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date: 16 November 2018

Introduction: The naturalistic imagination and the aesthetics of excess

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory article begins with a brief discussion of how American literary naturalism remains a vibrant and active field, which each generation reinterpreting the genre according to the critical theories and cultural concerns of its time. It then discusses naturalism's receptivity to adaptation and its similarity to another genre, melodrama. Exploring naturalism as a version of melodrama is a useful way of understanding its many anomalies and inconsistencies. It suggests a way of reading naturalism that does not see it primarily in terms of evolutionary and deterministic philosophy applied to realism but rather in terms of popular narrative strategies, derived from melodrama, enlisted in support of a propagandistic cause.

Keywords: naturalism, melodrama, social issues, drama, realism, narrative strategies

Despite the premature sounding of its death-knell in the 1959 anthology What Was Naturalism? American literary naturalism remains a vibrant and active field. Since 1980, more than two dozen books about the subject have appeared, and articles about its principal authors—Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and Jack London—continue to be published in the leading journals. More important, the traditional conception of naturalism as a movement occurring between 1890 and 1915 and focusing on deterministic depictions of humanity as the passive pawns of an indifferent world has, in recent years, undergone considerable shifting. A raft of articles and books have appeared that trace the continuing presence of naturalism in authors as diverse as Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Upton Sinclair, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, Joyce Carol Oates, Cormac McCarthy, and Don DeLillo. Scholars have traced naturalism’s evolution into urban fictions that depict people’s circumscribed possibilities or compel them to act in obsessive, repetitive, or compulsive behaviors; scholars have also been drawn to unveiling the culture that shaped naturalism’s key texts.

While Lars Ahnebrink’s The Beginnings of Naturalism in American Fiction (1950) charted the influence of Zola upon Hamlin Garland, Frank Norris, and Stephen Crane, the first book to map the broad contours of the movement was Charles C. Walcutt’s American Literary Naturalism: A Divided Stream (1956). Walcutt’s (p. 4) contention that naturalism can be divided into two “streams”—one optimistic and idealistic and leading to “progressivism and social radicalism,” the other pessimistic and deterministic and leading to a mechanistic account of human behavior—proved tremendously influential for subsequent critics and prompted a host of revisions and reconceptualizations that are ongoing today. Since Walcutt’s pioneering study, which is still unsurpassed in terms of scope, a steady stream of books on naturalism has poured forth. With few exceptions, most are either “thesis books”—volumes that mount an argument and trace its development though individual chapters on selected writers or texts—or collections of critical essays on authors or texts. The most important of these are two books by Donald Pizer: Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (1966; rev. 1984) and Twentieth-Century American Literary Naturalism: An Interpretation (1982). The former book collects a number of Pizer’s essays which, collectively, offer a vision of naturalism distinct from Walcutt’s, one that identifies naturalism as “a movement characterized by similarities in material and method, not by philosophical coherence” (110), an interpretation Pizer extends to the twentieth century in which he argues, in chapters on Farrell, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Mailer, Styron, and Bellow, that naturalism retained its relevance by responding to “the preoccupations of particular moments of modern American life” and discovering “appropriate forms for doing so” (Twentieth-Century vii).

Drawing on this foundational work by Walcutt and Pizer, other scholars have extended, modified, and challenged these interpretations of naturalism. The following titles suggest the range of recent books devoted to the movement: June Howard, Form and History in American Literary Naturalism (1985); Walter Benn Michaels, The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism (1987); Lee Clark Mitchell, Determined Fictions: American Literary Naturalism (1989); Paul Civello, American Literary Naturalism and Its Twentieth-Century Transformations (1994); James Giles, The Naturalistic Inner-City Novel in America: Encounters with the Fat Man (1995); Donna Campbell, Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1885–1915 (1997); Eric Carl Link, The Vast and Terrible Drama: American Literary Naturalism in the Late Nineteenth Century (2004); Jennifer Fleissner, Women, Compulsion, Modernity: The Moment of American Naturalism (2004); and John Dudley, A Man’s Game: Masculinity and the Anti-Aesthetics of American Literary Naturalism (2004).

What’s clear from even a cursory glance at these titles is that each generation reinterprets the genre according to the critical theories and cultural concerns of its time. What’s also clear is that thesis-driven books necessarily exclude elements of the movement that don’t support an individual book’s argument; similarly, while collections of essays about naturalist authors contain much that is provocative and enlightening, they too offer only a partial picture of the scope of naturalism. The Oxford Handbook of American Literary Naturalism differs from these volumes in that it is the first book to treat the subject topically and thematically in essays that attempt to present the best of current thinking about the genre. In part I, contributors explore the contexts that prompted the origins of the genre, from literary naturalism’s origin in the writings of Émile Zola to the influence of Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin, whose writings inflamed the imaginations of American writers. Essays in (p. 5) part II consider the problem of definition and the interconnections with other genres. Part III examines the scientific and philosophical background, with contributors exploring the response of writers to the problem of free will versus determinism and the effect of Darwin and Spencer on depictions of morality and the role of religion as well as their influence on the representation of characters’ psychological motivations. In part IV, contributors explore current tensions in critical approaches to naturalism—the role of women and African American writers, depictions of sexuality, the problem of race, the critique of commodity culture and class, and the continuing presence of naturalism in twentieth- and twenty-first-century fiction. Part V considers the role of the marketplace in the development of naturalism as well as the popular and critical response. And essays in part VI conclude the volume by exploring the influence of naturalism in other arts.

The Naturalistic Imagination

The foregoing suggests that naturalism is an adaptive genre, changing its contours over the course of time as new ideas arise and as new writers (and critics) respond to those ideas and to the work of the writers before them. It is useful to conceive of the naturalist novel as primarily a novel of ideas, functioning like the Blob in the 1958 science fiction movie of the same title—absorbing everything it can to propel the idea—and this capacity for absorption explains not only the varied plots and philosophies contained in naturalism but also the prevalence of the narrative strategies of realism, documentation, sensation, sentiment, and romance; the occurrence of stereotyped characters and dialogue; the role of chance and coincidence; and especially the frequency of sensation and didactic exposition.

Naturalism’s receptivity to adaptation reveals its similarity to another genre, melodrama, and exploring naturalism as a version of melodrama is a useful way of understanding its many anomalies and inconsistencies. Scholars typically conceive of naturalism as a version of realism, as a genre that grafts realistic detail onto a necessitarian ideology. When naturalistic fictions seem to depart from the realistic paradigm, usually through the inclusion of sensational effects, sentimental scenes, stilted dialogue, and improbable coincidences, critics often disparage such departures as instances of flawed technique or defective artistry. But these “flaws”—in fact, the narrative strategies of melodrama—provided the naturalists with an effective means through which to articulate the impingement of Darwinian and Spencerian thought upon such social issues as land speculation and poverty, marital infidelity and the double standard, political corruption and labor agitation, and sexual deviance and crime. Like melodrama, and unlike realism, naturalism conspicuously employs such emotive effects to promote the acceptance of a thesis, and this melodramatic vision is registered clearly and unmistakably in the literature of naturalism.

(p. 6) Naturalism in general shares with melodrama a tendency to focus on the universal and to depict the type rather than the individual to illuminate the abstraction that the plots and characters are contrived to illustrate. Like melodrama and unlike realism, naturalism is an essentially didactic literature with a thesis to prove, whether it be economic determinism, the latent atavism of human beings, or the inescapable force of heredity. The naturalist tends to share with the melodramatist a belief in the ultimate intelligibility of the world and of the discoverability of the forces that shape it. This shared belief encourages each to communicate a vision of human beings caught up in a welter of discreet events that combine to direct and prescribe their actions. Such a vision is an essential characteristic of both the melodramatic and naturalistic imaginations, and it accounts for the frequent intrusion of sensational scenes, improbable coincidences, and stilted rhetoric into fictions that are often derided as merely aesthetically flawed versions of realism.

What I am suggesting, then, is a way of reading naturalism that does not see it primarily in terms of evolutionary and deterministic philosophy applied to realism but rather in terms of popular narrative strategies, derived from melodrama, enlisted in support of a propagandistic cause.1 London, Norris, Dreiser and other naturalists were writers with an agenda. Compelled by their acceptance of Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary synthesis, outraged by the privations they witnessed on the farms and in the cities, and persuaded by the implications of advances in science, these writers employed the narrative devices of melodrama as an efficacious means to convince readers of the truth of their theses and to elicit sympathy for their protagonists or even, as in the case of Hamlin Garland, Upton Sinclair, and London, to prompt readers to take action to redress social imbalance. Although he deplored the genre’s unflattering portrait of human beings and its tendency to exaggerate for effect, Malcolm Cowley appreciated the didactic strain that runs throughout these fictions. “Their books are full of little essays or sermons addressed to the reader; in fact they suggest a naturalistic system of ethics complete with its vices and virtues,” he wrote in 1947. “Most of the characters presented sympathetically in naturalistic novels are either the victors over moral codes which they defy … or else victims of the economic struggle” (438).

Modern criticism has been quick to condemn the didacticism and sensationalism inherent in naturalistic fiction partly because the aesthetic yardstick by which most critics measure these fictions privileges organic integrations of theme and character, symbol and ambiguity, irony and narrative restraint. When a novel displays stereotyped characters, sentimental language or sensational scenes, as do Garland’s Main-Travelled Roads (1891), Norris’s McTeague (1899), and London’s The Sea-Wolf (1904), critics have typically dismissed these elements as inept and derivative or as examples of authorial pandering to an audience hungering for romance. Thus Ronald Martin notes the power of Norris’s “melodramatic realism” to “affect the reader’s deepest feelings and fears,” but he denounces these effects as Norris’s “artistic failings” (150). Even Donald Pizer, who has done more than anyone to clarify our understanding of naturalism, occasionally misreads the place of melodrama in naturalism. In one article, Pizer argues that “the melodramatic sensationalism and moral ‘confusion’ which are often attacked in the naturalistic novel should really be (p. 7) incorporated into a normative definition of the mode and be recognized as its essential constituents” (“Late Nineteenth-Century” 12). Yet elsewhere, under the category of “inept narrative devices,” he claims that “several of the stories of Main-Travelled Roads are marred by melodramatic and sentimental touches” (Introduction xiii).

The New Critical perspective has so shaped our understanding of the narrative strategies of naturalism that, occasionally, some critics have even resorted to ad hominem attacks when encountering fictions that work upon a reader’s sensibility in order to promote acceptance of a certain vision of the world. After outlining the “dark chain of necessity” evoked in Garland’s “A Branch Road,” Charles C. Walcutt notes the optimistic close in which Garland sketches the promise of a better world awaiting Will and Aggie, and then chides Garland for violating the unity of his conception: “It is scarcely necessary to say that we expect some degree of wisdom, rather than daydreams, from a serious artist; we expect that he will pursue the logic of his situations to the bitter end” (56). Walcutt concludes his discussion of Garland’s “rather pathetic failures” by claiming that Garland was too “unsophisticated and therefore completely at the mercy of the literary techniques which [he] absorbed from [his] Victorian world” to know how to “integrate the new ideas into a fictional structure” (62).

Rather than condemn Garland’s fictions by insulting the intelligence of their author, it is perhaps more useful to question whether our own interpretive assumptions prevent us from recognizing and appreciating the utility of melodramatic sentiment and sensationalism in naturalistic works. Restoring melodrama’s place in naturalism—that is, understanding why the naturalists employed such narrative strategies in their fiction despite their frequent condemnation of romantic and sentimental fiction—will enable us to recognize what Jane Tompkins calls the “cultural work” of fiction. Like the sentimental novelists about whom Tompkins writes, Garland, Norris, Dreiser, and London had “designs upon their audiences, in the sense of wanting to make people think and act in a particular way” (xi). Because these writers were attempting to elicit particular responses in their readers, they employed narrative devices that worked upon their readers’ sympathies—to motivate them to outrage, in the case of Garland; to recognize the dominance of sexual instincts, in the case of Norris; to push them to pity, in the case of Dreiser; and to persuade them to identify with primordial figures of strength, in the case of London.

To recognize the function of melodrama in their fictions is not, of course, to explain why these particular writers were attracted to melodrama. We might arrive at such an understanding first by recognizing that melodrama is not only a specific genre (like tragedy and comedy), with defining plot movements and stylistic strategies, but also that the melodramatist sees the world differently than does the tragedian or the comedian (or the realist or satirist). As James L. Rosenberg notes, “Melodrama, like tragedy, is a way of seeing, not a trick of writing. You write a melodrama—a good melodrama—because you see the world that way, not because you think: ‘Today I think I’ll write a melodrama’” (235). What distinguishes the imaginations of Garland, Norris, Dreiser, and London from that of such an arch-realist as Howells is that the former persisted in seeing the world melodramatically, despite their advocacy of realism. The realists were chiefly committed to exploding romantic stereotypes and (p. 8) reforming sentimental expression. They believed that romance had degenerated into works that “merely tickle our prejudices and lull our judgment, or that coddle our sensibilities or pamper our gross appetite for the marvellous” (Howells 95–96).

The naturalists, while sharing the realists’ distaste for sentimentality, additionally were immensely attracted to Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary synthesis, which encouraged a melodramatic perception of the world. Spencer’s paradigm tends to polarize the subjects of inquiry—into the Knowable and the Unknowable, stability and instability, homogeneity and heterogeneity, evolution and dissolution, reflecting the late nineteenth century’s preoccupation with either/or abstractions: the rich and the poor, supply and demand, science and faith, progress and poverty. Just as melodrama insists upon the ultimate defeat of misfortune, Spencer’s evolutionary synthesis assured people that the conflict of forces tended toward a harmonious equilibrium in which conflicting forces achieved a balance that benefited society. Garland announced this faith in the peroration to Crumbling Idols (1894), his manifesto of a new American literary nationalism: “In evolution there are always two vast fundamental forces: one, the inner, which propels; the other, the outer, which adapts and checks. One forever thrusts toward new forms, the other forever moulds, conserves, adapts, reproduces. Progress is the resultant of these forces” (191). Spencer’s system reaffirmed the ultimate benevolence of the universe and humanity’s ability to comprehend the operations of that universe, for his “synthetic philosophy” documented, in exhaustive detail, exactly how the extant social inequities inescapably worked toward a better society. His evolutionary optimism thus reassured the naturalists that science would facilitate humanity’s ascendancy through discovery of and adherence to nature’s laws.

What prompted the naturalists to adopt Spencer so readily was the melodramatic determinism inherent in his system that explained so smoothly the interconnections among events. As Dreiser wrote in a meditation on Spencer for an 1897 issue of Ev’ry Month:

All life has been comprehended best by him. He has explained the value of things that are, and the purposes for which they are intended. Rain, sunlight, the seasons; charity, generosity, virtue,—all these are set down in their true order, and having established the empire of the mind, he invites you, as subjects, to acquaint yourselves with its laws. They are unalterable laws. (“Reflections” 107)

In their desire to express Spencer’s “unalterable laws,” the naturalists gravitated toward the melodrama of deterministic plots, which pushed characters to inevitable conclusions. In a 1911 essay defining melodrama, Clayton Hamilton, a prolific playwright, critic, and drama editor for the Bookman, recognized the determinism of events as central to the genre. “By melodrama,” he stipulated, “is signified a serious play in which the incidents determine and control the characters…. A train of incidents is foreordained and the characters are subsequently woven into the tiny pattern of destiny that has been predetermined for them” (310).

The naturalists seem to have recognized the congruence of the melodramatic and the Spencerian vision, for in their fictions and in their autobiographies they record again and again the moment when Spencerian thought shattered their faith (p. 9) in a Christian hierarchy of clear moral imperatives, only to replace that disruption with a new faith in evolutionary thought. That these writers should be led to accept Spencer’s distortions and simplifications of evolution is not surprising, for, as Wylie Sypher suggests, melodrama is the characteristic modality of the nineteenth-century imagination, for which “[t]he world becomes a theatre of tensions between abstractions” (262). Following Spencer, the naturalists envisioned a world in which conflicting abstract forces both motivated and circumscribed humanity’s actions. Such a view, Sypher observes,

encourages not only a melodramatic ethics (the strong and the weak, the hard and the soft, the good and the bad) but also emotive history and emotive science, which, as Huxley confidently assumed, can satisfy the spiritual longings of man. Having done with a personal God, the 19th Century could now displace the drama in its mind into the universe itself by means of the laws of geology, biology, energy, and, more immediately, economics. (261)

Responding to the melodrama of Spencerianism, the naturalists adopted melodramatic plots and narrative strategies to affect their readers’ emotions the better to convey the drama of the impingement of science upon human activity.

The Melodramatic Vision

Melodrama is particularly well suited as a form for the exposition of ideas because of its clarity of outline and coherence of vision. It is, Michael Booth observes,

a dream world inhabited by dream people and dream justice, offering audiences the fulfillment and satisfaction found only in dreams. An idealization and simplification of the world of reality, it is in fact the world its audiences want but cannot get…. One of the great appeals of this world is clarity: character, conduct, ethics, and situations are perfectly simple, and one always knows what the end will be, although the means may be temporarily obscure. (14)2

Recognizing the naturalistic novel as a melodramatic “dream world” accounts for its simplicity of characterization, its reliance upon one or two motivating forces to propel its plots, the repeated employment of coincidence in and the polarized arrangement of its action, and the frequency of romantic subplots and stilted dialogue—all of which have been disparaged as “flaws” by critics who see naturalism as a variation of realism. If one approaches the naturalistic novel as an extension of realism—as realism intensified or as realism that focuses on environmental determinism—then of course all of the above “excesses” diminish the realism of the fictional portrayal. But to understand naturalistic art as a projection of the melodramatic vision is to account for these characteristics and to explain their place in this fictional world. The naturalistic imagination does not intend to offer an “objective” depiction of the (p. 10) world but an interpretation or recreation of the forces that control that world. As Frank Norris recognized in “The Novel with a ‘Purpose,’” the naturalistic novel is not a novel that shows us something; it is a novel that “proves something, draws conclusions from a whole congeries of forces, social tendencies, race impulses, devotes itself not to a study of men but of man” (90).

This desire to “prove,” to show how the world and its universal laws operate, is the motive of the melodramatist, not of the realist. As most scholars of melodrama have recognized, melodrama is a didactic genre that reaffirms social and family order. Melodramatists stereotype their characters to demonstrate the universality or “justice” of social norms. David Grimsted, in his exhaustive survey of American melodrama up to 1850, describes the conceptual paradigm of melodrama as being “the victory of the forces of morality, social restraint and domesticity over what was dark, passionate, and anti-social” (220). Thus the inevitable triumph of the hero, the fall of the villain, the preservation of chastity. Departures from the formula rarely occurred, and if they did, plots were arranged to explain the anomaly and to reaffirm the social norm. If, for example, the heroine’s purity was sullied, she had to die by the play’s end in order to maintain melodrama’s insistence upon clear moral values. As playwright Bronson Howard blithely announced, “The wife who has once taken the step from purity to impurity can never reinstate herself in the world of art on this side of the grave; and so an audience looks with complacent tears on the death of an erring woman” (“The Autobiography of a Play,” qtd. in Quinn 45).

While the naturalists seldom depicted plots that end happily and reaffirm the “social and family order,” the didactic conceptual paradigm underlying melodrama—the belief that nature’s laws are comprehendible and inevitable—also extends to the naturalistic novel. One of the distinctions between realism and naturalism is that the former typically “observes” life, depicting the details of the commonplace without overt moralizing or authorial commentary, while the latter frequently moralizes or sets out to demonstrate a particular thesis. Naturalism, like melodrama, is therefore a literature of propaganda. As a literature with a purpose, to adapt Norris’s phrase, naturalism often employs the dichotomies and dramatic techniques of melodrama to articulate its thesis. Thus the prevalence of the sensational in plots, the emotional excesses in dialogue and characterization, the gothic portrayals of character, and the overt pronouncement of doctrine. In Sister Carrie (1900), for example, Dreiser frequently halts his narrative to explain why events are unfolding as they are. A well-known instance occurs at the beginning of chapter 8, where Dreiser argues for the random quality of life, its essential purposelessness, in the polarities of melodrama:

Among the forces which sweep and play throughout the universe, untutored man is but a wisp in the wind. Our civilisation is still in a middle stage, scarcely beast, in that it is no longer wholly guided by instinct; scarcely human, in that it is not yet wholly guided by reason…. We have the consolation of knowing that evolution is ever in action, that the ideal is a light that cannot fail. He will not forever balance thus between good and evil….

(p. 11) In Carrie—as in how many of our worldlings do they not?—instinct and reason, desire and understanding, were at war for the mastery. She followed whither her craving led. She was as yet more drawn than she drew. (56–57)

Such overt expression of Spencerian doctrine shows little difference as a narrative device from the melodramatic soliloquy; in both naturalism and melodrama, the authorial intrusion clarifies the values the work is promoting by making explicit the issues involved.

Recognizing the melodramatic quality of naturalism also enables us to account for other rhetorical strategies of naturalism usually dismissed as lapses in aesthetic judgment or as inconsistencies in conception. For example, few critics can resist disparaging the melodramatic ending of McTeague where Marcus Schouler handcuffs himself to McTeague moments before the dentist kills him. Comments range from that of Charles C. Walcutt, who reads the novel as ending “in outlandish melodrama rather than a controlled demonstration of inevitable consequences” (132), to Carvel Collins, who terms the increase of melodramatic elements of the final chapters “excessive” (xviii), to Richard Chase, who sees the essentially melodramatic form of the novel but tends to deride it as “forced” and “meretricious” (192).

The ending of McTeague borrows from melodrama the device of the tableau, a climactic silent arrangement of actors that offers a symbolic picture of the preceding conflict. In such scenes of stasis, Peter Brooks observes, “we grasp melodrama’s primordial concern to make its signs clear, unambiguous, and impressive” (48). The advantage of the tableau is that it impresses on the audience the didactic point of the drama; a form of dramatic resolution, it is as essential to the melodrama as is the expositional soliloquy that expresses the thematic values of the play. In the closing paragraphs of McTeague, Norris sketches the final confrontation between Marcus and McTeague in the fictional equivalent of the tableau:

As McTeague rose to his feet, he felt a pull at his right wrist; something held it fast. Looking down, he saw that Marcus in that last struggle had found strength to handcuff their wrists together. Marcus was dead now; McTeague was locked to the body. All about him, vast, interminable, stretched the measureless leagues of Death Valley.

McTeague remained stupidly looking around him, now at the distant horizon, now at the ground, now at the half-dead canary chittering feebly in its little gilt prison. (243)

The scene is not an instance of mere “melodramatic excess” because the “signs” in this scene—the handcuffs, the two men, one live, one dead, the wasteland of Death Valley, and especially the canary imprisoned in its imitation gold cage—depict the normative values of the story in a final stasis. We readers recognize the efficacy of the signs, for they portray the abstractions of greed, jealousy, moral imprisonment, and fate in a final resolution, a symbolic image denoting the ironic futility of attempts to escape one’s elemental nature and environmental influences. The scene is certainly melodramatic, but it effectively conveys the values and imaginative framework within which this fiction exists.

(p. 12) The naturalists’ adaptation of melodrama also extends to their portrayal of character. The melodramatic hero is an essentially unified character, undivided by the complexities of conflicting motives or values. Indeed, characters typically lack psychological complexity—the villain is merely the personification of lust, avarice, or cruelty, an integer to set off the hero’s honesty, fortitude, and bravery and the heroine’s purity, dutifulness, and charity. “In this quasi-wholeness,” Robert B. Heilman observes, the melodramatic character “is freed from the anguish of choice, and from the pain of struggling with counterimpulses that inhibit or distort his single direct ‘action’” (84–85). This is not, however, to say that the “monopathic” character’s motivation may not be complex, or that he or she may not vacillate between conflicting obligations, or that there are no alternatives presented. The typical dilemma in much melodrama, for example, is the heroine’s choice between duty and passion—whether to obey her parents’ (usually her father’s) wishes or to follow her own desire to marry her lover. But the conflict is imposed from without; the heroine is never torn between an ethical determination to remain virginal and a conscious desire to experience sex. She is simply faced with some external obstruction that momentarily frustrates her ability to choose the correct course of action. Similarly, the melodramatic villain does not ponder the moral or ethical choice between altruism and self-interest. He is aware of but one desire, though circumstances may frustrate his acting on it. For the melodramatic character, there is no mixture of contradictory motives, no true moral or ethical dilemma of which he or she is conscious. And to maintain the character’s singleness of purpose, the melodramatist usually orchestrates any conflict of motive so as to invalidate the dilemma by letting the choice occur through chance or unexpected revelation. As a result, there is no true anxiety attached to the choice, no incapacitating anguish, no psychological self-betrayal.

Rather than simply accept, as the melodramatist does, the moral nature of people as an ethical given—as a “moral abstraction,” to use David Grimsted’s phrase (222)—the naturalists focus much of their narrative on the causal forces that determine behavior. Yet the naturalist rarely attempts to portray a complex mental psychology that we would recognize as “modern”—a psychology that attempts to depict the conditional, to register the density of motive and its complex interrelations, and above all to render the uncertainty reflective of modern consciousness. For the naturalists, casual explanations for human motivation are typically reductive. Their portrayals of behavior concentrate on such externals as socioeconomic forces or elemental emotions of greed, lust, or ambition rather than indecision and reflective consciousness.

Even such works as Martin Eden, McTeague, and Vandover and the Brute, while locating scenes of conflict within the protagonist’s mind, do not really vary the basic melodramatic ascription of behavior to a set of basic causes, nor do they attempt to render the complexity of character. The oft-noted scene in McTeague, where the dentist battles the brute within while Trina lies unconscious in his dental chair, illustrates the naturalist tendency to depict mental conflict in terms of the clash of elemental forces rather than through reasoned choices:

(p. 13) Suddenly the animal in the man stirred and woke; the evil instincts that in him were so close to the surface leaped to life, shouting and clamoring.

It was a crisis—a crisis that had arisen all in an instant; a crisis for which he was totally unprepared. Blindly, and without knowing why, McTeague fought against it, moved by an unreasoned instinct of resistance. Within him, a certain second self, another better McTeague rose with the brute; both were strong, with the huge crude strength of the man himself. The two were at grapples. There in that cheap and shabby “Dental Parlor” a dreaded struggle began. It was the old battle, old as the world, wide as the world—the sudden panther leap of the animal, lips drawn, fangs aflash, hideous, monstrous, not to be resisted, and the simultaneous arousing of the other man, the better self that cries, “Down, down,” without knowing why; that grips the monster; that fights to strangle it, to thrust it down and back. (21)

While Norris does depict conflicting motives—the brute versus the better self—McTeague is passive; he has little agency; and while he cries, “‘No, by God! No, by God!’” the elemental force of sexual desire obviates choice: “Suddenly he leaned over and kissed her, grossly, full on the mouth.” McTeague lacks the capacity to comprehend moral choice, just as he is powerless to resist the force of instinct: “its significance was not for him,” Norris writes. “To reason with it was beyond him. He could only oppose to it an instinctive stubborn resistance, blind, inert” (22). Heilman’s distinction between the tragic and the melodramatic hero is helpful in understanding the aim of the naturalist. The distinguishing characteristic of the tragic character, Heilman suggests, is his divided mind:

he is caught between different imperatives each of which has its own validity, or … he is split between different forces or motives or values. In other words, his nature is dual or multifold, and the different competing elements are present at the same time, are operative in the dramatic situation, and are known to us as realities that have to be reckoned with. (89)

By “competing elements,” Heilman means that a character’s motives or values present him or her with irreconcilable alternatives. Macbeth is prompted to murder by his avaricious desire to attain the crown, yet he hesitates to act because he knows that such an act undermines what that crown represents. Macbeth is a divided character; his motives are in conflict, and no single motive or value explains or accounts for his behavior. Moreover, he is always conscious of his alternatives and vacillates between them.

In the naturalistic novel, as in the melodrama, characters are essentially whole. McTeague does not experience any meaningful self-awareness; he is only dimly conscious of conflicting desires; he is propelled by a single force, a latent atavism that manifests itself in instinctive, physical desires. Norris, it is true, details the operations of this atavism, but McTeague remains unchanged at the novel’s conclusion, essentially the same as when the novel began. Similarly, Martin Eden’s strength of will never wavers—he never exhibits any real self-doubt of his intellectual abilities; the obstacles he faces are imposed by others, not by inner vacillation. Vandover is perhaps naturalism’s best claim to a fully developed character in the modern sense in that at times he approaches self-awareness:

(p. 14) And with the eyes of this better self he saw again, little by little, the course of his whole life, and witnessed again the eternal struggle between good and evil that had been going on within him since his very earliest years. He was sure that at first the good had been the strongest. Little by little the brute had grown, and he, pleasure-loving, adapting himself to every change of environment, luxurious, self-indulgent, shrinking with the shrinking of a sensuous artist-nature from all that was irksome and disagreeable, had shut his ears to the voices that shouted warnings of the danger, and had allowed the brute to thrive and to grow. (215)

But even here, Norris has depicted Vandover’s marginal consciousness in melodramatic dualities; Norris has merely shifted the usual external battle between forces of good and forces of evil to Vandover’s mind. Vandover does have some consciousness of the brute within and of his “artist-nature,” but Norris paints him as the passive observer of his own degradation into the brute. Vandover is completely helpless to make an effective choice between his two natures; he is not free to act upon his self-awareness.

Although Norris prolongs the decline of his protagonist and allows him to be aware of his own decline, Vandover’s behavior reveals Norris’s essentially melodramatic conception of the world and of his characters’ place in it. In the naturalistic novel, as in the melodrama, characters are polarized both in their depiction and in their actions. Garland’s farmers are on the side of right, the land speculators on the side of wrong; the former are motivated by the dream of success and the work ethic, the latter by greed. McTeague is an ignorant and unconscious but sympathetic everyman; he is blocked from achieving happiness by his own brute nature and by Trina’s greed and by Marcus Schouler’s jealousy.

Instead of portraying psychological complexity, the naturalist exteriorizes conflict, as does the melodramatist, in what Peter Brooks terms “a drama of pure psychic signs—called Father, Daughter, Protector, Persecutor, Judge, Duty, Obedience, Justice” (35). Multiple motivations, in the sense of causal determinants, may be ascribed to the characters, but the causal forces are seldom in conflict with themselves and, more important, the characters are seldom aware of the existence of potential conflict. In short, while the naturalistic imagination often seeks to explain human behavior by attributing actions to several causes (such as Trina’s greed and her masochism; McTeague’s hereditary sexual drive, his stupid passivity, and his fierce irritability; Schouler’s jealousy and his vengefulness), the characters lack the ability to alter their course of action. To be a “monopathic” character—that is, to enjoy a “singleness of feeling that gives one the sense of wholeness” (Heilman 85)—is not necessarily to be unaware of choice or not to choose. Lee Clark Mitchell points out that while naturalist characters do have choices and do choose, they can never refrain from acting as their desires compel them to act, even if they have resolved to act otherwise (8–9). Vandover, for example, many times resolves not to give in to the brute, but time and again his self-indulgence and his “pliable nature” compel him to ignore his own resolve. Carrie Meeber knows that social morality proscribes living with a man without marriage, but her pliable and comfort-loving nature causes her to “drift” passively while stronger natures choose for her.

(p. 15) If the naturalist shares with the melodramatist a tendency to see the world in terms of a Manichaean struggle between opposing forces, the naturalist also tends to depict this struggle in allegorical terms. In melodrama, characters function as types representing abstractions: the hero typifies virtue, fidelity, fortitude, patience, and so forth; the villain represents greed, lust, heartlessness; the heroine, chastity, purity, domesticity, obedience. The naturalist tends to borrow from melodrama this allegorical typing to depict people and their conflicts as concrete manifestations of abstractions. The naturalists were likely attracted to melodrama because of its ability to depict what Peter Brooks terms “the moral occult.” In tracing the melodramatic nature of much of Balzac’s and James’s fiction, Brooks argues that their “deep subjects, the locus of their true drama,” is “the domain of spiritual forces and imperatives that is not clearly visible within reality, but which they believe to be operative there, and which demands to be uncovered, registered, articulated” (20–21). This interest in making the unseen visible, in exposing the hidden forces that motivate human interaction, thus leads the naturalists to adopt the methods of melodrama, with its clear visual enactments of right and wrong, justice and injustice, duty and passion, charity and exploitation.

Melodrama therefore becomes an ideal vehicle for the exposition of ideas—the naturalist can embody the idea in a character or in a conflict to reveal, dramatically and emphatically, the meaning of the idea as it impinges upon human lives. In Garland’s “Under the Lion’s Paw,” written to advocate Henry George’s doctrine of the single-tax as an equitable solution to the injustice of land speculation, the melodramatic conflict between landholder and tenant is only the concrete embodiment of the clash of two ideas. The farmers are heroic toilers of the soil, the principle of labor exerted to increase the value of property; the landholder, Jim Butler, is the heartless villain, the exploitation of labor to yield unearned increment of profit. The characters are types, representing honest labor and dishonest gain. To increase our sympathy with the farmer, Garland even adopts the language of melodrama, explicitly identifying the farmers with the forces of good: “There are people in this world who are good enough t’ be angels, an’ only haff t’ die to be angels,” Haskins says of the charitable Stephen Council (225).

The “distinct value” of melodrama, Peter Brooks observes, is that it is “about recognition and clarification, about how to be clear what the stakes are and what their representative signs mean, and how to face them” (206). Naturalism, then, at its core expresses a melodramatic vision of human beings at the mercy of forces over which they have little control but whose purpose is ultimately intelligible. The predominant characteristic of the melodramatic vision, I have suggested, is a tendency to see the world in terms of a polarized conflict between representatives of some simplified set of ideas. Such a cosmic melodrama occurs not only in the various allegories of “good” versus “evil” so characteristic of traditional stage melodrama, but also in the novels of naturalists such as Garland, Norris, London, and Dreiser.

Works Cited

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Dreiser, Theodore. “Reflections.” Ev’ry Month 3 (Feb. 1897): 2–4. Rpt. as “[Herbert Spencer].” Theodore Dreiser: A Selection of Uncollected Prose. Ed. Donald Pizer. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1977. 106–11.Find this resource:

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Notes:

(1) . Others have noted the inclusion of elements from popular literature in naturalistic works, although without addressing the utility of these strategies for promoting a necessitarian vision. See Howard 142–82 for a discussion of popular narrative strategies applied to naturalism in general. Davidson and Davidson and Jurnak examine Dreiser’s adaptation of popular literary conventions in Sister Carrie. Solomon discusses Stephen Crane’s parody of popular literature; see especially his discussion of Maggie as a parody of contemporary melodrama (23–44).

(2) . For a dissenting view, see Sharratt 277–81. While Booth suggests that melodrama’s appeal lies in its escapist nature, Sharratt questions the nature of that escape by arguing that audiences may enjoy the experience of fear itself, not as something to escape into, but as something to escape from. Melodrama reassures its audience that, in comparison to the violence and terror of the play, their lives are not so bad: “after coming out of a melodrama, it is the normal world which is made to seem more attractive” (280).