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The Question of Naturalism in George Moore's "Esther Waters"

Hausarbeit 2018 28 Seiten

Anglistik - Komparatistik


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Naturalism in theory
2.1 Narrative style and scientific methods
2.2 Topics and fundamental motifs
2.3 The philosophy of determinism

3. Naturalist elements in George Moore’s Esther Waters
3.1 Moore’s own theory on human drives and life instincts
3.2 The social and political realities of late 19th century life
3.3 Personalized narrative and internal focalization

4. Conclusion

List of Works Cited


Émile Zola’s “The Experimental Novel”: Extracts

1. Introduction

Since our very beginnings as a species, the human mind has always loved systems and structures because they help us to gain a clearer view of the deeper meanings behind our experiences. We use indices to chart plants and their uses, official classifications to guide our cohabitation, lists to organize and store data, schedules to control our workflow, and schematic diagrams to proffer detailed and in-depth explanation for certain concepts we want to transmit to other people. In short, there seem to be no practical data that cannot be edited and then published in the form of a directory or site map. And, of course, we have also used these structures to compile and collate information around topics of a more ideational type such as literature or music.

The division of literature into distinct periods, epochs and genres, for instance, tremendously facilitates our communication about the literary works that move us. Because literary scholars have categorized poems and novels in due consideration of their similarities and differences, we are increasingly able to recognize basic currents and deviations from them. The artificial grouping of texts, authors, and themes permits a better examination of individual works. And, correspondingly, our knowledge regarding the zeitgeist and predominating opinions of earlier times has increased significantly. But despite all efforts to provide a systematic overview of literary epochs and their most fundamental stylistic measures and cultural attitudes, they remain fallible reconstructions that cannot always be accurate. Every now and again, there are novels (or even entire oeuvres) that resist all attempts to annex them to a specific movement. Johann Gottfried Herder, Heinrich von Kleist, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Georg Büchner are all very prominent examples for authors who wrote works for varying epochs and movements. And such a case also applies to the Irish novelist, short-story writer, poet, and dramatist George Augustus Moore who is often regarded as one of the first great modern novelists of his country. “Indeed, Moore’s name is readily associated with a number of disparate movements and -isms: Naturalism in the novel and the theatre; Impressionism in painting; Paterian aesthetics, Decadence and avantgarde; Literary Wagnerism; the Irish Literary Revival; New Woman culture” (Huguet, “Introduction” 2).

However, this difficulty does not deter me from treating the question of Naturalism in Esther Waters because I strongly believe that there is much to be gained from such an analysis. To read a novel and to recognize the pulse of its time within the flow of its words and thoughts, is to really understand what makes the text work. And since a comparison with other writings of its time and epoch can substantially increase the comprehension and appreciation of a given text, this term paper seeks to explore the various elements that make Esther Waters stand out from other types of Naturalist writing.

In order to reach this goal, I will deal initially with the general features and characteristics of Naturalism as a literary epoch, before finally moving on to a closer analysis of Esther Waters. The main points for examination during this process will be writing style, narrative, philosophy, theme, and social criticism since I regard them as the most fundamental aspects and principles that contribute to the sociocultural tradition of a certain literary movement. On the basis of the verifiable truth that literary epochs are no natural categories but indeed subsequent classifications, most of my evidence must necessarily be derived from secondary literature. Considering the fact that Moore was very much influenced by Zola and his French contemporaries, however, I will also venture to take a deeper look at Zola’s programmatic essay “The Experimental Novel”, so as to identify his initial ideas for the movement.

Thus, I hope to be able to evince both the elements that render Esther Waters congeneric with other Naturalist writings, as well as the components that are contradictory to Zola’s original claim for a new form of literature that is “governed by science” and socioeconomic determinism (Zola 1).

2. Naturalism in theory

2.1 Narrative style and scientific methods

In contrast to Realism and its core tenet of a totally unadorned representation of reality, naturalism does not solely focus on the inartificial rendition of base subject matter, but attaches even greater importance to the formative aspects of existence, which it seeks to depict as closely as possible while still maintaining a certain emphasis on underlying causes and patterns.

In his highly influential essay “Le Roman expérimental” (1880, in English: “The Experimental Novel”), Émile Zola—the indisputable founder and leading figure of Naturalism—claims that it is the novelist’s task and duty to set “his characters going in a certain story so as to show that the succession of facts will be such as the requirements of the determinism of the phenomena under examination call for” (Zola 8). In his opinion, literature is not meant to conduce to the purification of the reader’s soul by stimulating their senses, as has been the intended aim of classical writings, but should rather seek to “point[ ] out in man and in society the mechanism of the phenomena over which science is mistress” (53). Thus, he makes the demand that authors should try and keep their texts free of any personal sentiments that might slant the experiment by meddling with the original results of the observation (54).

In this manner, naturalism is indeed congeneric with realism since it also shares a strong belief in the detectability of the world through science and empirical observation. A close analysis of naturalist writings such as Nana by Èmile Zola, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, or Thyrza is therefore bound to unearth many descriptive passages that provide an unembellished portrayal of the natural forces which operate in the world. However, even though Naturalism is largely based on the concept of seeing life without illusions, there are also a number of Romanticist and even idealist elements that should not go unnoticed.

For one, naturalists have been noticeably divided by disagreement regarding the questions of style and objectivity. While Zola and his most faithful adherents have certainly tried to maintain both, a disinterested point of view and an impersonal tone, in order to convey “a deep, searching, textured representation of” their chosen subjects (Ira Wells 11), not all naturalist writers stuck to the imperative of base representation. Some of their texts are also deeply augmented with “little sermons or essays addressed to the reader” and even create the impression as if they were intended to serve as educational novels. George Gissing’s The Nether World, for one, contains quite a number of passages that appear to constitute a direct appeal to the reader, in which either the narrator or, in fact, Gissing himself seek to promote their special world view. And the same double standard of a narrative mod—which on the one hand demands great objectivity and encyclopedic precision while on the other hand forming idealist visions—is also to be found in the texts of German, French, as well as American writers. Even Zola, who postulated the idea of literature as science, cannot be seen as a pure observer. He himself describes his work as a “modification of nature” (11) and freely admits that he feels obliged to interpret the forces that influence human behavior “from the movements which we see and the words which we hear” (10). And if we also consider his statement there is a “high morality” in “our naturalistic works, which experiment on man, and which dissect piece by piece this human machinery in order to set it going through the influence of the environment” (26), then we might even consent with B.W. Wells who laudes Zola for his “poetic idealism with which he infuses a naturalism that without this would be as dreary as the subjects of which it treats” (B.W. Wells 400).

However, it cannot be emphasized enough that there are unusually blatant differences between the various writers that are generally accounted for as naturalists—as we will also come to see when we discuss George Moore’s Esther Waters in greater detail. The difference between the singular movements in Naturalism even seems to be so substantial that Ira Wells (from the Department of English at the University of Toronto) describes “polemics” as one of the key elements of the entire literary form--not only because of their separation from mainstream and its prevailing ideas around respectability and morality, but also because of the dissension between the different writers (Ira Wells 2). Even though they often choose similar themes and motifs for their texts, their principal focus areas can be quite diffuse in their range, so that readers will see the distinctive occurrences in an entirely different light—despite the fact that the plotlines are essentially connatural. In this notion, Ira Wells also claims: the “things they wanted to prove changed with the times; what did not change was their polemical impulse, along with their appeal to readers’ passions” (Ira Wells 5).

But what exactly where the subjects that they wanted to cover? And which parts of reality did they try to portray in their fiction? These questions will be discussed in the next section of the present paper.

2.2 Topics and fundamental motifs

As we have seen above, Naturalists seek to portray life as they find it and attempt to give their observations a literary form. In contrast to realism, however, they usually do not content themselves with “a faithful copy of life, manners, and characteristic speech” (Schütze 434), but strive to reach beyond the superficial to the underlying causes and patterns that confer a decisive influence on all things. To that effect, they mostly devote their labours to the accurate portrayal of the sordid aspects of life, showing man in dependency of social conditions and revealing the many forces that bind their literary characters to their lowly existence.

According to Èmile Zolas “The Experimental Novel”, it is obligatory for any novelist to display “the reciprocal effect of society on the individual and the individual on society” (20), since man only exists in association with others and cannot by proper means be adequately extracted from his environment, so as to examine him in isolation. But while it is certainly worthwhile to explore the effects that origin, locale, and heredity can have on a person’s actions or beliefs, there are many voices that criticize Naturalism for obscuring the true nature of life and presenting man as overly deficient. The scholar and editor Benjamin W. Wells, for example, clearly voiced his doubts whether Zola’s writings were really appropriate for an English audience and goes on to rebuke them for ”bring[ing] before us, with a fulness that shocks our finer senses, the details of experiences that are usually confined to the nurse and the surgeon” (B. W. Wells 389). For him, some of the parts that describe the extreme harshness of city life or “the penetralia of the sexual and maternal relations” (B.W. Wells 389) definitely seem to go too far in the direction of pessimistic fatalism, even though he principally admires Zola’s keen observations. And his German contemporary expresses even more disdain when he denounces Naturalism because ”it conceive[s] man as a necessary product of purely material forces, denying to him the possibility of free will, of choice in his actions, rejecting his moral responsibility, and therefore the possibility of guilt” (Schütze 426). Thus, we can infer that many men and women of the late Victorian era found it difficult to deal with the frankness of their observations and extreme world-weariness that often comes to the fore in Naturalist texts.

Today’s literary critics, however, display a more complaisant evaluation of the Naturalists’ preoccupation with human social woes. Ira Wells, for example, emphasizes the importance of Naturalism as a literary movement since these writers were “helping to chart some of the fundamental coordinates of twentieth-century political and cultural life”(Ira Wells 11). Even though their judgments about the world do often seem a bit too harsh and too frivolous, it is indisputable that they freed literature from the partialities and tastes of the higher classes and converted it into a much more liberal art form that had the invaluable power of holding a mirror up to individuals or society. Whereas associates of earlier epochs focused either on the purification of the human character by means of the visualisation of the beautiful and good (Classicism) or on the romanticization of reality (Romanticism), naturalists drew their “fictional materials from the world of observed actuality” (Robert M. Figg 313) and depicted the unforgiving nature of life without refraining from anything that might prove unpalatable to the great majority of distinguished readers. As Edmond and Jules de Goncourt wrote in their “Préface de Germinie Lacerteux”, there were no “social classes too unworthy, miseries too deep, [or ] dramas too base” for them to depict in their writings (104-105). And in point of fact, it is probably feasible to gain a fairly sufficient insight into late Victorian debates on sexuality, poverty, and morality by reading Naturalist texts alone, because they “used their fiction to explore some of the most controversial political and cultural issues” of their time (Ira Wells 7).

Hence, it is probably best to describe Naturalism as a literary movement that sought to render reality and all its causalities more tangible by combining philosophy and empirical inquiry. And because Naturalism is closely linked with the concepts of determinism and predestination, the next section is going to provide more information regarding the mental foundations of the literary form, before we finally venture into an analysis of George Moore’s Esther Waters.

2.3 The philosophy of determinism

As has already been explained, it is difficult to provide an unambiguous allocation of writers and texts to the literary form of Naturalism, because they were disunited on so many different matters such as Realism, scientific character, or the possibility of improvement for humankind. However, if one takes a closer look at the most canonical novels of that time and era—Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, Frank Norris’s McTeague and maybe also Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for example—Naturalist plots tend to involve characters of the lower socioeconomic classes who struggle futilely against their face but cannot escape from the powers which chain them to their lowly existence. Thus, man is presented as weak and oftentimes even “utterly incapable of coping with the external circumstances confronting him” (Figg 314). Despite the fact that many of the main protagonists are indeed distinguished by a high sense of morality—one only needs to think about Jane Snowden, Esther Waters, and Jude the Obscure—they usually undergo a process of negative change that would probably be described best as a retrogression toward degeneration or death. All their struggles to elude their fate are doomed to fail, since“[t]he career of the protagonist is determined by uncontrollable inner or outer forces, or, more usually, by their combination” (Robert M. Figg 314). But not only that: their heroic efforts to end their continued suffering will often even accelerate the speed of their decline. In Nana or The Nether World, for example, the characters who actually dare to break out of the narrow confines of their social environment, inevitably pay a high price for their audacity. Nana dies from disease, Clara Hewett’s face is disfigured by acid, Jane is left with nothing but a small pension, and Joseph cannot survive his misfortune at the financial market—all of them leaving a sense of hopelessness and frustration because they remain chained to their demise, no matter how hard they try to gain a foothold in their lives.

Somehow, none of the Naturalist characters seems to be able to find a footing in this big, wide world that remains totally indifferent to human life—an observation that leads Martin Schütze to claim that “fate in the consistent naturalistic drama is not a directing benign providence, nor some transcendental reason, inscrutable, yet imposing upon us faith in its infinite justice; but a dumb, blank mechanical power, senseless and purposeless”(Schütze 436). In conformity with the teachings of Darwin (On the Origin of Species had been published in 1859, some 30 years before Zola wrote his famous essay “The Experimental Novel”), Naturalist texts often picture life as a struggle for existence that would cull all but those having the best upbringing and the most elitist privileges. But despite the fact that characters of lower socioeconomic classes have few opportunities to better their situation, it is probably too far-reaching to profess that Naturalism “conceived man as a necessary product of purely material forces, denying to him the possibility of free will, of choice in his actions, rejecting his moral responsibility, and therefore the possibility of guilt” (Schütze 426). For myself, I would never claim that “to the naturalist, man is a midge setting forth into the limitless void” (Schütze 437), because there always remains a slight hint of idealism and compassionate impartiality even in the most somber passages. And due to Zola’s averment that he wanted to investigate the inner motives of man “in order to set it going through the influence of the environment” (Zola 24-25), I would also disagree with humanist Stuart P. Sherman who asserted that naturalistic work is based fundamentally on “a theory of animal behavior” (Robert M. Figg 301).

While Naturalists do indeed use animalistic metaphors to emphasize the power that primitive emotions can have over reason, this fact does not necessarily mean that they see humans as conspecific with brute animals. What it does show, however, is that the Naturalists do not always provide an objective presentation of facts , but interfuse their texts with stereotypical associations, dysphemisms and philosophical interpretations. While a naturalist’s work usually ventures from an objective observation that seeks to provide a solid starting ground for the story, the process of writing also involves a lot of rearrangement and modification by the author in order to make the deterministic hypotheses of science more evident within the text. Thus, Donald Pizer claims the average naturalist cannot be regarded “dispassionate observer of a scientific process but instead an imaginative presence infusing meaning and dignity and a sense of tragic potential into what he observes” (Donald Pizer 40).

But is it really plausible to say that all Naturalist literature “is literature that proceeds from a thesis” (Ira Wells 5) and tries to impart philosophical thinking to its readers? The extent to which this definition applies to George Moore’s Esther Waters will be discussed in the next section.

3. Naturalist elements in George Moore’s Esther Waters

3.1 Moore’s own theory on human drives and life instincts

In A Modern Lover George Moore wrote that “[t]he novel, if it be anything, is contemporary history, an exact and complete reproduction of social surroundings of the age we live in” (qtd. In Skilton x). But even though this postulation coincides perfectly with Émile Zola’s idea of a scientific literature, the opinions diverge as to what elements would ideally constitute such a faithful reproduction.

As we have learned from above, Naturalists broke with the assumption that man was an autonomous being and usually depicted their characters as “puppets” controlled by the strings of nature. Nana, Jude the Obscure, Rodion Raskolnoikov, and Thérèse Raquin all seem to be ruled by natural dynamics that spur their descent and render all their efforts to escape their harsh lives absolutely futile. Because they cannot control the power of their primitive emotions, which subvert reason and morality, they are all eventually overwhelmed by the stranglehold of poverty, disease, and death. But this is definitely not so in George Moore’s Esther Waters, where the protagonist struggles to overcome the dehumanizing forces that seem to drag her down, and does indeed succeed in obtaining a laborious, yet manageable life—a clear framework in which she can work and find professional as well as personal fulfilment. Even though she becomes entangled within a web of social woes, her religion and her great love for her son give her the necessary strength to pull through. There might be many times when she becomes imbued by “rays of passion” which “pierce[ ] her stubborn nature” (Moore 77), but as long as she is filled with “the tender and ineffable sympathies of race and religion” (Moore 36), Esther never ceases to struggle against the vicissitudes of life. The simple “human sentiments” of “love of God and love of God in the home” (Moore 33) help her to resist the dehumanizing effects of urban life. However, alone as she is in the world, her willingness to do good and life a faithful life threatens to become “overborne by a force which she [cannot] control or understand” (237).

The determinist energies which feature prominently in Naturalist literature, also seem to be busily at work in George Moore’s Esther Waters, ransacking the remainders of Esther’s innard grace and whelming her with an overarching “sense of sorrow” (Moore 237). But despite her awareness of the misfortunes “inherent in her life” (Moore 201), the protagonist resolves to live for her boy’s sake. The mere thought of him gives her the strength to bear “whatever unhappiness there might be in store for her” (Moore 359). And, thus, there begins for her what Michael O’ Sullivan calls a continual “struggle to reconcile the realisation of [her] private passions with societal expectations” (O’Sullivan 209).

Throughout the story, there are many instances when Esther appears to be divided between the exigencies of her Protestantism and the compulsions of human nature which thrill her to the core (Moore 33). And this preoccupation with passions and emotions certainly renders the novel congeneric with other Naturalist writings. Nevertheless, there is a notable difference between Esther Waters and other more Zolaesque literary materials that should not go unmentioned. Unlike the common Naturalists who portray the material forces as something negative that should be controlled, George Moore seems to suggest a nominal “rehabilitation of instinct” (Huguet, “Charting an Aesthetic Journey” 162) that is evocative of Rousseau’s request for societal reforms through a kinship with nature. A closer analysis of the text reveals many passages that seem to glorify nature and its silent equilibrium. In chapter XLII, for example, the narrator uses the words “noble instincts” to describe Esther’s innate uprightness. And, of course, the ending of the story constitutes an allegorical return to nature, showing how the protagonist settles down happily at a naturalistic, much more Puritan version of the old Woodview, where she first started her career as a kitchen maid. If one takes a closer look at the final happenings in the story, much of Esther’s newly found contentedness seems to stem from an acceptance of the powers of the flesh which allows her to strive, while William, who appears to be wishing his flesh away, has to die dreadfully (Gilbert 62). In this sense, Christine Huguet even claims that Esther Waters “represents an attempt of reconciling the sordid with the noble, or to use his own phraseology (EW, 1894: 343), beastlike behaviour and hereditary narrow-mindedness with greatness of soul” (Huguet, “Charting an Aesthetic Journey” 162).



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
640 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main – AVL
Naturalism Esther Waters Zola George Moore



Titel: The Question of Naturalism in George Moore's "Esther Waters"