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One of the main characteristics of Literary Naturalism is the belief that man behaves in accordance with the laws of nature. Instinct and inherited traits, then, would drive his actions more than would free will. A second belief related to this first one is the idea that man is at the mercy of his environment. With this idea in mind, man reacts to what happens around him as opposed to drives it. Again, free will is not a factor in determining what happens in his life.
The tone of Naturalistic works is usually distant and non-judgmental. The author presents himself or herself as an objective observer, similar to a scientist taking note of what he or she sees. The Naturalistic writer believes that truth is found in nature, and thus is consistent. Everything follows preordained principles, patterns, and rules. Naturalistic works are character-driven more than plot-driven. The focus is on human nature, a phenomenon that is predictable. Skinnerian principles of learning through conditioning and the Darwinian hierarchy of the survival of the fittest are the underlying themes involved in shaping the human character.
Although Naturalist writers strove for a degree of scientific objectivity in their work, it is fair to say that a fairly deep-rooted pessimism is often obvious in their writings, engendered by their conviction that man is forever at the mercy of forces that he cannot ultimately control: the effects of heredity and/or environment. These forces are often seen to contribute to the downfall of many characters in these stories. In older, and more romantic terms, such forces might have been construed as a divine and supernatural fate; the Naturalist writers preferred to think in terms of biological, scientific determinism.
Concomitant with the pessimism often on display in the work of Naturalist writers is the element of violence, in keeping with the Naturalist stress on primitive instincts and life as a a continual struggle. Characters are often rough-hewn and brutish, like Frank Norris's McTeague; dogs and wolves fight to the death in Jack London's Call of the Wild and White Fang, and so on. Violence and pessimism, then, are also characteristics of the work of Literary Naturalists.
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