American Naturalism can be defined as a literary movement, based in literary realism that takes a deterministic view of human existence. It tends to highlight the forces of nature, over which we exert no control, by placing the protagonist of its literature in circumstances beyond their control. Further, practitioners of Naturalism have adopted the philosophy offered by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and due to this they are able to write about issues that previously went untouched. This literary movement puts a dynamic on internal and external forces that determine everything that they do. I have chosen to analyze in this essay, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Jack London’s “The Law of Life.”
In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” we observe a woman who has been inflicted with an apparent mental illness that is manifested through her obsession of the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom. Our first hint at this piece of literature being saturated in naturalism is the subject matter being discussed; the role of women in society, and mental illnesses. This is precisely the kind of topics that naturalism tend to focus onâ€¦those issues that drive the human nature without the bias of romantic ideals or principles. Within this story the protagonist is trapped by two forces, an external and internal force. The external force reveals itself to be the actual wallpaper that plagues her thought, “but I don’t mind it a bit – only the paper.” This quote shows us the degree of paranoia that the main character experiences and is inflicting upon her. Further it is true that her husband John serves as a stifling force upon her freedom, socioeconomic determinism, “so I take phosphates or phosphites-whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again. Personally, I disagree with their ideas.” We see a main theme here as John is forcing his subordinate wife to ingest pills that he believes will help herâ€¦against her will. While her husband is a socioeconomic deterministic force, due to his enforcement of women in the role of not being active or thinking for herself, he also acts as a biological deterministic force. By his actions he is making his wife fight for survival against the standards of man, which she debatably succeeds in with the releasing of the women in the wallpaper. This manifestation of the women creeping in the wallpaper shows the reader of her fear of being held captive by her husband, “I don’t like to look out of the windows even-there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did?” In this final scene of the story the narrator points out what the reader has already figured out, that she believes herself to be these women trapped within the wallpaper. This is significant because she associates herself with all of the other women in the world who are trapped by their socioeconomic status, and were forbidden to “creep.” This argument further adds to the theory of biological determinism within the story.
Within Jack London’s story “The Law of Life,” the reader reads about the final journey of a blind and old man whose name is Old Koskoosh. Unlike in the previously analyzed work, this story focuses primarily on the harshness of nature and its uncaring attitude towards the Earth’s inhabitants. In this story the reader finds a plethora of biological deterministic features, primarily concerning the detached force of nature and the meaninglessness of the individual; “Nature did not care. To life she set one task, gave one law. To perpetuate was the task of life, its law was death.” Here the reader observes London showing man’s inherent necessity to struggle with nature, and also how meaningless people are. This story, and therefore the quote, is deeply rooted within the belief of Darwinism in that the role of the individual is simply to reproduce and to sustain the survival of the speciesâ€¦that is the simple law all must obey. This can be considered the internal and external deterministic aspects that dictate the characters thoughts and actions. I believe that the crucial internal struggle with Old Koskoosh is his difficulty in accepting his fate that is inevitable, “perhaps the heart of his son might soften, and he would come back with the dogs to take his old father on with the tribe.” Though understandable, the narrator shows us that Koskoosh still holds out a hope that he might still survive and escape the dictating law of life. But it already has been determined that he must die, his role for this tribe and the species has been fulfilled by his reproducing. Further London describes this harsh environment in order to emphasize the harshness and lack of regard for the individual, “Nature was not kindly to the flesh. She had no concern for that concrete thing called the individual. Her interest lay in the species, the race.” London specifically calls out the meaning of the story here in saying that nature does not care for the individual simply the passing on of their line. This shows the reader that the individual only has one choice; to yield to nature when it is their time to die since their purpose is done. It has already been determined that this will happen and clearly is beyond the control of the old man, “but one task did Nature set the individual. Did he not perform it, he died. Did he perform it, it was all the same, he died.” Here we further see that the individual really has no choiceâ€¦for it is already set that he must die no matter what he does by nature’s hand. Explicit Darwinism is displayed throughout this story.
In conclusion, we observe that naturalism in America is deeply rooted in the beliefs of Darwinism and explicit detachment and determinism with regard to the individual. In Gillman’s story we see that as a result of socioeconomic and biological determined factors that the narrator slips into insanity due to her feeling that she has been trapped by her surroundings and her husband. In London’s story the reader examines the harshness of nature, and its lack of regard for the individual in favor of the survival of the species. These stories best illustrate the deeply rooted themes of American Naturalism.
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