English 221

Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.

Notes on Naturalism


These notes come from three sources:

·        The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America: 1860-1920, Main Currents in American Thought Volume Three by Vernon Louis Parrington

·        The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms by Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray

·        A Handbook to Literature by William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman


Naturalism:  A term reserved for a literary movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  In its simplest sense naturalism is the application of principles of scientific determinism to literature.  It draws its name from its basic assumption that everything real exists in NATURE, conceived as the world of objects, actions, and forces that yield their secrets to objective scientific inquiry.  The naturalistic view of human beings is that of animals in the natural world, responding to environmental forces and internal stresses and drives, none of which they can control or understand.  It tends to differ from REALISM in the organization of materials, selecting not the commonplace but the representative and so arranging the work that its structure reveals the pattern of ideas--in this case, scientific theory--which forms the author's view of life.


The criteria of naturalism (as a form of literature) are:

·        Objectivity -- even though occasionally human beings are seen as the victims of destiny or fate, Naturalists do not comment on the morality or the fairness of the situations in which characters find themselves.

·        Frankness -- frank in the portrayal of human beings as animals driven by fundamental urges--fear, hunger, and sex

·        Amoral attitude toward material-- an amoral view of the struggle in which animals find themselves, neither condemning nor praising human beings for actions beyond their control

·        Philosophy of determinism -- Naturalistic works tend to emphasize either a biological or a socioeconomic determinism.

·        Bias toward pessimism in selection of details -- pessimistic about human capabilities--life, the naturalists seem to feel, is a vicious trap

·        Bias in selection of characters which are usually of three types:  (a) characters marked by strong physiques and small intellectual activity; (b) characters of excited neurotic temperament, at the mercy of moods, driven by forces that they do not stop to analyze; (c) an occasional use of a strong character whose will is broken

·        Characters are subject to certain temptations:  (a) desire to change his/her fate; (b) sex; (c) animal impulses.  In Realism the characters have at least some degree of rree will, which they are able to exercise to affect their situations; naturalism assumes humans have little if any control over what happens.  Rather, things happen to people, who are at the mercy of a variety of external and internal forces as if they were marionettes whose movements are entirely determined by forces beyond their control.

·        Complexity and American Determinism:  Complexity springs from (a) machine industrialism; (b) the great city; (c) centralization of wealth; (d) mechanistic psychology.




Influences upon Naturalism:


Isaac Newton -- a sense of mechanistic determinism.

Charles Darwin -- a sense of biological determinism and the inclusive metaphor of competitive jungle that it has used perhaps more often than any other.

Karl Marx -- a view of history as a battleground of economic and social forces

Sigmund Freud -- view of the determinism of the inner and subconscious self.


Words we generally associate with Naturalism:

·        Detailed objectivity

·        Detached

·        Realism


Authors we generally associate with Naturalism:

·        Stephen Crane (Maggie: A Girl of the Streets)

·        Theodore Dreiser (Sister Carrie)

·        Frank Norris (The Octopus)

·        Jack London (The Call of the Wild)


Journal Assignment: Answer the following questions in your journal.  Be prepared to use your notes or responses to lead a discussion of Crane and London.


1.      Stephen Crane and Jack London are considered naturalist authors.  What elements of naturalism do their two short stories, "The Open Boat" and "To Build a Fire" have in common?  How are the two works similar in treatment of setting, character, conflict, theme and tone?

2.      Name the four men in the dinghy in "The Open Boat."

3.      Which of the four men is named?  What is his name?

4.      Which of the four men drowned?  How is his death ironic?

5.      How is nature (the sea) represented in the short story?