Yet another spectacular PowerPoint by Mr. Younger!
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
– Does not “sugarcoat.”
– Realists try to “write reality”
-- records the details of everyday life.
-- portrays local color, customs, speech, dress, and living conditions of
their chosen locale.
-- rejects romanticism and its idealized presentations, imaginative
settings, the supernatural, and improbable plot twists.
• 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. Free will exists, but
the will is circumstantially enslaved.
– Characters attempting to exercise free will are
hamstrung by forces beyond their control.
• Life is an inescapable trap.
Characters as Marionettes
• Naturalist works view individuals as being at the mercy
of external and internal forces, whereas realistic works
hold that the characters have some degree of free will
that they can exercise to affect their situations.
– Things happen to people, as if they were marionettes.
Forces Beyond the Character’s
• Characters are dominated by:
– 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 times:
– 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 an indifferent force.
– 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.
• Raw and unpleasant experiences which
reduce characters to "degrading" behavior
as they struggle to survive.
– Characters generally lower class
• Poor, uneducated, and unsophisticated.
• “drama of the people working itself out in blood
and [filth]” (Norris).
*Milieu means “The totality of one's
surroundings.” It is more
encompassing than it’s synonym:
• The milieu* is generally commonplace and the
– Chronicles 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 death.
– Life at its lowest levels is not so simple as it seems to be.
• Panoramic, “slice-of-life" drama
– a "chronicle of despair."
Naturalism: A Scientific Study
• objective and detached, like a scientific study.
• “human beasts” are studied impartially, without
moralizing about their natures
– Told in third person,
• Narrator is detached, objective, and unsympathetic.
– Narrator does not comment on the morality or the
fairness of the situations in which characters find
• The reader, however, is meant to empathize with the
Maintaining Dignity in Adversity
• Ccontrolled 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
• Faced with overwhelming and oppressive material forces.
– But, they maintain their self-worth.
A Few Practictioners:
• Emile Zola, Le roman experimental (The Experimental Novel) (1880)
• Ambrose Bierce, “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890)
• 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)
From "The Open Boat" by Stephen
When it occurs to a man
that nature does not
regard him as important,
and that she feels she
would not maim the
universe by disposing of
he at first wishes to throw
bricks at the temple,
and he hates deeply the
fact that there are no
bricks and no temples.
A man said to the
"Sir, I exist!"
"The fact has not
created in me
A sense of
--Stephen Crane (1899)