What is the Difference Between Realism and Naturalism in Literature?

Realism and naturalism are separate but closely linked literary movements that began in the 19th century. Realism depicts characters and settings as they would have existed, while naturalism concentrates on the biological, social, and economic aspects. Nevertheless, both seek to represent real life.

Realism and naturalism in literature were born as reactions to the Romantic movement. Romantic literature was usually written in a dramatic style that played on the reader’s emotions. It frequently involved the supernatural and was registered as escapism for the reader rather than depicting elements they could identify with from their own experiences.

In Romantic literature, characters were given heroic qualities, so they didn’t represent real people. Female characters tended to be put on pedestals, while male characters were usually brooding and moody, sometimes obsessive, but were often required to “save the day.” Settings were often pastoral, and the natural world was heavily romanticized.

Some examples of Romantic literature and poetry include:

  • “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley
  • “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte
  • The poetry of Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, and Edgar Allan Poe

The other notable feature of Romantic literature was that most of the characters it depicted were from aristocratic or upper-class backgrounds.

The birth of realism in literature

The realism movement in literature and art began in 19th-century France. Following the French Revolution, there was no longer an appetite for stories about the aristocracy, as France had done away with its royal family in favor of becoming a republic. Moreover, this was a period of intense social and political change across Europe – the Industrial Revolution had seen the birth of the new middle class, and industry had vastly changed the landscape, and the types of work people did.

Literary realism was a response to all these changes. Readers wanted to see their realities reflected more in their stories, and writers saw an opportunity to comment on social and political issues in their books.

What are the characteristics of realistic fiction?

Realism was about depicting life as it was in a way that readers could relate to. It meant that instead of focusing on aristocratic characters, realistic fiction concentrated more on the middle classes, representing the lived experiences of those reading the novels.

Even though most realistic novels were narrated from the point of view of a middle-class character, many of these stories also featured poor and working-class characters and commented on their experiences. Characters were not heroes – they were flawed human beings who often had to go through uncomfortable or distressing situations, just as they would in real life. Even their dialogue was represented realistically, with regional dialects being spelled out.

The settings, too, had changed. The natural world was no longer romanticized, and urban environments frequently found their way into novels as new towns and cities grew. In addition, the new industrial landscape

In addition, the supernatural did not feature at all in literary realism. The plots were very much grounded in everyday happenings, and the focus was on the characters and their complexities. The stories themselves might have been made up, but the whole point of realistic fiction was that these stories could have happened in real life and were being portrayed realistically.

The other main feature of literary realism was that the stories were set at the time they were being written. Whereas Romantic literature was often set in an idealized version of the past, realism brought literature into a contemporary setting. As a result, it had two main advantages for authors:

  1. It meant that their novels would be as relatable as possible for the readers.
  2. It enabled authors to use their novels to comment on current social and political conditions.

So, to sum up, realistic literature:

  • Has a contemporary setting (stories are set at the time when they’re written);
  • Depicts life as it is (real, relatable characters and locations);
  • Has an element of moral dilemma or ambiguity;
  • Explores the lives of middle-class and working-class people;
  • Often makes a social or political comment.

What are some famous examples of realism in literature?

Charles Dickens

The most famous realistic author is Charles Dickens (1812-1870). His novels have a strong social justice theme, illustrating the plight of the poor in 19th-century England. One of his best-known works, “Excellent Expectations,” is considered a classic example of literary realism. Dickens uses his main character and first-person narrator, Pip, to comment on contemporary society, the effects of poverty, and moral ambiguity.

Another of Dickens’ most famous works is “Oliver Twist.” He uses this realistic novel to highlight the plight of poor and orphaned children, detailing their lousy treatment at the hands of most adults. He also uses characters such as Bill and Nancy to illustrate the unhappy futures that many poor children face.

Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Bronte is the best-known female author in the realism genre. In her groundbreaking novel “Jane Eyre” (1847), she used her perspective as a woman to illustrate the lives of many poorer women in the 19th century. Unfortunately, one of the only options for these women was to become governesses for wealthy families and hope to marry.

However, what makes “Jane Eyre” such an excellent example of realistic fiction is that Bronte doesn’t romanticize her main character or make her overly good. Instead, she depicts Jane as a flawed character subject to circumstances beyond her control, one of the earliest examples of a woman being portrayed in this way.

Mark Twain

As realism spread across Europe, it also became popular in American literature. Mark Twain is one of the best examples of this. His novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is a classic realist novel aimed at younger readers. It’s set in a fictional town but within the real-life setting of the Mississippi at the time of the American Civil War. Through the experiences and beliefs of his young protagonist, Twain depicts the ignorant attitudes of “polite” society at the time, particularly about issues such as slavery and racism.

Twain didn’t sugarcoat his characters – they are shown with all their flaws. Using a child as his main character, he illustrates how children’s more innocent attitudes can often conflict with the learned beliefs and behaviors of the adult characters.

What is the difference between realism and naturalism in literature?

Naturalism came from realism and is sometimes considered a type of realism. However, there are a few essential differences between the two genres.

Like realism, realistic fiction tends to concentrate on the lives of poorer characters, and their lives and living conditions are portrayed entirely realistically. They don’t have any embellishments, and the characters aren’t turned into heroes. However, while realistic novels usually feature middle-class characters, often telling the stories from their points of view, naturalism tends to focus solely on poor or working-class characters.

In realistic literature, the characters are usually presented as having choices and having to solve their problems. Naturalism takes this element of control away from the characters. Instead, it gives them as being influenced by nature, as well. While realism often suggests that society could improve, naturalism doesn’t take this view – characters’ fates are entirely shaped by their backgrounds. As a result, naturalistic fiction tends to be pessimistic in its outlook.

The other main difference between realism and naturalism in literature is that naturalism is more extreme. For example, naturalistic novels often portray violence and other topics that were considered taboo at the time, such as physical desire.

Charles Darwin heavily influenced the naturalist movement. The authors wanted to apply Darwin’s scientific theories to literature. As a result, the characters in realistic fiction are shaped by their biology and environments, and the fight for survival is a recurring theme.

So, naturalism:

  • Concentrates almost entirely on working-class characters;
  • Uses Darwinian scientific theories such as the survival of the fittest;
  • Presents characters as being controlled by their biological, economic, and environmental circumstances;
  • Naturalism has a pessimistic view of society.

What are some examples of naturalism in literature?

Emile Zola

The French writer Emile Zola (1840-1902) is considered the first actual naturalist author. Famous for his literary criticism and novels, he was passionate about including scientific theories, such as those of Darwin, in his work. His “Les Rougons-Macquart” stories explore two branches of the same family and depict their struggle and ultimate inability to escape their hereditary and economic circumstances. The family is part of a mining community, and the novels show the living conditions facing working-class people in 19th-century France. They also deal with issues rarely seen in fiction at the time, such as alcoholism and extramarital affairs resulting in children.

John Steinbeck

Naturalism was even more popular in the United States of America than it was in Europe. John Steinbeck is probably the most famous among many well-known American naturalist fiction writers. “The Grapes of Wrath,” one of his most notable works, is considered a classic naturalist novel. It tells the story of the Joad family, pitted against harsh environmental and economic conditions during the Excellent Depression of the 1930s. However, unlike in many naturalistic novels, the narrator is sympathetic to their plight. Despite them having to take more and more extreme measures to survive and their survival instincts being the forces that drive their characters, the Joads are still portrayed as having some humanity.

Thomas Hardy

British author Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) is sometimes considered a realistic novelist. However, his two most famous works, “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” and “Jude the Obscure,” are excellent examples of naturalism. Hardy’s novels are set in the fictional county of Wessex and deal with the lives of rural people in a changing world.

Tess is a victim of her circumstances – she’s poor and female. Jude’s life chances are compromised because of his working-class background. These characters have no agency in society due to their origins. Both wish to escape poverty but can’t, leading to tragic events.

Unlike Charles Dickens, Hardy’s novels tend to be bleak and have a pessimistic outlook, putting them in the naturalist category.

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