Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 522
Naturalist writers apply scientific principles and methods to the writing of fiction. Like scientists conducting experiments, they introduce readers to a character or characters and then set the events of the novel in motion to see how the characters’ inherited traits and environmental influences will determine their outcomes. In some cases, an unexpected opportunity is also introduced to give the character a chance to take it or to ignore it. Given extreme circumstances or desires or needs, characters make decisions they would not otherwise make. The naturalist writer believes that the characters’ true natures emerge in these situations.
Another scientific idea used in naturalist writing is conditioned behavior. Characters learn how to behave when they are exposed repeatedly to the same environmental influences. A character such as Henry in The Red Badge of Courage quickly learns how to behave in order to survive in the extreme circumstances of war. Buck in The Call of the Wild is first conditioned to hate people but later learns to trust the right man.
Darwinian processes are sometimes evident in naturalist writing. In Sister Carrie, for example, Carrie is inherently stronger than Hurstwood; as a result of his weakness, he abandons all of his comforts and ultimately commits suicide, while Carrie enjoys a successful stage career and self-reliance. Society is unforgiving and harsh toward the weak but offers rewards to the strongest members of society. This suggests that civilized society is as much a forum for competition among its members as nature is for animals.
Ordinary People in Extraordinary Circumstances
Novels of the naturalist movement feature common, everyday people. There are no members of royalty, titans of the business world, or great minds. Instead, naturalist authors choose protagonists like McTeague, a would-be dentist; Carrie, a rural Midwestern girl; and Buck, a mixed-breed dog. These characters lead simple lives, uncluttered by the good fortune and distractions of glamour, wealth, or adventure. They are left only with their limited resources and their innate natures. In rare cases such as Carrie’s, a character attains an extraordinary life but finds it ultimately unsatisfying. These characters learn that there are more similarities than differences between the common and the uncommon.
Naturalist authors place these ordinary characters in extraordinary situations. Carrie finds herself first in the big city of Chicago and eventually in New York City, enjoying a glamorous career as an actress. In contrast, her lover, Hurstwood, descends from a lavish lifestyle to living on the street. In the end, his dramatic decision to take his own life is in sharp contrast to the cheap motel where he does it.
Henry in The Red Badge of Courage is an ordinary young man who makes a decision to seek out the extraordinary by enlisting to fight in the Civil War. He discovers that it is he who is extraordinary in his courage and that war consists of common ugliness.
By placing ordinary people in extreme situations, naturalist writers show their readers that they, too, could find themselves in extraordinary situations. They also show that while some people become extraordinary due to their circumstances, others are destined to remain common.