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Naturalism

Naturalism is a literary movement from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that analyzed human nature through a scientific, objective, and detached perspective. Despite decreasing in popularity after the early 20th century, Naturalism is still one of the most influential literary movements to this day!

Naturalism+ Nature/Naturalism authors+ StudySmarterNaturalists look at how environmental, social, and hereditary factors impact human nature, pixabay.

Naturalism: An Introduction and Writers

Naturalism (1865-1914) was a literary movement that focused on the objective and detached observation of human nature using scientific principles. Naturalism also observed how environmental, social, and hereditary factors impacted human nature. Naturalism rejected movements such as Romanticism, which embraced subjectivity, the individual, and imagination. It also differed from Realism by applying the scientific method to the narrative structure.

Realism is a literary movement from the 19th century that focuses on the everyday and mundane experiences of humans.

In 1880, Emile Zola (1840-1902), a French novelist, wrote The Experimental Novel which is considered a naturalistic novel. Zola wrote the novel with the scientific method in mind while writing with a philosophical perspective on humans. Human beings in literature, according to Zola, were subjects in a controlled experiment to be analyzed.

Naturalist writers adopted a deterministic view. Determinism in Naturalism is the idea that nature or fate influences the course of an individual's life and character.

Charles Darwin, an English biologist and naturalist, wrote his influential book On the Origin of Species in 1859. His book highlighted his theory on evolution which stated that all living creatures evolved from a common ancestor through a series of natural selection. Darwin's theories greatly influenced Naturalist writers. From Darwin's theory, Naturalists concluded that all human nature was derived from an individual's environment and hereditary factors.

Types of Naturalism

There are two main types of Naturalism: Hard/Reductive Naturalism and Soft/Liberal Naturalism. There is also a category of Naturalism called American Naturalism.

Hard/Reductive Naturalism

Hard or Reductive Naturalism refers to the belief that a fundamental particle or arrangement of fundamental particles is what makes up everything that exists. It is ontological, which means it explores the relationships between concepts to understand the nature of being.

Soft/Liberal Naturalism

Soft or Liberal Naturalism accepts scientific explanations of human nature, but it also accepts that there may be other explanations for human nature that lies beyond scientific reasoning. It takes into account aesthetic value, morality and dimension, and personal experience. Many accept that the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) lay the foundations for Soft/Liberal Naturalism.

American Naturalism

American Naturalism differed only slightly from Emile Zola's Naturalism. Frank Norris (1870-1902), an American Journalist, is credited with introducing American Naturalism.

Frank Norris has been criticized in the 20th-21st century for his antisemitic, racist, and misogynistic depictions of people in his novels. He used scientific reasoning to justify his beliefs which was a common problem in 19th-century scholarship.

American Naturalism ranges in belief and stances. It includes authors such as Stephen Crane, Henry James, Jack London, William Dean Howells, and Theodore Dreiser. Faulkner is also a prolific Naturalist writer, who is known for his exploration of social structures built off of slavery and societal changes. He also explored hereditary influences beyond an individual's control.

When Naturalism was growing in the United States, the country's economic backbone was built on slavery, and the country was in the midst of the Civil War (1861-1865). Many Slave Narratives were written to show how slavery was destructive to human character. A famous example is Frederick Douglass' My Bondage and My Freedom (1855).

Characteristics of Naturalism

Naturalism has a few key characteristics to look for. These characteristics include a focus on setting, objectivism and detachment, pessimism, and determinism.

Setting

Naturalist writers saw the environment as having a character of its own. They placed the setting of many of their novels in environments that would directly impact and play a significant role in the lives of the characters in the story.

An example can be found in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The story begins in Sallisaw, Oklahoma during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The landscape is dry and dusty and the crop the farmers were growing is ruined forcing everyone to move out.

This is just one example of how the setting and environment play a major role in a Naturalist novel—by determining the fate of the individuals in the story.

Objectivism and Detachment

Naturalist writers wrote objectively and detached. This means they detached themselves from any emotional, subjective thoughts or feelings towards the topic of the story. Naturalist literature often implements a third-person point of view that acts as an opinionless observer. The narrator simply tells the story as it is. If emotions are mentioned, they are told scientifically. Emotions are seen as primitive and part of survival, rather than psychological.

For he is an inspired man. Every inch of him is inspired—you might almost say inspired separately. He stamps with his feet, he tosses his head, he sways and swings to and fro; he has a wizened-up little face, irresistibly comical; and, when he executes a turn or a flourish, his brows knit and his lips work and his eyelids wink—the very ends of his necktie bristle out. And every now and then he turns upon his companions, nodding, signaling, beckoning frantically—with every inch of him appealing, imploring, in behalf of the muses and their call" (The Jungle, Chapter 1).

The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair was a novel that exposed the harsh and dangerous living and working conditions of immigrant workers in America.

In this excerpt from Sinclair's The Jungle, the reader is provided an objective and detached description of a man passionately playing the violin. The man playing has a lot of passion and emotion while playing, but how Sinclair describes the act of playing the violin is through scientific observation. Note how he comments on movements such as stamping feet and tossing of the head without providing any of the narrator's own opinions or thoughts on the situation.

Pessimism

Naturalism+ Pessimism/Naturalism authors+ StudySmarterThe phrase "The glass is half empty" refers to a pessimistic point of view which is a characteristic of Naturalism, pixabay.

Naturalist writers adopted a pessimistic or fatalistic worldview.

Pessimism is a belief that only the worst possible outcome can be expected.

Fatalism is the belief that everything is predetermined and unavoidable.

Naturalistic authors, therefore, wrote characters that have little power or agency over their own lives and must oftentimes face terrible challenges.

In Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Ubervilles (1891), the protagonist Tess Durbeyfield faces many challenges that are beyond her control. Tess's father forces her to go to the wealthy D'Ubervilles household and declare kinship, because the Durbeyfields are impoverished and need money. She is hired by the family and is taken advantage of by the son, Alec. She becomes pregnant and must face the consequences. None of the events of the story are the consequences of Tess's actions. Rather, they are rather predetermined. This is what makes the story a pessimistic and fatalist one.

Determinism

Determinism is the belief that all things that happen in an individual's life are due to external factors. These external factors can be natural, hereditary, or fate. External factors can also include societal pressures such as poverty, wealth gaps, and poor living conditions. One of the best examples of determinism can be found in William Faulkner's 'A Rose for Emily' (1930). The 1930 short story highlights how the protagonist Emily's insanity stems from the oppressive and codependent relationship she had with her father that led to her self isolation. Therefore, Emily's condition was determined by external factors beyond her control.

Naturalism: Authors and Philosophers

Here is a list of authors, writers, and philosophers who contributed to the Naturalist literary movement:

  • Emile Zola (1840-1902)
  • Frank Norris (1870-1902)
  • Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945)
  • Stephen Crane (1871-1900)
  • William Faulkner (1897-1962)
  • Henry James (1843-1916)
  • Upton Sinclair (1878-1968)
  • Edward Bellamy (1850-1898)
  • Edwin Markham (1852-1940)
  • Henry Adams (1838-1918)
  • Sidney Hook (1902-1989)
  • Ernest Nagel (1901-1985)
  • John Dewey (1859-1952)

Naturalism: Examples in Literature

There have been countless books, novels, essays, and journalistic pieces written that fall under the Naturalist movement. Below are just a few that you can explore!

Naturalism+ Examples/Naturalism authors+ StudySmarterThere have been hundreds of books written that belong to the Naturalism genre, pixabay.

Naturalist literature contains many themes such as the fight for survival, determinism, violence, greed, desire to dominate, and an indifferent universe or higher being.

Naturalism (1865-1914) - Key takeaways

  • Naturalism (1865-1914) was a literary movement that focused on the objective and detached observation of human nature using scientific principles. Naturalism also observed how environmental, social, and hereditary factors impacted human nature.
  • Emile Zola was one of the first novelists to introduce Naturalism and used the scientific method to structure his narratives. Frank Norris is credited with spreading Naturalism in America.
  • There are two main types of Naturalism: Hard/Reductive Naturalism and Soft/Liberal Naturalism. There is also a category of Naturalism called American Naturalism.
  • Naturalism has a few key characteristics to look for. These characteristics include a focus on setting, objectivism and detachment, pessimism, and determinism.
  • A few examples of Naturalist writers are Henry James, William Faulkner, Edith Wharton, and John Steinbeck.

Frequently Asked Questions about Naturalism

Naturalism (1865-1914) was a literary movement that focused on the objective and detached observation of human nature using scientific principles.

Naturalism has a few key characteristics to look for. These characteristics include a focus on setting, objectivism and detachment, pessimism, and determinism.

A few Naturalist authors include Emile Zola, Henry James, and William Faulkner.

The Call of the Wild (1903) by Jack London is an example of Naturalism

Emile Zola is a prominent Naturalist writer.

Final Naturalism Quiz

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What is Naturalism?

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Naturalism is a literary movement from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that analyzed human nature through a scientific, objective, and detached perspective.  

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How does Naturalism differ from Realism?

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Naturalism differs from Realism by applying the scientific method to the narrative structure.  

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What did Emile Zola believe about human beings?

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Human beings in literature, according to Zola, were subjects in a controlled experiment to be analyzed. 

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What are two types of Naturalism?

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Hard/Reductive Naturalism and Soft/Liberal Naturalism. 

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What is Hard/Reductive Naturalism?

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Hard or Reductive Naturalism refers to the belief that a fundamental particle or arrangement of fundamental particles is what makes up everything that exists. 

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What is Soft/Liberal Naturalism?

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Soft or Liberal Naturalism accepts scientific explanations of human nature, but it also accepts that there may be other explanations for human nature that lies beyond scientific reasoning. 

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Who is credited with introducing Naturalism to American Literature?

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Frank Norris

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What are the five key characteristics of Naturalism?

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A focus on setting, objectivism and detachment, pessimism, and determinism. 

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How did Naturalist authors use setting?

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They placed the setting of many of their novels in environments that would directly impact and play a significant role in the lives of the characters in the story. 

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What does it mean for a Naturalist author to be objective and detached?

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This means they detached themselves from any emotional, subjective thoughts or feelings towards the topic of the story. 

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Were Naturalist writers optimists or pessimists?

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Pessimists

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What is determinism?

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Determinism is the belief that all things that happen in an individual's life are due to external factors. These external factors can be natural, hereditary, or fate. 

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Who are a few examples of Naturalist writers?

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Emile Zola, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane...

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What is an example of Naturalist literature?

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Nana (1880) by Emile Zola, Sister Carrie (1900) by Thomas Dreiser, McTeague (1899) by Frank Norris,The Call of the Wild (1903) by Jack London, Of Mice and Men (1937) by John Steinbeck 

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What literary movement did Naturalism reject?

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Romanticism

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What is a slave narrative?

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Slave narratives are a literary genre that records the experience of slavery from the perspective of a person who survived slavery.  

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Why was Phillis Wheatley's book of poetry published in London rather than in Boston?

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Phillis Wheatley's book was published in London because Boston's publishers refused to formally acknowledge her intellect and artistry by publishing an entire book of her works.  

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What was significant about the timeline (mid-1700s-late-1800s) when most slave narratives were published?

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Their timeline is significant because it coincided with when the abolitionist movement gained a foothold in society and they remained popular until the Civil War ended.

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How was the Middle Passage a defining moment for the people who had been captured?

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The Middle Passage was a defining moment for the captive people because while trying to physically survive malnutrition and illness due to poor ventilation and lack of personal space, the newly enslaved people had to wrap their minds around their traumatic experiences. 

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True or False: Slave narratives were only published from the mid-1700s until the late 1800s.

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False: Most slave narratives were published mid-1700s until the late 1800s. However, they became popular again in the 1920s and 1930s because of a government program that recorded them from a sociological perspective. In addition, modern-day forms of slavery are being exposed by newly-published slave narratives today.

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What was the purpose of slave narratives?

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The purpose of slave narratives was to paint a picture of the brutality and degradation of slavery for white readers and to show them that enslaved people deserve human rights. 

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What was accomplished by including the testimony of an authoritative white person or people at the beginning of a slave narrative?

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Including the testimony of an authoritative white person or people at the beginning of a slave narrative gave it credibility that the enslaved person would not have on their own.

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Why were early slave narratives dismissed as propaganda?

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Early slave narratives were dismissed as propaganda because pro-slavery groups damaged their credibility by questioning whether the people who helped enslaved people tell their tales exaggerated the details.

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In what ways are slave narratives important?

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Slave narratives are important because they offer a glimpse into African American history and the foundation of African American literature.

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What can be accomplished by studying slave narratives?

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By studying slave narratives, a clear record of the problematic requirements African Americans have tolerated on the road to becoming human in the eyes of white America emerges from between the lines. 

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