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The Influence of Realism and Naturalism on 20th Century American Fiction. Essay

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Updated: Mar 21st, 2019

The 20th century American literature is marked with self-reversal, in other words, writers created works in order to explore their inner world and themselves. Many authors turned to genre of fiction with helped them discuss and explain what was happening to the world and society in which they lived.

This new direction in literature is known as modernism. Modernist writers focused on themes of individualism, social and cultural issues, such as racism, freedom, violence of life, etc. The ideas and themes of modernist literature remained drawn from the late 19th century and authors presented their own perspectives on the same themes, but in the context of contemporary social problems.

The movements that influenced the modernist literature are 19th century realism and naturalism and their representation of the American society and people’s lives after the Civil War and World War I. The aim of the modernist writers was not only depiction of life “as it is”, but search of solutions to dilemmas and problems of the society of the 20th century.

The best example of influence of realism and naturalism is the 20th century American fiction which brought new themes and characters into literature and these themes and characters are still explored in works of the 21st century writers. In this paper, we are going to define the influence of the 19th century realism and naturalism on the American fiction of the 20th century through analysis of works by Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain.

The realistic movement of the 19th century was focused on true depiction of life and current problems of the society. The writers tried to create realistic pictures of modern classes and manners of the American life while describing details that derived from their observation of events and personal experience.

They attempted to show social process and compare them to general truth of existence. The development of realism as literary movement was a result of historical and cultural events in the American society. Fast rise of economy, immigration and cultural diversity greatly changed people’s life and attitude to the better world. Realism was focusing on criticism of those changes through comparison of evolving new American society and culture with changes that occurred in other countries.

In their works, the realist writers focused on different values of people and different view on life in America; they also tried to explore all dimensions of motivation that encouraged people of different classes accomplish particular actions. Thus, the writers of the realism movement created the actual portray of the American society through factual description of what they saw and while adding their personal criticism in attempt to encourage people change their lives for better.

Naturalism has the same premise as realism, however, as opposed to realist writers who merely described the world, naturalist writers focused on ugly side of social norms. Naturalist writers examined life as scientists examine nature; at the same time, their approach to life was pessimistic, they often depicted the process of destruction or degradation of society and human nature. In addition, they often used nature as a projection of social development, through symbolic depiction of nature phenomenon; they tried (as well as naturalists) inspire society for positive changes.

Literature has always been one of the major means to express thought and believes; thus, it is no wonder that it changes together with history and social development. After American Civil War, American literature took a new turn. The 20th century writers used literature to define changes that occurred within the nation.

Major themes of the 20th century modernist literature revolved around crucial problems of the modern society: struggle for human rights and freedom from social prejudices, the influence of industrialization and evolving new technology, the consequences of the World War I and its effect on people’s lives; later, the authors began focusing on population, race and gender, they analyzed the individual using such genre as fiction and different forms of writing. In particular, modernist writers used the concept of form as a major means to discover theme.

As a result, many works by modernist writers are hard to read and understand, they can be overburden with academic vocabulary, or used a technique called stream of consciousness to convey the meaning of the literary work.

The modernist literature evolved as result of naturalism and realism and reflected changes that occurred in the society. The writers were aimed at documenting those changes and problems that bothered society. The works of the 29th century American fiction criticize the society that was formed after the Civil and World War I; this criticism can be seen in works of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

New discoveries in science also played a great role in the formation of the American fiction writing. New discoveries (such as works by Albert Einstein) overthrown the vision of the world and made many people feel unprotected and isolated. The writers experimented with styles and forms which, they believed, were as important as content of the writing and were crucial achieve desirable effect in fiction writing. There are many connections between naturalism, realism and fiction literature.

First of all, as well realist and naturalist writers, fiction writers made use of symbolism in order to express their ideas and judge about modern American society, cultural and political processes in the country. As well as naturalists, modernist writers adopted naturalistic method to examine problems they faced and explore the place of the individual in the society. Fiction writers also wrote formally, but through the formality of their writing, they managed to “attack” moral issues of the modern society.

Furthermore, as well as naturalists and realists, modern fiction writers strived to create a comprehensive picture of modern life. Thus, we can say that writers of all three movements had the same goals and used the same methods to implement their ideas. They focused on the role of the individual in the society, and tied to “examine” this individual in the context of virtues and evils of life. Thus, they created a detailed “description” of the character and put it in opposition to the social norms and values.

Details are the main characteristic features of the three movements. Details were present in everything: clothes, description of places, characters and problems. Details had a great importance, they helped create the realistic pictures, as well as had symbolic meaning. For example in The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison describes the apartment of the protagonist as “whole is warm and full of light. Yes, full of light. I doubt if there is a brighter spot in all New York than this hole of mine, and I do not exclude Broadway.” (Ellison 6).

The author mentions the exact number of lights 1,369, and this detail is important and symbolic. The three groups of writers focused on the same themes (good and bad sides of the changes that occurred in the American society. They used the same techniques to convey the meanings of their works.

However, there are also features that separate three movements. Realist and naturalist literature had an entertaining character, and the literature of the modernist writers can be described with expression “writing for the sake of writing”, which means that they referred to form in order to influence the audience. However, the major difference between the movements is not a different concept of the literature, or different themes, the differences were dictated by social and cultural changes which defined themes and ideas of the 20th century American fiction.

Fiction works by two modernist writers demonstrate how realism and naturalism influenced 20th century American fiction. The first one is Mark Twain who is considered to be the father of American fiction. His work about Huckleberry Finn is a model of the fiction writing. I

t explores one of the most important themes of the modernist literature: problem of racism in the American, as well as raised such important issues as friendship, childhood and freedom from social norms. The work is typical for modernist fiction literature.

Twain describes it as, “persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot”. (Twain 7) Also, author focuses on description of the modern American society which was typical for realism and naturalism, he says about it:

“The pitifulest thing out is a mob; that’s what an army is–a mob; they don’t fight with courage that’s born in them, but with courage that’s borrowed from their mass, and from their officers. But a mob without any MAN at the head of it is BENEATH pitifulness”. (Twain 191).

The next writer is Ernest Hemingway whose works of fiction provide an in-depth insight into the human life and death. Hemingway described life as a constant struggle in which the individual should affirm his/her right for freedom and free choice. According to the writer, the individual should resist the evils of the society and not loose one’s talent which brings satisfaction and self-realization, the author writes in the “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”:

“He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice, by hook and by crook” (Hemingway 11).

In such way, the author describes how negative the influence of society can be and how one should struggle to overcome it. Hemingway is a master of description and this is one more feature that was adopted by modernist movement, and fiction writers in particular” from realism and naturalism.

Thus, the 20th century American fiction was influenced by the realistic and naturalistic movements on the late 19th century. Themes, techniques and ideas were common for these movements, the only things that separated them were time and society. Both movements focused on goods and evils of the developing American society, and both explored the role of the individual in this society in the context of political, social and cultural transformations.

Works Cited

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1995.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. London: Electric Book Company, 2005.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "The Influence of Realism and Naturalism on 20th Century American Fiction." March 21, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-influence-of-realism-and-naturalism-on-20th-century-american-fiction/.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'The Influence of Realism and Naturalism on 20th Century American Fiction'. 21 March.

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