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In response to the rise of the commercial middle class after the mid nineteenth century, the literary movement known as Realism replaced Romanticism and dominated the 1850's and 1860's. However, as the desire to shock the middle class became even more intense, a new literary form known as Naturalism came to prominence the 1870's and 1880's,.
I have chosen the play Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen and the story of The Lost Phoebe by Theodore Dreiser to illustrate some of the differences between these two literary periods including the choice of subject, philosophical view, and their effect on their readers.
In Hedda Gabler, Ibsen finds his subject material in the middle class struggles and manipulative schemes of Hedda Gabler, the daughter of General Gabler. Being acclimated to an upper middle class past, she desires to maintain or even improve her social standing by marrying George Tesman whom she thinks is soon to be given a prestigious and lucrative position. In act one, Miss Tesman, George Tesman's aunt remarks to the servant, Berta, "â€¦General Gabler's daughter! Think of the sort of life she was accustomed to in her father's time." Later, Hedda casually and with an air of arrogance freely admits to Judge Brack how she came to be married to Tesman, saying, "â€¦And then when he went around constantly begging with all his strength, begging for permission to let him take care of me, well, I didn't see why I shouldn't take him up on it." Thus, the scene is set for the ensuing middle class drawing-room intrigues that follow; the favorite target of Realist writers.
However, in stark contrast to the subject matter chosen in the play, Hedda Gabler, Henry and Phoebe Reifsneider of The Lost Phoebe are both members of that downtrodden lower working class that is often the concern of writers of the Naturalist movement. In the beginning of The Lost Phoebe, they are described, "The great world sounds widely, but it has no call for them. They have no soaring intellect. The orchard, the meadow, the corn- field, the pig-pen, and the chicken-lot measure the range of their human activities."
Another contrast between Realism and Naturalism lies in the basic ways that they perceive the world. Although Naturalism is an off-shoot of Realism, it is not merely an extreme form of it. Naturalism has its' own philosophical view, partly attributable to its post-Darwinian form of scientific determinism in which people are the prisoners of their own biological inheritance and social environment. The Lost Phoebe, being Naturalistic literature, portrays an atmosphere of detachment and pessimism that permeates it from beginning to end. Even the normally joyous occasion of young love, courtship, and eventual marriage seems to have been unremarkable and mechanistic for Henry and Phoebe. Dreiser devoted only two sentences to its account, saying,
"They had lived here, these two, ever since their marriage, forty-eight years before, and Henry had lived here before that from his childhood up. His father and mother, well along in years when he was a boy, had invited him to bring his wife here when he had first fallen in love and decided to marry; and he had done so."
From this fatalistic and mechanistic beginning, the remainder of the story grinds sadly and inevitably toward its' deterministic conclusion.
On the other hand, in Hedda Gabler, Ibsen was more concerned with emphasizing clear but restrained criticism of the social environment and morality of the more urban bourgeois. The character of Hedda herself fits right in with the characteristics of the middle class in the time period which was both superficial and brutally manipulative. When Judge Brack asked for an explanation of the "hat in the chair" incident, Hedda replied, "Oh, you know - these things just come over me like that and I can't resist themâ€¦.I can't explain it, even to myself." As for being manipulative, she was able to reduce Lovborg from a gifted writer with a bright future in front of him to a backslidden drunk and suicide case in less than two days.
Henrik Ibsen spoke for most of his fellow realist when he said that the effect of his plays depended on "making the spectator feel as if he were actually sitting, listening, and looking on events happening in real life." The interplay of emotions presented in Hedda Gabler run the gambit of ordinary people as they seek to increase their relevance to society by attaining more money and social prestige. From the impetuous and self-centered Hedda, to the crafty and scheming Judge Brack, and the steady but boring Tesman, the characters behave in much the same manner as the middle class bourgeois have universally behaved in real life.
Dreiser, however, presented a different experience to the reader. He struck at the American myth that success and fame were to be achieved by work and virtue. The reader is made to feel that Henry and Phoebe, in The Lost Phoebe are not much more than lab rats in a scientific experiment proving the theory that human existence can be explained, controlled, and predicted by the application of the appropriate combinations of heredity and environment. The very first sentence in the story is deterministic and begins Henry's and Phoebe's one way slide into oblivion as the story progresses. The sentence reads, "They live together in a part of the country which was not so prosperous as it had once been, about three miles from one of those towns that, instead of increasing in population, is steadily decreasing." There seems to be an implied quality about the country and town of Henry and Phoebe which condemns them to decay and eventual certain death.
I think that each of the two stories illustrates important qualities of their respective literary movements. For Naturalism, life is deterministic and mechanistic; man is not a free agent, he is merely an animal motivated by his chemistry, his heredity, and his environment or circumstances. For Realism, life tends to be contemporary, ordinary, and middle class with an emphasis on detachment, objectivity, and accurate observation.