American English Literature – Naturalism / Naturalist Writers

Naturalism as a literary movement took place approximately between 1865 and 1900. The concept of literary Naturalism was first propounded by the French author Emile Zola. Naturalists believed that the human character was shaped by social conditions, heredity, and environment; thus, human behavior is a product of these influences. Zola described characters as “human beasts” and emphasized the need to understand human beings in the context of their environment.

Naturalist writers adopt a scientific and detached outlook for understanding human beings. They were deeply influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Naturalism is opposed to romanticism and it aims to present reality without idealism. The harsh aspects of reality like poverty, vices, violence, taboos are objectively portrayed by naturalists. They do not employ spiritual, fantasy or supernatural elements. Naturalism is often seen as an exaggerated form of realism. Naturalist fiction is also influenced by determinism, the belief that an individual’s fate is predetermined, by forces beyond human control; thus, the notion of free will does not exist.

Frank Norris introduced Naturalism into American fiction. The other important naturalist writers are Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, and Stephen Crane. Dreiser, Crane, and Norris were also journalists, which helped them maintain their stance of detached observation of human nature.

Key Features of Naturalism in Literature

Naturalism, like realism, focuses on facts and logic, rather than imagination and symbolism. There is no attempt to idealize or romanticize reality, rather to present it in accurate detail. The naturalist writers did not avoid the dark aspects of reality like poverty, prostitution, corruption, vice, disease etc.

Due to the influence of determinism, they portrayed human beings as being helpless in the face of powerful forces like heredity, environment, chance and social conditions that shape their fate. Free will and choice are revealed as illusions. Yet, the characters often possess a redeeming humanistic aspect.

The naturalist writers treated the novel as an experiment, whereby they could determine the forces that shaped behavior, primarily heredity and the environment. They presented a detached observation of their characters without attempting to moralize. The tone was objective and it focused more on what happened to the character rather than the character itself.

The focus of the novels was mainly lower-middle class or middleclass individuals and their problems. The novels detail the commonplace routine existence of the characters interwoven with violence, passion, sexual adventures and death. They did not hesitate to depict themes that were considered sordid by contemporary society and depicted sexuality frankly.

Walcutt identifies survival, violence, determinism and taboo as key themes in naturalistic fiction. The novels depict “the brute within” each character, the greed, lust, desire for control and search for pleasure. The characters struggle to survive in a world that is amoral and hostile or indifferent.

These writers opposed the typical notions of realist novels about middle-class life, which focused on bourgeois individualism. Instead, they attempted to explore the animal or the irrational forces underlying human behavior, including sexuality and violence.

The naturalists were criticized for their pessimistic view of reality. They emphasized the harsh aspects of reality and presented human beings as powerless to escape their circumstances. Nature was depicted as a powerful force, indifferent to human suffering.

Important American Naturalist Writers

Frank Norris

Frank Norris

Frank Norris aka Benjamin Franklin Norris (1870-1902) was the first important American naturalist writer. He worked as a news correspondent and a war correspondent and is known for his important novels ‘Mc Teague’, ‘A Deal in Wheat’, ‘The Octopus’, ‘The Pit’ and ‘The Epic of the Wheat’.

Mc Teague’, a novel set in San Francisco, details the story of a slow-witted dentist who brutally murders his stingy wife. He flees through Death Valley to finally encounter his own death. It is regarded as one of the first portraits of the acquisitiveness that characterizes American society.

The Octopus’ is the first work in a trilogy by Norris; only two novels were actually published, while the third remained unwritten at the time of his early death. ‘The Octopus’ deals with the conflict between the wheat farmers in Chicago and the monopolistic railway company. Considered Norris’ masterpiece, the novel explores the socio-economic forces that control the production, distribution and consumption of wheat. ‘The Pit’, the second novel in the trilogy focused on the Chicago Board of Trade and their speculation on wheat.

Norris is known for his realistic detail and his exploration of how heredity and environment shape human life. He viewed novels as tools for the betterment of society. His novels capture a vivid and minutely detailed picture of life in California towards the end of the 19th Century.

Theodore Dreiser

Theodore Dreiser

Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) is a leading figure among American naturalist novelists. Dreiser’s childhood was characterized by poverty; the yearning for wealth and success becomes a preoccupation in his novels. Dreiser worked as a newspaper reporter.

His first novel, ‘Sister Carrie’ is considered one of the landmarks in American fiction. It depicts a pretty young girl from a small town who comes to the big city to fulfill her dreams. She is exploited by men and eventually learns to exploit them. She achieves her dream of success by becoming a popular actress on Broadway. The novel became controversial for its depiction of a ‘kept’ woman who breaks the norms of conventional sexual morality without facing dire consequences.

Dreiser’s longest novel ‘An American Tragedy’ depicts the rise and fall of Clyde Griffiths, an anti-hero. Clyde’s background is bleak, he rises to success and is ultimately arrested, tried and executed for murder. The novel is a questioning of the American dream and the materialistic obsession of American society.

Dreiser’s other important works are ‘The Financier’, ‘Jennie Gerhardt’, ‘The Bulwark’, ‘The Genius’, ‘The Stoic’ and ‘The Titan’. He is known for his stark, amoral presentation of society as an unequal conflict between the strong and the weak. His novels captured the social problems that were created due to rapid industrialization.

Jack London

Jack London

Jack London is a pseudonym adopted by John Griffith Chaney (1876-1916). He is renowned for his naturalistic works ‘The Call of the Wild’ and ‘White Fang’ that depict the struggle for survival. His other important works are ‘To Build a Fire’, ‘The Iron Heel’, ‘Martin Eden’, ‘The Sea-Wolf’, ‘The Cruise of the Shark’ and ‘Burning Daylight’.

The Call of the Wild’ tells the story of Buck, a dog who is a pampered pet. Buck is kidnapped and sold and ends up working as a sled dog, where he is beaten and abused. Buck is forced to adapt to the wild, with its violence and his primitive instincts resurface. He faces various adventures, wins a struggle for supremacy and experiences a growing desire for the wild. He kills the Native Americans who killed the man he loved and moves into the forest to become the leader of a wolf pack. The novel depicts the Darwinian notion of ‘survival of the fittest’.

The Sea-Wolf’ combines naturalism with romantic adventure. The novel traces the development of a castaway named Van Weyden who finds employment on a ship. He comes into conflict with the brutal and self-destructive Wolf Larsen as he attempts to protect a fellow castaway named Maud Brewster.

Jack London was one of the most extensively translated American authors of his time.

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