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After the Romanticism period of the nineteenth century, European literature moved in the direction of what is usually called “Realism”. “Realism” is “the truthful treatment of material”, according to Realist William Dean Howells. “Realism” usually consisted of a faithful imitation of surface detail, while creating an illusion of real life. Realist subjects lean more towards contemporary, ordinary, and middle class. The plots had to be unobtrusive, made up of incidents of everyday life, capturing the wandering, indeterminate nature of ordinary experience rather than contriving the tensions and climaxes of traditional plots. The language of Realism also had to be equally natural or at least give the impression of being so. On the other hand, “Naturalism,” “is based on a very different philosophical view, a post-Darwinian form of scientific determination in which people are the prisoners of their biological inheritance and social environment.” The Naturalist abandoned the middle class drawing rooms of the realist for the “lower level”, “working-class settings where the impact of the environment was especially clear, and for violent, animalistic characters who inherited drives through hunger and sex, seemed more vivid. “Naturalism,” for all the scientific objectivity, was even a better view of the middle class than realism had been. Life for the Naturalist is deterministic and mechanistic. Man wasn’t free nature. He acted like an animal motivated by his chemistry, his inherited nature, and his surroundings or circumstances. Man was viewed as a lab case study during naturalism. The characters seemed to be selected from the lower class level of life. Naturalist believed that society was the antagonist of man acting like social reformers through their writings. The naturalist also believed man equals the sum of his heredity plus his environment. In the memoir of “Life on the Mississippi,” by realist Mark Twain versus the naturalistic approach of “The Lost Phoebe,” by naturalist Theodore Dreiser seemed to darken all while comparing the social setting, objectivity, and motivation between the two.
The social setting for Realist Mark Twain in “Life on the Mississippi” was more of a middle class setting. Twain described how the man talked saying, “He used all sorts of steamboat technicalities in his talk, as if he were so used to them that he forgot common people could not understand them.” Whereas, in Dreiser’s “The Lost Phoebe, “the characters seem to be more of the lower class using two negatives in a sentence, “You ain’t never minded to let my things alone no more.” “Henry” who is the protagonist in “The Lost Phoebe”, was obviously uneducated and from the lower rank of society.
Looking at the objectivity between “Life on the Mississippi” versus “The Lost Phoebe,” Twain gives accurate observation putting the reader there. Twain describes how the steamboatman looks after getting off the boat and coming home to his family saying, “He would come home and swell around the town in his blackest and greasiest clothes, so that nobody could help remembering that he was a steamboatman.” Whereas, in “The Lost Phoebe,” Dreiser compares “Henry” to an impersonal case study saying, “An odd figure in the sun and rain, on dusty roads and muddy ones, encountered occasionally in strange and unexpected places, pursuing his endless search.” The view of “Henry” is a little more distant, making the reader hard to connect with his character.
Finally, the motivation between “Life on the Mississippi” and “The Lost Phoebe” is quite different. “Life on the Mississippi” has a more realistic approach of humane understanding. The boy’s dream was to be a steamboatman, growing up as a child, “The desire to be a steamboatman kept intruding.” The boy eventually turns his dream into reality, “By the shadow of death, but he’s a lightning pilot!” At the end of the story, he ends up achieving his dreams and turning them into reality. On the other hand, in “The Lost Phoebe,” “Henry” is in search of his dead wife, “Phoebe.” This is an unrealistic approach to his life. “Henry” searches for several years, but never finds her. “It was in the seventh year of these hopeless peregrinations.” The moment he thinks he has found her, he walks off a cliff and dies, “‘Oh, wait, Phoebe!’ and leaped.” The poor guy’s life and motivation was sad and unrealistic.
Overall, “Realism” is more connecting and pleasant to read. “Twain” tells “life on the Mississippi” in a humorous way. The “Realism” in this memoir seemed more fulfilling and less of a disaster. Twain told this memoir from a young, naive, boy’s perspective, leading to a positive outcome of a little boy’s dream turning into reality. In “The Lost Phoebe,” “Henry” seemed to be lost most of his life. He searched for seven years, and no one cares enough to tell him his wife has passed away. Instead the characters just made the situation worse as the years went by. The poor guy had high hopes to find his wife who he believed wasn’t dead. The other characters just went along with what he was saying knowing that he would never find his wife. They just sat back and watched the poor, old, malnourished man fade away and eventually pass a way. He dies happy, even though he never really finds his wife. “Naturalism” and its outlook on life seems to be a little more harsh and hard to accept. Most naturalists are atheist. They don’t sugar coat life and paint the pretty picture of what society wants to see. While “Realism” gives you a mirror to look in at life, “Naturalism” hits you with the mirror.
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