Dichotomy of Naturalism
A new concept, naturalism, began to develop during the late 1800s and lasted into the early 1900s. Grounded in the ideas of great minds like Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, writers began to integrate naturalism into their stories. Jack London and Kate Chopin are two artists that showcase the shift toward the darker side of nature. Although both of these writers were experimenting with the same naturalistic ideas, the finished stories take two completely different approaches to those ideas. The sordid and pessimistic subject matter of humanity as it exists in the natural world forced itself into our literature in a way that both enthralled and terrified its readers. Jack London, in To Build a Fire, appeared to have been influenced by the writings of Darwin while Kate Chopin, in The Storm, seemed to encapsulate Freudian ideals. London portrays man’s desire to dominate the living world, and Chopin delves into the animalistic sexuality of humanity and the primal need to procreate.
First, it is important to understand exactly what naturalism stands for in literary aspects. At its core, naturalism is an attempt to determine and identify the forces that drive the actions of those living in the world. It seeks to quantify the physical state and strives to measure, with exactness, the natural state of things. In naturalism, there is great emphasis on the impact of heredity on the actions of humanity. Combining heredity with environmental surroundings culminates in the harsh realities of the naturalistic writer’s realm. This type of writing may come across as harsh or crass to some readers and violent or miserable to others. However, the reality of these situations cannot be discarded. There is a certain appeal to the truth within both of these works. The readers can understand the lust-tinged fear that is brewing during the storm and can almost feel the cold bearing down on them as the life-bringing fire is snuffed out.
In London’s To Build a Fire, the man is at the mercy of the natural as he travels through the cold and unyielding forest of the Yukon. Throughout the entirety of the story, the temperature is mentioned. This constant focus on the measurement of temperature falls in line with naturalism and the need to quantify and measure the world. The man acknowledges the cold, yet “it did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general” (629). At one point in the novel, the man has built for himself a “roaring fire” and “for the moment the cold of space was outwitted” (632). Throughout the entirety of the man’s trek in the forest, he is accompanied by a dog. In true Darwin form, the dog survives where the man could not. It was the adaptability of the dog throughout its ancestry which had equipped it with the tools required to survive in the frigid conditions. “This man did not know cold” (632). “But the dog knew; all of its ancestry knew, and it had inherited the knowledge” (633).
The ignorance of man and his inability to understand the intricacies of natural world will ultimately end in the death of man. The dog understands the danger of venturing out into the cold night away from the warmth and comfort of the fire. There is an interesting facet to this part of the story which sheds light on man’s desire to dominate the living creatures surrounding him. The man was the master of the dog and “there was no keen intimacy between the dog and the man” (633). London writes, “the only caresses it (the dog) had ever received were the caresses of the whip-lash” (633). If a bond had been cultivated between the man and animal, then perhaps the dog would have attempted to lure the man to remain in protection of the warmth. However, the man did not seek companionship but continued to establish his dominance. It is no surprise, then, that “the dog made no effort to communicate its apprehension to the man. It was not concerned in the welfare of the man; it was for its own sake that it yearned back toward the fire” (633). Throughout the story, London beseeches the reader to understand the value of instinct; he begs that we recognize the faults of humanity and learn to rely on the wisdom which nature so readily supplies.
In Kate Chopin’s The Storm, the characters are at the mercy of the natural as they find themselves amid a duality of terrible storms, one meteorological and the other physical. The idea proposed in the story is that Alcee and Calixta were at the mercy of something that was bigger than both of them, something that simply would not be denied. Every indication is that neither did anything to serve as a catalyst for the passionate affair. Alcee “expressed an intention to remain outside, but it was soon apparent that he might as well have been out in the open” (434). The force of the storm, perhaps both storms, drove him into the house. If the rain was responsible for placing Alcee in the house, then it was the lightning which could be credited with placing Calixta in his arms. The “lightning was incessant” and “the crash seemed to invade the very boards they stood upon” (435). Their very foundation had been rattled.
At this point, the primal libido of both Alcee and Calixta cannot hope to be repressed. In true Freudian form, the erotic attachments of the id are sated. The meteorological storm posited the two characters in the same physical space, but it was the sexual storm which had been brewing since Assumption that took over. For Alcee, this storm “had aroused all the old-time infatuation and desire for her flesh” (435). Calixta “had given place to drowsy gleam that unconsciously betrayed a sensuous desire” (436). There is no mention of love between the two of them, only the purely physical attraction which could not be denied. In truth, it seems that both couples benefit from the unplanned rendezvous. Calixta “seemed to express nothing but satisfaction at their (Bobinot and Bibi) safe return” (437). Alcee “was getting on nicely” (437). “Bobinot and Bibi began to relax and enjoy themselves, and when the three seated themselves at table they laughed” (437). “As for Clarisse… she and the babies were doing well” (437). Both of the storms had run their course. “So the storm passed and every one was happy” (437).
Both Jack London and Kate Chopin embraced the ideas of naturalism; however their works celebrated different aspects of the same notion. London used his platform to position humans in a place where survival is an achievement and not simply a right granted by humanity. He showcases the slow decline of man when he is knocked from the comfort of his niche. Chopin strives to open the ideas of women and their sexuality. She justifies her characters actions by shedding light on the natural desires of man and woman alike. Naturalism displays all of man’s faults, but it is through that portrayal that we can find our place in the world.