Naturalism in Literature

Naturalism in Literature

Naturalism in Literature : Naturalism as a literary genre of writing of plays, novels and short-stories can be deemed as a child of realism for it is partially based on the theories of it. The emergence of naturalism can be traced in the last half of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century. There is fine blending of literary and scientific discourses. It denotes the application of the principles of scientific methods to literature.

Naturalism in Literature

The term ‘naturalism’ itself unveils the basic principle that everything real exists in Nature which can be understood by the mind as the objects, actions and forces which impart their hidden properties to objective scientific inquiry.


Naturalism and Realism:

Naturalism is quite different from realism though it stands on the very platform laid by realism. Naturalism is less selective and all inclusive selecting not the commonplace but the representative. The structure of naturalistic works has a peculiar pattern of ideas. Realism represents individual rather than types. It deals with the use of imagination to represent things as common sense supposes them to be. The realists support the view that classes of things have reality whereas individuals have not, or have less reality. They are only the part of the whole.

Function of Naturalism: Naturalism in Literature

The primary function of the naturalistic writing is to reproduce life with absolute detachment and objectivity. It is impersonal and more scientific. The naturalists consider as laboratory experiment and it tries to analyze how the external environmental forces, social structure and values shape the character of people.

The naturalists also consider human beings as animals in the natural world who have little knowledge of the environmental forces which have their impact on their behaviour and life. It happens because these external environmental forces cannot be controlled by them. In short, the naturalistic writing presents human being as passive victims of natural forces and drives and social surroundings.

Naturalist writers try to assess and analyze how the external environmental forces, social structure, and moral and social values shape the character of people through their literary works just in the manner of a laboratory experiment.

Henry James on Naturalism:

Whatever may be the merits of the naturalistic literature, Henry James found some flaws in it and remarked, “Naturalists are not getting hold of that larger humanity which is alone eternally interesting. They have almost nothing to show us in the way of the operation of character, the possibilities of conduct, the part played in the world by the idea. Man, for them, is the simple sport of Fate, with suffering for his main sign – either suffering or on one particular satisfaction, always the same.”

French Naturalism: Naturalism in Literature

The early signs of naturalism can be found in the writings of the two French brothers Jules and Edmond Goncourt with their novel “Germinie Lacerteux” published in 1865. The work greatly influenced Émile Zola who later developed naturalism to perfection. Émile Zola’s novel “Thêrèse Raquin” heralded the true beginning of naturalism in the literary sphere. It was published in 1867.

Emile Zola produced a series of twenty novels called “Les Rougan-Macquart” between 181871 and 1893. In his essays titled as “Le Roman expérimental”: The Experimental Novel, Zola has discussed the principles of naturalism. The twenty-novel series “Les Rougan-Macquart”: The Fortunes of the Rougans’ set the trend of naturalism in France. The series depicts the account of life of the two branches of families of the two Rougans and Macquarts whose characters are governed by external environmental surroundings, inherited qualities, and social structure; for example, addiction to liquor and mental imbalance.

The novels of “Les Rougan-Macquart”: The Fortunes of the Rougans’ present a fine picture of human instincts and appetites. The series comprised some of the famous novels such as “Germinal” published in 1885 depicting the life of mining community. The novel “La Terre”: The Earth appeared on the literary scene in 1887 dealing with the life of farming community.

Another novel of the series called “La Bète humaine”: The Human Beast was published in 1890 which presents a period of the modern railway age. It was followed by “La Débâcle”: The Debacle published in 1892. The novel depicts scenes of Franco-Prussian war. The series “Les Rougan-Macquart” ends with a novel titled as “Le Docteur Pascal”: Doctor Pascal which was published in 1893. In his literary works the readers can find influence of Honoré de Balzac and Hippolyte Taine.

Joris-Karl Huysmans’ contribution to naturalism is also noteworthy. He produced a few naturalistic novels such as “Marthe: histoire d’une fille”: Marthe: The Story of a Whore in 1876 and “En Ménage”: Home Life in 1881.

Guy de Maupassant explored the world of naturalism in his collections of short stories named “Boule de Suit”: Ball of Fat and “Les Soirées de Médan” which present the scenes of Franco-Prussian War. Maupassant has delineated characters of different professions in his short stories especially soldiers, prostitutes, etc. the primary aim of the novelists and short-story writer was to promote the theories of the ‘groupe de Médan” of which he was member. The members of this group followed the footsteps of their master Émile Zola.

Alphonse Daudet another famous French literary writer portrayed an ambitious and cowardly figure of Tartarin as a central character in his novel named “Tartarin de Tarascon” published in 1872, “Tartarin sur Alpes” in 1885, “La Défense de Tarascon” in 1886 and “Port-Tarascon’” in 1890. It is four novel sequence based on the principles of naturalism.

Somerset MaughamFrench novelist and playwright produced a fantastic naturalistic novel titled “Liza of Lambeth” in 1897. It was first novel which presents his life in slum area in the last decade of the nineteenth century.

British Naturalism: Naturalism in Literature

George Moore’s famous novel “Esther Waters” appeared on the literary scene in 1894 depicting the plight of the working class eponymous heroine of the novel, Esther who is expelled from her home by her stepfather. Esther, a 17-year-old girl, works in a racing stable in Sussex. She goes through many ordeals in life. She suffers humiliation, exploitation and pain.

Esther comes in contact with a fellow-worker who seduces her and then abandoned to live in penury and destitute condition. She also works as a wet nurse in a hospital for some time. The fellow-servant reenters her life and marries her. But Fate has different plans and after the death of her husband, she rejoins the service of Wood views and lives with Mrs. Barfield, wife of her former employer.

Moore’s novel “Esther Waters” has been written under the spell of Émile Zola’s naturalistic theories. But the novelist has applied native themes and made use of local social issues in the novel.

Thomas Hardy’s pastoral tragedy “Jude the Obscure” contained some of the traits of the naturalism. It was published in 1896. The novel reveals Hardy’s indictments of the human situation. Thomas Hardy has artistically portrayed all the characters including the Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead. The novel first published in “Harper’s Monthly Magazine” between 1894 and 1895 in installments.

The novel “Jude the Obscure’ revolves round the character of Jude, a promising young man, who gets trapped into the clutches a barmaid named Arabella Donn. She pretends to be impregnated by Jude and hence in the family way. But soon, She leaves Jude with no hope of love from him.

Later on, Sue Bridehead enters his life but without any intention to get married. Sue works as a seller of ecclesiastical articles. Both Sue and Jude have great attraction for each other but hesitate to give name to their relationship. Finally, Sue marries Phillostone but only to break away from him. She comes to Jude and they live together for some time.

The novel ends on a sad and pessimistic note when Sue once again leaves him and get in relationship with Phillostone and the death of his children from Sue. He drinks heavily and dies a miserable death. Sue free-thinking and indifference shocks him to great extent. Hardy’s novel “Jude the Obscure was bitterly criticized in literary magazine called “The Pall Mall Gazette” for its indecent and obscene content. The novel holds themes of sexuality and man’s sorry state in the world.

George Gissing, one of the renowned English novelists, has also composed some fine naturalistic novels such as ‘The Odd Women”, and “The Nether World” with a hue of realism. Many of his novels have been set against the background of London depicting the life of the poor and unemployed. Gissing’s novel “The Odd Women’ was published in 1893.

Gissing’s novel “The Odd Women” deals with an account of Monica Madden who goes through many hardships due to the death of her father. After her marriage, she is suspected of adultery by her tyrannical and churlish husband, Edmond Widdowson. On the other side, Monica’s three sisters die in penury; and two of her sisters respectively become alcoholic and foolishly religious.

Gissing has depicted the sorry lot of the three sisters who pines for prosperity and respectability in their shabby lodging in London. They live their life under the penumbra of social exile and mental torture. George Gissing’s novels are pervaded with melancholy, and sordid note. Gissing has bitterly attacked the very idea of ‘New Woman’ in the novel. Though he tried to mirror life in the slums with photographic reality, he might have failed in doing so. But the novelist has peeped deep into the inner world of mind of his characters.

As a naturalist writer, Gissing has reflected injustice of a world where external forces, social structure, and circumstances play the vital role in shaping the characters. The novelist has described the plight of the working class community and depicted the sorry state of a sensitive and innocent soul ruined by Fate to lead miserable and sordid life. His novel “The Nether World” appeared in 1889 which deals with the life of people of the slums.

Arnold Bennett’s novel, “Anna of the Five Towns” appeared on the literary scene in 1902. It earned for the novelist both name and fame in the literary sphere. The novel is set in the Potteries: the area in the English Midlands known as Potteries {in Staffordshire}.

“Anna of the Five Town” deals with the story of a miser’s daughter in which Arnold Bennett has given fine portrait of people of provincial region confined in difficult and oppressive social conditions. In “Anna of the Five Towns” Arnold Bennett has unveiled the narrowness and dinginess of Anna’s life who commits a mistake of marrying a wrong man.

Arnold Bennett’s best known novel is “The Old Wives’ Tale” which appeared in 1908 depicting the scenes of the mid of the late 19th century against the backdrop of a slow changing English industrial town and the disorder in Paris of the 1860s and 1870s. Bennett is a keen observer of his age who presents the mental image of an active social, environmental, and moral forces which shape the destinies of people. Arnold Bennett’s novel “The Old Wives’ Tale” can be deemed as an epic of lower middle class provincial life depicting the littleness of human existence and the mutability of things.

American Naturalism: Naturalism in Literature

In America, Frank Norris practiced naturalism in his novel, “McTeague” published in 1899. It deals with the themes of avarice, deceit and disorder in San Francisco. The eponymous hero of the novel, McTeague becomes a murderer and thief in the course of his life.

Another renowned American novelist, Theodore Dreiser handled naturalism with great skill and ease in his novels. He produced a novel “Sister Carrie” in 1900 dealing with the turmoil in the life of a working class ambitious girl who attains success in the course of her life. The novel criticized by H.L. Mencken for its vulgar and amoral subject matter and defective style.

Dreiser’s novel “Jennie Gerhardt” appeared on the literary scene in 1911 which another fine example of naturalistic writing. Like his novel “Sister Carrie’, his novel “Jennie Gerhardt” reveals the story of a working class girl who reaches the acme of success by her flirtatious and coquettish behaviour.

Another popular novel of Theodore Dreiser named “The American Tragedy’ deals with the life of the hero Clyde Griffiths who leads his life in his own style. He settles in Kansas City hotel where he works as a bell-boy. In New York State, Clyde Griffiths serves in a collar factory. There he is infatuated by a girl named, Roberta and falls in love with her. But soon their love comes to an end when Roberta becomes pregnant. With her death by drowning, Griffiths goes through trial in the court and sentenced to death. Dreiser’s novel “The American Tragedy” is based on actual incident in 1906. It was published in 1925.

Theodore Dreiser’s naturalistic writing presents the view that since the chaotic nature of life precludes spiritual satisfaction, it is normal and right to take the most one can collect from the economic grab bag.

Eugene O’Neill, one of the central figures of the American literary arena of the first quarter of the 20the century produced some remarkable naturalistic plays which enthroned him in the heart of the readers and the spectators. His naturalistic drama “Beyond the Horizon” was published in 1920.

The novel “Beyond the Horizon’ was applauded and praised as ‘the beacon light in our drama today by Thomas Wolfe. Another famous naturalistic play ‘Anna Christina” appeared in 1921 in which O’Neill has artistically presented the life of a prostitute in New York and finally her redemption.

It was followed by a naturalistic tragedy named “The Iceman Cometh” published in 1946. It deals with the life of the alcoholics in the Brewery saloon. In the play, O’Neill has presented a group of people isolated together from the world. The dramatist has artistically employed personal material and experiences in the play which attract attention of every playgoer.

The play “The Iceman Cometh” is set in New York City Bar which is meeting place of the isolated and disillusioned individuals who gather there to work, eat, sleep, and their more personal relationship lost in the past and seen only through their shifting memory. Eugene O’Neill has adroitly revealed the fragility of the social structure these individuals have constructed for themselves.

Lionel Trilling recalls the excitement at the publication of “Beyond the Horizon” I the following words: “To the audience of the twenties however, it was O’Neill’s style rather than content of his plays that was of first importance. Style, indeed, was sufficient content the language of “Anna Christina”, the crude colour, the drumbeats, and the phantasmagoria of “The Emperor Jones”, the engine rhythms, the masks, the ballet movements of “The Hairy Ape”, all constituted a denial of the neat properties, all spoke of life more colourful and terrible than the American theatre had ever thought of representing. It was at first the mere mechanical inventiveness of Eugene O’Neill, his daring subjects and language which caught the public imagination.”

Stephen Crane, American journalist and novelist tried his hand in naturalistic writing in his novel “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets” published in 1893. The novel holds grim and sordid background of the squalor and poverty of the slums.

Jack London, American novelist, was influenced by the movement of naturalism. He produced a novel based on naturalism called “The People of the Abyss” in 1903 in which the writer has described his personal experience in a slum area of London East End.

James Thomas Farrell, American novelist produced a remarkable naturalistic trilogy which depicting the life-story of Studs Lonigan; it comprises “Young Lonigan” published in 1932, “The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan” in 1934, and “The Judgement Day” in 1935.

James Farrell’s novel “Studs Lonigan” describes the boyhood of the protagonist. In “The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan”, the novelist has given an account of the hero’s life who goes through many hardships due to his unemployment and poverty. He does some mediocre jobs in order to earn his livelihood. The last novel of the trilogy “The Judgement Day” deals with the period of depression and Studs Lonigan’s suffering due to his poverty and desultory condition. He dies an untimely death. James Farrell has artistically conveyed the sorry lot of the hero in a realistic vein.

John O’Hara also wrote a naturalistic novel titled “Butterfield 8” which depicts scenes of violence, disorder, and recklessness in Manhattan. The novel was published in 1935. The novel is based on a New York murder case, unfolding the sordid and sensational life-style of people on the fringe of café society and the underworld.

James Jones depicted his war-time experiences in his trilogy comprising “From Here to Eternity’ published in 1951, “The Thin Red Line” in 1962 and “Whistle” in 1978 in naturalistic style.

Russian, German, and Swedish Naturalism: Naturalism in Literature

Naturalism stretched its boundaries even to Russia, Germany, and Sweden where Maxim Gorky, Gerhart Houptmann, and Johan August Strindberg practiced it with great skill and effect.

In Russia, Maxim Gorky produced his naturalistic work named “The Lower Depth” in 1904. Gerhart Houptmann, German playwright, wrote a play called “Vor Sonnenaufgang”: Before Sunrise in 1889. Another play named as “The Weber” appeared in 1892 which presents the unrest of the Silesian weavers in 1844.

The play was applauded by Lenin. The playwright has described class-conflict in the play. In his two famous novellas Gerhart Houptmann has adroitly employed naturalistic techniques. His novellas “Bahnẅarter Thiel”: Signalman Thiel was published in 1888 and “Fasching”: Shrovetide appeared in the same year.

Johan August Strindberg, Swedish playwright also produced some remarkable naturalistic works such as “Master Olof” in 1872; it was followed by “The Father’ in 1887, “Miss Julie” in 1888 and “Creditors” in 1889. G.B. Shaw has appreciated his play “Miss Julie”.

Conclusion: Naturalism in Literature

Thus, Naturalist movement in literature concerned with the inner life of characters portrayed by the literary artists; and the characters are viewed as an example or representatives of some class; and no longer considered as a model for certain behaviour as in the sentimental novels of Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. It concentrated on the inner world of isolated and unique individuals; and their life.

The meaning of naturalism changes in context of the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud; it denotes determinism of the inner and the subconscious self. Studying it in context of Marxist theory, it represents a view of history as a clash between economic and social forces. It gets biological determinism when it is studied in context of Darwin’s principles. When Naturalistic writing is studied in context of Newton’s theory it gets view of mechanistic determinism.

During the 1930s, Naturalism lost its old glory and many writers employed more symbolic form in their works but not before naturalism left its imprints on the drawing-room comedy.

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