The logical outgrowth of literary Realism was the point of view known as Naturalism. This literary movement, like its predecessor, found expression almost exclusively within the novel. Naturalism also found its greatest number of practitioners in America shortly before and after the turn of the twentieth century. Naturalism sought to go further and be more explanatory than Realism by identifying the underlying causes for a person’s actions or beliefs. The thinking was that certain factors, such as heredity and social conditions, were unavoidable determinants in one’s life. A poor immigrant could not escape their life of poverty because their preconditions were the only formative aspects in his or her existence that mattered. Naturalism almost entirely dispensed with the notion of free will, or at least a free will capable of enacting real change in life’s circumstances. The theories of Charles Darwin are often identified as playing a role in the development of literary Naturalism; however, such a relationship does not stand up to investigative rigor. Darwin never applied his theories to human social behavior, and in doing so many authors seriously abused the actual science. There was in the late nineteenth century a fashion in sociology to apply evolutionary theory to human social woes. This line of thinking came to be knows as Social Darwinism, and today is recognized as the systematized, scientific racism that it is. More than a few atrocities in world history were perpetrated by those who misguidedly applied Darwinism to the social realm. Naturalism, for better or worse, is in some respects a form of Social Darwinism played out in fiction
One could make the case that Naturalism merely a specialized variety of Realism. In fact, many authors of the period are identified as both Naturalist and Realist. Edith Wharton for one is frequently identified as perfectly representative of both aesthetic frameworks. However, Naturalism displayed some very specific characteristics that delimit it from the contemporary literature that was merely realistic. The environment, especially the social environment, played a large part in how the narrative developed. The locale essentially becomes its own character, guiding the human characters in ways they do not fully realize. Plot structure as such was secondary to the inner workings of character, which superficially resembles how the Realists approached characterization. The work of Emile Zola provided inspiration for many of the Naturalist authors, as well as the work of many Russian novelists. It would be fairer to assert that all Naturalist fiction is Realist, but not all Realist fiction is Naturalist.
The dominant theme of Naturalist literature is that persons are fated to whatever station in life their heredity, environment, and social conditions prepare them for. The power of primitive emotions to negate human reason was also a recurring element. Writers like Zola and Frank Norris conceived of their work as experiments in which characters were subjected to various stimuli in order to gauge reactions. Adverse social conditions are taken as a matter of fact. The documentary style of narrative makes no comment on the situation, and there is no sense of advocating for change. The Naturalist simply takes the world as it is, for good or ill. The Naturalist novel is then a sort of laboratory of fiction, with studies underway that ethically could not be performed in the real world.
The work of French novelist and playwright Emile Zola is often pinpointed as the genesis of the Naturalist movement proper. His most famous contribution to Naturalism was Les Rougon-Macquart, a sweeping collection of 20 novels that follow two families over the course of five generations. One of the families is privileged, the other impoverished, but they each stumble into decay and failure. The action takes place during the rule of Napoleon III, a time of great uncertainty for the French people. The atmosphere in Paris, as well as in the novels, was one of dread and uncertainty. Zola crafts over 300 characters for his epic, yet on the whole they are rather thinly drawn. His concern is not with character as such, but how characters react to circumstances. Often, an inanimate object or place is given as much potency as a human character. Zola’s often grim subject matter is couple with a sober and scientific narration of details. There is a clinical aspect to his craft that is echoed in his descriptions of novel-writing as a form of science. Later writers would concur, citing Zola as their major inspiration in pursuing the Naturalist aesthetic in literature.
One of the first truly Naturalist works of literature, and certainly the first in America, was Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Crane spent a great deal of time in the Bowery of lower Manhattan gathering material for his first novel. Like a research scientist accumulating data, Crane wanted to learn as much as he could about life for the impoverished, mostly immigrant residents. Maggie was unusual for the time in that it perfectly reproduced the ostensibly vulgar dialect of the persons portrayed. An earlier novel treating the same subject may have romanticized the immigrant life, but Crane portrayed abject poverty exactly as it was. The book was not a great seller, and he lost a hefty sum of money on the venture, but those who did read it saw the promise of a new talent in American literature. Like many of his fellow American novelists, Crane began his career as a journalist, and he continued to travel and report on international stories for the remainder of his career. His total contributions to the body of literature were relatively small, as he died before his thirtieth birthday.
Despite his short career, Stephen Crane’s talent stands out above every other writer of the period. This was not fully realized until many years after his death. Modernists like Ernest Hemingway worked hard to rehabilitate the critical reputation of Crane, and today that reputation is resoundingly positive. Crane’s most celebrated and often misunderstood novel is The Red Badge of Courage. The novel was set during the Civil War, and follows one young soldier’s experience of that war. What’s truly remarkable is that Crane wrote Red Badge with no actual experience of battle. His descriptions and scenery were inspired by war and history magazines, which he found dry and too matter-of-fact. To Crane’s mind, the stories lacked any connection to the real feeling warfare, as dates and locations of battles cannot even begin to reproduce the essence of combat. He saw an opportunity to craft the first novel that explored warfare from the point of view of the psyche. In his own words, Crane envisioned “a psychological portrait of fear.” He achieved this vision through intense, almost painterly prose. Characters speak in realistic dialects. The story is not rooted in a specific locale. The soldiers cannot see the big picture of the war, and neither can the reader. Many characters are nameless, even the protagonist Fleming is often just “the young soldier.” Throughout the novel runs a current of deep, bitter irony. The glory of warfare is replaced by ignorance, pain, and fear. Crane offers no sentimentality or mythology. He reports the events in fine detail, but makes no authorial commentary. The Red Badge of Courage is frequently required reading for high school English classes, yet the irony of the text is often lost. Crane abhorred the mythmaking that surrounded armed combat, and his greatest novel is an attempt to show that humans were not designed to commit such atrocities on each other.
Though she is frequently lumped together with the Realists, Edith Wharton often produced novels that just as rightly belong in the category of Naturalism. Unlike the bulk of her contemporaries in the Naturalist vein, Wharton’s novels dealt almost exclusively with the concerns of the upper crust of society. Though she herself descended from enormous wealth, Wharton was able to step outside her own experience and take an objective view of privilege and class. Her agenda was to show the unforgiving nature of life at the top of the class structure. Her characters often fall from grace through their own mistakes, miscalculation, and sometimes for no apparent reason at all. Interestingly, Wharton also had a successful career as a designer of homes and landscapes. This attention to environmental details certainly found expression with her literary productions. More so than most Naturalist writers, Wharton displayed a real sympathy for her characters. Even when they meet unfortunate ends, Wharton’s affection for the characters she creates is readily apparent. In that sense, her particular brand of Naturalism was less cold and clinical than many of her contemporaries. Still, one cannot escape the sense that Wharton subscribed to the notion of determinism – a world devoid of free will.
In Ethan Frome, Wharton departs from her typical subject matter and attempts a thoroughly provincial narrative. The setting is rural Massachusetts, and the characters are poverty-stricken and hopeless. There is the faintest hint of romance, but all hopes of a happy resolution are dashed, quite literally. Unlike her upper-class novels, in Ethan Frome Wharton’s tone is cold and unsparing. The poverty of the characters is presented as a roadblock to even the slimmest chance of fulfillment. The lead characters are not even permitted to end their suffering through suicide – their fateful sledding accident only adding to the tragedy of their existence. There is no epic sweep to the tragedy either. The world of Ethan Frome is very small, and the characters’ attempt to escape from it makes it even smaller. The sense of irrevocable fate is overpowering, as is the unforgiving, elemental nature of the harsh Massachusetts winter.
In Frank Norris, American literature found its most potent expression of Naturalism. Profoundly influenced by evolutionary theory, Norris’s chief concern was with how civilized man overcame the brute, animal nature that still lived inside of him. His novels are Darwinian struggles played out in fiction, and he was sometimes criticized for making literature that was too scientific and lacking in sympathy. Like many Naturalists, Norris was interested in the trials of life of the poor and destitute. In McTeague, his most famous novel, he studies how ambition and greed derail the life of a moderately successful dentist. Characters are frequently referred to in animalistic terms, and there is an undercurrent of unhealthy sexuality that permeates the first sections of the novel. Overall, McTeague is a grim exposition on human nature’s inability to rise above instinct. The title character is small-minded, almost childlike in his view of the world. Because of this, his well-meaning efforts to improve his economic situation go hopeless awry. In the final scene, one gets the impression that the protagonist, if one can call him that, could not have ended up anywhere else.
Despite the resounding pessimism of their literary output, the Naturalists for the most part were genuinely concerned with improving the situation of the poor in America and the world. Frank Norris wrote and campaigned on behalf of social reforms, and Stephen Crane’s journalism reveals a mind keenly aware of human suffering. There would seem to be a disconnect between the opinions of the authors and the statements made in the contexts of their novels. However, closer study reveals this not to be the case. Norris intended his novels to be warnings about the capacity for mankind to sink to its lowest common denominator. Critics, both contemporary and modern, sometimes accuse the Naturalists of ethnocentricity. True, the images presented of immigrant and ethnic groups are unflattering. However, given their backgrounds in journalism, the Naturalist writers would probably argue that they simply presented life as it appeared. If the life they saw was ugly or depraved, they were not to be held responsible.
Naturalism was a relatively short-lived philosophical approach to crafting novels. Few writers of the period experienced real success in the style, but those that did became titans of the art form. One wonders at the profound literature that might have been produced had Stephen Crane not died before his thirtieth birthday. Frank Norris likewise died before his time, an irony that should not escape modern readers. It is difficult to gauge the total effects of Naturalism on the path of American literature. The fact that Social Darwinism eventually came to be seen for the disguised racism that it is probably marred the reputation of Naturalist writing. However, the sheer art and craft of the literature that the greatest novelists of the period generated overcomes such handicaps.
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This article is copyrighted © 2011 by Jalic Inc. Do not reprint it without permission. Written by Josh Rahn. Josh holds a Masters degree in English Literature from Morehead State University, and a Masters degree in Library Science from the University of Kentucky.
Major Naturalist Writers