The literary works of the early 19th to 20th centuries shifted from the upper levels of society to the middle class with a more objective observation of them and the problems that they confronted in life. These works also tended to be critical of the social environment of the day yet had a more "humane understanding" of the problems confronting the middle class. Literature then trended even further away from the elite when naturalism came to the forefront in writings. During the late 1880's, authors shifted the subject from the middle class to the working class. These writings also encompassed the principles that man is more a "subject for scientific, impersonal scrutiny" who is not in control of his circumstances. The writers also tended to portray their characters in the light of society needing a reformation to become the champion of this class of people. The naturalists also believed that "spiritual qualities" were irrelevant to the study of man. These writings seem to lack the humane understanding that was evident in the realism literature. Leo Tolstoy in "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" conveys the principles of the realists while "The Lost Phoebe" by Theodore Dreiser is an example of the shift from the principles of realism to those of naturalism.
In "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," Tolstoy hints in the story of disapproval of the apparent social issue of needing to live beyond one's means in order to have a good standing in society. The main character is a middle class person who is facing death; but, prior to his illness, Ivan Ilyich is portrayed as a person who has attempted to live beyond his means. However, this problem progresses to the point that Ivan has to take a leave of absence from his position and live with relatives for the summer in order to obtain some relief from this debt. There is the intermingling of the humane understanding of this plight by the mention of the depression that Ivan experiences with his reduced circumstances.
There is also the hint of scorn for society caring more for position than person. Tolstoy writes of Ivan's coworkers being more concerned with who will obtain his position at his death than with the unfortunate circumstance of the illness and premature death of Ivan.
The principle of detached objectivity is intertwined with humane understanding in this story when Tolstoy writes of the relationship between Ivan and his wife. Their marriage is described realistically without the flair of the romantic "happily ever after" life. Tolstoy writes of Ivan becoming disenchanted with his wife after she becomes pregnant. He also writes of Ivan's wife becoming so despairing of his temper that she wishes him dead but yet realizes that his death would be the end of her means of living. Humane understanding of the negative aspect of their marriage is interjected: Tolstoy points out that the insane, unreasonable jealousy of Ivan's wife drives him to becoming disenchanted with marriage. In the same manner, Ivan's wife is given humane understanding in her wish that he was dead by pointing out that Ivan had a "dreadful temper" and "made her life miserable."
Tolstoy does incorporate the spiritual aspect of man in the story of Ivan Ilyich which is in contrast to the writings of naturalism. At the very end, when Ivan is dying, "it was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been," things could still be rectified. He questions, "What is the right thing?" Ivan dies asking forgiveness from his family. Not only does this example show a spiritual aspect, it also speaks of man being a free agent and can choose to become better and is not just a prisoner of his circumstances - a differing opinion than that of the naturalist.
In contrast to realism, "The Lost Phoebe," written during the naturalistic age, has the elements of naturalism that differ from realism such as the subject being from the lower class and being prisoner to his environment. The story appears to convey just a curious study of the character without the humane understanding that is apparent in writings from the realistic era. There is also no mention of the spiritual aspect of man in this story.
Theodore Dreiser's character, Henry Reifsneider, in "The Lost Phoebe" is a farmer who lives in a dilapidated home. He is described as having "no soaring intellect." Even his relationship with his wife is described as one that occurs just because there is no other option. Dreiser states they "were as fond of each other as it is possible for two old people to be who have nothing else in this life to be fond of." His clothes are described "like the clothes of many farmers, were aged and angular and baggy, standing out at the pocketsâ€¦" These descriptions of Henry's relationship with this wife, his home, and his clothing fit the principles of the lower working class who appear to be trapped in their environment with no attempt to better themselves. This is a very pointed difference from story the "Death of Ivan Ilyich" in which the character went to the extreme in his attempt to better his circumstances.
Dreiser, in describing the relationship of the Reifsnieder's with their children, seems to point out the lack of humane understanding. One of their boys was stated to have "gone to Sioux Falls, never even to be heard of after." Other children were also just stated to have moved out of state with no reference to their return or continued communication with their parents. The daughter who lived the closest in distance "was so burdened with cares of her own that she rarely gave them a thought. Time and commonplace home life that had never been attractive had weaned them thoroughly, so that, wherever they were, they gave little thought as to how it might be with their father and mother." Again, not only does one get the feeling of a cold relationship but also the feel that the Reifsnieders were prisoners of their environment and social standing.
As the story progresses, Henry becomes deluded that his wife has returned from death. He is described as a mentally deranged person who roams the countryside in search of her. Although initially the neighbors showed some concern for his wellbeing, it is apparent that no attempts were made to assist the old man and keep him from the elements during his wanderings through all types of weather and conditions. The neighbors in the story seem to lack a humane understanding for Henry. It is also stated in the story, "The process by which a character assumes the significance of being peculiar, his antics weird, yet harmless, in such a community is often involute and pathetic." This statement confirms the principles of a "scientific" study of man and a scorn for society as the "antagonist" of man that appear in the naturalism era writings.
Another contrast noted in "The Lost Phoebe" versus "the Death of Ivan Ilyich" is there is no mention of the spiritual aspect of man in "The Lost Phoebe." Henry just wanders the earth until finally his delusions are the cause of his death. In his last vision of Phoebe, Henry leaps to his death in his attempt to make contact with his wife.
In "the Death of Ivan Ilyich," while there is the realistic, objective portrayal of Ivan's life, illness and death, the conclusion offers some hope that Ivan had a measure of reconciliation with himself and others before his death. However, in the naturalist era story of "The Lost Phoebe," there is conveyed a curious study of the life of a pitiful lower class person trapped in his environment with no resolution to his problems of life.