Naturalism is the theory or practice in art and literature of realistic representation of nature; it excludes the supernatural or spiritual. This concept is sometimes known as “realism”. In history, naturalism was among the wave of “isms” that emerged in the art world during the late nineteenth century (Science Encyclopedia). As an artistic movement, the concept originated from France; where the author Emile Zola (1840 -1920) advocated for the representation of the natural world in an aesthetic form. Since then, many novelists, dramatists, critics, and writers have applied naturalism in their work. In light of this, the following paragraphs explain the historical developments that led to naturalism through the various authors who incorporated the genre in their work.
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Based on Charles Darwin’s theory, “survival of the fittest”, man is implicated as a natural object controlled by the environment. This theory in history made France demand a new drama, hence the advent of naturalism. France had been dominated in the Franco-Prussian war of 1871, which halted Napoleon 3’s rule and enabled France to become a Republic. As a result of this, many people shifted their views on the way workers were treated.
It appeared that the normal citizen had few civil liberties and by 1900, countries in Europe developed their constitution which advocated for the interest of the working class. Naturalism was also drawn to acceptance by Marxism and evolutionary theory because Science and technology were seen as the major advancements for solving modern issues.
Naturalism as a concept of the scientific method became an aesthetic movement in France during the 1870s (Howard 20). According to American Theater Guide, France authors, Jules and Edmond started the naturalism movement through their writing, Germine Lacertuer (1865); later on, Emile Zola led the movement. Zola maintained a ‘scientific’ status in his work, depicting sociological impartiality that offered a detailed explanation of modern society; one such work is the railways in Bete Humaine (1890). His work was converted into many languages as it enlightened the present sensibility and a stern vital edge. Consequently, naturalists in Eastern Europe, South America, and Asia have long discussed this aesthetic movement.
In America, the version of naturalism is more stable, since many of the naturalists were influenced by the works of Zola; some of these authors included Norris and London (Science Encyclopedia). The American artists viewed naturalism as an extension of the realism tradition, which aimed at a more realistic presentation of nature without ethical justification. Furthermore, naturalist fiction frequently concentrated on cultural inhabitants of the developing American cities, many of them immigrants and mainly coming from lower to middle-level class.
Although the naturalists were not the first to settle on the industrialized cities of America, they believed that the realist standards amended in the 1970s and 1980s were insufficient for the representation of the genre. For instance, Norris and Crane, who were both from middle-class families, registered the cultural mix of the city, despite the offensive stereotypes. In essence, the key writers in American literary naturalism were: Firstly, Stephen Crane through his book: Maggie, A Girl Of The Streets (1983). Secondly, Frank Norris through his novel: Mc Teague (1899). And thirdly, Theodore Dreiser through his work: An American Tragedy. All these literary works depicted the genre of naturalism.
Throughout the nineteenth century, many American writers illustrated the concept of naturalism in their work. For instance, the main characters in Freeman’s “A New England Nun” and Gilman’s “The Yellow Paper” are confronted with the three facets of naturalism: man against man, man against nature, and man against self. The two authors apply naturalism in their literary work to create the conflict between the characters and other forces. Their work depicts the human instincts that are a result of struggles faced by people.
Freeman’s protagonist, Louisa, is faced with the struggle to lose her independence to Joe and his mother, the struggle to look at her dog, and other things that make her happy. Louisa loves her independence and she does not appear to leave it even after fourteen years of being separated from her husband, Joe; she no longer wants to be married again. Freeman outlines that Louisa is worried because of the prospect of abandoning her own house to marry Joe.
She loved her old home and wouldn’t accept any human forces to compromise the instinct (67). Furthermore, marrying Joe would mean that she must abandon her maiden practices like sewing a seam and enter into another uncomfortable life (Freeman 69). Louisa is determined to lead her own life which brings her independence and liberty that she had come to love. Therefore, Freeman’s writings show the battle that exists between men and their nature of life, hence naturalism.
On the other hand, Gilman has been able to use naturalism to create conflict for her protagonist. In “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Gilman uses the first person to show the various struggles that women face in their life. The protagonist is overcome with the yellow wallpaper in her house, but she is also confronted by the discrimination that exists in society because of being a woman. The woman presents herself as inferior to men, especially her husband, John. Since her husband is a physician, he advises her to take a rest and terminate her writing involvements. Contrary to that, the woman feels better when she writes and thus disagrees with the ideas (Gilman 10).
This book is a true description of Gilman’s struggle with despair as it depicts the lack of self-confidence and mood of inferiority to the main character. The woman thinks that her own opinion is not important and thus laments that she doesn’t care because of the strange things in the house (Gilman 11). Consequently, the woman struggles with her instincts throughout the story and she seems to be represented only by the wallpaper. In light of this, Freeman’s and Gilman’s characters face the same themes all through the stories, thus enlightening naturalism.
In conclusion, many authors throughout the 19th century have been able to apply naturalism in their work through the influence of early artists like Zola, London, Freeman, and Gilman among others. Since it was an extension of realism, naturalists try to represent the natural desires and instincts of humans through their protagonists.
American Theater Guide. Naturalism. 2009. Web.
Freeman, Wilkins M. E. A New England Nun.New York: Dover Publications, 1996.
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Gilman, Perkins C. The Yellow Wallpaper. 2nd ed. Revised. New York: Feminist Press, 1996.
Howard, June. Form and History in American Literary Naturalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
Science Encyclopedia. Naturalism – Naturalism in the United States. 2009. Web.