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At the beginning of the nineteenth century a new literary era came along. An era known as Realism came about. It was a time of objectivity rather than the well known subjectivity of the Romanticist period. After Realism came a literary era known as Naturalism which was different from Realism in that the characters switched from that of the middle class, to a lower, working class society. Naturalism took a turn toward the ideas of the newly introduced Darwinian ideology.
Each of these two eras have their own key principles which will be discussed. Realism had an emphasis on detachment, objectivity, and accurate observation. In other words, the meaning behind the writing was left up totally to the audience and what they gathered from the surface details in the work. Realism also showed an emphasis on clear but restrained criticism of social environment and morality, along with an emphasis on humane understanding. The authors wanted the reader or audience to look at the characters in a humane way. Another thing about Realism was that the authors didn't try to stir any feelings with their audience. They just presented the situation of the characters in the story, tried to make it as realistic and everyday as possible, and left the true meaning of the work totally up to the audience. Plots were generally flat-lined and involved no real hero and no true climax, unlike the literary works of previous eras.
Naturalism looked more into life and how it is deterministic and mechanistic. Naturalists viewed life as based solely on the environment and heredity. Naturalists viewed man as an animal merely motivated by his chemistry, heredity, and environment of circumstances. Characters in Naturalistic works are those of the lower ranks of life who need an improved life. Another key characteristic of the Naturalist society is that the spiritual qualities of man are considered irrelevant. Naturalist writers were very atheistic. Despite these atheistic views, the Naturalist writers wanted to intentionally stir emotions in their readers with their characters and plots.
One realistic writing that shows evidence of some of the principles of Realism was the play Hedda Gabler by Henrick Ibsen. In the play, problems that would be common for middle class people are evident in the lives of the middle class characters. The middle class people in the play have problems and concerns with things such as finances, marriage, and not being happy with what they have; these things are unfortunately not rare for people in the middle class or any other class, for that matter. The main character, Hedda, is far from being a hero. She actually just comes across to the audience as a spoiled woman who is not submissive in any way to her new husband, George. Her personality doesn't fit well with the general rules for the society of her time. She can't have what she truly wants and she cannot control and manipulate those around her. This is what leads to her own suicide as well as the death of Loevborg, the true object of her desire which she cannot have. She is a middle class woman who wasn't happy with the way her life was going. She wasn't in control of her life so taking her own life was the only way she could control it. People in the middle class today often face the problem of not being happy with their lives, just like Hedda did. Even though the main character takes her own life in the play, we the audience get the sense that Henrik Ibsen isn't trying to get us to feel sorry for Hedda. This is something very characteristic of Realistic Literature. The Realist's vision of his/her life was a somewhat dark one and Hedda Gabler shows evidence of this.
Theodore Drieser was a Naturalist writer who wrote The Lost Phoebe. Unlike Hedda Gabler, the main character in this story, Henry Reifsneider, isn't as much a member of the middle class as he is of lower rank. The author, Theodore Drieser believed that man was merely a mechanism moved by chemical and physical forces out of his control. He had a very dark, chaotic view of mankind. Henry Reifsneider seems like a character who fits this criteria. He is a man with very little going for him in his life. He has been plagued with bad luck and his wife, Phoebe, has died. Theodore Drieser, even though he had such a dark and gloomy view of mankind, did have a powerful sympathy for people at radical odds with society—something that was characteristic of American Naturalism but not characteristic of European Naturalism, which wanted to stir up anger within the reader for the main character. Drieser does a superb job of making the reader feel sorry for Henry. Henry wanders around aimlessly for seven years looking for his deceased wife. It is obvious that Henry is not of a healthy mental state. At last, Henry thinks he sees his beloved Phoebe at the edge of a cliff and runs to embrace her, only to plummet to his death as a result of his hallucination. The reader is left knowing that poor Henry died with a smile on his face. The author succeeds in stirring up emotion inside the reader with The Lost Phoebe.
When the characteristics and principles of Realism and Naturalism are compared, one can see that they both take a rather dim view on life and mankind. They both focus on an objective reality, rather than the subjective reality of the literary era prior to the two, Romanticism. Both create an illusion of reality, with Realism being from the view of a middle class main character and Naturalism coming from the view of a lower class main character. Where Realist writers tended to emphasize objectivity by accurate observation of surface details, Naturalist writers tend to attempt to stir emotion within the audience by presenting life as merely deterministic and mechanistic. Both of these eras were vastly different from Romanticism and were instrumental to the rise of the Modernism literary era.