What is the difference between literary Naturalism and Realism?

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Naturalism takes a deterministic, pessimistic view of human nature while realism does not necessarily do so. Realism focuses on the every-day world and is characterized by a more lax, freer tone than naturalism.

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It is easy to mix up realism and naturalism. Both share unsentimental, harsh views of life. Both focus often on social inequalities, poverty, and hardship. However, there is a strong element of social determinism (the idea that our behavior is determined by social and physical forces beyond our control) present...

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in naturalism that is not in realism. Naturalism tends to operate in a godless, meaningless universe, while a realist novel could still value religious and spiritual perspectives.

Frank Norris's 1899 novel, McTeague, is a textbook example of literary naturalism. The main character, McTeague, is a poor Irish-American who gains some stature when he becomes a dentist. His wife, Trina, is from a family of relatively middle class German immigrants. Norris presents these characters as lacking in free will: when hit by poverty, McTeague and Trina revert to almost animalistic states, eventually abandoning their middle class values and turning on one another.

McTeague is also shown to be a sexual sadist and a brute due to his maleness. When he first meets Trina, who comes to him for a filling, McTeague is tempted to rape her while she is unconscious, so struck is he by her beauty:

McTeague straightened up, putting the sponge upon the rack behind him, his eyes fixed upon Trina's face. For some time, he stood watching her as she lay there, unconscious and helpless, and very pretty. He was alone with her, and she was absolutely without defense.

Suddenly the animal in the man stirred and woke; the evil instincts that in him were so close to the surface leaped to life, shouting and clamoring.

Norris goes on to describe McTeague's civilized persona doing battle with this "evil" and primitive instinct, and this conflict goes on throughout the book. However, McTeague succumbs to it in the end, a tragic conclusion foreshadowed here when McTeague forces a kiss on the unconscious Trina. Even if he does not rape her, he still can never fully resist the deterministic instincts which control him.

Literary realism is less dour. Depicting everyday life and common people are the main goals here. Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic realist novel. It features a lower class boy as its hero, but Huck is not trapped by his environment the way McTeague and Trina are. Though raised in a society where black people are viewed as subhuman and slavery as moral, Huck changes his mind, even though he believes he will be damned to hell for helping runaway slave Jim evade the authorities.

Determinism definitely doesn't play as strong a role because Huck is fiercely independent. Even under the influence of the moralistic Widow Douglas, he refuses to be tamed:

The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn't stand it no longer I lit out. I got into my old rags and my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied. But Tom Sawyer he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of robbers, and I might join if I would go back to the widow and be respectable. So I went back.

So, these are the most significant differences. Both of the aforementioned novels aim to show the everyday and mundane in their settings and characters, but naturalism is by far the more pessimistic of the two when it comes to ideas about human nature.

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Upon first glance, naturalism and realism seem interchangeable. Both focus on presenting an unromantic picture of everyday life. However, the philosophical and even ideological aims of naturalism and realism are dissimilar. In brief, naturalism takes a pessimistic view of human nature while realism does not necessarily adopt such views.

Naturalism accepts a deterministic vision of the universe, as it was highly influenced by Darwin's theories of evolution and survival of the fittest. It experienced its highest vogue between the 1880s and 1910s. In naturalist fiction, human beings are controlled by the environment in which they find themselves, not by free will.

For example, in Frank Norris' naturalist novel McTeague, the main characters, Mcteague and Trina, descend into almost animalistic behaviors when they are forced into poverty. Their backgrounds are also linked with their negative actions as well: McTeague is from a poor family and had a brutish drunk for a father, which predestines him to end his days a drunk brute despite enjoying a brief period of middle-class success as a dentist.

Even Trina is ruled by urges beyond her control. She starts as a placid, easygoing woman, but when she meets McTeague, desires Norris paints as inherent to her being a woman emerge—in this case, a sense of romantic and sexual submission to McTeague's overwhelming virility:

At once there had been a mysterious disturbance. The woman within her suddenly awoke.

Did she love McTeague? Difficult question. Did she choose him for better or for worse, deliberately, of her own free will, or was Trina herself even allowed a choice in the taking of the step that was to make or mar her life? The Woman is awakened, and, starting from her sleep, catches blindly at what first her newly opened eyes light upon.

In naturalism, characters are often governed by their base urges, no matter who they are. Naturalism takes the view of man as an animal only kept in check by civilization, ready to de-evolve should the wrong circumstances emerge.

Realism is less bleak in its outlook. In general, realism encompasses a wider range of fiction, not being as linked to a particular philosophy or time period as naturalism is. It simply tends to focus on everyday life without painting it with sentimental melodrama or romanticized gloss.

Henry James is one of the most prominent realist writers. He tended to avoid simplistic good versus evil in his work and strove to depict psychological realism in his characters. Daisy Miller is a great example of these elements. The characters in this novella have more free will than their naturalistic counterparts. Daisy is headstrong and willful. When she chooses to compromise her reputation and risk getting deadly yellow fever by staying out late with Giovanni, James does not make it appear she is being driven by nature or fate to her ultimate end:

“I am afraid,” said Winterbourne, “that you will not think Roman fever very pretty. This is the way people catch it. I wonder,” he added, turning to Giovanelli, “that you, a native Roman, should countenance such a terrible indiscretion.”

“Ah,” said the handsome native, “for myself I am not afraid.”

“Neither am I—for you! I am speaking for this young lady.”

Giovanelli lifted his well-shaped eyebrows and showed his brilliant teeth. But he took Winterbourne’s rebuke with docility. “I told the signorina it was a grave indiscretion, but when was the signorina ever prudent?”

“I never was sick, and I don’t mean to be!” the signorina [Daisy] declared. “I don’t look like much, but I’m healthy! I was bound to see the Colosseum by moonlight; I shouldn’t have wanted to go home without that; and we have had the most beautiful time, haven’t we, Mr. Giovanelli? If there has been any danger, Eugenio can give me some pills. He has got some splendid pills.”

“I should advise you,” said Winterbourne, “to drive home as fast as possible and take one!”

Unlike Trina, one does not get the sense that Daisy is destined to die. She dies because of her own impulsive choices regarding staying out late. She is not presented as a figure beneath a microscope, but as an elusive character the reader never fully comprehends, which is a defining feature of realism.

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