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Realism v/s Neorealism: What is the Difference?

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It is often that when a movement emerges from its predecessor, the main motive is to go beyond the limitations of the old one, develop a contrasting theory, and extend the scope of the original. But when Neorealism was derived from Realism, it meant a revival, not an extension. The word “Neo” means new, and the context of Neo-Realism was indeed different than Realism. 

So how were Realism and Neo-Realism different? What had happened to Realism that it needed a revival? And what consisted of this “new” realism?

Let’s try to understand the context of this article! 

Realism v/s Neorealism:

Realism Neorealism
Timelinec. the 1840s to 1880sc. the 1940s to 1950s
OriginRealism began as an art movement. Neorealism began as a movement of cinema. 
InfluenceRealism spread to different parts of Europe, influencing other art forms such as literature, architecture, political theories, etc. Neorealism was centered in Italy after WWII. It is so geography-specific that it is often referred to as Italian Neorealismo. The primary focus of the neorealist movement was cinema. 
Reaction toIt was a reaction against classicism and romanticism which ornamented or decorated reality too much. It was a reaction against the fascist regime in Italy that existed up to the end of WWII. Also, a reaction to modernism, which had strayed away from reality. 
FocusRealism encompassed a lot of social, economic, and political views. Neorealism focused more on the Marxist and socialist lenses making it more economically and politically specific. 
StyleEvolved into naturalism. A sharp contrast to the naturalist style. 

Both movements wanted to depict people’s suffering in their works in the most real sense. Their characters belonged to middle-class or underprivileged sections of society who had to endure many social, economic, and political hardships. Although both movements aimed to bring change, neorealism was much more intense and serious in its approach. It also represented the bourgeois society which felt devoid of meaning for their existence after experiencing the war.

While both the movements had their era and importance, the literature on Realism was extensive. Neorealism was more geo-specific and associated itself with the leftist intellectual community. In the article, we will try to understand both the movements, their aims, and their contribution to literature. 


What is Realism?
– Background of Realism

Features of Realism

Reading Realism in Literature

What is Neo-Realism?
– Background of Neo-Realism

Features of Neo-Realism
– Features of Neorealist Cinema:
– Features of Neorealist Literature

Reading Neo-Realism in Literature

Is there a difference between Realism and Neo-Realism?

List of Realist and Neo-Realist Authors


What is Realism?

Realism, as the word suggests, is a late 19th-century realistic movement that originated in France as a reaction to romanticism and ancient classicism. It focused on depicting reality as it is without idealization or ornamentation. The writers and artists emphasized accurate observations of the surroundings, the daily struggles of the common man, and the terrifying reality of society. The movement emerged out of the need to change the socioeconomic and political circumstances prevailing at that time or sometimes to capture solid details like a photograph.

Background of Realism:

After the industrial revolution, the situations in the urban setting changed drastically. There was an increase in industrial jobs, rural to urban population shift, congestion, unsanitary living and working conditions, excessive hours and low wages, and the emergence of the middle class from all these factors.

Many writers were dissatisfied with these social and political conditions. They 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. 

Romanticism turned out to be a significant movement, but it failed to showcase or change the reality of the suffering middle class. As a result, Realism emerged. The realists believed that art and literature could become a medium of change. They decided to draw/paint realistic scenes of the society without idealizing it as the romantics did. Their focus was the accurate depiction of reality. By this time, Germany had already begun with an anti-romanticism movement.

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. 

Now let’s look at its features. 

Features of Realism:

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

  1. The most important feature of realistic writing is to provide accurate details of the facts and the surrounding. The writer cannot bring their opinions into the work if it distorts the representation of reality.
  2. The narration is from an objective perspective done by an omniscient narrator. These narrators stick to the facts without the interruption or influence of the characters and their emotions. That’s why they could be called reliable narrators.
  3. The characters are rounded and complex. The writer doesn’t stereotype the characters of their story into rigid categories of good and bad. In reality, people are not essentially good or bad either. They are a mixture of both, and their circumstances make their reality. Thus, the characters make a realistic novel. We find them highly relatable because they are drawn after people like us.
  4. The plot is slow-moving. On the other hand, there is an order to it. The events are organized in a linear pattern that would help the reader grasp the situation as one moves along. The climax is not predictable. It doesn’t provide poetic justice (people getting paid according to their karma) at the end. 
  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 the reader finds them unexpected or unacceptable. Their only concern is truthful representation from a detached perspective. 
  7. Realist writers focus on the underprivileged sections of society and tell stories that no one wants to hear. They give voice to marginalized communities. The main themes in such novels include misery and suffering, hard work and labor, internal and external struggles, and commonplace problems.

For further studies on Realism, you can check out the table below. 

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

If you feel you are well-versed with the basics of Realism after this section, it is time we move on to Neorealism now.

What is Neo-Realism:

Neorealism, also known as Italian Neorealismo, is the supposed revival of Realism in Italy after the end of World War II, along with the fall of Mussolini’s fascist regime. It was centered around cinema and later went on to influence art, literature, and politics. Shortlived, Neorealism began in c. 1940s and saw its end very soon c. 1950s. The directors focused on a documentary style of representation to show the terrifying aftermath of the war and its destruction. 

Background of Neo-Realism:

Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy had a lot of restrictions on how films were supposed to be. During the 1930s, Italy produced a wide range of National Cinema and could be considered at its peak. Motion pictures were made in Cinecitta Studios in Rome. The “white-telephone movies” (showing the bourgeois life and their affairs) were common back then.  

After fascism, studios were closed. Italy was swept under Hollywood’s “feel-good” themes for its cinema. Amidst this, a few directors decided to favor reality over fantasy. These neorealist directors had no financial support or professional equipment to make top-notch films like before. Their left-wing ideologies seeped into whatever low-budgeted, realist movies they made and displayed opposition to fascism.

Although these films were non-commercial productions, they became popular among the masses during the 1940s for their honesty and realistic depiction of the surroundings. They were political and portrayed the brutality of war. By the 1950s, studios were reopened and commercial movies were back in business. This marked the end of neorealist cinema, which was later to be revived as Poetic Realism in the 1960s and 70s.

How about we look into the features of Neorealism ahead?

Features of Neo-Realism:

Neorealism shares a few features with its parent movement – Realism. Yet, it has distinctive characteristics because of its narrowed focus and left-wing tendencies. 

Let’s first check out neorealist cinema –

 (Note: Cinema is not our forte. These are just some basic ideas about neorealist cinema to understand the features of neorealist literature better.)

Features of Neorealist Cinema:

  1. It was concerned with the immediate reality of society. Visual authenticity was essential. 
  2. The characters were straightforward and realistic. The filmmakers left out the psychoanalysis or over-dramatization of such characters. They projected the miseries and suffering of their characters in a documentary style without alterations or modifications.
  3. The camera functioned like an object outside the scene covering reality through an unfiltered lens. It was more of a spectator looking at things without any personal attachments. 
  4. The budget for such films was low. The directors shot in actual surroundings as there were no studios. Professional equipment, as well as professional actors, were scarcely used
  5. The shots were long-held, showing the same setting for a longer period than in other movies for the audience to get a piece of depth and reality of the situation.

For a detailed understanding of neorealist cinema, visit here and here.

Features of Neorealist Literature:

Neorealist Literature had begun in the 1920s with Salvatore Quasimodo’s poetry but was suppressed by the fascist regime back then. When Neorealism was revived by the cinema after the war, the writers too shifted their lens and focused on resistance against fascism as well as depicting life after the war. Following are some features of Neorealist Literature:

  1. As mentioned above, the stories revolved around resistance against fascism and the aftermath of WWII.
  2. The characters were put into a social and historical context. Their experiences, suffering, and misery were specific to the prevailing conditions. The writers wanted to depict human emotions and experiences through subjective narrators but their lens was objective and focused on in-depth facts.
  3. The neorealist writings wanted to awaken the national identity of Italy in its readers. There was a binary representation of identity – fascist/post-war Italy, inauthentic/authentic, false/truly compassionate. 
  4. The theme of compassion played a major role in neorealist writings. Either compassion or the lack of it was central in presenting the realistic circumstances after the war.
  5. Although Neorealism was supposed to be “new” Realism, there was a continuity with past styles and writings. The writers tried to understand their position in the present in relation to past developments.  They situated themselves “in the moment” but understood that the moment had emerged from the past.
  6. Neorealist writing brought forth the unnoticed or ignored stories of the lower class. They made the readers look at the unpleasing reality. Even the language used was regional and plain. The use of dialects and slang (colloquial language) gave it a more realistic touch.
  7. The writers used myth and symbols to convey underlying emotions behind objective reality.
  8. Fiction, memoirs, poetry, essays – all kinds of literature became a part of the Neorealist movement.

Again, for a comprehensive understanding, you can refer to the following table:

Reading Neo-Realism in Literature:

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

The Logic of Anarchy: Neorealism to Structural RealismStudyBarry Buzan
Neorealism and Literature – Neorealism and the “New” ItalyStudyMilli Konewko
Realism and Neorealism in Contemporary Italian LiteratureStudyNicolo Chiaromonte
A Guide to Contemporary Italian Literature: From Futurism to NeorealismStudySergio Pacific
Meta-mimesis? The Problem of British Postmodern Realism (Paper)StudyAmy J. Elias
La ciociaraFictionAlberto Moravia
Il conformista (The Conformist)FictionAlberto Moravia
Poems in Poesie nuovePoetrySalvatore Quasimodo
Giorno dopo giorno (Day After Day)FictionSalvatore Quasimodo
Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (The Path to the Nest of Spiders)FictionItalo Calvino
Ultimo viene il corvo (The Crow Comes Last)Short StoriesItalo Calvino
If this is a manMemoirPrimo Levi
FontamaraFictionIgnazio Silone
Conversazione in Sicilia (Conversation in Sicily)FictionElio Vittorini
Cronache di poveri amanti (A Tale of Poor Lovers)FictionVasco Pratolini
Uomini e no (Men and Non-men)Personal AccountElio Vittorini
La pelle (The Skin)FictionCurzio Malaparte

But the main question remains – is there a difference between realism and neorealism? If yes, what is it? 

Is there a difference between Realism and Neo-Realism?

Yes. There is a difference. 

  • Although both movements aimed to depict reality, their realities were different. Realism was not as narrowly-focused as Neorealism. 
  • Neorealism was more intense in its approach and the experiences of the writers were raw and immediate. While Realism had an expanse of many years, Neorealism was short-lived and thus very specific to its time (the historical context).
  • Also, Realism was extensive geographically. Indeed, Neorealism spread throughout Europe, but its birth and significance belonged to Italy. 
  • Politically, Neorealism had stronger alignments with leftist intellectuals and an inclination toward Marxism and socialism. Realism didn’t have a rigid political stance.
  • In short, if Realism was a vast country in terms of space, time, and context, Neorealism was a small town. 
  • The name Neorealism itself suggests that it was a new kind of Realism that conditions demanded. It wasn’t just a revival of the old practices, but a necessary reaction to the existing scenario. The modifications were specific to the context in which these writers wrote.

List of Realist and Neo-Realist Authors:

List of ArtistsRealismNeorealism
Realism in Art
Neorealism in Cinema
– Gustave Courbet
– Rosa Bonheur
– Jean-François Millet
– Édouard Manet
– Honoré Daumier 
– Edward Hopper
– Roberto Rossellini
– Vittorio De Sica
– Luchino Visconti
– Giuseppe De Santis
– Cesare Zavattini
– Federico Fellini
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 IbsenAugust Strindberg
– Salvatore Quasimodo
– Alberto Moravia
– Italo Calvino
– Primo Levi
– Giovanni Verga
– Luigi Capuana
– Elio Vittorini
– Cesare Pavese
– Vasco Pratolini
– Ignazio Silone
– Anna Banti
– Elsa Morante
– Carlo Levi
– Vasco Pratolini
– Carlo Bernari
– Carlo Cassola
– Curzio Malaparte 
– Carlo Emilio Gadda


Realism and Neorealism emerged from the same motives but in different eras and under different circumstances. Both movements wanted to show reality as it is. Realism was extensive and widely spread out, whereas Neorealism was Italy-centric. The themes they represented were also according to the then-prevailing conditions. Realism focused on the aftermath of the industrial revolution, Neorealism on the aftermath of WWII, and the fall of the fascist regime in Italy. 

Both these movements left their influence on the world. Realism brought naturalism, while Neorealism influenced the new French Wave and British Wave. Their legacy, thus, remains and we can find their traces in modern/postmodern literature today.

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