11 July 2006

Naturalism is a literary approach which seeks to examine and understand man's place in, and role as a part of, the existent physical world. It attempted the application of scientific principles to literature; its practitioners emphasized close observation of the physical world and the laws of cause and effect.

This approach to writing sprung from a growing understanding of the world, and humanity as a part of that world, as a closed system, controlled by inviolate physical laws. If, following this premise, each act is the necessary result of a prior act or set of conditions, the conclusion is inevitable. Such an approach is astonishingly similar to Aristotle's description of tragedy, in which the awful endings also become inescapable. This may account, to some extent, for the noticeable lack of happy endings in works falling under this rubric.

The scarcity of happy endings may, on the other hand, simply be a result of subject matter. While naturalism's tenets of determinism would make equally possible the following of a rich character through a "happy" and "productive" life, authors at this time were increasingly concerned with the condition of those falling outside the boundaries of success. Perhaps this was because new scientific theories pointed mankind toward a higher sphere, one which these people did not seem to be reaching; perhaps this was simply because misery is more interesting than success; or perhaps this was because the authors believed that showing how the downtrodden were trapped by circumstances which they could not control would lead those who could control such things to do so. Since the American naturalistic movement began in a time of relative economic prosperity and continued through the Great Depression, ascribing this optimistic motive to the authors of such dismal works seems both kind and justified.

Therefore, I will describe naturalism as that movement in literature which sought, by showing how little control one actually has over one's own life, to encourage the cautious and prudent exercise of power by those who did have some control over the situations of others. Furthermore, it attempted to portray the effects and implications of the new scientific revolution in an objective, rational manner, one modeled upon that very new science itself.


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