Study Guide

Naturalism Characteristics

  • Novel

    More bigger, more better. The novel is the primary literary genre associated with Naturalism. Naturalist writers liked the novel so much because it gave them the space and the room to explore in great depth social environments and how they shape people.

    Unlike a poem, which can be as short as a few lines, a novel can be hundreds and hundreds of pages long. The scope of the novel, in other words, allowed Naturalist writers to really delve into the details of environment and character.

    Chew On This

    Émile Zola was the master of the Naturalist novel. Check out this analysis of his Naturalist novel Thérèse Raquin here.

    Richard Wright's Native Son is a great example of a Naturalist novel. It details the way in which African Americans and white Americans are shaped by their environment. Delve into an analysis of the book's writing style here.

  • Narrative Detachment

    Keep those characters at arms' length, Naturalists. We all know that they're going to suffer horribly.

    The Naturalists were influenced by scientific thought in general, and Charles Darwin's theory of evolution specifically. The Naturalists' interest in scientific ideas totally influenced their narrative style.

    In Naturalist work, we'll often find that the narrative tone is kind of detached and clinical. The narrator just describes what's going on—he or she doesn't get too involved with the characters, and doesn't even take sides. The narrative tone, in other words, is quite "scientific." Naturalists tend to treat society as though it were some bacteria growing in a petri dish. They analyze it, they describe it, but they don't too emotional over it.

    Chew On This

    Émile Zola, in his preface to the novel Thérèse Raquin, explains why he wrote about his characters in a detached way. Have a look at his arguments here.

    The narrative voice of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is pretty detached. The narrator speaks in short sentences, which describe rather than judge. Dive right into these quotations from the book here.

  • Determinism

    People don't have much control over their fate in Naturalist fiction. Things happen to them, and no matter how hard they try to fight their circumstances, or overcome obstacles, they're often just… doomed.

    In this regard, Naturalist fiction tends to be quite deterministic. Naturalist writers believed that we are shaped by our environments, and by our inherent nature. We can't escape them. We can run, but we can't hide. And because we can't escape our social and biological conditioning, we have much less control over our destiny than we may like to think. Dang.

    Chew On This

    In Richard Wright's Native Son, the title character, Bigger, reflects on the fact that he doesn't really have any free will. Check out these quotations from the book here.

    At the end of Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin, two lovers commit suicide. Zola presents this tragic end to the lovers' lives as inevitable. Have a look at an analysis of this deterministic ending here.

  • Pessimism

    The glass is totally half empty, guys. If we're looking for happy endings, then we'd better be prepared for disappointment; we won't find many of those in Naturalist literature. What we will find is lots of unhappy endings, and lots of tragedy.

    The reason Naturalist fiction is so pessimistic is because, as we've mentioned, Naturalist writers are pretty deterministic. They believe that we can't escape our circumstances. If we come from a background of poverty, for instance, we're unlikely to end up in a good place. If our mommy was an alcoholic, then we'll probably also end up as alcoholics. In other words: we readers better have our handkerchiefs (and pints of ice cream) handy. Things never turn out well in Naturalist fiction.

    Chew On This

    Ethan Frome, the titular protagonist of Edith Wharton's novel, ends up as a "ruin of a man." Bummer. Not much hope or optimism there. Have a look at these quotations from the book.

    Bigger, the protagonist of Richard Wright's Native Son, doesn't have a happy ending in store. And his mother warns him about it in these quotations from the novel

  • Social Environment

    This goes way beyond stereotypes like "If you're from New York you're bitter and wear black" or "If you're from Seattle you totally love coffee, hiking, and being pretentious."

    The Naturalists were super interested in exploring social environments. That's because they believed that social environments largely determine our character, and even our destiny. If we're Donald Trump's kids, from a background with loads of money, chances are we're going to do pretty well in life.

    On the other hand, if we're born in the slums, raised by parents who have very little money, chances are we're not going to do very well in life. The Naturalists were especially interested in exploring how social environments shape human beings, and how they influence the way they behave. If your first thought is "Dang, that sounds de-pressing," well, Shmooper, you're totally right on the money. It is.

    Chew On This

    Bigger and his family, the African American protagonists of Native Son, live in a racist world. Because of their social environment, they live in fear. Check out these quotations showing how racism makes Bigger's sister fearful.

    Is there any environment more extreme than war? The Civil War, the setting for Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, is the social environment that Crane explores in his novel. Have a look at an analysis of this environment here.

  • Heredity and Human Nature

    Nope: this is far more depressing than figuring out whether you have your dad's nose or your mom's ears.

    Naturalist writers were very interested in what we inherit in terms of our human nature. Science is now telling us, for instance, that there are certain genes that may affect how happy or sad we are, and whether we have tendencies toward depression or addiction.

    Way before scientists began making links between our genes and our personalities, Naturalist writers were interested in heredity and human nature. In their fiction they explored how certain personality traits and characteristics are passed on from one generation to the next.

    Chew On This

    The protagonist of Edith Wharton's novel, Ethan Frome, just can't seem to escape his own passive nature. And it spells big trouble for him. Delve into this analysis of Ethan Frome here.

    Laurent and Camille, the protagonists of Émile Zola's novel Thérèse Raquin, have some pretty strong characteristics. Check out this analysis of Laurent's temperament here.

  • Poverty

    Oof. This poverty goes way beyond having to eat beans and rice for a while in order to save up for new boots. Poverty, Naturalism-style, is about having no boots, no beans, and no rice.

    Poverty is a big theme in Naturalist fiction. We'll find a lot of Naturalist works about characters who live in poverty or who come from a background of poverty. The reason Naturalists were so interested in poverty is that it's an environment of extremes.

    If we don't have enough clothes, or food, we exist in a state that puts a lot of pressure on us. The Naturalists were interested in what happens to people when they exist in situations of deprivation, like poverty.

    Chew On This

    The tenant farmers in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath are not exactly living the high life. Have a look at these quotations showing the farmers talking about their poverty.

    Technology and modernization have a very bad effect on the town of Starkfield, Massachusetts, where Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome is set. The town is plunged into even deeper poverty as a result of the railroad. Have a look at an analysis of the themes of poverty and modernization here.

  • Survival

    As we've mentioned, the Naturalists were influenced by the theories of Charles Darwin. Chucky D's evolutionary theory revolved around the idea of the survival of the fittest: the strongest animals outlive the weakest animals. Sometimes they even eat 'em. Delicious.

    Survival is also a big theme in the work of Naturalists. Naturalist fiction explores how people do or don't survive. It takes Darwin's idea of "survival of the fittest" and applies it to human society. Naturalists like to grapple with questions like: Who survives in society? Who fails to survive? And why?

    Chew On This

    The tenant farmers in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath are in a struggle for their survival. The problem is, they're too poor to survive. Have a look at these quotations from the novel.

    Henry, the protagonist of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, must figure out how to survive as a soldier in the U.S. Civil War. Check out these quotations from the novel here.

  • Darwinism

    We're not talking about the Darwin Awards … although a lot of Naturalist heroes and heroines die in terrible ways.

    In 1859 Charles Darwin published a little book called On the Origin of Species. This book would change the face of science and religion. In the book, Darwin showed that species developed through evolution. He also showed that the evolution of species was all about the struggle for survival.

    Darwin's ideas were hugely influential on the Naturalist writers. His scientific approach to the study of species influenced the way they saw and wrote about society. Society, according to them, was one big jungle where different "species," or types of people, were trying to survive and thrive.

    Chew On This

    In his preface to Thérèse Raquin, Zola argues that his aim as a novelist is to be as scientific as possible. Hmm…someone's been reading Charles Darwin. Check out Zola's statements on science right here.

    In the midst of battle, Henry, the protagonist of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, is compared to animals. And not in the "healthy as a horse" sort of way. Check it out.

  • Realism

    Naturalism: keeping it real (and depressing) since 1859.

    Realism was the literary movement that preceded Naturalism, and out of which Naturalism grew like a Darwinian weed. Realist writers like Gustave Flaubert and Leo Tolstoy were interested in recording people and events as they really happened, almost journalistically.

    The line between Naturalism and Realism is often blurred, and many Naturalist writers can also be considered Realist. The difference, however, is that, unlike Realist writers, Naturalist writers often portrayed people as having no control over their fate. They believed that social environment—as opposed to free will—had a huge influence on the actions and behavior of people.

    Basically, Realism + A Depressing Lack Of Control Over Your Life = Naturalism.

    Chew On This

    The line between Realism and Naturalism can be a bit blurry. Have a look at this analysis of the relationship between Realism and Naturalism in Émile Zola's novel Thérèse Raquin.

    Edith Wharton's novel Ethan Frome can be considered a Realist text, but its emphasis on pessimism (whee!) and the environment also make it a Naturalist text. Check out this analysis of the novel's genre here.