In literature, naturalism was a movement that took place from the 1880s to 1940s. Naturalism believes that social conditions, heredity, and environment play an important role in shaping human character. It seeks to imitate the everyday reality and present it as it is. In fact, naturalism is the outgrowth of the realistic movement that flourished in literature during the 19th century. Naturalistic writers are seen to have influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. These writers strongly believed that human beings and their personalities are determined by the social conditions, heredity and environment in which they are born and brought up. It means naturalism tries to give scientific explanation of the behavioral patterns of their characters. Naturally, the works of naturalistic writers tend to be coarser as they depict the sordid realities of the lives of their characters without trying to make them look ‘beautiful’. Consequently, the naturalistic writers are usually criticized for describing only the negative aspects of human life like sexual behaviour, poverty,racism, violence, prejudice, disease, corruption and prostitution.
In fact, naturalism is essentially a literary expression of determinism. It gives expression to the dark sides of lower-class life. Determinism does not consider religion as a motivating force in the world and instead perceives the universe as a machine like the 18th century Enlightenment thinkers. However, according to these Enlightenment thinkers this machine is perfect as it is invented by God for the progress and betterment of human beings. On the contrary, the naturalists imagined society to be a blind machine and hence, uncontrollable. The naturalistic movement find its ample expression in the novels written during this period.
The origin of naturalism can be traced in 19th century France. The main exponent of this movement is Balzac. It is a French literary movement associated with Gustav Flaubert, Edmond and Jules Goncourt, Émile Zola, and Guy de Maupassant. The works of these writers treat variety of themes directly related the dark aspects of the society like divorce, marital and extra-marital sex, poverty, crime, and the evils of unemployment.
As a literary movement, Naturalism came to America from France and flourished due to the presence of ample thematic material for its disposal. The major naturalistic writers are Edith Wharton, Jack London, Frank Norris, Abraham Cahan, Emile Zola, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Ellen Glasgow.
As it was believed that heredity and social conditions were unavoidable determinants in one’s life, naturalists went on writing their works picking the subjects from the contemporary life. Naturalists do not believe in the notion of free will and its capacity to enact real change in life’s circumstances. They believed that heredity and social conditions are the factors that determined the destiny of the human beings. The man has to unconditionally submit himself to his environment. It means the naturalists went on describing the things as they were without commenting on them. They were objective observers of the events; therefore, they preferred to speak neither in favour nor against them. The events around them can be either good or evil; the naturalists simply narrated them to their readers without interfering with the reality.
With the rapid growth of industrial sector, most of the Americans were forced to migrate to large towns thereby leading to the uncontrolled urbanization. Their arrival in cities made them aware of the importance of large economic and social forces. Even the agricultural sector was under the influence of the business. Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets can be regarded as the first naturalistic American novel. Before venturing this novel, Crane gathered much of his material from his personal visits to Manhattan. These visits helped him greatly to collect authentic data about the lives of the people living there. He minutely imitated all the details of this life including the vulgar dialect used by the inhabitants of lower Manhattan. Though Maggie: A Girl of the Streets failed to attract huge number of readers, it certainly had the signs of a talented artist. This novel was followed by The Red Badge of Courage, perhaps Crane’s masterpiece. It was set during the Civil War and narrated the story of a young soldier. Though Crane had no firsthand experiences of war, he tried to make his story authentic by borrowing his material largely from the magazines that reported the War.
After Stephen Crane, the novelist who followed Crane’s footprints is Edith Wharton. Her novels unmistakably and objectively describe the upper class of the society with its peculiarities. Through her works, Edith showed the unforgiving nature of life at the top of the class structure. A close study of her characters shows that they often fall from grace through their own mistakes, miscalculation, and sometimes for no apparent reason at all. Her profession of a designer had gifted her an eye for details. This gift she exploited to the fullest to give picturesque description of the life and manners of her characters. Wharton was not just a story-teller, she was also a sympathizer of her characters. It can be seen from her treatment of them. Yet, as a naturalist, she can’t escape from sense of determinism, according to which no one can have his or her free will.
Another practitioner of naturalism in America is Frank Norris. He was greatly influenced by Darwin and his theory of evolution. Following this theory, Norris tried to show how civilized man overcame the brute, animal nature that still lived inside of him. Through his works, which were utmost scientific, he puts forth eternal conflicts of the forces for their survival. It is for his too much emphasis on scientific details and lack of sympathy that Norris is sometimes criticized by the critics. His novels tell the stories of the poor and lonely who are caught in the trap of their evil environment. His novel, McTeague, presents a dentist who fails in his life due to his over ambitiousness and unaccounted greed.
A close analysis of the naturalistic novels brings forth the fact that though they are unending pessimistic accounts of the poor and destitute, these novelists were sincerely desired to improve the pathetic conditions of the victims of poverty. Apart from penning down the sufferings of the poor, the novelists like Frank Norris and Stephen Crane sincerely worked for improving the conditions of the poor by making the world aware of their miseries. Of course, there are some critics who criticized the naturalistic writers for their seemingly detached attitude towards the problems of the poor. However, it has to be taken into consideration that the social conditions of the time were so severe that these writers cannot be blamed for the sufferings of the poor. As the sensitive members of the society, they faithfully depicted the life as it was for which they cannot be blamed.
The main characteristic features of literary naturalism are:
- Detachment from the story.
- Surprising twist at the end of the story.
- There tends to be a strong sense that nature is indifferent to human struggle.