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Origins Of The Term, Zola's Understanding Of Naturalism, Critical Debates, Naturalism In The United States

Naturalism was one of a wave of "isms" that swept through the cultural world of the late nineteenth century. Its most vocal advocate was the French author Émile Zola (1840–1902), a prolific novelist, dramatist, essayist, and critic. Highly controversial in the period between the heyday of realism (1830–1860) and the emergence of early forms of modernism at the end of the century, naturalism in France was so closely identified with Zola's fiction that few claimed the label after his death. The widespread translation of his work, however, gave Zola a global influence that led to the emergence of naturalist schools around the world. The influence of Zola's naturalism was particularly prominent in Russia, which in the nineteenth century had very strong cultural ties to France; in western European nations; and in the United States. The naturalist charge in the United States was led by novelist and critic Frank Norris (1870–1902), dubbed "the boy Zola" by contemporary critics. Although Norris is now considered somewhat of a secondary figure in U.S. literature, the naturalist aesthetic he popularized influenced major twentieth-century writers such as Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and John Steinbeck.

In popular use, the term naturalism is sometimes used to mean fiction that exaggerates the techniques of realism, sacrificing prose style and depth of characterization for an exhaustive description of the external, observable world. Literary critics often accept this view, but add to it a laundry list of features used to identify the naturalist novel:

  • a deterministic plot of decline or degeneration, where characters are crushed by the forces of a universe they can neither understand nor control;
  • attenuation of exceptional or heroic characters, so that each character is a balance of merits and flaws; the critic Philippe Hamon calls this an "aesthetic of normative neutralization" (p. 102);
  • attention to lurid or squalid subject matter, particularly focused on the aspects of human experience conceived to be base or instinctual; main characters are often perverted by uncontrollable appetites, drives, or lusts;
  • characters drawn from the working class—in U.S. naturalism particularly, perversion and degeneration are associated with working-class characters;
  • a modern or contemporary setting, most often urban or industrial, rather than the geographically or temporally distant settings favored by adventure and romance fiction;
  • sociological research by the author, including on-site investigation of a workplace, subculture, or location, expert advice, and incorporation of specialized vocabularies.

This list is derived in large part from Zola's most emblematic (and best-selling) novels, such as L'assommoir (1877), Nana (1880), Germinal (1885), and La bête humaine (1890), and closely matches other naturalist monuments, such as Frank Norris's McTeague (1899).

1868 Portrait of Émile Zola by Édouard Manet. Oil on canvas. Zola's works turned an unflinching eye on the minutiae of human behavior, and he portrayed his characters with unstinting and often provocative detail. PORTRAIT OF EMILE ZOLA (1840–1902) 1868 (OIL ON CANVAS), MANET, EDOUARD (1832–83)/MUSEE D'ORSAY, PARIS, FRANCE, LAUROS/GIRAUDON/BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY/WWW.BRIDGEMAN.CO.UK

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