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Welcome to the cruelest literary movement ever, Shmoopers. "Naturalism" refers to nature, but it sure doesn't refer to babbling brooks and pretty birdies and flowers and a landscape that looks like it's grafted from the set of Teletubbies.
It refers instead to the harshest nature you can think of. Death Valley. Pompeii. Antarctica, minus the penguins. Greenland, in January. The middle of the Pacific Ocean, on a raft, with no water.
Get ready for a hailstorm/firestorm/Superstorm/snowstorm/worst-kind-of-weather-storm-you-can-imagine of bleakness. Get ready for a polar vortex of sorrow. This hurricane's name is Naturalism and it's going to blow your home to smithereens and make you an orphan and you're going to have to become a beggar.
Short version: Naturalism is depressing.
Ugh. Who even thought up Naturalism?
The literary movement Naturalism—which first spread in France beginning in the 1860s—developed partly in response to some big scientific discoveries that were being made about the natural world at the time.
We've all heard of a guy called Charles Darwin. He was the scientist who pointed out that not only are we descended from apes (cue thousands of Victorians saying "Yikes!") but also that all species develop as a result of a natural process called evolution.
Well, Darwin's ideas not only made a big splash in the scientific world, they also made a big splash in the literary world. The earliest Naturalist writers—among them the French writer Émile Zola, who is considered to be the "father" of Naturalism—were very interested in Darwin's discoveries. You know, because they're freakin' fascinating.
These writers sought to apply Darwin's ideas to the study of society and human nature. In the Naturalist fiction of this school of writers, characters are depicted as products of their social environment, in the same way that animal species, in Darwin's theories, are a product of their natural environment. In addition, these writers liked to explore "Darwinist" themes such survival and heredity… but within the context of human society.
Naturalist writers studied and wrote about society as if it were a big, bad jungle. Who survives in this jungle? Who dies? Why? Why do tigers have stripes, anyway? In what ways does environment determine human nature? Should we fear all the frogs that have pretty markings, or are only some of them poisonous? And do we have any power to fight the pressures of our environment?
These are just some of the big questions that the Naturalists tackle—not including the tiger and frog questions unfortunately—and they tackle them brilliantly, eloquently and, oh yeah, super depressingly.
We're going to break out in some rare Shmoop Real Talk for a moment: you should care about Naturalism because you're a human living in the world… and you probably have it better than most.
Are you reading Shmoop in your home right now? Congrats: you have a computer… unlike the majority of the world. Are you reading Shmoop at the library? Whoa: you have access to a library… unlike a ton of people. Are you reading? Dang, you're literate. Good job: a whopping 17% of the global population isn't.
What we did in the paragraph above is a condensed version of what a Naturalist work of literature does: take off its kid gloves and smack you across the face with them. Naturalism takes you by your shirt collar and shakes you, screaming "Do you even know how good you have it right now?"
And, because Naturalism is helmed by some of the most brilliant and famous authors of all time (Wright, Steinbeck, Wharton, Zola), you read along for the eloquent passages, the intricate characters, the awesomesauce plot… even as you're learning about the hardest and cruelest things that can happen to a human being.
We're not preachy by nature. We think that reading about torrid love affairs and crazy aliens is every bit as valid as reading about doom n' gloom. But we also think you should balance out your diet of various dystopian creepfests and the undead with a few glimpses at the worst this world has to offer humanity. And seriously—it can get bad out there.
But you know what? Reading about the Joads or Ethan Frome or Bigger Thomas is not only going to make you a better person, it's going to make you a happier person. You're not going to be blasé about having enough food, or sulky about how your biggest struggle is one-upping some stuck-up goody two shoes in class. At least for the duration of one of these heart-wrenching novels you'll be genuinely thrilled that you're not dying of smallpox or on death row or dying of thirst in the desert. Water will taste cleaner. Your clothes will feel silkier. Your health will feel radiant. Dr. Oz ain't got nothing on the cure-all that is Naturalist fiction.
Oh yeah—and it will make you a kinder, more comprehending, more generous person. When you live vicariously through the severe struggles of another human being (and realize how many people in the world are living a real, live Naturalist novel every day) you'll be a better human being yourself.
Naturalism in American Literature
An overview of the development of Naturalism specifically within the American context, from Washington State University.