Literary Realism Movement

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Last updated: May 11, 2019
Realism was a movement that followed Romanticism. In sharp contrast to Romanticism, the writing of this time was characterized by the choice of the everyday – the use of very typical and authentic settings, believable characters, and very relatable plotlines.

In order to support the goals of these works, authors, for the first time, created dialogue that truly represented class, gender, and geographic location. The topics of class and money often appeared in these works. It’s important to remember that this had never been done before, so Realism was a real acknowledgement of the working class. To the reader, it felt honest, and it was ultimately easy to sympathize with characters.

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the American Civil War
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the most influential works of American fiction ever written. The story begins with a Kentucky farm owner who must sell two of his slaves for much needed money. What follows are two very different stories of slavery and survival, family and friendship.

Eliza, her son, Harry, and eventually, her husband, George, fight to make their way north to Canada and freedom. Tom, a kind and devout Christian, does not fight, but maintains his faith in the goodness of man as he is sold again and again. He does not break, but rather moves into death the same honest and forgiving Christian that he was in life.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s story of the slave experience galvanized abolitionist Northerners in their cause, while creating resentment in the pro-slavery South. Many credit the novel with inching the country closer to war and ultimately, presenting slavery as a moral issue on a national scale. Translated into more than 60 languages and adapted into theater and screen productions, the legacy of the story has earned a permanent place in this country’s history.

Frederick Douglass
It is important to remember Frederick Douglass as a self-taught man, an escaped slave and an abolitionist orator and writer.

He influenced the masses through his stories that were moving and eloquently written and told. It was precisely these facts that silenced so many. He wasn’t supposed to have escaped. He wasn’t supposed to be able to recount his stories to an audience. He wasn’t supposed to be so intelligent. But he was, which is why he became the slave voice of the abolitionist movement. Remember that he risked his freedom, and his life, in doing so.His written works were widely published and read both in the U.

S. and abroad. They were written in a style that drew in the typical reader – a recounting of events that was simple in detail and elevated in diction but that also revealed the horrors that he experienced as a slave. Many saw an intelligent man that was beaten and deprived of his rights – a true story that revealed the realities of slavery. His work became a first in the realism movement in literature – it was all true, and it was about more than just the realities of the working-class Joe.

It was about an entire social, economic and political framework that existed within this nation, and it was written by someone who experienced it all.In all of these ways and for all of these reasons, there has been no figure in the U.S. who has compared in literary voice or social or political influence to Frederick Douglass.

Mark Twain
Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens) was who many consider to be the first authentically American voice in writing. Through his stories, the reader felt a kinship to characters who were, for the first time, typical folk (and in the case of his most famous novels, they were rumble-tumble boys who lacked a certain kind of civilization).

Twain was the first writer who really focused his work on a specific area of the United States; his characters remained in the playground of his boyhood along the Mississippi River. As a result, Twain emerged as a one-of-a-kind writer with a body of work that garnered him the position of ‘leader of the pack’ in both the Regionalism and Realism movements in literature.Considered by many to be one of the country’s greatest writers, Twain himself led a life of adventure. Sadly, after losing three of his four children fairly early in their lives, and his wife later on, Twain was unable to write with any real results and instead passed the time in his old age reading and playing cards and billiards (and being bitter, some say).

But Twain, who was once called the ‘Lincoln of our literature’ by his friend and fellow writer William Dean Howells, had already engraved his name in our country’s literary history.

Huck Finn
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remains one of the most popular and controversial books ever written in the United States. While the story was one that was widely read, critics often didn’t know what to think.

This type of story, one in which the characters spoke in regional vernacular, was new. As a result of this, the novel and author became a part of a larger literary movement called Regionalism.Most, however, step back and see the book as a tale of an unlikely bond that forms between two societal outcasts – a story in which both main characters are, in different ways, set free at the end. At times a hilarious adventure, the novel is carried by a narrator who reveals in the simple way that only children can how things are not right in the world and not fair in the least. Twain makes a point of making Huck and Jim the actual heroes of the novel, persevering and surviving in a world that was slow to accept them and slow to change.Many believe that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn qualifies as the great American novel because of the great American motifs that arise – individualism, freedom, independence. Ultimately, this is one of those books that was truly a first, having been a part of starting a new literary tradition and bringing readers an unfiltered look at real life and real problems in the antebellum South.

Summarization of Huck Finn
It’s important to remember that Huck and Jim are friends, who, as a result of the tests and trials they experience together, form a real and lasting bond.

They are both outcasts – outcasts who initially leave St. Petersburg because they are both imprisoned in different ways. Huck’s father fails him as a parent and the rumor is that Miss Watson will allow Jim to be separated from his family. Together, they work against the tide of racism and, like any great adventure, fight off various enemies: robbers, lawmen and criminals.When it seems as though there is no way out, that everyone has turned against them and Jim’s fate is sealed, Tom Sawyer hatches a plan. Ridiculous and adolescent, the plan inevitably fails, although it reveals the true kindness that lies within Jim, along with his sense of responsibility and loyalty.

When both Jim and Huck are set free in the end by the news of Miss Watson’s will and Pap’s death, there seems now a chance at a new life. For Jim, this means a life with family. For Huck, it means more adventure, less civilizing and a break from the people who misunderstood him so much.

The idea, though, is that neither would have freedom without the help and friendship of the other.

Twain’s Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County
Now, let’s consider the larger storytelling framework. We see a narrator from out-of-town (presumably from the East coast) meeting Old Simon Wheeler from the West coast.

One is probably educated in the traditional sense, while the other is most likely not. It’s almost as if they speak two different languages, when one asks a question and the other answers with an unrelated story. It’s funny and uncomfortable at the same time, while highlighting obvious socioeconomic differences. This is why readers liked it.

This, and of course, Twain’s dialogue, which so typically adds a flavor to his character Simon. All of these characteristics (plot, characterization and dialogue) are what make ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’ so typically Twain and so typical of the Realism movement – a realistic, honest and often times amusing take on life at the time.

Mark Twain’s The Million Pound Bank Note
gain, Twain ventures here into a world where a commentary on socioeconomics underscores an interesting story. Really, two eccentric, wealthy brothers want to see if a poor and hungry soul will be able to last a month without cashing in a banknote. Brother A will win the bet if Henry ends up in jail.

Not the greatest or kindest of human experiments, no? One could argue that the brothers are portrayed as insensitive and cruel, dangling money in front of someone who needs it. Henry, though, decides to wait it out. Through various interactions, he’s able to figure out ways in which this banknote can work for him. He not only comes out victorious in the end with the girl and quite a bit of cash of his own, he’s able to tell the brothers that he doesn’t want their help anyway. The poor, hungry soul was actually a thoughtful and resourceful man who truly understood how to survive with the power that this money brought. Interestingly enough, his actions and rejection of a job brought him a different kind of respect in the end from the brothers. When Henry and Portia marry, they are able to do so on their own terms. Henry’s money does come from the experiment, but he says that the best thing that banknote ever gave him was the love of his life.

Another thing you have to examine closely when you read Twain is geography and region. The two not-so-sensitive, wealthy men are from upper-crust old London society. The poor, seafaring wanderer is from the West Coast of the United States. You have to wonder if maybe Twain is, once again, calling into question the moral foundation of old moneyed in London. And who is victorious in the end? Henry, Lloyd (the other American) and Brother B who believed that the stranger they chose could handle the task. The story itself gained a great readership and has become a plot repeated over and over in modern film and television adaptations – most notably in the 1954 film The Million Pound Note, with Gregory Peck. Elements of this work also appear in the 1983 film Trading Places, featuring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd. All of this proves that in the end, the story idea itself serves as an interesting concept and thought-provoking fantasy for most working class readers, past and present.

Willa Carter
My Antonia is Willa Cather’s most famous literary work. The last of Cather’s Prairie Trilogy, most readers remember the language in this story and the way that it captures the beauty and vastness of the physical landscape of Nebraska. With this as a backdrop, a New York City attorney (Jim Burden) recounts his relationship with Antonia Shimerda in a memoir. Antonia, a Bohemian immigrant, embodies all that fascinates Jim – a spirit and a will of a headstrong survivor. Although their lives change as they get older, their connection as friends remains.

Jim is relieved that, throughout adversity, Antonia remains the same girl he knew and loved in childhood.My Antonia gives the reader an understanding of the immigrant experience in a kind of traditional frontier setting. Although there were challenges for Antonia, it was her attitude and will that got her through. Again, a very American story with a female heroine (which makes it unique). And of course there are things that cross boundaries here – friendship and love. In the end, as Jim considers their last meeting together, it is this friendship and all of their shared experiences that make him feel content, despite their separate paths in life.

Kate Chopin
Kate Chopin was a regionalist writer whose stories take place in the South – most often in Louisiana. Throughout her work, Chopin depicts strong, independent women who question their own conformity to traditional gender roles and behavior. Many believe that this came from Chopin’s own experience as a child, growing up in a house of similarly strong women, as well as her experience as an adult who lost her husband and had to support her family on her own.Chopin’s direct and perceptive style earned her a reputation as a narrative master, while her subject matter, most specifically in The Awakening, initially caused controversy. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that Chopin’s work was re-examined for its historical value and insight into a woman’s struggle. As a result, and because of the context in which she wrote, it is now obvious that Kate Chopin’s ideas about individuality and gender secured her position as one of the first feminist writers in our literary tradition.

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Kate Chopin, a regionalist writer, set her novel The Awakening in New Orleans and Grand Isle, Louisiana. In it, we follow the transformation of the protagonist, Edna Pontellier, from a pleasant but numb housewife, to a liberated woman who is able to express herself emotionally and sexually. She begins a life of her own choosing, but realizes pretty quickly that she will not find acceptance or companionship.

Society is not ready for a woman so bold. Edna chooses to die rather than to feel imprisoned as a female in a traditional existence. She cannot be a 19th century wife or mother anymore.The Awakening was not received well initially because of the nature of its content. In fact, while it was not on the banned book list, many agreed to stay away from it altogether. Chopin was discouraged by this and did not live to see of its eventual success or the legacy that she left behind.

The Awakening is now known as one of the first works of feminist literature in our country.

Kate Chopin’s ‘Story of an Hour’
The Story of an Hour is a short story written by regionalist writer Kate Chopin. In it, the author creates a character that must process the news of her husband’s death. To her surprise, after the initial waves of grief have passed, this woman feels a sense of relief, joy and freedom. She realizes that her life with her husband in her marriage was oppressive. Happy and ready to face this new existence, all of her hopes are dashed when her husband arrives home unharmed. The character is dismayed and shocked and dies of a heart attack.

Considered an early work of feminist literature, this story tackles concepts that were controversial at the time: the idea that marriage was oppressive and women often longed for independence. This stands as Kate Chopin’s most widely read short story. It was even adapted into a 1984 film under the title The Joy That Kills.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper
The story of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is an easy one to remember. The narrator (remember the story is told in first person) is told to rest after the birth of her child and some suspected postpartum depression. The prescription? Doing absolutely nothing in a room with yellow wallpaper.

Her mental state deteriorates in this room until she eventually goes mad. It is very important to remember the image of the woman that she sees in the wallpaper because it parallels the narrator’s own life. Stooping behind bars is a metaphor for the narrator’s existence (and women in general), which is one that is limited by society and dictated by the men around them. And of course the narrator is literally stuck in a room with bars on the windows. This is a room in which, by the end, she is stooping from wall to wall as well.

Major themes addressed in the story? The role of women in society, women and domestic life and even oppression in and out of the home. Ultimately, the messages here include a bit of a warning – madness is a very viable end if one isn’t given the freedom to grow, think and act as an individual. Marriage could never be happy for women in this kind of world.

And also, it is clear that the medical community misunderstood and mistreated women in this case, despite even the narrator’s instincts.An important final point is that this story grew out of the experiences of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. She was an activist and writer who felt that her own life needed to change in order to stop her own destruction. She used this piece as a way to communicate what she thought and felt about the world – specifically, the ways in which the gender structure needed to change.

Adapted into many film, stage and radio productions, the story is so popular because it’s one-of-a-kind. Fascinating and chilling in its narration along with being historically representative, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ was and is one of the most unique representations of feminist fiction in our country.

Edith Wharton
In summary, Edith Wharton was a woman of many talents. She was an expert in interior decorating, garden design and much more.

She wrote novels, short stories, and, again, much more. She grew up in the upper class society of New York, New England and Europe, though she was aware of its ridiculousness, which she mocked in many of her works.Including her novels, collections of stories and non-fiction works, Wharton published over 40 books. However, she is best known for novels like The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence.

Henry James’ Daisy Miller
There are a few important things to remember about Henry James. He was an expatriate writer of the realism movement who created short and long fiction pieces that, through often funny and melodramatic stories, revealed the tension between new America and old Europe. It was because of his childhood traveling between America and Europe that he was able to do this so successfully.

He had gained a unique perspective into how social rules not only differed, but were completely incompatible.’Daisy Miller’ is a story that is quintessentially James. Through the development of the relationship of young Daisy and Winterbourne, along with the reactions of his aunt Mrs.

Costello, the reader sees how perception and judgment, clouded by those social differences, create a portrait of Daisy that may or may not be accurate. Daisy, whose life in America had not been led by social constraints, behaves the way she wants to. Through the eyes of those around her in European society, she creates a less-than-favorable reputation for herself. It is only after her death (when it is too late) that Winterbourne thinks he may have misjudged her. He thinks about a message Daisy wanted him to hear when she was ill – that she was not committed to Giovanelli. Winterbourne felt as though she must have cared what he thought after all.

Later at her funeral, Giovanelli reveals that Daisy was nothing but an innocent girl. Once again, James creates a portrait of two worlds that can’t coexist – one new and one old, one led by youthful optimism and one led by a respect for tradition and modesty. This is the unique tension that appears in much of James’s work and defines him as a writer.

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