The term naturalism was coined by Émile Zola, who defines it as a literary movement which emphasizes observation and the scientific method in the fictional portrayal of reality. Other characteristics of literary naturalism include: detachment, in which the author maintains an impersonal tone and disinterested point of view; determinism, the opposite of free will, in which a character's fate has been decided, even predetermined, by impersonal forces of nature beyond human control; and a sense that the universe itself is indifferent to human life. The novel would be an experiment where the author could discover and analyze the forces, or scientific laws, that influenced behavior, and these included emotion, heredity, and environment. This movement came about when Zola embraced a method created by Auguste Comte, a French philosopher, and advocated its use by novelists. Comte had proposed a scientific method that “went beyond empiricism, beyond the passive and detached observation of phenomena”. The application of this method “called for a scientist to conduct controlled experiments that would either prove or disprove hypotheses regarding those phenomena”. Zola took this scientific method and argued that naturalism in literature should be like controlled experiments in which the characters function as the phenomena.
Naturalism began as a branch of literary realism, and realism had favored fact, logic, and impersonality over the imaginative, symbolic, and supernatural. Frank Norris, an American journalist and novelist, whose work was predominantly in the naturalist genre, “placed realism, romanticism, and naturalism in a dialectic, in which realism and romanticism were opposing forces”, and naturalism was a mixture of the two. Norris’s idea of naturalism differs from Zola’s in that “it does not mention materialistic determinism or any other philosophic idea”.
Naturalism is a term which isn’t easily confined to a single definition. Apart from Zola and Norris’ views on the movement, there are various literary critics who have their own separate views on the matter. As said by Paul Civello, these critics can be grouped into four broad, and often overlapping, groups: early theorists, history-of-idea critics, European influence critics, and recent theorists. The early theorists saw naturalism thematically and in terms of literary technique. The history-of-idea critics understood it as an expression of the central ideas to an era. The European influence critics viewed it in much the same way as Zola. And recent theorists have either re-conceptualized naturalism as a narrative form, or denied its existence entirely.
Some say that naturalism is dead, or that it “may have never lived at all: even in the works of Émile Zola”, its founder. “In 1900 an obituary entitled “The Passing of Naturalism” in The Outlook officially declared the literary movement deceased”, and that Zola’s attempt to create a scientific literature was a failure. This certainly wasn’t the first time Zola’s novel had been criticized however. After his novel Thérèse Raquin (1867) had been sharply criticized for both contents and language, in a foreword for its second edition (1868), in a mixture of pride and defiance, he wrote: "Le groupe d'écrivains naturalistes auquel j'ai l'honneur d'appartenir a assez de courage et d'activité pour produir des oeuvres fortes, portant en elles leur défense", which translates as: The group of naturalist writers I have the honor to belong to have enough courage and activity to produce strong works, carrying within them their defense.
William Faulkner's A Rose for Emily, a story about a woman who killed her lover, is considered an example of a narrative within the naturalism category. This story, which also used Gothic elements, presented a tale that highlighted the extraordinary and excessive features in human nature and the social environment that influences them. The protagonist, Miss Emily, was forced to lead an isolated life and that - combined with her mental illness - it made insanity her inevitable fate. The environment in the forms of a class structure based on slavery and social change, together with heredity, represented the forces beyond her control.
There is also the case of The Open Boat, which is recognized as the center of Stephen Crane's naturalism. It essentially portrayed a naturalistic view of man with his depiction of a group of survivors adrift in a boat. The humans with their creation confronted the sea and the world of nature. In the experiences of these men, Crane articulated the illusion of gods and the realization of the universe's indifference.
Notes and references
- Campbell, Donna. "Naturalism in American Literature". Retrieved 19 June 2016.
- Civello, Paul. American Literary Naturalism and its twentieth-century transformations: Frank Norris, Ernest Hemingway, Don DeLillo. The University of Georgia Press, 1994, pp. 1-2, 23-24.
- Pizer, Donald. The Theory and Practice of American Literary naturalism: Selected Essays and Reviews. The Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University, 1993, pp. 120-122.
- Link, Eric Carl, et al. Preface. The Vast and Terrible Drama: American Literary Naturalism in the Late Nineteenth Century, by Link, et al, The University of Alabama Press, 2004, pp. iv.
- </. Retrieved April 16, 2017
- Williams, Tony (2015). The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead. London: Wallflower Press. p. 92. ISBN 9780231173544.
- Hughes, William; Punter, David; Smith, Andrew (2015). The Encyclopedia of the Gothic, 2 Volume Set. Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons. p. 19. ISBN 9781405182904.
- Skinner, John L. (1985). ""A Rose for Emily": Against Interpretation". The Journal of Narrative Technique. 15 (1): 42–51.
- Conder, John (1984). Naturalism in American Fiction: The Classic Phase. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky. p. 22. ISBN 9780813151762.