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Naturalism is a form of literature that strives to achieve the reproduction of the human characters with the involvements of environment, heredity, instinct, chance, and also the present social conditions of the particular time in which the work was written. American literary naturalism is closely associated with literary realism, and is heavily influenced by determinism: which states that a person’s behaviors are swayed by heredity and environment. (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/naturalism) In these short stories authors Stephen Crane and Jack London try to portray their characters accurately through their character’s internal thoughts and actions influenced by the indifferent forces of nature. Instead of the characters having free reign in the short stories, the naturalist authors portray the characters action and thoughts being heavily influenced by uncontrollable environmental forces. The characters in the author’s short stories struggle to survive against an inhuman and an insensitive universe. The authors strive to gain meanings within their own writings of the experience, which in return establishes authenticity of the characters human endeavor. In Stephen Crane’s short story, “The Open Boat”, Crane writes of four men’s thoughts and actions while fighting to survive against the brutal forces of the open sea. Crane reveals man’s conflicts with an indifferent nature; that isn’t necessarily concerned with human actions and humanity desire to live. As the moon falls, and the sun begins to beam the light of day the men began to grasp the full aspects of their situation. As the men look ashore for safety, the four crew members are prone to mistakes and confusion on thoughts of safely making it ashore. The correspondent is presented to readers as inquisitive, curious to know the reason for the situation he seems to be trapped in. The cook is seems to be almost light-hearted and sure of life. The captain is constantly struggling to find a successful plan for bringing his crew successfully ashore. The oiler is presented as the most composed, and also most skeptical of there success of reaching the safety of land. Crane develops the brotherhood of the four men crew as an opposing force against the destructive and indifferent forces of the ea surrounding them. The world around the four men battling against the sea’s harsh nature is dramatically and constantly referred as indifferent to their attempts at humane survival. The cook states he believes that they will be saved by people ashore, who will recognize the danger they’re in, and send a rescue party to save them. “Cook”, remarked the captain, “there don’t seem to be any signs of life about your house of refugee.” “No”, replied the cook. “Funny the don’t see us!”(pg.191.ln.59-60) Crane seems to be suggesting the uncertainties of life that we believe in things not realistically possible and hope for things not there. True to the naturalistic style of literature, the men almost never seem to be free of the grasp of the menacing sea around them. Recognizing that they are unlikely to be rescued the captain plans bring the boat into the shore themselves. As they come near to shore, fierce waves force all four men out of the boat.Only the oiler does not survive. Crane suggests that this life and death struggle with the ocean must demand some price. In this tale, the price to be paid for battling against nature and emerging victorious is that one man must die. Crane seems to choose the oiler as the sacrificial lamb since he is the least friendly of the crew and the closest to living as if dead when he was alive. To battle the sea a man must be willing to give his all and choose life. Crane ends his extraordinary tale with the same compressed elegance with which it began. None of the men may have known the color of the sky as they sat in the dinghy for hours tossed on the sea, but they intimately learned the colors of the sea. the captain, the cook and the correspondent know that they have acquired new knowledge. They have survived to become “interpreters” of the sea, its sounds, rhythms and cruelties. The oiler has vanished but the cheerful cook was able to float ashore with a lazy grace desiring to eat another slice of the pie of life. Nature is always pushing man to his limits. When man heeds the warning signs that nature has to offer and those warnings of other men, he is most likely to conquer nature. When he ignores these warnings, nature is sure to defeat man. To build a fire is a prime example of this scenario. In the short story, “To Build a Fire” by Jack London, an inexperienced traveler in the Yukon travels alone with his dog, even though it is ill advised to do so. The man is strong and smart but nature humbled him during his quest to reach his friends. The man’s inexperience with traveling in the cold subzero temperatures doomed him from the beginning, but his strong focus under extreme pressure and his keen sense of observation are what allows him to survive as long as he did. The ignorance of the old-timer’s words of wisdom slowly haunts him and catches up with him in the end. The man’s disregard for nature’s power is his demise during his journey. Although the man’s inexperience is his demise, he has very keen observing skills and strong focusing abilities. London writes, “he was keenly observant, and he noticed the changes in the creek, the curves and bends and timber-jams, and always he sharply noted where he placed his feet.”(Pg.117. ¶.2,ln.1) The dog, on the other hand, although guided by his learned behavior still has its instincts. The dog follows the man throughout the ill fated journey, but after the man dies he relies on his instincts to survive the brutal forces of nature on the journey through the Yukon. “Then it turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where there were other food providers and fire providers” (129). London chose to use nature as the antagonist, a force working against the main characters will to survive. Very similar to the use of the environment in Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat”. London accomplishes his personification in the story by giving the environment many humane characteristics. He had to accept the inevitable. Not only did he have to accept death, he had to acknowledge that the Old-Timer was right when warning him about traveling alone. While the man was dying, he was angry at the dog because of its natural warmth, instincts that he had, and the survival skills that the dog used. Those were the elements that the man lacked. It was a shame that the protagonist had to suffer and die in order to find out that man’s frail body cannot withstand nature’s harsh elements in spite of his over-confident, psychological strength.
Naturalistic writer’s Stephen Crane and Jack London focus on qualities of men usually associated with the heroic or adventurous, acts of violence, bodily strength, and desperate moments usually attached with acts of survival. The author’s seek not only to reproduce stories of real life, but journey into the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters in their stories. The stories deal with the raw and unpleasant experiences while struggling for survival; which helps with the understanding of the intermingling in life of the controlling forces of nature and individual worth, without dehumanizing their characters.
Beaver, Harold. “Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature.” Modern Language Review 83.2 (1988): 423-424. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 31 Oct. 2010.
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