Naturalistic Themes in Anna Christie

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1795

[The wind-tower] was a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. It represented in a degree . . . the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual— nature in the wind, and nature in the vision of men. She did not seem cruel to him then, not benefi- cent, not treacherous, not wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent.

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This famous passage from Stephen Crane’s short story ‘‘The Open Boat,’’ which focuses on four men in a small dinghy struggling against the current and trying to make it to shore, is often quoted as an apt expression of the tenets of naturalism, a literary movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in France America, and England. Writers included in this group, like Crane, Émile Zola and Theodore Dreiser expressed in their works a biological and/or environmental determinism that prevented their characters from exercising their free will and thus controlling their destinies. Crane often focused on the social and economic factors that overpowered his characters. Zola’s and Dreiser’s work included this type of environmental determinism (economic, social, and political forces that restrict our lives, often interfering with our attempts to exercise free will and to shape our own destinies) coupled with an exploration of the influences of heredity in their portraits of the animalistic nature of men and women engaged in the endless and brutal struggle for survival. Eugene O’Neill explores similar naturalistic tendencies in Anna Christie in the harsh lives of the play’s main characters. Through his story of a reformed prostitute and her relationships with the men in her life, O’Neill raises important questions about how much influence we have over our destinies.

In Anna Christie O’Neill presents a naturalistic impression of the forces that continually frustrate human will and action. The naturalistic view proposes that humans are controlled by their heredity and environment, and so they cannot exercise free will. O’Neill questions the validity of this view in his portrait of Anna, who has been shaped by forces beyond her control, but who also may have the will and the ability to change her life.

Several environmental factors contributed to Anna’s descent into prostitution. When Chris frequently left Anna and her mother alone in Sweden, her mother transplanted them to her cousins’ farm in Minnesota. After her mother died, she was forced to stay on the farm where she was made to work ‘‘like a dog,’’ since her father never came for her. After her cousin raped her, she left the farm and took a job in Saint Paul as a nanny. Soon, however, biological and environmental influences propelled her into a life of prostitution.

Anna admits that her need for freedom compelled her to leave her position as a nanny. She explains, ‘‘I was caged in, I tell you—yust like in yail—taking care of other people’s kids—listening to ’em bawling and crying day and night—when I wanted to be out—and I was lonesome—lonesome as hell. So I give up finally.’’ Her need for freedom, combined with the sexual needs of the men she encounters in the city, contributes to her downfall. She ridicules her father’s assumption that there would be ‘‘all them nice inland fellers yust looking for a chance to marry’’ in Saint Paul, when she confesses, ‘‘Marry me? What a chance! They wasn’t looking for marrying.’’ Anna admits that loneliness prompted her to give in to their sexual advances. As a result of her experiences in the city, she claims that she does not expect much from her father, since men ‘‘give you a kick when you’re down, that’s what all men do.’’ She tries to force her father to admit his responsibility for her fate, when she demands,...

(The entire section contains 10852 words.)

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Critical Overview