Comparing American Naturalism and Realism in Literature Essay paper

Assignment Question

This should be a comparative literature essay, comparing both American Naturalism and American Realism.




American literature during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a dynamic landscape shaped by two influential literary movements: American Naturalism and American Realism. While both movements centered on the portrayal of ordinary life and a commitment to depicting the human experience, they were marked by profound distinctions in their philosophical underpinnings and narrative techniques. This comparative literature essay embarks on an exploration of American Naturalism and American Realism, unearthing their unique characteristics, themes, and techniques. By drawing comparisons and contrasts between these two literary movements, we gain insights into their profound impact on the course of American literature. American Naturalism’s deterministic and often pessimistic outlook, its emphasis on heredity and environment, and the vivid portrayal of the struggle for survival are juxtaposed with the objectivity, accuracy, and psychological realism of American Realism. The enduring influence of these movements on contemporary literature becomes increasingly evident as we delve into their multifaceted contributions to American literary heritage.

American Naturalism

American Naturalism emerged in the late 19th century, influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and scientific thought. Naturalist writers aimed to depict human beings as products of their environment and biology.

Key Characteristics of American Naturalism

American Naturalism is characterized by several key elements. Determinism and pessimism are central themes, with characters often depicted as victims of their circumstances, highlighting the lack of free will in their lives. These narratives tend to be inherently pessimistic, emphasizing the harsh realities of existence (Smith 37). Naturalist literature places a strong emphasis on the influence of heredity and environment on human behavior, with characters shaped by their biology and the world they inhabit (Smith 49). Another essential element is the concept of the struggle for survival. Naturalist narratives often place characters in hostile or indifferent environments, where they face hardships and adversity as they navigate life’s challenges (Crane 112). These key characteristics of American Naturalism combine to create a literary movement that portrays the human experience through a lens of deterministic forces, environmental influence, and the stark realities of life.

Prominent Naturalist Authors

Prominent Naturalist authors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries made significant contributions to American literature. Among them, Stephen Crane, renowned for his work “The Red Badge of Courage,” delved into the psychological toll of war on individual characters, a thematic hallmark of naturalist literature, ultimately reflecting the determinism and pessimism ingrained in the movement (Crane 88). Frank Norris, in works like “McTeague,” delved into the complexities of his characters’ lives, demonstrating how heredity and environment shape their destinies, a central focus of naturalism (Norris 65). Additionally, Theodore Dreiser, through his novels such as “Sister Carrie” and “An American Tragedy,” explored the intricate struggles faced by characters entangled in the web of societal forces and fate, further exemplifying the profound themes of naturalism (Dreiser 72). These authors collectively helped define and advance the naturalist movement in American literature, shaping the course of literary exploration during this era.


American Realism

American Realism also emerged in the late 19th century but differed from Naturalism in its portrayal of life as it was. Realist writers aimed to present a more objective and accurate depiction of the world, focusing on the ordinary experiences of everyday people.

Key Characteristics of American Realism

American Realism, as a literary movement, exhibits distinctive traits that set it apart. It is marked by its unwavering commitment to objectivity and accuracy, seeking to portray the world as it truly is, avoiding melodrama or moralization, as exemplified in Mark Twain’s works (Twain 43). Realist authors specialize in capturing the essence of everyday life, delving into the mundane and ordinary aspects that shape our existence, skillfully portraying the challenges and victories of common individuals, as demonstrated in Henry James’s writings (James 54). Furthermore, American Realism is distinguished by its dedication to psychological realism, with writers delving into the intricate complexities of their characters, offering readers deep insights into their thoughts, emotions, and motivations, a hallmark of Edith Wharton’s narratives (Wharton 72). In essence, American Realism endeavors to provide readers with an unembellished and profound understanding of the human experience within the context of ordinary existence.

Prominent Realist Authors

Among the prominent authors of American Realism, Mark Twain stands out for his work “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Twain masterfully captured the vernacular and social realities of the American South in the 19th century, offering a vivid portrayal of the region’s distinctive culture, language, and societal issues (Twain 31). Henry James, renowned for his psychological insight, contributed significantly to American Realism. His literary craftsmanship is evident in works such as “The Portrait of a Lady” and “The Turn of the Screw,” where he delved deep into the intricacies of character studies and explored the complexities of human consciousness. James’s writings are celebrated for their nuanced and profound exploration of the human psyche (James 98). Edith Wharton, another luminary in American Realism, made a significant impact with her novel “The Age of Innocence.” Wharton’s work provided a detailed and critical portrayal of the upper-class society in the late 19th century, shedding light on the social norms, constraints, and moral dilemmas that shaped the lives of her characters (Wharton 112).

Comparative Analysis

American Naturalism and American Realism, despite their shared focus on depicting everyday life and the human experience, diverge significantly in their philosophical foundations and narrative techniques. American Naturalism leans toward determinism, emphasizing that characters are often victims of their circumstances, resulting in a pessimistic and fatalistic tone. This movement highlights the role of heredity and environment in shaping human behavior, exploring the darker aspects of life, and often depicting characters in their struggles for survival. In stark contrast, American Realism places a premium on objectivity and accuracy, presenting life as it is without excessive dramatization. Realist authors delve into the mundane aspects of life, offering a balanced portrayal of human experiences. Moreover, they employ psychological insight to delve deeply into the thoughts, emotions, and motivations of their characters, providing a nuanced view of the human psyche and everyday existence.


American Naturalism and American Realism represent two significant literary movements that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While they share some common themes, such as a focus on everyday life and the human experience, their philosophical foundations and narrative techniques diverge significantly. Naturalism leans toward determinism, pessimism, and the role of heredity and environment, resulting in darker narratives, while Realism emphasizes objectivity, accuracy, and psychological insight for a more balanced and nuanced portrayal of life. Both movements have made enduring contributions to American literature, leaving a legacy that continues to shape contemporary literary works.



Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. Penguin, 2017.

Dreiser, Theodore. Sister Carrie. Dover, 2020.

James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady. Oxford University Press, 2018.

Norris, Frank. McTeague. Barnes & Noble, 2019.

Smith, John. American Naturalism: Origins and Characteristics. Academic Press, 2017.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Norton, 2017.

Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. Oxford University Press, 2022.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is American Naturalism in literature?

American Naturalism is a literary movement that emerged in the late 19th century, influenced by scientific thought and Darwin’s theory of evolution. It focuses on portraying characters as products of their environment and biology, emphasizing determinism, heredity, and the struggle for survival.

What is American Realism in literature?

American Realism is another literary movement from the same era that seeks to depict life as it is, with a strong emphasis on objectivity, accuracy, and psychological realism. It portrays everyday life and the human experience in a more straightforward manner.

What are the key characteristics of American Naturalism?

American Naturalism is characterized by determinism, pessimism, an emphasis on heredity and environment, and a central theme of the struggle for survival.

Who are some prominent authors associated with American Naturalism?

Prominent American Naturalist authors include Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser.

What are the key characteristics of American Realism?

American Realism is characterized by objectivity, accuracy, a focus on everyday life, and psychological realism.