Realism vs. Naturalism in Literature

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  • 0:00 Realism & Naturalism
  • 0:27 Realism
  • 1:07 Naturalism
  • 1:50 Periods
  • 2:30 Examples
  • 3:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Damon Barta

Damon has taught college English and has an MA in literature.

This lesson will define literary realism and naturalism, examine the key difference between the two, provide some historical context, and offer some well-known examples of each type.

Realism & Naturalism

In the literary sense, realism and naturalism are terms used to describe the styles and themes of particular time periods in both the U.S. and Europe. While these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they describe slightly different kinds of fiction. We'll look at some general definitions of these terms, the time periods they represent, and some examples from both European and American fiction.


Realism, as the name suggests, was an attempt to describe situations as they might actually occur, as opposed to romanticism which told stories that conformed to particular narrative conventions, appealed to emotions, and sometimes invoked the supernatural. Realism can be seen as a response to romanticism, which had previously been the dominant literary aesthetic.

Literary realism coincided with major cultural changes in Europe and America, such as industrialization and the emergence of the middle-class. Indeed, most realist literature considered the changing society from a white middle-class perspective, as this was the demographic that had the time and leisure of reading novels.


While realism offered supposedly objective descriptions of real conditions with the hope of improving society, naturalism often focused on determinism, or the inability of human beings to resist the biological, social, and economic forces that dictated their behavior and their fate.

Naturalism is usually considered to be an outgrowth of realism in its pursuit of realistic depictions, but naturalist fiction was more likely to depict base human impulses and violence and veered away from middle-class concerns. Instead, it often depicted more marginal members of society, particularly those of low-wage factory labor that was creating a more urban, regimented, unhealthy, and bleak existence for great masses of people.


Realism and naturalism were literary responses to similar cultural developments in Europe and the U.S., but these developments did not occur simultaneously. Realism emerged earlier in Europe than it did in the U.S. Authors in Europe and Russia were writing in a realist style in the mid-1800s, while those in the U.S. adopted the style after the Civil War.

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