Romanticism and Realism in 19th Century Literature

Hello All,

Sorry for my unforgivable absence as of late. I hope this makes up for it!

Romanticism and Realism in 19th Century Literature

Literature from the nineteenth century is a collection of masterpieces. Any person reading the former phrase may assume that these masterpieces can logically be thrown into one collective group labeled “Nineteenth Century Literature.” An avid literature lover would tell you, however, that the changing of styles just after mid-century creates a literary riff between the first half and the last half of the 1800s. The former entertained the idea of Romanticism in its works and styles, while the latter was the reign of the Realists. Both the Romantic Movement and the Realism Movement took place in the same century, but the drastic differences between the two, on several levels, render it difficult to believe.

As with most literature, the literature of the Romantic Movement was a direct reflection of its creative authors. Romantics observed the world around them with detest. Looking with a careful eye, they beheld greed, frustration, poverty, and distress. (Bernbaum xxvii) Rather than indulge themselves in these ugly truths, they began what could be considered a rebellion against them, which was the Romantic Movement. Literary geniuses such as Lord Byron and John Keats chose to see beneath the surface through the eyes of passion and emotion. They abhorred the reality of their day, but looked hopefully to the future.

Literature throughout the Romantic Era was characterized most often by the subtle rejection of reality. Often, writings focused on anything but the here and now, and used symbolism, formality of speech, and heroic, uncommon characters.(“Terms and Themes”) Good over evil accompanied heart over head to paint a utopian picture of what life ought to be; full of beauty and freedom. In the words of Ernest Bernbaum, “Romanticism is not a systematic philosophy, but an intuitive faith expressed through the emotional and symbolic art of literature.” (Bernbaum xxvi) Stories were told, rather than shown, by intrusive authors who interact with their readers through direct address and questions. (“Romanticism versus Realism”) In Romantic literature, passion triumphed, honor reigned, and love conquered all.

Romanticism was influenced by the political and social happenings of its time. At the same time that romantic literature was popular, the “Era of Common Man” was at its peak in America. Furthermore, the early woman’s movement and the abolition of slavery were in full bloom. This era of Romanticism began in the same years as the French Revolution and was preceded by the American Revolution, as well as the Irish Uprising of 1798. These occurrences in history encouraged satirical poetry and rhymes concerning freedom, such as Mary Shelley’s “Ode to Liberty” (“The Culture of Rebellion…”) Romantic literature was also a reaction against the ideas of the Enlightenment Period. (“British Romanticism”) Revolution was in the air, whether against reality or oppression, if they are not one and the same.

The Realism Movement was upheld by authors who were unconcerned with what should have been and ought to be, but rather, what was. These writers were disciplined in their attempt to disclose reality. They looked around them and wrote what they saw, in spite of its ugliness and horrific effects. Well-known writers such as Leo Tolstoy and Mark Twain did not back down from the challenge of presenting the world as it was, including every ugly detail and horrific scenario. They were the messengers of truth. In revealing the inhumanity of the times, they were trying to prove how it should be changed.

Realism in 19th century literature was characterized by detailed presentation of reality. It focused directly on the here and now, and the real over the fantastic. (“Terms and Themes”) Stories of this era were shown, rather than told, by absent authors, who had no interaction with their readers. Life was vividly depicted through the words of these authors, as they spoke of everyday characters doing everyday things, who were in control of their own destiny, but fought against reality itself. Dialogue matched that of the characters spoken of, and greed, lust, confusion, and labor were common issues to be dealt with. (“Romanticism versus Realism”) Idealization was set aside and reality was placed in its stead.

The state of society in the Era of Realism greatly affected the literary works it produced. Just after the Civil War in America, people were, unfortunately, forced to be aware of just how ugly reality was. It was in this time, that the Realism produced was a reaction against the Romanticism before it.  It was not long before the “Gilded Age”, as it was labeled by Mark Twain, was making an appearance. It was a time of unacceptable social issues, covered by a thin layer of false success. (“Terms and Themes”) Realism was a reflection of the urbanization and industrialization of this period in time, corrupted by harsh child labor and atrocious working conditions. In a society where people were afraid to speak out, Realism brought awareness.

The nineteenth century is home for both the Romanticism and the Realism Movements, thus a casual observer would not assume the radical differences which exist between the two. These differences were results of the differences in authors. Dissimilarity of writers brought about a major variation in characteristics. Social and Political conditions were also a major factor in the literary results of these movements. Both had great value in the world at the time and in the future. Romantic or Realist in style, the literature of the 19th century is not to be overlooked.



“Romanticism versus Realism.” Romanticism versus Realism. Web. 29 Sept. 2015. <;. 

“Romanticism, Realism and Naturalism.” Romanticism, Realism and Naturalism. Web. 29 Sept. 2015. <;.

 “British Romanticism.” British Romanticism. Web. 20 Oct. 2015. <;.

“The Culture of Rebellion in the Romantic Era.” The Culture of Rebellion in the Romantic Era. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.<;.

“Terms & Themes.” Terms & Themes. Web. 29 Sept. 2015.<;.

Bernbaum, Ernest. Anthology of Romanticism. 3rd ed. Ronald, 1948. Print.


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