Literary social realism: what it is, how it arises, main characteristics and authors


What is social realism?

It is an expression that emerged during the second generation of the post-war period around the 50’s in Europe, more precisely in Spain, which is why it was also known as a type of literature applied to the mid-century generation. Thus, in this expression the authors sought the reproduction of social reality as close as possible according to their context, marked not only by a social intention, but also by a realistic aesthetic.

What is social realism

Another way of defining social realism is to approach the notion that it is a literary trend or current that intends to expand and express social problems through its works, especially novels in which the scenarios and the development of the story are approached from central elements such as the predominance of dialogues, the handling of characters, linear temporality, among others.

How did social realism emerge?

Now, as for the emergence of this type of literature, it is necessary to place ourselves in the post-war period, since it was considered as an emerging movement of this situation that was born from the Tremendism. It was born in Spain during the 50’s at a time when the country had just gone through the Civil War and was beginning to recover slowly after the pessimism faced in the first generation.

During this time, certain sectors of economic activity such as tourism and industry began to resume, which started to allow the country to recover. This will be key to the change in the lifestyle of the population to the same extent that migration in rural and urban environments increased. Faced with this process, young people who as children saw the war and the post-war period, assume the reality from another perspective, much more critical and questioning of aspects such as power and social organization, as well as the social division referring to winners and losers, aspects that will be key to the expression in the university environment.

Development of social realism in literature

To understand the development of this type of literature, it is necessary to start from its division into two distinctive currents, among which we can identify objectivism and critical realism. Let us see how each of them works:


It is characterized because it follows the structure of the North American behaviorist narrative, as well as the French nouveau roman. From them, objectivism will take the objectivism of the descriptions, the usefulness and relevance of the environment, as well as of the objects and the simultaneous times within the narrative.

Critical realism

It refers to a position that defends that although reality exists, it is independent of the human being and therefore, it is not possible to know it in its totality, so that we have a limited knowledge about it.

Main characteristics of social realism

It is time to move on to review some aspects in greater detail to understand in the big picture, what social realism meant for literature, its contributions and more. Let’s look at the main characteristics:

Portrait of reality

The key point of this type of texts is the search to transmit reality as it is, that is why we talk about a portrait and a representation of it. Some of the issues that it usually includes are the concrete descriptions of the environments, as well as the environment in which it is located.

Themes of social realism

Within this type of texts, themes related to the daily life of human beings are frequent. In this sense, it is possible to identify recurring themes such as work, life in the countryside, wars and confrontations, as well as the development of youth, among others.

Social Criticism

One of the main characteristics that should be taken into account when reviewing social realism is the social criticism it expresses. This criticism emanates from the portrait it makes of social conditions, in such a way that it represents these deficiencies and evils according to the context to be able to go from there to a larger scale social criticism.

Importance for social concerns

Closely related to the previous point, social realism leaves aside the existential vision that had been developing in recent years and chooses to focus its interest on the concerns that afflict the society of which it is a part.

Specific human groups

The construction and representation of characters is another important axis in the development of social realism, given that they are usually individual protagonists who represent a specific social class, which is why we speak of human and social groups that are presented in a specific way.

Space of development

Another feature that should be distinguished from social realism is linked to the space in which the events take place. In this case, we are talking about a narrative, especially a novel, which takes place in a specific space, most of the time. This builds a kind of condensation, not only spatial but also temporal, which is rarely changed. This element responds to the fact that for the authors the present time is the central axis.

Influence of cinema

One of the most distinctive aspects of social realism has to do precisely with the influence it receives from cinema, given that it sustains it to the extent that it works the objectivity of the narrator as a kind of camera that has the environment at its disposal. To this, elements such as dialogues and actions are added in order to build a particular scenario, including languages of different registers.

Temporality in the texts

An important characteristic that we cannot fail to mention in this type of texts is related to the temporality that is marked in its narrative. Thus, the temporality of social realism follows a narrative linearity in which there is a following of a temporal order in which there is no fragmentation of time or jumps to the past or to the future. In addition to this, authors usually include several small stories that, in their general construction, enrich the narrative of the main plot.

Language of social realism

The texts of this current are fundamentally characterized by having an extremely clear language in which the author expresses concise ideas that allow him to reduce the difficulty for reading comprehension. It is also worth mentioning that the language is adapted to the characters in terms of their social condition, a key aspect being the social portrait.

Predominance of dialogue

The authors of social realism pay attention to dialogue and make it a very important element that permeates much of the work, which reduces the role of the narrator in it. Thus, it is precisely in the dialogues where the reader finds the characterization of the characters, as well as their attitudes and external movements. A particularity that avoids finding the characterization within them.

Authors of social realism

Authors of social realism

As for the most outstanding authors of this literary trend, we find Luis Goytisolo, Juan Marsé, Juan Benet, Ignacio Aldecoda, Camilo José Cela, Miguel Delibes, Rafael Sanchez Ferlosillo, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, Carmen Martín Gaite, among others. Authors such as Stendhal, Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, William Makepeace Thackeray, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, Leopoldo Alas “Clarín”, Benito Pérez Galdós, among others, have also been classified within this current.

It is also important to consider some works, among them La Colmena by Camilo José Cela, Armancia and Rojo y negro by Stendhal, Memorias de un loco, Noviembre, Fragmentos de un estilo cualquiera, Madame Bobary, La educación sentimental and La tentación de San Antonio by Flaubert, Casa desolada and The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club by Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Vanity Fair, Dostoevsky’s The Gambler, Crime and Punishment and Remembrances of the House of the Dead, Tolstoy’s Anna Keranina and War and Peace, Chekhov’s The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard and The Bear and the Hand Petition, and Galdós’ The Disinherited and Misericordia, among others.

Keep in mind that if you want to know more about other currents, movements, genres and moments of development of literature, in our section Types of art you can find a section dedicated to this artistic expression where you can find much more information to continue learning.