Literary naturalism 1865-1940: its history, influences and legacy

  • Laurence J Marriott

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis examines the emergence of literary Naturalism in France from its beginnings in the fiction and letters of the Goncourt brothers, the positivist philosophy of Auguste Cornte, and the literary criticism of Hippolyte Tame. It then tracks the history and reception of naturalistic fiction in England. The second half concentrates on the rise of Naturalism as an American fictional form, from its beginnings in the 1890s through to critical acceptance and success in the first decade of the twentieth century. It then examines the reasons for the comparative success of American Naturalism at a time when naturalistic writing in Europe had become outdated. Literary criticism has been periodised throughout in order to demonstrate its influence on the canon and on the formation of genre. Chapter 1 emphasises that the thesis concentrates on literary history rather than on textual criticism, it also suggests a cultural materialist subtext in that the struggles faced by early naturalistic writers were often the result of opposition from reactionary politicians and Church groups rather than from literary critics. Chapter 2 has two purposes: first, it explicates the genesis of literary Naturalism in nineteenth-century France and puts it into a historical perspective. Second, it explores the way in which genre has influenced the way that critics and readers have perceived Naturalism as a development of the novel. It also examines the way in which Zola perceived genre and how he emphasised the importance of the novel as a social tool. Chapter 3 demonstrates the ways in which English writers developed their own form of naturalistic fiction, but lost momentum towards the end of the nineteenth century. It explores the difference between French and English attitudes towards fiction and suggests that different aesthetic values may be the key to these differences. Chapter 4 introduces early reactions to the fledgling American naturalist writers and the reactions of contemporary critics, such as Howells and James. It also emphasises the importance of Frank Norris’s theoretical views on the future of the American novel and presents an overview of the influence of journalistic writing on fiction and the conflicts that this entailed. Chapter 5 focuses on the literary aesthetics found in the works of Norris and Dreiser and presents case studies of Sister Carrie and The Octopus. This chapter argues that The Octopus, in particular, should be read as a novel of aesthetics, and is Norris’s most cogent statement of his theoretical stance on literature and criticism. Chapter 6 explores the growth of Naturalism as an American form. American writers adopted the broad philosophies of European Naturalism, and this chapter examines how they incorporated those ideas into an American cultural matrix that departed from the European model. The conclusion argues that Progressivism and the general will for reform were catalysts for the success of American literary Naturalism, and that the romantic language of naturalism lent itself to a national literature which dealt with such issues. Naturalistic techniques and perspectives were ideally suited to later novels of protest; therefore, the genre was able to persist in an adapted form well into the 1930s
Date of Award2002
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Northampton
  • University of Leicester
SupervisorPatrick Quinn (Supervisor)

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