The Return of a Private

by Hamlin Garland

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How does "The Return of a Private" exemplify Realism in literature?

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The story is both realistic and romantic.

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Garland's story is both realistic and romantic. It is realistic in not glorifying or turning away from the fate of poor farmers returning from the Civil War. They have been injured and worn out by the war. They are thin and hungry, and nobody is there to greet them or...

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cheer them on at the train station. As the narrator notes:

Three of them were gaunt and brown, the fourth was gaunt and pale, with signs of fever and ague upon him. One had a great scar down his temple; one limped; and they all had unnaturally large bright eyes, showing emaciation. There were no bands greeting them at the stations, no banks of gaily dressed ladies waving hand-kerchiefs and shouting "Bravo!" as they came in on the caboose of a freight tram into the towns that had cheered and blared at them on their way to war.

They are treated differently, the narrator notes, from generals and colonels. Private Smith, especially, is filled with worries, so that the sweetness of coming home is "mingled the bitter juice of care." Although he has given so much for his country, Smith knows he is returning to a mortgaged farm and much hard work, with little hope of ever getting ahead.

Smith also thinks of the price paid by other soldiers, such as his friend Billy Tripp, who was killed when a "ball" tore a hole in his heart.

We also learn of Smith's wife, Emma, who is longing for her husband's return. She greets a thin, worn husband and we learn:

The common soldier of the American volunteer army had returned. His war with the South was over, and his fight, his daily running fight, with nature and against the injustice of his fellow men was begun again.

For all the realism about the poor soldier's fate, it must be noted that Garland also romanticizes this soldier by depicting him idealistically with a great deal of dignity and in the best possible light. The story also has sentimental characters like the Widow Gray, who though poor, is all generosity and kindness. The story, in the end, is a blend of the realistic and the romantic.

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The Realist movement illustrated life as it really was. The authors of this period did not wish to hide anything regarding real life. Instead, these authors wished to illustrate the good and the bad in life (refusing to "influence" the actions of the characters). They wished to show readers what life was really like without romanticising it in any way. 

Hamlin Garland's "The Return of the Private" illustrates real life. Garland's choice of words and dialect show that he truly wishes to depict life as it is. For example, Garland uses language true to the area he uses for his setting: "'back to God's country'" and wile and babies." 

The men on their way home from New Orleans, the "vets" are tired and worn out. Garland shows the reality of worn out soldiers (gaunt, grimy, and scarred). The men talk of how hard "dollars come," raising snakes, and fighting men. 

Garland refuses to "sugarcoat" (make pleasant) or provide "rose-colored glasses" for his reader (make things seem better than they are). He illustrates the real trials and tribulations the men face on their way home and after arriving there. Life is not easy and Garner's text illustrates this. Essentially, Garner acted as an observer of life and showed life through his writing very honestly and realistically. 

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