Often dismissed as realism by many critics, Naturalist literature takes a stand against the “reality” presented in the realist works of James, Howells, and other Realist authors. The Naturalist authors seek to reveal a true image of life and the human experience no matter how ugly that truth may appear. They aim to tell the stories that Realism is too afraid to explore. Frank Norris makes his views on Realist literature very clear as he calls Realism “minute… he drama of a broken teacup, the tragedy of a walk down the block, the excitement of an afternoon call, the adventure of an invitation to dinner. ” (Norris, 578) in his 1901 essay “A Plea for Romantic Fiction” Here, Norris points out the mundane nature of the plot and setting of realist fiction. For Norris Realism extends only to what it views from afar and what it chooses to view. Naturalism departs from the Realist mindset of what stories are worth telling quite drastically.
Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” and Jack London’s “To Build A Fire” exemplify the direction that Naturalist literature takes. A shipwrecked crew on a dinger in the middle of a fierce ocean and a man braving a brutal subarctic tundra with his dog are far cries from the “‘Grandes Salles’ of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance” (Norris, 578) often depicted as ideal for romantic settings by those who read realist literature and believe it to be romantic. Jack London and Stephen Crane portray vivid pictures of human misery onset by crushing environments and forces in their stories.
Despite taking different approaches, both stories stay true to naturalism and its themes of man’s frailty in the face of forces beyond his control, the insignificance of man to the universe around him as a whole, and the foolish belief that man can bend nature to his will. Both London and Crane present an unforgiving setting that leaves no room for human agency to exert its will, the result is a realist-esque plot where not much happens, and not too much changes from beginning to end as would normally be seen in a Realist work.
Neither Crane’s “The Open Boat” nor London’s “To Build a Fire” move beyond the realm of possibility either. In “The Open Boat” the four men in the dingey take turns rowing and switching roles carefully so as not to make any sudden movements and subsequently cause the dingey to sink completely. The men do this all while floating towards land but are powerless against the ocean. “To Build a Fire” shows us a man out on a frigid trail trying to get to a camp where his friends are, and braving the adverse conditions while doing so.
Both plots are realistic within their given context. Not too many people get shipwrecked or decide to take a trip in subzero weather but these are situations the reader can follow with some sense of believability. In Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” the ocean is an overbearing force. It pulls the pitiful boat along with the men in whichever direction it wants. The actual boat the men are on is also a very raw image depicted by Crane. It is a “dingey” and on the verge of completely collapsing at the slightest wrong movement from one of the men.
Crane emphasizes the meagerness of the ship in the line “Many a man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea. ” and again he references the brutality of the setting “These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall, and each froth-top was a problem in small boat navigation. ” (Crane, 603) The Yukon trail in the London story isn’t much more welcoming than the dingey out in in open sea. The frigid climate and barren conditions of the terrain offer a very perilous setting for the story.
The man treads along along the path carefully as “he notices the changes in the creek, the curves and bends and timber-jams, and always he he sharply noted where he placed his feet… he knew… that there were also springs that bubbled out from the hillsides and ran… on top the ice of the creek. He knew the coldest snaps never froze these springs, and he likewise knew their danger. They were traps. ” (London, 653) The setting is perilous whichever way he goes, it seems to be waiting for the man to make a single mistake in order to pounce and swallow him whole.
Naturalist settings frustrate and overwhelm their characters as well as being harsh and unforgiving in their very nature. They often seem to be deliberately working against man. Naturalism seeks to prove the opposite as being the truth. In Crane’s “The Open Boat” the characters are shipwrecked and trapped out at sea. They have nowhere to go but wherever the sea takes them and in this situation a key aspect of the naturalist philosophy is revealed. Man is insignificant to the universe around him. Mankind cannot change the course of the universe or the flow of time.
Crane highlights this in several ways: the actual boat being a tiny and frail little dingey rather than a yacht or oil freighter, the men being tossed around inside the boat like a rubber toy in a child’s bathtub, the shoreline of the tourist resort being so close and yet so far away at the same time, and the men’s impotency at exerting their will on the sea. To attempt to rationalize situations through logic and experience is basic human nature, when faced with situations they cannot control or even begin to manipulate humans resort to anger.
The men in the boat at one point believe that the sea is toying with them in the character’s minds. “If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the seas was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? ” (MLA Citation) is uttered by one of the men in the boat still believing that a supernatural force is attempting to take control of his fate. In reality Crane is stating that the universe does not care whether you live or die or even who you are.
Very few times are any of the men referred to by name. They are simply their function within the ship: the cook, the captain, the correspondent, and the oiler. Crane seems to be viewing them from the universe’s indifferent perspective, even the small aspect of the men’s names does not concern the universe, much less their survival which would be entirely more difficult for the universe to have to concentrate on. London’s story tackles many of the same issues but with a different approach.
In “To Build A Fire”, there is again an unnamed character, which once again highlights the worthlessness of man to nature and the universe. London’s story is in fact less naturalistic than Crane’s “The Open Boat. ” The man in London’s story is is punished for his hubris. He ignores the old-timer’s warnings against traveling alone in temperatures -50° or lower, dismissing the old timer’s advice as tactics of “feminine men. ” [not sure if this is exact quote, must look up in story] In killing his protagonist London displays man’s folly in believing he can dominate nature and bend it to his will.
The man in the story is killed not only by the natural forces around him but by his reticence to acknowledge his own limitations. The dog is a further indicator of man’s fragile position against nature. The dog knows how to survive, in fact it falls almost entirely into the creek water under the ice and instinctively licks the ice off of its paws and fur in order to prevent frostbite. Man does not know this instinctively, he must learn how to survive which he ignores by rejecting the advice offered to him. Man is at another disadvantage in his lack of natural insulation.
The man’s clothes which protect him from the cold eventually become a factor in his demise when he must remove them after wetting them. Many times during the story even the simplest tasks for the man become difficult and frustrating. He attempts to eat but has his fingers go numb intantaneously. He attempts to build the fire and has his fingers again shut down several times. The man never quite knows how cold it is either. He simply estimates based on different factors like his spit turning into isicles before it hits the ground.
He guesses -50 then -70 then -75 but he can never be sure. Naturalist literature likes to systematically break down its characters. Whether it be a bustling city, frozen tundra, or the ocean the setting is not the point in Naturalist literature. The “natural” in Naturalism is man’s separation from his own nature, from his own basic instincts. Naturalism highlights humanity’s inaptitude for survival because we have rejected our own primal nature in favor of a civilized life.
The man in London’s story dies because he, unlike his dog, no longer has natural instinct so he must learn to survive. This is something the man not only fails but wholeheartedly refuses to do. The men in “The Open Boat” are powerless to the ocean, they are also ill-equipped to survive. They are not physically capable of swimming through the violent waters like the fish around them are. Ultimately all the characters of these stories are reduced to the most basic of instincts which is attempting to survive at any cost.
The man in London’s story who at one point arrogantly places himself above the advice he was given is reduced to a raving lunatic running half naked in no particular direction. The men in the boat swim wildly and quickly for the shore, when their glorified life raft finally collapses. Naturalist literature coldly watches its characters unravel from afar. Naturalism does not judge its characters, nor does it condemn or condone them. Naturalism simply watches and presents “the truth” however ugly and unnerving it may be.
Courtney from Study Moose
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