Definition of Realism
Realism is a movement in art, which started in the mid nineteenth century in France, and later spread to the entire world. Realism entered literature at almost at the same time. Its real objective was to root out what is called fantastic and romantic in literature and art, to insert what is real.
In literature, writers use realism as a literary technique to describe story elements, such as setting, characters, themes, etc., without using elaborate imagery, or figurative language, such as similes and metaphors. Through realism, writers explain things without decorative language or sugar-coating the events. Realism is something opposite to romanticism and idealism. Read on to learn more about realism in literature.
Examples of Realism in Literature
Example #1: The Cherry Orchard (by Anton Chekhov )
VARYA. There’s been an unpleasantness here while you were away. In the old servants’ part of the house, as you know, only the old people live – little old Efim and Polya and Evstigney, and Karp as well … Then I heard that they were saying that I had ordered them to be fed on peas and nothing else; from meanness, you see. … So I call Evstigney. … [Yawns] He comes. “What’s this,” I say, “Evstigney, you old fool.”… [Looks at ANYA] Anya dear! [Pause] … My darling’s gone to sleep!”
This monologue looks like a rambling and an idle complaint. However, it reveals many things about Anya, Varya, and their situation at home. It presents a perfect example of social realism, as it exemplifies old feudal order slowly giving way to a rapidly growing mercantile and capitalistic middle class.
Example #2: The Rape of the Lock (by Alexander Pope)
“The Rape of the Lock” reflects cultural and social realism of the aristocratic society during the eighteenth century. The people of that aristocratic society were mainly urban, with flow of money gained from commerce and trade. They spent a great deal of time in back biting, idle gossip, love games, and playing card games.
Pope has presented details of daily routine of such gentle men and women in an amusing way. Belinda and Lord Peter are representatives of that society. Pope describes Belinda’s preparation in front of a dressing table in an amusing and ironic way. Many people consider her dressing table a sacred place of worship. He gives minute details of how ladies are concerned to enhance their beauty by artificial methods.
Example #3: Adam Bede (by George Eliot)
“Adam Bede” is one of the best examples of Victorian literature that aims to highlight social realism. Victorian society was rigid and afflicted with prejudices and bigotry against women. This realism includes the elements of realistic presentation – highlighting the poor people, and reflecting on their problems by setting them in the rural background, and presenting their religious and the moral sense.
Social gap was another issue in that society. As in the novel, the remnants of feudalism were still alive in Hayslope society. Hetty belonged to the working class and was madly in love with Arthur Donnithorne, who belonged to a feudal class. This held a certain charm for the people of the working class. She wanted to marry him, to be the wife of an honorable feudal man. However, her fantasy was destroyed, as it lead to a tragic end. This left a deep mark on the psyche of Hayslope inhabitants. Hetty’s personal accident suggests the harsh reality of a society that faces two unequal and different classes, as they try to unite due to emotions rather than reason.
Example #4: The Crucible (by Arthur Miller)
In his play, “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller presents realism, which is based on making his character appearing lifelike figures. Miller has created a chain of events to demonstrate iconic realism by using characterization, language, and dialogue. He has chosen a story of human interaction to describe his own concern for the cultural future of the United States, and humanity at large.
It is true that the witch trials in Salem actually happened, and people such as Rebecca and John Proctor were killed. The murders of these innocent people have a powerful impact on readers, not because of the author’s style, but because of the horrifying subject matter. Miller’s use of language is also very powerful, especially where the judges and the accusers twisted ideas and words to create contrasts and paradoxes from which the accused could not escape. This was the reality of life at that time.
Realism attempts to illustrate life without romantic subjectivity and idealization. It focuses on the actualities of life, and truthfully treats the commonplace characters of everyday life. The purpose of using realism is to emphasize the reality and morality that is usually relativistic and intrinsic for the people as well as the society. This sort of realism makes the readers face reality as it happens in the world, rather than in the make-believe world of fantasy.
Michael Lydon, a well-known writer on popular music since the 1960s, has for many years also been writing about writing. Lydon's essays, written with a colloquial clarity, shed fresh light on familiar and not so familiar aspects of the writing art. Here Lydon shines a light on literary realism, the style by which writers "make the imaginary real and the real imaginary."
When a writer achieves the praiseworthy feat of making imaginary life believable in prose, we call his or her fiction realism. Realism, remember, is an illusion. In the world of sticks and stones, a novel is a paper brick, good for propping open a window; Anna Karenina never lived that she could throw herself under the wheels of a train.
Two pairs of assumptions, shared by writer and reader, support realism's illusion like stout poles that brace backdrops in a theatre.
The first pair are the assumptions of reporting:
There is a world we all know
Writing can describe it.
It is a sunny afternoon in early summer. In our window boxes pink and red zinnias bob contentedly in a light breeze. Across the street a man walks by, his head tilted back to look at the sky. Another man walks down the middle of the street opening a knapsack as he goes.
This realistic writing paints a selective but accurate picture of real life, and its assumptions make possible news writing, history, biography, autobiography, and technical texts. The value of realistic writing depends on how well it accords with the facts. A history book that declares Galileo discovered America in 1066 is as useless as a geography book that says rivers run uphill.
Realism blends realistic writing with imaginative writing, using the paired assumptions of make-believe:
Words can create their own world.
That world is whatever the words say it is.
The city lay locked in blue flame as raindrops streaked from bone-dry streets to the blood green sky. Three giraffes smoked ice cubes and talked baseball. A man with nine legs and one enormous ear said, "No one's coming home yesterday." The city became a small purple pea pod.
I made this imaginative writing purposely preposterous, yet look how real its silliness appears! We read and, willy-nilly, we try to paint a picture from the words. You may have never seen giraffes smoking ice-cubes before, but now you can! Imaginative writing makes possible fiction, fable, fantasy, and fairy tale, and its value depends on the pleasure it gives the reader.
Realistic writing keeps realism's feet on the ground of what did happen; imaginative writing lets realism leap into magical realms where anything can happen. For example:
"And here," said Great Aunt Matilda, entering the parlor, "is my greatest treasure, the Ming vase dear Arthur brought me from Peking. Priceless, of course, and the sentimental value."
"Oh, yes," Mary said dutifully.
Just then a red rubber ball bounded into the room followed by Mary's chubby son John running with his baseball bat. Crash! went John into the vase, smashing it into a thousand pieces.
This is realism: as believable as the observed scene, as make-believe as the imagined scene. The characters, action, and place sketched never existed, but they could have. One reader will make John's hair blond, another brown, but all readers will agree on the scene's essential elements because all share the four assumptions on how words work and what life is like.
Realism can vary the realistic-imaginative blend over a wide range. Above, for instance, if we make Aunt Matilda Queen Elizabeth and Mary Lady Di, the passage becomes a fictional moment in the lives of real people. Or a maid could come in crying, "President Kennedy's been shot, I heard it on the radio," thus attaching the fiction to a real day in history. We could go the other way and make Matilda Queen Zotha and Arthur Prince Plegar who brought back a sacred zaponar from Planet Alforg. We could make them all frogs in a pond, or leave them humans but let magic enter their lives:
The pieces of the vase began to whirl in the air until they melted into the shape of smiling Chinese genie who bowed low before the astonished John.
"Master, how may I serve you?"
All these varieties of realism blend the four assumptions. The most realistic is still imaginary, the most imaginary still described as if it were real. Calling Matilda Elizabeth, Zotha, or Granny Frog is simple word substitution. The central illusion of the example stays the same: two adults see a child break a valuable object. As long as the writing makes that illusion believable, it is realism.
We could stop our Matilda-Mary-John story at the crash or jump to another scene, leaving the reader hanging with the vase's flying fragments. If we continue, what next? Matilda could scream with horror, have a heart attack, or sob with relief at the release from a secret burden. Mary could protect or punish John, and he could laugh, cry, or run away. We could also continue:
"That's lovely, John," said Aunt Matilda. "And now, tea! Do take a watercress sandwich, Mary, they're delicious."
Unless that tells Mary and us that Matilda has gone deaf, blind, or mad, the writing is no longer realism: Matilda wouldn't ignore her beloved vase being smashed! The words still follow each other matter-of-factly on the page, but the illusion they create no longer rests solidly on its assumptions. In the world of words the writing is illogical; in the world of fact it's not true to life.
If Matilda doesn't mind John breaking the vase, she's denying her calling it a "treasure" moments before; she's not acting as the person we first met would act. Her denial makes the scene illogical: an explosive cause has no effect. This B doesn't follow A; it contradicts A.
These logical breakdowns make the picture the writing paints harder to visualize than the wildest fantasy. I can easily fly to Planet Alforg or dive into the frog pond, but my mind refuses to bridge the gap between the breaking vase and Matilda's oblivious response. As I read, I question the scene's reality. My answer: "No, people aren't like that, that's not how life works."
Thus realism fails, a failure all too common, I fear, in writing of every era: novels whose characters tread the boxy lanes of their author's outline, mysteries solved with mechanically placed clue sentences, books that copy other books in stereotyped genres, romances in which heroines adore heroes who boast the strength of ten. They may charm us on first reading, but next time through we realize, "No, this writing isn't true to life." Whether the product of shallow vision, weak skills, or commercial pressure, failed realism is at best half-alive and soon enough will die.
Succesful realism, in contrast, embraces life and wrests from it immortal art. Or tries to, for the great realists, Homer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dreiser, and so many more, have raised the bar to challenging heights: to write to make the imaginary real and the real imaginary; to create a world of words that can be seen as plainly, and believed in as firmly, as we can see and believe the world around us; to weave illusions both factual and fanciful, lifelike and logical, believable and beguiling. Most who attempt realism fail, and only time will tell who has surely won the crown of laurel.