Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1735
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)
George Eliot is the pen name of Mary Ann (or Marian) Evans, one of the most outstanding novelists of English Realism. Eliot was born in Warwickshire, England, on November 22, 1819. After the death of her mother, Eliot took on the role of her father’s caretaker. After her father died, she moved to London to support herself as a freelance writer and editor. There, she became acquainted with a circle of free thinkers, including some of the major philosophical and literary minds of the day, such as Herbert Spencer. Eliot’s major works include Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Middlemarch (1871–1872), and Daniel Deronda (1876). Eliot died suddenly of heart failure in London, England, on December 22, 1880.
Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880)
Gustave Flaubert is known as the cornerstone of French Realism and is celebrated as one of world literature’s greatest masters of literary style. Flaubert was born on December 12, 1821, in Rouen, France. He spent most of his adult life at his family estate in Croisset, where he devoted his life to writing. Flaubert became acquainted with many of the important writers of the day, including George Sand, Émile Zola, Alphonse Daudet, Guy de Maupassant, and Ivan Turgenev. His major works include the novels Madame Bovary (1857), Salammbo (1863), and L’Education sentimentale (1869; Sentimental Education: A Young Man’s History), as well as the volume Trois Contes (1877), a compilation of three short stories. Flaubert died from a stroke in Croisset on May 8, 1880.
William Dean Howells (1837–1920)
William Dean Howells is considered the foremost American realist writer of the nineteenth century. Howells was born March 1, 1837, in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio. In 1860 he wrote a biography of thenpresidential candidate Abraham Lincoln. After Lincoln was elected, Howells was given a consulship in Venice, Italy, which he held from 1861 to 1865. Upon returning to the United States, he worked as assistant editor of the Atlantic Monthly magazine from 1866 until 1871, then as chief editor until 1881.
Howells earned distinction as a highly influential literary critic, championing the realist writing of American authors Henry James, Mark Twain, and Stephen Crane as well as European authors Ivan Turgenev, Henrik Ibsen, Leo Tolstoy, and Émile Zola. Howells’s major works include A Modern Instance (1882), The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), Annie Kilburn (1888), and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890). Howells died in New York City, New York, on May 11, 1920.
Guy de Maupassant (1850–1893)
Guy de Maupassant is known as a major practitioner of Naturalism and Realism in literature and one of the greatest short story writers of all time. Maupassant was born August 5, 1850, near Dieppe, France. When the Franco-German war broke out in 1870, he left law school to serve in the military effort. When the war ended in 1871, Maupassant continued his law studies and began a career in the French bureaucracy. Maupassant developed an important literary apprenticeship under Gustave Flaubert, who also served as a father figure. Flaubert introduced the young writer to major literary figures of the day including Émile Zola, Ivan Turgenev, Edmond de Goncourt, and Henry James.
With the publication of his story “Ball of Fat” (1880), Maupassant gained immediate literary success and was able to quit his job in order to write full time. He went on to publish some three hundred short stories and six novels as well as several nonfiction books and a volume of poetry. Maupassant’s major volumes of short stories include La maison Tellier (1881), translated as The Tellier House; Mademoiselle Fifi (1883); Contes de la bécasse (1883), translated as Tales of the Goose; Clair de lune (1884); Les soeurs Rondoli (1884), translated as The Rondoli Sisters; Yvette (1884); Toine (1886); Le Horla (1887); Le rosier de Madame Husson (1888), translated as The Rose- Bush of Madame Husson; and L’Inutile beauté (1890), translated as The Useless Beauty. His most important novels include Une vie (1883), translated as A Woman’s Life; Bel-Ami (1885), translated as Good Friend; and Pierre et Jean (1888), translated as Pierre and Jean.
As a result of syphilis, Maupassant suffered increasing mental and psychological instability. He died in a nursing home on July 6, 1893, at the age of forty-two.
Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910)
Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy (also spelled Tolstoi) is known as a major Russian realist writer and one of the most eminent novelists of all time. Tolstoy was born in the Tula Province of the Russian Empire on September 9, 1828. His mother died before he was two years old. By the time Tolstoy was nine, his father had also died. Tolstoy’s first publication, Detstvo (1852; Childhood), is a nostalgic work of fiction based on these early years of his life.
In the early 1850s, Tolstoy joined the military and fought in the Crimean War of 1853–1856. In the late 1870s, he experienced a religious conversion and developed ideas of Christian faith that were at odds with the Russian Orthodox church, from which he was excommunicated in 1901. His religious ideas included a devotion to nonviolence that later influenced Mahatma Gandhi, the great twentieth-century Indian nationalist and proponent of nonviolent resistance.
Tolstoy’s greatest novels are Voini i mir (1869; War and Peace) and Anna Karenina (1877). His Smert Ivana Ilicha (1886; The Death of Ivan Ilyich) is considered one of the greatest examples of the novella, or short novel form. He died of pneumonia in the province of Ryazan on November 20, 1910.
Émile Zola (1840–1902)
Émile Zola, one of the greatest novelists of all time, was the founder of Naturalism in literature, which was a further development of Realism. Zola was born in Paris, France, on April 2, 1840, and grew up in Aix-en-Provence in southern France. Zola’s father died when Zola was still in grade school. After his first novel was published in 1865, Zola quit his job as a clerk at a publishing company in order to support himself as a writer. Inspired by Balzac’s The Human Comedy, Zola set out to write what became a twenty-novel series entitled Les Rougon-Macquart (The Rougon-Macquarts).
Zola became associated with the painters Paul Cézanne (a boyhood friend) and Edouard Manet as well as the French Impressionist painters Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Pierre-August Renoir. He also became acquainted with major literary figures of the day including Gustave Flaubert, Edmond Goncourt, Alphonse Daudet, and Ivan Turgenev. In 1880 Zola oversaw the publication of a collection of short stories by six naturalist authors entitled Les Soirées de Médan (Evenings at Médan), after the location of his home at Médan, outside of Paris, where his circle of naturalists met.
In 1888 Zola became famous for his literary intervention in the Dreyfus Affair, a highly controversial political issue that dominated French political debates for twelve years. In an article entitled “J’Accuse” (“I Accuse”), Zola defended the rights of a Jewish military officer, Alfred Dreyfus, who had been falsely accused of espionage. Zola has since been celebrated as a champion against anti- Semitism and an important influence on French public opinion. Zola died of accidental asphyxiation in Paris, France, on September 29, 1902.
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