Naturalism
American Lit.


Naturalism is a belief that people ultimately have little or no control over their own lives. Heredity and environment are seen as the main factors that affect a person’s life and fate. Several writers embraced these beliefs and wrote stories in which the main characters were faced with a fate dictated by their environments and their shortcomings.


In “Outcasts of Poker Flat” by Bret Harte, four people are exiled to improve a frontier community. One is a gambler, another accused (and rightly so) of stealing gold, the third is a prostitute, and the fourth a woman condemned as a witch. A chance encounter adds on an innocent couple, now caught in a situation they soon find they cannot escape. Naturalism is constant throughout this story, with the gold thief traitorously stealing the horses and supplies, the gambler running out of luck and committing suicide in despair, and the mountain snows claiming the lives of the women. The choices made by all of the luckless characters lead them to their unfortunate meeting, and consequently their fates. They are so strongly set on their paths that nothing can save them, despite the redeeming traits several of them reveal.


Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” follows right along the same path, where we meet a man walking through the snow frozen over the Yukon River, as he walks towards a camp where his friends have met in preparation of searching for gold. He has been warned by an “old-timer on Sulphur Creek” to always travel with a partner when the temperature falls below -50 degrees, but he has disdained this advice as overcautious and has chosen to make a needlessly dangerous day-long trek with only his sled dog for company. He listens carefully to his footsteps on the ice to avoid stepping where the eroded snow above a spring will pull him through, for if his feet get wet, he will die of hypothermia unless a fire is quickly built.


After much travel he inevitably falls through the snow to a spring, soaking both his legs to the knee. He is alarmed, but he rushes to put together a fire, and soon has one crackling before him. Alas, he built his fire too close to a snow-loaded tree, and just as he starts to cut a moccasin off to heat his feet, the snow from the tree falls and extinguishes his fire. He then goes through several attempts, one more foolish and desperate than the last, to survive the cold. The cold takes the dexterity from his hands, leaving him unable to build another fire or undertake a futile scheme to kill his dog for its body heat. He becomes more and more panicked, and starts to run towards the camp, when exhaustion and the bitter cold finally claim him. The terrible environment and the foolishness of the man’s pride are his undoing.


“A Story of an Hour”, by Kate Chopin, finds Louise, a woman stricken with the grief of notification of her husband’s sudden death in a railroad accident. She retreats to her room and mourns, but slowly her sadness dissolves and great joy comes over her, for she realizes that his untimely end is the beginning of her independence. Her weak heart –then thought of as a hereditary sickness-- worries her friend, who comes to her door and pleads to be let in to comfort her. When she comes out of her room, she is changed, now strong and brave, and glad of her new fortune. As she descends the stairs, her husband enters the house, and all her dreams shatter and crumble around her. She dies, her heart failing at the thought of her soul caged once more.


Her oppression is created by her environment, her husband. While he is a good, caring man, she is damaged greatly by any will bending hers, and she can no longer live when she has briefly seen the light of freedom only to be thrown back into the darkness of subservience.


All these stories reinforce the idea that we cannot control our destinies. They do not hint, but demand that we accept our lots in life, and that nothing can change who we are and who we are going to be.


However, this single