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Social realism (1930s-1980s)

Social realism (1930s-1980s)

While literary works of fiction portray events and characters which aren't necessarily 'real', they can still capture the realities of life. Works which do this are commonly associated with the social realism literary movement!

Make sure you don't mix up social realism and socialist realism. Although the terms sound similar, they refer to very different things! Socialist realism is a form of Soviet art institutionalised by Russian dictator Joseph Stalin in 1934.

Social realism definition

Social realism is a subgenre of realism that seeks to capture society in an accurate way. This genre focuses heavily on the lives of the working class, providing a critical commentary on the everyday issues encountered by this group of people.

Realism: A literary genre which seeks to depict everyday life as naturally as possible.

Social realism: a subgenre of realism which seeks to portray the lives of the working class and their everyday issues.

Social realism theory

The theory behind the social realism literary and art movements was that by producing work that accurately portrayed the 'real' world and its problems authors could encourage people to address these issues.

For instance, in response to the Great Depression in the United States of America, President Franklin D. Roosevelt set up a number of New Deal agencies intended to alleviate poverty. One such agency was the Farm Security Administration (1935-1934), which hired photographers to take photos of impoverished people. These photographs provided visual evidence that there was a need for Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal agencies.

The New Deal refers to a number of social initiatives and reforms put in place by President Franklin D. Roosevelt between 1933 and 1939. These initiatives intended to address the social issues caused by the Great Depression, a global economic depression triggered by the 1929 Wall Street Crash. The New Deal agencies were the organisations set up by Franklin D. Roosevelt designed to carry out such initiatives and reforms.

Social realism in English literature

Elements of social realism can be found in English literature prior to the 1930s. An early example is the works of English writer and critic Charles Dickens (1812-1870) which depicted the struggles of the working class in Victorian England.

In the Preface to the 1850 edition of Oliver Twist, Dickens argued that 'nothing effectual can be done for the elevation of the poor in England until their dwelling places are made decent and wholesome'.1

Oliver Twist (1838) follows the story of an orphan called Oliver, who is born in a workhouse. Oliver escapes from an apprenticeship with a mortician and runs away to London. In London, he joins a criminal gang of pickpockets run by a man called Fabin. The novel depicts the cruel way in which orphans were treated in Victorian England, highlighting issues such as domestic violence and child labour.

The social realism movement came to prominence during the 1930s in response to the Great Depression, World War One (1914-1918), and social inequality. The movement involved both literature and artwork that shifted away from the avant-garde and romanticism movements. Whilst the avant-garde and romantic movements portrayed the world in an idealised light, removed from the realities of greater society, social realism sought to accurately represent the 'masses'.

Avant-garde refers to literature that pushed the boundaries of reality, using experimental structures and styles.

Romanticism is a literary movement which emerged in the late 18th century. This movement presented humanity and the natural world in an idealistic, romanticised manner.

Social realism characteristics

All literature part of the social realism genre provides a critical commentary on society, considering its failures. Social structures which promote and maintain inequality are highlighted by such works, particularly through stories centred on working-class life.

Key themes explored in social realism include;

  • Social hierarchy.
  • Class division.
  • Gendered inequality.
  • Racial discrimination.

Other notable characteristics which make up the style of social realism are:

  • Believable plots and storylines.
  • Realistic and relatable characters.
  • The exploration and portrayal of human flaws.
  • Actual or historical settings.

All these characteristics contribute to such novels presenting worlds and stories which are representative of actual life.

Social Realism examples

Let's consider some key examples of Social Realism in literature!

Waiting for Lefty (1935)

Clifford Odets' play Waiting for Lefty follows a group of cab drivers gathering to plan a strike. The play consists of seven connected scenes.

In the first scene, the taxi drivers are meeting with union boss Harry Fatt, who is attempting to discourage them from striking. At this meeting, a few of the drivers ask where their elected chairman Lefty is. In the final scene, it is announced that Lefty has been found dead from a bullet wound. The play ends with the lines; 'STRIKE, STRIKE, STRIKE!!!'.

The play was based on a cab driver strike in New York the year prior (1934). Themes such as class division, workers' rights, and pay inequality are explored throughout the play, highlighting the struggles of the working class and the social injustices suffered by them.

Waiting for Lefty was produced with the support of the Group Theatre, a theatre collective based in New York City. This collective also played a role in Clifford Odets' production Paradise Lost (1932), and John Howard Lawson's Success Story (1932), among other plays considered part of the social realism movement.

Of Mice and Men (1937)

John Steinbeck's novella Of Mice and Men portrays the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two ranch workers trying to find their way during the Great Depression.

The lives of various characters are explored throughout the novella, many of whom are excluded from society due to their differences. Curley's wife is dismissed for her gender, Crooks is outcasted due to his race, and Lennie is looked down on because of his mental disability.

A common theme explored within the novella is the American Dream. Many of the characters wish to escape from life on the ranch. George and Lennie dream of acquiring their own piece of land. While Curley's wife wishes to become a Hollywood star. However, by the novella's close, it becomes clear that the American Dream is only a dream, and the ranch workers remain trapped by their circumstances.

The American Dream refers to the idea that anyone in the United States can obtain a better life through hard work and self-belief. This dream is often centred around land ownership and freedom.

Room at the Top (1957)

John Braine's novel Room at the Top follows Joe Lampton, a young man from a working-class background who wants a better life. The novel is set in post-war Britain and highlights the difficulties faced by young people at this time.

As the novel progresses, Lampton obtains his dream future; however, this dream life isn't everything Lampton dreamed of.

The Outsiders (1967)

S.E. Hinton's novel The Outsiders presents a conflict between two gangs in Oklahoma, the 'greasers' and the 'Socs'. These two gangs are divided by their class and socio-economic status, with the 'greasers' coming from working-class backgrounds while the 'socs' come from an upper-class background.

The novel is set in the 1960s and is narrated by its protagonist Ponyboy Curtis, the youngest of three brothers. Education is an underlying theme of the novel, becoming apparent at its close as Ponyboy begins writing his English assignment on the events of the novel.

At the time of its publication, The Outsiders was considered highly controversial due to its unflinching portrayal of gang violence, underaged drinking and use of strong language.

Social realism (1930s-1980s) - Key takeaways

  • Social realism is a subgenre of realism that seeks to capture society in an accurate way.
  • The theory behind the social realism movement is that by producing work that portrays the problems of the real world authors can encourage people to address social issues.
  • The social realism movement came to prominence during the 1930s in response to the Great Depression, World War One, and social inequality.
  • Key characteristics of social realism include; believable plots and storylines, realistic and relatable characters, the exploration and portrayal of human flaws, and actual or historical settings.
  • Some notable literary examples of social realism include; Waiting for Lefty (1935), Of Mice and Men (1937), Room at the Top (1957), and The Outsiders (1967).

References

  1. British Library. 'Manuscript of the Preface to the 1850 edition of Charles Dicken's Oliver Twist'. bl.uk.

Frequently Asked Questions about Social realism (1930s-1980s)

Social realism is a subgenre of realism that seeks to portray the lives of the working class and their everyday issues.

An example of social realism in literature is Clifford Odets' 1935 play Waiting for Lefty.

The key principle of social realism is to accurately portray the reality of working class life. By accurately depicting the problems faced by working class people, writers believed that their work could inspire change.

The purpose of the social realism literary and art movements was to inspire change by producing work that accurately portrays the 'real' world and its problems.

The main concepts of social realism include; believable plots and storylines, realistic and relatable characters, the exploration and portrayal of human flaws, and actual or historical settings. 

Final Social realism (1930s-1980s) Quiz

Question

What is social realism a subgenre of?

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Answer

Realism 

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Question

Select the correct definition of social realism.

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Answer

A subgenre of realism which seeks to portray the lives of the working class and their everyday issues.

Show question

Question

What was the theory behind social realism?

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Answer

Through producing work that accurately portrayed the 'real' world and its problems, authors could encourage people to address these issues. 

Show question

Question

True or false: Charles Dickens is an example of an early author part of the social realism movement.

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Answer

True! Dickens' work depicted the struggles of the working class in Victorian England.  

Show question

Question

When did social realism come to prominence?

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Answer

Social realism came to prominence during the 1930s in response to the Great Depression, World War One (1914-1918), and social inequality. 

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Question

Which two movements did social realism seek to shift away from?

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Answer

Avant-garde

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Question

True or false: all literature part of the social realism genre provides a critical commentary on society, 

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Answer

True!

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Question

Which of these is not a theme explored in social realism?

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Answer

The beauty of nature.

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Question

Which of these is a characteristic of social realism?

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Answer

Believable plots and storylines. 

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Question

Which of these is not a characteristic of social realism?

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Answer

Foreign locations and settings.

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Question

Which group of people does 

Clifford Odets' play Waiting for Lefty (1935) follow?


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Answer

A group of cab drivers.

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Question

Which of these is not a work of social realism?

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Answer

Wuthering Heights (1847)

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Question

True or false: Waiting For Lefty ends with the lines; 


'When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.'

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Answer

False!  The play ends with the lines;

'STRIKE, STRIKE, STRIKE!!!'. 

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Question

When was Of Mice and Men published?

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Answer

1937

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Question

True or false: The Outsiders (1967) portrays a conflict between two gangs in Oklahoma.

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Answer

True! The Outsiders presents a conflict between the 'greasers' and the 'socs'.  

Show question

Question

What was Waiting for Lefty (1935) based on?

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Answer

The play was based on a cab driver strike in New York the year prior (1934). 

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Question

Who wrote Of Mice and Men (1937)?

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Answer

John Steinbeck

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