Naturalism is a type of literature that “exposed the dark harshness of life . . . were often very pessimistic and . . . blunt .” (Wikipedia). Naturalistic writers do not moralize about the nature of human beings in their works, but view them with cold impartiality. To them, nature is an indifferent force that adopts a hands-off policy vis-à-vis human beings and the calamities that befall them. Naturalistic works often depict an individual’s struggle to survive against the forces of nature. At times, the conflict may be that of man against himself as he strives to maintain his humanity, to tame “the brute within” in the face of contending passions. Characters in such works usually belong to the lower middle class or the lower classes. (Campbell).
Jack London’s The Law of Life depicts the indifference of nature to the impending death of an old man. Abandoned in the snow by his tribe, nearly blind and lame, old Koskoosh lies beside a fire with only a handful of twigs to keep himself from freezing. He is aware of his imminent end, but calmly accepts the fact that “all men must die”. In the few remaining hours of his life, he reflects on the never ending cycle of life and death, on how even the most vigorous animal would fall prey to old age and its predators. In all this, he concluded that “nature did not care. To life, she set one task, gave one law. To perpetuate was the task of life, its law was death.”
Koskoosh recalled how the Great Famine ravaged his tribe, against which they were all helpless. Here, London brings into focus an indifferent nature, heedless of the wailings of the villagers until nearly all of them starved to death. Koskoosh also remembered how the times of plenty awakened the blood lust in his people until they revived ancient quarrels and waged war on their enemies. In this case, the “brute within”, another frequent theme of the naturalistic work, is awakened and unleashed.
An indifferent, hostile nature pervades The Open Boat by Stephen Crane. Four men, one of them injured, sat on a dingy after their ship went down. An angry surf separated them from the safety of the beach; they could not take the boat to shore lest she capsize. Desperate and afraid, sleepless and hungry, the correspondent ponders the indifference of nature to their plight. The men spend the night at the sea, alternately rowing and keeping the boat afloat.
The appearance of vacationers on the beach waving gaily to the men in the boat thus giving them hopes of immediate rescue is probably Crane’s way of emphasizing the nonchalance of nature in the face of human suffering, made more bitter by the realization that no rescue was forthcoming after all. The cook’s “house of refuge”, deserted and lifeless, seemed to mock the men: “There was the shore of the populous land, and it was bitter and bitter to them that from it came no sign.” (4).
Crane focuses on the inner despair of the men as they wait and toil at the oars, aware that their tiny dingy might be swamped at the next wave, drowning them, or that they might be taken out to sea when the on-shore wind died. In the face of this uncertainty, Crane voices out, through the correspondent, the pathetic rebellion of the ordinary mortal who could not believe, and yet could not overcome, the indifference of nature to his plight:
Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life? It is preposterous. If this old ninny-woman, Fate, cannot do better than this, she should be deprived of the management of men`s fortunes. . . If she has decided to drown me, why did she not do it in the beginning and save me all this trouble? . . . But, no, she cannot mean to drown me. She dare not drown me. She cannot drown me. Not after all this work. . . Just you drown me, now, and then hear what I call you! (4).
The correspondent in The Open Boat saw the “abominable injustice” of being drowned after so much hardship. The idea of fairness and justice is deeply ingrained in him that he finds it would be “a crime most unnatural” . He imagined nature’s indifference similar to his own and that of his school-fellows who during childhood were taught a poem about a soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers: he did not care about him but now, faced with his own death, he felt sorry for the soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers (6). The tall wind-tower is also an apt symbol of nature’s indifference. “This tower was a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. It represented . . . the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual. . . She did not seem cruel to him, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent.” (7).
The characters in The Open Boat are just “ordinary” persons but in their mortal peril each of them performed heroically in their battle against the sea: the wounded captain, vigilantly keeping watch, clinging with one hand to the keel of the dingy after it had swamped; Billie the oiler, masterfully steering the craft, dying before he reached the safety of the beach; the cook and the correspondent, fighting desperately against the churning surf.
Like Koskoosh, the correspondent in The Open Boat considered death a proper release from one’s pains, the former from his futile struggle with the wolves, and the latter from his struggle with the waves. He thought that “when one gets properly wearied, drowning must really be a comfortable arrangement, a cessation of hostilities accompanied by a large degree of relief, and he was glad of it . . .” (7).
A Deal in Wheat by Frank Norris tells about the plight of Sam Lewiston and his wife and thousands of other wheat farmers who were driven to bankruptcy due to the trickery of wheat dealers who gambled with the prices of grain, oblivious of the untold suffering caused by their machinations. Sam and his wife and the people who lined up at night at the bread line belonged to the lower classes of society: “workmen, long since out of work, forced into idleness by long-continued ‘hard times,’ by ill luck, by sickness.”
The “interminable line of dark figures, close-pressed, soundless; a crowd, yet absolutely still . . .waiting in the vast deserted night-ridden street; waiting without a word .. . . under the slow-moving mists of rain”, is as naturalistic as Crane’s and London’s stories set in a hostile sea and an abandoned camp in the snow:
There was something ominous and gravely impressive in this interminable
line of dark figures, close-pressed, soundless; a crowd, yet absolutely
still; a close-packed, silent file, waiting, waiting in the vast
deserted night-ridden street; waiting without a word, without a
movement, there under the night and under the slow-moving mists of rain.
From this line of hungry men there arose “a shudder of despair, an unformed, inarticulate sense of calamity” caused by the abrupt notice that the bread line was being discontinued owing to the increase in the price of grain. This particular scene imparts to the reader Sam Lewiston’s and the crowd’s pathetic plight, their helplessness against the market forces that conspired to bring about their ruin. The “white-aproned undercook” who posted the notice and disappeared within the bakery symbolizes an indifferent nature, perhaps an indifferent society, not caring whether or not the hundreds of people that have silently, patiently stood outside in the cold would go to bed hungry that night and for nights to come.
These three stories represent the naturalistic genre: The Law of Life by Jack London showing the endless cycle of life and death as viewed in the last reflections of an old man, who resigns to accept his own violent death from hungry wolves; The Open Boat by Stephen Crane depicting the struggles of four men in a dingy to reach the safety of land; and A Deal in Wheat by Frank Norris, which brings into focus the grim silent suffering of people at a bread line.
In all these works the writers attempt to portray the lives of common persons as they grapple with the forces of nature and endure calamity caused by the manipulation of other human beings. Through these works, the writers drive home to our consciousness a world of harsh and cold reality: of ordinary human beings forced to contend with an uncaring, indifferent nature, yet bringing to the fore something heroic and extra-ordinary within them.
Campbell, Donna M. “Naturalism in American Literature.”
Literary Movements. 2 February 2007. Accessed 2 March 2007.
Crane, Stephen. “The Open Boat”. 2 March 2007.
London, Jack. “The Law of Life”. 2 March 2007.
Norris, Frank. “A Deal in Wheat”. 5 March 2007.
“Naturalism”. 20 February 2007. Accessed 2 March 2007.