Naturalism - Study Guides on General Topics

Realism and Regionalism 1865–1914 - Gary Scharnhorst and Thomas Quirk 2010

Study Guides on General Topics

“Naturalism” refers to a literary movement that began in about 1880 and ended in about 1940, with its major practitioners in the United States being Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Jack London, Edith Wharton, Ellen Glasgow, Theodore Dreiser, Hamlin Garland, and Willa Cather. These writers imbued their writing with a scientific view of reality based on social Darwinism. Partly as a consequence, they often described their works as objective case studies, but the purpose, as with the earlier Realists, was often an implicit plea for social reform.

Whereas earlier European and American fiction generally assumed a moral universe in which good was ultimately rewarded and evil punished, the Naturalists generally imply an amoral, mechanistic universe. Further, human beings within Naturalism are seen as fundamentally animals, rather than divine creatures, whose lives are entirely, or almost entirely, shaped by natural forces such as heredity, instincts, and the environment.

Social Darwinism was based on a misunderstanding of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Two misconceptions espoused by influential social Darwinists Herbert Spencer and Auguste Comte are particularly significant. They extrapolated from Darwin’s point that the creatures best adapted to any given environment were more likely to survive, that social progress is achieved through the survival of the fittest, and that successful societies are inherently superior to less successful ones. These ideas captured the imaginations of the Naturalists and became dominant themes in such works as Jack London’s The Call of the Wild (1903), The Sea-Wolf (1904), and White Fang (1906); Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), The Red Badge of Courage (1895), “The Open Boat” (1897), and “The Blue Hotel” (1898); and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925), to name but a few classic examples.

Like the earlier Realists, the Naturalists focus on factual details and avoid sentimentality. Partly because they attempt to describe life from a scientific point of view, however, their writing often creates a greater sense of distance between the readers and the characters. Journalistic objectivity is a common, though not consistent, characteristic. Frank Norris, a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, in particular, often resorts to romantic flourishes, and most works of Naturalism seem romantic insofar as they focus on the unusual rather than the commonplace. Another result of the Naturalists’ focus on case studies is that their writing often seems less artistic than earlier fiction; this is particularly true of the writing of Norris and Dreiser.

In addition to focusing on the lower classes, the Naturalists write more frankly about previously taboo subjects—such as human sexuality, alcoholism, disease, and depravity—often describing aberrant, irrational, or cruel behavior. In Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, for example, the reader discovers how social forces can lead a good girl to become a prostitute and how, as a consequence, the community, and her own family, ultimately abandon her to inevitable destruction. In Norris’s McTeague, the lesson is how greed can lead to other irrational behavior, including murder. Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy—based on a true story—shows how social ambition based on the American dream can lead a young man, almost inevitably, to murder.

By highlighting natural forces, the Naturalists question the possibility of human free will. Their characters, rather, often appear to be defined by their environments and genes, that is, powers beyond their control. Consequently, the Naturalists seem ironically akin in their worldview to the earlier Puritans, who also attributed human actions to powerful forces beyond their control and questioned the possibility of free will, so that Naturalism has been described as secular Calvinism.

Ironically, too, the Naturalists, who were usually educated Anglo-Saxons, focus primarily on the plight of poor people of marginalized ethnic backgrounds, and they often identify characters by their ethnicity, such as the “Frenchman” or the “Swede.” These ethnic labels need to be understood within the context of social Darwinism, which suggests people’s ethnicities shape them, thus legitimizing ethnic stereotypes. The Jewish character Zerkow in Norris’s McTeague, for example, is stereotypically defined by greed, as the more complex main characters only slowly become so. Similarly, often in these works being of Anglo-Saxon descent implies a hereditary advantage. While these ideas are discredited today, it is important to recognize that the Naturalists are not so much endorsing social Darwinism—or racism—as they are questioning its significance and portraying its potential ramifications. Further, significant exceptions exist, such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, an economically disadvantaged African American whose groundbreaking 1902 Naturalist novel, The Sport of the Gods, deals in ethnic stereotypes while challenging white superiority.

Also, one should keep in mind that distinctions between literary genres are far from exact. An author’s collected writings often display varying degrees of allegiance to the tenets of any particular literary school or philosophy. Works traditionally identified as Realism often exhibit characteristics associated with Naturalism, just as many works associated with Naturalism fit into other categories as well, such as modernism. Consequently, it may be more accurate to say that these writers’ works are Naturalistic rather than label them works of Naturalism, if that suggests they embody all the values of social Darwinism.

Further, while American Naturalism often seems pessimistic, it is important to remember that the goal is almost always social reform, including more sympathy for ethnic minorities and the economic underclass. As Charles C. Walcutt explains, “The more helpless the character, the stronger the proof of determinism; and once such a thesis is established the scientist hopes and believes men will set about trying to control the forces which now control men.”


  • 1. Given the social Darwinian context of works of Naturalism, the characters’ free will and, therefore, personal responsibility are always questioned. Consider, for example, Maggie’s responsibility for becoming a prostitute in Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, or Clyde Griffiths’s responsibility for becoming a killer in Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. What responsibility do environmental and social forces have for their actions?
  • 2. Frank Norris suggests that there is a more primitive, instinct-driven animal lurking just beneath the surface of our civilized veneer. What are the results of these animalistic impulses in McTeague? Is the greed described the result of this “beast” or of modern capitalistic values? Similarly, in Vandover and the Brute Norris suggests that Vandover’s faults are the result of the brute—pri-marily his sexual desire—within him. On the other hand, Vandover often seems too passive, too civilized. Which is it?
  • 3. Do London’s novels—particularly The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and The Sea Wolf—support or challenge the idea of the “survival of the fittest”? What does London suggest are the characteristics that make one “fit” to survive either in nature or in modern society? How important are intelligence and the ability to cooperate?
  • 4. Consider the role economic forces play in determining the value of the major characters—Carrie, Drouet, and Hurstwood—in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Are human relationships seen as a type of commodity exchange? Are there examples of true love in the story?
  • 5. Willa Cather is often associated with modernism rather than Naturalism. Consider one of her major works, such as O Pioneers! (1913) or My Antonia (1918), and write a paper either challenging or defending calling her a Naturalist.


For more serious study of a specific author, begin with one of the many excellent biographies. To better understand Naturalism, consider examining one of these critical works:


Lars Ahnebrink, The Beginnings of Naturalism in American Fiction: A Study of the Works ofHamlin Garland, Stephen Crane, and Frank Norris, with Special Reference to Some European Influences, 1891—1903 (New York: Russell & Russell, 1961).

Notes several European influences on American Naturalism and argues for including Hamlin Garland as an early American Naturalist. Ahnebrink defines Naturalism as “a manner and method of composition by which the author portrays life as it is in accordance with the philosophic theory of determinism (exemplified by Zola’s L’Assommoir). In contrast to a Realist, a Naturalist believes that man is fundamentally an animal without free will.”

June Howard, Form and History in American Literary Naturalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).

Sees Naturalism as a method for society to confront new threats to the social order brought about by capitalism, as well as the stress to the old order brought about by the influx of working-class immigrants into the United States.

Walter Benn Michaels, The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

Like Howard, all but ignores the influence of Darwin and looks instead at the social and economic forces that produced Naturalism. Michaels suggests that earlier critics have mistakenly described the Naturalists as outside society objectively looking in. Instead, the Naturalists were integrally tied to their society and necessarily reflected its values. Naturalism, then, reflects tensions that the society’s worldview inevitably creates, tensions between materialism and idealism, self as inherently valuable and self as object. According to Michaels, there is no real distinction between the novels and the culture. Both are social constructs: the fiction merely supports the larger ideology, another fiction.

Donald Pizer, Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966).

Defines Naturalism as “essentially Realism infused with a pessimistic determinism” and asserts that “Naturalism reflects an affirmative ethical conception of life, for it asserts the value of all life by endowing the lowest character with emotion and defeat and with moral ambiguity, no matter how poor and ignoble he may seem.”

Pizer, ed., The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism (Cambridge, England & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Interprets Naturalism as reflecting social and economic forces: “the burden of most of the essays in this volume . . . is to reaffirm—through a variety of approaches and emphasis—the belief that Realism and Naturalism arose in large part as responses to what Louis Budd calls the ‘disjunction’ between rhetoric and actuality in American life—between the language of hope in America’s civil religion and the actuality of the world encountered.”

Eric J. Sundquist, ed., American Realism: New Essays (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982).

Offers several newer approaches to Naturalism, including feminist, New Historicist, and Marxist readings.

Charles C.Walcutt, American Literary Naturalism: A Divided Stream (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956).

Traces Naturalism to American Transcendentalism, particularly because the Transcendentalists relied on physical observation to discover truth. Walcutt asserts that the only consistent characteristic of Naturalism is a philosophic stance based on social Darwinism.


Willa Cather (1873-1947)

Chronicled early pioneering life on the Great Plains, which she obviously loved, and the people it formed, whom she obviously admired. At the same time, works such as “The Sculptor’s Funeral” (1905) and A Lost Lady (1923) illustrate that she also was aware of the loneliness, small-mindedness, and other potential problems with life in the early West. Her works highlight how environment shapes character.

Stephen Crane (1871-1900)

Died at twenty-eight; wrote several brilliant short stories as well as several significant novels, most notably Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and The Red Badge of Courage (1895). His writing is known for its artistry, impressionistic descriptions, and unsentimental objectivity.

Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945)

Was particularly interested in portraying a non-Romantic view of human sexuality and the negative influence of capitalism. His Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925) are particularly important works.

Jack London (1876-1916)

An ardent socialist who valued individualism and freedom. He believed in social Darwinism and the racism it suggested, but fought for social equality, women’s suffrage, and prohibition. His novels can be didactic, but his best works reveal his own struggles to reconcile these opposing impulses.

Frank Norris (1870-1902)

A disciple of Auguste Comte’s philosophy and Emile Zola’s literary Naturalism. McTeague (1899) and the posthumously published The Pit: A Story of Chicago (1903) and Vandover and the Brute (1914) are particularly important works.

—Richard Randolph