The periods of Realism and Naturalism, spanning from the early nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, were as different as they were similar. Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyitch and Ambrose Bierce’s Chickamauga are prime examples of the contrast of principles that can be found in the literature of these two periods. While there is definitely some degree of uniformity in the thoughts, attitudes, and literature of both the periods, Naturalism was not just an outgrowth of Realism, but a new period in and of itself.
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Ivan Ilyitch fits the mold of a literary character conceived during the Realism period. He is only concerned with material gains, but is never truly satisfied for long and merely finds emptiness once he has obtained the tangible items he so vigilantly seeks. Life is not an adventure for Ivan, just something that passes him by as he and his family are busy with the day-to-day weariness of ordinary existence. As were many of the subjects of the Realism period, Ivan Ilyitch was an ordinary, middle class, working man; a truly unremarkable soul. Even his sickness and eventual death were remarkable only to him. There is no joy in the beauties of nature or fanciful thoughts or ideas in Ivan’s entity. In keeping with his shallow character, Ivan’s reasons for marrying his wife, Praskovya Fëdorovna, were not particularly compelling. The deaths of several of the couple’s children are reported in an indifferent manner, giving no specific details, just the fact that the events occurred. Interestingly enough, the description of trivial things receives much more attention. This approach of bombarding the reader with surface details was a technique used by writers during the Realism period.
When providing an account of Ivan Ilyitch’s life in the form of a flashback, Tolstoy writes that it, “had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” In the fashion of Realism, the writer is detached from his characters and presents a very objective view, which enables the reader to feel that he is observing the mundane actions firsthand. The language used in the story is believable and the plot is inconspicuous. Tolstoy is criticizing the social mentality of the day by depicting Ivan and his wife as greed driven.
In the end, Ivan Ilyitch pays for his narrow-minded pursuit of material things, which quickly lose their importance in the waning days of his life. When he asks Gerasim to hold his legs, insisting that this action helps to alleviate the pain, the reader can surmise that the human contact that he receives from Gerasim is much more soothing that the relief he finds in the elevation of his legs. Ivan longs for understanding and pity from those closest to him, but they are unwilling or unable to give either. In writing of the profound change in Ivan’s attitude and his new found need for human compassion as his life draws to an end, Tolstoy is making a point about humane understanding.
The end of the nineteenth century brought about many changes which helped facilitate the transition from Realism to Naturalism. The scientific views of the time offered new insights into man’s psyche. Chickamauga is an excellent example of the principles of Naturalism. The story reflects the European style of Naturalism because it treats the subject with much less compassion or sympathy than its counterpart, American Naturalism. The objective of shocking the middle-class reader of the time was definitely achieved. Bierce offers a horrifying view of death and dying . This work makes the most of shock value in several ways. Initially, the reader is shocked and horrified at the child’s playful attitude toward the injured soldiers. The graphic descriptions of the gravely wounded soldiers crawling along on the ground are even more horrifying when the reader is forced to picture the child attempting to ride on the back of the ghastly mutilated soldier. Bierce deals with the child’s discovery of his mother’s body in the most gruesome way possible, describing the way her brains oozed from the hole in her head. This technique of precisely depicting details was common to the Naturalism period; however, Bierce almost seems to derive some perverse pleasure in providing every tasteless aspect of the horrors of war. The ending of the story delivers an even greater shock as the reader learns the reason for the child’s seeming indifference. The revelation that the small boy is deaf causes the reader to instantly change his attitude toward the child. The rural setting of the story and the plot identify the work as a product of the Naturalism period rather than the Realism period. The plot is not trivial by any means, which also sets it apart from the literature of the Realism period. The incidents in Chickamauga would never be considered as a part of everyday life. One principle of Naturalism is seen in the way the child is depicted as a victim of his circumstances. Due to his deafness, he is not able to hear the battle. His affliction limits his ability to interpret the world around him and causes him to act inappropriately.
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Bierce goes to great lengths to describe the forefathers of the child and speaks of a heritage of war and dominion. He also mentions the military books and pictures the child had been exposed to during his short life. Both of these points are important because they are in keeping with the Naturalist view that man is not free to make his own choices, but is governed by his heredity and environment. The boy’s actions are examined and scrutinized by the author in an impersonal manner; however, the reader also examines and scrutinizes these same actions, but with disbelief and horror.
Both Realism and Naturalism were alike in that the writers hoped to have a positive impact on society, but this emphasis on social reform was much more pronounced in the literature of the Naturalism period. The writers of the Realism period endeavored to reflect the everyday concerns of society, while the literature of the Naturalism period was more imaginative in depicting the struggles of man. The influence of Positivism, the social movement of the day, is prevalent in the work of the Realism period; whereas, the post-Darwinian attitude of scientific determinism shaped the literature of the Naturalism period. While each period offered its own principles, both periods contributed to the great literary works of the world.
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