Psychological Realism in Literature: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:01 Psychological Realism Defined
  • 2:01 Examples
  • 5:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

How would you feel at the loss of a friend, or what would you think about an anonymous gift? Find out why your answers to such questions might be so interesting to writers in this lesson with a definition and some examples of psychological realism.

Psychological Realism Defined

What is 'real?' Without getting into some long-winded and tedious metaphysical discussion, we can generally agree that 'real' is what we see, feel, hear, or otherwise experience in some way. But what about the interior experiences we can't detect with our five senses? When writers want to get the inside scoop on characters' internal lives, they resort to psychological realism, which is the faithful and consistent depiction in literature of inward human thoughts, feelings, and personality traits.

This type of honest portrayal of real-life human emotions got its start in the late 19th century with the works of Henry James. Though psychological realism might also apply to similar depictions in poetry (i.e. the forlorn narrative voice of T.S. Eliot's 'The Wasteland'), it is quite often found in and applied to works of prose fiction primarily concerned with inward characterization and analysis rather than plot development, known as psychological novels.

For James and the other authors who followed his example in the 20th century, novels like this let them have the opportunity to explore the gritty and often uncomfortable realities of human experiences from the relative safety of fiction. By demonstrating the deep truths that can be found even in fiction and by straining against old ideas like Romantic idealism, psychological realism became widely popular among those participating in modernism. Modernism was a literary movement of the early 20th century dedicated largely to violating previous conventions of literature and exploring the human condition.

Psychological realism is commonplace in 21st century lit, with many current works of fiction at least partially representing characters' internal thoughts and feelings in some context. Let's take a look, though, at two of the earliest psychological novels that have had major impacts on how writers depict inward human experiences today.


The Bostonians by Henry James

Though often criticized as anti-feminist and in some ways insensitive, this 1886 novel is one of the pioneer pieces of psychological realism. James' 450-page tome follows the interactions of Olive Chancellor and Verena Prance—a feminist political activist and her protégé—with Olive's cousin Basil Ransom, a misogynist lawyer and veteran from Mississippi. Packed with introspection and exposition of character's most intimate thoughts and feelings, The Bostonians paints a vivid picture of American politics, with the classic battle between liberals (Olive) and conservatives (Ransom) played out even as early as the late 19th century.

Here's an example of psychological realism in the novel at play. Miss Chancellor is ultimately described by the narrator as experiencing the lowest point in her life:

It was a day she was destined never to forget; she felt it to be the saddest, the most wounding of her life. Unrest and haunting fear had not possession of her now…But an immeasurable load of misery seemed to sit upon her soul; she ached with the bitterness of her melancholy, she was dumb and cold with despair. She had spent the violence of her terror, the eagerness of her grief, and now she was too weary to struggle with fate.

Ulysses by James Joyce

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