Realism was a literary movement that became especially influential in nineteenth-century fiction, including American fiction of the second half of that century. Charles Chestnutt’s story “The Passing of Grandison” can be considered an example of “realism” in a number of ways, including the following:
- Its rejection of romanticism. Chesnutt’s story rejects romanticism not only in its emphasis on the grimly realistic fact of slavery but also because of its mocking presentation of Dick Owens’ courtship of Charity Lomax. Dick is anything but a swashbuckling romantic hero, and neither Charity nor the story’s readers are inclined to take him very seriously.
- Its avoidance of naivety or idealism in describing characters. All the characters in this story – but especially Dick and his father – are described in ways that emphasize their very human flaws and foibles. They are objects of humor rather than exalted heroes.
- Its emphasis on mundane motives. Dick doesn’t try to free Grandison because he is committed to any lofty ideals; he merely wants to convince the skeptical Charity to marry him. Charity, in turn, is not some naïve Southern belle; she is a shrewd and often sardonic observer of Dick’s various shortcomings.
- Its emphasis on dialect. This trait is especially obvious whenever Grandison or the other slaves speak.
- Its emphasis on everyday people and everyday events. Dick comes from a privileged family, but he is not an impressive, imposing aristocrat. He is simply a young man desperate to please an attractive young woman. As the narrator puts it in the very opening sentence of the work,
When it is said that it was done to please a woman, there ought perhaps to be enough said to explain anything; for what a man will not do to please a woman is yet to be discovered.
In other words, the narrator ascribes to Dick a realistic motive – a motive that many readers will recognize in themselves: the desire to impress a potential romantic partner.
- Its regionalism. The story is largely set in the south, but much of it also takes place in the north, and each region helps call attention, through contrast, to the other’s characteristics.
- Its emphasis on dialogue. Much of the humor of the story results from the credible language the characters use when speaking to one another. They speak as real people might, not like lofty characters declaiming on a stage.
- Its concern with realistic historical events, in this case the issue of slavery and the rise of abolitionism.