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Realism in English Literature

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4291 words Published: 12th Jun 2017

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In general, realism can be defined as the aspect of tending to lean towards being factual and practical on matters of life by representing things, actions, or social circumstances in point of fact, without presenting them in their conceptual form and neither without the influence of feelings or other artistic ideas. However, in order to clearly define or discuss the major distinguishing features of realism, it is best to discuss it under different viewpoints so as to get an extensive description of what this theory of realism in American literature is all about.

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The theory of realism emphasizes on objectivity and being indifferent, along with unemotional social criticism. By critically referring to minute details and being concerned with petty, insignificant issues. Therefore, through use of literature, realism refers to the attempt of a writer to portray human actions and environment precisely as it appears in every day life. In reaction to romanticism, realists claimed that precise documentation, sociological approach and vernacular diction were the basis of literal realism. The subject matter was sourced from everyday life, and in this case, the people in lower-class life were considered. After the Civil War, it is when realism entered American literature; with authors such as Mark Twain and Henry James being the major initiators of this fictional style of realism in America. The American realistic authors aimed at presenting observations that were objective and without bias. In this light, we can broadly discuss literal realism from the literature point of view.

In the school of literature, realism is described as the theory through which fidelity to the natural world or towards life is represented accurately without the practice of idealizing occurrences of life. The works of Daniel Defoe and Henry fielding are some of the earliest cases of realism in English writing, dating back to the 18th century. Through the schools, types and modes of literature, realism can be described as the conformity to accurate literary depiction of real and everyday life without any form of idealization. Through this genre of realism, individuals were just perceived as real people, as opposed to other genres such as romanticism which described an individual as a god and naturalism which perceived a person as a helpless object. (Gray)

Realism in American Literature dates back to the 19th century, 1860-1900. In American literature, realism is described as a term that covers the period from the time of the Civil War to the 20th century-an era during which the realism of Twain and James was highly praised. Realism in America was therefore a 20th century idea in literature through which reflections of this era were portrayed. A time in which authors like Mark Twain, Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway, Toni Morrison and others wrote literature that was dedicated to accurate description and a study of how the Americans lived in different situations during that era. After the Civil War, there was a fast growth in the economy and population in the United States. This rapid growth in the rates of industrialization, urbanization, an escalating population base as a result of immigration, general literacy, social equality and a rise in the affluence of the middle-class population presented a rich base for writers and readers who had the urge to understand these rapid changes in the American civilization.

In defining the realism in the literary history of America, we refer to that period ranging from 1865 to l914, which has been commonly referred to as the Era of Realism in the American 1iterary history. Therefore, in defining Realism as a literary movement, it should be specifically located in history and not simply artistically labeled to escape being dated. Hence, Realism being seen as a literary movement, it should doubtless be limited to the age from the late 1840s to the mid 1860s. This implies that the theory of focus concerning literal realism of the content should be centered on the ordinary, everyday lives of the lower-class preferably. The American realist writers went ahead to build their plots and characters around the ordinary, daily lives that people led. In addition, their fictional works contained local languages and wide-ranging conversations that attached well with the community. Consequently, readers were ideally attracted to the realistic writers because they could see their own struggles in print. The American public had advanced socially, economically and politically and so they tended to prefer writers who plainly described the difficulties of every day life for individuals as opposed to the slow paced writings and symbolism of the romantic writers, which the public had come to develop distaste for. The Americans had transformed to a new age, and realism was the only theory that clearly depicted the situation as it really was during that age. (McDonald)

Mark uses local colorism as a theme through which he presents life through representing the characters in his novel as locals from a particular region. The way they did things in a native manner, the clothes that they wore and even how they talked described their lifestyle in a profound way. Mark Twain unlike James Henry wrote about people in the lower-class. Being the kind of life he had lived, he understood this class of people better as seen in his novels. Through use of local colorism, Mark was able to i1lustrate and shed light on issues in the contemporary society.

The Gilded age, as Mark Twain commonly refers to as the period of American realism, was a time of materialism and political corruption in the United States. These elements formed ideas on which some important works of fiction on political and social criticism were based on. The novel “Gilded Age” (1873), which was authored by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, presents a clear depiction of Washington D.C. The scene describes fraudulent politicians and insatiable industrialists. The novels of this age characterize the beginning of a new twist in the American literature, with the novel acting as a vehicle of social grievances.

In an attempt to describe a contemporary view of how things were in reality; writing was used to portray how the culture of the people and the scenic outlook of New York City had transformed in this age. During this period of time, the writers, journalists, musicians and painters had made a major contribution to the thought of realism in the American setting; they had actually come of age. This was actually a new kind of generation writers, journalists and painters who through their writing and works of art were concerned with representing the usual and common aspects of life in a straightforward and unemotional manner, which was assumed to portray life as it actually was.

Their approach of treating matters that portray a careful depiction of daily life, more so by the lower and middle classes was partly influenced by the new city life of a people who were more urban as opposed to leading a rural life and partly by the works of older American writers. These American realists did believe that humanity’s preferences and freedom of choice were constrained by the supremacy of outside forces, which influence our ways of thinking and consequently our behavior and personality. This was a new age and it had come with a new style and approach of writing and presenting other works of art. (Patterson)

Henry James and Mark Twain are some of the renowned writers in this era and together they achieved to bring out the indigenous style in the realistic description of the land and social activities by using the colloquial speech style. By using this approach they managed to survey and use the fictional potential of the interior life of people living at the time. However, the three writers differed in their perception of what they termed as the truth in reality. For instance, Mark and William gave more emphasis to the general life of the Americans, while Henry gave more attention to the sub conscious elements of a person. Henry was of the opinion that literary artists should use words to explore the deepest extents of the mental and ethical nature of people in addition to examining the exterior of social life in certain circumstances. This made him a realist of both the inner and outer life, while Mark and William were merely realists of the exterior life.

The contribution of these five authors; Mark Twain, Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway, Toni Morrison to the American realism through Literature can be viewed as fitting in the realistic period in the American literature in this context. Samuel Clemens, commonly known by his pet name Mark Twain is famous for how he represented realism in his writing (1835-1910). His well-known literary works are Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In his book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, his most prominent account of realism, he introduced a character Huckleberry Finn who is a mistreated and neglected thirteen years old boy, whose father is a cruel drunk. From Finn’s view point, we get to see the world as he tries to make sense of the social world around him. In the story, Mark portrays various societal formalities by representing the double standards of the civilized American society in every day life.

Mark Twain’s style, which was based on a dynamic, practical and slang American language, gave to the American writers and readers an admiration of their speech that represented a new form of American fiction. Despite Mark coming from the interiors of the country, he was actually among the most important authors who managed to capture this unique colloquial language and the aspect of iconoclasm of the Americans in his writing. But in his opinion, realism was not just a literary skill: It was a way of revealing the truth and abandoning old-fashioned principle of life. Like other realistic writers at the time, Mark Twain represents life in a practical way. His mode of writing was hilarious, descriptive and one which incorporated the colloquial language of Americans with both slang and iconoclasm. Mark Twain is regarded as a major writer in the realistic period. Through his literature, Mark created the world’s view of the United States. From how he managed to combine the American people’s humor and serious writing, he produced a very superb form of literature than the earlier novelists had ever done.

Throughout his writing career, Mark Twain used the technique of humorous narration in most of his major works of fiction. In his accounts, he ridicules the pompous, self-indulgent old world in mocking tones. He developed his work by drawing upon the views and sensations of his childhood. He narrates about his boyhood ambitions to be the pilot of a riverboat. The episodic encounters of Huck and Jim present us with an illustration of the world in a social perspective by symbolically using the banks of the river and the river that runs through them it to portray our actions in the world, in a realistic way. In The Gilded Age, he uses social satire to explore individuality in a world of speculation and unsteady values, all in the name of getting rich, whether at the expense of others or not. Twain, who over the years had turned in to a disillusioned pessimist, he cynically described the human race as a lost society, which had become obvious due to individualism.

Mark also uses the aspects of vernacular in the realism movement. His use of col1oquial words which are real and express in effect, and use of simple sentence structures makes his work very unique. He also uses grammatical incorrect wording that is characteristic of the spoken 1anguage. He uses this colloquialism to powerfully cast his characters unique in their daily lives in a magical way. The fact that his characters have different cultural settings indicates that they speak differently probably with strong accents, which is the basic ideology of local colorism in his work. Like is the case with Huck and Jim, who talk differently because of their different cultural settings. His use of humor is another element he uses to describe realism in his work. Most of his writings are comical and contain practical jokes. Most of his jokes and remarks are his exaggerated stories of his life experiences. He not only uses this jokes to make people laugh but also as a type of artistic approach of criticizing social injustices and mocking the romanticism genre.

In the book Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain uses the character Huck, a young lad who described as using the local dialect in scene development plays the role of narrator. The illustration of characters and story renditions are both comical and cleverly iconic. Huck is described as being illiterate and superstitious; however, he happens to have native wisdom and concern-instinctive trends that help him reach the right decisions on certain important matters. After running away from his cruel father, he meets Jim, a runaway slave and together they start on a long voyage down the Mississippi River on a boat. This describes how we are at times faced by life’s challenges and we opt to run away, instead of face them. During the passage, Huck meets members of different communities, which helps him overcome his earlier narrow-mindedness and he learns to revere Jim. The book describes the different classes of people that Huck meets symbolically through the river banks on their journey. The thread which runs through exploration after exploration is the aspect of human cruelty to others.

The significance of mark as a realistic writer is the literary creativity he employs in his novels. First of all, the language he uses to write his novels is simple and direct colloquial speech. Secondly, the plot and shape of his writings gives his novels both a realistic and symbolic aspect. Thirdly, he describes how the human race is damned following the kind of actions and decisions wee make concerning various issues.

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Although Mark and Howells shared the same perception in describing the realities of life in the American culture, each of them had a different stress. Howells preferred to base his argument on how the middle class people lived and conducted themselves in life. Twain focused his argument on having people from a certain region take the center-stage in his stories-local colorism, which was a unique style in the American fictitious realism. Local Colorism was an extraordinary approach in the literary realism age. Generally, the writings by the local colorists were focused on the life of some small, distinct regions. This type of literature portrayed the characters from a specific time, which are manifested by its traditions, language, outfit and other odd customs that have failed to come of age through cultural pressure. The writing is done from a personal experience perspective, whereby they committed themselves to minutely and accurately describe the way of life in theses regions. Through personal experience, they depicted an exceptional environment, which suggested that the life of the natives was greatly influenced by the conditions of the environment. The works of Mark Twain and Hamlin Garland are characterized by this element of local colors of the people. (Railton)

Henry James (1843-1916), was a well-known American-born English author and writer of the realism movement. Among his highly attributable works of fiction are The American (1877), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Turn of the Screw (1898), and The Ambassadors (1903). His works were mostly romantic narrative with well developed characters that were set amongst revealing social observations on political affairs, social class and status. He vastly explored topic on feminism, personal freedom and moral decency. In his novels and short stories, he makes use of the interior monologue technique and approach to ensure the readers’ delight of character approach and sensitivity. James often compares the lifestyle and perceptions of New World with the Old World.

In his writing, Henry James who greatly admired the early European culture portrayed a negative image of the money-oriented and twisted life of the Americans. He became a British citizen through naturalization, arguing that he believed that the Americans lacked a culture, a reason why he preferred the European civilization. In his major works more so the novels and essays made him a prominent figure in the American world of literature. There are three periods in his literary profession, in the first his main interest was in global subject matters. James’s international theme is also another aspect that he uses in fictional realism.

He uses America and Europe as the international environment, which centers on the conflicts between these two very diverse cu1tures. Having diverse moral, Americans are naive, ignorant, unsophisticated and individualistic in comparison with European whose personality was that of cultural erosion, deceit and urbanity, a conflict arises. The American in search of success in Europe would be easily deceived and betrayed by the civilized Europeans. In the same context he also uses love and marriage as central points of the conflicts between these two value structures. The character goes through an agonizing progression of spiritual nourishment and achieving an awareness of good and evil from this confrontation. He regards the conflicts between two diverse societies and the emotional and ethical problems Americans in Europe and Europeans in America experienced.

James’s international theme is also another aspect that he uses in fictional realism. He uses America and Europe as the international environment, which centers on the conflicts between these two very diverse cu1tures. Having diverse moral, Americans are naive, ignorant, unsophisticated and individualistic in comparison with European whose personality was that of cultural erosion, deceit and urbanity, a conflict arises. In The Portrait of a Lady, he describes a conflict between the Old and the New World, through the life of an American girl in a European society and environment. The American in search of success in Europe would be easily deceived and betrayed by the civilized Europeans. In the same context he also uses love and marriage as central points of the conflicts between these two value structures. The character goes through an agonizing progression of spiritual nourishment and achieving an awareness of good and evil from this confrontation.

Henry James’s realistic elements are distinguished by his psychological realism style that he uses to approach the subject matter. His world of fiction is more concerned with the inner aspects of life of an individual in preference to the obvious human acts. He makes individual perception and expression of every moment senses of personal experience to be the dramatic production of puzzlement and great findings. We get to view individuals and actions as they are sorted out in an individual’s awareness and involve ourselves in this experience. This stress on psychological realism on the human perception shows that this was a major advancement in the writing of novels and a kind of big influence on future generations. James is commonly considered as the initiator of psychological realism, an idea which he incorporated in his work, whereby the characters are portrayed as having a stream of consciousness.

In Daisy Miller, one of his most famous works, Henry James uses Frederick, an American emigrant as the narrator of the story. While on a visit to Switzerland, Frederick meets the Millers. The Millers, who are American, believe in social freedom and individuality unlike the Europeans. Daisy, daughter to Mrs. Miller does not regard the complex policies underlying conduct in European society. Daisy’s adventurous behavior and lack of concern form her mother leave Winterbourne shocked. She later dies of malaria. The theme of the novel is a comparison between America and Europe, centered on the conflict of these two cu1tures as regards their different social values, the moral decadence in Europe and its repercussion as described through the death of Daisy.

James’s literary criticism, described as the theme of the Art of Fiction. His fictional criticism is a crucial element of his input to literature. It is both apprehensive with outward manifestation and dedicated to personality values. This theme plainly signifies that the plan of the narrative is to present life as it really is. He depicts occurrence such as fantasy, desolation, incentives, agony and encouragement. His narrative standpoint and the language he uses are other themes in his realistic literature. Through this literary skill, he places a psychological emphasis in the story. By making his characters build themselves in the plot, devoid of authorial intrusion, we capture the core story by reading it through the minds of the protagonists and in that respect we get to share in their realistic perspectives of life. For his language, James makes a careful selection of words that is intended to bring out the clear and intended meaning without any ambiguity even though it is not easy to understand his vocabulary. This made Henry James one of the most important realists of this era through his skilled style of writing.

The stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) present the edgy and bold atmosphere of the 1920s, a disappointment that resulted from the war. Fitzgerald’s distinctive subject matter is articulated expressively in his novel The Great Gatsby. He argues that there is a propensity of the ambitions that youths yearn for end in letdown and disillusionment. Fitzgerald reveals that the failure of some chief American moral standards such as liberty, social harmony, promoting peace and good governance are elements which were endangered by the demands of the 20th century civilization.

Ernest Hemmingway, who was also another author during the time (1899-1961) argued that death, violence in the World War I and the bloodshed influenced him to conclude that conceptual verbal communication was typically empty and as such a misleading element. He left out over emphasized wordings from his works, to simple sentence structure. In some way his writing was inspired by Mark Twain who influenced his style of writing. He dwelt on realistic things and actions. He stuck on to an ethical code that emphasized the essence of elegance under pressure, with his central characters being quiet physically powerful who treated women inappropriately. His novels include: The sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. He was one a writer who greatly detested this new civilization in which the people were inelegant and their actions were very much individualistic.

Through her novels, Toni Morrison (1930-1950) has used a variety of themes and Practices which represent her contribution to realism in the American literature scene. She uses the element of sense of loss to describe how she deeply feels for the Afro-Americans for losses they have experienced in their movement from the rural areas of the south to the urban centers in the north. They are depicted as a people who have lost their sense of living as a society, a disconnection with their past and traditions. Their culture of oral tradition of story narration and folktales was no longer a basis of their strength as a people. Other foundations of their togetherness like music which they used as a healing element, had been adsorbed by their integration into the white community. Hence portraying a society that had completely lost touch with their roots and had sought to live in a more sophisticated and realistic way, as opposed to their traditional way of life that entailed living as a dependent community and having a shared history. (Baym)

She also portrays her characters as people who are in a constant struggle of trying to identify with society and fulfill oneself. Thee elements of having societal roots, and a community to identity with, which implies having a shared history is what these African-Americans have given up to adopt the American culture. Anybody who does not belong to a community is generally regarded as lost, while those who still hold on to their traditions and communities are depicted as having a high chance of surviving. The lack of societal roots and the detachment of an individual from the society lead to their being alienated. According to her, ancestors are also a necessary part of life for they give cultural information and a link to the past. They are supposed to guide and be concerned about our welfare like parents and grandparents.

In her novel, The Bluest Eye, ancestors is one of the distinctive uniqueness of the black community literature, which they have actually given up for a more realistic and fulfilling life. The aspect of characters in extreme situations is also another theme Toni Morrison uses in her literature. She sets her characters in intense situations; she then forces them to the edge beyond their points of endurance. These circumstances disclose their basic personality. Even the good people end up acting in some very horrifying ways. Through this induced push, people are described in their real manner and not in their pretentious good self. Other themes in her works include responsibility, freedom and loss of innocence.


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