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.
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 in the transport revolution, started by the steam engine:
- 1830: Manchester-Liverpool railway
- 1869: Transcontinental railway in the USA
- Thomas Edison invents 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 at 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 with reference to 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 presences 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 super-man).
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, in order 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 are not realistic. Balzac talked about every classes of society but very often, he selected.
Reality is also a matter of verisimilitude : how characters are determined by their environment, chronological narratives, psychological dimension of the characters, presence of an omniscient narrator.
Realism in England
Jane Austen (1775-1817) was a realistic who lived during romanticism but she was not romantic at all. She described 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 defenseless 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 smelled a fish. This romantic realism depicted social problems as well as imagination and sentimentality.