Naturalist Movement Begins Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A literary movement whose practitioners describe reality as precisely as possible using descriptive methods deemed scientific, naturalism was inspired by French novelists. Although the term is often used synonymously with realism, which also aims at precise descriptions of all social strata but mostly the downtrodden, naturalism differs from realism by emphasizing that existence is entirely part of nature and not supernatural, metaphysical, or spiritual.

Summary of Event

Naturalist thought emerged during the late 1860’s in France with the novels of the brothers Edmond de Goncourt and Jules de Goncourt (Germinie Lacerteux, 1865; English translation, 1887) and of Émile Zola (Thérèse Raquin, 1867; English translation, 1881). Before the particular body of convictions that informed these early “naturalist” novels, a “naturalist” was understood to refer to someone working in the natural sciences. The term also had a philosophical meaning, referring to a doctrine that denied the existence of the metaphysical or supernatural and embraced the natural, material world. During the early nineteenth century “naturalism” acquired an aesthetic sense when French poet Charles Baudelaire used the term to refer (somewhat disparagingly) to a form of painting that sought to render nature faithfully. Naturalist movement Literature;naturalist movement France;naturalist movement Literature;French Literature;naturalist movement Philosophy;naturalist movement Philosophy;French France;literature Zola, Émile [p]Zola, Émile;and naturalist movement[naturalist movement] [kw]Naturalist Movement Begins (c. 1865) [kw]Movement Begins, Naturalist (c. 1865) [kw]Begins, Naturalist Movement (c. 1865) Naturalist movement Literature;naturalist movement France;naturalist movement Literature;French Literature;naturalist movement Philosophy;naturalist movement Philosophy;French France;literature Zola, Émile [p]Zola, Émile;and naturalist movement[naturalist movement] [g]France;c. 1865: Naturalist Movement Begins[3790] [c]Literature;c. 1865: Naturalist Movement Begins[3790] Alexis, Paul Taine, Hippolyte Balzac, Honoré de Flaubert, Gustave Goncourt, Jules de Goncourt, Edmond de Céard, Henry Hennique, Léon Huysmans, Joris-Karl Maupassant, Guy de

Zola, considered the main proponent of naturalism at its beginnings, drew on these three earlier meanings of naturalism, and their application to literature, when he used the term in the 1860’s in reference to the work of Hippolyte Taine Taine, Hippolyte , a literary critic, philosopher, and historian, whom Zola held in great esteem. Taine believed that the intellectual world was governed by the same types of laws as the material world, and that it was necessary to define these laws if one wished to understand the human spirit.

Émile Zola.

(Library of Congress)

The development of naturalist thought also was greatly influenced by positivism, a scientific doctrine that held it was possible to explain life through reason and observation. This faith in scientific enquiry is the principal difference between naturalism and the realist movement that preceded it. Yet many realist novelists also provided models for Zola. Honoré de Balzac’s Balzac, Honoré de monumental La Comédie humaine (1829-1848; The Comedy of Human Life, 1885-1893, 1896; also known as The Human Comedy) offered a comprehensive study of characters from a variety of different backgrounds. Gustave Flaubert’s Flaubert, Gustave Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886) shocked readers with its detached analysis of a woman’s different states of mind and its detailed description of her death by poisoning. The Goncourt brother’s novel Germinie Lacerteux, considered realist as well as naturalist by many, aimed to be an objective study of the breakdown of the Goncourt brothers’ maid. Naturalism took the working classes as its subject and analyzed the contemporary world, inspired by discoveries and new methods in medicine.

In 1870, Zola began what was to be his most important literary project, a series of twenty novels known as Les Rougon-Macquart (1871-1893; The Rougon-Macquart Novels, 1885-1907). These novels investigate two branches of one family, the legitimate Rougons and the illegitimate Macquarts, living during the Second Empire (1852-1871). By studying family histories, Zola was able to analyze one of his favorite subjects, the influence of heredity and environment on the shaping of character. Again, these objectives were informed by the scientific discourse of Zola’s time. Zola had read Prosper Lucas’s Traité philosophique et physiologique de l’hérédité naturelle (pb. 1850; philosophical and physiological treatise on natural heredity), which stressed the importance of heredity in the formation of human character and behavior.

Heredity and the impact of one’s environment also were the subjects of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (Darwin) Darwin, Charles [p]Darwin, Charles;On the Origin of Species On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection Darwin, Charles [p]Darwin, Charles;on natural selection[Natural selection] , which had been published in 1859 but was translated into French only in 1865. Zola shared Darwin’s view of the individual as a product of his or her environment. Because of this belief in the determining effects of heredity and environment, the fates of the characters in Zola’s fiction are often presented as inevitable.

In 1880, midway through the writing of the Rougon Macquart series, Zola published an essay called Le Roman expérimental (The Experimental Novel, 1893), in which is found his most complete description of naturalism. This work was influenced by another contemporary scientific text, Claude Bernard’s Bernard, Claude Introduction à l’étude de la médecine expérimentale (1865; Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, 1927). In that text, Bernard tried to establish a method of scientific investigation for the then-new science of medicine. Zola responded to this by trying to adopt Bernard’s methods and apply them to literature. Zola argued in Le Roman expérimental that if the scientific method could be used to explain the physical world then it also could be used to explain human passions and the intellect.

It is just prior to the publication of Le Roman expérimental that naturalism dates its beginnings as a literary movement. The movement is generally considered to have begun in 1877, when the young writers Paul Alexis Alexis, Paul , Henry Céard Céard, Henry , Léon Hennique Hennique, Léon , Joris-Karl Huysmans, Huysmans, Joris-Karl Octave Mirbeau Mirbeau, Octave , and Guy de Maupassant Maupassant, Guy de organized a dinner at the restaurant Trapp to honor Zola, Flaubert Flaubert, Gustave , and Edmond de Goncourt. Goncourt, Edmond de Goncourt, Jules de Three years later, Zola and the same group of younger writers (with the exception of Mirbeau) published a collective anthology of their work called Les Soirées de Médan (1880), which has been read as a kind of manifesto of the group.

Although Zola seems to have felt that naturalism constituted a united movement because of the shared scientific method of its members, other literary naturalists tended to view his methods with more skepticism. The similarities one finds in naturalist fiction tend to be, rather, in the choice of subject matter. Because of the naturalist’s interest in the physical world, subjects such as disease, madness, alcoholism, and sexual desire predominate over metaphysical themes such as morality, sin, or guilt.

Zola continued to write naturalist novels and plays until his death in 1902, but it has been argued that naturalism as a collective enterprise ended very shortly after its launch. After 1880, Zola retreated to his home in Médan to write many of the most remarkable novels comprising the Rougon Macquart series: Pot-Bouille (1882; Piping Hot, 1924), Au bonheur des dames (1883; The Ladies Paradise, 1883), La Joie de vivre (1884; Life’s Joys, 1884), Germinal (1885; English translation, 1885), L’Œuvre (1886; His Masterpiece, 1886), and La Terre (1887; The Soil, 1888). During this time Huysmans Huysmans, Joris-Karl and Maupassant Maupassant, Guy de began to have doubts about Zola’s theories.

Another group of five young writers—Paul Bonnetain Bonnetain, Paul , J. H. Rosny Rosny, J. H. , Lucien Descaves Descaves, Lucien , Paul Margueritte Margueritte, Paul , and Gustave Guiches Guiches, Gustave ), paralleling the group who wrote the Soirées de Médan, published the “Manifeste des cinq contre ’La Terre’” (1887; manifesto of the five against La Terre). Claiming to have previously admired Zola, this group declared that the subject of his novel La Terre was virtually scatological and that the master had descended to the pits of the unspeakable.

Despite these public statements of adherence or abhorrence, naturalist plays continued to be performed and naturalist texts continued to be written and published in France, in other European countries, and in North America until well into the twentieth century.


By the early 1880’s the influence of the naturalist movement had spread to Italy and was greatly influential in the development of verism (truthfulness and detail in literary and artistic depiction), based on the fiction of Giovanni Verga. Naturalism also moved into Spain, where elements can be seen in the novels of Emilia de Pardo Bazán Pardo Bazán, Emilia de and Benito Pérez Galdós Pérez Galdós, Benito .

German naturalists such as Karl Bleibtreu Bleibtreu, Karl , Wilhelm Bölsche Bölsche, Wilhelm , and Arno Holz Holz, Arno seemed to feel the attraction of the natural sciences to a greater extent even than did Zola. Naturalism was also expressed in American fiction by authors such as Hamlin Garland Garland, Hamlin , Stephen Crane Crane, Stephen , Frank Norris Norris, Frank , James Farrell Farrell, James , Jack London London, Jack , and Theodore Dreiser Dreiser, Theodore .

The movement responded to an interest in subject matter that had not been deemed appropriate for literature: the real, the mundane, the working classes, the poor, and similar subjects. Naturalism testified to how critically scientific discourse played a role in the literature of the last half of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baguley, David. Naturalist Fiction: The Entropic Vision. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. The most important and comprehensive study of naturalism written in English.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloom, Harold, ed. Emile Zola. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. A collection of essays by a prolific literary critic dealing with Zola’s fiction and with naturalism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goncourt, Edmond, and Jules de Goncourt. Germinie Lacerteux. Translated by Leonard Tancock. New York: Penguin Books, 1984. Part of the Penguin Classics series. A modern edition, with an introductory essay by the translator, of the Goncourt brothers’ first naturalist novel.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mesch, Rachel L. “The Sex of Science: Medicine, Naturalism, and Feminism in Lucie-Delarue-Mardrus’s ’Marie, fille-mère.’” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 31 (2003): 324-340. Although naturalism is generally viewed as a movement dominated by male authors, this article describes a French woman’s use of naturalism in her fiction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pagano, Tullio. Experimental Fictions: From Emile Zola’s Naturalism to Giovanni Verga’s Verism. London: Associated University Presses, 1999. A comparative study of naturalism in the works of Zola and verism in Verga’s works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zola, Émile. Therese Raquin. Translated by Robin Buss. London: Penguin Books, 2004. A modern edition in the Penguin Classics series of what many consider Zola’s first novel in the naturalist tradition. Includes an introduction by the translator.

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