Naturalistic Long Fiction Analysis

The rise of the naturalist movement

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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...

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Naturalism’s roots: Émile Zola

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Although there were precursors, the naturalistic novel emanated primarily from the works of Émile Zola (1840-1902). He collected a group of French writers around him, but Zola did not see naturalism as a school. One model for the naturalistic novel is Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (1867; English translation, 1881). The plot is far from original. Thérèse and Laurent are driven to adultery by their passions, and they murder Camille, her husband, disguising the murder as an accidental drowning. Driven by remorse, they both commit suicide. The two lovers are not presented as characters with intellects and consciences but as creatures driven by blood and nerves.

Zola states in his preface to the novel that they are animals devoid of soul. They are products of instinctual drives that pull them together, then, after the murder, drive them apart. Their behavior is the result of their natural, inherited constitutions. Thérèse’s background is one of sexual repression, which explains the outpouring of her drives. Temperamentally, Laurent is sanguine and Thérèse is nervous. Thérèse lives in a cramped apartment with an overpowering mother-in-law, which further explains the chemical attraction between the two lovers. Zola is not particularly successful in establishing that their guilt is part of a physiological condition in which the woman’s nervous temperament has driven the man to hysterical action. The chemical and physical attraction of two human beings is easily understood, but the organic underpinnings of moral conscience are not.

Throughout his lifetime, Zola assumed the monumental task of writing Les Rougon-Macquart (1871-1893; The Rougon-Macquarts, 1896-1900), which includes some twenty novels. The novels are connected in the tracing of the branches of two families throughout five generations. Zola traces the role of heredity through a series of stories of mental and physical diseases. He also explores society from all angles and from a variety of occupations. Each of these fields is thoroughly documented, providing the reader with a vivid picture of French society during the Second Empire.

Naturalism in England: Thomas Hardy

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In England, naturalism did not take root as firmly as it did in France, and it expressed itself somewhat differently. Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) is one English novelist who is usually grouped with the naturalists. Jude the Obscure (1895) was one of his last novels. Because of the controversy over the novel’s view of sex and marriage, Hardy ended his career as a novelist.

The character Jude Fawley, who aspires to study divinity at Christminster, is trapped into marriage with a vulgar woman who deserts him. His marriage ties make it impossible for him to court Sue Bridehead, whom he meets later and with whom he falls in love. Jude is unsuccessful in attaining admission to the university, and Sue becomes engaged to Philotson, Jude’s old tutor. During the engagement, Jude and Sue are thrown together, which expedites Sue’s marriage to Philotson. However, Sue is repulsed by Philotson physically and goes to live with Jude in a nonconjugal relationship. Arabella, Jude’s wife, returns, leading to Sue’s capitulation to a sexual relationship with Jude. Jude and Sue drift from town to town with Arabella’s child and eventually have two more children. Arabella’s child kills all the children and himself. Stricken with remorse, Sue returns to Philotson. Jude, in a drunken stupor, remarries Arabella.

Jude, who has been ill, finally dies of consumption. The pull of physical attraction is seen in Jude’s relationship with Arabella. Physical repulsion is seen in Sue’s rejection of Philotson. Fatalism is shown as Sue accuses external forces of preventing Jude and her from working and loving. Jude spouts Greek philosophy as he blames all their miseries on a foreordained destiny. However, Hardy differs from other naturalists in that he sees the universe governed by a malign metaphysical force that toys with human destiny.

American naturalism: Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser

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Although naturalism did not flourish in England, it did take root in the United States. In Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), Stephen Crane (1871-1900) explores life in the New York slums. Maggie is part of a poor family living in the tenements of the East Side of Manhattan. She is an attractive girl who “blossomed in a mud puddle,” a life filled with drunken rows. Trying to avoid the demeaning circumstances of her family, she seeks work in a collar-and-cuff factory, but life there is a monotonous routine filled with corruption. She meets a bartender named Pete, who takes her to beer gardens and theaters, giving her a romantic escape from drudgery and brutality. Seduced and abandoned by her lover and rejected by her family on moral grounds, Maggie is forced into prostitution and eventually drowns herself in the East River.

With no other choices, Maggie’s fall into prostitution is inevitable: Her crippling environment, her work, and her romantic temperament have all ordained the outcome. No one cares about her, and she is consumed by degradation. Her crude brother and drunken mother survive in the human jungle of vice and hypocrisy. The influential American critic and novelist William Dean Howells wrote that Maggie’s story had the quality of a Greek tragedy.

Frank Norris (1870-1902) showed how an ordinary working man can turn into a brute. McTeague (1899) has the plot line of a typical naturalist novel: All the data are provided, and the action flows from these facts. The protagonist, McTeague, thinks that he has taken a step upward from his working-class background by learning dentistry from a traveling quack. McTeague establishes a practice in San Francisco; he falls in love with and marries Trina, one of his patients. However, he makes an enemy of a rival, Marcus Schouler, who reports him for practicing without a license. When he is shut down, McTeague declines into drunkenness and brutality. He tortures his wife to find out where she has hoarded five thousand dollars that she won in a lottery. Eventually he kills her...

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Women and the naturalistic novel

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Deeply influenced by but also very different from French naturalism was the work of Spanish novelist Emilia Pardo Bazán (1851-1921). One of the most outspoken of Spain’s early feminists, she shocked the literary world for embracing French naturalism, to some degree. She decried its negation of beauty in favor of rawness, pessimism, obscenity, positivism, and determinism. Still, she agreed with naturalism’s objectivity, its observational techniques, and its detailed study of the problems of everyday life.

Other naturalistic writers include Kate Chopin (The Awakening, 1899), Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth, 1905, and The Age of Innocence, 1920), and Ellen Glasgow (1873-1945), whose novels are focused mainly on a radically changing American South. Glasgow shunned sentimentalism for a truth that “must embrace the interior world as well as external appearances.” Exploring the “interior world” as well as externality set her apart from the realist writers of the time. Also, her naturalism is tempered by a sense of decorum and propriety, without shocking detail. She made the following plea to other southern writers: All I ask him [the writer] to do is to deal as honestly with living tissues as he now deals with decay, to remind himself that the colors of putrescence have no greater validity for our age, or for any age, thanthe cardinal virtues.

Although naturalism as a movement was fading by the 1920’s, naturalistic techniques found their way into detective fiction, and into the novels of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Joyce Carol Oates, William Kennedy, Don DeLillo, and many others. An excellent example of the form reaching postcolonial writers is Indian Canadian Rohinton Mistry (born 1952). His novel A Fine Balance (1995) is set in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India, between 1975 and 1977. As the earlier naturalists used their work to criticize church and state, Mistry tells in brutal detail the suffering of the poor because of governmental policies. His characters, Ishvar and Omprakash the tailors, Dina the widow, and Maneck the student, work hard and behave honorably but are continually beaten down by social and economic pressures.


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Baguley, David. Naturalist Fiction: The Entropic Vision. New ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. First major study of naturalistic fiction as a distinct genre. Covers mainly the French naturalists, providing background to and theories of naturalism, but also examines naturalists from outside France. For advanced readers.

Bloom, Harold, ed. American Naturalism. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. A collection of critical essays on the major authors and works in American naturalism. Includes a chronology of significant cultural, literary, and political events of the naturalistic period in American literature.

Campbell, Donna M. Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1885-1915. Athens: Ohio State University Press, 1997. Asks the question, What effect did the cultural dominance of women’s local-color fiction in the 1890’s have on young male naturalistic writers?

Civello, Paul. American Literary Naturalism and Its Twentieth Century Transformations. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994. Examines the rise of naturalism in the United States and how it influenced later authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Don DeLillo.

Furst, Lilian R., and Peter N. Skrine. Naturalism. 1971. Reprint. London: Methuen, 1978. Dated but excellent introduction to literary naturalism in France, Germany, England, and the United States. Includes an updated bibliography.

Lehan, Richard Daniel. Realism and Naturalism: The Novel in an Age of Transition. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005. Survey of the major American and European novels of naturalism and realism from 1850 to 1950, including gothic, urban, detective, and Western novels.

Stone, Edward, ed. What Was Naturalism? Materials for an Answer. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1959. Dated but still a relevant collection of primary sources on the rise of naturalism, including excerpts from the works of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Émile Zola.