Naturalism (literature)

Naturalism is a literary movement beginning in the late nineteenth century, similar to literary realism in its rejection of Romanticism, but distinct in its embrace of determinism, detachment, scientific objectivism, and social commentary. The movement largely traces to the theories of French author Émile Zola.[1]


Literary Naturalism traces back most directly[2][3] to Émile Zola's "The Experimental Novel" (1880), which details Zola's concept of a naturalistic novel,[4] which traces philosophically to Auguste Comte's positivism,[2] but also to physiologist Claude Bernard and historian Hippolyte Taine.[1][4] Comte had proposed a scientific method that “went beyond empiricism, beyond the passive and detached observation of phenomena”. The application of this method “called for a scientist to conduct controlled experiments that would either prove or disprove hypotheses regarding those phenomena”. Zola took this scientific method and argued that naturalism in literature should be like controlled experiments in which the characters function as the phenomena.[5] Naturalism began as a branch of literary realism, and realism had favored fact, logic, and impersonality over the imaginative, symbolic, and supernatural. Frank Norris, an American journalist and novelist, whose work was predominantly in the naturalist genre, “placed realism, romanticism, and naturalism in a dialectic, in which realism and romanticism were opposing forces”, and naturalism was a mixture of the two. Norris's idea of naturalism differs from Zola's in that “it does not mention materialistic determinism or any other philosophic idea”.[6]

Apart from Zola and Norris’ views on the movement, there are various literary critics who have their own separate views on the matter. As said by Paul Civello, these critics can be grouped into four broad, and often overlapping, groups: early theorists, history-of-idea critics, European influence critics, and recent theorists. The early theorists saw naturalism thematically and in terms of literary technique. The history-of-idea critics understood it as an expression of the central ideas to an era. The European influence critics viewed it in much the same way as Zola. And recent theorists have either re-conceptualized naturalism as a narrative form, or denied its existence entirely.[5]

Some say that naturalism is dead, or that it “may have never lived at all: even in the works of Émile Zola”, its founder. “In 1900 an obituary entitled “The Passing of Naturalism” in The Outlook officially declared the literary movement deceased”, and that Zola's attempt to create a scientific literature was a failure.[7] This certainly wasn't the first time Zola's novel had been criticized however. After his novel Thérèse Raquin (1867) had been sharply criticized for both contents and language, in a foreword for its second edition (1868), in a mixture of pride and defiance, he wrote: "Le groupe d'écrivains naturalistes auquel j'ai l'honneur d'appartenir a assez de courage et d'activité pour produire des oeuvres fortes, portant en elles leur défense",[8] which translates as: "The group of naturalist writers I have the honor to belong to have enough courage and activity to produce strong works, carrying within them their defense."