Naturalism vs Realism in Literature: Definitions, Examples & More

Naturalism vs Realism: In the literature, realism and naturalism are terms used to describe the styles and themes of particular time periods in both the U.S. and Europe. While these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they describe slightly different kinds of fiction. We’ll look at some general definitions of these terms, the time periods they represent, and some examples from both European and American fiction.

Realism was a mid-nineteenth-century, primarily French, movement in literature and art. To realists, the arts did not exist for their own sake (l’art pour l’art), as they had for the Romantics, but served the cause of mankind (l’art pour l’homme) by exposing political and social evils.

Realism as a broad movement in art and literature survived until the end of the nineteenth century, but it changed in the 1870s when the artist Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884) introduced a form of painting that today is generally referred to as naturalism, though in the nineteenth century that term was often used interchangeably with realism.

Naturalism vs Realism in Literature
Naturalism vs Realism in Literature

Naturalism vs Realism

Realism is used by literary critics in two chief ways:

  • to identify a literary movement of the nineteenth century, especially in prose fiction (beginning with Balzac in France, George Eliot in England, and William Dean Howells in America) and
  • to designate a recurrent mode, in various eras, of representing human life and experience in literature, which was especially exemplified by the writers of this historical movement.

Naturalism is sometimes claimed to be an even more accurate picture of life than is realism. But naturalism is not only, like realism, a special selection of subject matter, and a special literary manner; it is a mode of fiction that was developed by a school of writers in accordance with a particular philosophical thesis. This thesis, a product of post-Darwinian biology in the mid-nineteenth century, held that a human being belongs entirely in the order of nature and does not have a soul or any other mode of participation in a religious or spiritual world beyond nature; that such a being is therefore merely a higher-order animal whose character and fortunes are determined by two kinds of forces, heredity, and environment.

Definition of Realism

By definition, realism can be thought of as a truthful treatment of material, which is a definition given by a popular American Realist, William Dean Howells. The writers of realism tried to show a truthful representation of reality and their works showed life as it actually was. Instead of telling a story that happened in the past, Realists tended to focus on the here and now.

Because of the Civil war and the rapid growth of America, Realists concentrated on the middle class. The middle class was growing rapidly and gave Realists a good chance to write about ordinary, average, contemporary people, and events. The characters usually seemed to be more important than the plot of the story and were usually presented with some kind of ethical dilemma.

In order to create a natural image, plots and language had to be as natural as possible. Realists also saw the ordinary man as an urban bourgeois that was set apart from nature and pressured from the competitive, materialistic society. Because of this, Realists tended to criticize the social environment and morality and were more or less in open revolt against their society. They were also skeptical of organized religions and even questioned the existence of God.

Definition of Naturalism

While naturalism, like realism, aimed at the truthful representation of ordinary life, preferably of the lower classes and especially the peasantry, it differed from realism in three important ways.

First, it lacked the political overtones of the works of the realists who, especially early in their careers, were keen to communicate a sense of social concern. Instead, naturalist artists were out to capture the true character of the scenes they chose to paint, rendering them with the scientific accuracy and detachment of the ethnographer.

Second, while realist painters drew heavily on past art and often acknowledged this practice (see Courbet’s quote above), the naturalists placed a premium on the direct observation of reality. Many of them had received academic training (unlike the realists, who were mostly self-taught) and had learned to carefully record their visual expressions in detailed preliminary drawings and oil sketches.

Some naturalists, such as Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret (1852–1929) and Jules-Alexis Meunier (1863–1942), also used photography as an important intermediary process in the creation of their paintings. Lastly, unlike their academic teachers, the naturalists were drawn to Plein-air painting and often posed their models in the open air, like the impressionists. They did not, however, adopt the “broken” brushwork of the impressionists.

While realism had been at first a French movement, naturalism became an important international style with practitioners across Europe and the United States.

  • British painters George Clausen (1852–1944) and Herbert Henry La Thangue (1859–1929),
  • Americans Thomas Alexander Harrison (known as Alexander, 1853–1930) and Birge Harrison (1854–1929) and Gari Melchers 1860–1932),
  • Scandinavians Albert Edelfelt (1854–1905) and Anders Leonard Zorn (1860–1920),
  • Hungarian Károly Ferenczy (1863–1917), and
  • Belgians Léon Frédéric (1856–1940) and Theodoor Verstraete (1850–1907)

all practiced naturalism well into the twentieth century after modernist movements like expressionism, cubism, and futurism had already been introduced.


While being two separate literary movements, realism and naturalism have been at times used as interchangeable terms, sharing some deep-running similarities:

  1. They are both “basic” views of life and humanity, stripping away the layers of romanticism to present a ” natural” or “real” outlook of the work. They refuse to idealize or flatter the subject. They avoid artificial, fantasy, or supernatural elements.
  2. Both of these pessimistic views emerged in the 19th century, a period known for its trials and turmoil.
  3. God is absent from most of the writing in either category, with writers opting for a focus on the real world.

But despite these similarities, these two literary movements are separate for a reason.


  1. Realism sought to be a faithful representation of life, while naturalism was more like a “chronicle of despair.” In a way, naturalism proceeded from realism, and can be seen as an exaggerated form of realism; it shows humans as being determined by environment, heredity, and social conditions beyond their control, and thus rather helpless to escape their circumstances.
  2. While in realism the main focus was on the middle class and its problems, naturalism often focused on poorly educated or lower-class characters, and on themes involving violence and taboo activities.
  3. While in realism, faithful representation of reality including the details of nature is important, in Naturalism, nature itself is a force, generally a powerful, indifferent mechanism.


What is the difference between realism and naturalism in art?
The difference between Realism and Naturalism in (say) painting, is twofold. First, realism tends to be concerned with content rather than a method. In contrast, naturalism is all about “how” a subject is painted, rather than “who” or “what” it is.
Is Stanislavski naturalism or realism?
Stanislavski was a committed follower of realism throughout his working life. Naturalism is often used to refer to the same things but it can also mean the belief that a human character is formed by what they’ve inherited from their family and environment.
Which came first realism or naturalism?
Realism as a broad movement in art and literature survived until the end of the nineteenth century, but it changed in the 1870s when the artist Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884) introduced a form of painting that today is generally referred to as naturalism, though in the nineteenth century that term was often used.
Who created realism?
Realism as an art movement was led by Gustave Courbet in France. It spread across Europe and was influential for the rest of the century and beyond, but as it became adopted into the mainstream of painting it becomes less common and useful as a term to define artistic style.
Who was the father of naturalism?
The father of naturalism was Émile Zola.