Realism in literature has its origins in 19th century Europe. The French writer who is credited as having created the Realist movement is Honoré de Balzac.
But, what is realism in literature and how did Balzac help to start it? In this article, we will go deeply into answering these two interrelated questions.
Realism In Literature
The best way to begin to understand realism in literature is by defining the term realism. As its most simple and broad, realism is a representation of reality.
Before the 19th century, writers were not interested in representing everyday life in their works. It is important to note, before we go any further that, realism is not the same as plausibility. Realism is the representation of everyday experiences and activities of the characters whereas plausibility means created a plot that has internal coherence.
So, when we say that before the 1800s writers did not depict everyday life in their work, it does not mean that everything produced before then was in the realm of fantasy. It is simply, that writers did not often write about ordinary people leading ordinary lives, at least not in the level of detail as some did from the 19th century.
But depicting everyday life is not enough for realism, this depiction must lack any romanticizing.
Although Realism began in painting and literature (prose and plays) and then, in the twentieth century, to cinema.
The Realist movement in art began mid-19th century, influenced by the philosophy of that time. In fact, the philosophical origins or, rather, the philosophical nature of the movement can be traced back to the early 19th as a reaction to the Romanticism.
Some of the main examples of Realist novelists are the following:
- Honoré de Balzac (France, 1799-1850)
- George Eliot (England, 1819-1880)
- Henry James (America, 1843-1916)
- Gustave Flaubert (France, 1821-1880)
- William Dean Howells (America, 1837-1920)
- Stephen Crane (America, 1871-1900)
- Frank Norris (America, 1870-1902)
- Edith Wharton (America, 1862-1937)
- Theodore Dreiser (America, 1871-1845)
- John Steinbeck (America, 1902-1968)
- Thomas Hardy (England 1840-1928)
- Theodor Fontane (America, 1819-1898)
- José Maria de Eça de Queirós (Portugal, 1845-1900)
- Benito Pérez Galdós (the Canary Islands, 1843-1920)
Honoré de Balzac
Honoré de Balzac was born on May 20, 1799, in Tours, Indre-et-Loire, France and died in Paris, France on August 18, 1850.
Apart from being a writer (novelist and playwright), he was also a literary critic, and journalist, and a printer.
He is considered one of the founders of the Realist movement in Europe.
How rich our German life is compared to France or England: what an abundance of social types and customs with completely different origins… Germany is a world, whereas England and France, with their stereotypically divided three social classes, are but enlarged villages… what a stage for Balzac. – Harry Graf Kessler
Some of his childhood experiences at school, where he was often severely punished due to his poor academic performance and behavioral issues informed his later work. He was a keen observer of his surrounding reality from boyhood.
Blazac is famous for the level of details that goes into his work.
He started his literary career by writing the libretto for Le Corsaire, a comic opera inspired by Lord Byron’s The Corsair. Balzac, however, never finished that project because he could not find a composer to write the music for it.
His first successfully completed work is the play Cromwell, which is a tragedy in five acts. It does not have the same reputation as his most critically-acclaimed later work although some critics consider that it has its own merits.
He then started three novels that he never finished: Sténie, Corsino, and Falthurne.
He then turned to writing large novels, and later plays and shorter fiction.
Here is his partial bibliography.
- Les Chouans (1829)
- La Maison du chat-qui-pelote (1829)
- La Vendetta (1830)
- La Peau de chagrin (1831)
- Les Proscrits (1831)
- Louis Lambert (1832)
- Eugénie Grandet (1833)
- Le Médecin de campagne (1833)
- Ferragus, chef des Dévorants (1833)
- La Duchesse de Langeais (1834)
- La Recherche de l’absolu (1834)
- Séraphîta (1834)
- Le Père Goriot (1835)
- Le Lys dans la vallée (1835)
- Le Contrat de mariage (1835)
- Albert Savarus (1836)
- La Vielle Fille (1836)
- César Birotteau (1837)
- Le Cabinet des Antiques (1838)
- Béatrix (1839)
- Le Curé de village (1839)
- La Femme de trente ans (1829-1842)
- La Rabouilleuse (1842)
- Un épisode sous la Terreur (1842)
- Ursule Mirouët (1842)
- Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées (1842)
- Un début dans la vie (1842)
- Illusions perdues (volume I, 1837 ; volume II, 1839 ; volume III, 1843)
- La Fausse Maîtresse (1843)
- Honorine (1843)
- Modeste Mignon (1844)
- La Cousine Bette (1846)
- Le Cousin Pons (1847)
- Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (1847)
He also wrote several novels under the literary pseudonym of Horace de Saint-Aubin, and several anonymous works.
Balzac’s ambition was to be omnipotent. He would be Michelangelesque, and that by sheer force of minuteness. He exaggerated scientifically, and made things gigantic by a microscopic fulness of detail. – William Ernest Henley
Under his own name, he published several plays and many short stories.
Collectively, his works are collectively known as the Comédie Humaine or the Human Comedy, because of the depth and range of their depiction of not only ordinary life in 19th century France but, more broadly, the human condition.
Critics have noticed that the cynicism and pessimism of his earlier works declined in his later fiction. Having said that, Balzac was interested in writing about the dark side of his characters. If he had a mission as a writer that was to observe daily life and how people normally behave and then depict all of that in his novel, novellas, short stories, and plays. In order to do that, he would conduct research by walking the streets of Paris and immerse himself in the crowds. Despite his growing fame at home and abroad, he was still able to do this incognito.
Because of his lasting literary legacy and the popularity of his works, he has been likened to the English writer Charles Dickens. Balzac’s influence can be seen mostly in later French authors such as Gustave Flaubert and Marcel Proust but also in American novelist Henry James.