Some Observations on Naturalism, So Called, in Fiction

By Farrell, James T. | The Antioch Review, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Some Observations on Naturalism, So Called, in Fiction


Farrell, James T., The Antioch Review


Let me begin this essay by telling about a young professor with whom I have had considerable correspondence. He first came to my attention when a mutual friend sent me one of his first articles. In the introductory part of the essay, the young scholar attempted to define naturalism in terms of an equation suggested by symbolic logic. I do not recall the exact letters in this logical equation but at all events, it contained three letters, and ran something like this: F + D = N. Let us say that in this equation, F equals fiction, D equals determinism, and N equals naturalism. Fiction plus determinism equals naturalism.

The rest of his article, as I recall it, attempted to give some content to his equation. The purpose of the young professor was, in effect, to define naturalism in such a way as to satisfy his own uncertain worries about the "issue" of free will versus determinism. He was strongly attracted to books that he classified as naturalistic, and at the same time he constantly criticized these books for not proving that free will exists in the logical sense. In substance, he was trying to explain why many modern novelists have not been Protestant theologians.

I had a long correspondence with him over the course of several years, and I read a number of his articles. In my letters I attempted, with many citations, to show that there were many differences in style, theme, subject matter, and types of characters in the books he called naturalistic. I further tried to show, and I think with good evidence, that there were more differences than there were similarities among the writers whom he was lumping together, and that they all had failed to do what everyone else had failed to do--to give a final and conclusive answer to the question of free will versus determinism. He expressed admiration for some of my books--but then and later he continued, constantly and persistently, to chide me for not demonstrating an answer to the age-old riddle of free will and determinism. He seemed very disturbed that I was not able to satisfy him, and, additionally, that I didn't seem to consider it an important question for literary criticism.

Later on I tried to get him to pay some attention to, to read and apply his own attitudes and problems to a truly great novel that deals thematically with this very question: Tolstoy's War and Peace. I got nowhere. Rather than that, he kept coming back to contemporary novels, and again and again he discovered, to his own satisfaction, that these novels did not prove the "existence" of free will. Finally, he came to the conclusion that naturalism is a method of writing that can be successful only when the characters are poor, dirty, ugly, and no good. In passing, I observed both in his letters and his articles that he used many invidious and disgusting adjectives to describe the characters in novels that he professed to admire. When "naturalism" attempted to deal with "nicer" people, he decided, it failed. Why did it fail? Because, again, it did not prove that free will exists.

Finally, this young man, reviewing one of my novels, summarized the essential points that he had made repeatedly in our long correspondence. Now, in my letters, I had gone to great detail to emphasize that I didn't agree with him, and that I didn't consider the problem he posed as relevant to what I was doing. But he seemed to be under some great need to have me agree with him about free will and determinism and also about the "dirty characters," so-called, whom I had put in my books. His feelings were hurt because I wouldn't agree with him. And one of the remarks I had made seemed, if I might judge from his correspondence, particularly disturbing to him. I observed that he was really attempting to create a category of naturalism, and then, to use the category as a means of judgment. In other words, he was thinking about literature categorically. And his efforts to establish a category were leading him away from his real problem, one we all face when we read a book. …

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