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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 8 - 19th Century Prose Narrative 


Another literary movement intimately related to realism -- and often difficult to distinguish from realism -- is naturalism. Formulated in France toward the end of the reign of Napoleon III, the ideas behind naturalism spread to other countries, including the United States, by 1880. Émile Zola was the principal spokesperson of this movement; his work, The Experimental Novel (1880), crystallizes his ideas.

Picture of Anton Checkhov.
Anton Checkhov. (8.11)

Like the Russian Anton Chekhov (1860-1914), who once stated that the writer was like a chemist to whom "nothing on earth is unclean," Zola believed that truth must include the low and the vile. Therefore Zola's naturalism, which used many of the observational methods and novelistic techniques favored by the realists, combined two of the tenets that many writers in the second half of the century held so dear -- social reform and faith in science -- although the naturalists emphasized the seamier side of life.

Zola's critics thought him a dangerous radical because his "heroes" were the worker and members of the underclass. Like Charles Darwin, who underscored the roles of heredity and environment in the evolution of the species and "survival of the fittest," Zola sympathetically but pessimistically described the destruction of the individual shaped not by inner spiritual forces but by natural ones: heredity and environment. While others saw him as a passionate advocate of reform, he regarded himself as a scientist using a methodology that reduced the individual to a type of laboratory animal, whose individuality was sacrificed to the greater force of humanity or, to use a concept of Darwin's, the species.

In his attempts to be a dispassionate observer, Zola also was influenced by the French doctor and researcher, Claude Bernard (1813-1878), whose important treatise Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1865) promulgated basic principles of scientific research. The novelist likened the novel to an experiment, carried out by the author-scientist with carefully selected subjects, who become the very characters of the novel.

Picture of Mystical Knight (Oedipus and the Sphinx), by Odilon Redon.
Mystical Knight (Oedipus and the Sphinx) by Odilon Redon. (8.12)

The novel could thus be viewed as a kind of saga about underdogs, victims of society, circumstances, and family background, who must struggle to survive. Zola's reforming, democratic, and highly critical attitudes made a sizable impact on literature in the United States during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Two leading American practitioners of naturalism were William Dean Howells (1837-1920) and Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945). Their respective masterpieces, The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) and Sister Carrie (1900), painted large canvases of American society and pessimistically rather than moralistically portrayed individuals in great, unending conflict with institutions and the environment. Two other American naturalist writers, Frank Norris (1870-1902) in The Octopus (1901) and Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) in The Jungle (1906), courageously exposed the perilous conditions and ruthlessness of large industries that treated workers inhumanely.



Realism and the 19th Century Novel
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Naturalism in the American Novel

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