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Realism v/s Impressionism: What is the Difference?

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Realism and Impressionism: They sound like complicated, fancy terms. But, are they? We all have our ways of looking at life. Some live in their dream world (I often call myself an escapist), and others face reality head up. We call the second kind – Realists. But the word has a history behind it – a whole movement dedicated to this approach. And from Realism emerged yet another movement – Impressionism. So before we plunge into these ‘isms’ depths, let’s understand their fundamental difference.

Timelinec. 1840s to 1880sc. 1860s to 1900s
MeaningRealism is the depiction of reality as ‘it is’ in representative art forms such as painting, literature, cinema, etc.Impressionism captures reality from the artist’s perspective in fleeting moments with special light and color effects.
(in Art)
– Focus on minute details and accurate observation

– Use of dark colors to show gritty and ‘ugly’ reality

– Portraying all the details as visible to the eye and not to the mind

– The subject matter is often the urban industrial setting, a commonplace gathering, or the lower-middle-class areas of society

– No unified group of artists under Realism
– Focus on the artist’s perspective of the scenery

– Use of light, vibrant, and unmixed colors to capture the movement of the objects

– Portraying only the appealing or pleasing aspects of the scenery

– The subject matter is the urban setting, but the one that is pleasant to the senses of the audience

– A unified group of artists under Impressionism
(in Literature)
– Focus on facts and the minutest details

– Reliable omniscient narrator

– Organized, slow-moving plot

– Detached storytelling

– Realistic characters with internal motivations

– Themes of hard work, common life, misery, the relationship between society and man

– Straightforward diction and clear use of language
– Focus on the inner ramblings of characters

– Unreliable narrator

– Disorganized plot, no beginning, middle, and end

– Influence of personal feelings and emotions

– Self-conscious, passionate characters

– Play of light and color to create transient effects

– Confused and incomplete sentences, use of interior monologues, and stream-of-consciousness technique

Umm… I understand if the concepts are still a little tricky to comprehend. Well, this is just a glimpse. Let’s look at an in-depth analysis further.

It is natural for impressionism to have emerged from realism. Both the movements have their significance and place in history. Just like we all have our ways of seeing the world and no one way is the right way, let’s see how the artists and writers looked at the world. 

What did they want to show us and why? 

How necessary is it to understand both of their stances? 

And what are the similarities or differences between these two movements?

Although both Realism and Impressionism had their origin in the field of art and painting, in the upcoming sections of the article, our focus will be on literary realism and literary impressionism. 

In the end, you can try to analyze which side relates to you the most – or like me, you too may realize that no person can belong entirely to one idea.

Contents of the Article: –

What is Realism?
– Background of Realism
What is Impressionism?
– Background of Impressionism

Features of Realism
Features of Impressionism

Reading Realism in Literature
Reading Impressionism in Literature

The Difference Between Realism and Impressionism in Literary Works

The Simultaneous Comparison of Realism and Impressionism using Examples

List of Realist and Impressionist Artists


What is Realism?

Realism is a late 19th-century movement that originated in France as an opposite reaction to romanticism and ancient classicism. It focused on depicting reality as it is without idealization or sugar-coating. The writers and artists emphasized accurate observations of the surroundings, the daily struggles of the common man, and the gruesome reality of society. The movement grew out of the need to either change the socioeconomic and political circumstances prevailing at that time or to capture solid details like a photograph does.

Background of Realism

After the industrial revolution, writers felt the need to reconnect with nature and avoid materialistic things. The industries brought crowds of people into the urban setting. This led to overpopulation, congestion, improper living, and sanitary conditions, low wages and excessive work hours, and epidemics. Such a lifestyle made the artists question the disastrous effects of capitalism on the middle and lower-middle classes. While the bourgeois reaped the benefits, the common man succumbed to the miseries. 

Many writers found the solution in Romanticism, a natural and ideal way of life. Reconnecting with one’s feelings and thoughts and strengthening the bond between man and nature were some of the tenets of Romanticism. 

While Romanticism turned out to be a significant movement, it failed to showcase or change the reality of the suffering middle class. As a result, realists believed that art and literature could become a medium of change. They would hold up a mirror to society and present the truth without any idealization. Realists wanted to reproduce the ignored aspects of modern life and society in their works. Germany had already begun with anti-Romanticism. 

Other factors such as the rise of professional journalism, Auguste Comte’s positivist theory (the perfect methodology to study social science), and the development of photography (which captures the details accurately) gave realism a quick boost. 

What is Impressionism?

Impressionism is a late 19th-century art movement that began in France as an answer to the limitations of Realism. Although it shared its interest with realism in depicting reality, the impressionists only wanted to portray the pleasing aspects of a scene. They did not focus on morbid details and favored imaginative idealization over actual representation. They made loose brush strokes and used pure colors to catch the “impression” of fleeting movements of light and atmosphere. 

Background of Impressionism

Realist paintings and literature became too grim and horrific as time passed. Impressionists perceived reality as fleeting and momentary. It is like when you pass by a busy street many scenes catch your eye – the colors, the shades, movements. You only get a single glance to create an image in your head of what is in front of you. Outlines are blurred, light is constantly shifting, and shapes are changing. What the artist preserves at this moment is what we call an impressionist painting. 

Literary impressionism thus focuses on fragmentary episodes inside the characters’ minds. Characters don’t see the world as it is but as an accumulation of their experiences and preconceived notions. Although the character is still describing the external world, the narration is unreliable because the description is based on subjective experiences than objective reality. 

Features of Realism

Realist writers used different modes of writing to portray reality. Some used comedy, some used satire, and some directly touched the nerve of society. Now, let’s look at some of its features –

  1. The foremost feature of realist writing is to provide accurate details of the facts and the surrounding. To draw a clear picture of the situation, the writer cannot leave behind any points that they find unimportant. The personal opinion of the writer cannot change the description of the scene.
  2. There is an omniscient narrator present who narrates the events from an unbiased and objective perspective. Because the narrator is omniscient, they also become reliable narrators who are not influenced by the characters’ thoughts or actions.
  3. The characters are rounded and complex. Just as in real life, one cannot label a person ‘good’ or ‘bad’ sharply, the characters in realistic novels, too, do not fall under rigid stereotypes. The characters make the novel. Their circumstances are more essential than the plot. Because they are based on real life, they are highly relatable.
  4. The plot is slow-moving and there is no fixed climax that would provide poetic justice (people getting paid according to their karma). There is order to the plot and the events are sequenced in a way that would help the reader grasp the situation as one moves along.
  5. The diction is clear and straightforward. Descriptions of the surroundings enhance the picture for the reader. The structure of language provides harmony and order to the story.
  6. Realist writers reject idealization and imaginative exaggeration (except for caricaturist or satirical writing). They showcase things objectively even if it is unexpected or unacceptable. Their only concern is truthful representation from a detached perspective. 

They focus on the underprivileged sections of society, tell stories that no one pays attention to, and give voice to marginalized communities. The major themes in such novels include misery and suffering, hard work and labor, internal and external struggles, and commonplace problems.

Features of Literary Impressionism

Literary Impressionism is the transition from 19th-century realism to 20th-century modernism. Because it falls in between two movements, literary impressionism shares many of its features with its predecessor and successor. 

  1. Like an impressionist painting, impressionist writing captures fleeting moments. The external world is unfolded for the reader through the characters’ eyes. The focus is to portray the reality but from a specialized angle that is specific to a character.
  2. Because the world is viewed through multiple perspectives of different characters, they are often liable to be unreliable narrators. It is difficult to ascertain reality when there are multiple viewpoints on a single event.
  3. The writer focuses on the characters’ consciousness and perceptions of the external world. Their age, appearances, background, and material aspects become insignificant in front of their thoughts and emotions. Indeterminacy and uncertainty become the norm as the novel progresses.
  4. The plot has no order, boundaries are blurred, and events are disorganized. The episodes are fragmentary, involving recollection of memories or contemplation of the irrelevant. The discontinuity means there are no outlined beginnings, middles, and ends.
  5. The use of language shows a play of light and color. Also, time plays a crucial role. Sometimes a single moment stretches to eternity or eternities pass by in a single moment. The writing style gives a transient impression of reality.
  6. The use of vivid colors, the rush of simultaneous images, and strong impressions are a few techniques used by impressionist writers.
  7. It is not concerned as much with truth as it is with the interaction of the world with the mind; the impressions the world makes on the viewer.

Reading Realism in Literature

(The list is just for a beginning study of Realism.)

Madame BovaryNovelGustave Flaubert
La Comédie HumaineSeries of novelsHonoré de Balzac
MiddlemarchNovelGeorge Eliot
A Tale of Two CitiesNovelCharles Dickens
Oliver TwistNovelCharles Dickens
The Gilded Age NovelMark Twain
The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnNovelMark Twain
Anna KareninaNovelLeo Tolstoy
War and PeaceNovelLeo Tolstoy
The IdiotNovelFyodor Dostoyevsky
Crime and PunishmentNovelFyodor Dostoyevsky
The AwakeningNovelKate Chopin
The Rise of Silas LaphamNovelWilliam Dean Howells
The Grapes of WrathNovelJohn Steinback
Documents of Modern Literary RealismCollection of Essays on RealismEdited by George Joseph Becker

Now that we have covered Realism, let’s move on to Impressionism! 

Reading Impressionism in Literature

(The list is just for a beginning study of Impressionism.)

Literary ImpressionismBookMaria Elisabeth Kronegger
Literary Impressionism and Modernist AestheticsBookJesse Matz
A Sense of Shock: The Impact of Impressionism on Modern British and Irish WritingBookAdam Parkes
On ImpressionismEssayFord Madox Ford
Joseph Conrad: A Personal RemembranceMemoirFord Madox Ford
A Good SoldierNovelFord Madox Ford
Conclusion to Studies in the History of RenaissanceConclusion to a bookWalter Pater
Preface to The Nigger of the NarcissusPreface to a novelJoseph Conrad
Confessions of a Young ManMemoirGeorge Moore
Impressions and OpinionsBookGeorge Moore
The Ambassadors NovelHenry James
Modern FictionEssayVirginia Woolf
Mrs. DallowayNovelVirginia Woolf
Heart of DarknessNovelJoseph Conrad

I believe a live example will help you understand the difference better. So check out the comparison between a realist work and an impressionist work ahead –

The Difference Between Realism and Impressionism in Literary Works

In this section, we will take an extract from two texts and compare their features to differentiate between realism and impressionism in literature. The texts I have chosen are –

Dickens’ Oliver Twist

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Extract from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Oliver was about to say that he would go along with anybody with great readiness, when, glancing upward, he caught sight of Mrs. Mann, who had got behind the beadle’s chair, and was shaking her fist at him with a furious countenance. He took the hint at once, for the fist had been too often impressed upon his body not to be deeply impressed upon his recollection.

“Will she go with me?” inquired poor Oliver.

“No, she can’t,” replied Mr. Bumble. “But she’ll come and see you sometimes.”

This was no very great consolation to the child. Young as he was, however, he had sense enough to make a feint of feeling great regret at going away. It was no very difficult matter for the boy to call tears into his eyes. Hunger and recent ill-usage are great assistants if you want to cry; and Oliver cried very naturally indeed. Mrs. Mann gave him a thousand embraces, and what Oliver wanted a great deal more, a piece of bread and butter, less he should seem too hungry when he got to the workhouse. With the slice of bread in his hand, and the little brown-cloth parish cap on his head, Oliver was then led away by Mr. Bumble from the wretched home where one kind word or look had never lighted the gloom of his infant years. And yet he burst into an agony of childish grief, as the cottage-gate closed after him. Wretched as were the little companions in misery he was leaving behind, they were the only friends he had ever known; and a sense of his loneliness in the great wide world, sank into the child’s heart for the first time.

(Dickens 20-21)

Extract from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

His remark did not seem at all surprising. It was just like Marlow. It was accepted in silence. No one took the trouble to grunt even; and presently he said, very slow—

“I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago—the other day. . . . Light came out of this river since—you say Knights? Yes; but it is like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker—may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday. Imagine the feelings of a commander of a fine—what d’ye call ’em?—trireme in the Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north; run overland across the Gauls in a hurry; put in charge of one of these craft the legionaries,—a wonderful lot of handy men they must have been too—used to build, apparently by the hundred, in a month or two, if we may believe what we read. Imagine him here—the very end of the world, a sea the color of lead, a sky the color of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina—and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sandbanks, marshes, forests, savages,—precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay—cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death,—death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been dying like flies here. Oh yes—he did it. Did it very well, too, no doubt, and without thinking much about it either, except afterwards to brag of what he had gone through in his time, perhaps. They were men enough to face the darkness.

(Conrad 7-8)

The Simultaneous Comparison of Realism and Impressionism using Examples

AspectOliver Twist (Realism)Heart of Darkness (Impressionism)
LanguageThe language used in the first extract has clear diction and complete sentences. There is order to the extract because of the proper breaking of paragraphs and coherence of ideas. The language used in the second extract has jumbled ideas that are represented by broken sentences, excessive punctuation, long sentences instead of full stops, and incomplete syntax. There is no order to the ideas.
CharactersA lot about Oliver is told in this single passage. He is presented as any ordinary child would be in his circumstances. Other characters come and go as real-life incidents cannot be borne in isolation throughout. Oliver’s description, wants, motives, and reactions – all are presented in the extract.One can only notice Marlow, the protagonist, talking. We cannot directly infer anything about Marlow other than his jumbled storytelling. Marlow’s motives are not listed out but dismissed by the remark that “It was just like Marlow.”
Plot / StructureThe plot is clear and organized. One can clearly understand what the story is about. The events are arranged chronologically. The story moves at a steady pace.There is no understanding of the plot whatsoever. Disorganization and discontinuity of not only the events but also the ideas are evident. The story is lost.
NarrationThe narration is straightforward and done by an omniscient narrator. There is the depiction of the surroundings and the characters’ motives + actions. There is detachment while storytelling.Although the narration is in the third person, it is influenced by the character’s thoughts and emotions. The character leads the storytelling in a confused manner. The narration is broken and rapid.
ThemeSocial realism – The story is about child labor, the inhumane conditions at charitable institutions, starvation, poverty, etc. It depicts the reality of those times. The plot is circumstantial.Imperialism, madness, absurdism, futility, contradictions, etc. – all these themes are more abstract and can only be depicted through characters’ intentions and actions. 
Details and TechniquesThere are detailed descriptions of the characters’ circumstances and reactions to it. The use of less dialogue makes the narration more controlled by the narrator. Writers use light and colors to portray the surroundings as well as represent abstract notions. There is the employment of imagery. And the entire sequence is a monologue.

For further reading, follow the list of writers  –

List of Realist and Impressionist Artists

List of ArtistsRealismImpressionism
In Art– Gustave Courbet
– Rosa Bonheur
– Jean-François Millet
– Édouard Manet
– Honoré Daumier 
– Edward Hopper
– Claude Monet
– Edgar Degas
– Frédéric Bazille
– Berthe Morisot
– Camille Pissarro
– Pierre-Auguste Renoir
– Alfred Sisley
– Mary Cassatt
– Gustave Caillebotte
– Édouard Manet
In LiteratureHonoré de Balzac

– Charles Dickens
– Anthony Trollope
– George Eliot
– Jane Austen
– Daniel Defoe
– Tobias Smollett
– Henry Fielding

– Fyodor Dostoyevsky
– Leo Tolstoy
– Anton Chekhov
– Ivan Turgenev
– Maxim Gorky

– William Dean Howells
– Mark Twain
– Kate Chopin
– John Steinback

– Henrik Ibsen
– August Strindberg
Major writers in Impressionism:
– Joseph Conrad
– Stephen Crane
– Ford Madox Ford
– Henry James
– Marcel Proust
– Thomas Hardy

Other Writers in Impressionism:
– Frank Norris
– W. H. Hudson
– H. G. Wells
– Jack London
– Rudyard Kipling
– Erskine Childers
– R. B. Cunninghame Graham
– Edgar Rice Burroughs


Thus, the main difference between realism and impressionism is their approach to reality. While realism wants to present reality truthfully and persuasively, impressionism wants to capture reality as a fleeting moment from the viewer’s perspective. Realism stands on objectivity, and impressionism on a subjective retelling of reality. Ultimately, the aim of both these movements was to showcase the truth but their ideas of the real world were different.

So, did you decide which lens you would like to put on?

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Jui Shirvalkar-Chandurkar

Founder, A Good Library

Documenting my study notes in this cute little study library here!

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