Naturalism (literature)

From New World Encyclopedia

Naturalism was a late nineteenth century movement in theater, film, art and literature that seeks to portray common values of the ordinary individual, as opposed to such movements as Romanticism or Surrealism, in which subjects may receive highly symbolic, idealistic, or even supernatural treatment. Naturalism was an outgrowth of Realism. Realism began after Romanticism, in part as a reaction to it. Unlike the Romantic ideal, which focused on the inner life of the (often great) individual, Realism focused on the description of the details of everyday existence as an expression of the social milieu of the characters. Honore de Balzac begins Old Goriot with a 30-some page description of the Maison Vaquer, a run-down but "respectable" boarding house owned by Madame Vaquer. While much of Realist literature moved attention away from the higher classes of society, there were some exceptions, such as Leo Tolstoy. But in naturalist literature and visual arts, the general direction of Realism is taken further. The subjects changed to primarily people of lower birth. In naturalist works writers concentrate on the filth of society and the travails of the lower classes as the focal point of their writing. Naturalism was heavily influenced by both Marxism and evolutionary theory. Naturalism attempted to apply what they saw as the scientific rigor and insights of those two theories to artistic representation of society, as a means of criticizing late nineteenth century social organization.


In theater, the naturalism movement developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Naturalism in theater was an attempt to create a perfect illusion of reality through detailed sets, an unpoetic literary style that reflects the way ordinary people speak, and a style of acting that tries to recreate reality (often by seeking complete identification with the role, as advocated by Stanislavski). As founder of the first acting "System," co-founder of the Moscow Art Theater (1897 - ), and an eminent practitioner of the naturalist school of theater, Konstantin Stanislavski unequivocally challenged traditional notions of the dramatic process, establishing himself as one of the most pioneering thinkers in modern theater. Stanislavski coined phrases such as "stage direction," laid the foundations of modern opera and instantly brought fame to the works of such talented writers and playwrights as Maxim Gorky and Anton Chekhov. His process of character development, the "Stanislavski Method," was the catalyst for method acting–arguably the most influential acting system on the modern stage and screen. Such renowned schools of acting and directing as the Group Theater (1931 – 1941) and The Actors Studio (1947 - ) are a legacy of Stanislavski's pioneering vision and naturalist thought.

Naturalism was criticized in the mid-twentieth century by Bertolt Brecht and others who argued instead for breaking the illusion of reality in order to encourage detached consideration of the issues the play raises. Though it retains a sizable following, most Western theater today follows a semi-naturalistic approach, with naturalistic acting but less realistic design elements (especially set pieces).

Naturalistic performance is often unsuitable when performing other styles of theater, particularly older styles. For example, Shakespearean verse often requires an artificial acting style and scenography; naturalistic actors try to speak the lines as if they are normal, everyday speech, which often sounds awkward in context.

Film, on the contrary, permits a greater scope of illusion than is possible on stage. Naturalism is the normal style, although there have been many exceptions, including the German Expressionists and modern directors such as Terry Gilliam, who have reveled in artificiality. Even a fantastical genre such as science fiction can have a naturalistic element, as in the gritty, proletarian environment of the commercial space-freighter in Alien.


The term naturalism describes a type of literature that attempts to apply scientific principles of objectivity and detachment to its study of human beings. Unlike realism, which focuses on literary technique, naturalism implies a philosophical position. For naturalistic writers, since human beings are, in Emile Zola's phrase, "human beasts," characters can be studied through their relationships to their surroundings.

Naturalistic writers were influenced by the evolution theory of Charles Darwin. They believed that one's heredity and social environment decide one's character. Whereas realism seeks only to describe subjects as they really are, naturalism also attempts to determine "scientifically" the underlying forces (i.e. the environment or heredity) influencing these subjects' actions. They are both opposed to Romanticism, in which subjects may receive highly symbolic, idealistic, or even supernatural treatment. Naturalistic works often include uncouth or sordid subject matter. For example, Émile Zola's works had a sexual frankness along with a pervasive pessimism. Naturalistic works exposed the dark harshness of life, including poverty, racism, prejudice, disease, prostitution, filth, etc. They were often very pessimistic and frequently criticized for being too blunt.

United States

In the United States, the genre is associated principally with writers such as Abraham Cahan, Ellen Glasgow, David Graham Phillips, Jack London, and most prominently Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser. The term naturalism operates primarily in counter distinction to realism, particularly the mode of realism codified in the 1870s and 1880s, and associated with William Dean Howells and Henry James.

It is important to clarify the relationship between American literary naturalism, with which this entry is primarily concerned, from the genre also known as naturalism that flourished in France from the 1850s to the 1880s. French naturalism, as exemplified by Gustave Flaubert, and especially Emile Zola, can be regarded as a programmatic, well-defined and coherent theory of fiction that self-consciously rejected the notion of free will, and dedicated itself to the documentary and "scientific" exposition of human behavior as being determined by, as Zola put it, "nerves and blood."

Many of the American naturalists, especially Norris and London, were heavily influenced by Zola. They sought explanations for human behavior in natural science, and were skeptical, at least, of organized religion and beliefs in human free will. However, the Americans did not form a coherent literary movement, and their occasional critical and theoretical reflections do not present a uniform philosophy. Although Zola was a touchstone of contemporary debates over genre, Dreiser, perhaps the most important of the naturalist writers, regarded Honore de Balzac, one of the founders of Realism, as a greater influence. Naturalism in American literature is therefore best understood historically in the generational manner outlined above. In philosophical and generic terms, American naturalism must be defined rather more loosely, as a reaction against the realist fiction of the 1870s and 1880s, whose scope was limited to middle-class or "local color" topics, with taboos on sexuality and violence.

Naturalist fiction often concentrated on the non-Anglo, ethnically marked inhabitants of the growing American cities, many of them immigrants and most belonging to a class-spectrum ranging from the destitute to the lower middle-class. The naturalists were not the first to concentrate on the industrialized American city, but they were significant in that they believed that the realist tools refined in the 1870s and 1880s were inadequate to represent it. Abraham Cahan, for example, sought both to represent and to address the Jewish community of New York's East Side, of which he was a member. The fiction of Theodore Dreiser, the son of first and second generation immigrants from Central Europe, features many German and Irish figures. Frank Norris and Stephen Crane, themselves from established middle-class Anglophone families also registered the ethnic mix of the metropolis, though for the most part via reductive and offensive stereotypes. In somewhat different ways, more marginal to the mainstream of naturalism, Ellen Glasgow's version of realism was specifically directed against the mythologizing of the South, while the series of "problem novels" by David Graham Phillips, epitomized by the prostitution novel Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1917), can be regarded as naturalistic by virtue of their underclass subject-matter.

Allied to this, naturalist writers were skeptical towards, or downright hostile to, the notions of bourgeois individualism that characterized realist novels about middle-class life. Most naturalists demonstrated a concern with the animal or the irrational motivations for human behavior, sometimes manifested in connection with sexuality and violence. Here they differed strikingly from their French counterparts.

The naturalist often describes his characters as though they are conditioned and controlled by environment, heredity, instinct, or chance. But he also suggests a compensating humanistic value in his characters or their fates which affirms the significance of the individual and of his life. The tension here is that between the naturalist's desire to represent in fiction the new, discomfiting truths which he has found in the ideas and life of his late nineteenth-century world, and also his desire to find some meaning in experience which reasserts the validity of the human enterprise.

Key themes of Naturalism in literature

  • Survival, determinism, violence, and taboo as key themes.
  • The "brute within" each individual, comprised of strong and often warring emotions: passions, such as lust, greed, or the desire for dominance or pleasure; and the fight for survival in an amoral, indifferent universe. The conflict in naturalistic novels is often "man against nature" or "man against himself" as characters struggle to retain a "veneer of civilization" despite external pressures that threaten to release the "brute within."
  • Nature as an indifferent force acting on the lives of human beings. The romantic vision of Wordsworth—that "nature never did betray the heart that loved her"—here becomes Stephen Crane's view in "The Open Boat": "This tower was a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. It represented in a degree, to the correspondent, the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual—nature in the wind, and nature in the vision of men. She did not seem cruel to him then, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent."
  • The forces of heredity and environment as they affect—and afflict—individual lives.
  • An indifferent, deterministic universe. Naturalistic texts often describe the futile attempts of human beings to exercise free will, often ironically presented, in this universe that reveals free will as an illusion.

Key Figures of Literary Naturalism

Stephen Crane

The works of Stephen Crane played a fundamental role in the development of Literary Naturalism. While supporting himself by his writings, he lived among the poor in the Bowery slums to research his first novel: Maggie: A Girl Of The Streets (1893). Crane's first novel is the tale of a pretty young slum girl driven to brutal excesses by poverty and loneliness. It was considered so sexually frank and realistic, that the book had to be privately printed at first. It was eventually hailed as the first genuine expression of Naturalism in American letters and established its creator as the American apostle of an artistic revolution which was to alter the shape and destiny of civilization itself.

Much of Crane's work is narrated from an ordinary point of view, who is in an extraordinary circumstance. For example, The Red Badge of Courage depicted the American Civil War from the point of view of an ordinary soldier. It has been called the first modern war novel. One of Stephen Crane's more famous quotes come from his naturalistic text, The Open Boat: "When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples."

Frank Norris

Benjamin Franklin Norris (March 5, 1870 – October 25, 1902) was an American novelist during the Progressive Era, writing predominantly in the naturalist genre. His notable works include McTeague (1899), The Octopus: A California Story (1901), and The Pit (1903). Although he did not support socialism as a political system, his work nevertheless evinces a socialist mentality and influenced socialist/progressive writers such as Upton Sinclair. Like many of his contemporaries, he was profoundly influenced by the advent of Darwinism. Through many of his novels, notably McTeague, runs a preoccupation with the notion of the civilized man overcoming the inner "brute," his animalistic tendencies.

Theodore Dreiser

Considered by many as the leader of Naturalism in American writing, Dreiser is also remembered for his stinging criticism of the genteel tradition and of what William Dean Howells described as the "smiling aspects of life" typifying America. In his fiction, Dreiser deals with social problems and with characters who struggle to survive. His sympathetic treatment of a "morally loose" woman in Sister Carrie was called immoral and he suffered at the hands of publishers. One of Dreiser's favorite fictional devices was the use of contrast between the rich and the poor, the urbane and the unsophisticated, and the power brokers and the helpless. While he wrote about "raw" experiences of life in his earlier works, in his later writing he considered the impact of economic society on the lives of people in the remarkable trilogy—The Financier, The Titan, and The Stoic. His best known work is An American Tragedy which shows a young man trying to succeed in a materialistic society.

Authors of the Naturalism Movement and their works

There were quite a few authors that participated in the movement of literary naturalism. They include Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth (1905)), Ellen Glasgow (Barren Ground, 1925), John Dos Passos (U.S.A. trilogy (1938): The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936)), James T. Farrell (Studs Lonigan (1934)), John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath, 1939), Richard Wright (Native Son (1940), Black Boy (1945)), Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead, 1948), William Styron (Lie Down in Darkness, 1951), Saul Bellow (The Adventures of Augie March, 1953), and Jack London. These authors would reshape the way literature was perceived and their impact would spread all over the world (e.g. France).

Impact of Naturalism on Literature

The literary naturalism movement had a tremendous effect on twentieth-century literature. Donald Prizer, author of Twentieth-Century Literary Naturalism, conducted an analysis to see exactly what attributes tied the different naturalistic texts together and gave them their naturalistic identity. He used John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, and James T. Farrell's works in his experiment. Ultimately, Prizer concluded that the naturalistic tradition that glued these authors and their works together was the concept of the struggle between fiercely deterministic forces in the world and the individual's desire to exert freedom in the world. In other words, a reflection on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's quote, "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains," is what Donald Prizer is striving for. He states, "The naturalistic novelist is willing to concede that there are fundamental limitations to man's freedom, but he is unwilling to concede that man is thereby stripped of all value." Based on this, Prizer came up with three recurring themes in naturalistic writing: 1) the tragic waste of human potential due to vile circumstances, 2) order (or the lack of), and 3) the individual's struggle to understand the forces affecting one's life. In fact, the impact that the naturalism movement had on American writers of the twentieth century was colossal. It led to the evolution of the modernism movement, during the dreadfully real times of World War I and World War II, and made one realize that life was truly a struggle to embrace the forces of nature that toyed with the individual.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.