By: Samir K. Dash



In William Dean Howells’ words, Realism is ‘ the truthful treatment of material’. But to the question ‘what is truth’, philosophy gives not only different answers, but also different kinds of answers, representing different approaches to the same question. That’s why ‘Realism’ is also a term which can’t be defined with merely few words. In fact ‘Realism’ is a notoriously treacherous concept. Vladimir Nobokov, comments on this in his post script to Lolita, as it is ‘one of the few words which can mean nothing without quotes’. Many critics agree that when asking about the definition of ‘Realism’, it is reality itself which they bring into question. Reality is seen as something which has to be attained and this attainment is a continuous process that never allows the concept to stabilize or the word to offer a convenient mould of meaning.

In 18th century the words were considered to be ‘the images of things’. For example, Melville in his Moby Dick gathers together every possible definitions and descriptions of a whale and what he shows is that you can never catch a live whale ----- ‘You can only have a dead whale’ ----- from the images of whale, as Tony Tanner comments in his book Realism, Reality and the Novel, published in 1969. Later this concept was modified in present language as the image of reality. But it should be remembered that this concept also makes it clear that language is the instrument to achieve reality, not just to create images, carrying with in its own material of truth.

As mentioned before, a truth can be reached through various ways. Philosophy gives mainly two methods: one Scientific and other Poetic. In Scientific method Truth is discovered where as in Poetic method Truth is created by a process of making. The first method is called Correspondence Theory, while the second one is called Coherence Theory. Hence Realism can be defined differently with the help of these two theories.

In the Correspondence Theory, the ‘Reality’ is as it were arrested by truth, while in Coherence Theory, ‘Realty’ is in a sense created in the very act of perception. According to Bertrand Russell, the first case is Semantic while the second case is Syntactic concept of truth.

Balzac, who made realism fashionable as a modern doctorine says:

“The mission of art is not to copy nature, but to express her… We have to seize the sprit, and the soul of beings and things”.

Robert Lynd has aptly remarked that art is not only an escape from life, but an escape ‘into’ life, and the first escape is of importance if it leads to the second. While doing this, an artist can’t transcribe things as they are, but he can only convey his sense of things.

D.H.Lawrence, in his The Rainbow and Women in Love, found a logical conclusion that ‘Reality’ is present, where the word reaches its most fluid condition as it is used to qualify the shifting states of his characters’ consciousness. There is a scene in The rainbow where reality for Ursula [ One of the central characters] exists in her own stimulated consciousness. So, when she is obessed by the thoughts of her future career as a teacher, her father sitting at the table, becomes less real than her fancies. According to this, reality can again be defined as the mood of the mind that dilates and contracts with the degree of activity of the consciousness.

In general realism can be described as the representation of things as the expression of plain, unvarnished truth without regard to ideals or romance.


The root of realism can be traced in the Chaucer’s days in 14th century. The fourteenth century ballad writers took nothing as un-poetical and hence realism was found in ballads [such as ‘The London Lick Penny’, ‘The Nut Brown maid’]. Meanwhile Langland wrote his Piers the Plowman which was to present the existing sins done in the socity and thus this created a sense of realism in medival poetry. This medival tradition died in 16th century as it was mixed with ‘Platonic’ and ‘Petrarchan’ idealism. All sonnets writers of 16th century, except Shakespeare, used this mixed concept. But some of Shakespeare used this mixed concept. But some of Shakespeare’s sonnets such as ‘Song of Autolycus’, the touch of realism kept itself fresh. In the similar manner in Ben Johnson’s Pen thrust found a reaction against roses and lilies.

It is Ben Johnson, who has the credit to introduce ‘Realism’ into drama for the first time. Though he was classical dramatist, he ccreated his comedies which are intensely realistic, presenting men and women of the time exactly as they were. His Every Man in His Humor, Volpone reflect this fact.. His Volpone stands for his merciless analysis of a man governed by an over-whelming love of money for its own sake.

The Courtier Poets of the Restoration period were responsible for the second great achievement in the history of Realism, which was linked to Medieval Realism through Dryden’s admiration of Chaucer.

In the 17th century philosophers and scientists like Descartes, Hobbes and Newton, provided the mechanical concept of universe. This provided food for realism in Augustan period. The study of nature of human mind was done in ‘Essay concerning the human understanding’ by John Lock in 1690. in it Locke related language to sense-impressions and this made the concept of realism more fleshy in the eyes of other poets and essayists. The poets invented a new weapon to face the challenge of the times. And it was called ‘Satiric Humor’.

Pope in his Rape of the Lock presented a realistic picture with this new branch of realism. This spread out into prose writings of this time. In Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels , Battle of Books, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe reflected this. While swift gave reality to pygmies, giants and the most impossible situations (as easily as if he were writing facts), Defoe at that period was known for recreating natural real adventure in reader’s mind.

Swift, whose verse has been greatly understood by the idealistic critics, made poetry out of the refuse of the London gutters:

“Now from all parts of swelling kennels flow

And bear their trophies with them as they go;

Filths of all hues and odurs seem to tell

What street they sail’d from by sight and smell.”

This is the poetry of ugly common place and yet vhaving a civilized tone. This was possible only due to use of his ‘realism’.

In 18th century another kind of realistic poetry developed. It dealt with the realistic description of realistic description of landscape and country life. Its exponents were Thompson and Dyre and their successors up to Cowpeare’s notable achievement in The Task. In this there is description of homely scenes, woods, brooks, of plowmen and teamsters, all in blank verse. But later, this realism has to fight against ‘Romanticism’ (in mid 19th century). Towards the end of this period we can find a touch of realism in some poetry of Burns and Crabbe. Crabbe in his preface to his Tales of 1812, defended realism in poetry, though the word ‘Realism’ was unknown to him.

After French revolution in 1789, a new kind of realism concerning the lives of common men started in both poetry poetry and prose. Only common place events find its place in such type. Wordsworth, the fore-runner of the Romantic movement was fundamentally a realist ------ perhaps the greatest after langland. In The Prelude, there is some common-place scene which is significant in this fact. The ‘Victorian Age’ was marked by a spirit of enquiry, criticism, Scepticism, religious unrest and spiritual struggle. The development of science and the analytical and critical state of mind leading to development of Realism.

Tenny son was the explorer of his age. He provided ‘Scientific Realism’, which can be noticed in his poems like Memorium or Idyles of the King . Robert Browning introduced ‘Psychological Realism’ during later part of 19th century. In it the ‘motive’ rather than the the study of thought or emotions was given priority. Other poets like Swinbrune, Rossetti, William Morries kept themselves busy with ‘Rationalistic’ and ‘scientific’ tendencies of the time.

But Coventry Patmore provided the ‘Social Realism’ to his readers. This can be noticed in his following poem lines:

“I hope you’re well, I write to say

Fredrick has got, beside his pay

A good appointment in the Docks

Also thank you for the frocks

And shoes for baby……………..”

Victorian poetic realism ends with Hardy and Houseman, most of whose belongs to 20th century category chronology. Hardy owed much to Crabbe for his ‘Tragic Realism’. Even in his novels like The Mayor of casterbridge this vision is fresh.

In 20th century, WW-I killed the gentlemanly sort of realism and created more rough reality in poetry and prose, which can be seen in the works of Siegfried sasoon. T.S.Eliot experimented on the boredom and frustration on modern life. Masefield was the first to sing about the ‘underdogs’ of lower classes of the society. His realism sometimes resembles to that of Zola with its ugliness and horror. This noisy violence kind of realism can be seen in his Everlasting Mercy, The Window in the Bye Street and Dauber.

Rupert Brooke whole heartedly believed in modern man’s attitude in coming to close grips with life. He saw the world with greater clarity. In his The Greater Lover he wrote of the hundred and one everyday objects that gave him joy ---- plants, cups, dust, wet roofs, wood smoke, the ‘cool kinliness of sheets and rough male kiss of blankets’. He invests this domestic catalogue with ‘significance’ and ‘Beauty’ turns the common place into the strangely new.

From the mid 17th century up to this day, realism has a permanent place in the prose writings. While realism was found in the poetry of Burns and Cowpeare, in the novels of William Goldsmith like The Vicar of Wakefield; Boswell’s prose biography Life of Johnson and dairies of Pepys and Evelyn were flooded with ‘reality-concept’. In ‘Life of Johnson, Boswell presented the minute record of Johnson’s greatness, prejudices, superstitions and even detail of his personal appearance. Peppy’s diary records all the common gossips from 1660 to 1669.

In age of Romanticism, the realism was alive in Lamb’s Essays of Elia. These famous essays began in 1820 with appearance of the new ‘London Magazine’. Among these essays were ‘Dissertation on Roast pig’, ‘Old China’, ‘Praise of chimney sweepers’ ----- all these were the interpretation of London life.

Jane Austein, as a first female novelist started writing with the blending of ‘Social Realism’ with ‘Romanticism’, which can be noticeable in Pride and Prejudice. Victorian age novelists like Charles Dickens, W.M.Thakery and some female novelists like George Eliot used Realism as their best weapon. Dickens highlighted the condition of lower class, specially children in his novels like Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickelby with a touch of realism. He in fact correlated his childhood experiences into fiction. Thackery’s Henery Esmond presents the pride and pomp of war, which are largely delusions, but its brutality and barbarism, which are too real. George Eliot did in novels, what Browning did in his poetry by using ‘Psychological Realism’.George Eliot like Browning put stress on motive rather than emotion. This can be noticed in the character ‘Tito’ of her novel Romala.

Again Thomas hardy provided the ‘tragic Realism’ in his novels like The Mayor of Casterbridge. But his vision was not always tragic. In his pastoral comedy Far from the Madding Crowd, there is the point of realism on ‘love’.

In 20th century the world war provided another chance to create realism in different works of art. The same happened in case of novels by H.G.Wells, Galsworthy, James M. Barie etc. H.G.Wells’ Mr.Britling sees it Through (1916) is a realistic portrayal of English society in the dark days of WW-I. Galasworthy’s The Man of Property is a reflection on Victorian society. Pride and Prejudice of Austein, The heart of Midlothian of Scott, The beloved Vegabond of W.J. Locke, Joseph Vance (1906) of De Morgan were in fact the examples of ‘Romantic Realism’. This realism developed more and grew stronger than the ‘Crass-Realism’ of Zola. From the wide field of romantic realism there are three most important names of novels which are: The Divine Fire (19040 by May Sinclair, Joanna Godden (1921) by Sheila kye Smith and The Good Companions (1929) by J.B.Pristley. Thus realism has proved its essence in every field of literary works.


The nature of language is such that there can be no such thing as a neutral transcription of an object into words. In fact the ‘representation’ is not not only a technical,l but also a philosophical impossibility. Hence the idea of expression or recreation of truth through ‘Realism’ is not a perfect one though a good one. To its imperfectness Rene’ wellek comments that realism ‘ inspite of its claim to penetrate directly to life and reality […] in practice has its set conventions, devices, and exclusions…’

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