naturalism (literature)

Naturalism was a literary movement taking place from 1880s to 1940s that used detailed realism to suggest that social conditions, heredity, and environment had inescapable force in shaping human character. It was depicted as a literary movement that seeks to replicate a believable everyday reality, as opposed to such movements as Romanticism or Surrealism, in which subjects may receive highly symbolic, idealistic, or even supernatural treatment. Naturalism is the outgrowth of literary realism, a prominent literary movement in mid-19th-century France and elsewhere. Naturalistic writers were influenced by the evolution theory of Charles Darwin.[1] They believed that one's heredity and social environment determine one's character. Whereas realism seeks only to describe subjects as they really are, naturalism also attempts to determine "scientifically" the underlying forces (e.g. the environment or heredity) influencing the actions of its subjects. Naturalistic works often include uncouth or sordid subject matter; for example, Émile Zola's works had a frankness about sexuality along with a pervasive pessimism. Naturalistic works exposed the dark harshness of life, including poverty, racism, sex, violence, prejudice, disease, corruption, prostitution, and filth. As a result, naturalistic writers were frequently criticized for being too blunt.

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Defining Characteristics

There are defining characteristics of literary naturalism. One of these is pessimism. Very often, one or more characters will continue to repeat one line or phrase that tends to have a pessimistic connotation, sometimes emphasizing the inevitability of death.

For example Bernard Bonnejean quotes this passage of Huysmans where the symbolism of death is visible, such an allegory, in a portrait of old woman:

[...] une vieille bique de cinquante ans, une longue efflanquée qui bêlait à la lune, campée sur ses maigres tibias [...] crevant les draps de ses os en pointe[2]

Another characteristic of literary naturalism is detachment from the story. The author often tries to maintain a tone that will be experienced as 'objective.' Also, an author will sometimes achieve detachment by creating nameless characters (though, strictly speaking, this is more common among modernists such as Ernest Hemingway). This puts the focus on the plot and what happens to the character, rather than the characters themselves. Another characteristic of naturalism is determinism. Determinism is basically the opposite of the notion of free will. For determinism, the idea that individual characters have a direct influence on the course of their lives is supplanted by a focus on nature or fate. Often, a naturalist author will lead the reader to believe a character's fate has been pre-determined, usually by environmental factors, and that he/she can do nothing about it. Another common characteristic is a surprising twist at the end of the story. Equally, there tends to be in naturalist novels and stories a strong sense that nature is indifferent to human struggle. These are only a few of the defining characteristics of naturalism, however.

Naturalism is an extension of realism, and may be better understood by study of the basic precepts of that literary movement. The term naturalism itself may have been used in this sense for the first time by Emile Zola. It is believed that he sought a new idea to convince the reading public of something new and more modern in his fiction. He argued that his innovation in fiction-writing was the creation of characters and plots based on the scientific method.

Literary Naturalism in the United States

In the United States, the genre is associated principally with writers such as Abraham Cahan, Stephen Crane, Ellen Glasgow, David Graham Phillips, John Steinbeck, Jack London, Edith Wharton, and most prominently Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser. The term naturalism operates primarily in counter-distinction to realism, particularly the mode of realism codified in the 1870s and 1880s, and associated with William Dean Howells and Henry James.

It is important to clarify the relationship between American literary naturalism, with which this entry is primarily concerned, from the genre also known as naturalism that flourished in France at the end of the 19th century. French naturalism, as exemplified by Emile Zola, can be regarded as a programmatic, well-defined and coherent theory of fiction that self-consciously rejected the notion of free will, and dedicated itself to the documentary and "scientific" exposition of human behavior as being determined by, as Zola put it, "nerves and blood".

Many of the American naturalists, especially Norris and London, were heavily influenced by Zola. They sought explanations for human behavior in natural science, and were skeptical, at least, of organized religion and beliefs in human free will. However, the Americans did not form a coherent literary movement, and their occasional critical and theoretical reflections do not present a uniform philosophy. Although Zola was a touchstone of contemporary debates over genre, Dreiser, perhaps the most important of the naturalist writers, regarded Balzac as a greater influence. Naturalism in American literature is therefore best understood historically in the generational manner outlined in the first paragraph above. In philosophical and generic terms, American naturalism must be defined rather more loosely, as a reaction against the realist fiction of the 1870s and 1880s, whose scope was limited to middle-class or "local color" topics, with taboos on sexuality and violence. The most significant elements of this reaction can be summarized as follows.

Naturalist fiction in the United States was often concentrated on the non-Anglo, ethnically marked inhabitants of the growing American cities, many of them immigrants and most belonging to a class-spectrum ranging from the destitute to the lower middle-class. The naturalists were not the first to concentrate on the industrialized American city, but they were significant in that they believed that the realist tools refined in the 1870s and 1880s were inadequate to represent it. Abraham Cahan, for example, sought both to represent and to address the Jewish community of New York's East Side, of which he was a member. The fiction of Theodore Dreiser, the son of first and second generation immigrants from Central Europe, features many German and Irish figures. Frank Norris and Stephen Crane, themselves from established middle-class Anglophone families also registered the ethnic mix of the metropolis, though for the most part via reductive stereotypes. In somewhat different ways, more marginal to the mainstream of naturalism, Ellen Glasgow's version of realism was specifically directed against the mythologizing of the South, while the series of "problem novels" by David Graham Phillips, epitomized by the prostitution novel Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1917), can be regarded as naturalistic by virtue of their underclass subject-matter.

Allied to this, naturalist writers were skeptical towards, or downright hostile to, the notions of bourgeois individualism that characterized realist novels about middle-class life. Most naturalists demonstrated a concern with the animal or the irrational motivations for human behavior, sometimes manifested in connection with sexuality and violence. Here they differed strikingly from their French counterparts.

See also

References

  1. Williams (1976, 217).
  2. Huysmans, Les Soeurs Vatard, Union générale, 1975,175 and 234,quoted in Bernard Bonnejean "Huysmans avant À Rebours : les fondements nécessaires d'une quête en devenir", in Le Mal dans l'imaginaire français (1850-1950), éd. David et L'Harmattan, 1998 (ISBN 2-7384-6198-0) ; "Huysmans before A Rebours: The necessary foundation for a quest to become", The evil in the French imaginary (1850-1950), Ed. David and L'Harmattan, 1998 (ISBN 2-7384-6198-0)