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History of Spanish literature

Realism & Naturalism in Spanish Literature


Realism was created as a response to the prevailing Romanticism of the first half of the 19th century. The Bourgeois revolts of 1848 changed literary tastes. The Bourgeoisie prevailed in these riots and was to become the social class known for excellence in the 20th century. Economic liberalism also appeared with these revolutions. Capitalism triumphed and the country´s wealth shifted. Nobility had based its power on the cradle, meaning that bloodlines and family ties which were clearly fixed had been of the upmost importance. But now huge fortunes were being created. In contrast, the first workers´ movements appeared. Socialism and the idea of the class struggle interrupted the social scene.

In this era of historic changes art began to analyze the reality that surrounded it. In order to elaborate this analysis they changed the way in which they saw life. History and mythology lost their importance as artists started to portray the reality that they lived in.

In literature the novel became the ruling genre, but not the historic or romantic novel, but a truthful depiction of reality. This view split into two interpretations: Realism and Naturalism.

The Realism: This movement searched for the observation of reality in an objective manner. It raised social criticisms and looked for themes that could be extracted from the bourgeoisie. In turn this type of Realism split into two branches. The first being conservative and purely aesthetic, whose main representatives were Juan Valera, author of “Pepita Jimenéz”; and José Maria de Pereda, author of “Peñas arriba”. The other branch was progressive and condemned society. It was characterized by its omniscient narrator who, in a restrained style, always portrayed the protagonist and ideas of the era from a critical viewpoint. The author was a god-like creator of the novel who knew exactly what all the characters were going to do.

Within this sector we also have Leopardo Alas “Clarin” with his novel “La Regenta”; and Benito Pérez Galdós, a very prolific author whose work included the historical paradigm “Episodios Nacionales”. This propelled a profound social change and attacked religious intolerance.

The Naturalism: This was heavily influenced by progressive Realism, but also incorporated the new philosophical tendencies of the era, such as determinism. This was the idea that man was bound to his destiny and could do nothing to change it. It also had origins in the experimental socialism that was prevalent at the time. Man was just a product of the environment that surrounds him, in addition to his heredity.

Its main representatives in Spain were Emilia Pardo Bazán with “Los Pazos de Ulloa” (The Manors of Ulloa), and Vincente Blasco Ibáñez with “La Barraca” and “Cañas y Barro”. These novels portrayed the rural environment of the 19th century.

In conclusion, Realism ended the Romantic idealism. All of the subjectivity of the former movement was displaced by this objective movement. The empiricism (idea that knowledge derives from experience) that started during the Enlightenment reached its zenith in its analysis of society, but through the novel rather than the essay. The diffusion of these ideas was achieved through “folletíns” which were small books sold periodically until they completed a volume.