Naturalism was one of a wave of "isms" that swept through the cultural world of the late nineteenth century. Its most vocal advocate was the French author Émile Zola (1840–1902), a prolific novelist, dramatist, essayist, and critic. Highly controversial in the period between the heyday of realism (1830–1860) and the emergence of early forms of modernism at the end of the century, naturalism in France was so closely identified with Zola's fiction that few claimed the label after his death. The widespread translation of his work, however, gave Zola a global influence that led to the emergence of naturalist schools around the world. The influence of Zola's naturalism was particularly prominent in Russia, which in the nineteenth century had very strong cultural ties to France; in western European nations; and in the United States. The naturalist charge in the United States was led by novelist and critic Frank Norris (1870–1902), dubbed "the boy Zola" by contemporary critics. Although Norris is now considered somewhat of a secondary figure in U.S. literature, the naturalist aesthetic he popularized influenced major twentieth-century writers such as Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and John Steinbeck.
In popular use, the term naturalism is sometimes used to mean fiction that exaggerates the techniques of realism, sacrificing prose style and depth of characterization for an exhaustive description of the external, observable world. Literary critics often accept this view, but add to it a laundry list of features used to identify the naturalist novel:
- a deterministic plot of decline or degeneration, where characters are crushed by the forces of a universe they can neither understand nor control;
- attenuation of exceptional or heroic characters, so that each character is a balance of merits and flaws; the critic Philippe Hamon calls this an "aesthetic of normative neutralization" (p. 102);
- attention to lurid or squalid subject matter, particularly focused on the aspects of human experience conceived to be base or instinctual; main characters are often perverted by uncontrollable appetites, drives, or lusts;
- characters drawn from the working class—in U.S. naturalism particularly, perversion and degeneration are associated with working-class characters;
- a modern or contemporary setting, most often urban or industrial, rather than the geographically or temporally distant settings favored by adventure and romance fiction;
- sociological research by the author, including on-site investigation of a workplace, subculture, or location, expert advice, and incorporation of specialized vocabularies.
This list is derived in large part from Zola's most emblematic (and best-selling) novels, such as L'assommoir (1877), Nana (1880), Germinal (1885), and La bête humaine (1890), and closely matches other naturalist monuments, such as Frank Norris's McTeague (1899).
Origins of the Term
The precise meaning of the term naturalism varies across the disciplines: a literary critic, philosopher, theologian, and political scientist would each use the term in a slightly different way. In its broadest sense, naturalism is a doctrine holding that the physical world operates according to laws discernible through empirical science. The naturalist method, modeled after nineteenth-century innovations in the experimental sciences, involves informed, systematic observation of the material world. For the naturalist thinker, human beings are nothing more than a part of this world—like rocks, plants, and animals, they are subject to the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, which govern human behavior as inexorably as they govern the natural world. Naturalism is thus materialist and anti-idealist in that is does not recognize the existence of nonmaterial or nonobservable phenomena (such as a spiritual realm or higher moral law); it is also antihumanist in that it grants no exceptional status to human beings. Every action taken by a human being, according to the strict naturalist view, has a cause in the physical plane; human behavior is thus entirely determined by the laws of cause and effect in the material world.
In applying this theory to literature, Zola drew on the work of an older contemporary, the French philosopher, historian, and literary critic Hippolyte Taine (1828–1893). Taine's monumental Histoire de la littérature anglaise (1863–1864; History of English literature)—a philosophical treatise disguised as literary criticism—sought to demonstrate that a nation's culture and character are products of material causes; as he put it in a famous quip, "vice and virtue are products, like vitriol and sugar" (p. 3). Taine argued that works of art are the products of three factors: race, moment, and milieu. Taine's English translator renders this phrase as "race, epoch, and surroundings" (p. 12), though the French term race is much closer to the English words nation or people than to race. In the analysis of literature, Taine claimed, "we have but a mechanical problem; the total effect is a result, depending entirely on the magnitude and direction of the preceding causes" (p. 13).
Zola's Understanding of Naturalism
While Taine sought to develop a scientific method for the analysis of literature, Zola's naturalism was a method for writing novels; where Taine sought to understand a nation through its literary output, Zola used naturalist philosophy as a basis for creating characters, and with them a portrait of French society in the second half of the nineteenth century. Combining Taine's theories with research developments in the biological and behavioral sciences, Zola conceived of the novel as a laboratory for the study of human behavior under the influence of heredity and environment. By his mid-twenties, having published several novels, he began to plot out his massive life's work, a twenty-novel series entitled The Rougon-Macquart—a work to rival the vast Human Comedy of Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850), to be based in science rather than intuition.
Zola tirelessly promoted his theories in columns that appeared in newspapers, magazines, and journals. Unfortunately, the most widely anthologized expression of this theory is also among the least thoughtful. This essay, "The Experimental Novel" (1880), is essentially an extended paraphrase of the physician Claude Bernard's influential 1865 work, Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine. The essay is now regarded as historically interesting if theoretically naïve, and contemporaries—including former disciples of Zola, such as the author Henry Céard (1851–1924)—ridiculed it as a misunderstanding of Bernard's work.
To take this essay as representative of Zola's thinking about naturalism would be a serious error. Naturalism in literature was as much a promotional concept as a literary-critical one, and the range, variety, and energy of Zola's writing about the term indicates he was perhaps less interested in providing a final definition than in keeping alive the heated debates about naturalism. As a literary critic, theater critic, and essayist, Zola was a provocateur: he was strident, often caustic, and prone to dramatic and sensationalist gestures. Early in his career, Zola came to understand and exploit the value of notoriety; his first volleys of criticism were collected in 1866 under the title My Hatreds, and his unrepentant slogan "I am here to live out loud" is still occasionally cited by artists and activists. "The Experimental Novel"—along with many of Zola's defenses of naturalism—is best understood from this perspective: to criticize the essay for its lack of theoretical rigor is to miss entirely its brilliance as a provocation and a promotion.
If Zola's criticism is more confrontational than systematic, a broader look at his writing on naturalism nonetheless reveals several consistent ideas. First, Zola often claimed that the lurid, pornographic subject matter of many his novels was incidental to naturalism; what counted was the method—which, as his former disciple Céard observed, could hardly be called "experimental," but that nonetheless shared the careful, systematic observational methods of the emerging social sciences of psychology, sociology, and anthropology. For audiences that consumed Zola's novels as quickly as he could write them and for critics and government censors who called naturalism "putrid literature," the graphic content of the novels was naturalism's most salient feature, and Zola and his publishers often faced obscenity charges in France and abroad (cheap pulp editions with racy covers appeared in the United States as late as the 1950s). For Zola, however, unflinching analysis was the substance of naturalism.
A second, often overlooked theme that runs throughout Zola's writing on naturalism is his repeated association of naturalism and democracy. Perplexed scholars have called this connection a double dysfunction, a strange marriage, a paradox: nineteenth-century theories of biological determinism seem hardly compatible with the Enlightenment ideals of citizenship and self-government. In the words of the critic Harold Kaplan, for naturalist literature in the United States, "democracy seemed to require strong idealizations to support free choice" (p. 37). But for Zola, naturalism in literature and democracy in politics were logical, even necessary evolutionary developments. Zola likened the outsized protagonists of Romanticism to kings and princes, out of place in the modern world. For him naturalism, like democracy, was a representation—faithful if at times unflattering—of the common people.
Naturalism was politically controversial in its heyday—conservatives called Zola a "literary anarchist," while liberals saw his work as a "calumny of the people"—and its place in literary history has been hotly debated by scholars. By the mid–twentieth century, three major strands of thinking about naturalism's legacies had emerged in Europe. In the early part of the century, Zola was adopted by the French left and elevated to the status of one of France's great writers. Thanks in part to Zola's courageous role in the Dreyfus affair, a political scandal that rocked France in the 1890s, naturalism—once reviled for its unsympathetic portrayals of the working class—was reassessed as an eye-opening portrait of the exploitation of the weak. As a result Zola, spurned by the literary establishment and prosecuted by the French government during his lifetime, was eventually laid to rest in the Pantheon, France's secular cathedral to the "Great Men" of France.
Twentieth-century critics who favored the difficult modernist writing of James Joyce or Marcel Proust, however, were suspicious of this popularity. Naturalism's accessibility and faith in science were incompatible with the modernist turn toward self-consciousness, interiority, opacity, and style; from the modernist perspective, Zola's naturalism looked like a kind of dead end of realism, an overextension of realist strategies at a time when modernist artists were turning away from representational art forms. As the critic James McFarlane put it, naturalism "exhausted itself taking an inventory of the world while it was still relatively stable, [and as a result] could not possibly do justice to the phenomena of its disruption" (p. 80).
A third response to Zola and naturalism is best represented by the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács (1885–1971), a prominent figure in leftist aesthetic debates in Europe in the mid–twentieth century. Lukács affirmed the common antithesis between realism and modernism, but saw naturalism as a form of modernism, not an outgrowth of realism. The differences between naturalism and modernism were, for Lukács, merely superficial differences of style. On a more substantive level—for Lukács, the ideological level—naturalism is a form of modernism. As he put it, "There is a continuity from Naturalism to the Modernism of our day"—a continuity of "underlying ideological principles" (1963, p. 29). In contrast to "critical" realism's "dialectical unity," both naturalism and modernism, despite their widely divergent styles, deny the possibility of understanding and action, instead presenting the human condition as one of alienated subjectivity, isolation, and psychopathology. For Lukács, then—in spite of Zola's courageous politics (see his 1940 essay "The Zola Centenary")—naturalism was, like modernism, "not the enrichment, but the negation of art" (1963, p. 46).
Naturalism in the United States
Naturalism was a short-lived phenomenon in France, where it was closely associated with Zola himself. Of Zola's acolytes Page 1604 | Top of Article (known as the "Médan group, after the location of Zola's country estate), only one, Guy de Maupassant (1850–1893), has achieved a lasting reputation. Although short-lived, Zola's influence was global: his work was translated into nearly every language, and writers from Tokyo to Buenos Aires to Moscow saw in his work both a modern sensibility and a fierce critical edge. Scholars have long discussed naturalist literary movements in England, Russia, Germany, and Spain, but are still hard at work mapping naturalism's influence outside Europe: in the 1990s, two journals devoted to Zola and his legacy, Excavatio: Nouvelle Revue Émile Zola et le naturalisme and Les Cahiers Naturalistes, published a number of essays tracing naturalist movements, often short-lived, in eastern Europe, Asia, and South America.
The U.S. version of naturalism proved to be more enduring: the novelist Frank Norris succeeded in establishing naturalism as a permanent part of the lexicon of literary critics (in spite of his rather idiosyncratic view of naturalism as a magnification of Romanticism rather than a form of realism). Although naturalism was initially associated with Norris and his contemporaries Stephen Crane (1871–1900) and Jack London (1876–1916), a wide range of authors over the next seven decades have been shown to have been influenced by naturalism. As the U.S. scholar June Howard put it, "the name taken by a clearly defined, relatively short-lived movement in France [became] in America a broad term used by some writers and many critics to characterize a diverse group of works … over a long period of time" (p. 30). The critic Donald Pizer, in particular, has mapped naturalism's influence on twentieth-century U.S. literature.
Although Norris also wrote adventure novels, his McTeague (1899), The Octopus (1901), and the posthumously published Vandover and the Brute (1914) are the touchstones of U.S. naturalism and were strongly influenced by Zola; some critics accused Norris of lifting passages directly from the French novelist. Although Crane's novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) is sometimes used to mark the beginning of naturalism in the United States, Norris's criticism established the term in an American context. Norris also used his influence as a reader at Doubleday to promote naturalism; his most notable success was Theodore Dreiser's masterpiece Sister Carrie (1900), which the publisher pursued on the strength of Norris's recommendation in spite of his own distaste for the book.
Beginning in the 1980s, U.S. naturalism saw a critical revival, as new theoretical developments led to a fresh perspective on the genre—and indeed, on the notion of genre itself. For traditional literary criticism, focused largely on concerns of aesthetic merit and often, if implicitly, moral value, naturalism had been somewhat of a problem: as a genre, U.S. naturalism privileges blunt artlessness and—like Zola—posits an essentially amoral universe. Critical works such as Walter Benn Michaels's The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism, a tour de force of New Historicism, and June Howard's Form and History in American Literary Naturalism, broadly informed by the theoretical developments of structuralism and poststructuralism, examine naturalism as a complex meditation on cultural contradictions faced by U.S. culture at a pivotal moment in its history. Michaels, for example, sees both literary naturalism and debates about the gold standard as part of an entire culture's struggle with the relationship between the material and the ideal—a struggle that, for Michaels, is constitutive of personhood itself. Howard, drawing on the French philosopher Louis Althusser's notion of ideology, argues that naturalism was one way for turn-of-the-twentieth-century U.S. culture to process threatening contradictions in the social order, such as contradictions between the egalitarian ideals of democracy and prominent social and political inequalities of the period. For Howard, the most notable of these are the dominance of industrial capitalism and the increasingly visible presence of groups—a largely immigrant urban working class, women, and African Americans—seeking to be included as agents in U.S. political life.
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Jonathan P. Hunt
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