American Literary History: Romanticism, Realism and Naturalism

Romanticism |Realism | Naturalism | Definitions | Works Cited


Naturalism (1890 - 1915): The term Naturalism describes a type of literature that attempts to apply scientific principles of objectivity and detachment to its study of human beings. Unlike, Realism which focuses on literary technique, naturalism implies a philosophical position: for naturalistic writers, since human beings are, in Emile Zola's phrase, "human beasts," characters can be studied through their relationships to their surroundings. The Naturalist believed in studying human beings as though they were "products" that are to be studied impartially, without moralizing about their natures.

Naturalistic writers believed that the laws of behind the forces that govern human lives might be studied and understood through the objective study of human beings. Naturalistic writers used a version of the scientific method to write their novels; they studied human beings governed by their instincts and passions as well as the ways in which the characters' lives were governed by forces of heredity and environment. This is a logical extension of Realism. The term was invented by Emile Zola partially because he was seeking for a striking platform from which to convince the reading public that it was getting something new and modern in his fiction. Naturalism is considered as a movement to be beyond Realism. Naturalism is based more on scientific studies. Darwin's Theory of Evolution is a basis for the Naturalist writer. Natural selection and survival of the fittest help to depict the struggle against nature as a hopeless fight.


  • Objective
  • Darwinistic--survival of the fittest
  • Detached method of narration
  • Language--formal; piling on of images ("wretched excess")
  • Human beings unable to stand up against enormous weight of circumstances.
  • Deterministic--natural and socioeconomic forces stronger than man.
  • Heredity determines character
  • Violence--force against force
  • Taboo topics
  • Animal imagery
  • Attention to setting to the point of saturation
  • Characters--lower socioeconomic class
  • Static characters
  • Naturalists observe, then write. Often about the black, darker side of life.
  • "Pessimistic materialistic determinism" (Pizer)
  • Characters conditioned or controlled by environment, heredity, instinct or chance but they have a compensating humanistic value that affirms the significance of the individual (Pizer).
  • Characters do not have free will (determinism)


"The conflict in naturalistic novels is often 'man against nature' or 'man against himself' as characters struggle to retain a 'veneer of civilization' despite external pressures that threaten to release the 'brute within' " (Campbell).
Nature is indifferent to man
The universe is deterministic
American Naturalists: European Naturalists:

Jack London
Frank Norris
Stephen Crane
Theodore Dreiser
Edith Whatron
Ellen Glasgow
John Steinbeck
Richard Wright

Emile Zola
Maksim Gorky (Russia)
Stephane Mallarme







Resources on Naturalism:

Created by: Carol Scheidenhelm, Ph.D.
Director, Learning Technologies and Assessment
Loyola University Chicago

Last updated: August 14, 2007