19th Century Literary Movements : Realism and Naturalism

  1. The 18th Century: the Age of Enlightenment
  2. The Gothic and the Fantastic
  3. The 19th Century : Romanticism in Art and Literature
  4. English Romanticism (1798-1832)
  5. 19th Century Literary Movements : Realism and Naturalism
  6. British Civilisation and Literature: 19th and 20th centuries


Realism and Naturalism are a reaction against Romanticism (imagination, poetry and prose, as well as the main themes: nature, exoticism, history, and heroes depicted as exceptional individuals) because it was thought to have lost touch with the contemporary.

Three revolutions took place during the 19th century: the industrial revolution, the scientific revolution, and the moral revolution.

In Great Britain, the Victorian Era lasted from 1837 to 1901. In the USA, the Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865.

19th century literary movements : Realism and Naturalism photo
Jean-François Millet, Des Glaneuses, 1857.

The industrial revolution

The Industrial Revolution was started by the invention of the steam machine (coal, railways, factories).

All this happened in the cities: the increase of the population led to misery and social problems such as alcoholism, tuberculosis, prostitution… There was a shift from a belief in progress to an increasing pessimism.

The scientific revolution

The Scientific Revolution expanded into the transport revolution, starting by the steam engine:

  • 1830: Manchester-Liverpool railway
  • 1869: Transcontinental railway in the USA
  • Thomas Edison invented the gramophone, the light bulb and the electric chair
  • Pierre and Marie Curie discover radioactivity…

The world was changing extremely fast.

Auguste Comte (1798–1857) is the origin of a philosophical theory called Positivism. He devised the “law of three stages” : (1) the theological, (2) the metaphysical, and (3) the positive.

The theological phase of man was based on whole-hearted belief in all things regarding God. God, Comte says, had reigned supreme over human existence pre-Enlightenment. Humanity’s place in society was governed by its association with the divine presence and with the church.

The theological phase deals with humankind’s accepting the doctrines of the church (or place of worship) rather than relying on its rational powers to explore basic questions about existence.

Comte describes the metaphysical phase of humanity as the time since the Enlightenment, a time steeped in logical rationalism, to the time right after the French Revolution. This second phase states that the universal rights of humanity are most important.

The central idea is that humanity is invested with certain rights that must be respected. In this phase, democracies and dictators rose and fell in attempts to maintain the innate rights of humanity.

The final stage of the trilogy of Comte’s universal law is the scientific, or positive, stage. The central idea of this phase is that individual rights are more important than the rule of any one person. Science is paramount and can give man absolute knowledge and power.

The moral revolution

The moral revolution marked the end of the hypocrisy of the Victorian morality. In the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin suggested for the first time that man descended from apes: there was no need for God, just a struggle for life (“survival of the fittest”).

Darwin influenced Marx (communism and class warfare) and Nietsche (vision of a superman).

Conflicts and struggles define the future of society. It was a time of intense philosophy and moral and scientific changes.


Realism is the fact of being faithful to reality. It was a movement away from romantic illusion, to get closer to the social and psychological reality of the time. It is the belief there can be a correspondence between reality and its representation.

Reality is a subject matter: the life of ordinary people in ordinary situations – for instance, the bourgeois middle-class as exceptional people is not realistic. Balzac talked about every class of society but very often, he selected.

Reality is also a matter of verisimilitude: how characters are determined by their environment, chronological narratives, the psychological dimension of the characters, and the presence of an omniscient narrator.

Realism in England

Jane Austen (1775-1817) was a realist who lived during romanticism but she was not romantic at all. She described the middle classes in the countryside (how to get married) with two types of heroines: romantic on the one hand and reasonable and realistic on the other hand.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) defined realism with a strong social dimension: he portrayed the working class and the poor and dealt with poverty and revolt against injustice. Dickens’ characters are defenceless orphans in a cruel world and his novels were used for social reforms.

In Oliver Twist (1838), there is sentimentality and pathos (influence of melodrama) but also humour and caricature to alleviate tensions.

Uriah Heep in David Copperfield (1850) is evil, ugly, red-haired and smells like a fish. This romantic realism depicted social problems as well as imagination and sentimentality.

Realism in the USA

After the Civil War, the vision of Romantic America (Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans) disappeared because of the expansion to the West (“Manifest Destiny”) and because the cultural centre of the USA moved from Boston to New York (which represented modernity).

Harriet Beecher-Stowe (1811-1896) used to write children’s books. She wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, which was a pamphlet against slavery from a Christian and sentimental point of view. African Americans saw it as a paternalistic portrayal, not realistic at all. It aimed to draw people against slavery and indirectly started the Civil War.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) is Samuel Clemens’ nom de plume. He was mainly a humorist with a strong regionalist tradition and used the vernacular (the language people speak) as well as Western tell-tales as inspirations.

He successfully represented the spirit of post-civil war America with The Gilded Age (1873), a satire of the “robber barons”, and Life on the Mississippi (1883) when he was a steamboat pilot.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) is completely written in the vernacular language of the young American boy who ran away from “sivilization” (civilization of the South) with Jim, a runaway slave. They represent the society of the South before the Civil War in a criticism of Southern society.

The slavery system had corrupted the South not only because it was bad but also because the society corrupted the individuals. Huck has a “crisis of conscience”: should he denounce Jim or not? He prefers not to and to do wrong: this shows the morality and the influence society can have on individuals: Huck has a “sound heart and a deformed conscience”.


Naturalism is an extreme form of literary realism, based on the belief that science could explain all social phenomena, and was to provide the method for the creation of literature.

Contrary to Realism, which was a rather loose movement, it constituted a real school of thought around its founder, the Frenchman Emile Zola. One of its most famous manifestos was Zola’s Le roman expérimental (1880). Its main tenets were :

  • absolute determinism and materialism
  • the natural sciences as a methodological model: Darwinism and Claude Bernard’s experimental medicine (Introduction à la médecine expérimentale, 1865).

Consequences of this scientific outlook

No free will: Man is determined by circumstances beyond his command (instincts, environments, heredity; therefore most naturalistic novels take the form of social and psychological tragedies.

As visible in Zola’s La Bête Humaine (1890), civilisation is only a varnish: under the influence of stress, sexual desire or alcohol, man reverts to animality. This conception of life is of course very pessimistic since life and the individual will are seen as meaningless.

Since the scientific method is the model for literary creation, the naturalist writer should not use his imagination, but only search and record facts – social, biological, and psychological facts.

They usually did extensive preparatory research before writing. Like a medical scientist, the writer makes experiments and observes the results: after setting characters in a given situation and environment, they observe their reactions. In a way, they aim at dissecting the human mind and the body.

Since they aim to describe social reality “objectively” and to deny the claims of the imagination, their emphasis was not on form but on contents. The choice of subject was often the lower classes, to denounce the state of society; they were often accused of selecting the most sordid aspects of human nature (vice, violence…).

The plot was most of the time presented chronologically (insistence on the determinism of causes and effects) and it could, in the worst cases, be very loosely built, out of a certain carelessness about the aesthetic effect.

The impression of objectivity was often achieved using lengthy descriptions, which try to illustrate the interplay between man and his environment, and through the use of a distanced omniscient narrator, whose intervention was sometimes limited to external focalisation. The style was sometimes unequal and awkward.

All this fit Zola’s definition of the work of art: “Une oeuvre d’art est un coin de la nature vu à travers un tempérament”.

Naturalism in the USA

Naturalism was much more important as a movement in the States than in Great Britain. This can be partly explained by the fact that social change was even faster and more radical in this country after the Civil War (1861-1865).

The period saw the end of the agrarian myth of a pastoral America in the face of rapid industrialisation, especially in the North, and the closing of the Frontier in 1890. The American dream of capitalistic success did not materialize either for most immigrants and the urban poor.

Out of these deep concerns, an original type of Naturalism was born, which could mix Zola’s positivist ideology and a truly aesthetic innovativeness and a symbolic approach.

It was represented by writers such as Stephen Crane (1871-1900) in The Red Badge of Courage (1896) and Maggie, a Girl of the Streets (1893); Frank Norris (1870-1902) in McTeague (1899); Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) in An American Tragedy (1925); Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) in The Jungle (1906).

The Great Depression (1929-1935) that followed the 1929 Wall Street crash and ruined international trade, putting millions of workers worldwide out of a job, accordingly saw a resurgence of Naturalism, which lasted until the Second World War.

It is mainly represented by John Steinbeck (1902-1968), whose work is marked by compassion for poor and marginal people: Of Mice and Men (1937), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939).

Richard Wright (1908-1960), an African American author whose Native Son (1940) deals with the problems of race and violence, was also a Naturalist.

An example: Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men is not only a naturalistic novel, it has other dimensions. Yet it is quite close to the general concerns of naturalism, both in subject matter and in narrative technique.

The choice of poor farm hands as protagonists and, for the plot, of a violent murder brought about by a mix of social oppression and sexual desire, ties in to portray society as it is, under its often sordid aspects, with a critical aim.

The scientific method that underpins the novel is behaviourism, a then influential school of psychology inspired by biology. It sees animal or human behaviour as a response without reference to moral values or “metaphysical” notions like the soul. Emotions and motivations are irrelevant here; so is teleology (determination by final causes).

In Of Mice and Men, this purely objective approach is embodied in the structure of the text by its being constructed like a stage play. It consists in the description of settings – which pose the social context and the atmosphere, of actions, of dialogues in the vernacular. The narrator does not intervene in the story; he is a mere spectator or witness, using the techniques of external focalisation, or zero focalisation.

Another naturalistic theme is the parallel between men and animals, first seen in the title. The mercy killing of Candy’s dog parallels that of Lenny in the end. The men are little more than animals: the ranch society is like a pack of dogs or wolves, in which only the dominant male has a right to a female, and where everyone intends on defending his territory (even Crooks, the black man, transforms his exclusion into a desire for privacy). Lenny is innocent but dangerous, hence animal-like; his love of soft things is how desire and sexuality find their way to a tragic end.

Finally, nature is seen under a dual aspect. In the opening and closing scenes, it is indifferent to man, in true Darwinian fashion. Yet it can also be motherly, as in the workers’ dream of a farm.

It is then Edenic, in harmony with man, as in the Jeffersonian Frontier. It is an illusion, yet dreams are powerful too: they can influence reality, as they influence the lives of these characters. “Real” realism has to take them into account too.

It is perhaps in the humanitarian undertone of the book and in this complex attitude to men’s dreams that Steinbeck goes beyond a purely naturalistic approach.

Naturalism in England

Due to the tradition of realism that had pervaded English literature since the end of the 18th century, a tradition that did not deny the claims of the imagination, the naturist movement had less audience than in France and the USA.

Yet the increasing pessimism of the late Victorian era, fuelled by the moral crisis following Darwinism and the rise in social problems, made naturalism a strong influence on major writers such as Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) in Tess of the D’Ubervilles (1891), Jude the Obscure (1895) or Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) in Heart of Darkness (1899), and Lord Jim (1900).

Hardy and Conrad shared with the naturalists a sense of tragedy, a belief in the uselessness of human free will, and a conviction that savagery lurked just beneath the veneer of civilisation.

Yet their style was highly literary and symbolic, and they expressed doubt about the possibility of ever reaching the truth – as opposed to the early naturalists’ belief in the infallibility of science.

The end of Heart of Darkness, a violent denunciation of European colonialism in Africa and a pamphlet about the relativity of the notions of civilisation and savagery, ends with these mysterious words: “The horror, the horror!” that sound like a nihilistic declaration of the impossibility of knowledge.

These aesthetic and epistemological characteristics identify Hardy and Conrad with the naturalistic school perhaps less as they make them forerunners of Modernism.

The Criticism of Realism

Realism and Naturalism are based on the premise that reality can be known (science as total knowledge) and can be represented objectively (transparency of the medium). Hence its closeness to the social sciences, psychology (realism) and biology (naturalism).

These movements aimed at representing society as it is, often with a critical intention (Dickens, Hardy, Conrad). The biggest theoretical problems confronting realism were those of the definition of “reality”, and of the possibility of “objectivity”.

The notion of “objectivity”

An artist can never be completely “objective” and transcribe “reality” as it is: even Zola’s motto (“A work of art is a corner of nature seen through a temperament”) reintroduces subjectivity. Temperament is the artist’s subjectivity, expressed in a choice of subject matter and a choice of treatment.

Why choose only the middle classes or the poor? Exceptional people or the aristocracy are also a part of reality. Happy endings can be as true to life as naturalistic tragedies.

Art necessarily implies a “point of view”, as illustrated in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady (1881). It is the story of a young American woman, Isabel Archer, who is both the protagonist and the “centre of consciousness” of the novel.

Everything is seen through her subjectivity; even the narrator becomes less and less omniscient as the book develops. This elicits doubts about the possibility of absolute knowledge, as corroborated by the “impressionistic” style and the open ending, which keeps several possible conclusions available to the reader’s imagination.

The novel stands between Realism and Modernism and announces the “stream of consciousness” technique.

Another reaction against the strictures of Realism was to be found in the movement called Aestheticism, whose most famous practitioner was Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). A famous dandy, Wilde was very popular among the Victorian higher classes, yet this open homosexuality brought about a trial and prison sentence, and the end of his career.

His works, celebrated for their incisive wit and many paradoxes expose the arbitrariness of conventional wisdom and morality. Plays like The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) are a sharp critique of Victorian morality and hypocrisy, satire under the veil of comedy.

His only fantastic novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) betrays the influence of aestheticism (Dorian Gray is a dandy like Wilde himself), establishes the independence of art from morality, and uses the fantastic as a means of contesting a “realistic” conception of life and art.

Wilde also wrote tales (“The Happy Prince”) and short stories (“Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime”). The latter is a parody of Victorian moralistic stories, often aimed at the education of young gentlemen. It is centred on the paradox of a moral crime or a murder committed out of a sense of duty.

Being told by a cheiromantist that he will commit a crime, Savile decides to kill before marrying, for fear of bringing dishonour on his bride. He ends up killing the cheiromantist and lives happily ever after.

The story is a satire on the fashionable superstitions of the time: the fortune-teller is revealed to be a fake, and his prediction a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is also an indictment of the confusion between morality and upper-class selfishness and conventions.

As a crime without punishment, it is the opposite of a moral tale, even though it masquerades as one. The story is not realistic since it does not obey the laws of verisimilitude, and since its comic tone contrasts with the seriousness of most realistic works, yet it does have an indirect social relevance.

“The Canterville Ghost” is a parody of a Gothic tale (the ghost is not frightening and is compared to an actor). It follows the structure of the fairy tale, in which a pure young girl saves the damned soul. But its main impetus is a comparison between Britain and America, or two visions of the world. One is traditional and superstitious; the other is positivistic and pragmatic: the Americans give the ghost oil to lubricate his noisy chains, and the kids play tricks on him and lead him to despair.

Even in his comedies and parodies, Wilde’s writings were influenced by the aestheticist philosophy of men like Pater, who associated realism with a bourgeois outlook (capitalistic, rational, morally conventional), and pictured the reality of refined life as that of the sensations and the imagination.

New scientific views of reality

At the end of the 19th century, science underwent drastic changes, which questioned its ability to picture “reality” as it is.

The philosophy of William James in America, known as Pragmatism, declared that in both science and psychology, knowledge depended on particular points of view and that no theory can account completely for reality. This conception had a strong influence on his brother Henry James, the novelist.

Freud’s psychoanalytical theory states that the Unconscious remains forever elusive: consciousness can never be complete. The frontier between normality and madness is ill-defined so that we all reconstruct reality according to our obsessions: absolute knowledge and total objectivity are impossible.

Einstein’s theory of relativity, which indissolubly linked time and space, also deduced that the laws of physics are relative to the dimension where we belong. The subatomic level obeys different rules, as expressed in Eisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy.


Modernism was born from the fragmentation of the simplistic outlook of Realism: it is more “realistic” to consider reality as an agglomerate of different, partial views of reality, the impossibility of reaching a complete, coherent totality stemming from the multiple psychological and epistemological factors of the construction of the real.

In the visual arts, there were several attempts to integrate these discoveries.

Cubism, invented by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, consists in composing a rhythmic synthesis of multiple visions of an object, seen from different angles at different times; it thereby integrates the fourth dimension of reality in a two-dimensional work of art.

Surrealism, with its refusal of rationality and stress on the unconscious, through such techniques as collage and écriture automatique, had the aim of going beyond realism through the insights of psychoanalysis.

In literature, Modernism was especially characterised by its conception that the work of art was an autonomous whole; by the subversion of the traditional opposition between prose and poetry; by a frequent recourse to multiple narrators and different perspectives on reality (as opposed to the omniscient narrators of Realism and Naturalism); by a breaking up of the “stream of consciousness”, or “the attempt to convey all the contents of a character’s mind – memory, sense perceptions, feelings, intuitions, thoughts, in relation to the stream of experience as it passes by, often at random” (Martin Gray’s Dictionary of Literary Terms).

The most famous writers of this movement are the poets Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot (The Waste Land, 1922) and the novelists Virginia Woolf (Mrs Dalloway, 1925), James Joyce (Ulysses, 1922), D. H. Lawrence (Women in Love, 1921; Lady Chatterley’s Lover, 1928); and the Americans William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury, 1929), John Dos Passos (Manhattan Transfer, 1925).


Even though they seemed dominant during the second half of the 19th century, Realism and Naturalism never had a position of hegemony. The presence of the Fantastic opened up other avenues to the construction of literary meaning and questioned the very scientific and rational outlook on which these movements were based.

The epistemological flaws of a belief in the transparency of reality and language soon spelt their demise under the onslaught of Modernism.

Yet the impetus to describe other realities to make the reader evaluate or question them remained alive for a while (Naturalism lasted until the 1940s in the States) and has not, even today, lost all its appeal or usefulness.

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