What is Literary Realism?

'Any method is right, every method is right, that expresses what we wish to express, if we are writers; that brings us closer to the novelist's intention if we are readers. This method has the merit of bringing us closer to what we were prepared to call life itself'

Woolf, Virginia. 'Modern Fiction'. Collected Essays, vol. 2, Hogarth Press, 1966, p. 108.
Literary conventions are stylistic, thematic and/or conceptual markers, traits or characteristics, in the form of literary devices, motifs, and aesthetic effects, which serve as the rules whereby a text is constructed and received.

The conventions of literary realism serve the following functions :

  • To engender an appearance or sense of the real, i.e. an impression of realism.
  • To support the text's representation of reality at not only a stylistic level, but also a conceptual level, i.e. the attitudes of literary realism.
Both functions need to be present to indicate literary realism. Arguably, all works of fiction attempt to engender the appearance of the real. The presence of the appearance of the real is therefore not enough, but most be accompanied by thematic and conceptual conventions, i.e. devices that support the attitudes of literary realism.

Literary realism is a non-static genre which has evolved over the years. This means there is much variety and experimentation within the genre, including the conventions. In some manifestations of literary realism, some conventions are entirely absent or dismissed. It can therefore not be expected that all are present nor consistent.

It should be noted that the modes of naturalism and magical realism significantly deviate from the standard of literary realism in regards to conventions.

The conventions of literary realism may be identified as following :

Subject Matter

In literary realism, all subject matter is valid subject-matter to be treated seriously in a literary context. This is a reliable convention which reflects the understanding that all things are beautiful and the focus of art.

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Literary realist style is characterised by a resistance to the overtly lyrical, dramatic, tragic and comical and/or a mix of styles which combines both high and low, sublime and vulgar, tragic and comic, etc. into an array where none are predominant. This reflects the attitude that the focus on the ideal, extreme or simplistic, particularly at the expense of the less-than-ideal, does not adequately represent reality.

It may also express itself as :

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Characters are frequently at the centre of literary realist works, but may also form the background, lending realism or providing thematic, historical or social context. The preference is often for so-called typical characters, i.e. not great figures of history or exceptional personalities, such as Madame Bovary. Virginia Woolf advocates the use of relate-able and recognisable characters, that they may better serve as a conduit for understanding a greater context ('Mr. Bennett' 325-326). However, while characters may be unexceptional this does not mean they cannot be remarkable or fascinating.

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Social Background and Tapestry

A broad portrayal and experience of life covering many social layers and historical, cultural and social circumstances, representing the complexities of individual existence and human society and the correlation between society, history, culture, individuals and their relations. This reflects the attitude that man cannot be adequately represented 'otherwise than as embedded in a total reality, political, social, and economic' (Auerbach 463).

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  • Indiscriminate descriptions of everyday life and activities, which leave nothing out and which are often characterised by density.
  • Detailed, even minute, descriptions of characters, events and environments, in particular those which emphasise contextual relationships.
  • Irrelevant 'narrative luxuries' (Barthes 11); i.e. narrative and descriptive clutter and insignificant events, with no apparent relation to the plot, which lend to the appearance of the "natural", "random" flow of reality and existence.
  • Sensory or sensual descriptions of characters, events and environments which transport the reader into the text and/or give a tangible, three-dimensional impression.
These forms of description all contribute to the appearance of the real, but may also provide a portrayal of social and cultural circumstances or allude to circumstances which hide beneath the surface.

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A referent is a versatile device which sets the tone, time and place, atmosphere, indeed, almost anything, directly or indirectly, in a text. The main purpose of a referent is to provide us with a frame of reference, a set of rules and a context when we are reading, so that we can interact successfully with the text. The most notable use of referents in literary realism is to place the text in relation to reality. This may be done by means of a wide range of devices, such as :

  • Frequent references to and descriptions of daily, everyday life, practices and occupations which place the text in a social and "real" context.
  • The use of geographical, cultural and historical referents to locate the narrative in time and space and in relation to a perception or impression of the real world.
  • The use of real-time, chronology and continuity of time or prose, emulating the "natural" flow of existence, suggesting a sense of reality.
  • The use of discontinuous real-time, emulating the "natural" flow of the mind.
  • The insertion of the author or ostensibly "real" narrator who uses his or her own person to indicate the text's relationship to reality, such as in Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary where he inserts himself in the first chapter, lending verisimilitude to the character of Charles Bovary.
  • A character which through its vivid characterisation serves as a referent to the real.
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The absence or withdrawal of the author from the text in the form of personal feeling, bias or opinion or manipulation of facts and/or potential interpretation by the reader. The author offers no commentary or interpretation of the events, circumstances or characters presented in the text, and presumes that the reader draws his or her own conclusions.

This convention may reflect either the belief that the facts may stand and speak for themselves and that their meaning is apparent, or the attitude that the intervention by the author constitutes a limitation on the reception of meaning. Gustave Flaubert argues that impersonality and objectivity on the part of the author lends to the appearance of the real, by allowing the reader form his or her own meaning (94).

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Characterised by causality, i.e. the principle that existence is subject to a system of cause and effect, continuity and chronology, emulating the "natural" flow of existence. This reflects the attitude that all things are causal and inter-related. The principle of causality frequently denies the occurrence of extreme coincidences or fantastic events, reflecting the resistance to the extreme and/or the presumption that reality is subject to verifiable, quantifiable rules. Causality dominates early literary realism.

However, generally speaking, from the modernist period and onward, fragmented and discontinuous structures appear, emulating the flow of thought and/or as an expression of the attitude that understanding and experience are fluid and not set in stone, subject to change.

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A marked tendency to resisting 'sentimentality and gigantism' (Becker 30), happy endings and redemption, reflecting the resistance to the extreme or the ideal. In many ways, the plot in literary realist fiction assumes a secondary role to subject-matter, social background, style and characterisation.

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Works Cited

  • Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis. Translated by Willard R. Trask, Princeton University Press, 1953.
  • Barthes, Roland. 'The Reality Effect'. French Literary Theory Today: A Reader, edited by Tzvetan Todorov, translated by R. Carter, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 11-17.
  • Becker, George J. 'Introduction'. Documents of Modern Literary Realism, edited by George J. Becker, Princeton University Press, 1963, pp. 1-38.
  • Flaubert, Gustave. 'On Realism'. Documents of Modern Literary Realism, edited by George J. Becker, Princeton University Press, 1963, pp. 112-116.
  • Woolf, Virginia. 'Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown'. Collected Essays, vol. 1, Hogarth Press, 1966, pp. 319-337.
  • Woolf, Virginia. 'Modern Fiction'. Collected Essays, vol. 2, Hogarth Press, 1966, pp. 103-110.
Table of Contents


Difficulties of a Definition

Terminology and Aesthetics
- What is in a Word?
- the Real and the Realistic
- Reality and Fiction

a History of Literary Realism
- Introduction
- Early Literary Realism
- Late Literary Realism

What is Literary Realism?
- Approximating a Definition
- Attitudes
- Conventions

Critical Approaches
- Introduction
- Formalism
- Reader Response Theory
- Aesthetics
- Marxist Criticism
- Post-Structural Criticism
- Postmodern Criticism
- Postmodern Anti-Realism

Practical Appreciation
- Madame Bovary
- Everything is Illuminated

Study Proposals




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