The rise of the naturalist movement
The historical and philosophical influences on the movement include the Industrial Revolution, the rise of venture capitalism, and the scientific age. By the mid-nineteenth century, the effects of the Industrial Revolution were manifest. The agricultural workforce had migrated to the cities, and thousands of large, new factories had been built. New technologies began to bring more efficient power sources, such as gas and electricity, to homes and businesses in urban areas. The steam locomotive, the telegraph, and underground cables increased the speed of travel and communication. The new technologies opened new opportunities for entrepreneurs, and those few with access to capital built vast industrial empires. Increased wealth came into the hands of these businesspeople, and, for them, the standard of living rose dramatically.
The new industrialization had significant side effects. Factory workers were poor and underpaid, and they worked long hours in unsafe conditions. They had flocked to the cities from the country to find industrial jobs, and they were jammed together in squalid and overcrowded conditions. They lived a mean and brutish existence. The Industrial Revolution replaced romantic idealism with a new and harsh reality that focused on the accumulation of external goods—a new materialism.
Not only were material conditions changing, but new ideas were attacking the complacent Victorian order. In 1859 and again in 1871, Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution: Species are in constant battle to maintain their existence. Those that survive are better adapted to the environment and thus stronger. Through a process he called natural selection, new species evolve; humans had evolved from lower forms of animal life. Darwin had struck a blow to the metaphysical order and to most people’s religious beliefs. No longer were humans privileged creatures created by a benign God in his own image: They were connected to the animal kingdom. The naturalists were influenced by Darwin and in their fiction would depict humans in a bestial state caught in the struggle for survival.
Although Darwin disapproved of the application of his theories to human beings (the process of natural selection required thousands, even millions, of years, not a few generations), a philosopher named Herbert Spencer applied the process of evolution to the economic and social order with his social Darwinism. Because social beings are evolving toward a higher order, he reasoned, nothing should tamper with that competitive system. The fittest will survive, prosper, and evolve. Those who do not prosper and survive—the poor and the lower classes—should perish because they are not strong enough to survive. The suffering and hardships of the unsuccessful, Spencer thought, are merely incidental conditions in humanity’s evolution toward a perfect state. Social Darwinism allowed people in power to rationalize the exploitation of the working class as part of a grand design of nature. The economic system was not to be tampered with, since attempts to ameliorate the circumstances of the poor, immigrants, and children would encourage the propagation of weakness and ultimately work against society. Social Darwinism’s element of natural determinism was reflected by the naturalist writers, who often depicted the struggle for survival.
Determinism also plays a role in the philosophy of Karl Marx. For Marx, economic conditions determine the highest goals of civilization. Individuals are caught in class warfare between the working proletariat and the capitalist class. The proletariat can escape oppression under the wheels of determinism through revolution and the formation of a socialist state. Unlike social Darwinism, Marxism sees the workers, not the capitalists, as triumphant. Some naturalist writers moved toward a socialist solution to the constant struggle for survival.
Another thinker, Hippolyte Taine, also influenced the naturalists. Taine made the Darwinian...
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