Wednesday, October 3, 2007


The term naturalism describes a type of literature that attempts to apply scientific principles of objectivity and detachment to its study of human beings. Unlike realism, which focuses on literary technique, naturalism implies a philosophical position: for naturalistic writers, since human beings are, in Emile Zola's phrase, "human beasts," characters can be studied through their relationships to their surroundings. Zola's 1880 description of this method in Le roman experimental (The Experimental Novel, 1880) follows Claude Bernard's medical model and the historian Hippolyte Taine's observation that "virtue and vice are products like vitriol and sugar"--that is, that human beings as "products" should be studied impartially, without moralizing about their natures. Other influences on American naturalists include Herbert Spencer and Joseph LeConte.

Through this objective study of human beings, naturalistic writers believed that the laws behind the forces that govern human lives might be studied and understood. Naturalistic writers thus used a version of the scientific method to write their novels; they studied human beings governed by their instincts and passions as well as the ways in which the characters' lives were governed by forces of heredity and environment. Although they used the techniques of accumulating detail pioneered by the realists, the naturalists thus had a specific object in mind when they chose the segment of reality that they wished to convey.

In George Becker's famous and much-annotated and contested phrase, naturalism's philosophical framework can be simply described as "pessimistic materialistic determinism." Another such concise definition appears in the introduction to American Realism: New Essays. In that piece,"The Country of the Blue," Eric Sundquist comments, "Revelling in the extraordinary, the excessive, and the grotesque in order to reveal the immutable bestiality of Man in Nature, naturalism dramatizes the loss of individuality at a physiological level by making a Calvinism without God its determining order and violent death its utopia" (13).


Jenna said...

When I first began to read The Open Boat, I immediately noticed how alive, violent and forceful the sea was portrayed. The foam was “racing” and the waves would “leap” from the air and the ocean would “outburst” at the men. (58) The actions of the sea were so vivid that the sea seemed much more alive than the men, who seemed merely pawns. My acknowledgment of this style was reinforced by the description of “naturalism”, since it studies how people interact with the environment. Even more naturalist in nature, the men, as pawns, are at the mercy of the sea. They plead with her and resign, assuming “it was really the intention of the seven mad gods to drown” them. (71) There is an “unconcern of the universe”. (74) This sort of pre-destination or determinism certainly seems a bit Calvinist. Finally, the “race” to the shore at the end is Darwinian as only the able can survive.

-Jenna Sopfe

m said...
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m said...

Starting from the first page of McTeague, Frank Norris reveals his naturalistic views by assigning his characters inhuman qualities. McTeague's diet of "thick gray soup" and "heavy underdone meat" and his feeling "cropful, stupid, and warm" as his food digests give him an animal-like nature (5). Norris even describes him as a "draught horse" and "bull-like" (6,7). Furthermore, the stark contrast between his father's identity as a diligent shift boss on the weekdays and then an "irresponsible animal...a brute, crazy with alcohol" on Sunday suggests that man lacks a definite moral character (5). It is ironic that he would behave this way on the holy Sunday; Norris highlights the absence of God in people's lives at the time. Rather, Norris supports Eric Sundquist's belief in the "immutable bestiality" of man. Norris portrays the Apollonian forces repressing man during the day as the townspeople enter the streets in order of their social classes. This sequence symbolizes the food chain present in nature. Conversely, the "demoniac glare" of the night and the homogeneous enjoyment of pleasures by all people is the Dionysian element. Unlike the mood of anxiety during the day, the nighttime atmosphere is carefree, thrilling, and without restrictions. Norris emphasizes that, without society's conventions, all men are inherently the same in their instincts and passions.

-Stephanie Cho