Naturalism (literature)

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File:ZOLA 1902B.jpg
Émile Zola exemplified nineteenth century literary naturalism.

Naturalism was a mainly unorganized literary movement that sought to depict believable everyday reality, as opposed to such movements as Romanticism or Surrealism, in which subjects may receive highly symbolic, idealistic or even supernatural treatment.


Naturalism was an outgrowth of literary realism, a prominent literary movement in mid-19th-century France and elsewhere. Naturalistic writers were influenced by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.[1] They often believed that one's heredity and social environment largely determine one's character. Whereas realism seeks only to describe subjects as they really are, naturalism also attempts to determine "scientifically" the underlying forces (e.g. the environment or heredity) influencing the actions of its subjects. Naturalistic works often include uncouth or sordid subject matter; for example, Émile Zola's works had a frankness about sexuality along with a pervasive pessimism. Thomas Hardy can also be grouped under the umbrella of naturalism, because of his realistic outlook on life evidenced in novels such as Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Naturalistic works exposed the dark harshness of life, including poverty, racism, violence, prejudice, disease, corruption, prostitution, and filth. As a result, naturalistic writers were frequently criticized for focusing too much on human vice and misery.

Defining characteristics

Pessimism is one of the primary characteristics of naturalism.

For example Bernard Bonnejean quotes this passage of Huysmans where the symbolism of death is visible, such an allegory, in a portrait of an old woman:

[...] une vieille bique de cinquante ans, une longue efflanquée qui bêlait à la lune, campée sur ses maigres tibias [...] crevant les draps de ses os en pointe[2]

[...] an old hag of fifty years, lonely and outstretched, bleating at the moon, poised on her skinny shins [...] smashing the skin of her bones to a point (transl. Joiner)

Another characteristic of literary naturalism is detachment from the story. The author often tries to maintain a tone that will be experienced as "objective". Another characteristic of naturalism is determinism - the opposite of free will, essentially. Often, a naturalist author will lead the reader to believe a character's fate has been predetermined, usually by environmental factors, and that he/she can do nothing about it. Another common characteristic is a surprising twist at the end of the story. Equally, there tends to be in naturalist novels and stories a strong sense that nature is indifferent to human struggle. These are, however, only a few of the defining characteristics of naturalism.

Naturalism is an extension of realism, and may be better understood by study of the basic precepts of that literary movement. The term naturalism may have been used in this sense for the first time by Émile Zola. It is believed that he sought a new idea to convince the reading public of something new and more modern in his fiction. He argued that his innovation in fiction-writing was the creation of characters and plots based on the scientific method.

See also

Notes and references

  1. Williams, Raymond. 1976. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Fontana, 1988, p. 217. ISBN 0-00-686150-4.
  2. Huysmans, Les Soeurs Vatard, Union générale, 1975,175 and 234,quoted in Bernard Bonnejean "Huysmans avant À Rebours : les fondements nécessaires d'une quête en devenir", in Le Mal dans l'imaginaire français (1850-1950), éd. David et L'Harmattan, 1998 (ISBN 2-7384-6198-0) ; "Huysmans before A Rebours: The necessary foundation for a quest to become", The evil in the French imaginary (1850-1950), Ed. David and L'Harmattan, 1998 (ISBN 2-7384-6198-0)

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