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Glossary of Literary Theory
by Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown


A term used by Emile Zola to describe the application of the clinical method of empirical science to all of life. According to naturalistic philosophy, heredity and environment influence and determine human motivation and behavior. Thus, if a writer wishes to depict life as it really is, he or she must be rigorously deterministic in the representation of the characters' thoughts and actions in order to show forth the causal factors that have made the characters inevitably what they are. Substituting the scientific idea of determinism for the classical idea of fate, Zola argues for a literature of observation rather than one of fabrication. Although not all the early naturalistic works are harsh, many of them portray the experiences of impoverished and uneducated people, imprisoned perforce in a milieu of filth, squalor, and corruption. As a result, naturalism is often equated with the depressingly dreary slice-of-life documentation of irredeemable and brutal realities. Unlike realism, which also seeks to represent human life as it is actually lived, naturalism specifically connects itself to the philosophical doctrine of biological and social determinism, according to which human beings are devoid of free will. (See also Realism.)

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University of Toronto
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Last modified: March 31, 1997