Study Guide

Naturalism Top Authors

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  • Émile Zola

    Émile Zola is considered to the big daddy of Naturalism. He's the guy who kick-started the movement in the 1860s in France, by attempting to write a new kind of novel. Zola was heavily influenced by Darwin's scientific ideas, which led him to become interested in the way that environment shapes people. He is not to be confused with Zorro, although his last name is almost as awesome.

    His novel series known as Les Rougon-Macquart traces the lives of two families living through France's Second Empire. Through the exploration of these two families' fates, Balzac explored how social environment affects individuals. Zola's work was a huge inspiration for many of the Naturalists that came after him.

    Thérèse Raquin (1867)

    This is Zola's first major novel. It tells the tale of Thérèse, who is unhappily married (it's Naturalism—you expected happiness?) to the egotistical Camille. When the couple moves to Paris, she gets involved with Laurent, and the two lovers plot Camille's murder.

    This is a great example of a Naturalist novel. Zola set out, as he says in the preface to the book, "to study temperaments and not characters." He observes and writes about his characters as though he's a scientist.

    And in this, as in many of Zola's novels, we'll find the usual melodramatic unhappy ending.

    Nana (1880)

    Nana is one of the twenty—yep, count 'em—novels that make up Zola's Les Rougon-Macquart series. Nana is a prostitute (yes, this is going to be bleak) who begins in the slums but then slowly makes her way up the glitzy world of sex until she becomes a powerful high-class prostitute/escort.

    Like Zola's other novels, Nana is a study in character and environment. Nana's moral corruption is linked to the environment in which she comes of age: she's a product of the slums, she's poor, and her character reflects the problems of her environment.

    Chew On This

    So how do Zola's novels reflect a "scientific" approach? Check out our discussion on the sciencey science behind Thérèse Raquin.

    Zola's famous novel, Nana, is about a prostitute who comes to a tragic end. We'll find the usual Naturalist emphasis on pessimism and determinism in this novel. Delve into the novel here.

  • Theodore Dreiser

    Theodore Dreiser gives us a double dose of Naturalism, American-style. (American-style Naturalism has American cheese on it.) Not surprisingly, given his tone and subject matter, Dreiser started off his career as a journalist before turning to writing fiction.

    One of the big themes in his fiction is ambition—his novels often depict characters who come from poor backgrounds who want to escape their poverty and social marginalization. Too bad Naturalism is all about being shackled by circumstance, eh?

    Dreiser's theme of ambition was especially relevant in an American society in which everyone wanted to make it big: to get rich fast, or move up the social hierarchy (or around the Monopoly board) quickly.

    Sister Carrie (1900)

    This novel traces the rise of Carrie, a girl from Wisconsin who moves to Chicago with the dream of becoming a famous actress. There she begins an affair with George Hurstwood, a married man. You already know this is not going to end well.

    The novel explores the disintegration of Carrie's relationship to Hurstwood, as the couple leaves Chicago to go to Canada and then to New York. Even though Carrie achieves the stardom she's always dreamed of by the end of the novel, things aren't as wonderful as she'd imagined they would be. Huh. A pessimistic end to a Naturalist novel? Say it ain't so!

    An American Tragedy (1925)

    Another story about American ambition, An American Tragedy follows Clyde Griffiths, a man from a poor background who is taken under the wing of a wealthy uncle. For a while things look up for Clyde, but he becomes entangled in a couple of romantic relationships that lead to the death of one woman and lead Clyde himself to the electric chair for murder. What—you expected that a book titled An American Tragedy would be uplifting?

    This novel—which made Dreiser into a household literary name—is another great example of Naturalist fiction. The social forces that pull Clyde down are greater than he is: they not only shape him, they destroy him.

    Chew On This

    Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie tells the tale of Carrie's rise to stardom. It's also a great example of a Naturalist novel… and a surefire recipe for depression. Check out this discussion of the work's genre here

    An American Tragedy is, well, a tragedy about one man's descent to prison and execution. Theodore Dreiser doesn't let us readers feel very optimistic in this book. He's a Naturalist, after all. He's all about the pessimism. Delve into this novel here.

  • Frank Norris

    Frank Norris was an American writer from Chicago. He spent some time in Paris as a young man, where he read (yup) Émile Zola. Zola's books influenced him, as well as Darwin's theories on evolution.

    Norris was one of the writers who brought Naturalism to America. Like other Naturalists, he was interested in the way that environment shapes character, specifically within the American context.

    McTeague (1899)

    McTeague, the protagonist of Norris' novel, comes from a poor background. He manages to escape his poverty by practicing as a quack dentist. Through his friend Marcus he meets Trina, whom he falls in love with and marries. That doesn't sit very well with Marcus, who's also in love with Trina. Dum dum dum.

    Once McTeague marries Trina, the problems really start. McTeague loses his job. They have no money—except some that Trina won in a lottery. In order to get his hands on the money, McTeague kills his wife. Oh, that's a good call, McTeague.

    And things just spiral further downward from there. We find all the ingredients of a Naturalist novel here: pessimism, determinism, and the struggle for survival, among other themes.

    The Octopus: A Story of California (1901)

    As the title informs us (thanks, Norris!) this novel is set in California. It deals with a fight between wheat farmers and a railway company intent taking on taking over their land to build a new railway. Wait—what? We thought it would be about a giant octopus wreaking havoc on San Francisco, Godzilla-style.

    Like Norris' other novels, this book looks at the way in which social environment and economic factors impact individuals. The farmers in the novel don't have much control over their fate. Things, as we might imagine, don't end up so well for them.

    Chew On This

    Frank Norris' McTeague is a classic Naturalist tale about human greed, corruption and the struggle for survival. Delve into the novel here

    Frank Norris' The Octopus: A Story of California deals with how people's lives are influenced by forces beyond their control.

  • Edith Wharton

    Edith Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize… and dang if she didn't deserve it. She won it in 1921 for her novel The Age of Innocence, which (spoiler alert) is about people acting anything but innocent. Her work is often associated with that of Naturalist writers. Like them, she was very interested in detailing and exploring social environments and how they affect the development of character and psychology—mostly in depressing ways.

    Much of Wharton's fiction deals with the upper class social circles she was born into. A lot of her fiction was also set in New England, where she spent much of her time. Her portrayal of New England is often so depressing, though, that you'll rethink booking that Autumn Colors tour of Vermont.

    The House of Mirth (1905)

    Lily Bart, the protagonist of The House of Mirth, comes from a pretty well-off background. But just because she's rich doesn't mean that things are easy for her. Wharton's novel traces the way in which Lily's social environment dooms her to a tragic fate. This book will not make you feel merry and mirthful.

    Lily, who is unmarried, finds herself the object of all kinds of rumors and gossip as she innocently makes her way through society. Unlike other Naturalist novels, this book depicts characters from privileged backgrounds, but it shows how all of us—no matter how rich or poor—are the victims of our social environments. Emphasis on the "victim" part.

    Ethan Frome (1911)

    Starkfield, Massachusetts, is really, really cold. It's also really, really stark. This fictional town is the setting of Wharton's novel Ethan Frome, and you do not want to go there on your honeymoon. The inhabitants of Starkfield are poor, and Ethan Frome, who lives in the town, is no exception.

    Frome is silent and he's dark. But he's a good guy, who finds himself torn between his sense of duty to his wife and family and his love of a woman whom he shouldn't love. It all leads to tragedy, of course. This is Naturalism, folks.

    Chew On This

    The characters in Edith Wharton's novel Ethan Frome are stuck in poverty. Check out what a big theme poverty is in this analysis of the novel's setting.

    Social context and environment is a huge theme in Wharton's House of Mirth. Dive into an analysis of this theme here.

  • Stephen Crane

    Stephen Crane is most known for his novel The Red Badge of Courage, one of the most famous novels about the American Civil War, which: uplifting! (If by uplifting, you mean possibly the bleakest chapter in American history.) But what you may not know about Crane is that he is also considered to be one of the earliest, and most important, American Naturalists.

    Crane was very interested in exploring the relationship between environmental forces and individual character. Too bad he died from tuberculosis at the tender age of 28. Guess the environmental force of tuberculosis didn't agree with his individual character: hey-o.

    Oof. Too soon?

    Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893)

    Crane's first novel wasn't a big success. In fact, Crane couldn't find a publisher for the novel so he decided to go ahead and publish it himself. (This is in the days before e-publishing—back then we couldn't just upload our novel to the Internet.)

    While Maggie didn't do so well when it was first published by Crane, it's nevertheless considered to be an important Naturalist work. The novel is about a girl who grows up in the slums. Poverty—a topic that was very popular among the Naturalists—is a big theme in this book. Like other Naturalist works, this novel traces the effects of environment on character and deals with questions of fate and free will.

    The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

    Crane's most famous novel isn't just a great depiction of the Civil War. It is that, of course, and what's even more impressive is that Crane himself had no direct experience of the war, since it ended before he was born. But what he lacked in experience he made up for in imagination.

    The Red Badge of Courage is also a great example of Naturalist fiction, because it's a study in the way that environment—in this case the extreme environment of war—shapes and warps character. Private Henry Fleming, the protagonist of the novel, finds himself thrown into the middle of the Civil War. The book traces the internal and external battles he's forced to live through as a result.

    Chew On This

    Stephen Crane's novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, explores the effect of poverty on one girl's life. Delve into the novel here.

    Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage is one of the most important novels about the American Civil War. It's also a great example of Naturalist fiction. Crane presents us with a pretty scientific picture of the horrors of war. Check out these quotations from the novel here.

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