19th Century Literature: Historical Context, Characteristics, Themes, Authors

The literature of the 19th century developed in the midst of the various liberal revolutions that paved the way for the establishment of the bourgeoisie. As a result of the reestablishment of monarchies in Europe, the Romanticism movement began, which spread easily thanks to the high levels of literacy reached at the time.

In addition to Romanticism, the literature of the nineteenth century was characterized by the emergence of two other great movements such as realism and naturalism. Each one of them brought with them different and interesting styles, proposals and themes. In the case of Romanticism, its most prominent feature was individualism.

On the other hand, the literature of the nineteenth century handled a significant range of issues. However, the most predominant theme was related to love, nationalism, the Middle Ages , reality and life itself. For example, realism put aside rhetorical ornaments to objectively describe everyday events.

To some extent, the 19th century authors felt some kind of rejection of the modern changes that were coming and decided to anchor themselves in environments undisturbed by man. Some of the most prominent intellectuals were: Walter Scott, Lord Byron, José de Espronceda, Alejandro Dumas, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer and Èmile Zola.

Historic context

As mentioned at the beginning, the literature of the nineteenth century unfolded in a struggle between liberals and conservatives, in which the former almost always had the upper hand.

Later, at the end of the sixties, the industrialization process appeared and the intellectuals reflected the fear of society through texts set in unknown places.

The description of the above panorama was located in Europe, specifically in Spain, where in 1875 the monarchical restoration stage began with the arrival of Alfonso XII to the throne. For a short time, political and social life seemed to gain stability, but the war between Spain and Cuba in 1898 shook the pillars of development.

On the other hand, in Latin America the modernization process was experienced through the rural exodus, at the same time the path towards political freedoms made the writers portray the day to day in their works. All this was mixed with the love themes that arose with the arrival of Romanticism in Argentina through the pen of Esteban Echeverría.


To make references to the characteristics of the literature of the nineteenth century is to stop at the characteristics of the three movements that emerged at this time. The most outstanding aspects are described below:

– Romanticism


This 19th century literary movement emerged in Germany in the 1950s and 1970s. In this sense, its birth dates back to the so-called pre-romantic current, whose main authors were: Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfang von Goethe. From then on the historical novel was developed with the work Willhelm Tell.


One of the main features of Romanticism was the separation of the authors from the collective feeling to give way to the manifestation of individual emotions and thoughts. That meant the maximum expression of “I”. As evidenced in the poem “Once I had a nail” by Rosalía de Castro.

The irrational prevails

The authors of Romanticism gave priority to the fantastic, dreamlike, symbolic and emotional elements within their works. In such a way, reason and logic were put aside. An example of this is “The Student of Salamanca” by Spanish José de Espronceda, where the ghost of a woman appears.

Freedom and idealism

In the literature of the 19th century, freedom was present in the works through the defense and achievement of some ideals, often unattainable. The love, political, social and moral spheres were the most treated. This feature is evident in Bécquer’s “Rima LIII”, in which the idealization of love leads to disappointment.

– Realism


This movement in 19th century literature originated in the late 1940s, as a result of the revolutionary movements that took place in France and resulted in the Second Republic. Consequently, democracy was activated and the working class began to participate in political decisions.

In this sense, writers found it necessary to capture the reality of life in their works. All this from a more objective perspective.


The texts were characterized by being precise and simple, that is to say that the authors put emotions aside to focus on the truth of the everyday. Clarity, conciseness and accuracy were predominant. A prominent representative was Benito Pérez Galdós with works such as: Fortunata y Jacinta or Doña Perfecta.

Predominance of the narrative

The representatives of realism chose the genre of the novel as the main window to expose the political, social, economic and individual realities of the time in which they lived. In this way, intellectuals such as Emilia Pardo Bazán, Leopoldo Alas Clarín, Gustave Flaubert and León Tolstoi stood out.

Constant presence of the omniscient narrator

The writers of the realism movement were in favor of the use of an omniscient narrator. Perhaps that “know-it-all” trait was essential to be able to expose the reality of the world. This characteristic is identified in novels such as: Los pazos de Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán and Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.

– Naturalism


Naturalism as a 19th century movement began to develop in France in the early 1970s.

This current arose from the motivations and concerns of Èmile Zola. The writer used writing as a scientific method in which it was necessary to study through observation, research and documentation of human behavior.


Objectivity was based on the expression of what was real without including feelings or emotions. In this way, the authors employed a know-it-all storyteller to tell the stories. This feature is observable in Federico Gamboa’s work Santa .

Literature as a laboratory

Naturalists used literature as the field to experiment with their characters, therefore the most developed genre was the novel. In this sense, they investigated future assumptions and hypothetical consequences according to their decisions. This characteristic is evident in most of the works of the father of naturalism Èmile Zola.

Pessimism about life and circumstances

Pessimism was an outstanding feature within this current of the nineteenth century. Because naturalists were inclined to reflect reality from a scientific point of view, their works carried the weight of negativity, disease, vices, evil, and other aspects that are part of human life.


The theme of the works of literature of the nineteenth century was subject to the characteristics of the three movements that came to life at that time. So the authors wrote about love, heartbreak, hopelessness, customs, culture, history, everyday life, society and the existence of man.

Authors and representatives

– Spain

Vicente Blasco Ibáñez

– For my country! (1888).

– The black spider (1892).

– Rice and tartana (1894).

– The barrack (1898).

Emilia Pardo Bazán

– The young lady (1885).

– Bucolic (1885).

– The pazos de Ulloa (1886).

– Mother nature (1887).

Jose Maria de Pereda

– On the first flight: vulgar idyll (1891).

– The loose ox (1878).

– Of such a stick such a splinter (1880).

– Peñas Arriba (1895).

Benito Pérez Galdós

– Doña Perfecta   (1876).

– Fortunata and Jacinta (1886).

– The unknown (1889).

– Tristana (1892).

– Mexico

Federico Gamboa

– From natural. Contemporary sketches (1889).

– Supreme law (1896).

– Metamorphosis (1899).

– Santa (1903).

Ignacio M. Altamirano

– Clemencia (1869).

– Winter tales (1880).

– National Literature (1849).

– Landscapes and legends, traditions and customs of Mexico (1886).

Victorian agüeros

– “The paternal will” (1874).

– “Natalia” (1874).

– “All for my mother” (1874).

– “A joke” (1874).

Juan de Dios Peza

– Poems (1873).

– Song to the homeland (1877).

– Hours of passion (1876).

– The Mexican lira (1879).

– Colombia

Eustaquio Palacios

– Spanish grammar and literature lessons.

– Esneda.

– The royal ensign.

– Love forever.

Rafael pigeon

– The walking tadpole.

– Mirringa mirronga.

– The poor old lady.

– Simon the fool.

Tomás Carrasquilla

– Fruits of my land (1896).

– On the right hand of God the father (1897).

– Dimitas Arias (1897).

– Simon The Magician (1890).

Maria Josefa Acevedo Gomez

– “Treatise on home economics for the use of mothers and housewives” (1848).

– “Biography of Dr. Diego Fernando Gómez” (1854).

– “Poetry of a Granada” (1854).

– “José Acevedo y Gómez” (1860).

– Argentina

Eugenio Cambaceres

– Potpourri (1882).

– Sentimental music (1884).

– Without direction.

– Blood (1887).

Jose Hernandez

– Life of Chacho (1863).

– The thirty-three orientals (1867).

– The Gaucho Martín Fierro (1872).

– The return of Martín Fierro (1879).

Juana Manuela Gorriti

– The quena.

– The well of Yocci (1869).

– The homeland (1889).

– Oasis in life (1888).

Eduarda Mansilla

– The doctor of San Luis (1860).

– Travel memories (1882).

– One love (1885).

– Ajenas culpas (1883).

– Venezuela

Andres Bello

– Tirsis inhabiting the shady Tagus (1805).

– The sonnets to the victory of Bailén (1808).

– To the ship (1808).

– Allocution to poetry (1823).

Eduardo Blanco

– Heroic Venezuela (1881).

– Zárate and fantastic stories (1882).

– The nights of the pantheon (1895).

– Fauvette (1905).

Antonio Pérez Bonalde

– Return to the homeland (1877).

– Stanzas (1877).

– Rhythms (1879).

– Flower (1883).

Francisco Lazo Martí

– Twilight (1893).

– Veguera (1897).

– “Silva criolla to a bard friend”

– “Poinsettia”.


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