Brief History of Naturalism


Naturalism, which began in the late 19th century, was a literary movement which would replace popular literary themes like Romanticism and Surrealism. This movement was only popular around aspiring American writers of its time. Naturalism is in many ways similar to Realism, however, it more closely identifies with the primary cause of one’s actions and/or beliefs. The thought process behind naturalistic writing is to show the reader that instinct and social situations would always be the determining factor in a person’s decisions. The most critical theme that is implied in Naturalistic literature is that one’s emotions dominate logical reason in the majority of circumstances.


The above picture depicts a brain demonstrating Naturalistic behavior by separating emotion from reason.

The first true example of Naturalism in literature can be found in Stephan Crane’s novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. In short, the girl whom is known as Maggie, loses her purity outside of wedlock and is disowned by her family to avoid social embarrassment. After she is abandoned, she returns to her boyfriend that took her “to deh devil.” She is then, yet again, left to fend for herself. She then attempts to reunite with her family, but is turned away in embarrassment. You are then led to believe that the girl has turned to prostitution. She is then found dead at the end of the novel. Once the news of her death reaches the family, their emotions quickly change from embarrassment to “melodramatic mourning for [their] ruined child.” They cunningly confess “I’ll fergive her!”

This novel is a great example of Naturalism. Once the family finds out of Maggie’s social blunder, they do not want the shame to reflect upon themselves or the family. They turn her away as would be expected of the time. However, once the news of her tragic downfall reaches the family, they mourn very publically as to draw attention in a way that is expected of the neighbors and their peers.


Above is the cover of Crane’s novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.

Naturalism peaked in American literature with writer Frank Norris. Norris wanted to show readers how one can escape the animalistic instincts and carry himself as a rational member of society.  In his novel, McTeague, Norris revealed how “ambition and greed” wreck the life of a successful dentist. The overall idea of his novel was to prove to readers that human beings natural instincts cannot be overcome by reason. Norris wrote to show readers that in order to succeed, one must rise above emotion and thought, and embrace knowledge.


The video above is a quick introduction to Naturalism that for some may help increase understanding.


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