American Literary History: Romanticism, Realism and Naturalism

Romanticism |Realism | Naturalism | Definitions | Works Cited

    Realism 1861- 1914 (American Realism 1865-1890): An artistic movement begun in 19th century France. Artists and writers strove for detailed realistic and factual description. They tried to represent events and social conditions as they actually are, without idealization.

    This form of literature believes in fidelity to actuality in its representation. Realism is about recreating life in literature. Realism arose as an opposing idea to Idealism and Nominalism. Idealism is the approach to literature of writing about everything in its ideal from. Nominalism believes that ideas are only names and have no practical application. Realism focused on the truthful treatment of the common, average, everyday life. Realism focuses on the immediate, the here and now, the specific actions and their verifiable consequences. Realism seeks a one-to-one relationship between representation and the subject. This form is also known as mimesis. Realists are concerned with the effect of the work on their reader and the reader's life, a pragmatic view. Pragmatism requires the reading of a work to have some verifiable outcome for the reader that will lead to a better life for the reader. This lends an ethical tendency to Realism while focusing on common actions and minor catastrophes of middle class society.

    Realism aims to interpret the actualities of any aspect of life, free from subjective prejudice, idealism, or romantic color. It is in direct opposition to concerns of the unusual, the basis of Romanticism. Stresses the real over the fantastic. Seeks to treat the commonplace truthfully and used characters from everyday life. This emphasis was brought on by societal changes such as the aftermath of the Civil War in the United States and the emergence of Darwin's Theory of Evolution and its effect upon biblical interpretation.


  • Emphasis on psychological, optimistic tone, details, pragmatic, practical, slow-moving plot
  • Rounded, dynamic characters who serve purpose in plot
  • Empirically verifiable
  • World as it is created in novel impinges upon characters. Characters dictate plot; ending usually open.
  • Plot=circumstance
  • Time marches inevitably on; small things build up. Climax is not a crisis, but just one more unimportant fact.
  • Causality built into text (why something happens foreshadowed). Foreshadowing in everyday events.
  • Realists--show us rather than tell us
  • Representative people doing representative things
  • Events make story plausible
  • Insistence on experience of the commonplace
  • Emphasis on morality, usually intrinsic, relativistic between people and society
  • Scenic representation important
  • Humans are in control of their own destiny and are superior to their circumstances

Sub Genres:

  • International novel--uses two or more continents; contrast of cultures gives character his identity. Innocent American Vs experience of Europe.
  • Novel of manners--external focus on manners, customs of particular class at particular time.
    • Deals with people in society.
    • Writers uses customs for characterization
American Realists:
European/International Realists:

Henry James
Rebecca Harding Davis
Sarah Orne Jewett
Mark Twain
William Dean Howells
Ambrose Bierce

Gustave Flaubert (French)
Guy de Maupassant (French)
Anton Chekhov (Russian)
George Eliot (English)






Resources on Realism:

Created by: Carol Scheidenhelm, Ph.D.
Director, Learning Technologies and Assessment
Loyola University Chicago

Last updated: August 14, 2007