5 Introduction to Naturalism

Introduction to Naturalism

The purpose of this topic is to provide an overview of the philosophical foundations and stylistic traits of Naturalism, and to examine the differences between Naturalism and Realism. You may be expected to compare and contrast these two literary movements on the exam.

Naturalist writers described their work as a revolt against Realism. In retrospect, however, most literary historians now regard Naturalism as an offshoot of Realism, characterized by a focus on working-class life and a largely (though not universally) pessimistic view of human nature.

Naturalism emerged in France in the second half of the nineteenth century, with the novelist Émile Zola at the centre. Norris admired Zola tremendously, as “Zola as a Romantic Writer” shows, and critics immediately took to calling Norris the “American Zola.” The unsettling conversation between Trina and Maria in chapter 16 of McTeague, in which the two women argue over whose husband has treated her worse, was adapted from Zola’s novel Nana.

Zola took the central goal of Realism—to present the world as it truly was, and to understand individuals in relation to their social circumstances—and radicalized it. For him, Naturalist fiction was a work of the imagination that aspired to the epistemological status of a science. (Epistemology is a way of knowing; in philosophy, epistemology is concerned with how individuals and cultures determine what counts as truth.) In the essay “The Experimental Novel” (1893), Zola charted a future path for the novel by way of recent developments in the field of
medicine. According to some doctors, medicine was still an “art” and not a science: that is, doctors observed their patients, rather than performing the kind of controlled experiments that had become the norm in chemistry and physics. Zola argued that in the realm of fiction, too, it was time to make the leap from mere observation to experiment. Paraphrasing the physiologist Claude Bernard, Zola defined experimentation as a process of investigation that “varies or modifies” natural phenomena, or “makes them appear under circumstances and conditions in which they are not presented by nature” (sec. I). If a person has a certain disposition or temperament—to “amorousness,” to jealousy, to drink—then an experimental novelist would expose him or her to ever more extreme situations, not unlike a chemist putting a solution on the burner to measure its boiling point. According to Zola, a writer ought to look at adultery and murder with the same dispassionate clarity that a doctor looks at diseased tissue—not to judge, but to cure:

We are, in a word, experimental moralists, showing by experiment in what way a passion acts in a certain social condition. The day in which we gain control of the mechanism of this passion we can treat it and reduce it, or at least make it as inoffensive as possible. And in this consists the practical utility and high morality of our naturalistic works, which experiment on man, and which dissect piece by piece this human machinery in order to set it going through the influence of the environment. When things have advanced further, when we are in possession of the different laws, it will only be necessary to work upon the individuals and the surroundings if we wish to find the best social condition…. To be the master of good and evil, to regulate life, to regulate society, to solve in time all the problems of socialism, above all, to give justice a solid foundation by solving through experiment the questions of criminality––is not this being the most useful and the most moral workers in the human workshop? (sec. III)

Although Norris did not set out to “regulate” human society the way Zola did, he agreed with Zola that humans operated according to biological and social forces beyond their control, and that works of imaginative literature had the power to make those forces visible. For Norris, Naturalism was an extension of Romanticism, as exemplified by Victor Hugo’s tales of the poor and downtrodden in revolutionary France (most famously in Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame). In both Hugo and Zola, Norris saw characters “wrenched” from day-to-day life and “flung into the throes of a vast and terrible drama” (“Zola as a Romantic Writer”).

Naturalism was noted for its frankness when it came to sex. Norris’s “A Plea for Romantic Fiction” represents the novelist as a spy and a voyeur, “prying, peeping, peering into the closets of the bedroom, into the nursery, into the sitting-room.” But the Naturalists’ approach to sex was often clinical, and McTeague is about as erotic as a wildlife documentary.

Not everyone approved of Naturalism. Henry James, during a brief stay in Paris, described Zola’s fiction as the literary equivalent of raw sewage. Actually, he called it merde au naturel, which means “naked shit” (quoted in Cooke). James considered the Naturalist method artless and sensationalistic.

When McTeague was published, some reviewers praised it for its unflinching vision of working-class life, while others called it “vulgar,” “gruesome,” “gross,” “sordid,” “revolting,” and “stomach-turning” (McElrath and Crisler 4). And what was it that turned nineteenth-century readers’ stomachs? Not the scenes of domestic violence or sadomasochism. Those topics were considered acceptable, indeed titillating, when performed by working-class, ethnic characters (Loving, introduction to McTeague, xxv). But Norris’s British publisher insisted on removing the passage in which a child, Owgooste, wets his pants. This anecdote should remind us that there is nothing “natural” or universal about what a culture deems worthy of literary representation.

Naturalism’s Formal Qualities

Think of the short stories that are happening every hour of the time. Get hold of them, some of you younger writers, grip fast upon the life of them. It’s the Life that we want, the vigorous, real thing, not the curious weaving of words and the polish of literary finish. Damn the ‘style’ of a story, so long as we get the swing and rush and trample of the things that live. While you are rounding a phrase a sailor has been shanghaied down there along the water front [sic]; while you are sustaining a metaphor, another See Yup has been hatcheted yonder in Gambler’s alley; a man has time to be stabbed while you are composing a villanelle; the crisis of a life has come and gone while you have been niggling with your couplet. ‘Murder and sudden death,’ say you? Yes, but it’s the life that lives; it’s reality, it’s the thing that counts. We don’t want literature, we want life.

-Frank Norris, “An Opening for Novelists: Great Opportunities for Fiction Writers in San Francisco,” San Francisco Wave, 22 May 1897 (in Pizer, ed., McTeague)

Naturalism is generally distinguished from Realism on the basis of its subject matter rather than its form. But as the passage above indicates, Naturalist writers had strong opinions about literary form, too. Norris’s renunciation of “style” and “polish” is emblematic of the rugged, masculine ideal of the Roosevelt 1890s. William Dean Howells wrote a relatively positive review of McTeague in which he said it was a book “for men” (Howells, “A Case in Point,” in Pizer, ed., McTeague, 325). This was after Norris insulted him in “Zola as a Romantic Writer.”

Ironically, in the passage above, Norris is using a variety of literary techniques to make an argument against literariness. The paragraph is full of anaphora, alliteration, and apostrophe. The long sentence beginning with “While” is made up of a series of repetitive clauses, each built around the contrast between a violent death and a literary device or poetic form. “Another See Yup” alludes to rumours of organized crime among Chinese immigrants to California, many of whom came from the See Yup or Sze Yup region of Guangdong (then called Canton).

Naturalism does, in fact, share many formal qualities with Realism. It takes an objective stance toward its characters and attempts to replicate vernacular speech and accents realistically. The narrative is likely to be omniscient, providing a “god’s-eye” view with access to every character’s actions and thoughts; this all-seeing perspective is connected to the idea of fiction as a scientific experiment on people in their environments. The philosopher Georg Lukács (as cited in Fleissner 39–41) argued that Naturalism replaced narration (storytelling) with mere description. Whether this created the impression of an unchanging and unfree world, as Lukács claimed, is the subject of some debate.

What does it mean to describe rather than narrate? Let’s examine the “panorama” of Polk Street from chapter 1. The scene is framed by the window through which McTeague gazes. Day labourers take over from the night labourers “about seven o’clock”; breakfast is served “between seven and eight”; clerks appear “later,” their bosses later still; and all the comings and goings of San Franciscans of every age and class happen on the hour. There is no impression of causality, only the clock. People belong to types, “armies,” or “swarms,” and events happen in the passive voice (“a conversation was begun…groups were formed”). But the scene is not dreary or mechanical, and unlike the daily routines in In the Cage, it does not convey a sense of alienation. Where individuality is lacking, the city appears with a life of its own.

Norris tried to imbue objects such as cable cars, windows, and lampposts with “distinct personalities,” as he wrote in an essay called “Storytellers vs. Novelists” from 1902. Men and women, he said, were “not so important in themselves as in relation to the whirl of things in which [the novelist] chooses to involve them” (quoted in Quay 214). Norris’s recognition of urban America as a “whirl of things” sets the stage for all the twentieth- and twenty-first-century writers who found themselves at once enraptured and overwhelmed by the detritus of consumer culture.


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