An Introduction to Edith Wharton
the great American Realist: A
Glimpse at the Literary Movements
of Realism & Naturalism
Eleventh Grade American Literature
Brookwood High School
Ms. Pennell
What is the literary movement
known as Naturalism?
 The
term naturalism describes
a type of literature that
attempts to apply scientific
principles of objectivity and
detachment to its study of
human beings. Unlike realism,
which focuses on literary
technique, naturalism implies
a philosophical position.
Naturalism: The Study of the Natural
Habitat and Hereditary Forces of the
“Human Beast”
 For
naturalistic writers, since
human beings are "human
beasts," characters can be
studied through their
relationships to their
Naturalism Continued
“Virtue and vice are products like
vitriol (of glass) and sugar"--that is,
that human beings as "products"
should be studied impartially,
without moralizing about their
Other influences on American
naturalists include Herbert Spencer
and Joseph LeConte.
A Bit More on Naturalism
 Through
this objective study of
human beings, naturalistic
writers believed that the laws
behind the forces that govern
human lives might be studied
and understood.
It is important to note …
Naturalistic writers thus used a
version of the scientific method to
write their novels.
They studied human beings governed
by their instincts and passions as
well as the ways in which the
characters' lives were governed by
forces of heredity and environment.
A Contrast Between Realism and
Although they used the techniques of
accumulating detail pioneered by the
realists, the naturalists thus had a
specific object in mind when they
chose the segment of reality that they
wished to convey.
Naturalism or “Pessimistic Materialistic
Determinism” George Becker
versus Bambi
A naturalistic
A Definition of Naturalism
by Donald Pizer
The naturalistic novel usually
contains two tensions or
contradictions, and . . . the two in
conjunction comprise both an
interpretation of experience and a
particular aesthetic recreation of
experience. In other words, the two
constitute the theme and form of the
naturalistic novel.
The First Tension
The first tension is that between the
subject matter of the naturalistic novel and
the concept of man which emerges from
this subject matter.
This tension is very similar to the conflicts
and themes we studied while reading
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
Readers typically see a conflict between
man versus society, and/or man versus
The Naturalistic Setting
The naturalist populates her or his
novel primarily from the lower middle
class or the lower class. . . . His or
her fictional world is that of the
commonplace and unheroic in
which life would seem to be chiefly
the dull round of daily existence,
as we ourselves usually conceive of
our lives.
The Naturalistic Protagonist …
But the naturalist discovers in this world
those qualities of man usually associated
with the heroic or adventurous, such as
acts of violence and passion which involve
adventure or bodily strength and which
culminate in desperate moments and violent
injury or death (either spiritually or
emotionally as well as physically).
Another Contrast Between Realism
and Naturalism …
A naturalistic novel is thus an
extension of realism only in the
sense that both modes often deal
with the local and contemporary.
 The naturalist, however, discovers
in this material the extraordinary
and excessive in human nature.
The Second Tension
The second tension involves the
theme of the naturalistic novel.
 The naturalist often describes his
characters as though they are
conditioned and controlled by
environment, heredity, instinct, or
More on the Second Tension
But s/he also suggests a compensating
humanistic value in her or his characters
or their fates which affirms the significance
of the individual and of his or her life.
The tension here is that between the
naturalist's desire to represent in fiction
the new, discomfiting truths which s/he
has found in the ideas and life of his or her
late nineteenth-century world, and also her
or his desire to find some meaning in
experience which reasserts the validity of
the human enterprise.
Naturalistic Characters
Characters in naturalist novels are
frequently but not invariably illeducated or lower-class characters
whose lives are governed by the
forces of heredity, instinct, and
More on Naturalist Characters
Their attempts at exercising free will
or choice are hamstrung by forces
beyond their control; social
Darwinism and other theories help to
explain their fates to the reader.
Naturalistic Settings
Frequently, naturalistic novels and
short stories take place in squalid
urban settings
 The novel Ethan Frome by Edith
Wharton and the short stories “An
Episode of War” by Stephen Crane,
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”
by Ambrose Bierce, and “To Build a
Fire” by Jack London are set in rural
America and the Alaskan Yukon.
Naturalistic Techniques and Plots
The naturalistic novel offers "clinical,
panoramic, slice-of-life" drama that is
often a "chronicle of despair"
The novel Ethan Frome by Edith
Wharton is representative of this idea of
a “chronicle of despair”
The novel tells the story of the
destruction of the happiness and the
lives of three human beings
Themes Present in Naturalism
The "brute within" each individual, composed
of strong and often warring emotions:
passions, such as lust, greed, or the desire for
dominance or pleasure; and the fight for
survival in an amoral, indifferent universe.
The conflict in naturalistic novels is often "man
against nature" or "man against himself" as
characters struggle to retain a "veneer of
civilization" despite external pressures that
threaten to release the "brute within."
Themes Present in Naturalism
Nature as an indifferent force acting on the
lives of human beings. The romantic vision of
Wordsworth--that "nature never did betray the
heart that loved her"--here becomes Stephen
Crane's view in "The Open Boat":
"This tower was a giant, standing with its back to
the plight of the ants. It represented in a degree, to
the correspondent, the serenity of nature amid the
struggles of the individual--nature in the wind, and
nature in the vision of men. She did not seem cruel
to him then, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor
wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent."
Themes Present in Naturalism
The forces of heredity and environment as
they affect--and afflict--individual lives.
Ethan Frome, Wharton’s protagonist, is
afflicted by personal tragedy and limiting
social and economic circumstances in his
life. His father passes away at an early age.
Ethan is then forced to care for his elderly
mother in almost total isolation.
Ultimately, Ethan is taken advantage of by
an older cousin. The bleak setting of
Starkville is the perfect backdrop for this
“chronicle of despair.”
Themes Present in Naturalism
An indifferent, deterministic
universe. Naturalistic texts often
describe the futile attempts of
human beings to exercise free will,
often ironically presented, in this
universe that reveals free will as an
Edith at Eighteen
This picture shows Edith Wharton
at the age of eighteen when she
was still Edith Newbold Jones, the
daughter of a wealthy New York
family of impeccable social
background. A serious, studious
girl, she had already mastered
several languages and had written
her first novel. It was called Fast
and Loose, and she even wrote a
series of mock reviews criticizing it.
Forbidden to read novels as a
child, she studied the classics.
A Young Edith Wharton
Her mother paid to have a book of Edith
Wharton's poems published anonymously
(Verses, 1878), and William Dean Howells
published five of them in the prestigious
Atlantic Monthly. Her family, however, worried
that such an intellectual daughter might not
marry and tried to discourage further artistic
efforts. Edith Jones thus made her debut into
New York society a year early, in 1879. By
1880 she was engaged, though not to her
future husband Edward Wharton, whom she
would marry in 1885.
Wharton's first published story is "Mrs.
Manstey's View," which appeared in
Scribner's Magazine in 1891. Early works
include The Greater Inclination (1899), a
collection of short stories; The Touchstone
(1900); Crucial Instances (stories; 1901); and
a novel set in Italy, The Valley of Decision
Edith Wharton's New York
This picture of the interior of her
mother's house at 28 West 25th
Street in New York City in 1884
shows the wealth and
sophistication of Edith Wharton's
milieu. Wharton, who preferred
a more restrained and classically
elegant style of decoration than
this, would later write The
Decoration of Houses (1897), a
best-selling book on interior
design, with interior designer
Ogden Codman.
An avid gardener all her life, she
designed elaborate gardens for
her houses, first at The Mount
and later at her houses in
France. A niece, Beatrix Farrand,
later became a famous landscape
Edith Wharton at 45
This picture of Edith Wharton in 1907 shows her at
about 45 years of age. She had published several works,
including one of the best-selling books of 1905, The
House of Mirth. Other important works of this period
include Madame de Treymes (1907) and The Fruit of the
Tree (1907), a novel that addressed issues such as
euthanasia and labor conditions.
Wharton's success at depicting New York society led
some readers to believe that she was simply a society
novelist. A keen social critic and reader of Darwin,
Hegel, and other theorists, however, Wharton applied
what we would today term an almost scientific
detachment to her study of the world that she knew so
Wharton's New York novels are often called novels of
manners, a term that describes works depicting a
particular social class and way of life, the action of
which revolves around social situations and their
resolution. Her novels have also been called naturalistic.
Later in her life, she met F. Scott Fitzgerald. Jack
London, author of The Call of the Wild, admired her
work, as did Sinclair Lewis, who dedicated a book to
The Mount
This picture shows The Mount, the house that Edith and
Teddy Wharton built near Lenox, Massachusetts. Lenox is in
the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts; not far
away is the home where Hawthorne wrote Tanglewood Tales.
Built in 1901, this house was the Whartons' summer home for
about ten years. Henry James and other authors were frequent
visitors, and the house still stands today. While spending time
in Massachusetts, she came to know the conditions and people
of the poor and remote villages, experiences that she would
later write about in Ethan Frome (1911) and Summer (1917).
In the mornings, Edith Wharton would stay in bed and write;
she joined her guests at luncheon and was a famously
thoughtful hostess.
Edith Wharton
This is the last formal portrait of Wharton; it was taken in
about 1921. She used it as the picture for her 1934
autobiography, A Backward Glance. During World War I,
Wharton organized hospital committees and raised a great deal
of money for the relief of refugees. She received the medal of the
Legion of Honor for her work during the war.
In 1921, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1920 novel of Old
New York, The Age of Innocence. Other works of this period
include several novels: The Glimpses of the Moon (1922) A Son
at the Front (1921), The Mother's Recompense (1925), Twilight
Sleep (1927), The Children (1928), and Hudson River Bracketed
(1929). She also wrote stories and a set of four novellas
published in 1924 as Old New York: "The 'Forties'" (False
Dawn), "The 'Fifties'" (The Old Maid), "The 'Sixties' (The Spark),
and "The 'Seventies'" (New Year's Day).
"Roman Fever," a much later work, was published in Liberty
Magazine in November 1934. She received $3,000 for its
At Yale in 1923
In 1923, Edith Wharton received an
honorary Doctor of Letters degree from
Yale University, the first woman to be
honored in this way at Yale. Many of her
papers, letters, and manuscripts are
now at Yale University’s Beinecke
Library. Wharton continued to travel as
well as write during this decade, taking
a two-month Aegean and Mediterranean
cruise in 1926 and visiting Rome in
1931, 1932, and 1934.
After a long residence in France, Edith
Wharton died on August 11, 1937. Her
last novel, The Buccaneers, was
unfinished, but it has recently been
republished and made into a miniseries. Other Wharton works made into
movies include The Old Maid, The Age of
Innocence (1934 and 1993), Ethan
Frome, and The Children.A film version
of The House of Mirth starring Gillian
Anderson was released in 2000.

An Introduction to Edith Wharton the Naturalist With a