Storybites
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Naturalism in Literature

Commentary by Karen Bernardo

The literary movements of naturalism and realism are often confused, and indeed the difference does not seem to lie so much in style as in philosophy. Both movements developed in the mid-nineteenth century as reactions to the overblown lushness and sentimentality of Romanticism, which seemed increasingly out of tune with the experiences of real people.

But while realism is essentially a writing style that attempts to render events with absolute objectivity, naturalism has a definite agenda behind it. The theory of naturalism is that human beings are beasts of burden, utterly without free will, doomed to struggle for survival in a world that could care less about their fate. The name "naturalism" refers to this law of nature under which human beings are believed to operate. A naturalist writer explains man in terms of the hereditary or environmental forces that operate upon him, and disavows any significant effect of man’s will or ambition upon the outcomes of his life.

Naturalism, in addition, holds that nothing is good or bad, right or wrong, moral or immoral, it just is. People are not good or evil; they are simply survivors or victims of the great forces that move them along like motes in the air or dead leaves in a stream. Thus, what will be will be, and there is little anyone can do about life but experience it.

The most significant American naturalist writer was Stephen Crane, who wrote Maggie, Girl of the Streets in 1893, The Red Badge of Courage in 1895, and The Open Boat in 1898. However, by that time naturalism already had established a strong following in France through the works of Emile Zola.