Characters' Thoughts and Motivations in Psychological Realism

This genre focuses on why characters do what they do

Raskolnikov's nightmare
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Psychological realism is a literary genre that came to prominence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s a highly character-driven genre of fiction writing, as it focuses on the motivations and internal thoughts of characters.

A writer of psychological realism seeks to not only show what the characters do but also explain why they take such actions. There's often a larger theme in psychological realist novels, with the author expressing an opinion on a societal or political issue through the choices of his or her characters.

However, psychological realism should not be confused with psychoanalytic writing or surrealism, two other modes of artistic expression that flourished in the 20th century and focused on psychology in unique ways.

Dostoevsky and Psychological Realism

An excellent example of psychological realism (although the author himself didn’t necessarily agree with the classification) is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s "Crime and Punishment."

This 1867 novel (first published as a series of stories in a literary journal in 1866) centers on Russian student Rodion Raskolnikov and his plan to murder an unethical pawnbroker. The novel spends a great deal of time focusing on his self-recrimination and attempts to rationalize his crime.

Throughout the novel, we meet other characters who are engaged in distasteful and illegal acts motivated by their desperate financial situations: Raskolnikov's sister plans to marry a man who can secure her family's future, and his friend Sonya prostitutes herself because she is penniless.

In understanding the characters' motivations, the reader gains a better understanding of Dostoevsky's overarching theme: the conditions of poverty.

American Psychological Realism: Henry James

American novelist Henry James also used psychological realism to great effect in his novels. James explored family relationships, romantic desires, and small-scale power struggles through this lens, often in painstaking detail.

Unlike Charles Dickens' realist novels (which tend to level direct criticisms at social injustices) or Gustave Flaubert's realist compositions (which are made up of lavish, finely-ordered descriptions of varied people, places, and objects), James' works of psychological realism focused largely on the inner lives of prosperous characters.

His most famous novels—including "The Portrait of a Lady," "The Turn of the Screw," and "The Ambassadors"—portray characters who lack self-awareness but often have unfulfilled yearnings.

Other Examples of Psychological Realism

James' emphasis on psychology in his novels influenced some of the most important writers of the modernist era, including Edith Wharton and T.S. Eliot.

Wharton's "The Age of Innocence," which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1921, offered an insider's view of upper-middle-class society. The novel's title is ironic since the main characters, Newland, Ellen, and May, operate in circles that are anything but innocent. Their society has strict rules about what is and isn't proper, despite what its inhabitants want.

As in "Crime and Punishment," the inner struggles of Wharton's characters are explored to explain their actions. At the same time, the novel paints an unflattering picture of their world.

Eliot's best-known work, the poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," also falls into the category of psychological realism, although it also could be classified as surrealist or romantic as well. It's an example of "stream of consciousness" writing, as the narrator describes his frustration with missed opportunities and lost love.

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Kennedy, Patrick. "Characters' Thoughts and Motivations in Psychological Realism." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Kennedy, Patrick. (2023, April 5). Characters' Thoughts and Motivations in Psychological Realism. Retrieved from Kennedy, Patrick. "Characters' Thoughts and Motivations in Psychological Realism." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).