The individual and his environment, natural and man-made, in American literary realism

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Realist writers investigated the relationship between individuals and their environment in a variety of ways which reflect the different artistic  strands of this varied and far-from-unified movement. Because of the influence of scientific thinking, and particularly of Social Darwinism, on realism, writers tried to establish a connection between the environment where their characters grew up and lived and their present conditions. This philosophical outlook is called determinism: the environment is seen as determining the main traits of individuals as well as their motivations to act in certain ways rather than in others. Some writers such as Henry James and Edith Wharton privileged social environment, looking at how the conventions of the time trapped their characters in spite of their efforts to resist them.

Other writers such as Dreiser, who are also sometimes referred to as naturalists rather than simply realists, took this interest in environment more literally and saw a direct relationship between the physical environment and their characters' actions. In Dreiser's Sister Carrie, for example, there are long descriptions of urban space which is seen as the prime motive of the  characters' actions. Dreiser famously argued that the city is for the characters like "the attraction of the flame for the moth", thus emphasizing the destructive fascination that the city exerted on individuals, especially newcomers like Carrie.

Finally, given the "local color" or "regional" type of realism of writers like Sara Orne Jewett, some realist texts focussed in detail on particular geographical environments in the U.S., providing descriptions of their physical as well as social milieu.

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