Definition of Naturalism

Naturalism was a literary movement that attempted to portray realistic situations often with a pessimistic and detached tone. Naturalism grew out of and against certain movements; the theory to which it owed most, in fact, was Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Naturalist writers believed that anything that happened could be traced to genetic or environmental causes, and characters would act in “scientific” ways according to these principles. Naturalism was opposed to movements such as Surrealism and Romanticism, which focused on symbolic and supernatural events as well as idealizing situations and characters.

The term was first used in 1863 by a French art critic named Jules-Antoine Castagnary. He was referring to a so-called “naturalist school” of painting. The writer Émile Zola later adopted this term for literature that focused on narratives based on the scientific method.

Difference Between Naturalism and Literary Realism

The definition of naturalism is quite similar to that of literary realism; in fact, naturalism is considered to be an offshoot that grew out of literary realism. The focus in both is to show believable events and characters without hiding from the true difficulties of human life. However, naturalism is more heavily influenced by Darwin, and naturalist works of literature often end with a character no better off than in the beginning. Though naturalism attempts to give an honest depiction of reality, there is also the assumption that none of us can overcome who we “really” are. Realism does not necessarily have this same deterministic and pessimistic outlook. Indeed, realism asserts an individual’s right to choose his or her own path, while naturalism aligns itself with the power of external forces over internal decisions.

Common Examples of Naturalism

Naturalism was not just a literary movement; it also had branches in philosophy, sociology, and the visual arts.

  • Naturalism in Philosophy: In philosophy, naturalism is the belief that only “natural” laws and forces govern the world, rather than any sort of supernatural or spiritual forces. Naturalism in philosophy is much older than in the arts or literature, as it goes back to pre-Socratic philosophers.
  • Naturalism in Sociology: In sociology, naturalism is the belief that the same general rules and principles govern the natural world and the social world.
  • Naturalism in Visual Arts: There are three pertinent definitions of naturalism as it relates to visual arts. The first is the depiction of ordinary, everyday subjects, while the second is a means of representing a subject in an honest and un-idealizing manner. The third is the name of a school of painters that avoided politics and social issues in their works, and attempted to portray life in the following mixture: “it is truth balanced with science.”

Significance of Naturalism in Literature

Naturalist works of literature often focus on the vices of humanity and human misery in an unflinching way; a main critique of Naturalist writers was that they were too blunt. Though naturalist writers used humans as their characters, they treated these characters as creatures to be analyzed just like any other animal. Indeed, they thought that humans acted in predictable ways stemming from some innate and unchangeable part of themselves. A key aspect of naturalism is determinism; i.e., the belief that all actions and events are determined by forces external to an individual will. There are certainly many examples of characters lacking free will prior to the rise of naturalism, especially in the Greek dramas where gods held all the power, but naturalism found the cause of this determinism to be nature itself. Some contemporary writers might still use elements of naturalism in their works of literature. However, as a movement, it has generally fallen out of favor in current writing.

Examples of Naturalism in Literature

The following three excerpts from naturalist novels illustrate the three primary principles of the movement: a inescapable inheritance of what kind of person any of us can strive to be, the lack of distinction between man and beast, and our lack of free will.

Example #1

The whole street bore the flavours of riches and show, and Carrie felt that she was not of it. She could not, for the life of her, assume the attitude and smartness of Mrs. Vance, who, in her beauty, was all assurance. She could only imagine that it must be evident to many that she was the less handsomely dressed of the two. It cut her to the quick, and she resolved that she would not come here again until she looked better. At the same time she longed to feel the delight of parading here as an equal. Ah, then she would be happy!

(Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser)

Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie is a famous example of naturalism. The novel shows how the protagonist Carrie begins to get wealthy, but finds that no amount of wealth or fame can make her anything other than the country girl she always was. In the above excerpt, Carrie is distinctly aware of the innate difference that separates her from her friend Mrs. Vance.

Example #2

Following this came a red rage. He developed the acute exasperation of a pestered animal, a well-meaning cow worried by dogs. He had a mad feeling against his rifle, which could only be used against one life at a time. He wished to rush forward and strangle with his fingers. He craved a power that would enable him to make a world-sweeping gesture and brush all back. His impotency appeared to him, and made his rage into that of a driven beast.

(The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane)

Stephen Crane’s naturalism example The Red Badge of Courage takes an unflinching look at warfare, and shows the brutal carnage as well as the way that men become indistinguishable from animals. In this excerpt, the protagonist acknowledges that his bloodlust has turned him into “a driven beast.”

Example #3

Thus, as token of what a puppet thing life is, the ancient song surged through him and he came into his own again; and he came because men had found a yellow metal in the North, and because Manuel was a gardener’s helper whose wages did not lap over the needs of his wife and divers small copies of himself.

(The Call of the Wild by Jack London)

Jack London’s novel The Call of the Wild is told from the point of view of a dog, but in naturalism not even a dog can escape his fate. As the above excerpt points out, life is “a puppet thing” and all of us are subject to the whims of nature and predetermined fate.

Test Your Knowledge of Naturalism

1. Which of the following statements is the best naturalism definition, as it applies to literature?
A. An attempt to depict realistic events in such as way that assumes hereditary influences to outweigh individual ambitions.
B. A glorification and idealization of nature with a focus on emotion and individual will.
C. A resolution of previously contradictory concepts of dream and reality with unnerving and illogical juxtaposition.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following statements is true?
A. Naturalism is based on Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.
B. Naturalism is associated with determinism, i.e., a lack of free will.
C. Naturalism is more popular now than ever before.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following quotes could be from a naturalist text?


Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”


The boy who had helped him with the mass brought him a cup of thick and steaming chocolate, which he drank without pausing to breathe. Then he wiped his lips with a handkerchief that he drew from his sleeve, extended his arms, and closed his eyes. Thereupon Father Nicanor rose six inches above the level of the ground.


The men dropped here and there like bundles. The captain of the youth’s company had been killed in an early part of the action. His body lay stretched out in the position of a tired man resting, but upon his face there was an astonished and sorrowful look, as if he thought some friend had done him an ill turn. The babbling man was grazed by a shot that made the blood stream widely down his face. He clapped both hand to his head. “Oh!” he said, and ran.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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