Characteristics of naturalistic fiction
In naturalistic fiction, humans are observed as though they are specimens in a laboratory; the naturalist records their lives much the way an anatomist performs a dissection. The purpose of the naturalistic novel is to expose the truth, not to create an entertaining or sentimental fiction based on an inventive story driven by the rules of plot. Instead, the naturalistic novel is the life story of a person or a group of people whose actions are faithfully depicted.
The novelist depends heavily on documentation of facts. Upton Sinclair wrote a series of journalistic exposés on the meatpacking industry before writing his novel, The Jungle (1906). Zola rode a railway engine, descended into a mine, and measured the dimensions of a prostitute’s bedroom before incorporating these locales into his novels. Zola’s method was to take copious notes, observe with a keen eye, and let the observations shape the story. Naturalistic novelists had to remain impersonal about their observations and not comment on the story. Zola, however, believed observations should be filtered through a temperament (the author’s) so that there would be latitude for the imagination and the perceptions of the observer. In some of his writings Zola went further. He believed in the author’s creation of the grandeur of nature, in which writers reshape their observations to make an imprint of genius. For Zola, naturalistic novels are more than journalistic records.
In the romantic and melodramatic novel, which preceded naturalism, emphasis was placed on abstract virtues. In the naturalistic novel, moral absolutes are of no more importance than chemical products. Taine noted that virtue and vice were treated the same as vitriol and vinegar. Thus, naturalistic fiction was condemned by many readers and critics for its immorality or its amorality. The romantic novel created idealistic women, models of purity, and lovers who were admirably loyal. Often they were pitted against a stock villain. The naturalistic novel depicts both rogues and honest people without taking sides. It goes down into the gutters and reveals the seamy side of life.
Another trait of naturalism is its focus on the lower classes and on class struggle. Although Zola held that all subjects were open to the novelist, many naturalists focused on the squalid life of the lower-class poor and their reduction to bestial conditions. The naturalist was less interested in human beings living under ordinary conditions than in how people behaved in crisis. The naturalistic novelist creates a world in which humans are caught in the clutches of heredity and environment. Terrible things generally happen to the characters. Such a world is deterministic and has been viewed as pessimistic. Many criticized naturalism, equating it with fatalism or deterministic pessimism. Although some naturalistic fiction is indeed pessimistic, not all is so. Zola himself...
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