Introduction to Naturalism
by Joe Younger, Sequim, WA
Campbell, Donna M. "Naturalism in American Literature."
Murfin, Ross. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary
Terms, Second Edition. Boston: Bedford Saint Martin’s,
Pizer, Donald. Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth Century
American Literature. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP,
While many modern works contain naturalistic
elements, naturalism refers specifically to a literary
movement that took place in America, England,
and France during the late 1800’s and early
1900’s, which produced a unique type of “realistic”
In order to understand naturalism,
we must first examine realism.
• Realism portrays life realistically without “sugarcoating.”
– Realists try to “write reality”
-- records "the smaller details of everyday life, things that are likely to
happen between lunch and supper."
-- portrays local color, attempting to accurately portray the customs,
speech, dress, and living conditions of their chosen locale.
-- rejects the idealized presentations, imaginative settings, the
supernatural, and the improbable plot twists of romanticism.
• Naturalism is essentially realism with an additional facet:
• Characters do not have free will; external and
internal forces control their behavior.
– This belief is called determinism. All determinists
believe in the existence of the will, but the will is
enslaved due to a multitude of reasons.
– Characters attempting to exercise free will are
hamstrung by forces beyond their control.
• Life is an inescapable trap.
Character’s as Marionettes
• Naturalists view individuals as being at the mercy of
biological and socioeconomic forces, whereas realists
hold that humans have some degree of free will that
they can exercise to affect their situations.
– Things happen to people, as if they were marionettes whose
movements are entirely determined by forces beyond their
Forces Beyond the Character’s
• Characters are dominated by external or internal forces:
– A storm, or a character lost at sea
• Social conditions
– A character born into poverty.
• Chance (fate)
– A character’s child is suddenly stricken with typhoid fever.
• Internal Passions
– Lust, greed, or desire for dominance or pleasure overcome rational
“Survival of the Fittest”
• Heavily influenced by emergent
scientific theories of the time:
– Darwin’s theory of evolution
• It’s corollary, “survival of the fittest.”
• Fight for survival brings out the "brute
within" each individual.
• conflict is often "man against nature" or "man
The Indifferent and Omnipotent
Power of Nature
• Nature/Fate is as an indifferent force acting upon
the lives of human beings.
– Works often describe the futile attempts of human
beings to exercise free will in a universe that ironically
reveals that free will is an illusion.
– Violence and tragedy is often the result.
• Generally deals with raw and unpleasant
experiences which reduce characters to
"degrading" behavior as they struggle to
– Characters are mostly from the lower-middle
or lower classes
• Generally poor, uneducated, and unsophisticated.
• “drama of the people working itself out in blood
and [filth]” (Norris).
• The milieu is generally commonplace and the
– life is usually the dull struggle of daily existence.
– But, the naturalist reveals qualities in their
characters that are usually associated with the
heroic or adventurous.
• Often, acts of violence and passion lead to desperate
moments and violent death.
– Life at its lowest levels is not so simple as it seems to be.
• Panoramic, “slice-of-life" drama
– often a "chronicle of despair."
Naturalism: A Scientific Study
• attempts to apply the scientific principles of objectivity and
detachment to its study of human beings
– The characters are but higher-order animals “fully
subject to the forces of heredity and the environment.
• These “human beasts” studied impartially, without
moralizing about their natures
– The story is told in third person,
• The narrator is detached, objective, and
– The narrator does not comment on the morality or
the fairness of the situations in which characters
• The reader, however, is meant to empathize with the
Maintaining Dignity in Adversity
• Is conditioned and controlled by environment, social
conditions, heredity, chance (or fate), or instinct.
– But, they have compensating humanistic values which affirm their
individuality and life
• Their struggle for life becomes heroic and they maintain human
dignity despite degrading circumstances.
• Is faced with overwhelming and oppressive material
forces that control their lives.
– But, they maintain their self-worth.
A Few Practictioners:
• Emile Zola, Le roman experimental (The Experimental
• Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat” (1898)
• Jack London, “To Build a Fire” (1901)
• Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (1905)
• Ellen Glasgow, Barren Ground (1925)
• John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
• Richard Wright, Native Son (1940), Black Boy (1945)
• Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead (1948)
• William Styron, Lie Down in Darkness (1951)
• Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March (1953)