Historical Context

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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 remained relatively stable until 1940 when, during World War II, Germany invaded and occupied France. During periods of the various French Republics, all adult males in France were granted the right to vote in political elections.

The Russian government was one of the few in Europe that remained relatively stable throughout the nineteenth century. While revolutions swept through Europe in the year 1848, the Russian Empire experienced no such political upheaval. Russia during this time was ruled by a succession of autocratic czars. Czar Alexander II ruled during the period of 1855 to 1881, when he was assassinated in a car bombing by an anarchist activist. Czar Alexander III ruled from 1881 to 1894. The last Emperor of Russia was Czar Nicholas II, who ruled from 1894 until the Russian Revolution of 1917, when he and his family were assassinated. A major social reform took place in Russia in 1861, when the peasant serfs, who were essentially slaves under the control of wealthy landowners, were legally emancipated and granted the right to own land.

England during the nineteenth century was characterized by the long reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901, known as the Victorian era. While the Queen remained the sovereign ruler of England, much of the nation’s politics were carried out by parliament under a prime minister. Toward the end of the century, the office of prime minister became the predominant political force in England, as the role of the queen in national politics receded into the background.

Throughout the nineteenth century the English government diffused revolutionary pressures by passing a series of major reforms, including the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1885. These reforms included numerous changes in public policy and political structure, significantly expanding access to education, protecting the rights of laborers, and widening the sphere of political enfranchisement. Through expanded voting rights, an increasingly large segment of the adult male population was granted the right to vote in political elections. In addition, slavery was abolished in 1833. Toward the end of the century, organizations pressing for women’s voting rights began to gain momentum.

United States
Although the United States has remained stable as a constitutional democracy with an elected president ever since the American Revolution of 1776, not every citizen in the nation had equal rights during the nineteenth century. In the beginning of the century, only white men had the right to vote. Until the end of the Civil War, most African Americans in the United States were slaves to white southern plantation owners. Because they were not considered full citizens, slaves did not have the right to vote. The United States experienced major social and political rupture in the mid-nineteenth century during the Civil War. In the Civil War the southern states rebelled against the United States government under President Lincoln and the northern states over the issue of slavery. The Civil War ended with victory by the North and the U.S. government thus ending the institution of slavery in the United States.

The period after the Civil War is known as the era of Reconstruction, during which the South faced many social and political struggles over issues of race and the rights of the African Americans newly released from slavery. During this period, a constitutional amendment granted all adult males the right to vote, regardless of race. Women, however, were still denied the right to vote, and a national movement to lobby for women’s right to vote, eventually known as the woman’s suffrage movement, gained momentum.

Literary Style

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Narrative Voice
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 historical events of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities is set during the French Revolution. The volume Evenings at Médan comprises six short stories by six different authors, all set during the Franco-German war of 1870–1871. Eliot’s Middlemarch is set in a fictional town in the context of major political debates over social reform which took place in England during the first half of the nineteenth century. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is set in the historical context of the Napoleonic wars between Russia and France during the early 1800s.

Many realist writers have been celebrated for their masterful creation of a wide range of characters from all walks of life. Balzac, in his novel series The Human Comedy, sought to create an encyclopedic range of characters representing every aspect of contemporary French society. In some ninety novels making up The Human Comedy, Balzac created over three thousand different fictional characters. Balzac was also innovative in his use of the same characters within different novels, so that a character who is the protagonist of one novel may show up as a minor character in another novel.

Zola, inspired by Balzac’s The Human Comedy, represented many aspects of French society through his twenty-volume series The Rougon- Macquarts, which centers on one family over several generations. Howells, inspired by the French and Russian realists, included in his novel A Hazard of New Fortunes fifteen main characters, each representing different places on the spectrum of American political thought. Dickens is also known for his many unforgettable characters, such as the miserable miser in A Christmas Carol, who have become enduring figures in Western culture.

Realist novelists are also celebrated for the impressive psychological detail by which their fictional characters are portrayed. Dostoevsky and Flaubert, in particular, are known for their mastery at delving into every nuance of a character’s psychology in order to explain the complex array of factors which contribute to the motivation of that character. In their efforts to represent characters from all walks of life, realist novelists were masterful in their use of dialogue, capturing regional dialects as well as differences in the speech patterns of people from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Movement Variations

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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 Hauptmann and the Portuguese novelist Jose Maria Eca de Queros.

The influence of Naturalism was not seen in American literature until the later writers Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser. Naturalism also found its proponents and practitioners in theater and painting.

The Parnassian Poets
The Parnassian poets who emerged in France during the 1860s were another offshoot of the realist movement in literature. The term Parnassian comes from the title of an anthology of poetry to which major poets of this movement contributed; the anthology Le Parnasse Contemporain was published in three separate volumes between 1866 and 1876.

The Parnassian poets developed their ideals as a reaction against the emotional outpouring of Romantic poetry. In their poetry, the Parnassians strove for emotional restraint and precise, objective descriptions of their subject matter. The leader of the Parnassian poets was Leconte de Lisle. Other major poets of the Parnassian movement include Albert Glatigny, Theodore de Banville, Francois Coppée, Leon Dierx, and Jose Maria de Heredia. The Parnassians exerted a significant influence on the poetry of Spain, Portugal, and Belgium.

American Regionalism and Local Color Fiction
In the United States, during the post-Civil War era, important subcategories of Realism were Regionalism (also called Midwestern Regionalism) and local color fiction. The regionalist authors were mostly from the Midwestern United States and wrote stories focused on the hardships of rural Midwesterners as well as the inhabitants of the Midwestern city of Chicago. Important regionalist authors include Hamlin Garland, Theodore Dreiser, and Sherwood Anderson. Local color fiction, which is very similar to Regionalism, focuses on the local customs, traditions, dialects, and folklore of small town and rural America. Important local color writers include Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Kate Chopin.

Realism in Painting
The most important artist associated with Realism was the French painter Gustave Courbet (1819–1877). Courbet’s works of art were the primary inspiration for the development of Realism in literature. Courbet broke new ground in painting when he depicted the realities of workers and peasants in stark, unromanticized images. Courbet put forth the ground-breaking idea that art should accurately represent unadorned reality and the common man, rather than idealized images. His most famous paintings include “The Stone-Breakers” (1849), which depicts two men performing manual labor in a rural setting, and “Burial at Ornans” (1849), which depicts the funeral of a peasant and includes over forty individual figures. Because of his daring break with artistic standards, Courbet fought an uphill battle for recognition by the art world. In 1855, rejected by a major exhibition in France, Courbet put on his own exhibition of paintings that he labeled “realist.” Courbet’s Realism became a profound influence on many writers as well as artists throughout Europe. Realism exerted a major influence on nineteenth-century painting in the United States, where it was most notably practiced by Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins. Realism continued to exert a profound influence on various schools of painting of the early-twentieth century.

Compare and Contrast

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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 Independent States.

1850–1900: England is ruled by a parliament and prime minister under a sovereign queen. As of 1833 slavery has been abolished in England. Various reform laws vastly expand the number of white men granted the right to vote. Women in England do not have the right to vote.

Today: England is ruled by a prime minister and parliament. The queen remains an important figurehead but holds little real political power. Women and men have full voting rights. England is a member of the European Union, a fifteenmember organization of European nations united by common social, economic, political, and security interests.

1850–1900: The United States is a constitutional democracy ruled by an elected president. It experiences major internal conflict during the Civil War. After the Civil War, slavery is abolished and all African-American men are granted the right to vote. Women do not have the right to vote.

Today: The United States government has remained a stable democracy since the revolution of 1776. Women and men have full voting rights.

Representative Works

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Anna Karenina
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 Fat,” a prostitute is traveling by coach with several other passengers, all of them French, to flee German occupation of the city of Rouen. At first the other passengers are friendly with the prostitute because she has food which they want her to share with them. When they stop for the night at a hotel, a German military officer threatens to not let them continue their journey unless the prostitute satisfies his lust. Not wanting to consort with the enemy, the prostitute at first refuses to consent to his wishes. However, in order to ensure their own safe passage, the other passengers manipulate her into giving in to the German officer. Afterwards, the other passengers ostracize the prostitute for succumbing to the officer. “Ball of Fat” is a notable example of Maupassant’s mastery at economical composition in the short story form.

Crime and Punishment
Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment), by the Russian realist writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, is considered one of the greatest novels of all time. In Crime and Punishment a young intellectual, Raskolnikov, uses philosophical reasoning to justify his plan of murdering an old woman for her money. After the murder, however, Raskolnikov is filled with a sort of spiritual dread. Meanwhile, a detective who believes Raskolnikov to be the murderer manipulates him into confessing his crime. When Raskolnikov is convicted and sent to prison in Siberia, the woman who loves him, Sonya Marmeladova, follows him to live near the prison. Influenced by Sonya, Raskolnikov experiences a religious conversion while in prison. Dostoevsky is celebrated for his detailed psychological study of the character Raskolnikov, tracing the complex and minute factors which motivate his crime.

David Copperfield
David Copperfield (1849–1850), by the English realist writer Charles Dickens, remains one of his most popular and most enduring novels as well as being the author’s personal favorite. David Copperfield is a semi-autobiographical work in which Dickens used material from his own childhood and early adulthood to narrate the life of a fictional character. David Copperfield is most noted for the early chapters describing childhood experiences. Among these is a description of Dickens’s experience of being taken out of school as a child to work in a factory in London while his father was imprisoned for unpaid debts. In David Copperfield, Dickens addresses the social injustices of urban poverty and industrial labor.

The novel Germinal (1885) is considered the masterpiece of Émile Zola, a French realist writer and the originator of the school of Naturalism in literature. Germinal takes place in a mining town and portrays the socioeconomic tensions between the working-class miners and the upper-class mine owners. The novel depicts the effects of a workers’ strike on the mining community and addresses major political theories of the day, such as Marxism, socialism, and trade unionism. Zola uses the metaphor of a monster to describe the coal mine, which devours the workers who enter it. In Germinal, Zola accurately represents the conditions of the two separate social spheres as well as tackling important political debates regarding inequalities in socioeconomic class.

A Hazard of New Fortunes
A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), by the foremost American realist writer, William Dean Howells, is regarded as one of his most important novels. A Hazard of New Fortunes takes place in New York City and concerns a group of people trying to start a magazine. Howells was inspired by his reading of Tolstoy’s War and Peace to write a long novel, wide in scope and containing many characters. The result includes fifteen major characters and is notable for Howells’s depiction of many sectors of society in New York City during the 1890s as well as his rendering of the flow of life in a city teeming with people. Howells expressed strong socialist views in A Hazard of New Fortunes, and many of the characters represent differing points on the spectrum of American political opinion.

The Human Comedy
The Human Comedy, originally La Comédie humaine (1842–1855), is the collective title for a grouping of some ninety novels and novellas by Honoré de Balzac. In his fiction, Balzac portrays all levels of French society with impressive accuracy. He is noted for the vast number of different characters created in his fiction, numbering some three thousand throughout The Human Comedy. Balzac introduced the literary device of including many of the same characters in several different novels. In managing this diverse range of characters, Balzac was a master of characterization, portraying in minute detail the psychological and sociological minutiae that make up each individual’s personality and determine his or her actions. The Human Comedy addresses themes of socioeconomic class, ambition, and obsession.

Madame Bovary
Madame Bovary (1857), by Gustave Flaubert, is considered to be the cornerstone of realist fiction and one of the most eminent novels ever written. Madame Bovary is the story of a middle-class woman whose extramarital affairs lead to tragedy. Madame Bovary was first published in installments in a magazine in 1856. In 1857 Flaubert was taken to court by the French government on the grounds that the story was considered immoral. However, his lawyer convincingly defended his case and Madame Bovary was published in book form soon afterward. The novel is noted for Flaubert’s narrative objectivity and the psychological detail by which he accounts for the course of events initiated by his characters.

Middlemarch (1871–1872), by George Eliot, is considered the masterpiece of a major English realist writer and one of the greatest novels of all time. Middlemarch is set in a small fictional town in rural England and is noted for the detail with which Eliot depicts characters from all walks of life. While Middlemarch includes many major characters, the central figure of the story is Dorothea, a young woman who marries an older clergyman and religious scholar because she hopes to do something meaningful with her life. One of Eliot’s major themes throughout the novel concerns the idea that the seemingly insignificant lives of seemingly insignificant individuals can have a profound effect on the people around them. Middlemarch is considered a landmark in the development of the novel, elevating the form to a higher level of intellectual complexity.

Media Adaptations

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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 directed by Vincente Minnelli. Tim Fywell directed a made-fortelevision version in 2000.

Madame Bovary was recorded by New Millennium Audio, read by Glenda Jackson, in 2002.

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was adapted to film in 1935, starring Greta Garbo; in 1947, starring Vivien Leigh; in 1974, as a ballet; and in 1985, starring Christopher Reeve.

Anna Karenina was recorded on audiocassette by Bantam Books for the “BBC Radio Presents” series in 1999.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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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.

Further Reading
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.

Robb, Graham, Balzac: A Life, Norton, 1994. In this biography, Robb provides extensive discussion of Balzac’s novels in relation to the events of his life.

Thomas, Alan, Time in a Frame: Photography and the Nineteenth- Century Mind, Schocken Books, 1977. Alan offers an overview of popular subject-matter in nineteenth-century photography, including individual and family portraiture, travel photography, historical documentation, landscapes, and daily life.

Wilson, A. N., Tolstoy, Norton, 1988. Wilson provides a comprehensive biography of Russian realist novelist Leo Tolstoy.

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