Examples of Naturalism in Literature

Definition of Naturalism

Naturalism is a literary movement that came as the branch of realism in the late 19th Century. The term promotes an idea of predeterminism in the human life and strives to represent life and its reality in an objective manner as possible.

It focuses on the negative aspects of the human existence. This makes naturalism characters to be influenced by factors such as heredity, environment as well as the conditions within society. These works focus on the hardships of the lower class, struggle, determinism, the impact of nature and social circumstances on the behavior of the people.

Short History of Naturalism

Naturalism emerged as a reaction to the social transformation resulting from industrialization, urbanization, and science amongst other factors of the nineteenth century.

This view is not far from Charles Darwin theories and the scientific method; attempting at reaching a degree of objectivity in the literature.

The movement was started in France by Émile Zola, whose literary works such as “Thérèse Raquin” and “Germinal” comprised of naturalist features.

It was not long before other writers in Europe and latter the United States borrowed elements of, or wrote works that could be classified under naturalism, some of the writers include Guy de Maupassant, Thomas Hardy, Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser.

Such authors concentrated on the role of the surroundings and heredity on individuals. Many of them depicted the life of the needy and ignored population with the purpose to impart honesty.

Function of Naturalism

The primary purpose of naturalism in the literature is to depict human beings straight and whole, and illustrate how environment, heredity, and socio-political conditions influence a person.

The feature of naturalism is to explain the social forces that determine individuals’ behavior, and the goals of the writers are to demonstrate the difficulties of people’s everyday lives.

Instead of glorifying and idealizing life, naturalism tries as much as possible to portray life as it is. It is aimed to make the people have a better perception of life’s reality and thereby leading to the stimulation of thought and course of action.

Through this type of narrative, the reader is forced to look at the social and environmental conditions that shape behavior and consequences thus offering a more humane perspective of life.

Examples of Naturalism in Literature


“Germinal” by Émile Zola

Under the crush of coal, the planks groaned. Between their black, rugged edges, lumps of shale fell with a soft rustle, and all at once a wide rift opened up, down which they slipped into the abyss, a cascade of stone, an avalanche from the roof to the pit floor. And as if in response, the earth roared, with a continuous, hollow rumble, like the sound of the sea in a storm, a roar that increased and then died away, but never ceased, as though the entire seam was in movement. The men had drawn back; they were leaning against the walls, keeping a lookout. The earth above seemed to be fracturing, giving way. The rending was heard distinctly, a noise like a huge creaking hinge, while the fragments that fell into the cutting vanished into darkness. From above came a loud crash: a huge rock broke away and rebounded onto the mine shaft. The light went out. They were buried.

In the passage, the author depicts a mine disaster that presents the horror that the miners fell. The detailed description of the natural forces and environments that cause the disaster bears a naturalist’s preoccupation with the success of nature and frailty of man.

Zola’s realism is especially notable here, in his extensive accounts of the miners’ conditions; the detailed specificity which captures the brutal and dreary life of the working class correlates to the deterministic nature of the novel.


Maggie: A Girl of the Streets” by Stephen Crane

The girl, Maggie, blossomed in a mud puddle. She grew to be a most rare and wonderful production of a tenement district, a pretty girl. None of the dirt of Rum Alley seemed to be in her veins. The philosophers up-stairs, downstairs, and on the same floor, puzzled over it. When a child, playing and fighting with gamins in the street, dirt disguised her; but at the age of sixteen, when she emerged from a scowling hoodlum, a most rare and wonderful production, a pretty girl, none of the dirt of Rum Alley seemed to be in her veins. Elevated trains and street cars roared by her in a steady procession, their clatter adding to the general tumult as if it were necessary to their existence.

In the excerpt, the main female character is Maggie, the young girl raised in the context of the tenement district. In spite of the filth and degradation that characterize congenial surroundings of the main characters, Maggie remains aesthetically beautiful and pure.

These symbols are evident in the realistic descriptions of the city and contemporary society, as well as the seemingly inescapable pressures of heredity and environment in Maggie’s life, according to naturalist concepts. The noise of the city and the always looming trains symbolize the never-ending struggle of the lower class.


“Sister Carrie” by Theodore Dreiser

When Caroline Meeber boarded the afternoon train for Chicago, her total outfit consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and a yellow leather snap purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister’s address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars in money. It was in August, 1889. She was eighteen years of age, bright, timid, and full of the illusions of ignorance and youth. Whatever touch of regret at parting characterized her given up by her mother, her sisters, and a score of acquaintances, was purely domestic. They were concerned for her as one who was leaving them forever and might never come back. But her sisters and her mother were not able to see what was really driving her away: they had never known the iron hand of want. She was going away to a great city with no other idea than that she was going to work. She did not know the city, and so had no sense of the magnitude of her adventure.

In this particular passage, the author gives an account of the main character, Carrie Meeber who leaves her home-town for Chicago with the dreams and ambition; few clothes to her back. Jane carries few items.

The focus on her poverty and the cares of her family underline the idea of the economic determinism. Carrie’s trip to the city is attributed to the naturalism especially the element of milieu in that people become products of their environment and conditions.


“The Call of the Wild” by Jack London

But Buck possessed a quality that made for greatness—imagination. He fought by instinct, but he could fight by head as well. He rushed, as though attempting the old shoulder trick, but at the last instant swept low to the snow and in. His teeth closed on the tender part of the hind leg. The white dog faced him, jaws clipping together like the steel jaws of a trap. Buck had not forgotten his heritage. He was a killer, a thing that preyed, living on the things that lived. Unwittingly, he was fit to survive.

The writer indicates the theme of survival and the intrinsic disposition of the animals. The protagonist, Buck, mirrors the principles of the naturalism, as his inherent qualities and the severe conditions of the wilderness shape his behavior.

Thus, London’s detailed description of Buck’s fight and his physical nature underlines deterministic processes dominating the apex predators’ lives.


“Ethan Frome” by Edith Wharton

They had long ago ceased to talk to each other. So much the better! When she spoke it was only to complain, and to ask him to do some more things for her, because she was too weak, or too cold, or too tired to do them herself. Sometimes she broke down sobbing because she said she could not live any longer. He never answered her any more. He had no voice to speak to her with.

Here, Wharton communicates the main feelings and emotions of the narrative: bleakness and oppression of the protagonist’s life.

The portrayal of the tense relationship of marriage between Ethan and Zeena serve to underline the naturist movement, whereby environment and social conditions determine people’s fate.

Wharton underlines their inner isolation and portrays as the same cold environment of New York which forms the characters’ lives.


“McTeague” by Frank Norris

It was Sunday, and, according to his custom on that day, McTeague had left his room, taking the concertina with him, and had gone to spend the afternoon at Polk Street. His trunk was full of little trinkets—floss, silks, and woolen scarfs, the souvenirs of his marriage, which he had cherished for so long. That day he took out his concertina and played “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” The music soothed him, filling him with a vague and dreamy sadness. McTeague was a giant, with heavy, yellow hair and a square-cut, prominent jaw; but beneath the thick hide of a brute was a soft heart and a child’s simple nature.

The passage depicts the novel’s protagonist, his nature is depicted in this passage with both vices and virtues. Moreover, McTeague is presented as a coarse man of massive build in conflict with his gentle natured and touchy inner life.

It gives the naturalist inspiration of the environment and heredity significant focus through concentrating on the intricate depiction of his conditions and practices. Norris succeeds in representing how McTeague’s character is predetermined by the deterministic forces governing his life.

Difference Between Naturalism and Realism

Naturalism and realism are considered as two branches to portray the life accurately.

However, both these two terms are different in their aims and methods. Realism is an attempt to portray real life and people without idealization stressing the authentic depiction of the characters and environment.

A realism genre in literature tends to depict struggles of relations between people and within oneself and the ethical issues arising from them.

Naturalism emphasizes the deterministic forces that shape the human behavior. The naturalist writers tend to take time and write about the Environment, heredity and social conditions which make them to depict characters as being shaped by such factors.

Naturalism resorts to depict the unpleasant realities which include hardship, aggression, hopelessness and generally has more pessimistic attitude to their subjects.

Realism aims at showing life as it is, whereas naturalism aims at showing why life is as it is – often through a scientific or predestination point of view.

See also: Narrator Examples in Literature

Literary Devices Related to Naturalism

1- Determinism

Determinism is a theory that purports to argue that everything in this world including human beings’ conducts are predetermined by certain factors.

Generally, in naturalist literature, determinism is used to highlight the fact that one’s life is predetermined by unstoppable factors like heredity, environment and social situations.

This device serves to support the naturalist view stating that the cause of human action is not because of their choice.

2- Environmental Determinism

Environmental determinism is a unique type of determinism, which discusses the role of the physical and, especially, the social environment in shaping people’s actions and growth.

In realistic literature, this device is employed to draw attention to an individual’s environment and the societal configuration of his/her world, thereby illustrating the effects of conditions such as poverty, urban growth, and natural geography on human life.

See also: Literary Devices That Start With N

To conclude, naturalism is a realistic literary style that depicts man and his fields and tend to present an authentic view on the life and an explanation of the effects of hereditary and environmental factors on humans. As a result of dealing with determinism, struggle for existence, and the impact of the environment, naturalist writers strive to make people more knowledgeable about the existing reality.

Techniques like determinism and environmental determinism add depth to the literary naturalist literature by depicting the predestination of the characters’ actions. Naturalism gives relevant information about the relationships between people and their worlds, emphasizing the darker aspects of life and the need to reflect reality accurately, meaning that it is still important even today.

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