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Examining The Realism In American Literature

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1501 words Published: 1st May 2017

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In the eighteenth century, the literary style of romanticism concentrated on the examination of feelings, emotions, and imaginations. After the Civil War and with the coming Industrial Revolution, change in America was inevitable. They had a tremendous effect on the social and economic aspects, as well as the literary. Just as people moved from rural to urban cities and from agriculture to factory, the characters and plots of literature began to change also. Literary characters became more important than plot and they began to control their own destinies. The readers’ fondness for realism coincides with the changes that were occurring at the end of the nineteenth century. There was literally a “civil war” brewing between the romantics and realists and soon after, the naturalists. Realist writers Freeman, Howells, Bierce, Twain, and the naturalist writer Crane used setting, plot and character development to demonstrate the changes taking place toward the end of the nineteenth century.

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Post civil war realist, Mary Wilkins Freeman concentrates on the region of New England and on women’s conflict in society. Freeman breaks from tradition by using a female protagonist, Louisa, in “A New England Nun”. The conflict Louisa is having involves her fiancée and the traditions of society. After being engaged to Joe Dagget for fifteen years, and upon his return, Louisa finds herself not wanting to get married. She has lived a solitary life and is pretty set in her routines. After Joe leaves from visiting Louisa one night, she “swept Joe Dagget’s track carefully” (Freeman 447). Neither Louisa nor Joe wants to go against society or the promise to each other by breaking the engagement. Joe tells Louisa, “… if you’d wanted to keep on, I’d have stuck to you till my dying day” (Freeman 452). The romantic idea of marriage is squashed by Freeman when Louisa hears the love Joe has for Lilley. Louisa tells Joe she has nothing against him, but “had lived so long in one way that she shrank from making a change” (Freeman 452). Louisa’s preference gives a feminist perspective, in which Freeman wants the reader to embrace.

William Howells is known as “The Dean of Literary Realism” (Keel). Howells states that “Romanticism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material” (Keel). He argues that people and events should be portrayed realistically and he holds true to this belief in the story “Editha”. Howells destroys the romantic notions of war in “Editha”. It is a realistic depiction of the realities of war and the romantic ideas that Americans believe. Using character development, Howells opens up a new way of thinking. Editha is used to argue the naïve romantic ideology of war against the gruesome reality of causality. When speaking of the Spanish American War, Editha passionately proclaims, “How glorious!” and George says “It’s war” (Howells 531). Editha is excited about the war and she believes that any man who wants to be with her must prove themselves to her. There is nothing romantic about war. This is evident when George goes off to war, never to return. Editha, still in her fantasy world, receives the news that she now has a hero. Mrs. Gearson makes Editha realize that it is her, Editha that has sentenced George to death. We see the realities of war when Editha, in fulfilling her promise to George, visits his mother after his death. Mrs. Gearson tells her “I had been through one war before. When you sent him you didn’t expect he would get killed” (Howells 539). Mrs. Gearson has experienced firsthand the loss associated with war. Society fantasizes about war and they celebrate killing the enemy, but Howells makes the reader understand that in war, if it is not your son dying, then it is another woman’s child.

Ambrose Bierce’s plot in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek” uses death as his theme. Bierce is the only author that has firsthand experience with war and despises everything about it. He thinks of soldiers as “little more than paid assassins” (Gray). This story is a great example of the romantic style ending and the realist beginning. In the first section, the preparations are being made for the hanging of a “civilian man” (Bierce 627). Bierce’s shifts his point of view from third person to limited omniscient. Section two shows how the civilian, Peyton, comes to be in his predicament. Peyton personifies romanticism in his desire to help the South and its cause. He is devoted to the South and “no service was too humble for him” (Bierce 628). Section three takes the reader from the romantic illusion that Peyton will escape to the realistic conclusion of death. “Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge” (Bierce 632). Just like the death of Peyton, so is the death of romanticism.

Mark Twain introduces his definition of realism through his criticism of Fenimore Cooper. Twain makes it clear that literature should have realistic characters and setting, which serves a specific purpose. He also believes that the story should accomplish something. These set of rules are clear in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain uses realism in every aspect of the novel: setting, characters, and dialect. Twain, in his preface, explains why he uses the different dialects. Their purpose is humor, but he does not want the reader to think that they are all trying unsuccessfully to talk like one another. Jim, the slave, speaks in slang and uses improper English. For example, when Huck asks Jim how long he’s been on the island, Jim replies, “I come heah de night arter you’s killed” (Twain 273). Twain wants to stay true to the area and the different characters in the book. Realism depicts characters as they truly are some good and some bad, with strengths and weaknesses. Mark Twain reveals the conflict in this story through Huck’s morals and actions, which clash with society. Huck is faced with a monumental decision: turn in Jim, the slave, or help him escape. Twain describes this conflict by saying “a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers a defeat” (Gray). Huck knows that it is wrong to help a runaway slave, but he says “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” (Twain 379). Twain uses Tom Sawyer to make fun of romantic notions. Tom, using his knowledge of books, devises plans that are romantic, but are not very logical and do not make much sense. When Tom offers to help Jim escape, he comes up with a complicated plan. Most of the plans were ridiculous and he had to give up on some of the ideas and pretend to do other parts. Tom describes the way of rescuing Jim as too easy, it needs to be more “mysterious, and troublesome, and good” (Twain 391). This is a game for Tom, who already knows that Jim is free.

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Naturalism is a darker, more scientific form of realism. Stephen Crane is an author who blends realism with naturalism. Crane believes that nature is amoral, in that has no distinction of right or wrong, it just is. In the story “The Open Boat” Crane uses the sea to show how nature is unconcerned with humans. The four men in the boat, the captain, the oiler, the correspondent, and the cook, are stranded in the ocean. “The birds sat comfortably in groups, and they were envied by some in the dingey, for the wrath of the sea was no more to them than it was to a covey of prairie chickens” (Crane 780). As the men conquered each wave, the next one would hit. Naturalism was influenced by Darwin, who believes in survival of the fittest. What is man to do when faced with a raging sea and nature who does not care? As the men on the boat reveal, only hope will help you survive.

Realism is defined as “a powerful impulse to mirror the unmitigated realities of life” by Henry James. Ambrose Bierce defines realism as “the art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads” (Keel). Realist authors use plot and character development to show their personal beliefs in society. Many things changed after the Civil War. The changes were significant, in that they influenced the thoughts and ideas of the people. These influences and shift in change were evident in the writings of the realist authors. Works like “Editha” and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are terrific examples of the literary change. They captured the changing romantic ideas of war and slavery and realistically portrayed death and imprisonment.


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