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Naturalism is a nineteenth-century literary and arts genre that focuses on the realistic depiction of life and all its struggles

Naturalism is defined by its focus on extreme realism and the idea that one’s environment determines one’s characteristics. With this in mind, writers crafted their characters with a continual focus on the social conditions familial relationships, and environment that shaped them. Naturalist writers believed that one’s actions could be traced back to a source. This means that a writer’s characters always acted in regard to their closest influences. 

Naturalism pronunciation: Naht-ur-uhl-ill-sm

Naturalism definition and examples


Definition and Explanation of Naturalism 

One of the primary influences on the naturalism movement was Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The idea that human beings are struggling for survival in a hostile environment was appealing. Only the fittest make it through life. In contrast to movements like romanticism and surrealism, naturalism was focused on the common values of individuals. It did not place value on symbolism or the supernatural as other popular literary and art movements did. 

The term “naturalism” was first used in 183 by Jules-Antoine Castagnary, a French art critic. He used it first to refer to the genre of painting and it was later used to refer to writing after Émile Zola took on the term. 


Naturalism or Realism? 

Naturalism is an offshoot of realism and the two share many similar features. For example, naturalism and realism are both interested in depicting human life realistically and clearly. They did not embellish life or try to make it more romantic. These painters and writers wanted to show the true nature of human life with no idealization. 

Naturalism though was far more influenced by the scientific method, and specifically the writings of Charles Darwin. It’s from his idea of evolution, and the concept that all human actions and characteristics can be traced back to a source, that fuels their work. Naturalist stories were unafraid to conclude with the main character very much where they were, to begin with. Realism on the other hand does not have the same dreary outlook on life. The writers of this movement were more interested in an individual’s right and ability to determine their own path through life. 


Naturalism and Visual Art 

Naturalism in art refers to the realistic depiction of people, objects, and events in a believable setting. The movement evolved as a reaction to romanticism and the idealization of these same elements. It is often related to plein air painting or painting outside. Some of the best-known naturalist painters are Albert Charpin and William Bliss Baker. Naturalism was one of the most important trends of the century and eventually, when combined with realism, led to impressionism and the eventual birth of the modern art movement. 


Examples of Naturalism in Literature

The Awakening by Kate Chopin 

Kate Chopin’s well-loved novel, The Awakening is a great example of naturalist principles at work. Edna Pontellier’s life is determined by the pressure asserted by society. She’s a mother, a wife, and a woman in a world that allows her to be no more than that. This is something that eventually leads her to end her own life. She feels continual pressure from the world to be something she’s not and is often misunderstood by those around her. Here is a quote from Chapter 5 of the novel in which the narrator is describing the changes that Edna Pontellier, the main character, has been going through: 

In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her.


The Call of the Wild by Jack London

The Call of the Wild is told from the point of view of a dog, Buck. It’s a short adventure novel that was published in 1903 and is set in the Yukon, in Canada. It focuses on the story of Buck whose stolen from his home in California and sold as a sled dog in Alaska. By the end of the novel, Buck’s environment has transformed him and he uses his learned experiences to become a leader in his new world. Here is a well-loved quote from the novel in which Buck’s newfound freedom comes with new things he has to master in order to survive. 

He must master or be mastered; while to show mercy was a weakness. mercy did not exist in the primordial life. It was misunderstood for fear, and such misunderstandings made for death. Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, was the law; and this mandate, down out of the depths of Time, he obeyed.

Read poetry from Jack London.


The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

The Red Badge of Courage depicts warfare in a clear, unidealized manner. Crane speaks directly and unflinchingly about the brutality human beings can inflict upon one another. So much so, Crane describes, that they become more animal than human. Here are a few lines from the novel which show how the main character’s environment has transformed him: 

Following this came a red rage. He developed the acute exasperation of a pestered animal, a well-meaning cow worried by dogs. He had a mad feeling against his rifle, which could only be used against one life at a time. He wished to rush forward and strangle with his fingers.

Read poems by Stephen Crane.


Importance of Naturalism 

Naturalism has been an incredibly influential genre of literature and art. It is often cited as one of the major drivers for the evolution of the modernist movement. Naturalism focuses on the dark side of life in a way that previous movements had not been willing to do. In these stories, readers are exposed to racism, sexism, poverty, prostitution, and more. The novels, stories, and plays, as well as the visual art, are often criticized for how dark they can get, and the unfortunate endings that many characters meet. Despite this, these stories bring suffering, and the personal life struggles humanity faces to the surface in a way that’s meant to improve the lives of people in a variety of situations. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Genre: a type of art, literary work, or musical composition that is defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.
  • Romanticism: a movement that originated in Europe at the end of the 18th century and emphasized aesthetic experience and imagination.
  • Surrealism: a movement of literature, art, and drama in which creators chose to incorporated dreams and the unconscious.
  • Bildungsroman: a literary genre that focuses on coming of age stories, following a character’s progression towards adulthood.


Other Resources 

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