Naturalism in Fiction

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Naturalism in Fiction


An Increasingly Urban Landscape. The late nine-teenth century was a testing ground for such cherished American ideals as optimism, individualism, and the myth of the self-made man. Americans had long subscribed to an agrarian idyll: a belief thatin Thomas Jeffersons wordscultivators of the earth were the most vigorous, the most independant [sic], the most virtuous of citizens. Over the course of the nineteenth century, however, the face of the American landscape changed. In 1850 the population of New York City stood at just under 700,000; by 1900 it had risen to more than 3.4 million. The population of Chicago skyrocketed from approximately 30,000 to 1.7 million during this same period. Many of the new city dwellers were immigrants; many were ali but incapacitated by poverty. Not until the twentieth century did Americas urban population equal its rural population, but by the end of the nineteenth century the cities and their ever-growing slums were already exerting a damping influence on the hopes of millions for a better life.

The Death of Free Will? As America grappled with change, so too did Europe. Everywhere, it seemed, evidence cropped up to suggest that external circumstance, rather than free will, determined the shape of an individuals life. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) sent shock waves through scientific and theological circles with his theories of evolution. Karl Marx (1818-1883) saw the relationship of labor and capital as the engine for inevitable change. The French authors Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) and Emile Zola (1840-1902) adopted determinism as an artistic theory, crafting literary works that portrayed men and women buffeted by forces beyond their control. The objective style of Flaubert and Zolalabeled naturalism was a valuable model for authors chronicling the dissolution of the American dream.

Stephen Cranes Dreamers. At the age of twenty a college dropout named Stephen Crane began observing slum life in the Bowery district of New York City. He worked as a newspaper stringer and submitted sketches of slum life to the New York Tribune. In 1893, using the pen name Johnston Smith, Crane published at his own expense Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, a grim story of a young woman drawn, by the promise of love, into prostitution. Maggie was largely ignored by the critics and the public, but The Red Badge of Courage (1895), the story of a young soldier immobilized by the horrors of the Civil War, made him famous. Cranes fiction made a case for the centralityand the ineffectualityof imagination. His characters strain after change and excitement. Thus, his short story The Open Boat (1898), in which shipwrecked sailors face death at sea, begins with mingled images of hope and desperation. None of them knew the color of the sky, Crane wrote. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and ali of the men knew the colors of the sea. Experience, for Crane, is aestheticizedwhy else even notice the colors of the sea? Hope, however, is nullified by circumstance: the onrushing waves, the flying bullets, the city streets. Cranes characters (prostitutes, soldiers, and sailors alike) manufacture dreams from the landscape at hand, and the landscape kills them as readily as if no dreams had been dreamt at all.

Pawns of Passion and Circumstance. Cranes writing exemplifies a basic tenet of naturalism: it depicts men and women as pawns of mighty forcespassions, addictions, economic systems, environmental phenomenathat work inexorably against individuai expression. While Crane took slum life in New York as his earliest subject, his contemporary Frank Norris examined the underside of life in California. In McTeague (1899), the story of a physically imposing, slow-witted San Francisco dentist, Norris created a memorable naturalistic protagonist. McTeagues predisposition toward alcoholism triggers a slow descent into brutality:


Charlotte Perkins Gilman (186-935) earned a reputation as one of the most provocative literary voices of her generation but not before being silenced by the medicai prejudices of the day. A grandniece of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charlotte married at the age of twenty-four, gave birth to a daughter, and shortly thereafter lapsed into depression a condition often blamed, in the late nineteenth century, on womens intrinsic weakness. Placed under the care of the well-known physician S. Weir Mitchdl (1829-1914), Gilman was sentenced to a rest cure. Under this regimen, she was remanded to bed and prohibited from reading, writing, or communicating with the outside world.

Out of this experience Gilman crafted The Yellow Wall-Paper (1892), a classic story of gender relations and mental illness. Gilmans protagonist suffers from a temporary nervous depression a slight hysterical tendency. Her husband, John, a physician, prescribes a rest cure. From a bedroom with walls covered by yellow wallpaper, the woman looks out on a world deemed too taxing for her femmine constitution:

Out of one window I can see the garden those mysterious deep-shaded arbors, the riotous old-fashioned flowers, and bushes and gnarly trees

I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try.

Higher education and the professions began opening up to women in the late nineteenth century. As The Yellow Wall-Paper suggests, a backlash resulted. According to the medical establishment, intellectual activity threatened a womans reproductive fitness, and story-making and fancy distracted women from domestic concerns. While many late-nineteenth-century women languished as chronic neurasthenics, Charlotte Perkins Gilman found solace and strength in art. She separated from her first husband, moved to the West Coast, became a lecturer on womens rights, and married her cousin George Houghton Gilman. In 1898 she published the treatise Women and Economics, a classic argument for womens financial independence. Gilman continued as a prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction well into the twentieth century. Among her works from this later period are a trilogy of feminist utopian novels Moving the Mountain (1911), Herland (1915), and With Her in Ourland (1916) about a fictional land inhabited only by women.

Source: Ann J. Lane, To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (New York: Pantheon, 1991).

Below the fine fabric of ali that was good in him, ran the foul stream of hereditary evil, like a sewer. The vices and sins of his father and of his fathers father, to the third and fourth and five hundredth generation, tainted him. The evil of an entire race flowed in his veins. Why should it be? He did not desire it. Was he to blame?

McTeague loses his dental practice, strangles his wife, flees San Francisco, and dies of dehydration in the middle of Death Valley during a vain and greedy search for gold. Norriss later naturalistic works include The Octopus (1901), The Pit (1903), and Vandover and the Brute (1914). In powerful (if occasionally awkward) prose Norris captured both the vitality and the desperation of human endeavor. The naturalistic mode pioneered by Crane and Norris was later adopted and refined by such early-twentieth-century American masters as Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, and John Dos Passos.


Walter Benn Michaels, The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987);

Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill & Wang, 1982).

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Naturalism in Fiction

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