What is literary realism? In this article, our author discusses the genre and recommends 5 classics of literary realism to get started with below!
Realism is deeply entrenched in the veins of literature or any narrative. It goes beyond the specificities of a genre or style and even presents itself outside the realist framework. Whatever we read, whether fiction or non-fiction, is derived from a source that is all too human and grounded in reality, and that is the reason why the realist tradition can be traced even in fantasy. Realism as a genre depicts reality onto the pages without embellishment.
The realist movement perpetuated in the 19th century in both visual art and literature as a response to the romantic sensibility of 18th-century, which during the last decades changed its form from ‘romanticism’ to ‘dark romanticism’, the shift depicting how the same romanticised vision overlooks how scary the same all nurturing nature can be, however, realism while alienating itself from the heightened atmosphere of doom and supernatural, paints a picture that is proportionately terrifying and beautiful, as life is the combination of the same.
What makes the genre – realism – distinct and fascinating is its focus on the mundane. What the genre strives to do is highlight how the ignored, neglected, so-called ordinary is just as worthy (even more) of representation as the aristocracy. The radar of realism was worldwide, and its impact was a turning point in literature, art, and even the political scenario to some extent. Famous painters like Ilya Repin, Edouard Manet, and Gustave Courbet, and writers like Gustave Flaubert, John Steinbeck, Honore de Balzac, and so on were famously the upholders of the genre.
Here are 5 books belonging to the genre of literary realism that would make you question or cherish the atmosphere you are situated in:
Nirmala by Munshi Premchand
Nirmala is a classic Hindi novel penned by the renowned Indian author Munshi Premchand, first published in 1928. It vividly embodies the reality of early 20th-century India, offering a window into the life of its central character, Nirmala, a young woman ensnared by the deeply rooted social norms and patriarchal traditions of the era. The story kicks off with Nirmala’s marriage to an elderly widower named Totaram, an arrangement driven by her family’s financial struggles. As the narrative unfolds, Nirmala unflinchingly explores the harsh realities faced by women in a highly conservative and oppressive society. It masterfully captures Nirmala’s pain, inner turmoil, and the silent sacrifices she endures in the face of an unloving and oppressive marriage.
What makes Nirmala a realist novel is its unvarnished depiction of the societal challenges of its time. Premchand’s storytelling is firmly rooted in the raw truths of early 20th-century India, where child marriages, dowries, and the subordinate status of women prevailed. The novel effectively exposes the complex web of social and economic pressures that constrained individuals and families, ultimately revealing the stark consequences of such customs.
The Black Sheep (La Rabouilleuse) by Honoré de Balzac
Balzac’s The Black Sheep is a significant work that embodies the core principles of realist literature. It offers a vivid and biting portrayal of human ambition, family dynamics, and the constraints imposed by society in 19th-century France. At its heart, the novel revolves around the intense rivalry between two brothers, Joseph and Philippe Bridau, as they compete for an inheritance. Joseph is a character driven by ambition, yet he’s morally ambiguous and eager to climb the social ladder, often resorting to unscrupulous methods. In stark contrast, Philippe, the ‘black sheep’ of the family, is a talented artist with a strong moral compass, but he becomes a victim of his brother’s conniving schemes. Balzac masterfully highlights the stark differences between these two characters and delves into their interactions within the broader context of French society.
The novel’s realist qualities shine through in its meticulous character development, the exploration of social class and ambition, and its unvarnished portrayal of the harsh realities of life during that era. Balzac’s acute observations and his dedication to capturing the virtues and flaws of his characters make The Black Sheep a compelling and insightful work of realist literature. It fearlessly dissects the complexities of human nature, the pursuit of ambition, and the intricate dynamics of familial relationships, securing its place as a timeless masterpiece within the realist literary tradition.
Diary of a Madman by Lu Xun
Diary of a Madman, also known as A Madman’s Diary, is a seminal work by the acclaimed Chinese writer Lu Xun (pen name of Zhou Shuren). Published in 1918, this short story is a foundational piece in modern Chinese literature and is often regarded as a critical step toward literary realism. The story is presented in the form of a diary and revolves around the descent into madness of the narrator. It vividly portrays the cultural and societal maladies of early 20th-century China, specifically critiquing Confucianism, traditional family structures, and the prevalent cannibalistic metaphor that symbolizes the oppression and backwardness of society.
Diary of a Madman unflinchingly portrays societal issues and its objective, unsentimental tone. Lu Xun exposes the ills of a rigid and decaying society, offering a stark, unadulterated critique. He employs a first-person narrative that takes readers into the mind of the madman, creating an intimate exploration of the protagonist’s deteriorating mental state and the disturbing truths he uncovers.
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady is a quintessential realist novel, delving deep into the intricacies of the human psyche and the societal constraints of the late 19th century. The book offers an insightful critique of personal freedom, societal expectations, and the role of women in that era. At its core is the story of Isabel Archer, a spirited and independent young American woman who inherits a fortune and embarks on a journey to Europe in search of self-discovery and independence. Her quest leads her into a complex web of relationships and choices, where the novel meticulously examines the inner lives of its characters and the intricacies of their motivations.
It presents a rich and realistic portrayal of the upper-class societies of America and Europe during the 19th century. Henry James’s’ elegant prose and keen social observations collectively make this novel a masterpiece of realist literature, celebrated for its enduring relevance in understanding the human condition.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, published in 1857, is a seminal work in the literary realism tradition. The novel tells the story of Emma Bovary, a young woman who is dissatisfied with her provincial life in 19th-century France and seeks escape from the mundanity of her existence. To escape her unfulfilling marriage to Charles Bovary, Emma embarks on a series of adulterous affairs, indulging in a life of luxury and extravagance that she believes will bring her happiness.
The novel’s realist qualities are vividly displayed through Flaubert’s meticulous attention to detail, character development, and critical examination of the mores of the time. Madame Bovary depicts the reality of Emma’s disillusionment and her relentless pursuit of unattainable romantic ideals, which ultimately lead to her downfall. Flaubert’s narrative style is characterised by its objective and unsentimental tone, providing an unflinching portrayal of Emma’s descent into moral and financial ruin. The novel’s focus on the mundane and often harsh realities of provincial life (as well as its critical depiction of the societal norms and moral values of the time) aligns Madame Bovary squarely with the realist tradition. It remains a timeless masterpiece, illustrating the consequences of unbridled desires and the stark consequences of living outside societal boundaries.