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Naturalism applies both to scientific ideas and principles, such as instinct and Darwin’s theory of evolution, and to fiction. Authors in this movement wrote stories in which the characters behave in accordance with the impulses and drives of animals in nature. The tone is generally objective and distant, like that of a botanist or biologist taking notes or preparing a treatise. Naturalist writers believe that truth is found in nature, and because nature operates within consistent principles, patterns, and rules, truth is consistent.

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Because the focus of Naturalism is human nature, stories in this movement are character-driven rather than plot-driven. Although Naturalism was inspired by the work of the French writer Émile Zola, it reached the peak of its accomplishment in the United States. In France, Naturalism was strongest in the late 1870s and early 1880s, but it emerged in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century and extended up to the first world war.

The fundamental naturalist doctrine is presented in Zola’s 1880 essay “Le roman experimental” (meaning the experimental—or experiential— novel). In it, Zola claims that the naturalist writer should subject believable characters and events to experimental conditions. In other words, take the known (such as a character) and introduce it into the unknown (such as an unfamiliar place). Another major principle of Naturalism that Zola explains in this essay is the idea of determinism, which is the theory that a person’s fate is determined solely by heredity and environment.

While the French initiated and began to develop Naturalism, Americans are credited with bringing it to fruition. American Naturalist writers include the novelists Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Hamlin Garland, and Jack London; the short story writer O. Henry (William Sydney Porter); and the poets Edwin Arlington Robinson and Edgar Lee Masters. Dreiser’s An American Tragedy is considered the pinnacle of naturalist achievement. Other representative works are Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, London’s The Call of the Wild, Norris’s McTeague, and Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage.

Representative Authors

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Stephen Crane (1871–1900)
Best remembered for his Civil War narrative, The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane was born on November 1, 1871, six years after the war ended. He was born in Newark, New Jersey, and later launched his career in New York as a journalist for the New York Herald, New York Tribune, and New York Journal. His first story, the novella, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, was self-published when he was twenty-two years old. In 1895 The Red Badge of Courage was published, making Crane internationally famous and enabling him to focus on writing fiction for the rest of his short life. Crane died of tuberculosis on June 5, 1900, in Badenweiler, Germany. He is buried in Hillside, New Jersey.

Crane’s major contribution to American literature is The Red Badge of Courage. It is the story of Henry Fleming, a young man who enlists to fight in the Civil War. Through his experiences, he discovers that he possesses courage and that war is less glamorous than he imagined it would be. With this narrative, Crane takes the characteristics of Naturalism and applies them to a critical period in American history. The result is a work that was immediately embraced by Americans at the time of publication and continues to be admired and taught today.

Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945)
Born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on August 27, 1871, Theodore Dreiser enjoyed a career as a respected journalist and novelist. Dreiser left Indiana as a young man and found work in Chicago as a journalist. When his first novel, Sister Carrie, was a failure, he was plagued by self-doubt. His doubt proved to be unfounded, however, as he rose to prominence in literary circles, was a finalist for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1930, and received an Award of Merit from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1945. Dreiser died of a heart attack in Los Angeles, California, on December 28, 1945.

In An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie, Dreiser depicts the dark side of the myth of the American dream. This is a recurring theme in his work. Both novels feature tragic characters who are the victims of their own desires. In any discussion of Naturalism, An American Tragedy is generally held up as the best example. But Sister Carrie is also a strong representative of the movement and, as Dreiser’s first novel, demonstrates how naturally the style came to him.

Frank Norris (1870–1902)
Benjamin Franklin Norris, Jr. was born in Chicago, Illinois, on March 5, 1870. He was an artistic and well-educated man, having studied painting in 1887 at the Atelier Julien in Paris and attended the University of California at Berkeley (1890–94) and Harvard University (1894–95). Like many of the naturalist writers, he worked in journalism as a foreign correspondent. Norris wrote from South Africa for San Francisco Chronicle from 1895 to 1896, and from Cuba for S. S. McClure Syndicate of New York City as a war correspondent in 1898. He died of appendicitis in San Francisco, California, on October 25, 1902.

Norris is respected as one of the major writers who developed American Naturalism. Critics regard his work as being the closest to the pure Naturalism described by Zola. His most notable works are McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, The Octopus: A Story of California, and The Pit: A Story of Chicago. Although McTeague: A Story of San Francisco was written early in Norris’s career, many scholars consider it his masterpiece despite its violent content. The Octopus: A Story of California and The Pit: A Story of Chicago are two volumes of an unfinished trilogy. In addition to novels, Norris wrote numerous short stories that appeared in publications for a wide range of audiences.

Émile Zola (1840–1902)
Émile Zola was born in Paris, France, on April 2, 1840. During his career Zola wrote novels, short stories, plays, translations, and criticism. He was awarded the position of Officer of Legion d’Honneur in 1888–89. This position was revoked, however, because of Zola’s disputes with the French government. Always a controversial figure, Zola had a wide audience among his contemporaries and remains a major figure in French literature today. He died of accidental asphyxiation on September 29, 1902, in Paris. Although he was buried in Paris, his ashes were later moved to the Pantheon in Rome, Italy, home to the tombs of many of the greatest thinkers in the world.

Considered the most prominent theorist of Naturalism, Zola wrote the essay “Le roman experimental” (meaning “the experimental—or experiential— novel”) in 1880. In it, Zola explains that the role of the naturalist is to subject believable incidents to experimental conditions in the novel in order to find truth. The author, in a sense, becomes a scientist. Zola also claims that character is conditioned and determined by heredity and environment. Although Zola is credited as the father of Naturalism, his views are often considered to represent the extremes of the style.

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