism in the poem.
The realist movement in literature was first inspired by the paintings of the French artist Gustave Courbet, particularly his paintings “The Stone-Breakers” and “Burial at Ornans.” Learn more about the life and work of Courbet. Write an essay providing a biography of Courbet and overview of his artistic career. Then describe one of his paintings and explain the elements of Realism in the painting.
Realism in literature developed simultaneously with major developments in still photography during the second half of the nineteenth century. Research the history of photography between 1830 and 1900. What major technical discoveries and inventions characterized photography during this period? What types of photographs were being taken during this period? Find reproductions of early photographs from this period and discuss the style of photography in comparison to photography in your own time and culture.
Write a short story and apply the ideals and major stylistic elements of Realism to your fiction....
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Anna Karenina (1875–1877), by the Russian realist writer Leo Tolstoy, is considered one of the greatest novels of all time. The story concerns the intrigues of three Russian families: the Oblonskys, the Karenins, and the Levins. In the Oblonsky family, the husband, Stiva, is unfaithful to his wife, Dolly. The Oblonskys are the subject of Tolstoy’s famous opening line in Anna Karenina: “All happy families resemble each other; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The Karenin family is disrupted when Anna Karenina (the feminine version of the last name Karenin) leaves her husband and child because of an affair she is having with Aleksey Vronsky, a young military officer. The third element of Anna Karenina concerns the young Konstantin Levin and his courtship of Dolly’s sister Kitty. The character of Konstantin embodies one of Tolstoy’s major philosophical values: that the best life is lived through the daily events of honest work, a stable family and domestic situation, and that intellectualizing about life is useless.
“Ball of Fat”
“Ball of Fat,” originally “Boule de suif” is considered the masterpiece of Guy de Maupassant. “Ball of Fat” was first published in 1880 in Les Soirees de Médan (Evenings at Médan), a volume of stories by six different authors writing on the subject of the Franco-German war of 1870–1871.
In “Ball of...
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The many realist novels of Charles Dickens have been adapted to film for theaters as well as for television in a variety of productions dating as far back as the 1930s. David Copperfield was adapted to film in 1935 (with George Cukor directing) and in 1970 (with Delbert Mann directing).
Many of Dickens’s novels have been recorded on audiocassette. David Copperfield was recorded by Media Books Audio Publishing in 1999 with Ben Kingsley reading. In 2002, a twenty-six cassette edition was released by Audio Partners Publishing Corp. with Martin Jarvis as the reader.
The major works of Dostoevsky have also been adapted to film in several different productions as well as being recorded on audiocassette. Crime and Punishment was adapted to film in two different productions in 1935 (one of these a French production) as well as a Russian production in 1970.
An audiocassette recording of Crime and Punishment was read by Michael Sheen for Naxos of America in 1994.
Many of Eliot’s novels have been adapted to film and recorded on audiocassette. Middlemarch was adapted to film as a made-for-television movie, directed by Anthony Page, in 1994.
Middlemarch, read by Nadia May, was recorded on audiocassette by Blackstone Audio Books in 1994.
Flaubert’s Madame Bovary has been adapted to film many times. The first English version appeared in 1949 and was...
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What Do I Read Next?
Howells and the Age of Realism (1954), by Everett Carter, provides discussion of author and literary critic William Dean Howells and his significance to the development of Realism in American literature.
Kate Chopin is one of the most important realist writers of nineteenth-century fiction. Her most famous work is The Awakening (1899), a story about a woman’s self-discovery and growing sexuality in the American South.
Introduction to Russian Realism (1965), by Ernest J. Simmons, is a collection of essays on Realism in Russian literature and includes essays on Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov.
The Alienation of Reason: A History of Positivist Thought (1968), by Leszek Kolakowski, provides a history of positivism in nineteenthcentury thought. Positivism was an important influence on the development of the realist movement in literature.
Mark Twain, the pen name for Samuel Langhorne Clemens, was a pioneer in the use of realistic speech patterns, notably through the use of dialectical speech. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer’s Comrade (1884) are good illustrations of his use of dialect.
Romanticism and Realism: The Mythology of Nineteenth-Century Art (1984), by Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner, offers discussion of Romanticism and Realism in nineteenth-century art.
“Middlemarch”: A Novel of...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Pasco, Allan H., “Honoré de Balzac,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 119: Nineteenth-Century French Fiction Writers: Romanticism and Realism, 1800–1860, edited by Catharine Savage Brosman, Gale Research, 1992, pp. 3–33.
Snow, C. P., The Realists: Eight Portraits, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978, p. xi.
Wolfe, Tom, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel,” in Harper’s, November 1989, pp. 45–56.
Brown, Frederick, Zola: A Life, Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1995. Brown provides a biography of Émile Zola who was a preeminent writer of French realist fiction and the founder of the naturalist school of literature.
Hornback, Burt G., “The Hero of My Life”: Essays on Dickens, Ohio University Press, 1981. Hornback offers a series of essays in which he explains what Dickens has to teach readers about freedom, love, friendship, tragedy, and the powers of the imagination. Hornback focuses primarily on the novel David Copperfield, with additional discussion of Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Hughes, Kathryn, George Eliot: The Last Victorian, Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1998. Hughes provides a biography of English realist novelist George Eliot in the context of English culture and society during the Victorian era....
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