American naturalism is a writing technique that coincided with another major movement, realism, during the post-Civil War period until around 1910 or 1920. It was said to be an extreme form of realism, one that moved away from the middle class focus of the realists and pertained more to the dregs of society. Naturalism’s largest difference from realism, however, was the deterministic nature and view of the works written with naturalistic modes. Unlike the realists and their “local color,” naturalism was more concerned with urbanized environments. Many of the naturalist writers were from these urban cities and included Frank Norris and Stephen Crane among others. Crane, one of the better-known naturalists, was an honest practitioner of this technique, and as such his short story “The Open Boat” will be examined later in this essay.
Naturalism is said to be simply an “emphasized realism,” but others would argue that it is deserving of its own place in American literary history. Perhaps Lars Ahnebrink said it best, describing naturalism as “a manner and method of composition by which the author portrays ‘life as it is’,” much like the realism, but naturalism differs. Ahnebrink goes on to say, “…in accordance with the philosophic theory of determinism.” Determinism is a philosophical point of view that puts the events of a person’s life beyond the grasp of them and out of their control. Patricia Penrose gives a simple analogy that naturalists thought of the individual as “a helpless object.” As the definition would point out, naturalists believed that human beings had no control over the events in their lives and that the universe was largely responsible for actions that took place. This was radically different from the third movement taking place in the late 19th century, romanticism, which sought humans as God-like and was even more extreme from the realists who believed that humans at least had some control of the events in their lives.
As such, Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of the Species” largely influenced the naturalists. The ideas Darwin put forth contributed to the idea that biological and environmental forces controlled human beings. This led the American naturalists to be “skeptical… of organized religion and beliefs in human freewill,” points out Davies. Davies continues on that naturalists wished to find explanations for behavior in natural science. It would follow then, that the naturalists found little to no room for divinity in their conception of the universe. Man was just a prop inside nature, a rag doll that is moved only by the external forces of the universe.
Naturalism, though most often noted for it’s deterministic philosophy and ideas on man and his fate in the universe, had many more characteristics that critics and literary theorists have defined. Among these traits are a focus on the lower classes of society, characters are thwarted of their free will by external forces beyond their control including an indifferent nature, the settings are frequently urban, the world is random, details are not as important as in realism, and life is often cutthroat and cut short.
In stark contrast to realism, naturalism was much more concerned with the urban societies. It is no accident then that many of it’s key writers were of urban environments, such as Stephen Crane who was said to have always identified with the urban poor will living in New York City. Some of the other key practitioners of the naturalistic mode were Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, and Edith Wharton. They served to influence such later writers as John Steinbeck and Richard Wright.
Stephen Crane is one of the most prominent figures of the naturalist movement. His works include stories such as “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” and “The Blue Hotel.” But perhaps Crane is most well known for one of his later stories, “The Open Boat.” This story is of an exemplary naturalism because of its cynical portrayal of life, the characters are left to surmise to the will of external forces, and nature is not an entity but rather an indifferent force.
Crane’s story seems to have a theme of hopelessness that runs through it which contributes to its cynical and morbid view of life. From the beginning to the end of the story, the tone and perception of the writing is one that is somber as well as the characters never seem to be free of peril. The four men are always struggling against something; waves, sharks, their muscles, their psyche, their acceptance of a nature they don’t control. Its this belittling of the central characters that leads Crane’s piece to be the most pessimistic. This tone is very naturalistic because it contributes to a feeling of cut-throat life and little control. The characters are always hopeless because they are not agents of free will, as the realists believed, but they are puppets to the ocean and the winds and their dingy.
These puppeteers of the characters are the external forces that the characters must combat but will ultimately lose to no matter what. As a story of naturalism, Crane’s characters are left to the randomness of external forces whether that is fate, nature, or a force beyond those two. In the case of “The Open Boat,” the forces operating on the character are largely ones of nature and fate. The men are often wondering why fate has brought them so far only to drown them, but what they fail to realize is that fate had nothing to do with it. Fate was not toying with them nor was fate intending to drown them. In fact, fate had nothing to do with it at all because the acts that happened upon these men were random and were uncontrollable by them. This is the essence of naturalism – a lack of control.
While fate is not controlling the characters, it is most certainly nature. The ocean, the currents, the winds, the temperature of the sea, the sun rising and setting; these are all factors of nature that play a role in how the men are affected while drifting in their dingy. But these factors are also entirely indifferent. They are random. Crane notes that “shipwrecks are apropos of nothing,” and even states quite obviously in reference to nature that “she was indifferent, flatly indifferent.” In the story, this is seen as sharks come and go, wind changes directions and the sun is regarded as just there. Nature has no preference of these men. If it did, why would it kill the strongest swimmer in the oiler? Nature is an entity that acts as itself and those who act within it are subject to its randomness and power.
Crane’s “The Open Boat” is a perfect piece to examine the naturalistic mode of writing. It contains elements that include a pessimistic tone and external forces that are indifferent to the characters in the story. As a naturalist, Stephen Crane is a leader.
Campbell, Donna M. “Naturalism in American Literature.” Literary Movements. 2007.
http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/natural.htm. (9 April 2008)
Crane, Stphen. The Open Boat. The Heath Anthology of American Literature . 5th Ed.
Vols. C, D, & E: 1865-Present. Ed. Paul Lauter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company,
Davies, Jude. “Naturalism.” The Literary Encyclopedia. 5 Nov. 2001.
http://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=764. (9 April 2008)
Penrose, Patricia. “American Realism: 1865 – 1910.” American Collection Educator’s
Site. 2007. http://www.nctamericancollection.org/amer_realism.htm. (9 April 2008)
Royal, Derek P. “Naturalism.” Survey of American Literature II. Last revised date
unknown. http://faculty.tamu-commerce.edu/droyal/naturalism.htm. (9 April 2008