Author: sittigkyle

Article Expert: The Naturalist Novel and the City

“Even when people appear just as they are they play their appearance as a role.” (553)

“These plots of exhaustion have as their central subject the realm of energy rather than value. They revolve around strength and weakness, not good and evil. Their essential matters are youth and age, freshness and exhaustion. Behind the plot of decline is the Darwinian description of struggle, survival, and extinction.” (555)

“The Naturalist plot of decline in Hardy, Zola, and Dreiser bases itself to a large extend on the history of the body and not that of social position. It is therefore a chronicle of subtraction and weakening of social position.” (556)

“This life history is that of products and objects which are best when new or fresh then become worn out and discarded.” (558)

“What they [the audience of aging males] rent in the theater is her vitality and youth and not at all her talent or remarkable beauty. Dreiser is careful to give Carrie no particular talent or remarkable beauty.” (557)

Fisher begins the novel by discussing Sister Carrie in somewhat Marxist terms. Jobs at the bottom of society are a transaction where the self is extinguished through toil. He continues to intertwine identity with labor, describing jobs as roles that are put on, just as Carrie literally puts on roles as a performer in the novel.

This transitions into a discussion of the structure of the novel. The notion that the city plays a character has become almost trite at the moment, but Fisher goes to great lengths to describe how the two cities play a role in the novel, applying some credence to the concept. The Chicago story is a traditional bildungsroman, while the New York story begins a narrative of decline. Fisher constantly stresses the rises and falls of the novel, combining social determinism with biological determinism, pointing out, for example, how youthful energy is converted into wealth, which melts away with age just as the body does.

Determinism is a central theme of naturalism, however many of the articles we have read and our discussions have centered on it as a loose, pessimistic, philosophical concept. The character died at the end and of course she was going to die because this is the reality of living in poverty. I appreciate Fisher’s article for charting out how exactly determinism is grounded in biological science, by paying special attention to the ways age functions not only in relation to social constructs, but strict Darwinian evolution. Class struggle is always at odds with nature, in that the youthful toil so that they may one day be rich enough to buy some of the pleasures of youth after it is long gone.

Questions: What are some ways we can chart social relations in Sister Carrie and other naturalist novels using a more biological terminology?

Article Expert: Late 19th Century American Naturalism

Article Expert: Late Nineteenth-Century American Naturalism

Important Quotes

“A traditional and widely accepted concept of American naturalism, therefore, is that it is essentially realism infused with a pessimistic determinism.” (306)

“I suggest that the naturalistic novel usually contains two tensions or contradictions, and that the two in conjunction comprise both an interpretation of experience and a particular aesthetic recreation of experience.” (307)

“A naturalistic novel is thus an extension of realism only in the sense that both modes often deal with the local and contemporary. The naturalist, however, discovers in this material the extraordinary and excessive in human nature.” (307)

“It involves a belief that life on its lowest levels is not so simple as it seems to be from higher levels.” (308)

“Naturalism reflects an affirmative ethical conception of life, for it asserts the value of all life by endowing the lowest character with emotion and defeat and with moral ambiguity, no matter how poor or ignoble he may seem. The naturalist novel derives much of its aesthetic effect from these contrasts.” (308)

“Norris’s theme is that man’s racial atavism (particularly his brute sexual desire) and man’s individual family heritage (alcoholic degeneracy in McTeague’s case) can combine as a force toward a return to the emotions and instincts of man’s animal past.” (309)

Questions/Observations

Summary:

Donald Pizer sees naturalism as somewhat of a contradiction. Although it sheds light on the conditions of the poor and the mundane, it inevitably grants them importance through breaking with realism and embracing the implausible. In other words, naturalist writers engage with popular tropes of fiction (violence, sex, etc), only against a backdrop of poorness and unsophistication.

He also discusses McTeague (and naturalism broadly) through the idea of resistance to one’s own animal nature (sex and violence), which ultimately fails (DETERMINISM!) This struggle pits the well-meaning subject against his decaying world, of which he only further decays in his efforts to alter it. Such is our pathetic, unchangeable, condition.

Questions:

  1. How is sexuality treated from a male perspective in the naturalist novel? How telling is this conception of male sexuality as animalistic, compared to its depiction in something like Tess? Does having a male protagonist change it? Same questions for violence.