The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Naturalism: With reference to the arts in general, a mode of representation that is detailed, detached, and objective; applied specifically to literature, a literary movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Europe and America that represented people in a deterministic and generally pessimistic light as products of heredity and environment. Naturalists sought to apply the scientific method to the study of humanity, using a case-study approach in literary works and portraying characters and situations objectively without commenting on morality or fairness. They typically focused on the poor and uneducated, the sordid and degrading, depicting life as a struggle to survive and people as being at the mercy of biological and socioeconomic forces.

Naturalism arose in France in the second half of the nineteenth century, then spread to other countries including England, Germany, Russia, and the U.S. French writer Émile Zola, the leading theorist of the movement, emphasized its scientific approach; responding to critics in the preface to the second edition of his novel Thérèse Raquin (1868), he explained that his “starting-point” was “the study of temperament and the profound modifications of an organism subjected to the pressure of environments and circumstances”:

… I have chosen people completely dominated by their nerves and blood, without free will, drawn into each action of their lives by the inexorable laws of their physical nature. Thérèse and Laurent are human animals, nothing more… .

… I simply applied to two living bodies the analytical methods that surgeons apply to corpses.

Naturalists adopted a deterministic philosophical viewpoint heavily influenced by emerging theories, especially the English scientist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Other influences included English political theorist Herbert Spencer’s concepts of the social evolution of humanity and the survival of the fittest; the economic determinism of German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels; French positivist thinker Auguste Comte, who applied the scientific method to the social sciences; and French literary critic Hippolyte Taine, who advocated the impartial study of humans as products.

The relationship between naturalism and realism has been subject to debate, with some critics viewing naturalism as an outgrowth of realism and others seeking to distinguish the two. For instance, in “Modern Realism as a Literary Movement” (1963), George Becker took the first approach, characterizing naturalism as “no more than an emphatic and explicit philosophical position taken by some realists,” namely, “pessimistic materialistic determinism.” Donald Pizer, by contrast, took the second view, arguing in Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (1966) that naturalistic works differ from realistic ones based on certain tensions that reveal “the intermingling in life of controlling force and individual worth.” Broadly speaking, however, naturalism differs from realism in its emphasis on determinism, with realists holding that people have at least some degree of free will that they can exercise to affect their situations and naturalists holding that humans have little, if any, such control.

Noted naturalists aside from Zola, who more fully theorized the genre in Le roman expérimental (The Experimental Novel) (1880), include English writers George Gissing and George Moore and American authors Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Frank Norris.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Zola’s Germinal (1885); August Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1888); Crane’s “The Open Boat” (1894); Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925); Ellen Glasgow’s Barren Ground (1925); Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940); Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948).