Examples of Realism in Literature with Explanation and Lesson Plans

Realism in Literature


Remember when you were a kid and had a crush on a really hot cartoon character? Then you got older and had a crush on a movie star? Then you got older, had a crush on your best friend’s girlfriend, stole her, married her, and had three kids? That’s kind of how realism in literature developed.


ELA Common Core Standards Covered

Teaching Realism in Literature and instructing students to find aspects of Realism in the literature as they read cover the following ELA Common Core Standards.  You can also knock out some Writing Common Core Standards as well with the lesson plans below. 

  1. RL.9-10.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  2. RL.9-10.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
  3. RL.9-10.5 Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise
  4. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  5. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
  6. W.9-10.9  Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

A Dose of Realism

The day was August 14, 2005. I borrowed a book from my 12 year old nephew. It had a dragon on the cover. I had officially become a complete dork.

My life was spinning out of control. I had spent my life ridiculing the Star Trek Convention, fantasy literature, and King Arthur’s knights with my football teammates at lumberjack camps. Now, I was reading books with dragons on the front. It was time for a change. I needed a return to realism.

I spent the next few weeks reading George Eliot, William Dean Howells, Henry James, Jack London, and Henrik Ibsen.


What is Realism in Literature?

A break from Romanticism, Realism is any effort to portray life as it truly is. In the middle of the 19th century, kings and queens, warriors and knights, demonic cats, ghosts, sea creatures, and monsters gave way to farmers, merchants, lawyers, laborers, and bakers. Realism in literature was part of a wider movement in the arts to focus on ordinary people and events

The following Realism writers find themselves oft anthologized in high school and middle school texts:

  • Ambrose Bierce
  • Kate Chopin
  • Stephen Crane
  • Theodore Dreiser
  • W.E.B. Dubois
  • Mary Wilkins Freeman
  • Hamlin Garland
  • Henry James
  • Jack London
  • Mark Twain
  • Charles Dickens
  • Emily Bronte
  • George Eliot
  • Oscar Wilde
  • John Steinbeck

Characteristics of Realistic Fiction

These characteristics are dead giveaways that you’re reading realism:

  1. Realists take their subject matter from ordinary life. Realists were influenced by the spread of democracy in Europe and North America. Middle and lower class citizens were becoming increasingly important. Detailed settings became important as a means of establishing the realistic nature of main characters and places. Dialect became popular as did an emphasis on local color.
  2. Realists placed an emphasis on characters. As democracy spread, so did the importance of the individual. As individuals became more important in the “real” world, characters became more important in Realist literature. Character, not plot, is the essence of Realism.
  3. Realists concern themselves with ethical issues. As with all literature, the conflict often involves a moral dilemma faced by one of its participants. With Realism, this dilemma has to be portrayed accurately, honestly, and in detail. Realists avoid preachiness.

Lesson and Essay Ideas

Apply the Common Core Standards with these lesson and essay ideas.

  1. Analyze characters with a Strength and Weakness chart. Realism incorporates characters with ordinary struggles that ordinary people relate to. 
  2. Judge characters. This could take the form of a pros/cons chart or can be as elaborate as a mock trial. Trifles by Susan Glaspell is an excellent often anthologized play for holding a mock trial.
  3. Identify characteristics of Realism. Find several passages for students to analyze. Most high school texts have several stories that qualify.

Genres of Literature

Teaching literary genres helps provide context and understanding.