Guide to Literary Terms

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Realism

Realism - the theory of writing in which the familiar, ordinary aspects of life are depicted in a matter of fact, straightforward manner designed to reflect life as it actually is. Realism often presents a careful description of everyday life, often concerning itself with the lives of the so-called middle or lower classes. According to Henry James, the main tenet of realism is that writers must not select facts in accord with preconceived aesthetics or ethical ideals but, rather, record their observations impartially and objectively. Realism downplays plot in favor of character and to concentrate on middle-class life and preoccupations. It became an important tradition in theater through the works of Ibsen and Shaw, among others. However, realism is most often associated with the novel.

The term is from the Latin realis, meaning “belonging to the thing itself.”

The movement began in the mid-Nineteenth Century in reaction to the highly subjective approach of romanticism, which was produced in Europe and the United States from about 1840 until the 1890s. Mark Twain was one of the pioneers of realism in the United States; other prominent American realists include Henry James, Edith Wharton, and William Dean Howells.