Realism and Naturalism in English Literature


Realism and Naturalism are two distinct art movements which began in the nineteenth century. While these seem similar, they have certain points of difference. Realism is a movement that centres on the tendency to depict the reality of the world, or more commonly said to show ‘things as they are’.

Naturalism is the philosophy that believes that nature is the only reality and the natural order is the only true order of the world. Unlike Romanticism which emphasised on the supernatural, Naturalism stressed on the natural laws.

Naturalism as a movement is so centred on the natural aspects that it ignores the social or the political ones. Both these movements were opposed to the artificiality of the Romantics who presented beautified pictures of the world.

A Reaction Against Romanticism

Realism and Naturalism emerged as reactions against Romanticism. Romanticism had emphasised the faculties of imagination and the need to represent things with a colouring of imagination. The supernatural had been a favourite among Romantics like Coleridge, Byron and Mary Shelley.

Realists sought to challenge this. They saw such idealism as devoid of truth. They wanted to present literature as a mirror image of the world, or at least replicate the real world as closely as possible. Thus, the movement of Realism began with writers trying to present factual truths and objective realities. There was little or no ornamentation in terms of use of symbols. 

What is Realism in English Literature?

Realism can be simply be understood as the tendency among writers and poets to describe things realistically, that is, without any exaggerations or distortions. The French Revolution had destroyed the idealized conception of the world. It had brought forth the harsh realities that were far different from the glorified pictures presented in art for the sake of aesthetics.

Since these realities were typical of the middle classes, Realism is primarily associated with the middle class. The Realists abandoned the romanticised notions in favour of the more raw and true ones. The Realists focussed on giving objective depictions in their works.

Honoré de Balzac was an early French realist novelist. George Eliot and Charles Dickens wrote novels that presented the realities of Industrialisation. The subjects treated in realist novels were ordinary. The characters and even the protagonist were not heroic or extraordinary. The settings were mundane and their writing style had barely any exoticism. The matters and themes were commonplace

What is Naturalism in English Literature?

Naturalism was born out of Realism. Naturalism can thus be seen as a sub-category of Realism. The Naturalists ardently rejected the idealisation and dramatization. They also abandoned the value that Realists had attributed to objectivity. Naturalism was based on theory of evolution of Charles Darwin. Thus, Naturalism took the spirit of Realism a step further. Naturalism is a kind of extreme realism.

The Naturalists focussed on the innate human nature and the drives inherent in humans and animals. The characters in Naturalist literature were governed by their environment. Their lives were centred around and even determined by their natural urges and drives. The societal norms were compulsions for such characters.

Naturalism in literature can be traced back to the French novelist Émile Zola. In his 1980 work titled “The Experimental Novel”, Zola gave his ideas of a naturalistic novel. Naturalism in America first came to be associated with the American novelist Frank Norris. Though Norris was also a naturalist, his brand of Naturalism was somewhat different from that of Zola. Stephen Crane was another Naturalist writer. His short stories like The Open Boat are often cited as best examples of Naturalist literature.

Realism and Naturalism Summed Up

Thus, both Realism and Naturalism rejected the picturesque, heroic and beautified ideas of Romanticism. Realism sought to show the real conditions of human society. Naturalism showed the more natural or inherent human nature and was detached from the social world. Both these movements produced great writers and literary masterpieces.