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The Realistic Period began in 1865 and lasted until the dawn of the twentieth century (Holman 393). Realism was a concept born out of the desire of authors such as Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Henry James to distance themselves from the fantastical and idealistic world of Romantic literature (394). Rather than penning romantic tales about honorable heroes and damsels in distress, the authors of Realism focused on the ordinary lives and adventures of middle-class people (Baym 7). Realistic writers held a mutual distaste for the Romantic writings of the past and were all in agreement on the general subject matter about which they wrote.
Despite these unifying characteristics, writers of the Realistic Era each displayed unique writing techniques, styles, and agendas that differed greatly from one another (Abrams 255). As a result of these differences, distinctive styles of Realism emerged throughout the era. Among these styles were Social Realism, a writing style championed by the Soviet Union, and Magic Realism, a genre built upon the realistic depiction of dreams and fairy tales (Abrams 256).
Mark Twain’s novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic example of Realistic Literature due to its ordinary subject matter, usage of simplistic language, and portrayal of race relations in the mid-1800s.
Realistic authors prided themselves in accurately portraying the daily life of the average and middle-class. Realistic writing can be defined as any literary composition “that aims at an interpretation of the actualities of any aspect of life, free from subjective prejudice, idealism, or romantic color (Hart 628).” In the same way, Holman describes Realism as a term “loosely synonymous with verisimilitude,” meaning that Realistic works are based upon truth rather than inconceivable or impractical scenarios (391).
Both Hart and Holman are correct; the Realistic Era of writing focused on the ordinary aspects of life such as social classes, racial issues, and the everyday struggles faced by society’s most insignificant members.
While Realistic authors like Twain were committed to writing novels that accurately demonstrated life in the mid-nineteenth century, Twain was quick to weave comedic themes and satire into his plots. Twain utilizes satire in order to expresse his distaste for Romanticism. He pokes fun at the movement repeatedly throughout the novel, using his “comedic genius” to overexaggerate the characteristics of a romantic like Tom to the point of absurdity (Baym 8). Twain especially demonstrates this tendency towards the end of Huck Finn when describing Tom’s elaborate plans to free Jim. Tom devises scheme after scheme in order to free Jim the way that all of “the best authorities” in his Romantic novels did (Twain 363). Meanwhile, Huck, clearly a representation of Realism, has a difficult time understanding why they cannot just break Jim out quickly and quietly. He voices these concerns to Tom, telling him that crafting a rope ladder for Jim’s escape was “one of the most jackass ideas [he] ever struck” (368). Despite Huck’s concerns and Jim’s confusion, Tom, ever the romantic, insists that all the detailed steps of his plan to free Jim would be worth the adventure. Through his usage of satire, Twain effectively mocks the flowery literary style that he so deeply despises.
One of the recurring themes of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the emphasis Twain places on the differences between social classes. Twain’s incorporation of social classes as a major theme in his novel further highlights the realistic nature of his writings. Rather than narrating his story from the point of view of an educated and upper-class man, Twain writes from the perspective of a teenager who is somewhat literate. Huck has lived in extreme poverty his entire life, a fact that becomes overwhelmingly obvious when he first moves in with the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson. Huck wears clean clothes only when forced (TEXT EVIDENCE) and has a very shaky and weak understanding of the true meaning of the Christian faith (EXAMPLE). Additionally, though he is somewhat educated, Huck’s lowly social status still makes itself abundantly clear to the audience due to his usage of colloquial language.
Another demonstration of Twain’s realistic depiction of social classes is the way that Jim is treated by white people. At the beginning of the novel, Huck and Tom Sawyer play jokes on Jim and treat him poorly because they simply do not know better. They have grown up in a time where “low-down abolitionists” (CITE) are social pariahs rather than heroes, a time where slaves are all considered to be simple-minded and dumb. As a realistic writer, Twain refuses to shield his audience from the vulgarity of language towards blacks during the 1800s, calling Jim a “nigger” 219 times throughout the novel (Sloane 13).
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