Realism Themes

Major themes in Realism include class conflict, the city, philosophy and morality, and marriage and the family.

  • Class conflict: Many realist writers sought to depict the struggle between the rich and the poor.
  • The city: Realist writers often sought to capture the rapidly changing landscape of the modern city.
  • Philosophy and morality: Religion, philosophy, and morality are often central themes in realist novels.
  • Marriage and the family: Realist novels often focus on the dynamics of marriage and family life.


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Class Conflict
One of the major themes addressed by realist writers is socioeconomic class conflict. Many realist writers, in their efforts to depict characters from all levels of society, highlighted differences between the rich and the poor.

In David Copperfield, by Dickens, the main protagonist experiences the suffering of impoverished children forced to work in industrial factories. In Germinal, Zola focuses on the conflict between working-class miners and wealthy mine owners, which erupts in a labor strike. In the process, Zola considers various political theories about the conditions of the working class. In A Hazard of New Fortunes, Howells portrays characters from various places on the spectrum of American political thought who come into conflict over their efforts to start a magazine. In the end of A Hazard of New Fortunes, a young man is killed during the violence that erupts in a workers’ strike. In War and Peace, Tolstoy portrays conflicts between the Russian landowners and the serfs who work their land. Many realist authors thus addressed social, economic, and political concerns through their depictions of socioeconomic class conflict.

The City
Many realist novelists sought to depict various aspects of life in the rapidly industrializing nineteenth- century city. Balzac, in the novels of The Human Comedy, is often noted for his extensive and accurate portrayal of society, culture, and commerce in Paris during the mid-nineteenth century. Howells, in A Hazard of New Fortunes, has been praised for his detailed depiction of the diverse flow of human life in New York City. Dickens set much of his fiction in London, describing specific streets, buildings, and neighborhoods in his novels. Russian realist writers Tolstoy and Dostoevsky described various elements of society in Moscow and St. Petersburg in their novels. Realist fiction thus often has a documentary quality to the extent that these writers have accurately reported the details of a specific historical era in the development of the modern city.

Philosophy and Morality
Realist novelists often address the related themes of religion, philosophy, and morality in their works of fiction. While realist novels are known for their accurate descriptions of various physical details, many of them are also highly theoretical in their presentation of various religious and philosophical debates. The Russian realist Tolstoy, for example, included characters in his novels that grapple with complex questions regarding Christian faith and the meaning of life. The Russian realist Dostoevsky also created fictional characters who carry on extended philosophical discussions and debates about Christian morality. In such novels as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky was particularly concerned with the moral, ethical, and religious issues raised by characters who commit crimes such as murder and other acts of depravity. In a famous scene of The Brothers Karamazov, one character carries on an imaginary debate with the Devil, who visits him in the form of an aging gentleman. In Crime and Punishment a young man who has committed a murder that he justified by his philosophical reasoning later finds redemption through Christian faith.

Marriage and the Family
Realist novelists often focused on the dynamics of marriage and family life in different sectors of society. Extramarital affairs are the subject of such major works of realist fiction as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, both novels about married middle-class women whose affairs lead to social decline and suicide.

Realist fiction often focuses on several sets of families or couples within a single novel. Anna Karenina and War and Peace each focus on three families. Eliot’s Middlemarch also focuses on the family and marital dynamics within several different households. Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov focuses on four brothers (including one illegitimate half-brother) and their father, whom one of them has murdered. Dickens often wrote about orphans who were without family but who eventually find people who function as surrogate families. In their portrayals of marriages and families, realists explored various social and psychological factors contributing to the quality of domestic life in the nineteenth century.

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