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Realism Literature Under the Lens of Artistic Movements

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What is Realism Literature?

The realist literary movement came about in the latter half of the 19th century as a reaction to the ideals of the Romantic period which preceded it. While the works of Romantic authors were characterized by an emphasis on imagination and emotion, the Realists were primarily concerned with depicting life as a portrayal of reality —unpredictable, ambiguous and complex. Realist writing was characterized by its attentiveness to detail and its focus on character (rather than plot) development. What is more, the founding authors of the Realist literary movement, among them George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert and Leo Tolstoy, were lauded for promoting a new form and style of writing; their work was laden with ‘frame narratives’ (stories contained within stories), and complex psychological dilemmas as manifested in the changing perceptions of happiness, inner conflicts and constant struggles with self-image and identity of notable characters such as Emma Bovary in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856) and Anna Karenina in Leo Tolstoy’s widely acclaimed book entitled Anna Karenina.

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Realist writers sought to be as objective as possible in their writing simply to promote their goal of presenting reality in its crude form. Although writers of previous periods often told their stories through omniscient narrators, the narrators of realist works tended to be unreliable and often misinformed—a deliberate effort on the part of realist writers to show that nothing is known for certain and facts are constantly changing, becoming multi-dimensional in nature. Realist authors, however, were remarkably generous when it came to providing detail; their writings were marked by elaborate descriptions and in-depth observations, many of which had little bearing on the progression of the novel’s plot. For this reason, some would call realist writing “dull” or “depressing” in comparison to that of the preceding period—yet it is the very use of such details that allowed authors of the period to stay true to their ultimate cause which was to portray life, in all its drabness or excitement, as realistically as possible with only the pen in their hands.

Conditions within Society

The 19th century proved to be an era of transition for Europe in various regards, and realist literature reflected this. With the doubling of the continent’s population during the 1800s, mass exoduses began to occur in various nations as large numbers of previously self-sustaining rural residents opted to migrate to cities and metropolitan areas in search of opportunities and ultimately, a better quality of life. These large-scale movements also hastened the pace of industrialization, aided in part by the improvement of transportation technologies. Railroads became essential to the lives of many, with realist author Leo Tolstoy conveying the significance of these railroads through multiple allusions to trains in his 1877 work Anna Karenina.

The increased mobility provided by these trains and other modes of transportation also resulted in a greater interconnectedness within European society as a whole. With people now able to travel freely and therefore associate with those of varying backgrounds, the formerly rigid class structure prevalent during previous centuries began to give way in favour of the emergence of a newly realized middle class, or, the bourgeoisie. Many realist authors demonstrated this shift in societal hierarchy through their novels’ focus, with the protagonists of their works not belonging to the aristocracy, but rather being common people, in common situations. At the forefront of this movement for inclusivity was father of the realism, Honoré de Balzac, whose most eminent work, La Comédie humaine was written with the intent of portraying “all aspects of society,” a trend continued by his successors.

Furthermore, not only were all aspects of society beginning to become increasingly considered, but similarly so were all aspects of the mind. Advances in the field of psychology were occurring simultaneously alongside the advances of the European people as a whole. Within the psychological community of the mid-1800s arose a greater appreciation for the degree of complexity of the mind, taking into account its various processes in relation to each other, and the collective impact of these processes on the human psyche. This proved central to the characterization of protagonists within realist works, as they were presented as multidimensional characters that, like their creators and those around them in the real world, existed not merely within a good/bad dichotomy, but rather as complex human beings with intricate drives and ambitions.

Stendhal (1783-1842)

Stendhal, the pen name of French author Marie-Henri Beyle, was considered one of the earliest and foremost important realist authors. He was especially well known for his detailed analysis of his characters’ psychology in his novels where he explored psychological and historical dimensions. He was one of the first authors to include extensive descriptions of character psychologies that included feelings, thoughts and inner monologues. Stendhal strived to create works that focused on interior characterization that drove external action. He wasn’t content with realism novels that only state the actions of the characters. Instead, Stendhal wanted to explain the motivation behind every action and to delve deeper into the minds of characters. As a result, he is considered the father of psychological realism.

One of Stendhal’s most famous psychological novels is Le Rouge et le noir. Set in France after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and during the restoration of the monarchy, the novel tells the story of Julien Sorel’s, the main character’s, life in a monarchic society with rigid social class implications. Split into three books, the plot follows Julien as he attempts to climb the social ladder. Having been brought up as the son of the carpenter and identifying as a romanticist, Julien doesn’t let his modest upbringing deter him from rising socially through talent and hard work. He eventually becomes a private secretary of the prominent de la Mole family. However, despite moving among high society, the family and their social circles snub Julien for being a commoner. After being betrayed both romantically and socially, Julien realizes the materialistic society of the Bourbon Restoration: French society cannot accept a low-born man of superior intellect and sensibility simply because he possesses neither material wealth nor social connections.

By setting the novel during the Bourbon Restoration, Stendhal is able to weave themes of idealistic Republicanism and realistic politics of counter-revolutionary conspiracies. Throughout the novel, he questions the sincerity of those who are aware of having to play a role to gain social approval and the hypocrisy they display. Unlike realism novels before that had an omniscient narrator, Le Rouge et le noir was one of the first novels to feature subjective realism which was a restricted point of view to that of the protagonist at only the given moment. This added to the novel as it provided a conscience to justify or explain and action or feeling. This technique can be found in numerous modern novels.

Honore de Balzac (1799-1850)

Honore de Balzac was a French journalist, author, playwright, literary critic, art critic, essayist and printer. He has influenced novelists such as Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe and Gustave Flaubert. Balzac paid specific attention to detail and unfiltered representation of society and is often considered as one of the founders of realism in Europe. He often incorporated elements of his own life experiences, creating La Comédie humaine, a multi-volume collection of novellas that depicted French society during the Bourbon Restoration and the July Monarchy. It was his unbiased and straight-forward depiction of the private lives of his characters that classified him as a realist author.

The collection had many sections that covered numerous themes such as money, power, social success, family and France after the Revolution. One section of the collection, Scènes de la ve Parisienne, featured one of Balzac’s most influential works: Le Père Goriot. Set in Paris after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and after the monarchy was restored back to the throne, the novel depicts the growing tension between the aristocracy who existed during King Louis XVIII’s reign and the Bourgeoisie who were the products of the Industrial Revolution. It follows the life of law student Eugène de Rastignac who wants to move up in society. He lives in a boarding house with an elderly retired man named Jean-Joachim Goriot who is often ridiculed by the other tenants because he has bankrupted himself to support his two emerging upper-class daughters. Rastignac has difficulty fitting in with the aristocrats but is able to enlist the help of his cousin Madame de Beauséant. He meets Delphine, one of Goriot’s daughters, and is encouraged by Goriot to pursue her despite Delphine being married. Eventually Goriot is overcome with grief at his own impotence after he learns the true nature of his daughters and dies alone. Le Père Goriot focuses on social stratification, corruption and family relations. Balzac tries to convey the process of moral degradation in order to obtain power and to redefine the definition of family as a means to a financial end. He also states obligations of the older generations to the younger generations through the form of deprivation and sacrifice.

The novel’s use of meticulous and abundant detail was the first time such detail was ever found in literature; this technique distinguished Balzac’s work in the literacy realm. Today, realism literature is known for its elaborate descriptions and serious characters that try to accurately depict life as it was.

George Eliot (1819-1880)

George Eliot, the pen name for Mary Anne Evans, was an English novelist, journalist and translator. She was one of the most prominent and influential realism authors in the Victorian Era. Forced to adopt a male pen name in a male-dominated society, Eliot was able to escape the stereotype of women only being able to write romances. She provided the female perspective of issues of her time that were highlighted in her novels.

An example of this is her novel Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life that illustrated many of the problems within society. Middlemarch is considered Eliot’s masterpiece as a product of past successes and is lauded by Virginia Woolf as “one of the few English novels written for grow-up people.” It involves multiple plots told from the perspectives of a large cast of characters and deals with their delusions in a society with underlying themes of gender status, the true nature of marriage, idealism and self-interest, hypocrisy, political reform and education. Through the voices of said characters, Eliot is able to discuss then-current events such as the Great Reform Bill, the expansion of railways, the death of King George IV, and the state of contemporary medical science.

However, what made Middlemarch different from the other realism novels was its relatively happy ending. Eliot believed in the morality of humankind and used this belief as a framework for the merciful and compassionate interactions among her characters. The characters had opportunities to make good decisions and used mentoring figures to provide guidance during rough situations. While those who made the “right” decision were awarded, those who made selfish or vain decisions were punished with disappointment, disaster or even death.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)

The son of a family of doctors, Flaubert was a Frenchman who grew to become one of the most acclaimed writers of realist literature in all of Europe. He travelled frequently during his career, often drawing from events such as the Revolutions of 1848 to shape the underlying ideas of his writing. Flaubert was known for candidly remarking to his fellow novelist George Sand that “the age of politics was over”, perhaps claiming that the Bourgeoisie-dominated state would soon fall apart. Interestingly enough, he himself was a member of the bourgeoisie, yet his work tended to empathize with the people representing different lower classes.

Flaubert composed multiple novels before his death in 1880, but Madame Bovary, published in 1856, remains his most acclaimed piece. The novel features Emma Bovary, a young doctor’s wife who is consumed by her desire to lead a luxurious upper-class life. Through Emma, Flaubert juxtaposes romanticism with realism, emphasizing how romantic visions of life rarely come to fruition. In many ways, Flaubert’s depiction of Emma’s unsuccessful pursuit of happiness is a testament to the predicament of women in 19th century Europe. While male characters in the novel leave her small village in France to pursue their career goals, Emma is confined to her role as a subservient housewife. What is more, when her experiences as a wife and mother do not live up to her expectations, she has to confront the crude reality that she would have no choice but to live a drab, provincial life. Flaubert brings out countless realist ideas through his work: Emma’s accumulation of massive debts, for example, illustrates the idea that actions have consequences. Her fruitless affairs destroy her unrealistic ideas about love and her hopes for a more exciting life. By the end of the novel, Emma has committed suicide, her husband has died of depression, and her orphaned daughter is shipped away to work in a cotton mill; all of these events clearly manifest Flaubert’s view of the harsh realities of life.

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was a Russian novelist, playwright and essayist. As the son of an aristocrat, he received a proper education; he was influenced by one of his tutors who beat him to oppose violence for the rest of his life. Known for his moralistic views, he identified as being a moral thinker and social reformer. As a realism author, he believed that the aristocracy were a burden on the working class and that the only solution to this was an anarchical society.

War and Peace is an epic that depicts the story of Russian Society during the Napoleonic wars. It thoroughly explains in articulate detail the impact of the French invasion and Napoleonic influence on Tsarist Russian society, as seen through the eyes of five Russian aristocratic families. It includes over 500 characters with around 160 real persons. In relation to realism, Tolstoy artfully points out the recording of history as a sophism – much like the Achilles and the tortoise analogy. If one were to arbitrarily examine small elements of motion, it would seem that Achilles would never pass the tortoise. The idea of continuous motion must be incorporated to reach the true solution. Similarly, history is continuous, arising as it does from innumerable human wills. However, it is examined as arbitrarily as the ancients would motion in two ways. The first, taking an arbitrarily selected series of continuous events and then proceeding to examine it as apart from others. The second is to consider the actions of one man (such as a king) as equivalent to the sum of many individual wills. Tolstoy points out the ultimately false nature of history, as it is both continuous and the result of millions of individual chains of cause and effect too small to be individually examined. This question of history is captured perfectly by the quote: “Man in connection with the general life of humanity appears subject to laws which determine that life. But the same man apart from that connection appears to be free. How should the past life of nations and of humanity be regarded—as the result of the free, or as the result of the constrained, activity of man? That is a question for history.” (Epilogue 2, Ch. VIII)

Anna Karenina, another book by Tolstoy, describes the tragedy of married aristocrat and socialite Anna Karenina as a result of her affair with the affluent Count Vronsky. Vronsky is willing to marry her if she would agree to leave her husband Karenina, a government official, but she is vulnerable to the pressures of Russian social norms, her own insecurities and Karenin’s indecision. Anna is harshly shunned, becoming further isolated and anxious. As Vronsky pursues his social life, she grows increasingly possessive and paranoid about his “imagined” infidelity. Anna pleas for forgiveness, though to no avail, ultimately resulting in her committing suicide by throwing herself under a moving train. Naturally arising from the story, whether or not explicitly, are the themes of hypocrisy, jealousy, faith, fidelity, family, marriage, society, progress, desire, passion, contrast between agrarian and city lifestyles. Themes that all relate to the lives of real people every day. One of the most haunting quotes in this book, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” captures the theme of family, specifically broken families.

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