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The Nineteenth Century: Realism and Symbolism


Society and Culture

  • The late nineteenth century was a period of tremendous change as political empires broke up, nationalism arose, the power of the middle class replaced that of the aristocracy, and colonialism flourished.
  • The Industrial Revolution greatly changed the social and economic structure as steam engines increased the speed of transportation and manufacturing drew the population to urban areas.
  • Despite tendencies toward liberty, growing middle-class values, and industrial progress, opposition emerged that challenged the assumptions of the new social and political order and revolted against the material consequences of the Industrial Revolution.
  • Although there were efforts to revive religious interest, generally institutional religion diminished in influence in the late nineteenth century and was replaced by personal spiritual, moral, or philosophical beliefs.
  • By the late nineteenth century, colonialism had expanded so that 67 percent of the earth fell under European rule, with the most concentrated imperial efforts directed at Africa.
  • Literature emerged as the artistic medium that best expressed the social, economic, and philosophical concerns of the day, moving away from the issues and styles associated with Romanticism earlier in the century.


  • Late-nineteenth-century writers moved toward a new style called “realism” practiced by authors such as Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Maupassant, and Ibsen.
  • Realists sought a truthful portrayal of contemporary life, a “slice of life,” from an objective viewpoint.
  • Similar in principle to realism, “naturalism” placed greater emphasis on science, particularly the effects of heredity and environment on individual action.
  • The most important mid-nineteenth-century writer was Charles Baudelaire, whose writings initiated the movement in poetry that would become known as “symbolism.”
  • Symbolist poets, like Verlaine, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud, believed that the concern of poetry should be the language itself and the expression of the inner self as it is indirectly revealed through the associations attached to words and the relationships between words.
  • Literary perspectives on the effects of colonialism came primarily from Europeans in journals, travel accounts, histories, and political commentary rather than from indigenous authors.