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Social Realism Literature

Social Realism Literature

There are many ways that art attempts to capture the realities of life. However, none are more loved by authors than social realism, which has inspired multiple great works of literature and TV. One common example of social realism is Eastenders and Coronation Street! Here we will look at some characteristics and examples of this enduring genre.

Social realism definition

Realism is the attempt of art to capture life as realistically as possible. Social realism is the attempt of art to capture society as accurately as possible. The subgenre of social realism ranges across all arts, from film to literature, visual art to television and theatre. Social realism is a sub-genre of realism, and although the two forms are similar there are differences.

Realism is an art form that tries to depict life as naturally as possible. Realist novels tend to reflect everyday life.

Social realism is a subgenre of realism. Social realist novels look into society and provide commentary on social injustice and concern the lives of the working class.

Realism was a reaction to romanticism, but, whereas romanticism made life appear more glamourous, realism wished to make life appear how it really was. The difference in social realism is that artworks will aim to depict a commentary on society, typically shining a light on issues such as social division. With origins in the nineteenth century, social realism was highly influenced by the dual revolutions of the late eighteenth century.

Romanticism is an art movement prominent in the eighteenth century whose works tend to celebrate beauty and nature and concentrate on a writer's emotions.

Dual revolution is a collective term for the two European revolutions of the eighteenth century, the industrial revolution and the French Revolution.

Despite its origins in the eighteenth century, social realism was largely popular towards the end of the nineteenth century. The sub-genre had a resurgence in the United States in the early twentieth century following The Great Depression.

Social realism in literature

Here we will look at social realism, specifically in literature. We'll examine its beginnings and influence and some of the genre's earliest examples.

Social realism in literature appears to be similar to realist literature since all social realism is also realism. The reverse, however, is not true: not all realist literature is social realism. Social realist novels would, more often than not, concern the lives and circumstances of the working poor. Sometimes they can be seen to have a political agenda, with books frequently shining a light on the conditions of economic hardship.

Early examples of social realism in literature can be seen in the works of Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Books such as Hard Times (1854) and Crime and Punishment (1866) depicted the struggles of the nineteenth lower classes, whilst more realist novels tended to portray the lives of the wealthy or aristocratic. Social realist novels were the first to show sympathy towards the working class.

Social Realism, a monument celebrating workers, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Social realist novels are often sympathetic to the worker. A monument celebrating workers.

After the rapid rise of the industrial revolution, cities and towns grew in size. The number of factories in these urban centres also increased and there was a huge demand for workers. These factors meant that people who were poorly educated and in need of work flooded into cities. The working poor, once isolated from the rich and middle classes, started to live among them. This brought the working class into the public consciousness and highlighted the inequality of social division.

The rapid rise of industrialisation and the prominence of economic division highlighted the need for social reform. Some took to the streets like in the French Revolution, while others took the pen.

Social realism characteristics and theory

We will now explore some of the recurring themes and characteristics of social realist literature.

Social commentary

All social realist literature is a commentary on society. These commentaries function in order to critique societal flaws and failures. Frequently, social realist novels will present the struggles of the poor with unflinching honesty. Social realist literature can also be used to critique regimes or ruling powers.

Hierarchy and class division

The disparity between the rich and poor and those in power is often explored in the novels of social realism. John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939) shows the conflict between migrant workers and landowners. Social realist novels wish to highlight the exploitation of the working class under the stewardship of those in power.

Realistic depiction of working-class life

Novels of social realism present the reader with an honest depiction of working-class life. Social realist novels shine a light on the plight of the proletariat, portraying the hardships faced with unerring accuracy. Hard Times (1854) by Charles Dickens shows the difficulties faced by factory workers following the industrial revolution.

Think of these characteristics, is there a book you have read or film you have seen that can be classed as social realism?

Social realism examples

Let's look at some examples of social realism:

Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (1958)

Written by Alan Sillitoe and set in Nottingham, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning tells the story of Arthur Seaton. Arthur is a young man who works in a bike factory and finds his work monotonous and dull. Arthur lives for the weekend, spending his working week in fantasy and thinking of the past. Saturday Night, Sunday Morning was an early example of what became known as 'kitchen sink drama', a strand of social realism. It was made into a film starring Albert Finney in 1960.

The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

Widely acclaimed when published in 1939. John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath follows the trials faced by the Joad family on their journey west. Set during the great depression, the novel was one of the first novels to expose the struggles faced by migratory workers at the time. The book was liked by both critics and audiences alike, winning the National Book Award and The Pulitzer Prize.

Hard Times (1854)

Originally published in serial form, Charles Dickens' Hard Times was one of the author's most popular books at the time. The novel warns the reader of the dangers of rapid industrialisation and the effect it has on the community. Hard TImes tells the story of Thomas Gradgrind, an industrialist who raises his children according to his philosophy of rational self-interest. It also covers the troubles of the factory workers in the fictional town of Coketown. The workers live with little joy and are treated like machines by the factory owner Josiah Bounderby.

Native Son (1940)

Written by Richard Wright and set in 1930s Chicago, Native Son is the story of Bigger Thomas. Bigger is a poor young black man who frequently finds himself in trouble with the law. Although Bigger Thomas is a criminal, Wright argues that it is a systemic failure that has put Bigger in this position. The novel is deeply critical of the treatment faced by people of colour in American society. Highlighting the convoluted legal system and lack of social mobility in 1930s America. Bigger Thomas has little opportunity to escape his life of poverty, which is why he turns to crime.

Social realism: importance

Social realism had an impact on readers and critics from as early as the nineteenth century. Its novels would expose the world to social injustices and give readers a glimpse into what life was like for the poor working classes. This was unusual at the time as audiences were used to reading about the lives of the upper classes. The genre has endured since its beginnings with social realist novels being published throughout the last 200 years. Some contemporary examples are The Ghost Factory (2019) by Jenny McCartney and Zadie Smith's NW (2012).

Social Realism - Key takeaways

  • Social realism is an art form trying to capture society as realistically as possible.
  • Social realism is a subgenre of realism.
  • Social realist stories often concern the lives of the working class or poor.
  • Social realism offers a critique of society's failings.
  • Social realist novels will highlight the inequality of class division.

Frequently Asked Questions about Social Realism Literature

Some of the characteristics of social realism include social commentary, class division and a realistic depiction of working-class life

Social realism is the attempt of an art form to capture society as realistically as possible.

Social realism opened audiences' eyes to the struggles of the working class.

Early examples of social realism include Hard Times by Charles Dickens and Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

The dual revolutions in the eighteenth-century- influenced social realism

Final Social Realism Literature Quiz

Question

What is social realism?

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Answer

Social realism is the attempt of an art form to capture society as realistically as possible.

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Question

What is the importance of social realism?

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Answer

Social realism opened audiences' eyes to the struggles of the working class.

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Question

What are some early examples of social realism?

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Answer

Early examples of social realism include Hard Times by Charles Dickens and Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

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Question

What 18th-century movements influenced social realism?

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Answer

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Question

What are the characteristics of social realism?

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Answer

Some of the characteristics of social realism include social commentary, class division and a realistic depiction of working-class life

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Question

Social realism is a sub-genre of which movement?

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Answer

Social realism is a subgenre of realism

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Question

What are the dual revolutions?

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Answer

The dual revolutions are the industrial revolution in Britain, and the French revolution

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Question

Saturday Night, Sunday Morning is set in which UK city?

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Answer

Saturday Night, Sunday Morning is set the UK city of Nottingham.

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Question

The first known works of social realism were written in which century?

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Answer

The first known works of social realism were written in the 19th century

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Question

Hard Times was written by which early social realist author? 

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Answer

Hard Times was written by Charles Dickens.

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