Influence of Naturalism on American Short Stories

Instructor: Sudha Aravindan

Sudha has a Doctor of Education Degree and is currently working as a Information Technology Specialist.

In this lesson, we will learn about how naturalism influenced American short stories. We will discuss the elements of naturalism from the 19th and 20th century, as well as, differentiate it from realism and read about stories that used naturalism.

Naturalism in American Literature

In 1897, an American author named Stephen Crane published a story titled ''The Open Boat.'' His story revolved around the experience of four men who survived a shipwreck. They were able to ride unto a lifeboat, but eventually, this also sank. All along, the men were trying to survive but their survival depends on chance and fate. Free will and strength alone did not save them.

Naturalism is a genre of American literature which became popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Characters and human life are portrayed as victims of fate and their lives are decided by predetermined factors rather than their own free will. The natural environment is all powerful and indifferent to the plight of human beings and people are small and powerless when faced with the many different elements of nature in everyday life. For these characters in the stories that embody naturalism, both the environment and heredity play a major role in the turn of events and the path that their life takes.

Difference between Naturalism and Realism

Naturalism followed realism, which was a movement in the middle until the late 1800's. Naturalism and realism were considered protests against the earlier genre of romanticism. Both naturalism and realism are similar in the sense that the focus is on the real work and real life of people, with no elements of fantasy or the supernatural.

Realism focused more on the reality of life and while naturalism also had the same features, it was different from realism because it had an almost fatalistic view of life. Also, in naturalism, human beings are enslaved by the society and environment, which is completely beyond their control and put them in a helpless state that compels them to almost resign to their fate.

Naturalism showcased the dark world of people including activities that are taboo and lives that experienced violence, while realism was mostly about everyday life and its problems.

In realism, an attempt was made towards a faithful representation of reality, in naturalism, on the other hand, nature and the environment were powerful forces that win over the characters.

Naturalism in Short Stories

''To Build a Fire'' written by Jack London is about a man who has to survive a hostile environment with his dog in extremely cold temperatures. The dog can be in sync with nature and instinctively knows how to survive. Also, nature has equipped the dog with fur that helps it to withstand the cold. But the man is portrayed as a victim and is helpless at the hands of nature and its unchangeable laws.

''Under the Lion's Paw'' by Hamlin Garland is a story about man against nature. The plot revolves around the effects of disasters on people's livelihood. Even though they can work very hard in the farms, there is a constant threat of natural disasters including drought and scourge of insects such as grasshoppers, so in effect, people are at their mercy.

Another short story where people are completely at the mercy of nature is ''Deal in the Wheat '' by Frank Norris. The characters, Sam and Emma lose their ranch through circumstances totally beyond their control. They are battling to survive and as they sink into the depths of economic depression, a glimmer of hope appears. Sam finds a job, but it is not because of anything they did themselves, it is fate that has somehow smiled on them.

In Naturalism human beings are at the mercy of nature, environment, and society

In ''The Law of Life'' by Jack London an old man, Koskoosh, is left to die in the cold winter after his own family leaves him alone since he is not strong enough to follow them. He struggles with the power of nature and its 'law of life,' where death is inevitable. This story captures many of the themes of naturalism:

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