S4 Literature

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Nivel Secundario

Naturalism 

in My Antonia by Wiila Cather


This work describes the main characteristics of Naturalism, and its influence in the novel “My Antonia” by Willa Cather published in 1918. Furthermore, the aspects that define Naturalism will be supported by examples and quotes to illustrate their meaning in the text.


By the end of Nineteenth Century, a new literature movement called Naturalism developed in the United States of America. Naturalist writers usually created characters that followed their own instincts and passions. However, most Naturalist characters had to face forces beyond their control, such as nature and environment. The most common themes in Naturalism were those that show man against himself, man against nature and man against the universe. Therefore, the stories often represent the idea of people struggling and fighting against something that they cannot control. There are different types of Naturalist works, such as physical Naturalism. This form of Naturalism establishes the fact that laws of physical nature govern the laws of human life. Reality exists not in the individual but in the natural universe, since, human life is controlled by external nature, it should be in accordance with the natural laws. 


There is also the one referred to as Mechanical Naturalism; this form regards man as a machine without spirit governed by mechanical laws, where he is pictured with no creative capacity, purpose or direction. The aim is to train man to work in perfect manner as a machine. Last but not least, there is Biological Naturalism based on evolution. This form of naturalism emphasizes that each creature has an urge to live and struggle to exist. Self-preservation is the law of life. A man is born with natural instincts which should be sublimated for socially desirable ends. This has made significant contribution to the development of educational theory and practice. Some people also think that naturalism is a type of "realism" usually characterized by a pessimistic world view. Naturalism is different from Realism in two major parts: subject matter and the concept of a naturalistic character. The subject matter deals with those raw and unpleasant experiences which reduce characters to "degrading" behavior in their struggle to survive and is usually part of the middle or lower classes in society. The subject matter of Realism is drawn from "our experience." But the naturalist discovers those qualities in such characters usually associated with the heroic or acts of violence and passion leading to desperate moments and violent death.


Now as regards “My Ántonia” we can say that it is the perfect example of naturalism. The novel’s nostalgic feeling for the past is related to man`s relationship to its environment. What characters in “My Ántonia” miss about the past is not simply lost time but also lost setting, places, and especially natural surroundings. The characters in “My Ántonia” respond powerfully to their environments especially Jim, who develops a strong attachment to the Nebraska landscape as when he says on page 15, “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up”. The river, for example, makes Jim feel free, and he comes to prize freedom; the setting sun captures his introspective loneliness, and the wide open melancholy of Nebraska’s plains may play a role in forming his reflective personality. In addition, when Winter arrives we can clearly observe that the characters become depressed because of the effect of the snow in the landscape, crops, animals, and the feeling of commitment. This feeling of emptiness is expressed when Ántonia mentions on page 40, “The whole world was changed by the snow” meaning that all the beautiful landscape had gone away because of winter.  

To conclude, we can affirm that the novel is in keeping with this literary movement, especially linked to the  physical aspects of Naturalism, since they evoke the laws of nature and man, as well as the evolutionary type in that social forces condition man and enforce self preservation, as illustrated in Jim and Antonia’s fight for survival.

Tomas Taibo & Marcos Guastavino