What is Literary Realism?
Stylistic Conventions

'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'

Virginia Woolf, 1919 (Modern 108)
Literary conventions are stylistic markers, literary techniques and devices, and aesthetic effects which function as the rules whereby a text is constructed and received.

The conventions of literary realism serve the following functions :

Like their parent, the genre of literary realism, these conventions are subject to expansion and alteration. In some manifestations of literary realism, some conventions are entirely absent or dismissed. I must stress that the following list of conventions and their descriptions is provisional and subject to change and exceptions. These are not criteria. Rather, they are thumb rules that may assist in the identification and appreciation of literary realism.

I should note that the modes of naturalism and magical realism significantly deviate from the standard of literary realism in regards to conventions.

The general stylistic conventions of literary realism may be identified as following :


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.

< Return


Characterized by a resistance to the overtly lyrical, dramatic, tragic and comical, 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 is a reliable convention which reflects the understanding that the inclusion of or focus on the ideal, extreme or simplistic does not adequately represent reality.

It may also express itself as :

< Return


Characters are frequently at the centre of literary realist works, but may also form the background of a more generalized theme or 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 recognizable characters, that they may better serve as a conduit for understanding a greater context (Brown 325-326). However, while characters may be unexceptional this does not mean they cannot be remarkable or fascinating.

< Return

Social Background and Tapestry

Offers 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, cultural ideas and individuals and their relations.

< Return


  • Indiscriminate descriptions of everyday life and activities, which leave nothing out and which are often characterized by density.
  • Detailed, even minute, descriptions of characters, events and environments, in particular those which emphasize 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 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.

< Return


A referent is a versatile device that may set 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 real-time and discontinuity, emulating the “natural” flow of the mind.
  • The insertion of the author or 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 characterization serves as a referent to the real.
< Return


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 assumes 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 (Flaubert 94), by allowing the reader form his or her own meaning.

< Return


Characterized by causality, i.e. the principle that existence is subject to the system of cause and effect, continuity and chronology, emulating the “natural” flow of existence. However, generally speaking, from the modernist period and onward, these characteristics lose distinction.

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.

< Return


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 characterization.

< Return

Works Cited

  • Barthes, Roland. The Reality Effect. French Literary Theory Today: A Reader. Ed. Tzvetan Todorov. Transl. R. Carter. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1982. 11-17.
  • Becker, George J. Documents of Modern Literary Realism. Princeton, New Jersey : Princeton University Press, 1963.
  • Woolf, Virginia. Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown. Collected Essays. Vol. 1. London : Hogarth Press, 1966. 319-337.
  • Woolf, Virginia. Modern Fiction. Collected Essays. Vol. 2. London : Hogarth Press, 1966. 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
- Post-Modern Criticism

Practical Appreciation
- "Madame Bovary"
- "Everything is Illuminated"

Study Proposals




Site Index