Realism in Contemporary Fiction: A Perspective

Realism in literature is not just a style or a genre; it’s a window into the lives of characters and societies, a mirror reflecting the very essence of human existence. As a millennial, I find myself drawn to the raw, unfiltered portrayal of life that realism offers. It’s like walking through a gallery of everyday life, each story a different painting, each character a different hue of human emotion.

The Essence of Realism in Literature

Realism in literature is a concept that has evolved over time, adapting to the changing landscapes of society and culture. It’s about stripping away the fantastical and the improbable, focusing instead on the real, the tangible, and the relatable. This genre is a tapestry woven with threads of everyday experiences, societal norms, and the unspoken truths of the human condition.

Historical Roots and Evolution

  • 19th Century Beginnings: Originating in the mid-19th century, realism was a response to romanticism, focusing on the middle and lower classes.
  • Post-1848 Literature: It emerged as a distinct movement after 1848, aiming to depict “objective reality” without romantic idealization.

Sub-genres of Realism

Realism in contemporary fiction is not monolithic; it’s a spectrum that includes various sub-genres, each offering a unique lens through which we view society.

Social Realism

  • Focus on Working Class: Highlights the everyday conditions of the working class and the poor.
  • Critical of Social Structures: Often critical of the societal structures that maintain these conditions.

Kitchen Sink Realism

  • British Cultural Movement: Developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, focusing on domestic situations of the working-class.
  • Gritty and Unvarnished: Portrays the harsh realities of life in industrial areas.

Socialist Realism

  • Official Soviet Art Form: Institutionalized by Joseph Stalin, it glorifies the proletariat’s struggle toward socialist progress.
  • Ideological Transformation: Aims at the ideological transformation and education of workers in the spirit of socialism.


  • Detailed Realism: Uses detailed realism to suggest that social conditions and environment shape human character.
  • Influenced by Darwin’s Theory: Influenced by the theory of evolution, it focuses on the darker aspects of life.

Realism in the Novel

The novel, as a medium, has been a significant vehicle for the expression of realism. From the depiction of Australian outback life to the gritty urban settings of the United Kingdom and the United States, realism has found its way into the heart of the novel.

Australian Realism

  • Early 19th Century: Focused on establishing an Australian culture separate from English colonial roots.
  • Representation of the Outback: Depicted the harsh beauty of the Australian Outback and its inhabitants.

UK and US Realism

  • 18th and 19th Century Origins: The novel’s realism originated in the 18th century, focusing on ordinary individuals and their relations.
  • Depiction of Middle-Class Life: Realism in the US and UK often centered around the life of the middle and upper classes.

The Impact of Realism on Readers

As a reader, the impact of realism in contemporary fiction is profound. It’s not just about reading a story; it’s about experiencing life through the eyes of characters who could very well be our neighbors, friends, or even ourselves.

Connection with Real Life

  • Reflection of Society: Realism acts as a reflection of the society we live in, highlighting issues that are often overlooked.
  • Emotional Resonance: The portrayal of everyday struggles and triumphs resonates on a deeply emotional level.

Understanding Human Nature

  • Insight into Human Behavior: Realism offers insights into why people behave the way they do, influenced by their environment and circumstances.
  • Empathy and Awareness: It fosters empathy and awareness, helping us understand the complexities of human nature.
Realism in Visual Arts: A Historical Perspective
  • Historical Roots and Development: Realism, as an art movement, originated in France post the 1848 French Revolution. It marked a departure from the idealization of earlier academic art, focusing instead on mundane, everyday subjects. This shift was not just a stylistic choice but also a political statement, aligning with the rise of leftist politics and the common man’s interests.
  • Naturalism vs. Realism: Often used interchangeably, naturalism and realism have subtle differences. While naturalism focuses on detailed, accurate representation (often linked to the development of linear perspective in Renaissance Europe), realism is more about the choice and treatment of subject matter, often eschewing the ideal for the real.
  • Resisting Idealization: Realism in art often resists the idealization prevalent in classical art. This approach allows for a more honest depiction of subjects, ranging from the royal portraits by Goya to the grotesque portrayals of Christ in Christian art.
Realism in Literature: Reflecting the Ordinary
  • The Essence of Literary Realism: In literature, realism is about depicting everyday life and activities, especially among the middle or lower classes, without romantic idealization. This movement, which focuses on “objective reality,” has its roots in the works of authors like Émile Zola, HonorĂ© de Balzac, and Gustave Flaubert.
  • Realism vs. Romanticism: Realism in literature emerged as a reaction to Romanticism, emphasizing traditional and bourgeois elements. It paved the way for modernism, which criticized the 19th-century bourgeois social order and worldview.
Theatrical Realism: A Mirror to Society
  • Emergence in European Drama: Theatrical realism, emerging in the 19th century, focused on social and psychological problems of ordinary life. It presented characters as victims of larger forces, highlighting the rapidly changing world around them.
  • Influence of Photography and Science: The invention of photography and the age of science significantly influenced theatrical realism, leading to a more authentic representation of life on stage.
Realism in Cinema: A New Dimension of Storytelling
  • Italian Neorealism: Post-WWII Italy saw the rise of Italian Neorealism in cinema, a movement that incorporated elements of realism to focus on social issues. This movement used techniques like location shooting, natural light, and non-professional actors to enhance authenticity.
  • Types of Realism in Film: Cinema features two types of realism – seamless realism, which maintains authenticity through narrative structures and film techniques, and aesthetic realism, which acknowledges the multiplicity of realisms and encourages viewer interpretation.

The Impact of Realism on Contemporary Fiction

The influence of realism extends deeply into contemporary fiction, shaping how stories are told and experienced. This impact is evident in the way contemporary authors approach character development, plot construction, and thematic exploration, often drawing inspiration from the realistic portrayal of life in various art forms.

Character Development: The Realist Approach
  • Complex, Multidimensional Characters: Contemporary fiction, influenced by realism, often features complex characters who are a product of their environment and experiences. This approach allows for a more nuanced exploration of human nature and relationships.
  • Authenticity in Character Portrayal: Realism encourages authors to create characters that are authentic and relatable, often reflecting the struggles and triumphs of ordinary people.
Plot Construction: Realism’s Influence
  • Narratives Rooted in Reality: Contemporary fiction, under the influence of realism, tends to construct narratives that are firmly rooted in reality, often dealing with everyday situations and challenges.
  • Social and Psychological Depth: Realism in fiction often delves into the social and psychological aspects of characters’ lives, offering a deeper understanding of their motivations and actions.
Thematic Exploration: Reflecting Real-World Issues
  • Addressing Contemporary Issues: Realism in contemporary fiction allows authors to address real-world issues, ranging from social injustices to personal struggles, making their stories more relevant and impactful.
  • Moral and Ethical Questions: Realist fiction often raises moral and ethical questions, encouraging readers to reflect on their values and beliefs.


This concludes the second part of the article, focusing on the various aspects of realism in contemporary fiction and its impact on character development, plot construction, and thematic exploration. The article also delves into the historical evolution of realism in different art forms, providing a comprehensive understanding of its influence on modern storytelling.