In Music and Art

As intellectual and artistic movements 19th-Century Realism and Naturalism are both responses to Romanticism but are not really comparable to it in scope or influence.

For one thing, “realism” is not a term strictly applicable to music. There are verismo (realistic) operas like Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier created in the last decade of the 19th century in Italy, but it is their plots rather than their music which can be said to participate in the movement toward realism. Since “pure” untexted music is not usually representational (with the controversial exception of “program” music), it cannot be said to be more or less realistic.

In contrast, art may be said to have had many realistic aspects before this time. The still lifes and domestic art of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin1 (1699-1779) anticipate many of the concerns of the 19th-Century Realists, and he in turn owes a debt to the Netherland school of still-life painting of the century before him, and one can find similar detailed renderings of everyday objects even on the walls of 1st-century Pompeii. Realism is a recurrent theme in art which becomes a coherent movement only after 1850; and even then it struggles against the overwhelming popularity of Romanticism.

In mid-19th century France, Gustave Courbet2 set forth a program of realistic painting as a self-conscious alternative to the dominant Romantic style, building on earlier work by the painters of the Barbizon School (of which the most famous member was Jean-François Millet), which had attempted to reproduce landscapes and village life as directly and accurately as possible. Impressionism can be seen as a development which grew out of Realism, but in its turn still had to battle the more popular Romanticism. Realism has never entirely displaced the popular taste for Romantic art, as any number of hotel-room paintings, paperback book covers and calendars testify. It became just one more style among others.

In Fiction

Realism’s most important influences have been on fiction and the theater. It is perhaps unsurprising that its origins can be traced to France, where the dominant official neoclassicism had put up a long struggle against Romanticism. Since the 18th century the French have traditionally viewed themselves as rationalists, and this prevailing attitude in intellectual circles meant that Romanticism led an uneasy existence in France even when allied with the major revolutionary movements of 1789 and 1830.


Novelist Honoré de Balzac3 is generally hailed as the grandfather of literary Realism in the long series of novels and stories he titled La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy), and which attempted systematically to render a portrait of all aspects of the France of his time from the lowest thief or prostitute to the highest aristocrat or political leader. The title of the series was chosen to contrast with Dante’s Divine Comedy, which had portrayed everything except the earthly human realm.

His attention to detail was obsessive, with long passages of description of settings being a characteristic feature of his work. Today readers resist such descriptive writing, but before films and television were invented, it had a magical effect on people, causing the world depicted to explode from the page in an almost tangible fashion. It is important to remember in reading all 19th-century fiction that those people who had the time and inclination to read novels at all generally had a lot of time to kill, and none of the cinematic and electronic distractions which have largely replaced recreational reading in our time. They welcomed lengthy novels (often published serially, over a series of weeks or even months) in the same way we greet a satisfying television series which becomes a staple of our lives.

Like such a television series, his works also incorporated a device for maintaining his audience: the continual reappearance of certain characters from one work to the next–now as protagonists, now as secondary figures. The idea is an old one, going back to classic bodies of work such as the Homeric epics and the Medieval Arthurian romances; but it had a different effect in Balzac’s work: readers could recognize a slightly altered version of the world they themselves inhabited as they moved from story to story.

What is not realistic about Balzac’s fiction is his plots, filled with sensational conspiracies and crimes and wildly improbable coincidences. Balzac’s works are still essentially Romantic creations with a Realistic veneer.

Gustave Flaubert

It was Gustave Flaubert who in 1857 produced the seminal work from which later literary Realism was to flow: Madame Bovary.4 Flaubert had begun his writing career as most young authors in his time did, as a Romantic, laboring on a tale of Medieval mysticism which was eventually published as La Tentation de Saint Antoine (The Temptation of Saint Anthony). When he read an early draft of this work to some friends, they urged him to attempt something more down to earth. He chose the story of an adulterous woman married to an unimaginative country physician unable to respond to–or even comprehend–her romantic longings. Drawing on the real-life stories of two women–Delphine Delamare and Louise Pradier–whose experiences he was intimately familiar with, Flaubert labored to turn journalism into art while avoiding the romantic clichés he associated with his heroine’s fevered imagination.

Like Balzac, he engaged in systematic research, modeling the village in his novel on an actual country town and even drawing a map of it detailed enough to allow scholars to catch him when he has Emma Bovary turn in the wrong direction on one of her walks. Unlike Balzac, he avoided the sensational sort of plot lines characteristic of Romantic novels. To modern readers a married woman carrying on two adulterous affairs and then committing suicide may seem fairly sensational, but it is important to note that there was a long tradition of tales of female adultery in French literature stretching back as far as the Middle Ages. What Flaubert did with the theme was give adultery the shocking impact of the tabloids by stripping his tale of the high romantic idealism that usually justified adultery; instead he systematically satirized his heroine’s bourgeois taste for exotic art and sensational stories. The novel is almost an anti-romantic tract.

Despite the fact that it is generally agreed to be one of the most finely crafted works to be created in the 19th century, it would probably never have had the impact it did if Madame Bovary had not also been the subject of a sensational obscenity trial. So restrained were the standards of polite fiction in mid-19th-century France that many modern readers go right past the big “sex scenes” which got Flaubert into trouble without noticing them (hints: look for Rodolphe to smoke while working on his harness just after making love with Emma for the first time while she experiences the afterglow, and for Emma to toss torn-up pieces of a note out of her carriage during her lovemaking with Léon). However, they were enough to outrage the defenders of middle-class morality. The prosecution was particularly indignant that Emma did not seem to suffer for her sins. Flaubert’s clever lawyer successfully argued that her grotesquely described death made the novel into a moral tale; but the fact is that she dies not because she is an adultress but because she is a shopaholic.

It is not only the literary style of Madame Bovary that is anti-Romantic, it is its subject as well. The narrative clearly portrays Emma as deluded for trying to model her life after the Romantic fiction she loves. The novel is a sort of anti-Romantic manifesto, and its notoriety spread its message far and wide. It is worth noting, however, that Flaubert returned to Romanticism from time to time in his career, for instance in Salammbo, a colorful historical novel set in ancient Carthage.

Influence of Realism

Realism had profound effects on fiction from places as far-flung as Russia and the Americas. The novel, which had been born out of the romance as a more or less fantastic narrative, settled into a realistic mode which is still dominant today. Aside from genre fiction such as fantasy and horror, we expect the ordinary novel today to be based in our own world, with recognizably familiar types of characters endowed with no supernatural powers, doing the sorts of things that ordinary people do every day. It is easy to forget that this expectation is only a century and a half old, and that the great bulk of the world’s fiction before departed in a wide variety of ways from this standard, which has been applied to film and television as well. Even comic strips now usually reflect daily life. Repeated revolts against this standard by various postmodernist and magical realist varieties of fiction have not dislodged the dominance of realism in fiction.


The emergence of Naturalism does not mark a radical break with Realism, rather the new style is a logical extension of the old. The term was invented by Émile Zola partly because he was seeking for a striking platform from which to convince the reading public that it was getting something new and modern in his fiction. In fact, he inherited a good deal from his predecessors. Like Balzac and Flaubert, he created detailed settings meticulously researched, but tended to integrate them better into his narrative, avoiding the long set-piece descriptions so characteristic of earlier fiction. Again, like Balzac, he created a series of novels with linked characters and settings (“Les Rougon-Macquart: Histoire naturelle et sociale d’une famille sous le second Empire”–“The Rougon-Macquart: Natural and Social History of a Family During the Second Empire”) which stretched to twenty novels. He tried to create a portrait of France in the 1880s to parallel the portrait Balzac had made of his own times in the Comédie humaine. Like Flaubert, he focused on ordinary people with often debased motives.

He argued that his special contribution to the art of fiction was the application to the creation of characters and plot of the scientific method. The new “scientific novel” would be created by placing characters with known inherited characteristics into a carefully defined environment and observing the resulting behavior. No novelist can actually work like this, of course, since both characters and setting are created in the distinctly nonobjective mind of the writer; but Zola’s novels do place special stress on the importance of heredity and environment in determining character. They are anti-Romantic in their rejection of the self-defining hero who transcends his background. History shapes his protagonists rather than being shaped by them. This leads to an overwhelming sense of doom in most of his novels, culminating in a final catastrophe.

Zola further tends to create his principal characters as representative types rather than striking individuals. He also places great emphasis on people acting in groups, and is one of the few great writers of mob scenes. Humanity in the mass is one of his chief subjects, and his individuals are selected to illustrate aspects of society.

Zola can be said to have created in Germinal the disaster narrative exemplified in the 20th century by Arthur Hailey’s novels (Airport) and movies like The Towering Inferno and Titanic. The formula is a classic one: assemble a varied group of representative characters together in some institution or space and subject them to a catastrophe and watch how they individually cope with it.

Zola also took frankness about sexual functions much further than the early Realists had dared; and it is this, combined with a pervasive pessimism about humanity, which chiefly characterizes the Naturalist novel.

Unlike Flaubert, Zola was not a meticulous craftsman of beautiful prose. At times it seems as if he is writing with a meat ax; but he undeniably infused French fiction with a refreshing vigor, giving it a tough, powerful edge far removed from the vaporings of high romanticism.

If Zola often startled the French with his frankness, he shocked readers in other lands, where his works were often banned, regarded as little more than pornography (an assessment which is quite unfair, but unsurprising given the temper of the times).

Zola has had an enormous impact on the American novel. Americans with their preference for action over thought and for gritty realism were strongly drawn to his style of writing. Early 20th-century writers like Theodore Dreiser applied his approaches to American themes successfully, and Frank Norris practically stole large chunks of Zola’s novels in some of his own works. The mainstream American novel is preponderantly naturalistic, and gives rise to another genre which still lives on: the hard-boiled detective story.

For all these reasons, Zola strikes us as far more “modern” than Balzac, or even Flaubert. It can be argued that the “default” style of modern narrative is Realist, with the various forms of fantastic narratives which dominated the writing of earlier ages relegated to the margins; and even fantasy is often judged as to its plausibility. Without altogether banishing Romanticism, Realism and Naturalism have had considerable success.

More Study Guides for 18th and 19th Century European Classics



1 For a brief survey of Chardin’s work with examples, see this exhibition at The MET
2 For more on Courbet’s life and works, look here.
3 For more information about Balzac, see this online literature.
4 For more information about Madame Bovary, see here.


Created by Paul Brians March 13, 1998.