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c. 1860

Naturalism applies scientific ideas and principles, such as instinct and Darwin's theory of evolution, to fiction. Authors in this movement wrote stories in which the characters behave in accordance with the impulses and drives of animals in nature. The tone is generally objective and distant, like that of a botanist or biologist taking notes or preparing a treatise. Naturalist writers believe that truth is found in natural law, and because nature operates according to consistent principles, patterns, and laws, truth is consistent.

Because the focus of Naturalism is human nature, stories in this movement are character-driven rather than plot-driven. Although Naturalism was inspired by the work of the French writer Émile Zola, it reached the peak of its accomplishment in the United States. In France, Naturalism was most popular in the late 1870s and early 1880s, but it emerged in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century and remained in vogue up to World War I.

The fundamental naturalist doctrine is presented in Zola's 1880 essay "Le roman experimental" (meaning "the experimental—or experiential— novel"). In it, Zola claims that the naturalist writers subject believable characters and events to experimental conditions. In other words, these writers take the known (such as a character) and introduce it into the unknown (such as an unfamiliar place). Another major principle of Naturalism that Zola explains in this essay is the idea of determinism, which is the theory that a person's fate is determined solely by factors and forces beyond an individual's personal control, such as heredity and environment.

While the French initiated and developed Naturalism, Americans are credited with bringing it to its fullest expression. American Naturalist writers include the novelists Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Hamlin Garland, and Jack London; the short story writer O. Henry (William Sydney Porter); and the poets Edwin Arlington Robinson and Edgar Lee Masters. Dreiser's An American Tragedy is considered the pinnacle of naturalist achievement. Other representative works are Dreiser's Sister Carrie,London's The Call of the Wild,Norris's McTeague, and Crane's The Red Badge of Courage.


Stephen Crane (1871-1900)

Best remembered for his Civil War narrative, The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane was born on November 1, 1871, six years after the war ended. He was born in Newark, New Jersey, and later launched his career in New York as a journalist for the New York Herald, New York Tribune, and New York Journal. His first story, the novella, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, was self-published when he was twenty-two years old. In 1895 The Red Badge of Courage was published, making Crane internationally famous and enabling him to focus on writing fiction for the rest of his short life. Crane died of tuberculosis on June 5, 1900, in Badenweiler, Germany. His body is buried in Hillside, New Jersey.

Crane's major contribution to American literature is his examination of the nature of courage in the novel The Red Badge of Courage, the story of Henry Fleming, a young man who enlists to fight in the Civil War. Through his experiences, Fleming ultimately discovers that he possesses courage but that war is less glamorous and far more brutal than he imagined it would be. With this narrative, Crane takes the characteristics of Naturalism and applies them to a critical period in American history. The result is a work that was immediately embraced by Americans at the time of publication and continued to be admired and taught into the twenty-first century.

Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945)

Born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on August 27, 1871, Theodore Dreiser enjoyed a successful career as a journalist and novelist. Dreiser left Indiana as a young man and found work in Chicago as a journalist. When his first novel, Sister Carrie, was a failure, he was plagued by self-doubt. But this initial disappointment proved to be unfounded, as he rose to prominence in literary circles, was a finalist for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1930, and received an Award of Merit from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1945. Dreiser died of a heart attack in Los Angeles, California, on December 28, 1945.

In An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie, Dreiser depicts the dark side of the myth of the American dream, a recurring theme in his work. Both novels feature tragic characters who are the victims of their own desires. In any discussion of Naturalism, An American Tragedy is generally held up as the best example. But Sister Carrie also illustrates the movement.

Jack London (1876-1916)

Jack London was born on January 12, 1876, in San Francisco, California, and raised by his mother alone after they were deserted by his father. London educated himself by studying at public libraries. As a young man, he worked as asailor, punctuated by periods of homelessness and joblessness. In 1896, he briefly attended the University of California but was unable to finish because of a lack of money. In 1897, he took part in the Klondike gold rush in northern Canada,an experience that fueled his writing although malnourishment affected his health. He returned to Oakland, California, the following year and began to seriously pursue a career in writing. Advances in printing technology made magazines cheaper to produce and resulted in a boom market for short fiction. Within two years, London was earning a more than respectable income as a writer. His second novel, The Call of the Wild, was published and widely advertised by Macmillan in 1903, propelling London to literary fame. London was dogged by claims of plagiarism, stemming from his use of newspaper articles as inspiration and resource for his stories. He died November 22, 1916, at his home in Glen Ellen, California, from complications stemming from kidney failure. Some believe he may have overdosed—on purpose or by accident—on the morphine he was taking to manage his pain.

Frank Norris (1870-1902)

Benjamin Franklin Norris Jr. was born in Chicago, Illinois, on March 5, 1870. He was an artistic and well-educated man, having studied painting in 1887 at the Atelier Julien in Paris and attended the University of California at Berkeley (1890-94) and Harvard University (1894-95). Like many naturalist writers, he worked in journalism as a foreign correspondent. Norris wrote from South Africa for the San Francisco Chronicle from 1895 to 1896, and from Cuba for S. S. McClure Syndicate of New York City as a war correspondent in 1898. He died of appendicitis in San Francisco, California, on October 25, 1902.

Norris is one of the major writers who developed American Naturalism. Critics regard his work as closest to the pure Naturalism described by Zola. His most notable works are McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, The Octopus: A Story of California, and The Pit: A Story of Chicago. Although McTeague: A Story of San Francisco was written early in Norris's career, many scholars consider it his masterpiece. The Octopus: A Story of California and The Pit: A Story of Chicago are two volumes of an unfinished trilogy. In addition to novels, Norris wrote numerous short stories that appeared in publications for a wide range of audiences.

Edith Wharton (1862-1937)

Edith Wharton was born January 24, 1862, in New York City to a wealthy family. In addition to writing fiction, she was an acclaimed designer. She designed her famous home, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts, which as of the early 2000s has served as a public museum devoted to Wharton's talent and life. Unhappy in her marriage, in 1913, Wharton divorced her husband of twenty-eight years after he was committed to a hospital following a mental break. She left The Mount and settled permanently in France. During World War I, she became involved in charitable works in France, aiding the displaced, the unemployed, and the ill. In 1921, Wharton became the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize, which was awarded for her novel The Age of Innocence (1920). Wharton was a prolific author of over seventy books, including novels, poetry, and memoir. She died on August 11, 1937, in France.

Émile Zola (1840-1902)

Émile Zola was born in Paris, France, on April 2, 1840. During his career Zola wrote novels, short stories, plays, translations, and criticism. He was awarded the position of Officer of Legion d'Honneur in 1888-89. This position was revoked, however, because of Zola's disputes with the French government. Always a controversial figure, Zola had a wide audience among his contemporaries and remains a major figure in French literature in the twenty-first century. He died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning on September 29, 1902, in Paris. Although he was buried in Paris, his ashes were later moved to the Pantheon in Rome, Italy, home to the tombs of many of the greatest thinkers in the world.

Considered the most prominent theorist of Naturalism, Zola wrote the essay "Le roman experimental" (meaning "the experimental—or experiential—novel") in 1880. In it, Zola explains that the role of the naturalist novelist is to subject believable characters to experimental conditions in order to find truth (meaning natural law). The author, in a sense, becomes an experimental scientist. Zola also claims that character is conditioned, determined by heredity and environment. Although Zola is credited as the father of Naturalism, his views are often considered to represent the extremes of the style.


The Age of Innocence

Wharton's novel, The Age of Innocence was published in 1920 and won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize. The novel opens in New York City during the 1870s among the social elite. Concerned with changing social values and behaviors, The Age of Innocence tells the story of Newland Archer, a young man from a wealthy family who is engage to May Welland, his equal in breeding. Despite himself, Newland falls in love with May's scandalous cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, who is visiting from Europe to escape an unhappy marriage. Newland and May marry when it seems impossible that he and Ellen can be together. Years later, he changes his mind and determines to leave May for Ellen when the latter is preparing to return to Europe. At the last second, May tells Newland that she is pregnant and Newland chooses to honor his marital commitment over Ellen. Twenty-five years later, the now widowed Newland and his son are in Paris; they go to visit Ellen. Newland sends his son ahead of him then decides he does not want to ruin his memory of the love of his life and he leaves without seeing Ellen. Andrea J. Sand deciphers the language of flowers used by the Victorian characters of this novel: Newland's flower, often worn in his lapel, is the gardenia, which stands for secret love.

An American Tragedy

Published in 1925 and concerned with social and economic inequities, An American Tragedy is loosely based on a true story and is considered the best example of American Naturalism. It is the story of Clyde Griffiths, whose desire to realize the American dream in his life almost leads him to commit murder. In just one of the novel's examples of irony, Clyde is found guilty of committing murder, even though his intended victim died accidentally.

An American Tragedy illustrates how Dreiser's work demythologizes the American dream. Dreiser felt that, for the disenfranchised, believing in the American dream leads to heartbreak, disappointment, and cynicism. An American Tragedy typifies Naturalism because it concerns an ordinary middle-class man whose sexual impulses and desire to enter a more moneyed class converge to cause him to make extreme choices. Having always dreamed of a better life and having always been told he could create that life, Clyde arrives on the brink of entering the upper echelons of society when a wealthy woman becomes romantically interested in him. The problem is that he already has committed to marry a poor woman who has had his child. This situation is devastating for Clyde because he sees his long-awaited opportunity to fulfill his dreams slipping away. The lure of the American dream proves too strong, and he plans to kill his betrothed.

Upon publication, An American Tragedy received popular and critical acclaim. Some critics suggested that the novel's popular success was due to the post-World War I public's desire to read about individual social accountability. After all, Clyde is found guilty of a crime he intended to commit but did not actually carry out. Critically, the novel is declared a masterpiece and is deemed Dreiser's best work. Although some reviewers claim that the book is inelegantly written, contains bad grammar, and is overly melodramatic, many readers enthusiastically recommend it.

The Call of the Wild

Although it started as a short story, London's The Call of the Wild (1903) soon became a sensationally popular novel. The money London made by selling the rights to the novel enabled him to purchase a boat on which he could disappear and write without distraction. Read all over the world and taught in schools, The Call of the Wild is considered a classic of American fiction.

The Call of the Wild is about a dog named Buck who is taken from his home in California and put on a dog team in the Yukon. In order to survive in his new environment, he must assert himself among the other dogs. He is eventually adopted by a loving man named John Thornton, whose patience and kindness teach Buck to trust and love. This novel is unique among naturalist novels because its main character is an animal, but this is also why it is a good example of Naturalism. The laws of nature are laid bare in


  • The Call of the Wild was adapted to audio by Naxos Audio Books (abridged) in 1995, read by Garrick Hagon, and by Dercum (una-bridged) in 1997, read by Samuel Griffin.
  • The Call of the Wild was adapted to film in 1908 by Biograph Company; in 1923 by Hal Roach Studios; in 1935 by 20th Century Pictures, starring Clark Gable; and in 1972 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, starring Charlton Heston.
  • The Call of the Wild was also adapted for television movies in 1976 by Charles Fries Productions; in 1993 by RHI Entertainment, starring Rick Schroder; and in 1997 by Kingsborough Greenlight Pictures. It was adapted as a television series in 2000 by Cinevu Films and Call of the Wild Productions.
  • Sister Carrie was adapted to audio by Books on Tape in 1997, read by Rebecca Burns, and in 2000 by Blackstone Audio Books, read by C. M. Herbert.
  • McTeague: A Story of San Francisco was adapted to audio by Audio Book Contractors in 1994.
  • McTeague: A Story of San Francisco was adapted to film in 1915 by William A. Brady Picture Plays and was adapted as a television opera by Robert Altman in 1992 in a production by the Lyric Opera of Chicago aired on Public Broadcasting Station.
  • The Red Badge of Courage was adapted to audio in 1993 by Bookcassette Sales, read by Roger Dressler.
  • The Red Badge of Courage was adapted to film in 1951 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, directed by John Huston and starring Audie Murphy.
  • The Red Badge of Courage was also adapted as a television movie in 1974 by 20th Century Fox Television.
  • An American Tragedy was adapted to film in 1931 in a production by Paramount. It was redone as a film in 1951, titled A Place in the Sun, starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters. This production won six Academy Awards.
  • Wharton's The Age of Innocence was made into a major motion picture in 1993. The film was directed by the Martin Scorsese and stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder. It won numerous awards, including an Oscar for Best Costume Design. The Age of Innocence is available on DVD from Sony Pictures.

the story of Buck. His interaction with the pack, nature, and people reveals the laws of nature.

McTeague: A Story of San Francisco

In McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899), Norris disputes the image of the self-reliant American in charge of his or her own fate. Norris takes a typically naturalist approach and portrays people as the products of their environments, genetic traits, and chance occurrences. Norris took almost a decade to complete this novel, and it is his most prominent work. In McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, the title character is an unlicensed dentist of below average morality and intelligence. He is an ideal naturalistic character because he is guided by his impulses rather than by careful deliberation or acts of will. In the end, he loses his practice and beats his wife to death when she refuses to tell him where she has hidden money she inherited. Both characters are portrayed as victims. While she is the victim of violence, he is the victim of his own bestial nature.

Readers and critics found the book to be unnecessarily violent and pessimistic. While other naturalist books included violence (most notably The Red Badge of Courage), they were not as explicit. This novel is important, however, as a key work of the naturalist movement and as the masterpiece of one of its dominant figures.

The Red Badge of Courage

The Civil War narrative, The Red Badge of Courage (1895) made Crane internationally famous. The style and the stirring, emotional voice of a young soldier captivated critics and readers alike. Veterans of the Civil War praised the book's realistic account of the soldier's experience. Although numerous books containing Civil War narratives were published since the 1860s, The Red Badge of Courage stood out for Crane's contemporaries. The book is a classic of Naturalism and proof of its author's imagination; born in 1871 (six years after the war's end), Crane never served in the war; everything he knew of it was from secondary sources.

The story is about Henry Fleming who is full of youthful adventure and longing to be part of the war. He enlists, only to face doubts about his own courage and romantic attitudes. Crane uses the war as the fictional laboratory into which he places his young protagonist. The war defines an extreme set of environmental variables, and Henry's experiences lead him from uncertainty to confidence in his own character. In the true spirit of Naturalism, Crane portrays Henry's fate as a set of outcomes based on his inborn traits (his drive to be a part of the adventure) and his new environment (the pressures of engaging in battle). Crane uses many typical naturalist techniques such as symbolism, third-person point-of-view, and concrete detail.

Sister Carrie

Dreiser's first novel, Sister Carrie, was published in 1900. After publication, controversy surrounding the novel focused on the main character's lack of morals and the fact that the outcome suggests that she is rewarded for her sinful ways. Still, many readers and critics find it to be a moving and honest portrayal of a young woman who leaves her rural home to make a life for herself in the city. After briefly working in a Chicago factory, Carrie moves in with a well-to-do salesman and becomes his mistress. Soon, however, she catches the eye of a wealthier older man who leaves his wife and career in order to run away with Carrie. They end up in New York, where they part ways and Carrie successfully pursues a stage career.

As a naturalist writer, Dreiser reveals the harshness of life and the ways in which individuals can seize opportunities to alleviate much of that harshness. While some of Dreiser's contemporaries found the depiction of Carrie's sexual life inappropriate, others found it refreshingly realistic. This novel is also important because it shows Dreiser's early tendencies toward the naturalist style. For example, he takes Carrie out of her comfortable environment (the Midwest) and places her in the unfamiliar big city of Chicago to see how her desires and needs affect her decision-making. The setting, in essence, becomes a set of conditions which cause changes in the character. Other aspects of the novel, such as Dreiser's attention to detail and his portrayal of the struggling lower class, are consistent with the naturalist style.


Scientific Principles

Naturalist writers apply scientific principles to the fictive world they create. Like scientists conducting experiments, they introduce characters to certain circumstances and then dramatize the


  • Consider the main identifying characteristics of Naturalism, and choose three films that you believe reflect naturalistic ideas. Write a review of each film, explaining the characteristics of Naturalism that you see in it.
  • After Naturalism came Modernism, a period that produced fiction, drama, and poetry expressing the experiences and attitudes of wartime and postwar writers. Research this period and its major contributors and create a presentation in which you demonstrate how Modernism grew out of, or in reaction to, Naturalism. Be sure to consider historical influences.
  • The photography of Edward Curtis is often associated with the naturalist movement. His subject matter was primarily the dwindling Native-American population and culture. Examine some of his photographs and decide if you would classify him with the naturalists or with the romantic Western writers. (You will need to learn a little about the characteristics of romantic Western writing.) Explain your position in a well-organized essay that makes references to specific photographs.
  • Read a naturalist work of your choice, paying particular attention to the author's use of symbolism. Write an essay discussing examples of symbolism in the work and how the symbols used relate to Naturalism.

interaction that generates events. Thus, characters' inherited traits and environmental influences determine plot outcome. In some cases, an unexpected opportunity is also introduced to give the character a chance to take it or to ignore it. Given extreme circumstances, desires, and needs, characters make decisions they would not otherwise make. The naturalist writer believes that the characters' true natures emerge in these situations.

Another scientific idea used in naturalist writing is conditioned behavior. Characters learn how to behave when they are exposed repeatedly to the same environmental influences. A character such as Henry in The Red Badge of Courage quickly learns how to behave in order to survive in the extreme circumstances of war. Buck in The Call of the Wild is first conditioned to hate people but laterlearnstotrusttherightman.

Darwinian theories are sometimes evident in naturalist writing. In Sister Carrie, for example, Carrie is inherently stronger than Hurstwood; as a result of his weakness, he abandons all of his comforts and ultimately commits suicide, while self-reliant Carrie enjoys a successful stage career. Society is unforgiving and harsh toward the weak but offers rewards to its strongest members, which suggests that civilized society is as much a forum for competition among its members as nature is for animals.

Ordinary People in Extraordinary Circumstances

Novels of the naturalist movement feature common, everyday people. There are no members of royalty, titans of the business world, or great minds. Instead, naturalist authors choose protagonists like McTeague, a would-be dentist; Carrie, a rural Midwestern girl; and Buck, a mixed-breed dog. These characters lead simple lives, uncluttered by the good fortune and distractions of glamour, wealth, or adventure. They are left only with their limited resources and their innate natures. In rare cases such as Carrie's, a character attains a successful life but finds it ultimately unsatisfying. These characters learn that there are more similarities than differences between the common and the uncommon.

Naturalist authors place these ordinary characters in extraordinary situations. Carrie finds herself first in the big city of Chicago and eventually in New York City, enjoying a glamorous career as an actress. In contrast, her lover, Hurstwood, descends from a lavish lifestyle to living on the street. In the end, his dramatic decision to take his own life is underscored by the cheap motel where he does it.

Henry in The Red Badge of Courage is an ordinary young man who makes a decision to seek the extraordinary by enlisting to fight in the Civil War. He discovers that it is he who is extraordinary in his courage and that war consists of common ugliness.

By placing ordinary people in extreme situations, naturalist writers show their readers that they, too, could find themselves in extraordinary situations. They also show that while some people become extraordinary due to their circumstances, others are destined to remain common.



Naturalist authors use symbolism to subtly convey a wealth of meaning in a few words or images. In McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, Norris uses McTeague's tooth-shaped sign as a symbol of how the character would like to perceive himself and be perceived by others. Although he has no license to practice dentistry, he wants the respectability such a profession would bring him. The tooth is gold, which symbolizes McTeague's drive to acquire wealth. In Sister Carrie, Dreiser introduces the rocking chair as a symbol during key moments in Carrie's life. Her rocking in it symbolizes her solitude in the world. As she rocks, she thinks about the state of her life, and the chair moves but never goes anywhere. Still another example of naturalist symbolism is the mountain in The Red Badge of Courage. It is ominous and immovable and represents the power and permanence of nature.


Naturalists are similar to realists in their attention to detail. Naturalist works contain detailed passages describing settings, backgrounds, appearances, and emotions, all of which helps the reader get a specific perception of the characters' lives. Details also give the work a realistic feeling, a sense of being inevitable and true. The objective is to depict a subject wholly and factually. Dreiser uses details to give the reader insight into his characters in Sister Carrie. By describing Carrie's clothing and furnishings in detail, he suggests to the reader how important appearance is to Carrie and to her first lover, Drouet.

A common naturalist pattern is to present a great deal of information at the beginning of the novel and then let the events unfold. McTeague: A Story of San Francisco adheres to this pattern. Norris provides a great deal of information at the beginning, and the events of the story evolve logically from this information. There are no plot twists, shocking turns of events, or unexpected characters. Further, the information given at the beginning is reliable, so the reader is a fully informed observer from the start.



Naturalism began in France in the mid-nineteenth century and lasted until the early 1880s. The principal figure of French Naturalism is Zola, whose 1880 essay "Le roman experimental" was instrumental in the spread of Naturalism to the United States. Zola describes human existence as being determined by environment and genetics, and he adheres to the belief that people behave basically as animals in nature do.

Edmond and Jules de Goncourt were brothers who also wrote in the naturalist style in France during Zola's time. The Goncourt brothers adhered to certain tenets of Romanticism, such as the elite status of the artist, as they explored the realistic tone of Naturalism. Their application of scientific ideas in fiction was a major contribution to the naturalist movement.


The term naturalist is not generally used to describe English literature during the American naturalist period. The Edwardian period (1901-14), however, shares certain characteristics of Naturalism, indicating that attitudes and reading habits were similar among Americans and the British in the years leading up to World War I. Edwardian writers were cynical and questioned authority, religion, art, and social institutions. This is akin to the naturalist method of observing and testing human behavior in an inquisitive manner rather than accepting traditional beliefs uncritically. Both Naturalism and the Edwardian period were dominated by fiction writers rather than by dramatists or poets.


Naturalism in drama was a minor movement that emerged in the late nineteenth century. Playwrights of this style paid special attention to detail in costume, set design, and acting in order to remove as much artificiality as possible. They sought to break down barriers between the audience and the stage, and they were especially opposed to the melodrama that was so popular


  • Early 1900s: In 1907, Paris is the site of the first Cubist painting exhibition in the world. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque spear-head the movement. An artistic manifestation of the age's rationalism, cubism is embraced by some and staunchly rejected by others. It will be years before it is recognized as a legitimate artistic movement and its influence fully appreciated.

    Today: Modern art includes a wide variety of media and styles. Although art lovers are more accepting of innovations and radical new approaches, many artists continue to struggle with widely preconceived notions of constitutes art. This tension between the artist and society keeps alive the fundamental question: "What is art?"

  • Early 1900s: In 1903 Henry Ford founds the Ford Motor Company and creates an efficient assembly line ten years later. This revolutionizes both transportation and manufacturing, making it possible for many more people to own cars.

    Today: Owning a car is quite common, and prices range from the affordable to the very pricey. Car buyers are no longer limited to the basic black first offered by Ford or even to American-made vehicles; automobiles are imported from all over the world. Innovations in design often dictate innovations on the factory floor.

  • Early 1900s: Max Planck and Albert Einstein make major contributions to physics, publishing theories that radically change the way scientists look at the universe.

    Today: In 2006, Americans win the Nobel Prize in Science: Roger D. Kornberg of Stanford University School of Medicine wins in chemistry, and John C. Mather of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and George F. Smoot of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory share the prize in physics. In 2007, Al Gore for his work on global climate change shares the Nobel Prize in Science with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

with audiences at the time. Some naturalist playwrights embraced social causes of the day, preferring to inform and alarm audiences rather than to provide them with mindless entertainment. As a result of removing artifice from the theater, they hoped that the audience would have a sense that they were watching and learning from real people. Playwrights associated with this style include Henri Becque (French), Eugene Brieux (French), Gerhart Hauptmann (German-Polish), and Maxim Gorky (Russian).


Realistic Period in American Literature

Realism preceded Naturalism in American literature, and the two are closely related. Both aim for realistic portrayals of everyday life, and both incorporate a great deal of detail. Realism arose after the Civil War, a traumatic period in national disillusionment in which approximately 600,000 Americans died. After the Civil war, Americans soberly set about trying to recreate their lives. A new kind of American fiction emerged in the wake of widespread disillusionment.

Public education developed, creating a broader readership, and new laws helped protect copyrights. These developments meant that more writers could enjoy viable careers. Authors of fiction found ready audiences for their unsentimental works. Within Realism, minor movements such as pragmatism emerged. Writers of this period who became prominent include Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Henry James. In poetry, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Sidney Lanier were writing. In drama, little change was evident. The melodrama and fanfare that typified drama prior to Realism continued to find audiences.

Technology and Science

The early 1900s was a period marked by advances in technology and science, creating a social environment in which the intellect was considered superior to emotions and to traditional, blindly accepted beliefs. In 1900 Max Planck opened up a new world of physics when he discovered the quantum nature of energy. Five years later, Albert Einstein developed the special theory of relativity, and in 1915 he developed the general theory. Together, these advances in physics revolutionized scientific thought. This new way of thinking shaped not only the sciences but also the arts, economics, and politics. By the turn of the century, the United States was well on its way to being an industrialized nation. After the Civil War, the spirit of industrialism that had been born in the North took on new fervor. It was time to repair the nation and its economy. Progress was made in the fields of communication, transportation, and manufacturing. In transportation, Henry Ford founded Ford Motor Company in 1903 (the same year that Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully flew the first motorized plane) and opened the first automotive assembly line in 1913. General Motors Corporation was founded in 1908.

In the intellectual world, new thinkers revolutionized the ways in which people understood their world. Charles Darwin challenged the traditional religious concept of the origin of human beings; Karl Marx challenged traditional views on economics and social class; and Auguste Comte initiated the philosophy of positivism (which claims that the purpose of knowledge is merely to describe, not to explain, the world) and the field of sociology (which focuses on observing, quantifying, and predicting social phenomena).

Advances in science and technology led to widespread acceptance of rationalism and scientific inquiry. Among the arts, this attitude was especially noticeable in literature. Moving away from the realms of feelings and relationships, writers approached their craft as a medium for understanding the human psyche. Writers were inspired less by the desire to provide readers with escape and more by a desire to depict the world as it is.


Although naturalist novels such as The Red Badge of Courage and The Call of the Wild are now considered classics, critics are often torn on the merits of the movement as a whole. The movement was initially met with suspicion because it was regarded as irrelevant to the American culture and its values. Perhaps because of its French roots, Naturalism was perceived as having little to offer an American readership. The lack of a strong morality presented in many naturalist novels further alienated critics and readers who looked to literature to enlighten and inspire. In his book Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-CenturyAmericanLiterature, Donald Pizer provides a retrospective comment: "We are coming to realize that a generation of American critics has approached American literary Naturalism with beliefs about man and art which have frequently distorted rather than cast light upon the object before them." Conservative reviewers denounced the works of Dreiser, for example, for his unfavorable depiction of the modern American man and woman. Still others, like Joseph Warren Beach in his book The Twentieth Century Novel: Studies in Technique, praise Dreiser for his negative depictions. Beach commends Dreiser's "fearlessness, his honesty, his determination to have done with conventional posturings and evasions." Shawn St. Jean, in examination of Sister Carrie, finds Dreiser's novel to be an empowering tale of fortune derived from both luck and hard work.

In the 1940s and 1950s, critics were quick to distance themselves from naturalist writers because some of them (such as Dreiser) were associated with the Communist Party. During that time, there was intense distrust of anyone with communist leanings. Today, critics legitimize the movement on its own terms, crediting it as a significant and coherent movement that resulted in great literary works.

Many critics have difficulty discussing Naturalism without reference to its predecessor, Realism. The two movements share characteristics (such as attention to detail, common people as subjects, and portrayals of harsh circumstances), but many scholars see Naturalism's reliance on the principle of determinism as its distinguishing feature. This refers to the belief among naturalist writers that people's fates are determined by their environments and/or their genetics. Pizer declares:

The common belief is that the naturalists were like the realists in their fidelity to the details of contemporary life but that they depicted everyday life with a greater sense of the role of such causal forces as heredity and environment in determining behavior and belief.

Critics find Naturalism to be the more pessimistic of the two movements. Pizer comments that another important difference is the way human nature is perceived. He explains:

A naturalistic novel is thus an extension of Realism only in the sense that both modes often deal with the local and contemporary. The naturalist, however, discovers in this material the extraordinary and excessive in human nature.

Critics like Pizer find Naturalism to be empowering because it reveals the humanity, experiences, and emotional states of common and lowly characters.


Jennifer Bussey

Bussey holds a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor's degree in English literature. She is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, Bussey asserts that Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie is important because it makes Naturalism accessible and relevant to American women.

A survey of Naturalism reveals that women are underrepresented in this movement, both as authors and as protagonists. Of the major authors—Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Jack London, Frank Norris—none are women. Previous movements, most notably Romanticism, included women as contributors and as heroines, yet Naturalism is almost exclusively masculine. This is not to imply that the omission of women was intentional but rather that something about the movement itself spoke to men more meaningfully than to women. Some of the best-known naturalist works represent experiences that, at the time, were exclusive to men. Crane's moving Civil War story, The Red Badge of Courage, is set during the war and relates a soldier's experiences. London's The Call of the Wild is about a dog in the Yukon, where living conditions are harsh and the culture revolves around heavy drinking, gambling, and dog fights. Where in all of this is there a place for women? The answer, ironically, comes from one of the male authors, Theodore Dreiser, in his novel Sister Carrie.

Sister Carrie is unique among the prominent naturalist works because it is about a woman and it speaks to the difficult decisions many women were forced to make in turn-of-the century urban America. The story concerns Caroline Meeber, known as Carrie or Sister Carrie by her friends and family. She leaves her rural home to live with her sister in Chicago, where she hopes to find work and establish her independence. This change of scenery embodies the Naturalist technique of transplanting a character to create a fictional laboratory in which the reader can observe the character's behaviors and reactions.

After working briefly in a factory she becomes a salesman's mistress, sharing an apartment with him and enjoying a nicer lifestyle than she had with her sister. While this choice is not the most moral one, it enables her to get what she wants (a better way of life) by providing what


  • Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) is the startling story of a pretty girl whose life of violence and poverty leads her to prostitution and suicide. Although less well-known than The Red Badge of Courage, Maggie is considered an excellent example of the naturalist novel.
  • A Sourcebook on Naturalist Theater (2000), by Christopher Innes, introduces students to the influences of Naturalism on modern theater. He visits Naturalism's roots and analyzes six plays by three playwrights, including full chapters on each play's historical and theatrical context.
  • Mary Lawlor's Recalling the Wild: Naturalism and the Closing of the American West (2000) summarizes early American attitudes about the West and the literature that came out of those perceptions. Lawlor then shows how Naturalism stripped the West of its romantic overtones and forever changed the way it was understood.
  • Edited by Donald Pizer, The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism (1995) explores Realism and Naturalism in American literature. Pizer addresses the conflict over terminology before providing an overview of critical approaches to these two movements. He also offers in-depth analysis of various texts with reference to their importance to the movements and their historical influences.

someone else wants (the company of a pretty girl). Given Carrie's standing as a woman in turn-of-the-century Chicago, she reacts to her new environment within her limited choices. When a wealthier man shows interest in her, she readily transfers her loyalties to him. He eventually disappoints her, however, and having moved to New York with him, she finds that she has more options. She makes a career for herself


in the theater, and no longer needing the security of a man, she leaves him. In the end, Carrie has all the things she thought she wanted, but she remains vaguely unsatisfied with the trappings of her new, independent life.

Carrie is an important character in American literature because she begins as typical of many women of her time: average and faced with few opportunities. Because she is ordinary, she was accessible to women readers at the time and is accessible to women today. She is also a believable character. Dreiser gives her a share of virtue and principle but does not hide her weaknesses and flaws. She is ambitious, unwilling to be involved with a married man, and ultimately self-sufficient, but she is also materialistic, selfish, and jaded. She is, in many ways, a typical naturalistic character, and in this way she has much in common with her male counterparts in other prominent naturalist novels.

In An American Tragedy, Dreiser introduces Clyde Griffiths, whose lack of emotional attachments (even in his romantic life), desire to be a social climber, and opportunism are also manifest in the character of Carrie. Both characters make morally questionable decisions, and while Carrie's decision-making does not have criminal intent as Griffiths's does, she is ultimately rewarded for it rather than punished.

In Frank Norris's McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, the title character loves money, acts impulsively and selfishly, and sustains false appearances to try to recreate himself. He is also quick to sacrifice actual respectability for the appearance of respectability. All of these characteristics are seen in Carrie as well. She longs for a better life, which she defines as a life of material wealth and societal approval. She, however, realizes what McTeague does not: that a better life is only attained when a person's inner world is content and fulfilled. Carrie and Henry Fleming from Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage share qualities, too. Both are innocents introduced into environments that are totally foreign to them, and they both have romantic ideals at the onset. The harshness of their new environments soon becomes evident, however, and these characters surprise themselves by how they react to, and function in, their new realities. Both are, in their own ways, heroic in the end.

Carrie even has something in common with the canine protagonist, Buck, in Jack London's The Call of the Wild. Both experience a dramatic change of environment and are highly distrustful as a result. Unfortunately for Carrie, she does not encounter someone whom she can learn to trust, as Buck does when he is adopted by John Thornton.

Despite the common threads that unite Carrie with the male protagonists of Naturalism, she is unique because of the realities of being a woman. She faces a different array of choices than the male characters face. She cannot learn basic dentistry and practice as an unlicensed dentist like Norris's title character in McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, and she cannot decide between staying home to seek work or becoming a soldier like Henry Fleming in Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. Her choices are to become a rural housewife or to move to the city and work in a factory or find a wealthy man.

What is heroic about Carrie is that she accepts her limited choices and through them creates a new set of choices for herself. Her relationships with Drouet and Hurstwood ultimately lead her to becoming a successful stage actress in New York, which enables her to provide for herself in a career she genuinely enjoys. She is inspiring as a woman because of whom she becomes and the circumstances she seeks out, not because she displays nobility in the narrow confines of her given circumstances.

In contrast to Carrie is Crane's title character in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Maggie comes from a poor and violent background, but rather than find her way out of it, she becomes a victim of it. Maggie becomes a prostitute and commits suicide in the end. She does not seek self-sufficiency but rather survival. Granted, Maggie's situation is more dire than Carrie's is, but Maggie's character is one who would not seek out or, possibly, even recognize an opportunity for something better. In the eyes of readers at the turn of the century, both characters trade on their feminine wiles to get what they need from men, and although Carrie remains more socially respectable than Maggie does, the premise is the same. Both characters were seen as leading immoral lives for material gain. This may be true, but judgments aside, Carrie finds a way to provide for herself so she no longer has to trade on her virtue to have what she needs. Maggie, on the other hand, loses her battle with hopelessness and ends her life.

Without Carrie, the only major female protagonist in Naturalism might have been Maggie. How unfortunate if the portrayal of women and their experiences in turn-of-the-century America had been limited to Maggie. Although Carrie's story has its share of sorrow, it is hopeful and as optimistic as such a story can realistically be. In the end, she still feels empty; the objects and luxuries she longed to have do not fill her heart or nurture her spirit. She has come to understand this, however, which means there is the possibility that she will seek out what she truly needs as fervently as she sought out what she thought she needed. These feelings of loneliness and confusion are common, and women can certainly relate to them now just as they could then. Carrie is a new kind of heroine in American literature. She is flawed, fallen, and lost, but knows herself better at the end of the story. In this light, she is as important a character to the naturalist movement as the men who dominate it.

Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on Naturalism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Shawn St. Jean

In the following essay, St. Jean discusses Dreiser's unpremeditated composition of Sister Carrie and its organic philosophies of free will and chance.

As we approach the twentieth-century novel, scholars will take stock of where the study of major literary figures has gone and where it has yet to go. What opportunities have been missed? For example, according to literary myth, Theodore Dreiser began his first novel, Sister Carrie (1900), at his friend Arthur Henry's insistence by spontaneously setting down the title and proceeding without a plan. The story's source is Dreiser himself, as he recalled the book's genesis in a letter to H. L. Mencken (qtd. in Swanberg, 82). Even


when controverted by documentary evidence, myths like this one have an inexplicable staying power. Speculating as to why leads to unique insights about the novel's construction.

Years later Dreiser would become famous for the painstaking research and preparation that went into novels like The Financier (1912) and An American Tragedy (1925). These later works have unmistakably crafted plot structures and specific thematic concerns. But Sister Carrie, though by no means an aesthetically inferior work, and, indeed, the one for which the author is today best known, appears to meander through intellectual issues much as its protagonist wanders the streets of Chicago seeking employment. Although filled with intrusive disquisitions by the narrator on all manner of topics, the work poses more questions than answers, and its predominant question is the archetypal one: What forces influence (or control) the lives of human beings? It is perhaps best to believe that Dreiser did not steer his book toward predetermined conclusions, that he struggled along with his protagonists with the meta-question. For one thing, such a view allows us to circumvent a major critical mire: whether the overt philosophy peppered throughout Dreiser's novel forms a consistent or even coherent system of thought and provides a reliable index to its themes. Sister Carrier more closely follows Emerson's model of organicism, in which thoughts grow naturally from events and are spoken in hard words today though they may be contradicted by everything one says tomorrow.

In pursuing his profound life-questions by this method, one natural enough for the intellectual yet inexperienced novelist, Dreiser drew on a self-acquired background in the classics, a tradition in which the finest minds of the past pursued the same object as he. And while Sister Carrie is not patterned in a sustained way after any specific myths or classical works, Dreiser relies heavily on tropes learned from the classical literary tradition and carried on by writers of all subsequent ages. The view of human life that emerges from the novel "stems directly . . . from the Greeks" (Mencken, 21), according to terms described by midcentury classicist William Greene:

The problem of fate, good, and evil, then, is not one that admits of any final intellectual solution; it remains partly, to be sure, within the realm of human activity and human suffering, but it lies partly on the knees of the inscrutable gods. That is what Homer and Greek tragedy have said, once and for all. Man is free, but within limits: therefore life demands of him the patient endurance of evil, the hand of compassion for fellow sufferers, and the smile of irony at fortune's ways. Above all, it demands the performance of God's will, which works through us, and which is the source, if not of worldly success (for chance has a part in that), at least of human good and human happiness.

(Greene, 396)

Although the novel deals scarcely at all with "God's will" in a religious form, it has an updated equivalent in the determinism to which Dreiser often (but not wholly) subjects his characters. What the Greeks sometimes called the Moirea (fates), anthropomorphized goddesses under which even Zeus was subject, and other times called moira (the will of the gods) is really analogous, from the perspective of mortals without access to divine intentions, to the forces like heredity and social environment identified by the nineteenth century. In all cultures in all times people have recognized external forces that limit their freedom—thus even nonworshipping peoples have their "gods."

Beyond those forces, human beings are often profoundly affected by change (tyche), which lies halfway between fate and human will. Tyche can refer to events completely beyond any form of divine or human control, or to a realm of man's self-determination, as when Tiresias warns Creon that his decision about Antigone's punishment will determine his own future (Green, 146). Thus human will holds the third part in this cosmic scheme, allowed to operate when the other forces do not and often at crucial moments. Herman Melville poetically described the interaction of these forces; Ishmael's fanciful depiction of the swordmat he and Queequeg weave in Moby-Dick anticipates the fabric of Dreiserian "naturalism":

aye, chance, free will, and necessity—no wise incompatible—all interweavingly working together. The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course—its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that; free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions modified by free will, though thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events. (215)

Dreiser's novels have been the occasions for protracted debates over literary naturalism because of their highly variable reliance on determinism. What twentieth-century critics, who have been less and less rigorously trained in the classics than their nineteenth-century counterparts, have failed to recognize is that close comparative study of authors and their classical influences yields invaluable insight into otherwise baffling problems. Through our eyes a writer like Dreiser appears woefully inconsistent in his philosophy. Adding to the confusion in the case of Sister Carrie, three major characters are (partially) determined by three kinds of external force: Carrie Meeber by poverty, Charles Drouet by desire, and George Hurstwood by social convention. Examining in detail the dynamics of each life here represented demonstrates Dreiser's use of archetypes to expose varied attempts to live successfully and happily.

From the moment Carrie arrives in Chicago from her parents' home in Columbia City she is set to the task of obtaining money. At her sister's home she must earn her keep: "Anything was good enough so long as it paid, say, five dollars a week to begin with. A shop girl was the destiny prefigured for the newcomer." Later, after losing her job because of sickness and reencountering Drouet (both chance events), the drummer insists on giving her two ten-dollar bills upon which Dreiser immediately begins the next chapter:

The true meaning of money yet remains to be popularly explained and comprehended. When each individual realizes for himself that this thing primarily stands for and should only be accepted as a moral due—that it should be paid out as honestly stored energy and not as a usurped privilege—many of our social, religious and political troubles will have permanently passed. As for Carrie, her understanding of the moral significance of money was the popular understanding, nothing more. "Money: something everybody else has and I must get," would have expressed her understanding of it thoroughly.

Both the narrator's socialistic linking of unequal distribution of money to societal ills and the parody of the "popular," the one circular and the other mindless, pursuit of it reveals Carrie's energies as woefully misdirected. Since she has neither the leisure nor the intellectual proclivity to see beyond immediate goals, she imagines that money equals happiness rather than that money may provide a means to happiness— hence her expectations are disappointed later. In fact, her longings are repeatedly undercut by Dreiser. As she reaches each new plateau of wealth and success, she finds something lacking that only more wealth can provide and so imagines happiness to be just one level away: "She would live in Chicago, her mind kept saying to itself. She would have a better time than she ever had before—she would be happy"; "It cut her to the quick, and she resolved that she would not come here [Broadway] again until she looked better. At the same time she longed to feel the delight of parading here as an equal. Ah, then she would be happy"; "[The playhouse] was above the common mass, above idleness, above want, above insignificance. People came to it in finery and carriages to see. It was ever a centre of light and mirth. And here she was of it. Oh, if she could only remain, how happy would be her days."

Modern commentators have called such works bildungsromans or erfahrungsromans because the protagonist learns through experience. Arguably, however, Carrie learns very little. It might be more accurate to say that she is on a quest since she has the final goal of happiness in mind but lacks the knowledge of how or where to seek it. The quest is a universal archetype, and psychologists like Carl Jung have recognized that its object varies greatly but is not as pertinent as the quest itself, which is a desire to fill a void of basic human insecurity. For example, in The Odyssey Telemachus goes on a quest for news of his father Odysseus, who has been missing for nearly twenty years. He doesn't know his father (who left for Troy when Telemachus was an infant) and so doesn't love him or even miss him. And even though Athena knows Odysseus will soon return and so Telemachus's dangerous journey is technically unnecessary, she sends him on the quest for the sake of his own manhood: "let him find news of his dear father where he may and win his own renown about the world" (Od. I. 120-22). The youth had been complaining:

    Were his death known, I could not feel such pain—
    if he had died of wounds in Trojan country
    or in the arms of friends, after the war.
    They would have made a tomb for him, the Akhaians,
    and I should have all honor as his son.
    Instead, the whirlwinds got him, and no glory.
    He's gone, no sign, no word of him; and I inherit
    trouble and tears—and not for him alone,
    the gods have laid such other burdens on me.
    (Od. I.281-89)

The overriding goal of manhood in this epic society is kleos (glory), and Telemachus has none of his father's and none of his own so long as his mother's suitors occupy his home. Though he surely wishes for Odysseus's return, any number of solutions would satisfy his real need, which is a secure place for himself. Quests for the missing father, for hidden treasure, for a holy object, to return home or find a new one, all add up to the same thing in terms of archetypal psychology. Similarly, Carrie seeks a substitute for her true goal of happiness and security, the thing her society values above all else, money.

All quests involve obstacles. These can take the form of tests of strength, intellect, endurance, or will. Often they build character (as when Telemachus escapes the suitors' ambush at sea), or help a person see previous error, as when Odysseus speaks to Tiresias in the Underworld and learns that Poseidon hates him for the blinding of his son, the cyclopean Polyphemus. In his turn, Dreiser forces us to recognize that the actions of other people can be great impediments and a nearly overwhelming factor of determination, nearly equal to fate itself.

In Carrie's case the two men to whom she becomes mistress pose insidious obstacles since, like The Odyssey's lotus eaters, they appear to represent quick and easy paths to happiness. Drouet tempts Carrie with money, and in extending her "first fall" over several scenes Dreiser masterfully demonstrates how external forces, chance, and will all subtly combine. In fact, the event is so anticlimactic that we may scarcely notice, with Carrie, that she has irrevocably chosen a direction in life. This device was to become a Dreiserian hallmark and a major contribution to literary realism: characters mistake profound decisions as meaningless or minor, and so choose carelessly or without thought at all. In Greek epic and drama, such moments—Oepidus's demanding to know the mystery of his birth or Patroclus requesting to wear Achilles's armor into battle—eventuate in ruin, but force a "late learning"—protagonists and audience see the gravity of error in retrospect of calamity. By no means does this suggest fatalism, since proper consideration of one's decisions at the crucial juncture can always prevent tragedy.

Dreiser's technique of protracting moral failures is an antithesis of the kind of high drama exhibited when Mark Twain's Huck decides not to turn in escaped slave Jim: "It was a close place. I took it [the letter to Jim's mistress] up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: 'All right, then, I'll go to hell'—and tore it up" (270-71). Twain punctuates Huck's moral crisis through irony: the reader knows Huck will not incur divine wrath—go to hell—and that the crisis has been precipitated only through warped antebellum Southern values. However, it has not been illusory to Huck, just as Telemachus never knows that Athena protects him against the suitors' deathtrap. Inner growth occurs regardless of the seeming insignificance of external events.

The difference in Dreiser consists not so much in the scope of events as in the individual's reaction (or lack of) to them. Carrie is hardly equipped to perceive the trap being laid for her, as provincial and beaten down by circumstances as she is. The best she can manage is to waver between desire and some half-formed inhibitions: "He made her take [the twenty dollars]. She felt bound to him by a strange tie of affection now"; "She felt ashamed in part to have been weak enough to take it, but her need was so dire, she was still glad"; "Carrie finally decided that she would give the money back. It was wrong to take it"; "Carrie shook her head. Like all women she was there to object and be convinced. It was up to him to brush the doubts away and clear the path if he could." The pivotal decision of accepting Drouet's money and leaving her sister to live with him is extended over ten pages, though with hardly the concentration that William Dean Howells gave to Lapham's decision between dishonesty and fraud during her overnight vigil. Instead, Dreiser diffuses the significant internal moments, represented by the brief sentences above, with superficial events—Dreiser's and Carrie's conceptions of Drouet, his light conversation with her, a scene in which Minnie suggests Carrie return to Columbia City, a trip to look at new jackets which is repeated with Drouet, and a dinner date—that deflect our and Carrie's own attention from her dilemma. Indeed, the precise moment of commitment passes without a reflective thought from either the narrator or Carrie:

The saleswoman helped her on with [the jacket], and by accident it fitted perfectly.

Drouet's face lightened as he saw the improvement. She looked quite smart.

"That's the thing," said Drouet. "Now pay for it."

"It's nine dollars," said Carrie.

"That's all right—take it," said Drouet.

She reached in her purse and took out one of the bills. The woman asked if she would wear the coat and went off. In a few minutes she was back and the purchase was closed.

Closed as well are Carrie's remaining options. Unemployed and thus paying no board, she cannot bring the jacket home to her sister. Yet she blinds herself to the fact that she has made a contract with Drouet: "The deeper she sank into the entanglement, the more she imagined that the thing hung upon the few remaining things she had not done. Since she had not done so and so yet, there was a way out." But the only alternative is laid out by the drummer: to take her own apartment, subsidized by him. "She thought a long time about this. Finally she agreed." Though this last narrative statement appears to show a moment of decision comparable to Huck's, there is nothing left to think about—Carrie only "imagines" a way out which is already closed. It is as if Huck had already mailed the letter and then sat down to think about the consequences.

It is crucial to notice the interaction of forces that has taken place. Drouet perceives Carrie's untoward circumstances, her narrow life with her sister and her lack of means. Through persuasion and a primitive psychological understanding, he manipulates Carrie into accepting his money. Chance events, her original illness and the "accidental" fit of the jacket, conspire to aid him. Finally, Carrie makes a decision not to accept the money but then spends it voluntarily. There can be no denial of free will at this point, but Carrie yields to desire for instant gratification versus the consideration of long-term consequences. Aeschylus had similarly shown the abdication of will as a source of doom in Agamemnon. Upon his triumphant return from Troy, Agamemnon is begged by his adulterous wife Clytemnestra to walk on a crimson carpet, unwittingly to his death:

Cly: Now, my beloved one,

step from your chariot: yet let not your foot, my lord,

sacker of Ilium, touch the earth


Ag: Such state becomes the gods, and none beside.

I am a mortal, a man; I cannot trample upon these tinted splendors without fear thrown in my path.


Cly: O yield! The power is yours. Give way of your own free will.

Ag: Since you must have it—here, let someone with all speed

take off these sandals, slaves for my feet to tread upon.

And as I crush these garments stained from the rich sea

let no god's eyes of hatred strike me from afar.

(Agamemnon, 905-47)

Though Carrie is hardly guilty of the damning hubris exhibited here, she has the same opportunity to make her own choice between moral imperative and human persuasion. In the end, however, not even the "late learning" which presumably comes to Agamemnon during his offstage murder lights on Carrie. Unreflectively riding the wave of events, she seldom looks back.

The entire pattern is repeated when Carrie leaves Drouet for Hurstwood. Rather than rehearse what has already been shown, however, it should prove far more useful to reflect on Dreiser's use of the timeless love triangle, also the subject of Aeschylus's drama. Drouet first introduces Carrie into conversation with Hurstwood as an object with which to impress the manager: "Thus was Carrie's name bandied about in the most frivolous and gay of places, and that also when the little toiler was bemoaning her narrow lot, which was almost inseparable from the early stages of this, her unfolding fate." Ironically, it is not her name which has been bandied—Drouet identifies her as "a little peach"—and the two men continue to objectify her in conversation after conversation. Though each desires her, the idea is to present the facade of male indifference buttressed by the eternal notion that women are beneath notice. However, fated through Drouet's ambition to cultivate Hurstwood's favor, Carrie meets the manager. He compares favorably to the drummer, an indefatigable flirt who promises to marry Carrie but delivers only material comfort and spiritual neglect. Hurstwood does the same with his own wife.

During one of Drouet's trips Hurstwood visits Carrie and begins his seduction. One is reminded of Aegisthus, who seduces Clytemnestra while Agamemnon wars at Troy. Like Drouet, Hurstwood uses Carrie's restlessness as a substitute for affection for him:

"You are not satisfied with life, are you?"

"No," she answered weakly.

He saw he was master of the situation—he felt it. He reached over and touched her hand.

"You mustn't," she exclaimed, jumping up.

"I didn't intend to," he answered easily.

She did not run away, as she might have. She did not terminate the interview, but he drifted off into a pleasant field of thought with the readiest grace. Not long after, he rose to go and she felt that he was in power.

The same scene has occurred in countless works in all ages. Here it is significant that Carrie relinquishes her power willingly. She opens the door for the manager to press his suit. For example, Hurstwood contrives, through his social connections, to make Carrie's first stage appearance a success. His acquaintances respond "like Romans to a senator's call." She shines in her performance and the secret rift between the rival men deepens: "He walked away from the drummer and his prize, at parting feeling as if he could slay him and not regret.... 'The fool,' he said, now hating Drouet. 'The idiot. I'll do him yet. And that quick. We'll see tomorrow."

Though himself a force over Carrie, Hurst-wood too subjects himself to fate and chance through prior choices. As manager of a popular Chicago watering hole, Hurstwood's most important role is to mingle with the affluent clientele. His life is entirely defined by social protocol. Struck in a loveless marriage, he dares not make mistakes:

He could not complicate his home life, because it might affect his relations with his employers. They wanted no scandals. A man, to hold his position, must have a dignified manner, a clean record, a respectable home anchorage. Therefore he was circumspect in all he did, and whenever he appeared in the public ways of an afternoon on Sunday. it was with his wife and sometimes his children. He would visit the local resorts or those nearby in Wisconsin and spend a few stiff, polished days, strolling about conventional places doing conventional things. He knew the need of it.

Like Agamemnon about to stroll on the carpet, Hurstwood "deprecate[s] the folly of the thing" that will bring about his own doom. Ironically, he knows of others who have been exposed: "It was all right to do it—all men do those things—but why wasn't he careful? A man can't be too careful. He lost sympathy for the man that made a mistake and was found out." But in his pursuit of Carrie he forgets his objectivity: "That worthy, on the contrary, had formulated no plan of action, though he listened, almost unreservedly, to his desires." Dreiser's narrator explains the unwritten laws with which the manager trifles:

Many individuals are so constituted that their only thought is to obtain pleasure and shun responsibility. They would like, butterfly-like, to wing forever in a summer garden, flitting from flower to flower, and sipping honey for their sole delight. They have no feeling that any result which might flow from their action should concern them. They have no conception of the necessity of a well-organized society wherein all shall accept a certain quota of responsibility and all realize a reasonable amount of happiness. . . . Many such an individual is so lashed by necessity and law that he falls fainting to the ground, dies hungry in the gutter or rotting in the jail and it never once flashes across his mind that he has been lashed only in so far as he has persisted in attempting to trespass the boundaries which necessity sets.

The repeated word "necessity," a rough equivalent with the Greek ananke, connotes those things which are necessary for the greater good and so subject the individual. In the case of transgression, "life has been misunderstood." We have seen that Hurstwood understands well society's rules, and he has hitherto abided by them. His lapse, then, comes not through ignorance nor even some kind of character flaw. It is a miscalculation, a hamartia:

He did not feel that he was doing anything which would introduce a complication into his life. His position was secure, his home life, if not satisfactory, was at least undisturbed; his personal liberty rather untrammeled. Carrie's love represented only so much added pleasure. He would enjoy this new gift over and above his ordinary allowance of pleasure. He would be happy with her and his own affairs would go on as they had—undisturbed.

His literal moira, or "ordinary allowance of pleasure"—a dispensation from the urns of Zeus—fails to satisfy the manager. Many have seen his theft of ten thousand dollars from the tavern safe, the dramatic center of the novel, as the nexus of Hurstwood's decline. Yet it is only the peripeteia, the reversal of fortune brought on by this earlier hamartia, since he only does it in order to fly with her. His wife has found his affair out; she has locked him out of the house and obtained a lawyer; and she holds most of his assets in her name. He finds he cannot do anything to prevent the turn of events but "think," delay, and "wish over and over that some solution would offer itself." He, in his turn, has become "like a fly in a web." Even at this point there are avenues open to him—like obtaining his own lawyer—he does nothing until the fateful night he finds the safe ajar.

We might justifiably wonder if anything besides love or desire brings on Hurstwood's hamartia. In his case, the Greek adage "Whom gods destroy they first make mad" provides a clue. He even agrees to marry Carrie (who doesn't yet know he is already married) to convince her to leave Drouet:

His passion had gotten to that stage now where it was no longer colored with reason. He did not trouble over little barriers of this sort in the face of so much loveliness. . . . He would promise anything, everything, and trust to fortune to disentangle him. He would make a try for Paradise, whatever might be the result. He would be happy, by the Lord, if it cost all honesty of statement, all abandonment of truth.

Dreiser's narrator refers several times to Hurstwood's loss of reason, expressed here as ate, delusion rooted in excess. Try as he might, he cannot induce the same rational loss in Carrie: "She was listening, smiling, approving, and yet not finally agreeing. This was due to a lack of power on Hurstwood's part, a lack of that majesty of passion that sweeps the mind from its seat, fuses and melts all arguments and theories into a tangled mass and destroys, for the time being, the reasoning power." Meanwhile, his lack of reason, or ability to make sound decisions takes on a unique form of determination.

Hurstwood's moment of crisis at the safe is almost painfully drawn out in the novel. As he closes up one night he discovers the safe has been left open by a careless cashier. The temptation to steal the money inside, thus enabling him to fulfill his rebellious fantasies, prompts him to remove the money and transport it back and forth from the safe to his office. The narrator mixes philosophic commentary right in with the spectacle:

The wavering of a mind under such circumstances is an almost inexplicable thing and yet it is absolutely true. Hurstwood could not bring himself to act definitely. He wanted to think about it—to ponder it over, to decide whether it were best. He was drawn by such a keen desire for Carrie, driven by such a state of turmoil in his own affairs, that he thought constantly that it would be best, and yet he wavered. . . .

He went over and restored the empty boxes. Then he pushed the door to for somewhere near the sixth time. He wavered, thinking, putting his hand to his brow.

While the money was in his hand, the lock clicked. It had sprung. Did he do it? He grabbed at the knob and pulled vigorously. It had closed. . . .

At once he became the man of action.

If we apply the concepts of the famous passage from Chapter VIII, in which Dreiser's narrator discourses on the power of instinct versus free will, directly to this scene, we see a strange consistency. The most prominent characteristic of both passages is "wavering"; if we take Hurst-wood to be representative man here, his "reason," or need "to think it over" is at war with his "desire" for the rewards the money will bring, most notably Carrie. In his paralysis, or inability to act on his own, he becomes a "wisp in the wind", settling where the "forces of life" deposit him. Note the extreme ambiguity of the sequence "the lock clicked. It had sprung. Did he do it?" It is almost as if, in the face of his refusal to act, the "forces of life" deprive Hurstwood of agency and act for him. But on the other hand, we see him decide that "he would do it before he could change his mind." A paragraph later, he says, "I wish I hadn't done that. By the lord, that was a mistake." Hurstwood himself seems to accept responsibility at that moment. But at this crucial juncture, Dreiser's usually overobliging narrator refuses to decide the issue. We get cryptic phrasing and rhetorical questioning, just when we want answers.

In the face of such narrative ambivalence, there is nothing for readers to do but reach into their own repertoires, beliefs, and experiences, and extrapolate an answer. The Greeks might compromise by citing ananke, necessity—the fate that manifests itself, not remotely like moira, but in moments of crisis—as the force at work here, but modern readers have access to no such concept. For the reader that believes in free will and responsibility of the actor, Hurstwood is guilty. For the reader who sees life as ultimately beyond personal control, the manager is innocent. At least, these are the apparent choices, and while readers can afford to defer their decisions indefinitely, most critics do take a side.

But consider again Dreiser's stance in Chapter VIII. He tells us that man is guided sometimes by reason, sometimes by instinct, "erring" and "retrieving" at intervals. It is doubtful, during Hurstwood's apparent surrender to instinct,that Dreiser would apply the categories of guilt and innocence to Hurstwood at all, since "on the tiger no responsibility rests." It also seems likely that on another night Hurstwood might just as well have not taken the money, and gone home. As the narrator tells us, "The true ethics of the situation never once occurred to him." His only fear is whether he will be caught or not. And it is this fear that drives him to flight and the kidnapping of Carrie, and indeed, to his eventual death. At the moment he abdicates choice at the critical juncture (the closing of the safe), his subsequent choices begin to dwindle to the vanishing point. He never even allows himself to consider another course of action. And the fact that he appears determined for the rest of the novel tends to obscure the fact that choice has at some point been available, even though the protagonist does not avail himself of it. A third choice, somewhere between guilt and innocence, now becomes available to readers—that the protagonist's deterministic muddle is, in reality, self-imposed. Outside forces don't deprive him of choice, he won't accept choice, the primary manifestation of free will. Thus a kind of "variable" determinism becomes viable: the world goes on even when we refuse to, and can affect us whether we act or not.

After detectives track the fleeing couple and force the ex-manager to return most of the stolen money in exchange for amnesty from prosecution (all without Carrie's knowledge), they settle in New York City. Thus begins Hurstwood's mental and moral decline. He cannot accept that burning his bridges through the original theft has irrevocably lowered his position in society. He rejects the idea of becoming a bartender. Like Agamemnon, he ensures ate (ruin) and nemesis (retribution) by his hubris (pride beyond merit). And like Odysseus returned home, he will eventually be humbled into beggary, though no god intervenes to reserve his transformation. He asphyxiates himself in a fifteen-cent flophouse, repeating the mantra he had learned looking for work, "What's the use?" In other words, he despairs that he can take effectual action any longer and chooses the only option left, a "distinguished decision" to choose the time and manner of his death, thus investing it with some vestige of honor.

In the face of Hurstwood's apathy Carrie realizes that "she herself had been drifting." He even meets her suggestions that she might obtain work as an actress with derision:

"If I were you I wouldn't think of it. It's not much of a profession for a woman."

"It's better than going hungry," said Carrie. "If you don't want me to do that, why don't you get work yourself?"

There was no answer ready for this. He had got used to the suggestion.

"Oh, let up," he answered.

The result of this was that she secretly resolved to try. It didn't matter about him. She was not going to be dragged into poverty and worse to suit him. She could act.

Her resolution to act, in the dual sense of the word, marks the parting of their ways, and, more importantly, a major turning point of growth and fortune for Carrie. Even against the painful memories of her job searches in Chicago and repeated rebuffs at agencies and theaters, Carrie obtains a place as a chorus girl. Interestingly, though the play is not named, the chorus girls wear "pink fleshings," "imitation golden helmets," "military accoutrements," and carry short swords and shields. Carrie's looks and energy soon earn her the captaincy of the line, complete with "epaulets and a belt of silver." These "new laurels" mark the former country girl-turned-mistress as a warrior in her own right. Her rise to fame and fortune is marked by hard work and chance events. The contrast to Hurstwood's fatalism, his retreat to the "Lethean waters" of newspapers and Carrie's old rocking chair, and his lotus-eater-like addiction to ease emphasizes the crucial role of free will in engaging the machineries of fate and chance.

By a creative blurring of disciplinary boundaries, then, of adopting the critical tools of classicists, which were well known to nineteenth and early twentieth-century writers but more and more alien to literary critics today, we can explore the idea that the works of so-called literary naturalists may not be, as has been charged over and over, wildly inconsistent. They may instead follow an ancient paradigm—one that explained human existence for a near-millennium and continued to occupy the likes of philosopher Lequyer, Renouvier, Bosanquet, and Bergson in France and C. S. Peirce and William James in America—and one that fell into disuse only relatively recently with disciplinary shifts and splits in the academy.

Source: Shawn St. Jean, "'Aye, Chance, Free Will, and Necessity': Sister Carrie's Literary Interweavings," in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 3, Spring, 2001, pp. 240-56.


Beach, Joseph Warren, The Twentieth Century Novel: Studies in Technique, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1932.

Dyer, Daniel, Jack London: A Biography, Scholastic, 2002.

The Jack London Online Collection, (accessed July 18, 2008).

Lee, Hermione, Edith Wharton, Knopf, 2007.

The Mount: Edith Wharton's Estate & Gardens, (accessed July 18, 2008).

Pizer, Donald, Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

Sand, Andrea J., "Wharton's The Age of Innocence," in the Explicator, Vol. 62, No. 1, Fall 2003, p. 23.

St. Jean, Shawn, "'Aye, Chance, Free Will, and Necessity': Sister Carrie's Literary Interweavings," in the Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 3, Spring 2001, pp. 240-56.


Brown, Frederick, Zola: A Life, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

This detailed account of Émile Zola's life demonstrates his importance as a writer, thinker, and political figure. This biography took fifteen years to compile and includes information from Zola's personal correspondence.

Fast, Howard, ed., The Best Short Stories of Theodore Dreiser, Elephant, 1989.

Although he is known mainly for his novels, Dreiser was also a short-story writer. Here, Fast collects the best examples of Dreiser's short fiction.

Fleissner, Jennifer L., Women, Compulsion, Modernity: The Moment of American Naturalism, University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Fleissner examines gender roles, history, domesticity, representations of women in naturalist literature, and the literary output of women during the naturalist period.

Kershaw, Alex, Jack London: A Life, Griffin, 1999.

Kershaw examines London's exciting, short life in this fast-paced biography. He includes London's literary efforts, his adventurous spirit, his social and environmental concerns, and his unpopular views.

Norris, Frank, The Best Short Stories of Frank Norris, Ironweed Press, 1998.

This is the first collection of Norris's short fiction, and critics praise the publisher's selection of these fourteen stories from the more than sixty available. Norris's naturalistic tendencies are evident, even though these stories are a departure from the novels for which he is better known.

Wertheim, Stanley, A Stephen Crane Encyclopedia,Green-wood, 1997.

In this single volume, students will find information about Crane's short life along with analysis of his works, characters, settings, and prominent issues of his work and times.


views updated Jun 27 2018


Naturalism was one of a wave of "isms" that swept through the cultural world of the late nineteenth century. Its most vocal advocate was the French author Émile Zola (18401902), a prolific novelist, dramatist, essayist, and critic. Highly controversial in the period between the heyday of realism (18301860) and the emergence of early forms of modernism at the end of the century, naturalism in France was so closely identified with Zola's fiction that few claimed the label after his death. The widespread translation of his work, however, gave Zola a global influence that led to the emergence of naturalist schools around the world. The influence of Zola's naturalism was particularly prominent in Russia, which in the nineteenth century had very strong cultural ties to France; in western European nations; and in the United States. The naturalist charge in the United States was led by novelist and critic Frank Norris (18701902), dubbed "the boy Zola" by contemporary critics. Although Norris is now considered somewhat of a secondary figure in U.S. literature, the naturalist aesthetic he popularized influenced major twentieth-century writers such as Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and John Steinbeck.

In popular use, the term naturalism is sometimes used to mean fiction that exaggerates the techniques of realism, sacrificing prose style and depth of characterization for an exhaustive description of the external, observable world. Literary critics often accept this view, but add to it a laundry list of features used to identify the naturalist novel:

  • a deterministic plot of decline or degeneration, where characters are crushed by the forces of a universe they can neither understand nor control;
  • attenuation of exceptional or heroic characters, so that each character is a balance of merits and flaws; the critic Philippe Hamon calls this an "aesthetic of normative neutralization" (p. 102);
  • attention to lurid or squalid subject matter, particularly focused on the aspects of human experience conceived to be base or instinctual; main characters are often perverted by uncontrollable appetites, drives, or lusts;
  • characters drawn from the working classin U.S. naturalism particularly, perversion and degeneration are associated with working-class characters;
  • a modern or contemporary setting, most often urban or industrial, rather than the geographically or temporally distant settings favored by adventure and romance fiction;
  • sociological research by the author, including on-site investigation of a workplace, subculture, or location, expert advice, and incorporation of specialized vocabularies.

This list is derived in large part from Zola's most emblematic (and best-selling) novels, such as L'assommoir (1877), Nana (1880), Germinal (1885), and La bête humaine (1890), and closely matches other naturalist monuments, such as Frank Norris's McTeague (1899).

Origins of the Term

The precise meaning of the term naturalism varies across the disciplines: a literary critic, philosopher, theologian, and political scientist would each use the term in a slightly different way. In its broadest sense, naturalism is a doctrine holding that the physical world operates according to laws discernible through empirical science. The naturalist method, modeled after nineteenth-century innovations in the experimental sciences, involves informed, systematic observation of the material world. For the naturalist thinker, human beings are nothing more than a part of this worldlike rocks, plants, and animals, they are subject to the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, which govern human behavior as inexorably as they govern the natural world. Naturalism is thus materialist and anti-idealist in that is does not recognize the existence of nonmaterial or nonobservable phenomena (such as a spiritual realm or higher moral law); it is also antihumanist in that it grants no exceptional status to human beings. Every action taken by a human being, according to the strict naturalist view, has a cause in the physical plane; human behavior is thus entirely determined by the laws of cause and effect in the material world.

In applying this theory to literature, Zola drew on the work of an older contemporary, the French philosopher, historian, and literary critic Hippolyte Taine (18281893). Taine's monumental Histoire de la littérature anglaise (18631864; History of English literature)a philosophical treatise disguised as literary criticismsought to demonstrate that a nation's culture and character are products of material causes; as he put it in a famous quip, "vice and virtue are products, like vitriol and sugar" (p. 3). Taine argued that works of art are the products of three factors: race, moment, and milieu. Taine's English translator renders this phrase as "race, epoch, and surroundings" (p. 12), though the French term race is much closer to the English words nation or people than to race. In the analysis of literature, Taine claimed, "we have but a mechanical problem; the total effect is a result, depending entirely on the magnitude and direction of the preceding causes" (p. 13).

Zola's Understanding of Naturalism

While Taine sought to develop a scientific method for the analysis of literature, Zola's naturalism was a method for writing novels; where Taine sought to understand a nation through its literary output, Zola used naturalist philosophy as a basis for creating characters, and with them a portrait of French society in the second half of the nineteenth century. Combining Taine's theories with research developments in the biological and behavioral sciences, Zola conceived of the novel as a laboratory for the study of human behavior under the influence of heredity and environment. By his mid-twenties, having published several novels, he began to plot out his massive life's work, a twenty-novel series entitled The Rougon-Macquart a work to rival the vast Human Comedy of Honoré de Balzac (17991850), to be based in science rather than intuition.

Zola tirelessly promoted his theories in columns that appeared in newspapers, magazines, and journals. Unfortunately, the most widely anthologized expression of this theory is also among the least thoughtful. This essay, "The Experimental Novel" (1880), is essentially an extended paraphrase of the physician Claude Bernard's influential 1865 work, Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine. The essay is now regarded as historically interesting if theoretically naïve, and contemporariesincluding former disciples of Zola, such as the author Henry Céard (18511924)ridiculed it as a misunderstanding of Bernard's work.

To take this essay as representative of Zola's thinking about naturalism would be a serious error. Naturalism in literature was as much a promotional concept as a literary-critical one, and the range, variety, and energy of Zola's writing about the term indicates he was perhaps less interested in providing a final definition than in keeping alive the heated debates about naturalism. As a literary critic, theater critic, and essayist, Zola was a provocateur: he was strident, often caustic, and prone to dramatic and sensationalist gestures. Early in his career, Zola came to understand and exploit the value of notoriety; his first volleys of criticism were collected in 1866 under the title My Hatreds, and his unrepentant slogan "I am here to live out loud" is still occasionally cited by artists and activists. "The Experimental Novel"along with many of Zola's defenses of naturalismis best understood from this perspective: to criticize the essay for its lack of theoretical rigor is to miss entirely its brilliance as a provocation and a promotion.

If Zola's criticism is more confrontational than systematic, a broader look at his writing on naturalism nonetheless reveals several consistent ideas. First, Zola often claimed that the lurid, pornographic subject matter of many his novels was incidental to naturalism; what counted was the methodwhich, as his former disciple Céard observed, could hardly be called "experimental," but that nonetheless shared the careful, systematic observational methods of the emerging social sciences of psychology, sociology, and anthropology. For audiences that consumed Zola's novels as quickly as he could write them and for critics and government censors who called naturalism "putrid literature," the graphic content of the novels was naturalism's most salient feature, and Zola and his publishers often faced obscenity charges in France and abroad (cheap pulp editions with racy covers appeared in the United States as late as the 1950s). For Zola, however, unflinching analysis was the substance of naturalism.

A second, often overlooked theme that runs throughout Zola's writing on naturalism is his repeated association of naturalism and democracy. Perplexed scholars have called this connection a double dysfunction, a strange marriage, a paradox: nineteenth-century theories of biological determinism seem hardly compatible with the Enlightenment ideals of citizenship and self-government. In the words of the critic Harold Kaplan, for naturalist literature in the United States, "democracy seemed to require strong idealizations to support free choice" (p. 37). But for Zola, naturalism in literature and democracy in politics were logical, even necessary evolutionary developments. Zola likened the outsized protagonists of Romanticism to kings and princes, out of place in the modern world. For him naturalism, like democracy, was a representationfaithful if at times unflatteringof the common people.

Critical Debates

Naturalism was politically controversial in its heydayconservatives called Zola a "literary anarchist," while liberals saw his work as a "calumny of the people"and its place in literary history has been hotly debated by scholars. By the midtwentieth century, three major strands of thinking about naturalism's legacies had emerged in Europe. In the early part of the century, Zola was adopted by the French left and elevated to the status of one of France's great writers. Thanks in part to Zola's courageous role in the Dreyfus affair, a political scandal that rocked France in the 1890s, naturalismonce reviled for its unsympathetic portrayals of the working classwas reassessed as an eye-opening portrait of the exploitation of the weak. As a result Zola, spurned by the literary establishment and prosecuted by the French government during his lifetime, was eventually laid to rest in the Pantheon, France's secular cathedral to the "Great Men" of France.

Twentieth-century critics who favored the difficult modernist writing of James Joyce or Marcel Proust, however, were suspicious of this popularity. Naturalism's accessibility and faith in science were incompatible with the modernist turn toward self-consciousness, interiority, opacity, and style; from the modernist perspective, Zola's naturalism looked like a kind of dead end of realism, an overextension of realist strategies at a time when modernist artists were turning away from representational art forms. As the critic James McFarlane put it, naturalism "exhausted itself taking an inventory of the world while it was still relatively stable, [and as a result] could not possibly do justice to the phenomena of its disruption" (p. 80).

A third response to Zola and naturalism is best represented by the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács (18851971), a prominent figure in leftist aesthetic debates in Europe in the midtwentieth century. Lukács affirmed the common antithesis between realism and modernism, but saw naturalism as a form of modernism, not an outgrowth of realism. The differences between naturalism and modernism were, for Lukács, merely superficial differences of style. On a more substantive levelfor Lukács, the ideological levelnaturalism is a form of modernism. As he put it, "There is a continuity from Naturalism to the Modernism of our day"a continuity of "underlying ideological principles" (1963, p. 29). In contrast to "critical" realism's "dialectical unity," both naturalism and modernism, despite their widely divergent styles, deny the possibility of understanding and action, instead presenting the human condition as one of alienated subjectivity, isolation, and psychopathology. For Lukács, thenin spite of Zola's courageous politics (see his 1940 essay "The Zola Centenary")naturalism was, like modernism, "not the enrichment, but the negation of art" (1963, p. 46).

Naturalism in the United States

Naturalism was a short-lived phenomenon in France, where it was closely associated with Zola himself. Of Zola's acolytes (known as the "Médan group, after the location of Zola's country estate), only one, Guy de Maupassant (18501893), has achieved a lasting reputation. Although short-lived, Zola's influence was global: his work was translated into nearly every language, and writers from Tokyo to Buenos Aires to Moscow saw in his work both a modern sensibility and a fierce critical edge. Scholars have long discussed naturalist literary movements in England, Russia, Germany, and Spain, but are still hard at work mapping naturalism's influence outside Europe: in the 1990s, two journals devoted to Zola and his legacy, Excavatio: Nouvelle Revue Émile Zola et le naturalisme and Les Cahiers Naturalistes, published a number of essays tracing naturalist movements, often short-lived, in eastern Europe, Asia, and South America.

The U.S. version of naturalism proved to be more enduring: the novelist Frank Norris succeeded in establishing naturalism as a permanent part of the lexicon of literary critics (in spite of his rather idiosyncratic view of naturalism as a magnification of Romanticism rather than a form of realism). Although naturalism was initially associated with Norris and his contemporaries Stephen Crane (18711900) and Jack London (18761916), a wide range of authors over the next seven decades have been shown to have been influenced by naturalism. As the U.S. scholar June Howard put it, "the name taken by a clearly defined, relatively short-lived movement in France [became] in America a broad term used by some writers and many critics to characterize a diverse group of works over a long period of time" (p. 30). The critic Donald Pizer, in particular, has mapped naturalism's influence on twentieth-century U.S. literature.

Although Norris also wrote adventure novels, his McTeague (1899), The Octopus (1901), and the posthumously published Vandover and the Brute (1914) are the touchstones of U.S. naturalism and were strongly influenced by Zola; some critics accused Norris of lifting passages directly from the French novelist. Although Crane's novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) is sometimes used to mark the beginning of naturalism in the United States, Norris's criticism established the term in an American context. Norris also used his influence as a reader at Doubleday to promote naturalism; his most notable success was Theodore Dreiser's masterpiece Sister Carrie (1900), which the publisher pursued on the strength of Norris's recommendation in spite of his own distaste for the book.

Beginning in the 1980s, U.S. naturalism saw a critical revival, as new theoretical developments led to a fresh perspective on the genreand indeed, on the notion of genre itself. For traditional literary criticism, focused largely on concerns of aesthetic merit and often, if implicitly, moral value, naturalism had been somewhat of a problem: as a genre, U.S. naturalism privileges blunt artlessness andlike Zolaposits an essentially amoral universe. Critical works such as Walter Benn Michaels's The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism, a tour de force of New Historicism, and June Howard's Form and History in American Literary Naturalism, broadly informed by the theoretical developments of structuralism and poststructuralism, examine naturalism as a complex meditation on cultural contradictions faced by U.S. culture at a pivotal moment in its history. Michaels, for example, sees both literary naturalism and debates about the gold standard as part of an entire culture's struggle with the relationship between the material and the ideala struggle that, for Michaels, is constitutive of personhood itself. Howard, drawing on the French philosopher Louis Althusser's notion of ideology, argues that naturalism was one way for turn-of-the-twentieth-century U.S. culture to process threatening contradictions in the social order, such as contradictions between the egalitarian ideals of democracy and prominent social and political inequalities of the period. For Howard, the most notable of these are the dominance of industrial capitalism and the increasingly visible presence of groupsa largely immigrant urban working class, women, and African Americansseeking to be included as agents in U.S. political life.

See also Literature ; Naturalism in Art and Literature ; Realism .


Hamon, Philippe. Texte et idéologie: Valeurs, hiérarchies et évaluations dans l'œuvre littéraire. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1984.

Howard, June. Form and History in American Literary Naturalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Kaplan, Harold. Power and Order: Henry Adams and the Naturalist Tradition in American Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Lukács, Georg. The Meaning of Contemporary Realism. Translated by John Mander and Necke Mander. London: Merlin Press, 1963.

. "The Zola Centenary." 1940. In his Studies in European Realism, pp. 8596. London: Merlin Press, 1972.

Masson, Pierre. Le Disciple et l'insurgé: Roman et politique à la Belle Époque. Lyon, France: Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 1987.

McFarlane, James. "The Mind of Modernism." In Modernism: 18901930, edited by Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane. New York: Penguin, 1976.

Michaels, Walter Benn. The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Mitterand, Henri. Zola et le naturalisme. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1986.

Pizer, Donald. The Theory and Practice of American Literary Naturalism: Selected Essays and Reviews. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993.

Schor, Naomi. Zola's Crowds. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

Taine, Hippolyte. History of English Literature. Translated by H. Van Laun. New York: Henry Holt, 1879.

Walcutt, Charles C. American Literary Naturalism, a Divided Stream. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956.

Jonathan P. Hunt


views updated May 17 2018


From its late-nineteenth-century beginnings, critics of American literary naturalism have disagreed, often violently, about its nature and value. Was the movement an exotic offshoot of a decadent French culture or was it a truthful response, after a quarter-century of "lying" by an older generation of writers, to the actual conditions of late-nineteenth-century American life? Did naturalism posit a human condition in which the individual was a powerless cipher at the mercy of natural forces, including his own animal brutishness, or did it permit the individual to retain at least vestiges of both free will and human dignity? And finally, was naturalism the last gasp of a naive nineteenth-century belief that experience could be objectively represented or did it look forward, in its significant components of the impressionistic and the surreal, to the nonrepresentational aesthetic of twentieth-century literary modernism?

These issues have been in dispute for over a century. What is indisputable, however, is that a number of American writers, from approximately the early 1890s to the opening of the First World War, are conventionally identified as "naturalists." This identification began in their own time either because a writer openly expressed enthusiasm for the work of Émile Zola, the principal theoretician and exponent of French naturalism (Frank Norris, e.g., occasionally playfully signed letters "The Boy Zola") or because a writer's subject matter of alcoholism, sexual passion, and personal disintegration closely resembled that of Zola (as was true of Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser). The term "naturalism," whether broadly applied to the major new writing of 1890–1910 or used more pointedly to designate the nature of particular works during this period, has stuck, despite the fact that for much of its history the term has also often served as a sign of disapproval and opprobrium. To describe a novel or play as naturalistic was to indirectly accuse its writer of sensationalistic intent, shallow thinking, and inept artistry. Nevertheless, when used with sufficient care and discrimination, the term still serves the useful purpose of suggesting that a group of writers participated in similar ways in a specific cultural moment and that an attempt to describe these ways may cast light both upon their work and the moment.


The leading American naturalists are traditionally held to be Frank Norris (1870–1902), Stephen Crane (1871–1900), and Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945). Within the brief period from 1893 to 1901, these figures wrote the seminal works of American literary naturalism: Norris's Vandover and the Brute (1914; written 1894–1895), McTeague (1899), and The Octopus (1901); Crane's Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893) and The Red Badge of Courage (1895); and Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) and Jennie Gerhardt (1911; written principally 1901–1902). Of course, there were precursors—writers, for example, such as Rebecca Harding Davis (1831–1910), Harold Frederic (1856–1898), and Hamlin Garland (1860–1940)—whose fiction occasionally depicts the harsh and destructive conditions of the American farm or factory. But given the sporadic nature of these efforts, the movement does appear to arise suddenly in the early 1890s as a group of young writers born shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War come of age. And it seems just as suddenly to disappear around the turn of the century. Norris and Crane died tragically young, and Dreiser, dispirited by the reception of Sister Carrie (its own publisher in effect suppressed it), retreated from novel writing for over a decade. The early demise of the movement, however, is more appearance than reality. Dreiser did return with a number of major novels beginning with The Financier in 1912. The work of Jack London (1876–1916) during the first decade of the century, though earlier often dismissed as "popular," is today receiving more and more serious attention, with his naturalism one phase of that interest. In addition, it is increasingly recognized that two of the major women writers of the period, Kate Chopin (1851–1904) and Edith Wharton (1862–1937), produced—in Chopin's The Awakening (1899) and Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905)—novels with powerfully rendered naturalistic themes despite the disparity between the upper-class worlds they portray and the conventional lower-class setting of a naturalistic novel. And finally, though the subject lies outside the range of this discussion, naturalism continued as a major thread in American fiction during the 1920s and 1930s—in the 1920s in the early work of John Dos Passos (1896–1970), Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961), and William Faulkner (1897–1962), and in the 1930s in the novels of James T. Farrell (1904–1979), John Steinbeck (1902–1968), and Richard Wright (1908–1960).

Several characteristics of specific works by Stephen Crane, one of the earliest American naturalists, can serve as a useful introduction to the late-nineteenth-century phase of the movement. Crane's sketches "An Experiment in Misery" (1894) and "In the Depths of a Coal Mine" (1894) vividly dramatize the overwhelming impact of post–Civil War industrialization and urbanization upon the nation's material and psychic existence. In the first, a young man undertakes an experiment in urban reconnaissance. In the guise of a penniless bum, he journeys to the Bowery (New York's infamous skid row) in an effort to duplicate for one night (and thus understand the nature of ) the lives of the human debris inhabiting the slums and ghettos of America's greatest metropolis. In the second, Crane, in the role of reporter, descends to the depths of a Pennsylvania coal mine and encounters the backbreaking labor, darkness, and cold that characterize the dehumanizing and almost satanic industrial processes of the age. Both sketches are constructed in the form of a venture into an unknown world by a worldly young man who is nevertheless shocked by what he finds—shocked, that is, not that there are flophouses and mines but that their actual conditions, their vermin and cold, for example, bite deeply both into the body and mind of someone actually experiencing them. In these conditions, he realizes, human beings have no "higher" life—no capacity for art, religion, or love; they exist almost entirely in response to the terrible physical demands of the moment. Humans have become, as in Edwin Markham's famous poem of the period, "The Man with the Hoe" (1899), a kind of brute.

Crane's major novels also participate in this naturalistic desire to make known to an unknowing, largely middle-class audience the new and often ignored truths of life in post–Civil War America. In Maggie the reader is immersed in the day-to-day struggle for existence of a Lower East Side Irish American family whose drinking, physical bullying, and moral blindness accompany their downward path—a family for whom, as Crane wrote in several inscriptions to the novel, "environment shapes life regardless." And in The Red Badge of Courage, Crane fictionalizes an actual Civil War battle not as a specific historical event but as the permanent condition of youth encountering, and not entirely overcoming, such tests of mind and spirit as fear, anger, and self-doubt. For Henry Fleming the battle often takes the shape of an opposition of huge, almost anonymous forces in which the powerless individual combatant feels himself to be—as the powerless might feel in many late-nineteenth-century social contexts—"in a moving box" bound by "iron laws of tradition and law" (chap. 3, p.40).

The work of Frank Norris suggests another aspect of the naturalist writer as "truth teller" about contemporary American life. Whereas Crane principally uses metaphor and symbol to carry the burden of thematic expression, Norris, while he too relies on this device, wishes the reader to know more fully and openly the scientific, philosophical, and social truths underlying his specific portrayals. Émile Zola, in his essay on the scientific origins of naturalism "The Experimental Novel" (1880), maintained that the modern scientific—that is, naturalistic—novel not only depicts the actual conditions of life but does so, for the first time in history, armed with a full and truthful—that is, scientific—explanation of these conditions. And since contemporary science had proclaimed that it was the combined forces of heredity and environment that determined any human condition, it was the function of the novelist to create a kind of scientific experiment: characters would be provided with a specific heredity and environment and the novelist would observe and record their response to these forces. Norris probably did not read "The Experimental Novel," but he did read and admire two of Zola's novels in which he adapted his stark theory into vivid fiction—L'Assommoir (1877) and Germinal (1885). In the first, members of a working-class Paris family are decimated by hereditary alcoholism; in the second, a miner and his family are destroyed while participating in a futile strike against all-powerful mine owners. Norris's McTeague portrays the San Francisco dentist McTeague and his wife, Trina, as they are brought low by hereditary defects—alcoholism for him, greed for her. And in The Octopus, the first novel in his incomplete Trilogy of the Wheat, a ruthless monopolistic railroad crushes the wheat farmers of California's San Joaquin Valley. Norris in both novels is at pains to introduce themes that complicate and mitigate the stark naturalism of a belief that humankind is completely at the mercy of biological conditions or social power. Yet the naturalism present in his explicit commentary on these conditions, as well as in such climatic scenes as the drunken McTeague murdering his wife or wheat farmers shot down by railroad agents, is nevertheless central to each work.

Inseparable in Norris's mind from his conviction, expressed in his essay "The Responsibilities of the Novelist" (1903) that "the People" must receive from a novelist "not a lie, but the Truth" (p. 8) was his belief that the truth about life included human sexual experience. Of course, literary expression had always included sexual elements, though usually as an adjunct of themes of high romantic passion, burlesque humor, or moral purity. For Norris and other naturalists, however, sexual desire or fear and the social pressures and consequences attendant on sexual expression—these and other issues arising from sex as a principal arena of biological and social experience—became major fictional strains in their own right. Maggie must sell herself on the streets to live, and Carrie learns that her sexual attractiveness can serve as a path to freedom and success. Hilma Tree (in Norris's The Octopus) and Dreiser's Jennie Gerhardt are feminine fecundity personified, and though McTeague desires Trina and Hurstwood desires Carrie sexually, neither man is condemned for this desire. Aided by a Darwinian climate of forthrightness (after all, Darwin had written a full book on the importance of sexual selection in evolution) and by a gradual loosening of Victorian proprieties, the naturalists now sought, as Dreiser noted in his 1903 essay "True Art Speaks Plainly," to write within the broad claim that "the extent of all reality is in the realm of the author's pen, and a true picture of life, honestly and reverentially set down, is both moral and artistic whether it offends the conventions or not" (p. 156).

Because of Dreiser's long career (his last two novels appeared in the mid-1940s) and the acknowledged greatness of Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy (1925), his work has served for almost a century as a focal point in discussions of American literary naturalism. His fiction is also especially significant because he introduces into American naturalism the theme of authenticity that was to play an important role in its twentieth-century phase. Both Crane and Norris had middle-class, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant roots. Their visits to slums, mines, and factories were in the form and spirit of "research," and their fiction occasionally reveals in its irony and condescension their distance from their subject matter. Dreiser, however, stemmed from an immigrant, German Catholic background. During his youth he and his large family were poor and struggled to survive, whether in small Indiana towns, working-class Chicago, or down-and-out New York. Carrie's and Jennie's stories derive from those of his sisters Emma and Mame, who had worked in menial jobs and had had affairs and gotten pregnant, and they also reflect his own experience of hardship, insecurity, and the fear of going under. When Dreiser wrote in "True Art Speaks Plainly" that "the sum and substance of literary as well as social morality may be expressed in three words—tell the truth" (p. 155), he was echoing Frank Norris's belief that the novelist must be a truth teller. But for Dreiser the "truth" was not only the subject and themes of literary naturalism but also a deeply felt response to these conditions.

It was this aspect of Dreiserian naturalism—his demonstration that one did not have to "travel" to become a writer, that whatever the seeming poverty of one's background one could explore it in detail and depth and find significant meaning—that made naturalism so potent a force in later twentieth-century American writing. Two social groups in particular—racial and immigrant ethnic minorities—adopted Dreiser as a model of authenticity, of the legitimacy of their efforts to represent the specific conditions of their own lives. During the 1930s this Dreiserian model is clearly reflected in two "classics" of twentieth-century American naturalism—James T. Farrell's portrayal of Chicago Irish life in his Studs Lonigan Trilogy (1932–1935) and Richard Wright's account of African American South Side Chicago in Native Son (1940).

Another significant aspect of Dreiserian naturalism is his confirmation of the tendency, already apparent in Norris's novels, to make the naturalistic novel openly and heavily a vehicle of ideological expression. Norris, borrowing fully from contemporary evolutionary ideas, had constructed his first two novels, Vandover and the Brute and McTeague, in relation to beliefs about the persistence of the animal in humankind, and his last two, The Octopus and The Pit (published posthumously in 1903) on complementary beliefs about the role of natural forces in human affairs. Dreiser, deeply influenced by Herbert Spencer's concept of social evolution, depicted urban life as a complex, heterogeneous, competitive maelstrom in which the strong swim and the weak sink—as in the rise of Carrie and the fall of Hurstwood, for example. For the two novels of the Cowperwood Trilogy that he finished during his early career—The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914)—Cowperwood, who is an amoral Nietzschean manipulator of people and money, is portrayed as an inevitable end product of Spencer's concept that all life is a struggle for existence.

American naturalism thus offered itself, as it emerged in the work of a group of brilliant young 1890s writers, as a fresh perception of a new world. Free from the restrictions of previous generations concerning both the proper subject matter of literature and the conclusions about life that could be drawn from that subject matter, they believed that they could and should depict the actualities of American experience—not only the ways that most people lived in cities and farms and shops and factories but what they thought and felt as they lived their daily lives. This belief contained not only the assumption that there was value in rendering in detail and with precision, somewhat as a scientist might, the observed characteristics of American life but that there was a causal connection between these conditions and the nature and destiny of an individual life.

Once said, however, this statement demands immediate qualification, since it appears to imply a "school" with some agreement as to method and purpose, as was indeed true to some degree of the group of French naturalists who gathered around Zola and his philosophy of literature in the 1870s. American naturalism, however, was from the first leaderless, centerless, and without a governing body of belief. In responding to a common condition and a common felt need, the first generation of naturalists often struck similar notes but seldom in any harmony.


Despite this lack of cohesion among American naturalist writers, early critics often sought to identify a single controlling belief within the movement, one usually phrased as a form of "pessimistic determinism." Vernon Louis Parrington, for example, in the third volume (1930) of his extremely influential Main Currents in American Thought, wrote that "Naturalism is pessimistic realism, with a philosophy that sets man in a mechanical world and conceives of him as victimized by that world" (p. 325). This belief—whether stated flatly (as by Parrington) or metaphorically (as by Malcolm Cowley in the title of his widely read essay "'Not Men': A Natural History of American Naturalism," 1947)—was almost universally accepted until the late 1950s. Its general effect on discussions of American naturalism was to suggest that the naturalism it described was a kind of taint in writers whom it had infected and was therefore responsible for whatever was superficially sensationalistic, thinly realized, and inadequately thought out in their work.

In 1956, however, Charles C. Walcutt published American Literary Naturalism: A Divided Stream, a critical study that stimulated a fresh look at naturalism in America. Walcutt held that despite Zola's acknowledged role in the origin of naturalism wherever it is found, the American phase of the movement also owes much to the persistence in American belief of earlier nineteenth-century Romantic strains, especially that of transcendentalism. American writers of the 1890s and later, Walcutt argued, accepted much of Zola's premise that humankind lived in a material universe in which it was controlled, often negatively, by the material conditions of existence. But, he went on, these writers also maintained an often contradictory (or at least paradoxical) belief, epitomized by Emersonian transcendentalism, in our capacity to direct the course of our own lives and in the social progress that can flow from that capacity. Walcutt then examined the work of American naturalists from Crane through the 1930s and concluded that there were few instances of "pure" naturalism. Rather, most putative naturalistic works comprised an uneasy mix of the two "streams" of early- and late-nineteenth-century thought, in which the competing claims of each stream upon the themes and form of the work produced novels that were in effect failed efforts to write naturalistic fiction.

Walcutt's reading of American naturalism represented several advances over previous efforts to interpret the movement as a whole. Rather than starting from the premise that naturalism in America was an intellectually thin and formulaic offshoot of French naturalism, he introduced into his account of its origins a firm basis in American thought and thus provided a clearer understanding of the popularity and longevity of the movement in America. And in positing a central and unresolved conflict in American naturalism between two competing systems of value, Walcutt helped promote the premise that specific works of American naturalism were far more complex thematically than had been held and that it was necessary to accept complexity as an aspect of American literary naturalism if works in the movement were to be properly understood.

It was no historical accident that Walcutt's study appeared when the New Criticism was at its height of popularity as a form of literary analysis; Walcutt's close reading of the interrelation of form and theme in specific naturalistic novels owes much to that method. Indeed, over the next two decades Crane's short stories and novels, because of their intricate interplay of irony and symbolism, received countless New Critical readings. The Red Badge of Courage became a kind of showpiece of the New Criticism applied to the novel form. Walcutt's thesis was indirectly supported by criticism of this kind in that much of it posited a novel whose author appeared to be uncertain whether he was affirming a universe in which individuals were mechanistically controlled or self-determining.

By the late 1970s a number of critics, responding to Walcutt's insights, had reexamined the basic naturalist texts for thematic strands related to earlier American beliefs and for their shaping of these into complex wholes. The criticism of Donald Pizer, from the early 1960s to the late 1990s, also played a role in this critical reorientation. Although stimulated by Walcutt's premise, Pizer, in books both on individual naturalists and on the movement as a whole, modified it in two important ways. Walcutt had argued that American naturalists were hindered from reaching their naturalistic goals by vestiges of older ideas in their beliefs; Pizer, however, held that the various impulses present in a naturalistic novel were a source of thematic density and fictional strength, and that a definition of American naturalism should therefore accommodate to the mixed nature of the movement. And unlike Walcutt, who had centered on early-nineteenth-century transcendentalism as the source of the "positive" element in American naturalism, Pizer found in specific naturalistic texts aspects of humanistic belief that varied in nature from work to work.

A third significant phase in the interpretation of American literary naturalism arose in the early 1980s, influenced by the emergence of the New Historicism and cultural studies as major critical strategies. In reaction to the ahistoricism of much of the theoretical interpretation that had dominated academic literary studies since the 1960s, both the New Historicism and cultural studies stressed that expression of any kind was inseparable from the culture that produced it. The writer, in a sense, did not write but was rather written upon, in ways usually unknown to himself, by the beliefs, values, and practices of his historical moment. This Marxist premise, which had been discredited in the 1930s by the crudity of its application, was now reinvigorated by the technique of an extremely close and sophisticated reading of the "cultural poetics" of a work—that is, its involuntary expression, through the language used to engage a cultural moment, of the underlying systems of belief of that moment.

Although this approach to the study of American naturalism has restimulated interest in the movement, it has also often had the less beneficial effect of returning its study to an emphasis on determinism. Earlier, during the first half of the twentieth century, critics had almost universally held that naturalistic writers consciously sought to impose a Darwinian-derived determinism on their material. The New Historicist or cultural critic modifies this notion to the belief that it is the culture itself that imposes its underlying values upon the naturalistic author and thus on the portrayal of characters. The weakness in this later conception as a critical strategy is that it usually has its origin in the critic's belief about conditions of race, class, gender, and similar issues during the period the critic is examining. Finding the culture flawed in these areas and assuming that the novelist is equally flawed, the critic invariably demonstrates the ways in which the novel unconsciously endorses the cultural hegemony of its day. Thus, for example, Walter Benn Michaels, a New Historicist critic, believes that Dreiser unconsciously expresses his support for a capitalistic economics of acquisition in Sister Carrie because Carrie desires, early in the novel, the material things that capitalism has to offer. But Carrie, later in the novel, after she has grown intellectually and emotionally, has desires beyond those for things and money, a complication in the interpretation of her character in its cultural setting that Michaels largely ignores.


These various ways of interpreting late-nineteenth-century American naturalism—from explanations that depend largely on its origins in French naturalism or on its deep roots in earlier American intellectual history or on its immersion in the culture of its own moment—suggest that the movement cannot be dealt with primarily on its own terms as a truthful representation of social reality. The naturalist, like all writers, is responsive to the literary conventions of the time—in this instance those that claim the superiority of a literature that accurately renders contemporary experience. But in functioning within these conventions, writers introduce into their effort strands of personal belief, value, and experience that have little to do with their supposed aims. Their works are not a mirror in the roadway, as Stendhal said of the French realist novel, but rather, like any other art work, a product of the complex interaction between a human intelligence and imagination and the specific world in which these function. The naturalists in this sense are no more "truthful" than any other novelist, except perhaps in expending greater attention to closely rendered social detail and to probability of motive. Other than these, their "truths" lie in the ability of their novels to convey believably the response of a distinctive mind and temperament to a distinctive condition.

Nevertheless, the major fiction by the major new writers of the 1890s, while not as easily characterized as is implied by Dreiser's and Norris's admonition that the writer should simply tell the truth, does share several significant elements of theme and effect and thus can be construed as participating in a specific literary movement. One such shared element is the one implied by the shock and outrage that greeted much of the new writing of this period, a response that arose from the writer's dramatization of the disparity between the life led by most Americans and the conventional rhetoric of the American Dream. Whether Hamlin Garland depicting an exhausted, beaten-down midwestern farmer or Dreiser detailing the mechanical, empty existence of a factory girl or Norris portraying the ruination of workers and small landholders by a huge monopoly, American naturalists openly challenged the premise that the nation was a land of opportunity, equality, and freedom. Since this premise was so deeply held as to constitute, in the words of later historians, a "civil religion," it is no wonder that those challenging it were accused of a form of heresy. Norris and Dreiser had their early novels delayed or suppressed, Crane had to publish Maggie privately, and cries of dismay greeted almost all their work on its appearance. ("We must destroy this race of Norrises," one reviewer cried after reading McTeague.) Much of this early negative criticism also stemmed, of course, from the naturalists' violation of contemporary standards of what was proper in fiction. But then as now standards of taste are often inseparable from ideals of decorum which are themselves based on deeply held social and political beliefs. Naturalistic fiction shocked much of its middle-class audience not merely because (as one critic complained) it portrayed characters one would not invite to dinner but because its depiction of a dysfunctional society was a threat to both the material and psychic well being of this audience.

Another shared characteristic of the writing of this period is related to a major difference between French and American naturalists. With the notable exception of Norris in McTeague, American naturalists did not adopt Zola's stress, as in his Rougon-Macquart series, on hereditary causes of individual misery and failure. In American naturalistic fiction, beleaguered farmers, beaten-down workmen, girls from slums, and immigrant families—average lower-class figures—are trapped not by their unchangeable genes but by remediable social conditions. Almost all American naturalistic fiction, in other words, is written in the spirit of William Dean Howells's ideal of critical realism, in which the novelist's depiction of social inadequacies, while it does not contain specific proposals for their resolution, does imply a pressing need for action of some kind. Occasionally, as in Upton Sinclair's sensationalistic exposé of the meat-packing industry in The Jungle (1906), it is possible to draw a direct line between a novel and corrective legislation. But more often, as Amy Kaplan argues in her The Social Construction of American Realism (1988), the novelist is opening up and participating in a kind of debate in response to a large-scale social issue in American life, a debate in which both writer and audience agree that the problem can be solved. American naturalists thus responded to the threatening social issues facing turn-of-the-century America by simultaneously outraging their audience with the implication that the American Dream was inoperative for most Americans and yet placating this audience with the implication that these inequities within American life could be corrected.

A final common element in much American naturalism is its affirmation of a major aspect of democratic idealism even while seeming to deny the principal thrust of this creed. In his classic study of the Western literary imagination, Mimesis (1946), Erich Auerbach traces the democratization of the tragic impulse from its inception in Greek drama to modern fiction. With only a few exceptions, Auerbach points out, tragic protagonists in the long history of the form are drawn from the upper echelons of their societies. This convention begins to ease with the onset of French realism but collapses fully only in late-nineteenth-century naturalism. Thus the central characters in most late-nineteenth-century American naturalistic fiction—McTeague and Trina, Carrie and Hurstwood, Maggie and Henry Fleming—are not important or distinguished figures in any sense. All are of common stock, and some are lower class. But all have a capacity to desire and therefore to suffer—qualities that Dreiser in particular stressed as central to the human condition whatever its social circumstance. The pain of thwarted desire in these figures, whether or not it leads to death, is the residue of the tragic impulse in modern literature. There is no doubt an unconscious irony in the naturalist's substitution of an equality of pain for one of opportunity, an irony epitomized by Clyde Griffiths, the sensitive but otherwise inadequate and unfulfilled central figure in Dreiser's An American Tragedy. But as Dreiser's late naturalistic classic suggests, the two themes in consort can serve as a powerful means of addressing the nature of American social life. The miseries and suffering of the average life are important, they appear to be announcing. Or, as is said in Arthur Miller's The Death of a Salesman (1949) of a still later tragic protagonist who is a "lowman," "Attention must be paid!"

see alsoDarwinism; McTeague; Maggie, A Girl of the Streets; Realism; Sister Carrie


Primary Works

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Chicago: A. S. Stone, 1899.

Crane, Stephen. "An Experiment in Misery." New York Press, 22 April 1894, p. 2. Reprinted in Stephen Crane, Tales, Sketches, and Reports, vol. 8 of Works of Stephen Crane, edited by Fredson Bowers, pp. 283–293. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1973.

Crane, Stephen. "In the Depths of a Coal Mine." McClure's Magazine 3 (August 1894): 195–209. Reprinted in Crane, Tales, Sketches, and Reports, pp. 590–600.

Crane, Stephen. Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (A Story of New York). New York, 1893.

Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War. 1895. With an Introduction by Shelby Foote. New York: Modern Library, 2000.

Davis, Rebecca Harding. "Life in the Iron-Mills." Atlantic Monthly 7 (April 1861). Reprinted in Life in the Iron-Mills, edited by Cecelia Tichi. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.

Dreiser, Theodore. The Financier. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1912.

Dreiser, Theodore. Jennie Gerhardt: A Novel. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1911.

Dreiser, Theodore. Sister Carrie. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1900.

Dreiser, Theodore. The Titan. New York: John Lane Co., 1914.

Dreiser, Theodore. "True Art Speaks Plainly." Booklover's Magazine 1 (February 1903): 29. Reprinted in Theodore Dreiser: A Selection of Uncollected Prose, edited by Donald Pizer, pp. 155–156. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1977.

Frederic, Harold. The Damnation of Theron Ware. Chicago: Stone & Kimball, 1896.

Garland, Hamlin. Main-Travelled Roads: Six Mississippi Valley Stories. Boston: Arena, 1891.

Markham, Edwin. The Man with the Hoe and Other Poems. 1899. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1935.

Norris, Frank. McTeague: A Story of San Francisco. New York: Doubleday & McClure, 1899.

Norris, Frank. The Octopus: A Story of California. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1901.

Norris, Frank. "The Responsibilities of the Novelist." Critic 41 (December 1902): 537–540. Reprinted in The Responsibilities of the Novelist and Other Literary Essays. New York: Doubleday, 1903, and in The Literary Criticism of Frank Norris, edited by Donald Pizer, pp. 94–98. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964.

Norris, Frank. Vandover and the Brute. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1914.

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1906.

Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. New York: Macmillan, 1905.

Zola, Émile. "The Experimental Novel." 1880. Reprinted in Documents of Modern Literary Realism, edited by George J. Becker, pp. 162–196. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Secondary Works

Åhnebrink, Lars. The Beginnings of Naturalism in American Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950.

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. 1946. Translated by Willard R. Trask. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1953.

Conder, John J. Naturalism in American Fiction: The Classic Phase. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.

Cowley, Malcolm. "'Not Men': A Natural History of American Naturalism." Kenyon Review 9 (1947): 414–435.

Hakutani, Yoshinobu, and Lewis Fried, eds. American Literary Naturalism: A Reassessment. Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1975.

Howard, June. Form and History in American Literary Naturalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Kaplan, Amy. The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Martin, Ronald E. American Literature and the Universe of Force. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1981.

Michaels, Walter Benn. The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Papke, Mary E., ed. Twisted from the Ordinary: Essays on American Literary Naturalism. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003.

Parrington, Vernon Louis. "Naturalism in American Fiction." In The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America, 1860–1920, vol. 3 of his Main Currents in American Thought. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1930.

Pizer, Donald. The Theory and Practice of American Literary Naturalism. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993.

Pizer, Donald, ed. The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Pizer, Donald, ed. Documents of American Realism and Naturalism. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998.

Seltzer, Mark. Bodies and Machines. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Shi, David. Facing Facts: Realism in American Thought and Culture, 1850–1920. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Sundquist, Eric J., ed. American Realism: New Essays. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

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

Walcutt, Charles C. American Literary Naturalism: A Divided Stream. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956.

Donald Pizer


views updated May 18 2018






Naturalism is a term that stands for a family of positions that endorse the general idea of being true to, or guided by, nature, an idea as old as philosophy itself (e.g., Aristotle is often called a naturalist) and as various and open-ended as interpretations of nature. Since the rise of the modern scientific revolution in the seventeenth century, nature has come to be identified increasingly with the-world-as-studied-by-the-sciences. Consequently, naturalism has come to refer to a set of positions defined in terms of the scientific image of nature or the methods of scientific inquiry. This brief article focuses upon explicating three versions of this modern scientific naturalism: (1) naturalism in the arts, especially literature; (2) philosophical naturalism; and (3) naturalism in the social sciences. These different naturalisms involve different ways of appealing to science, whether it be adopting a scientific stance toward human and social life, or a broadly empirical approach to inquiry in some area, or a scientific world-view, or some combination of these.


Naturalism in the field of the arts refers to art that depicts everyday subjects in a realistic manner, free from stylization, idealization, and academic convention. Although naturalism has been used to describe a style of painting since the late seventeenth century (e.g., Caravaggios), it only became an important term of art criticism in the nineteenth century when it was applied to painters such as Gustave Courbet (18191877). Naturalism as a literary category was first applied to a genre of French fiction exemplified by the writings of Émile Zola (18401902), which built on the antiromantic realist fiction of Gustave Flaubert (18211880) and Honoré de Balzac (17991850), writers who deliberately adopted a scientificthat is, detached and objectiveapproach to human life. The vision of the human depicted in naturalist literature owed much to a picture of the world suggested by Charles Darwins theory of evolution: a purposeless, Godless world of competitive striving where free will is an illusion. Under these historical and ideological influences, American literary naturalism arose in the 1890s as a reaction to the realist fiction of middle- and upper-class life of the 1870s and 1880sfor example, the novels of Henry James (18111882). Its chief exemplars include Stephen Crane (18711900), Theodore Dreiser (18711945), Jack London (18761916), and Frank Norris (18701902). The American school is typified by an anti-individualist view of humans as largely determined by environmental forces, frank and animalistic depictions of sex and violence, and an unflinching treatment of the harsh realities faced by immigrants and the working-class in modern industrialized U.S. cities.

It is important to note, however, that not all appeals to nature are to be understood in terms of an allegiance to naturalism. For example, the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882) and Henry David Thoreau (18171862)memorably, Thoreaus Walden (1854) reveal a vision of nature that challenges the assumptions of naturalism, particularly the idea that the objective is a matter of excluding the subjective. Although Emerson and Thoreau accepted that nature is everything that is distinct from ones own consciousness, they were interested in a larger reciprocity and interdependence of mind and nature that bears the influence of German philosophers such as Immanuel Kant (17241804) and F. W. von Schelling (17751854). Another example of an antinaturalist appeal to nature is the tradition of thinking about human conduct and law in terms of natural rights, or the related, but older, idea of natural law. Here the appeal to nature refers to principles or rules of conduct that are given as opposed to humanly constructed. In this tradition what is naturally given is typically understood as a matter of Gods law. Naturalism, of course, is strongly opposed to theism.


Modern philosophy recognizes two basic strains of naturalism: ontological naturalism and methodological naturalism. Ontological naturalism takes the subject matter of the natural sciences as its model of the genuinely real. A leading advocate, David Armstrong, holds that reality consists of nothing but a single all-embracing spatiotemporal system (1980, p. 149). He is representative in thinking that this implies a conception of nature as a single unified causal order. This ontological outlook is primarily meant to exclude supernatural entities such as the Christian God, demons, spirits, and soulsnone of which are the subject matter of a natural science. Naturalism can accommodate religion, however, but only to the extent that it is interpreted as a certain kind of experience which can be understood without any commitment to the existence of supernatural entities or events (e.g., angels, miracles).

It is important to note that ontological naturalism comes in more or less reductive forms depending upon ones attitude to the social (or human) sciences. Typically, naturalists favor a reductive formbecause they tend to share a skeptical attitude to the social (or human) sciencesclaiming that the natural world is nothing but the world posited by the explanations of the natural sciences exclusively (e.g., physics, chemistry, and biology). This, in turn, leads to a sharp contrast between the scientific image of the world and the manifest image of everyday human experience. Consequently, contemporary metaphysicians ask how we can place items in the manifest image (e.g., reasons, meanings, moral goodness, and aesthetic values) within the scientific image. Such debates within naturalism are often conducted in a semantic key. That is, the question is one about how we are to interpret the core concepts of a target nonscientific discourse given a scientific view of nature. For instance, how are we to account for or refer to anything in nature? If not, are the sentences in which it occurs true or false, for our thought and talk about moral goodness? Does the term good refer to anything in nature? If not, are the sentences in which it occurs true or false, or do they play a nonfactual role? The semantic project of accounting for the function of nonscientific concepts in this way is called naturalization. Just how revisionary of ordinary ways of thinking this project is depends upon two important questions: whether there are irreducible and indispensable nonscientific forms of understanding, and whether one accepts the legitimacy and distinctiveness of the social sciences.

The second strain of philosophical naturalism is methodological naturalism, which takes scientific methods of inquiry as its model. It holds that nature as a whole is properly studied by the same empirical methods as those employed by the natural sciences. Because human beings are a part of nature, this implies that the study of human nature is continuous with the study of nonhuman nature. It also implies that knowledge is, properly speaking, scientific knowledge. W. V. Quine draws the radical conclusion that there is no a priori knowledge, thereby undermining traditional philosophy (see especially Quine 1964 and 1969). The question whether philosophy has any autonomy in relation to science has subsequently become an important topic of dispute.


Naturalism in the social sciences is usually understood as a form of skepticism about the legitimacy of the social sciences or, less drastically, the doctrine that the posits of these sciences are reducible in principle to the posits of paradigmatic natural sciences such as physics. However, there is nothing in naturalism itself that requires this dismissive or reductive approach to the ontology of the social sciences, and not all naturalists share it (e.g., pragmatists such as John Dewey). Notwithstanding, most writers in the social sciences understand naturalism primarily as a methodological doctrine: the view that the methods of inquiry of the natural sciences (e.g., the attempt to discover laws or law-like regularities, empirical testing and corroboration, a clear distinction between facts and values) are no less applicable to man than to naturethat is, to the study of people, society, morality, politics, and culture. Such methodological naturalism is often coupled with a rejection of the influential idea defended by Wilhelm Dilthey (18331911), Max Weber (18641920), and others that there is a fundamental difference between the scientific understanding of nature (Erklären ) and the sort of empathetic understanding of human beings that involves seeing things from the subjects point of view (Verstehen ).

An important debate in philosophy and the social sciences is whether we should follow the naturalistic identification of nature with the scientific image of the world. John McDowell, for example, has argued that it is a metaphysical prejudice to treat the disenchanted world of the natural and social sciences as exhausting our conception of nature. What it arguably leaves out of account is a richer conception of the world revealed to critical human thought and experience, one that includes sui generis normative phenomena such as reasons, meanings, and values.

SEE ALSO Atheism; Industrialization; Kant, Immanuel; Modernization; Natural Rights; Philosophy; Realism; Science; Scientific Method; Secular, Secularism, Secularization; Theism; Thoreau, Henry David


Armstrong, David M. 1980. Naturalism, Materialism, and First Philosophy. In The Nature of Mind and Other Essays. St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland Press.

Danto, Arthur. 1967. Naturalism. In The Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, vol. 5, ed. Paul Edwards, 448450. New York: Macmillan.

Dewey, John. 1944. Antinaturalism in Extremis. In Naturalism and the Human Spirit, ed. Yervant H. Krikorian, 116. New York: Columbia University Press.

Dilthey, Wilhelm. [1883] 1988. Introduction to the Human Sciences. Trans. Ramón J. Betanzos. Hemel Hempstead, U.K.: Harvester.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 1983. Emerson: Essays and Lectures. Ed. Joel Porte. New York: Library of America Press.

Jones, Peter. 2006. Human Rights. In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward Craig. London: Routledge.

Macarthur, David, and Mario De Caro, eds. 2004. Naturalism in Question. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McDowell, John. 1995. Two Sorts of Naturalism. In Virtues and Reasons: Philippa Foot and Moral Theory, eds. Rosalind Hursthouse, Gavin Lawrence, and Warren Quinn, 149179. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Michaels, Walter Benn. 1987. The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pizer, Donald, ed. 1995. The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: Howells to London. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Quine, W. V. [1953] 1969. Epistemology Naturalized. In Ontological Relativity and Other Essays, 6989. New York: Columbia University Press.

Quine, W. V. 1964. Two Dogmas of Empiricism. In From a Logical Point of View, 2nd edition, 2046. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Quine, W. V. 1981. Theories and Things. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Richardson, Robert D., Jr. 1999. Emerson and Nature. In Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson, eds. Joel Porte and Saundra Morris, 97105. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Thoreau, Henry David. [1854] 2004. Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

David Macarthur


views updated May 14 2018


NATURALISM . In the broadest sense, naturalism can denote any philosophy in which "nature" or "the natural" functions as the most general explanatory or normative concept. What counts as naturalism in a particular context depends upon how the term nature and its cognates are used. Given the long and varied history of such terms in Western thought, it should not be surprising that any two doctrines named "naturalism" may have little more than etymological connections in common.

History and Definitions

Even in ancient Greece, "naturalism" designated several distinct positions. For the Cynics, naturalism consisted in severe condemnation of conventional values and artificial virtues. The virtuous man is one who lives naturally, but living naturally requires a rigorously ascetic practice in which all conventional and artificial goods are shunned. Stoic naturalism also sought detachment from the conventional and the artificial, and agreed that the virtuous man is one who lives naturally, but its conception of nature was articulated in an elaborate cosmology. Human nature, for the Stoics, is part of cosmic nature, and virtue is identified with conformity to natural law. Both Cynicism and Stoicism take us a great distance from Aristotle (384322 bce), who resisted any attempt to abstract the virtuous life from the polis but who nonetheless looked with favor upon something called "naturalism." Man, according to Aristotle, is by nature political, and this conviction leaves no room for the contrasts Cynics and Stoics need to define their positions. His naturalism, unlike theirs, was directed mainly against Eleatic skepticism about change and against the denial of "nature" and "natural motion" by Democritus (460363? bce) and others. Aristotle aimed to develop and defend natural science as knowledge of what exists "by nature." The nature of a thing, for him, is its power of acting in a particular determinate way, as defined by its end. The study of man is thus continuous with physics, for to study man is to study a specific kind of natural body by seeking out its nature. Man stands within nature, which is an intelligible, teleological order of motions. If Aristotle's philosophy is definitive of classical naturalism, then Democritus would surely qualify as an antinaturalist, despite his materialism, though both are routinely referred to as naturalists by modern writers. "Naturalism" later acquires specifically pejorative connotations in some Platonic, gnostic, and Christian writings, where the natural is contrasted with the spiritual in a way foreign to Aristotle and Democritus alike.

These ancient usages have had some impact on recent discussions of naturalism, mainly via Christianity, which transmitted an unstable amalgam of Hebraic, Stoic, Platonic, and Aristotelian conceptions of nature to the modern world. Nor can the rediscovery and dissemination of ancient writings since the late medieval period be entirely discounted as an influence. Still, modern debates over naturalism are best viewed as responses to the rise of modern science. The central point at issue is the scope of scientific inquiry as it is now practiced, and the basic terms of debate are set by the development of the sciences since 1600, not by conceptions of nature inherited from antiquity.

"Naturalism," when used as the name of a general philosophical outlook in contemporary discussion, usually signifies the view that all objects, truths, and facts fall within the scope of scientific inquiry, that nothing is in principle insusceptible to scientific explanation. This view may usefully be termed unrestricted naturalism. It differs from restricted forms of naturalism in that its thesis is not confined to a specific domain of inquiry, such as ethics. An ethical naturalist holds that ethical truths, facts, or values fall within the scope of scientific inquiry. As a form of restricted naturalism, ethical naturalism can be defended without committing oneself to the unrestricted position. Furthermore, one can accept a form of unrestricted naturalism without committing oneself to, say, ethical naturalism, provided one is prepared to deny that there are ethical truths, facts, or values in the relevant sense. To adopt a naturalistic attitude toward something is to maintain that it falls within the scope of scientific inquiry. Unrestricted naturalists sometimes argue, however, that failure to bring a domain of putative truths or facts within the scope of scientific inquiry shows only that there are no truths or facts to be found there, thus calling that domain, rather than the scope of science, into question. Such arguments can bring unrestricted naturalists into conflict with those defending naturalistic approaches in a specific area, a fact responsible for much terminological confusion, not least of all in debates over religion.

Many different conceptions of scientific inquiry and its findings have flourished in the modern period, and the content of both restricted and unrestricted forms of naturalism has varied accordingly. Where materialism has reigned as a philosophy of science, "naturalism" and "materialism" have tended to be used interchangeably, and Democritus has made his way onto lists of early naturalists. Materialist versions of naturalism define themselves polemically over against supernaturalism and idealism, neither of which is compatible with an ontology designed to reduce everything that exists and happens to matter in motion. That is, both supernaturalism and idealism postulate entities and occurrences that fall outside the scope of scientific inquiry as materialists conceive it. But it is important to see that scientific inquiry can be conceived in other ways and associated with other sorts of ontological assumptions.

A group of twentieth-century American philosophers known as critical naturalists has consistently gone out of its way to deny materialist methodological and ontological principles. Critical naturalists often cite Aristotle and Barukh Spinoza (16321677) as the great representatives of the naturalistic tradition. Some, like Frederick Woodbridge (18671940), have made extensive use of ideas from such figures in their own constructive projects. Many have tried to make room, within a naturalistic outlook, for the human phenomenasuch as mind, intention, and cultureformerly claimed as the special province of the idealists. Some have argued that, because naturalistic methods place no a priori constraints on the types of hypotheses one may consider in science, acceptance of naturalism involves no bias against supernaturalist ontologies as such. Hence, in recent philosophy, as in the remainder of this article, "naturalism" is not tied to a particular ontology, though a naturalist in this sense remains bound to embrace whatever ontological scruples and commitments the course of scientific inquiry, rightly understood, entails.

Debates over Naturalism

The most common general charge leveled in the literature of the middle and late twentieth century against versions of unrestricted naturalism is that they cannot successfully account for themselves. Can naturalism account for itself without either falling into contradiction or arguing in a circle? Does naturalism in fact presuppose something that cannot be brought within the scope of scientific inquiry as naturalists construe it?

Taking these questions as their point of departure, some antinaturalists argue as follows. Naturalism is, in its unrestricted forms, a philosophical thesis about the validity and scope of scientific inquiry. How, then, is naturalism to be justified as a philosophical thesis? By appealing to scientific inquiry? That would be consistent with the naturalistic thesis, but it also seems circular. How can the validity and limitless scope of scientific inquiry be established by appealing to scientific inquiry itself without begging the question? It seems that it cannot, and what this shows is that any attempt to vindicate the naturalist's thesis without arguing in a circle necessarily makes an appeal to standards of judgment that do not belong to scientific inquiry per se. Hence, naturalism cannot be justified; the only noncircular means one could use in trying to justify it obviously contradicts it.

This line of argument may seem compelling, but it hardly forces naturalists to abandon their position. Does not the same problem arise for any standards or principles anyone might propose as valid and ultimate? If so, then naturalists are at least no worse off than their critics. The real question, naturalists will argue, is how critics intend to stop the regress of standards short of infinity without themselves arguing in a circle.

The antinaturalist can stop the regress, it would seem, only by invoking a set of standards that are self-justified, intuitively known, or demonstrably indispensable to rational thought as such. What, then, prevents naturalists from claiming similar status for the principles implicit in scientific practice? Once this question has been raised, naturalist and critic seem on equal footing: each seems to require arguments capable of certifying some set of principles as fundamental in the relevant sense. Furthermore, the debate can easily degenerate into a merely verbal dispute at this point, for it is not necessarily clear why the antinaturalist's principles cannot be said to be part of scientific methodnamely, the foundational part.

Increasingly, however, naturalists have expressed skepticism about such notions as self-justification and intuitive knowledge, whether defended by other naturalists or by their critics. So they have sought a more radical response to the problem, arguing that scientific inquiry is just the honorific title given to the continuing process of rational criticism and revision of inherited theory and practice. This process, while perhaps best exemplified in the natural sciences, is not confined to them and is essentially continuous from field to field. It derives its justification not from foundational principles on which it rests but rather from the way it helps adaption to the environment through progressive self-correction. Justification is a dialectical affair directed toward the pragmatic resolution of problems. In this view, humankind is saved from infinite regress in justificatory arguments not by foundational principles but by the settling of real doubts, and if the process as a whole is circular, it is not viciously so. Naturalistic philosophy is simply scientific inquiry gone self-conscious, reflecting on itself. The great pragmatist, John Dewey (18591952), offered something like this defense and reformulation of naturalism, restated eloquently by W. V. O. Quine (19082000).

When some critics have charged naturalism with an inability to account for itself, they have argued somewhat differently from the way considered thus far. Their point is that defending naturalism and practicing science are human activities involving thought and purposeful behavior in the pursuit of values, and that naturalism is unequipped to account for any such activity. This argument challenges naturalists to show that they can explain thought, intention, and value without violating naturalistic scruples. But then unrestricted naturalism, to be vindicated, must ultimately be prepared to either explain or explain away every domain of putative objects, truths, or facts in naturalistic terms. So the appraisal of unrestricted naturalism must sooner or later take up each member in a long series of analyses of restricted topics, one of which is religion.

Naturalism and Religion

What can naturalists make of traditional religious utterances, such as the theist's discourse about God? Assume for the moment that some of what the theist says is to be interpreted as asserting the existence of a supernatural being who created the universe. If the theist is right in making this assertion, presumably, the naturalist will be obliged to show that God can be brought within the scope of scientific inquiry. The naturalist will, in other words, have to construct a "natural theology." Some naturalists, such as the eighteenth-century Deists, have adopted this strategy, but most have deemed it unsuccessful, concluding instead that no supernatural being exists. If no such being exists, naturalists need not be held responsible to account for its existence scientifically. The task, in that event, would be to explain God's existence away while still making sense of religious behavior, including the theist's utterances about God, reports of religious experience, and so on.

If, however, the theist's utterances about God are not to be taken as true assertions about a supernatural being, how shall they be taken? One alternative is to say that they are true but elliptical assertions about something else, something that does fall within the scope of science. Some followers of the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (18591917) argue, along these lines, that religious utterances are best interpreted as symbolic assertions about society, that the actual object of religious worship is the social group, and that religious behavior can be fully explained in a systematic science of society. Similar proposals have been developed by other theorists who take economics or psychology, not sociology, as the appropriate idiom of reduction.

A second alternative is to claim that the problematic religious utterances are not properly viewed as assertions in the strict sense at all. Instead, they are to be assimilated to some other class of speech-acts, such as expressions of emotions, wishes, or moral prescriptions. An example of this approach would be the emotivist theory of religious language popular among logical positivists.

Third, a naturalist may take the apparent assertions in religious discourse at face value while ascribing false beliefs to those who utter them, a strategy much simpler than the others but also one that raises the additional question of how these allegedly false beliefs came to be accepted. Here again at least two options suggest themselves. It may be argued, on the one hand, that religious assertionswhile not to be construed as nonpropositional expressions of emotions or desiresare nonetheless determined by essentially nonrational forces in the human personality, society, or history. On the other hand, one could argue that religious beliefs, though now known to be false, arose under circumstances that tended to make them seem reasonable to reasonable people.

Those committed to defending traditional religious claims as true are not the only people interested in opposing the naturalist's attempts to explain religion. The other major source of antinaturalism in the study of religion is the claim, often made by thinkers in the hermeneutical tradition of Wilhelm Dilthey (18331911), that the objective procedures of scientific inquiry are insufficient for use in the study of human beings, least of all their religious and artistic self-expression. Human beings are, of course, objects within nature, and the naturalist's methods can teach a great deal about humankind as a natural species. But human beings are also spiritual, self-creating subjects. Understanding them involves determining the meaning that their behavior, verbal and nonverbal, has for them, and therefore calls for an interpretive approach distinct from the naturalist's explanatory methods.

Naturalists have responded to the hermeneutical tradition's antinaturalism in several ways. The most common sort of response can be seen in various attempts to reduce much of what hermeneutical theorists want to say about meaning and understanding to the languages of natural science. Critical and pragmatic naturalists move in another direction, accusing Dilthey and his followers of uncritically taking over unduly narrow conceptions of scientific inquiry from the materialists and positivists they otherwise oppose. Broaden the conception of scientific inquiry enough, and the line hermeneutical theorists have drawn between the natural sciences and humanistic studies (Naturwissenschaften and Geistes-wissenschaften ) will disappearas will the rationale for viewing hermeneutical philosophy and naturalism as exclusive alternatives.

Finally, it should be noted that some naturalists have been as interested in reconstructing religion as they have been in criticizing or explaining it. Dissatisfied with traditional religion on naturalistic grounds, they have attempted to devise religious systems capable of fulfilling the essential personal or social functions they assign to religion without departing from naturalism as a creed. The most ambitious such attempt was that of Auguste Comte (17981857), the French positivist, who took the rituals of Roman Catholicism as models for his own conception of the sacraments and identified humanity as the proper object of religious devotion and service. Dewey's proposals, in contrast, were much less ambitious and involved no attempt to found an organized religion. According to Dewey, any ultimate end that serves to unify one's life and actions takes on a religious quality. Dewey's aim was to portray this-worldly concern with "the problems of men" as the optimal religious ideal. There have been other recent attempts to reconstruct religion in naturalistic terms, but none has won much of a following.

See Also

Analytic Philosophy; Deism; Hermeneutics; Logical Positivism; Materialism; Nature, article on Religious and Philosophical Speculations; Positivism; Science and Religion; Sociology; Supernatural, The.


The best place to begin a study of naturalism is with Naturalism and the Human Spirit, edited by Yervant H. Krikorian (New York, 1944), which includes characteristic essays by John Dewey, Sidney Hook, and John Herman Randall Jr., as well as an essay titled "Naturalism and Religion" by Sterling P. Lamprecht. No study of naturalism should end before taking up O. K. Bouwsma's essay "Naturalism," in his Philosophical Essays (Lincoln, Neb., 1965), pp. 7183. George Santayana's five-volume work The Life of Reason, or the Phases of Human Progress (New York, 19051906) exerted considerable influence on American naturalism in the early twentieth century and includes a notable treatment of religion. John Dewey's account of naturalized religion appears in his book A Common Faith (New Haven, 1934). The most comprehensive recent naturalistic reconstruction of religion is probably Julian Huxley's Religion without Revelation (1927; reprint, New York, 1958). The most influential twentieth-century attack on naturalism may well be Edmund Husserl's "Philosophie als strenge Wissenschaft," Logos 1 (1910): 289314. For classic statements of the hermeneutical tradition's antinaturalism, see Wilhelm Dilthey's Gesammelte Schriften, 2d ed. (Stuttgart, 19571960). W. V. O. Quine's pragmatic naturalism can be sampled in his Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York, 1969). The concerns of the hermeneutical tradition from Dilthey to Hans-Georg Gadamer and of pragmatic naturalism from Dewey to Quine come together most clearly in Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, 1979).

New Sources

Griffin, David Ray. Religion and Scientific Naturalism: Overcoming the Conflicts. Albany, N.Y., 2000.

Hardwick, Charley. Events of Grace: Naturalism, Existentialism, and Theology. New York, 1996.

Lawlor, Mary. Recalling the Wild: Naturalism and the Closing of the American West. New Brunswick, N.J., 2000.

Mitchell, Lee Clark. Determined Fictions: American Literary Naturalism. New York, 1989.

Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, N.Y., 2001.

Pizer, Donald. The Theory and Practice of American Naturalism: Selected Essays and Reviews. Carbondale, Ill., 1993.

Reich, Lou. Hume's Religious Naturalism. Lanham, Md., 1998.

Jeffrey Stout (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 29 2018


Put most succinctly, metaphysical naturalism affirms that the natural world is the only real one, and that the human race is not separate from it, but belongs to it as a part. The term naturalism refers also to an aesthetic style in literature, drama, and painting, and in ethics, to the theory that the full meaning of value concepts such as good and evil can be spelled out using only terms from a natural, or factual vocabulary. These are not of concern here. What follows is a discussion of naturalism in metaphysics and epistemology.

Everyone has a rough working notion of what can happen in the course of nature, and is familiar with the idea that perhaps a transcendent or supernatural realm lies beyond nature, another world that may occasionally make contact with the everyday world by, for example, miraculous interventions. Yet the distinction between what is natural and what is not needs to be made with some care. As St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out, everything that happens is in some way natural. Thus, according to classical philosophical theology, God must always, of necessity, act in accordance with his own nature. So from the divine point of view, special miraculous intervention, or general providential guidance, lies entirely within the realm of what happens according to nature.

What is needed is the conception of a world all of whose normal workings count as natural, while whatever lies outside this limit does not. The space-time world, with its material constituents working according to the laws of cause and effect, seems a good place to start. The natural world is the world of space, time, matter, energy, and causality, and naturalism affirms that this natural world is the only one there is. Yet even here care is needed: In some modern interpretations of quantum theory, the so-called Many Worlds interpretations, this particular space-time world is not by any means the only one. What lies beyond this world are other spatio-temporal realms, inaccessible from this one, perhaps evolving under different laws, but equally a part of nature in its entirety. So naturalists must allow that nature comprises this spatio-temporal world together with all other realms required by the best scientific explanations of this one.

Naturalism as Method and as Ontology

Because specifying what nature is brings in reference to scientific explanation in this way, naturalism is sometimes regarded as a rule of method rather than a metaphysical doctrine. There is a natural method of inquiry, which consists in setting out to explain and understand the world by finding the natural causal processes by which natural objects come into being, produce their effects, and pass away. All genuine knowledge is of this natural, experimental kind; human beings, themselves part of the natural order, have no special insight or intuition that could provide a more direct path to knowledge. And the methods of the natural sciences, which are so successful, are these natural methods refined and made more systematic.

If naturalism is in this way a matter of method in inquiry, the natural world is the world revealed by the methods of the natural sciences. This does not, in itself, place many constraints on what sort of world that might be: One cannot tell in advance what the scientific method might reveal. Maybe it will uncover not just familiar itemsships and shoes and sealing wax, for instancebut fire-breathing dragons, the Fountain of Youth, or the Philosopher's Stone. Naturalism regarded as a method maintains that ontology should be developed a posterioriwhatever is vindicated by the sciences is acceptable, whatever is not, is not.

The attempts made during the twentieth century to establish the existence of the paranormal phenomena (telepathy, precognition, and telekinesis) illustrate this approach. The methods adopted were naturalistic methods, which in themselves set no limits to what can exist.

A more affirmative naturalism goes rather further: It claims not only that the scientific method provides the only sound basis for knowledge of reality, but also that it has already established that all nature has a physical basis. The fundamental causal network consists in chains of physical cause and physical effect, produced by the operation of physical forces. All realities have at least a physical nature of this kind, whatever else may prove to be true of them. This leaning toward a physical basis for everything has been encouraged by the development of more and more sophisticated instruments for probing the observable, tangible, and manipulable world of matter, and of increasingly successful physical theories to account for what is discovered.

Yet this tendency to regard physics and chemistry as the basic and comprehensive sciences does not in itself require a materialistic ontology. Physicalism is a particularly stringent version of naturalism. A physical basis for everything does not rule out other characteristics. It is possible to affirm naturalism while insisting that the higher faculties in humans and other animals cannot be given a physicalistic reduction, and nonmaterialistic naturalism avoids the difficulties that materialism has, for example, in accounting for the intensional characteristics, such as linguistic meaning and psychological understanding.

The Case for Naturalism

Bertrand Russell was once charged, as Hamlet had charged Horatio, that there are more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in his philosophy. He retorted that he preferred it to be that way, rather than the other way around. He thus expressed the naturalist attitude, which is imbued with the spirit of Ockham's Razor: Extravagance in ontology is to be avoided. We must recognize the reality of what most plainly exists, the familiar natural world in which we live and move, and have our being. Beyond that, one should be cautious. There is no compelling evidence, of any kind, that there is more to reality than the nature revealed by scientific investigation. So the rational position to adopt is the economical, minimalist one that there are no further realms.

the eleatic argument

The Eleatic Stranger in Plato's Sophist proposes that "Power is the mark of Being"that the true test of reality is to be efficacious. That which is real makes a difference, changes things, has effects. The outcome of a serious and sustained inquiry into what actually passes this test, is naturalism. For whatever operates in such a way as to alter the course of nature belongs by that very fact to the causal network of the natural world. And whatever has no such impact has no claim to reality.

The Eleatic argument is perhaps even more powerful as a methodological one: The only way in which anything can call attention to itself, and so stake a claim to reality, is by having an effect, either directly, in perception, or indirectly, through the traces it leaves in instruments. Without any such impact, there can be no reason to suppose that the thing in question exists. And that which there is no reason to think exists, should have no place in any ontology.

This argument needs to be elaborated to cover purely theoretical reasons for admitting other realmsparallel universes, for example, or sets to underpin mathematics. It is then not so straightforward to exclude higher realms, with unmoved movers, divine providences, or guardian angels. Here the argument must be that, unlike the extra worlds of quantum theory, these other worlds have no essential link to the natural explanation of what occurs in this one.

the self-correcting vindication

Naturalism should be adopted as the proper stance in philosophy, just because it is open to development. Wherever the current conception of the world of nature is inadequate, this deficiency is likely, sooner or later, to be revealed, for there will be unaccountable phenomena that need to be accounted for. Current explanatory resources having proved inadequate, they must be expanded. New entities, properties, or forces must be recognized. The ontology of naturalism will grow to whatever extent the facts require, no more, but no less. So naturalism will always be the best philosophical stance. To maintain this position, a naturalist must show that explanatory reasoning does not advance in this way from the natural to the supernatural.

These three lines of support for naturalism all rest on a negative base: the claim that there is no valid method of discovery beyond those used in the natural sciences. So a thorough naturalism must explore, and reject, a priori reasoning in natural theology, and the claims of religious experience to provide knowledge of a transcendent divinity. It must also argue that the hermeneutic method of some social sciences, and the empathy by which humans reach a commonsense understanding of one another, does not involve entities or processes beyond those revealed by naturalistic methods.

The Implications of Naturalism

In general, naturalism and religion are at odds with one another. Most religions posit powerful and purposeful supernatural forces, responsible for creating the natural world, for shaping its progress, and for determining the destinies of its inhabitants. These beliefs are not compatible with the naturalistic outlook. This does not, however, preclude a religious attitude accompanying naturalism, involving feelings of awe and wonder toward the natural realm, and impulses to value and care for it. Nor does it rule out a pantheism such as Benedict de Spinoza's. Spinoza identified God with Nature, insisting, as naturalists do, that there is nothing beyond this law-governed world. The atheistic varieties of Buddhism, in which this world is the only one, and where law governs the world's unfolding, would also be naturalistic religions if they were to accord independent reality to the material realm.

Naturalism requires that religious experience, and in particular mystical experience, be given a reductionist interpretation. Such experiences are regarded as unusual states of mind that have their own causes and consequences within the natural world, but do not provide any contact with, or insight into, a supernatural realm.

metaphysical idealism

Naturalism takes its cue from the natural sciences, and with the exception of some more fanciful interpretations of the measurement paradoxes in quantum theory, the sciences are resolutely realist about the material world. Realism maintains that the world of nature is as it is, irrespective of any human opinions about it. The natural world is not dependent on, or brought into being by human mind, will, or experience. As this is the working philosophy of the natural sciences, it is difficult to combine naturalism with metaphysical idealism, which implies that matter is in some way a function or aspect of mind.

A thorough-going phenomenalism, such as an atheistic version of George Berkeley's philosophy, might be thought to count as an idealistic naturalism in which every object of experience does indeed belong to a law-governed spatio-temporal world, but where to be spatio-temporal is to have a derivative status, with perceptual experiences as the basic elements out of which it is constructed.

However, such a view places the experiencing mind outside the world of nature, and this puts it in conflict with one of the most profound aspects of naturalism, the view that the human species enjoys no specially privileged position in the scheme of things. Naturalism implies that human beings share with all other beings a common status, as contingent, temporary configurations in the law-governed natural world. The human world is a part of the natural realm, not a distinct cultural sphere to be contrasted with it.

Realist naturalism takes the Earth and its living inhabitants as genuine independent realities, and by locating the human race within the natural world, can make progress toward explaining how it came into being, and how humans came to have the epistemic and cognitive capacities that they do. Not even the more objective post-Hegelian metaphysical idealisms can provide any basis for an explanation of how humans came to be as they are.

the problem of universals

Realists about universalsproperties and relationsdivide into the Platonists, who allow the real existence of properties even where there is nothing in this world that instantiates them, and Aristotelians, who admit the reality of instantiated universals only. Plato's heaven, a higher realm containing perfect patterns for the properties imperfectly realized here below, is clearly incompatible with naturalism, and it seems probable that unless they can be vindicated as being required for explanations of what happens in this world, no system that admits uninstantiated universals can be naturalistic. Nominalist accounts of properties do not face any problem so far as naturalism is concerned.


Although naturalism stresses that it is by natural processes, involving natural causes only, that anything at all occurs, it is not committed to an absolute determinism. If there are causes at work, they are natural ones, but there may not be a cause in every case. There has to be at least enough general order in the world for it to provide an environment suitable for life and consciousness, but that admits of exceptions, here and there, to every rule. Quantum theory is not fully deterministic, as its causal relations are probabilistic. Naturalism requires there to be at least as much causality and law in the world as the development of natural sciences calls for, but it does not require any more than that.

mathematics and logic

Naturalism is almost bound to take a reductionist view of the so-called abstract objects of mathematics and logictheir numbers, functions, and relations. For the number twenty-seven, or the square root of negative one, or the relation of contrariety seem to fail both the spatio-temporal location test, and the Eleatic causal power test for natural reality. W.V.O. Quine, who was very much of a naturalistic bent, found himself forced to accept the reality of sets as a foundation for mathematics, something essential for physics, which provides the best description of the world. So sets, although not themselves naturalistic beings, have a place in the best ontology. This is a departure from pure naturalism. Hartry Field (1980), among others, has attempted to develop a philosophy of mathematics that dispenses with numbers or other mathematical objects.

The situation with the objects of geometry seems less problematic. If space-time is taken realistically (not, as with G.W. Leibniz, as a mere system of relations among physical objects), then the objects of geometry (points, lines, shapes, and geometrical solids) can be given a naturalistic home as aspects or parts of space-time.


The natural world comprises not only objects and the properties they actually possess. It includes what might be, yet is not (natural possibility), and what not only is but must, in the course of nature, come to pass (natural necessity). To meet this situation, the properties that things now actually possess (categorical properties) must be distinguished from those that provide the basis on which things will change and develop (dispositional properties or powers). Aristotle and the medieval Aristotelians such as Thomas Aquinas introduced potentiality (in contrast with act ) to specify what an object is capable ofits range of possibilities. The modern version of this is the specification of an object's powers. The power to become F is a different property from being F, but it is itself a real categorical property, perhaps some feature of the underlying fine structure of the object that possesses it.

The powers that there are in the world determine and explain what is naturally possible, should they be exercised. And where they are exercised, the powers are bound to act as they do and produce their effects. This situation is therefore one of natural necessity.

Beyond natural possibility and necessity, however, lie that which is logically possible, even though ruled out by the laws of nature (such as a ball thrown into the air and just remaining there), and that which is, not just naturally, but logically necessary or impossible. Some philosophers treat possibility and necessity by introducing possible worlds, worlds in some way additional to the one actual world. This at least seems to be a departure from naturalism because additional, merely possible worlds do not belong in the same causal network with this world, and thus fail the Eleatic test on which naturalism insists.

Naturalism therefore seems to be committed to providing an account of the logical modalities that does not involve any special ontological commitments. The proposal that logical necessity is a reflection of language, of meaning and use, was an attempt to provide such an account. The linguistic theory has fallen out of favor; more recent accounts attempt to construct possible worlds from appropriately selected setssets of descriptions, or unactualized recombinations of elements from the actual world. These are accounts in terms of ersatz possible worlds. Provided a naturalistic account of sets can be given, such proposals would be naturalistic theories of necessity.

Objective Morality

Morality is another problematic area for naturalism. The standard naturalistic characteristics are the contingent factual actualities, and these do not include in any straightforward way the values that objects or situations may have. The size and shape of an object enters into the natural causal nexus, but its goodness does not seem to. A naturalistic account of morality must find a place for good and evil, but not in the inherent structure of the world, as a fully objective moral realism does. Nor can naturalism ground moral law in the commands of a deity. It must explain right and wrong, good and evil, as arising in the nature, preferences, or reactions of people, and in the structure of the societies within which people live out their lives. Whether an account of morality along these lines can satisfactorily explain the authority and impersonal binding force that moral imperatives seem to possess, is perhaps the most difficult issue for naturalist theories of morality.

See also Aristotelianism; Berkeley, George; Determinism, A Historical Survey; Ethical Naturalism; Evil; Field, Hartry; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Many Worlds/Many Minds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics; Ontology, History of; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Quine, Willard Van Orman; Realism and Naturalism, Mathematical; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Universals, A Historical Survey.


Armstrong, D. "Naturalism, Materialism, and First Philosophy." Philosophia 8 (1978): 261276.

Craig, William Lane, and J. P. Moreland. Naturalism, A Critical Analysis. London: Routledge, 2000.

De Caro, M., and D. Macarthur, eds. Naturalism in Question. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Field, Hartry. Science Without Numbers. Oxford: Blackwell, 1980.

French, Peter A, Theodore E. Uehling, and Howard K. Wettstein, eds. Philosophical Naturalism. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995.

Maxwell, Nicholas. The Human World in The Physical Universe; Consciousness, Free Will, and Evolution. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.

Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2001.

Papineau, D. Philosophical Naturalism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.

Quine, W. V. O. "Naturalism; Or, Living within One's Means." Dialectica 49 (1995): 251261.

Quine, W. V. O. Word and Object. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960.

Rea, Michael. World without Design: The Ontological Consequences of Naturalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Shook, John R., ed. Pragmatic Naturalism and Realism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003.

Villanueva, E., ed. Naturalism and Normativity. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview, 1993.

Keith Campbell (2005)


views updated May 21 2018


Naturalism arouses strong emotions. Some see it as a banner to follow, some as the enemy to fight. Theological or religious naturalism is even more controversial: Is it truly religious? And if so, is it still naturalism? However, naturalism is a clear and unified category until one begins to think and read about it. The entry will consider four contexts in which the term arises. Thereafter, some issues in and varieties of theological or religious naturalism will be considered.

Four contexts and contrasts

P. F. Strawson distinguishes in his Skepticism and Naturalism (1985) between "soft" and "hard" naturalism. Soft naturalism refers to what human beings ordinarily do and believe about, for example, colors, feelings, and moral judgments. When a painting is "naturalist," it is so in a soft sense. Hard naturalism refers to attempts to view human behavior in an objective light as events in nature. Strawson argues that these two ways of viewing the world are compatible, but if he has to choose, he opts for soft naturalism. Critics, however, argue that soft naturalism plays down insights about the structures of reality "behind" experience, and thus avoids genuine engagement with the sciences and secular thought. The remainder of this entry deals with forms of hard naturalism, as science not only extends but also corrects the soft natural understanding of reality.

Science is a human practice; its insights may be useful, but why might they be considered true? Cultures with particular social norms survived, but why would one call the intuitions and practices that have evolved good? Can one distinguish truth from mere beliefs, ethics from evolved morality? In this context naturalism stands in contrast to normative views of epistemic or moral values and procedures. Naturalists in this sense tend to deny that any demarcation between science and nonscientific activities, or between moral preferences and ethics, could be absolute. At the same time, however, such naturalists prefer science over pseudoscience and thus live by a distinction between what can be justified and what cannot. Naturalists who seek to ascribe normative standing to science and morality without introducing an absolute realm of values, truths, or procedures, may connect humble origins via a long trajectory across many thresholds to more lofty convictions that, in the end, need not be all too different from traditional ones on ethics and epistemology. For a naturalist, in the sense considered in this paragraph, the transition from description to prescription is never beyond modification, though hopefully approximating the true and good.

In anthropological reflections on the human person as one who acts, thinks, and experiences in this world, naturalism stands primarily in contrast to positions such as rationalism, which are not much interested in the way mental capacities are embodied. Naturalism invites the understanding of humans as materially constituted, owing their abilities to an evolutionary history of billions of years. Within the scientific community and within debates in the philosophy of mind, research projects such as embodied artificial intelligence and connectionism seem to indicate a shift away from the dualistic tendencies of rationalism. The challenge for the naturalist is similar to the one mentioned above: If human beings are nothing but messy natural processes, what can be said of the distinct character of consciousness, ideas, feelings, and the like?

A fourth context where naturalism arises is in contrast to supernaturalism, that is, in relation to theological and metaphysical reflections on transcendence and the ways in which transcendence might manifest itself in ordinary reality. In this context, some consider naturalism to be identical to atheism, but this need not be the case.

Naturalism and natural science

Naturalism often refers to a view of the world that follows the natural sciences as its main guide for understanding the world and human nature. Such a naturalism is not formally implied by the sciences because other logically coherent constructions may be possible, including less restrictive forms of naturalism, such as the one advocated by the Whiteheadian process philosopher David R. Griffin in his Religion and Scientific Naturalism (2000).

With respect to ontology, science-inspired naturalism holds that all objects, including human beings, consist of the stuff described by chemists in the periodic table of elements. This stuff is further understood to consist of elementary particles and forces, and beyond that is assumed to consist of quantum fields, superstrings, or whatever. Such a naturalist must grant that human knowledge has not reached rock bottom. Hence, naturalism cannot be articulated from a fundamental ontology upwards. Nor need it imply that all phenomena can be described in terms of physics and chemistry. A conceptual and explanatory nonreductionism may be possible, arguing that higher level properties and entities have their own causal efficacy, just as future entities will be real and causally efficacious even when they are produced by present ones.

With respect to history, naturalism understands living beings, including humans, as the current stage in a bundle of Darwinian evolutionary histories on the planet, which is itself a transient phenomenon in a universe that has been expanding for some fifteen billion years. These insights do not commit one to a particular view on processes near the "beginning of time," if there is one. It is with history as with ontology: Fundamental issues about the beginning of the universe and the nature of time, space, and substance need not be settled for the naturalist.

Naturalism sees social and mental life as one of the fruits of the long evolutionary process. The "understanding" of science and philosophy is one facet of this, even when it reflects upon its own emergence. Naturalism holds that this is not a vicious circularity. Rather, science and other intellectual enterprises can be seen as building upon human capacities for dealing with their environment, improved piecemeal over many generations. Science is seen as a social phenomenon that is cognitively reliable, and increasingly so. Philip Kitcher argues well in The Advancement of Science (1993) that the human, historical, and social character of science need not undermine scientific credibility.

The difference between integrity and self-sufficiency

Explanations of facts always assume an explanatory framework of laws and earlier conditions. Conditions and laws can be explained on the basis of other such assumptions. The various sequences of explanations, if pursued persistently, converge via biology and chemistry on the desks of physicists and cosmologists. Their disciplines form a boundary of the natural sciences, where speculative questions with respect to a naturalist view of the world come most explicitly to the forefront. The questions left at the metaphorical "last desk" are questions about the world as a whole, its existence and structure, and not only questions about its beginning. The development of science may change the actual ultimate questions considered at any time. However, naturalism need not imply the dismissal of such limit questions as answerable or meaningless, nor need it imply one particular answer to such limit questions.

Given the lawful integrity of the world as disclosed by the sciences, one may distinguish four views of God's relation to natural reality and its regularities, two of which might be considered naturalistic. These two views are often conflated, to the disadvantage of the religious one. First, a theist might hold that God may act against the laws of nature. Whereas on the basis of natural processes one would expect a to happen, God makes b occur. Such a view of God's relation to the world has adverse consequences for one's esteem for God's creation (which includes the laws), since created reality is apparently of such a kind that God has to interfere against God's own creation. Second, some authors in the religion and science field argue that there is enough looseness (contingency) in the web God created in the first place to allow for particular divine actions, without going against any laws of nature. This looseness might perhaps be located in complex and chaotic systems or at the quantum level. The natural order could result in a number of different outcomes, say a, b, c, and d, and God makes it that c happens rather than a, b, or d. This view depends on contingency of an ontological kind in nature, whether at the quantum level or elsewhere.

Naturalism need not deny the existence of such contingency in nature; perhaps natural reality is hazy and underdetermined. However, naturalists would in general abstain from supplementing natural reality with supranatural determining factors. Chance is taken as chance and not as divine determination. Naturalism accepts that nature is, when one considers the level of causal interactions, complete, without theologically relevant holes. As created reality, the natural world has an integrity that need not be supplemented within its web of interactions. However, this integrity is not to be confused with self-sufficiency; it does not imply that natural reality owes its existence to itself or is self-explanatory. Thus, it is important to distinguish between naturalism as emphasizing the integrity of the natural world (the third view), and naturalism as claiming also the self-sufficiency of the natural world (the fourth view).

Arguments about the self-sufficiency of reality need to be different from arguments about explanations within reality. This difference is often neglected in atheistic arguments that appeal to science, such as Peter Atkins in The Creation (1981), in which he claims that science is about to explain everything. He traces back everything to a beginning of utmost simplicity, but he cannot do so without assuming real existence and a framework wherein certain rules and mathematics apply. A naturalist need not assume the self-sufficiency of the framework when seeing the framework itself as a whole that has integrity.

Transcendence: some naturalistic options

A naturalist who appreciates the integrity and lawfulness of reality can still conceive of a creator of this framework, the ground of its existence. This is best understood as a nontemporal notion. When God is not seen as one who interferes, the alternative is not to see God as the creator who started it all a long time ago but rather to think of God as the one who gives all moments and places of reality their existence and order. In such a way, one can combine a naturalist view of reality with theistic dualism, understanding the natural world as a whole as creation, dependent upon a transcendent creator. This might be articulated with the help of a distinction between primary and secondary causality, or between temporal processes in the world and timeless dependence of the temporally extended world on God. Such a view emphasizes, as do the monotheistic traditions, the distinction between God and everything that is not God.

The ontological dualism characteristic of such a naturalistic-theistic position is unattractive to many naturalists, who are concerned that any reference to a creator or ground introduces a supernaturalism that diminishes the integrity of the natural. Such naturalists might be attracted to a pantheist view, denying ontological duality of the natural and the divine; the natural is in some sense the divine. Traditional attributes of the divine, such as atemporality and omnipresence, can be associated with the laws of nature, which are upon this view not so much rooted in a transcendent source but immanent in natural reality. Reality may be causa sui in that quantum theories may allow a temporal universe to emerge, and at a smaller scale self-organization is characteristic of many processes. However, as in the preceding case, pantheistic answers are invoking further questions and objections, just as the theistic answer always allows for the further question about why such a god would exist.

A third option is an agnostic stance. Milton Munitz defends in his Cosmic Understanding (1986) that any actual theory of the universe is conceptually bounded; there might be a dimension of reality "beyond" any such account, but it could not be expressed adequately in language. "We shall be driven, consequently, and at the end, to silence, although the 'talk' on the way, if at all helpful, will have had its value in making the silence a pregnant one, and indeed an occasion for having an over-ridingly important type of human experience" (p. 231). Similarly, in his In Face of Mystery (1993), the theologian Gordon Kaufman points out various problems with the dualistic language of theism, as if we on this side of the great divide can know that which is on the other side; our knowledge of the world in which we live "always shades off into ultimate mystery, into an ultimate unknowing" (p. 326). Emphasizing "mystery," not-knowing is a safe strategy. However, it does not offer much guidance as to particular choices to be made in life; the notion of mystery is more epistemic than axiological or ontological.

These different theological viewsthe theist, the pantheist, and the mysterianistare all generally compatible with a science-inspired naturalist understanding of reality. The way they are articulated and defended may be influenced by current scientific theories, but variants of these positions can be formulated again and again.

A different naturalistic challenge: religion as a phenomenon

Science-inspired naturalism is a challenge for religion since it presents a view of the world that differs from traditional religious images. This leads in religion and science to conflicts between science and religiously motivated beliefs, such as creationism. However, a naturalist view also considers religions as phenomena within reality. Thus, they can be studied just like other human practices. The neurosciences may inform us of aspects of our constitution that give rise to our "inner life." And in an evolutionary perspective most naturalists would explain the emergence of religions functionally along lines similar to explanations for political institutions, languages, and other social phenomena: Religions arose because they contributed to the inclusive fitness of individuals or communities in which they arose and which in turn were shaped by them. An alternative could be that religions arose as a side effect with the emergence of some other trait, such as the rise of consciousness. Thus, naturalists might see religions with their myths and rituals as valuable means of dealing with the challenges of life. However, a contested issue then becomes whether we should take the vehicles (the rituals, myths, narratives, conceptualities, etc) seriously as cognitive claims, or whether those who want to take the cognitive claims seriously should reject the functional naturalistic approach.

Religious naturalism as thick naturalism

Religious naturalism might be understood as a "thick" naturalism, with idiosyncratic elements that allow for a decent amount of coping with the vicissitudes of life, with stories that support values and motivate humans. The notion "thick" is appropriated here from a distinction made by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz between thin and thick descriptions of a culture. Whereas the one offers a fairly abstract and general (thin) description, the other concentrates on the multitude of habits, beliefs, skills, narratives, and the like, which make for a more tightly woven whole.

For the history of religious naturalism one might refer to philosophers, scientists, and theologians of various backgrounds, including Henry Nelson Wieman, George Santayana, John Dewey, Charles Sanders Peirce, Ralph Burhoe, Mordecai Kaplan, and Jack J. Cohen, and to some extent even Alfred North Whitehead and William James (there is a huge overlap between religious naturalism and American pragmatism). Beyond the last century and a half, one may go back further in time and claim to be heirs of Spinoza as well as of other pantheistic scientists. Claiming these as ancestors is to some extent appropriation out of context, but that is precisely the intellectually ambivalent practice that strengthens identity. These "ancestors" were all perceived as somewhat heretical in their times, while standing in close contact with, if not being part of, the scientific communityprecisely the mix that may fit contemporary religious naturalism.

Like any subculture, religious naturalism is not uniform. To the contrary, as in any living community there have arisen dialects, with different speakers giving their own interpretations to the words. There are Christian and humanist dialects of religious naturalism, as well as biological, psychological, and physicalist ones, all of which reflect upbringing, training, and heritage, as well as needs and situations. Some dialects are dialects of another tradition as well, just as the local dialect near the border of the Netherlands is considered by some to be a dialect of Dutch, whereas others treat it as a dialect of German. Thus, liberal or revisionist forms of theology may be read as forms of Christianity, as well as of religious naturalism. There is a wide range of personal styles, from the sober, minimalist, and analytical (e.g., Jerome Stone, Charley Hardwick) to the evocative (e.g., Ursula Goodenough). Religious naturalism has become an umbrella that covers a variety of dialects, of which some are revisionary articulations of existing traditions, whereas others may be more purely naturalistic religions indebted almost exclusively to the sciences. There are family resemblances, with affinities and disagreements, but not unity.

See also Supernaturalism


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willem b. drees


views updated May 17 2018


A movement within American philosophy affirming that nature is the whole of reality; that man has his origin growth, and decay within nature; and that naturedefined as that which is amenable to scientific investigationis self-explanatory. The term is used also (1) for an ethical doctrine teaching that morality consists in living according to nature or to biological impulse; (2) for the aesthetic doctrine holding that art must imitate nature (see aesthetics); and (3) for the religious belief that identifies nature with the Godhead (see pantheism). This article is concerned with the philosophical position known as American naturalism, treating of its history and its salient characteristics, and concluding with a critique from the viewpoint of theistic realism.

History. As a philosophical attitude, naturalism is not indigenous to America. Its European roots are evident in British empiricism and in the positivism and sociologism of August comte and Ernst Mach. Nowhere but in the United States, however, has the term naturalism been commonly used to designate a particular set of philosophical views. Yet naturalism arrived relatively late on the American scene. It arose as an alternative to the idealism dominant in American thought during the last quarter of the 19th century and influential during the first two decades of the 30th. By the 1930s, naturalism had clearly replaced idealism as the predominant trend in American philosophical thinking.

The first major expression of the naturalistic temper in the United States is to be found in the Life of Reason (5 v., New York 190506) of George santayana. Other systematic expressions are subsequently to be found in Roy Wood Sellars' Evolutionary Naturalism (Chicago 1921), Frederick J. E. Woodbridge's Nature and Mind (New York 1937), and James B. Pratt's Naturalism (New York 1938). Contributions that also must be mentioned are those of Morris R. Cohen (Reason and Nature, New York 1931), Clarence I. Lewis (Mind and World Order, New York 1929), and William P. Montague (The Ways of Things, New York 1940).

Of American naturalists, however, John Dewey is the most important, not only because of his significant contribution to the doctrinal development of naturalism but also because through him naturalism has come to exert a strong influence on public education and consequently on the American mind generally. The history of American naturalism is strikingly reflected in Dewey's own intellectual development as he moved from an early defense of idealism, confident that the new discoveries in biology and psychology could be incorporated into an idealistic framework, to an outright naturalism, presented as the only outlook compatible with the modern scientific world view. The mature naturalism of Dewey not only is apparent in his later works such as Experience and Nature (Chicago 1925) and The Quest for Certainty (New York 1929), but it is reflected also in the writings of his disciples, particularly in the articles of his co-contributors to the platform volumes, American Philosophy Today and Tomorrow (ed. H. M. Kallen and S. Hook, New York 1935) and Naturalism and the Human Spirit (ed. Y. H. Krikorian, New York 1944). Many of the contributors to these two volumes subsequently developed themes first presented there. Although American naturalism is not to be identified with the authors represented in these symposia, it is evident that they well represent this tendency in 20th-century American thought. Of the contributors to these volumes, three of Dewey's disciples may be singled out as representative of the naturalistic interest and temperament, viz, S. Hook, E. Nagel, and J. H. Randall, Jr.

Sidney Hook (19021989), long associated with the Washington Square College of New York University, wrote extensively on social questions. His works include: John Dewey: An Intellectual Portrait (New York 1939), Reason, Social Myths, and Democracy (New York 1940), Education for Modern Man (New York 1950), and The Quest for Being (New York) 1961). Ernest Nagel (19011985), who taught at Columbia University after 1930, wrote principally in the philosophy of science and did much to refine the naturalist's concept of science. His important works are: Sovereign Reason (New York 1954), Logic without Metaphysics (New York 1957), The Structure of Science (New York 1961). John Herman Randall, Jr. (18991980), lectured at Columbia after 1925. Randall was notably influenced by Woodbridge as well as by Dewey. A historian of philosophy and perhaps more metaphysically inclined than most naturalists, Randall's major contributions to naturalism are his volumes Nature and Historical Experience (New York 1958) and The Role of Knowledge in Western Religion (Boston 1958).

At the beginning of the 21st century the naturalistic temperament dominates the American academic scene, representing an unchallenged view of reality. Few philosophers may call themselves "naturalist" or publish works with that term in the title. The idealism to which it was counterpoised in the early decades of the 20th century has long ago disappeared. Most in the naturalistic tradition adhere to a materialism in the order of being and to an agnosticism with respect to the existence of God. Two prominent American philosophers in the tradition of Dewey may be taken as representative of the naturalism of a previous generation: John Rawls (1921) and Richard Rorty (1931). Rawl's A Theory of Justice (1971) is mandatory reading for graduate students in philosophy, not only in America but also in Europe. Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) has been influential in literary as well as philosophical circles, advancing a subjectivism that denies that truth can be achieved.

Characteristics. The principal notions that underlie naturalism may be explained by sketching its characteristic teachings, i.e., its method, epistemology, anthropology, pragmatism, empiricism, ethics, and philosophy of value.

Method. Most of the proponents of naturalism present it as a tendency, an outlook, or a frame of mind, rather than as a system. Two basic theses underlie all naturalistic investigation. The first affirms that whatever happens in nature is dependent in some fundamental way on the organization of bodies located in space and time, and the second insists that the "scientific method" is the only means of obtaining reliable knowledge. Naturalists, on the whole, are found to be rather ambiguous in stating the nature of scientific method, but most would admit of its analogical predication. In a broad sense, scientific method is regarded as nothing more than the use of "critical intelligence." Hence the disciplines of sociology and economics, as well as history in some of its phases, are regarded by the naturalist as genuinely scientific.

Epistemology. Epistemologically the naturalist must be considered to be a realist, in the sense that he holds that the objects of knowledge are extramental and that they exist as they are perceived to be, although nominalistic and Kantian tendencies can at times be discerned in some naturalists. Metaphysically, the naturalist presents himself as antidualistic, objecting to the distinctions between the natural and supernatural, between man and nature, mind and body, and appearance and reality. He will accept the designation "materialist" if he is allowed to distinguish between reductive materialism and his own. Reductive materialism, or naturalism, affirms merely that every mental event is contingent upon the organization of certain physical events. The naturalist is careful to avoid suggesting that an idea is nothing but "a potential or tentative muscular response" or that pain and the occurrence of physiological manifestations is a contingent or causal one. As to the existence of God, immortality, separated souls or spirits, cosmic purpose or design, these are denied by the naturalist "for the same generic reasons that he denies the existence of fairies, elves, leprechauns, and an invisible satellite revolving between earth and moon." There is no evidence for any of them.

Anthropology. As to his teaching on man, the naturalist grants that man is unique among animals in ability and accomplishment but denies that he occupies a special place in nature. Between man and his animal ancestors there is only a difference of degree, not one of kind. Consciousness, like the other phenomena, can be described empirically, at least in its effects, and accounted for in terms of matter and the organization of matter. Presupposed by the naturalist is a theory of biological evolution according to which nature in its evolutionary process regularly gives rise to operations and functions on newer and higher levels. Consciousness and thought are regarded as two such higher operations. They have their sole cause in the organism in which they appear. Admittedly, thought and consciousness are distinct from any previous products of an evolving nature, but the factors from which they arose are no different, except for their particular organization, from the factors whence physical, chemical, and biological processes arose.

Pragmatism. By temperament the naturalist is oriented toward the practical. With the pragmatist he agrees that knowledge, if it is to be considered meaningful, must have practical consequences. But whereas C. S. peirce and W. James would be reluctant to identify pragmatism with any one method, the naturalist, particularly in the instrumentalism of John Dewey, identifies experimental science as the perfect example of the intimate connection between theory and practice, between knowing and doing. For the naturalist, mind or intelligence exists as a problem-solving power, and this function is regarded as more important than its theoretical employment. Science, insofar as it is the most perfect form of intelligence, takes on the status of instrument par excellence.

Concerned with the application of critical intelligence to the social, political, and economic problems of the times, the naturalist is contemptuous of fixed codes theologically or philosophically derived. He regards religion and traditional philosophy as impediments rather than as aids to social progress. Although he looks upon belief in God as a dangerous drain on social energies, he does not deny a certain sociological value to religion. But he does deny that it produces knowledge that can be subjected to rigorous criticism. What is valuable in religious witness, the naturalist asserts, can be derived from other sources.

Empiricism. Although the naturalist by disposition eschews systems, he has nevertheless, by adopting an empiricist attitude toward the problems of substance, efficient causality, and final causality, produced a consistent metaphysics with consequences in the moral and civic orders. By defining substance as a logical category, as that segment of the process called reality upon which man chooses to fasten his attention, and by adopting D. Hume's analysis of causality, the naturalist has ruled out the question of the origin of the universe. Because situations are always encountered as particular, concrete, and determinable, once can never experience anything that might be called "the Universe." The Universe, or Nature, has no meaning except in the sense that it might be considered a locus for all processes. The meaning of any process, according to the naturalist, is the way it functions in its context. Now what has no context can have no function and hence no meaning. The Universe has no discoverable context, since one experiences it neither as a whole nor as coming to be. Hence the question of its origin is a meaningless question.

Ethics. The implications for ethics are apparent. Since, according to the naturalist, there is no transcendent end for man, values must be found within the social context. As Krikorian has written, "the source of motivation for humanity must be found within the natural setting of its existence rather than in something which is neither verifiable no approachable." Values are relative because the most one can determine is "how best" he can do something under a particular set of circumstances. What is best absolutely is beyond one's knowledge. Man cannot determine what is best in the ultimate context, because the ultimate context is beyond discovery. Hence the good of a situation has to be determined on the basis of the defeat to be rectified. Each situation will give rise to its own good. There will be no fixed absolutes as the supernaturalist would suppose. The imposition of fixed or transcendent ends is simply a sign of an emotional grappling for certainty where certainty is impossible.

Values. In the realm of values the naturalist has been primarily a philosopher of ethics or an epistemologist, rather than a moral philosopher in the traditional sense. His concern has been with the question of how values ought to be determined. Although all naturalists are agreed that scientific procedure ought to be employed in ethics, there is no general agreement as to what constitutes scientific procedure. The naturalist recognizes that normative propositions cannot be determined by the same procedure employed in verifying questions of fact. He admits also that the use of data derived from the physical and behavioral sciences does not constitute an ethics as scientific. Most naturalists find the problem of how to determine values scientifically a particularly vexing one. Confronted with the problem, many fall back on custom or inclination as a guide in determining what is morally best or resort to some form of utilitarianism. But most naturalist admit that custom or inclination is not a sure guide; the whole point of the naturalist's concern with morals has been to get away from subjectivism. Utilitarianism is likewise found unsatisfactory, because it begs the question as to which of the ends and relationships human beings naturally cherish, or which of the values they normally institute, are desirable in the long run; it also fails to take into account the empirically discernible fact that man acts out of motives of duty. Admittedly naturalistic ethics is incomplete.

Critique. In evaluating the work of the American naturalist, the validity of many of his insights must be acknowledged: for example, his insistence on starting with experience, his interest in social and political questions, his concerns for an enlightened and critical morality, his emphasis on clarity and the useful function that linguistic analysis can perform in achieving clarity, and his demand that the philosopher shun any special witness, such as that which might be provided by intuition or religious faith. The natuaralist's attack on idealism, his repudiation of the Cartesian dichotomy between mind and body, his criticism of some prevailing ethical and religious conceptions of nature are features that are not reserved to naturalism but are part of a common realism and can therefore be accepted.

But what cannot be accepted is the naturalist's principal thesis that the boundaries of scientific knowledge are the boundaries of certain knowledge. Nowhere does the scientist himself proclaim that his method is the only one productive of reliable knowledge. Science includes no such treatment of epistemology or values as one finds them in naturalism. The naturalist's defense of his position is not a scientific defense but is based on an appeal to common sense and to the data of history.

The naturalist rightly attempts to rule out anything that has no claim to genuine knowledge, but in doing so he has assumed that philosophy has produced no certain knowledge. Also, he has implicitly denied that there is truth or falsity in philosophical knowledge. Again, the naturalist's employment of history is selective. The history of philosophy is not merely a record of discord. It also discloses amid the diversity of opinion and the prevalence of conflict a core of common philosophical experience that exhibits a remarkable unity. Étienne gilson has clearly shown in his Unity of Philosophical Experience (New York 1937) that similar approaches to perennial problems yield strikingly similar results. It seems, therefore, that the task of "critical intelligence" is not the wholesale repudiation of philosophy but the sifting of diverse opinions to determine what is valuable in them.

The naturalist's thesis that traditional philosophy and theology, especially during their period of ascendancy in the Middle Ages, have exercised a retarding influence on science is belied by developments in the history of evidence, accumulated since the pioneer work of P. Duhem and L. Thorndike, to show that medieval philosophy and theology, far from impeding the development of science and technology, actually laid the groundwork, through discussions of science and scientific method, for the socalled scientific renaissance of the 17th century. Also indefensible is the assumption that the distinction between God and nature inevitably leads to an antagonism in which man's temporal ends are slighted. Although theism in some of its forms may result in a neglect of temporal values, the history of Christianity, in every age, is replete with examples of concern for specifically human ends (see man, natural end of).

From an epistemological point of view, the naturalist's delimitation of reality to nature is a consequence of an uncritically assumed empiricism. In adopting the empiricist's solution to the problems of substance and causality, the naturalist has automatically ruled out the possibility of reasoning to a transcendent cause of nature or of recognizing the spiritual component of man. By following Hume, the naturalist opens himself to the same charges that are brought against that 18th-century philosopher, namely, that in atomizing experience he falsifies the fact that things are not given in isolation but in a dynamic interrelation with other things, both conferring and receiving action. Against the naturalist it can be argued that a respect for the empirical origins of knowledge does not oblige one to turn his back upon the generic traits of existence that can be discovered through reflection and by means of inference. Nor does an acknowledgment of the contingent and novel blind one to the unity and connectedness that also are features of nature. Finally, the naturalist's commitment to empiricism has rendered him impotent in precisely the area I which he has most wanted to succeed, the area of values. Naturalistic ethics as yet remains a program rather than an accomplishment. In a certain sense, this last remark can be made of the whole of naturalism, which in its positive character at times seems to be saying no more than "Let us be scientific!"

See Also: rationalism.

Bibliography: p. romanell, Toward a Critical Naturalism (New York 1958). j. d. collins, Three Paths in Philosophy (Chicago 1962), a critique of naturalism from the standpoint of a theistic realism. r. rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis 1982); Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge 1998). j. niznik and j. sanders, eds., Debating the State of Philosophy: Habermas, Rorty, and Kolakowski (Westport, Connecticut 1996). h. j. saatkamp, ed., Rorty and Pragmatism (New Haven 1986).

[j. p. dougherty]


views updated May 14 2018


NATURALISM, a literary mode developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, characterizedby detailed description, scientific and sociological themes, an objective, documentary quality, and a deterministic philosophy. The term "naturalism" is especially, but not exclusively, applied to novels. French writers such as the Goncourt brothers and Émile Zola pioneered naturalism in the late 1860s and 1870s. In the following three decades, naturalism appeared in Germany (the plays of Gerhart Hauptmann) and England (the novels of George Gissing and Arnold Bennett).

When transplanted to American soil near the turn of the twentieth century, naturalism flourished in the hands of such novelists as Harold Frederic, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, Stephen Crane, Hamlin Garland, David Graham Phillips, and Upton Sinclair. Many later works also have naturalistic qualities—including John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy (1930, 1932, 1936), John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath (1939), James Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy (1932, 1934, 1935), Richard Wright's Native Son (1940), Norman Mailer's Executioner's Song (1979), Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), and Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (1991). Naturalism's endurance suggests that it has become a fixture in the American literary landscape.


Naturalism's most important theorist, Émile Zola, was perhaps its leading practitioner. His preface to the second edition of Thérèse Raquin (1868) defines naturalism, while his "The Experimental Novel" (1880) elaborates on its method. Zola urges novelists to work like scientists, placing characters in controlled environments and studying temperaments rather than individualized characters. This strategy results in a narrative posture of detached objectivity and clinical observation. Zola exemplified these qualities in his twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series, illustrating the effects of heredity and environment on several generations.

Naturalism absorbed scientific and social scientific ideas, in particular Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and Karl Marx's theory of class struggle. These influences suggest why naturalists deliberately depict limited characters—not autonomous agents but creatures acted upon by biological or social forces. That Dreiser's Carrie Meeber "drifts" through Sister Carrie (1900), or that Sinclair's Jurgis Rudkis is pummeled by circumstances throughout The Jungle (1906) is precisely the point. Coercion or chance will more likely determine events than will choice, deliberation, or morality.

Naturalist works respond as much to material changes as to intellectual currents. Industrialization and urbanization occurred rapidly in America following the Civil War, and naturalists responded by addressing new literary subjects such as factory work (The Jungle), immigrant populations (Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky, 1917), slums (Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, 1893), the closing of the western frontier (Norris's The Octopus, 1901), and the growth of consumer culture (Sister Carrie). Despite a characteristic interest in dislocations brought on by the modern economy—or perhaps because of it—some naturalist authors trace a retreat from civilization, such as to the high seas (London's The Sea Wolf, 1904), or examine the provincial countryside that was increasingly being eclipsed by urban centers (Garland's Main-Travelled Roads, 1891).


Naturalists often depict biological, social, and economic determinants as interdependent, though dominant preoccupations can be isolated. Racial or genetic conditions may prevail (as in McTeague or The Octopus), or environmental ones (as in Wright's Native Son, 1940, or Maggie); economic class may be decisive (Dreiser's An American Tragedy, 1925), as may gender (as in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, 1905). Often naturalistic narrators, or their mouthpieces, engage in lengthy disquisitions explaining abstract concepts incomprehensible to their hapless characters (as in book three of Native Son, where the defense lawyer provides a Marxist analysis of why Bigger Thomas committed murder). Such lectures may seem digressive, while also placing the characters at a distance from the author and the reader. Such narrative interpolations also suggest the overlap of naturalism with social science. Indeed, naturalist novels share topics and rhetorical strategies with such nonfiction treatises as Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Women and Economics (1898), Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives (1890), the criminology of Cesare Lombroso, and the time-motion studies of Frederick Winslow Taylor.

Degeneration or "devolution" is a dominant naturalistic motif, manifesting itself in studies of crime and violence (such as Native Son and American Psycho) and in the liberal use of animal imagery to describe human conduct, as in the famous lobster and squid episode at the beginning of Dreiser's The Financier (1912). The animal fixation extends to one of Norris's characters thinking he becomes a wolf (Vandover and the Brute, 1914), and to London making a dog the protagonist of The Call of the Wild (1903).

Although some American naturalists attempt the objectivity lauded by Zola, most write more like journalists than like scientists. Many worked for newspapers and magazines before adapting journalism's characteristic descriptiveness into fiction. Sinclair's on-site research for The Jungle helped make his exposé of the meatpacking industry so shocking. Norris's research for McTeague ranged from dentistry to actual murder cases. In describing the trolley strike in Sister Carrie, Dreiser drew liberally from an account he had written for the Toledo Blade. Furthermore, journalism itself becomes a literary motif: in An American Tragedy, Clyde Griffiths reads a news account that inspires him to murder his pregnant girlfriend; in Native Son, Wright uses newspapers to expose the racist bias of the press; in the U.S.A. trilogy, Dos Passos combines actual news clippings to produce the "Newsreel" sections. American naturalism's documentary strategies have made it a reliable source for historians.

Another hallmark is a fixation on sexuality and gender. Naturalism has been described as hypermasculine, with its rugged male characters such as Norris's plain-spoken Buck Annixter in The Octopus, the virile tycoon Frank Cowperwood of Dreiser's Financier trilogy (1912, 1914, 1947), or London's brutal sea captain Wolf Larsen of The Sea-Wolf. Naturalists often depict women in similarly exaggerated terms: Dreiser's Carrie is more aroused by shopping than by her lovers; the large-armed Hilma Tree of The Octopus seems more nature goddess than human; and the miserly Trina McTeague parodies the frugal housewife. Women have not written as many naturalist novels, though Ann Petry's The Street (1946), Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905), and Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899), all profound studies of environmental pressures on women, certainly qualify.

Despite naturalist authors' overarching interest in ideologically charged subjects, it is impossible to generalize about their political positions. London and Sinclair were proud to be socialist reformers, and the development of proletarian literature in the 1930s owes much to naturalism. Norris, by contrast, looks down on his working-class characters, especially in McTeague. Authors frequently change positions over time: Dreiser, for instance, is critical of capitalism in Sister Carrie (the beginning of which shows factories exploiting workers, especially women) and in An American Tragedy (where Griffiths's unquestioning acceptance of the dominant ideology of success and ambition causes his downfall), but he glorifies capitalist unscrupulousness in the Financier trilogy.

Naturalism and Literary History

American naturalism has never been a self-conscious school, nor have its practitioners issued systematic theories. Naturalism is often situated alongside the more polite realism of such writers as William Dean Howells or Henry James. The comparison is both necessary and inconclusive, for some authorities maintain naturalism is an outgrowth of realism, and others, that naturalism repudiates the genteel premises of realism. An additional complication is that some authors said to exemplify naturalism, such as Dreiser, are also hailed as landmark realists. Further confusion results from archetypal naturalist Norris defining his writing (and also Zola's) as romanticism in The Responsibilities of the Novelist (1903). That text, along with Garland's Crumbling Idols (1894) and Dreiser's "True Art Speaks Plainly" (1903), are important manifestos of American naturalism with widely different emphases.

One way of resolving this confusion is to consider realism and naturalism as existing on a continuum. Both employ descriptive detail and social themes, but realism tends to adopt more conventionally moral positions, while seeming less extreme, less pessimistic, and simply less bizarre than naturalism. Thus, Howells's Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) shows its allegiance to realism by locating a businessman's "rise" in his decision to place morality above money making, while Dreiser's The Titan (1914) exemplifies naturalism in depicting a businessman's being rewarded for his amorality through financial success and multiple sexual partners.

The case of American naturalism demonstrates that literary modes are not absolute categories but flexible approaches

that authors can shape, combine, and rework. The treatment of the oppressive urban environment in Henry Roth's Call It Sleep (1934), for example, is naturalistic while its stream-of-consciousness narration is a modernist technique. Much of the nightmarish imagery of The Street is expressionistic, notwithstanding its naturalistic treatment of the effects of the ghetto on character. The compulsive characters in Winesburg, Ohio (1919) suggest naturalism, while Sherwood Anderson's Freudian emphasis on dreams and sexuality aligns his book with modernism.

This fluidity is especially significant because neither naturalism nor realism has ever enjoyed the éclat of the literary modes that flourished before it (the romanticism of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville) or after it (the modernism of Gertrude Stein and William Faulkner). Naturalism's detractors have claimed its penchant for plots of decline, deterministic vision, and limited characters demonstrate its impoverished vision. Such unpleasant features caused many early twentieth-century readers to complain of barbarous and even immoral writing. Dreiser's response is exemplary: "True art speaks plainly. … The sum and substance of literary as well as social morality may be expressed in three words—tell the truth" (reprinted in Becker, p. 155). Even if unwilling to grant naturalists the ground of superior truthfulness that they prized, we can still appreciate their widening of the literary canvas, their engagement with important social issues, and their often unembarrassed political engagement. The mode that struck earlier readers as "immoral" is indeed strong medicine, but has opened up countless literary possibilities that have yet to be exhausted.


Becker, George J., ed. Documents of Modern Literary Realism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Howard, June. Form and History in American Literary Naturalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Kazin, Alfred. On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature. Fortieth Anniversary Edition. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.

Michaels, Walter Benn. The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Pizer, Donald. Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Rev. ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

Pizer, Donald, ed. The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: Howells to London. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Wilson, Christopher P. The Labor of Words: Literary Professionalism in the Progressive Era. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

Clare VirginiaEby

See alsoLiterature .


views updated May 18 2018

naturalism In sociology and moral philosophy the term naturalism has several distinct but related uses which are frequently confused with one another. In moral philosophy, naturalism is the thesis (contra Hume's famous denial that ‘ought’ can be derived from ‘is’) that moral judgements can be deduced from (or are a type of) factual statements. In sociology, however, the most common use of the term derives from the long-running dispute about whether sociology can be a science in the same sense as the natural sciences; and, relatedly, whether its methods should be based on those of the natural sciences. Naturalism in this usage of the term (‘methodological naturalism’) is the view that sociology is, or can become, a science, and that the methods of the natural sciences—experiment, inductive generalization, prediction, statistical analysis, and so on—are directly, or by analogy, usable by sociologists. Anti-naturalists argue that a radically different methodological approach—closer to literary criticism, textual interpretation, or conversational analysis—is required.

Generally implicit in this methodological dispute are disagreements of an ontological kind about the nature of the subject-matter of sociology (and the other human sciences). In general terms, the opposition may be characterized as a dispute about whether human beings and their social life should be understood as a part of nature, continuous with the subject-matter of other sciences, or whether humans represent a radical discontinuity, a qualitative exception in the order of nature. In this area the dispute between naturalists and anti-naturalists clearly overlaps with that between materialists and idealists. However, further distinctions need to be made if we are to make sense of the different positions commonly taken up by sociologists. Ontological naturalists can themselves be divided into two broad groups. Those (such as, for example, sociobiologists) who take the view that sociology may become a science through direct annexation as a sub-division of the existing natural sciences (evolutionary biology, in the case of the sociobiologists), may be termed ‘reductionist naturalists’. Other ontological naturalists insist that humans and their social life are a part of nature, but nevertheless recognize that language, culture, complex forms of normatively ordered social life, and so on, establish a distinct order of reality (‘emergent properties’) which poses special challenges for scientific investigation. Émile Durkheim, for example, recognized the sui generis reality of social life, its irreducibility to the facts of biology or psychology, yet advocated a methodology modelled upon that of the natural sciences.

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