Naturalism in Grapes of Wrath and To Build a Fire

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It is easy to view human society as apart from the natural order of the world, but in fact does not overrule it. While human society is more sophisticated than the carnal ways of say a pride of lions, it is still important to acknowledge that the gap between man and nature is not so wide. Naturalism is defined by Emile Zola as “the belief that character, temperament, and, ultimately, behavior are determined by the forces of heredity, environment, and historical moment; and the experimental method, which entails the objective recording of precise data in controlled conditions”. It is the idea that only things that are natural play a part in the real world. For instance the idea of the circle of life falls under naturalism. Naturalism encourages a more logical outlook on the world without idealism or avoiding the ugly facts. In art, literature, and theatre naturalism not only displays, but emphasizes the ugly parts of life, more specifically poverty, death and even hopelessness. In society today, naturalism does not play as big of a part as it should.

The Grapes of Wrath is arguably one of the most known works of literature. One of the reasons being it’s historical accuracy and ability to evoke emotion from the reader. Like many of Steinbeck’s fiction, it is not a comfortable read because it attacks our world and our way of living in it. Naturalism is based on the belief that human lives are beyond their own control. In The Grapes of Wrath specifically, the novel exudes hopelessness and an eternal struggle that leads to nothing but more misfortune. The Joad family is alienated and is forced to travel to places they know nothing of. Naturalistic authors use objectivism and set themselves apart from their characters in order to truly give their work the feeling of scientific research.

The goal is to analyze how the characters react to certain situations given their heredity and social status. The Joad family is a working class family and is treated as nothing more than that throughout the novel. As stated before, The Grapes of Wrath is not a happy book to read because the Joad family never really succeeds, at least they never really become anymore than they were to begin with. Their fates has been decided and all that they can do is live it out. In spite of all the advancements that helped farming families, dust storms came because of those very same advancements which ended up harming the environment even more and even faster.

The book focuses on the events of the dust bowl and how they affect the Joad family. A key aspect of Naturalism in literature is the idea of determinism, or the opposite of free will. Essentially, a person’s fate has been decided by the laws of nature. In the case of the Joad family, whether or not they wanted it, the dust storms still affected them and there was nothing they could have done to prevent it. Nature willed it to happen and nature saw it through. The Joad family is not the only family affected by the dust storms, the tractor driver responsible for clearing people off the land is also affected. Although there is a sense of betrayal felt by the Joad family, it is difficult to not sympathize with the tractor driver who is trying to support his own family. Regardless of customs put in place by man, such as trust or sympathy, the naturalistic forces, in this case the dust storms, break those customs and force the individual to fend for themselves.

Pressures created by human society are trumped by pressures from the laws of nature. Naturalism focuses on human beings and how they react given their surroundings and the events that affect them. To the characters in a story, naturalistic forces can feel unfair and cruel at times as shown by how “the squatting men stood up angrily. Grampa took up the land, and he had to kill the Indians and drive them away. And Pa was born here, and he killed weeds and snakes. Then a bad year came and he had to borrow a little money. An’ we was born here. There in the door—our children born here. And Pa had to borrow money. The bank owned the land then, but we stayed and we got a little bit of what we raised. We know that—all that. It’s not us, it’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man either. That’s the monster.

Sure, cried the tenant men, but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours”(23). This quote from the book shows that when they are pushed by outside forces, the men begin to blame the banks for causing their misfortunes, when in reality it is not the banks fault, the bank itself is being pushed by forces as well. The bank has to do its best to keep itself alive and in doing so, it has to do whatever it takes to continue living. The forces pushing the bank are the naturalistic forces that cannot be helped or stopped. The theme of determinism is evident when the men tasked to tell the sharecroppers of their fate says to the Joad family that they “were caught in something larger than themselves”(21). By the men saying this themselves, it shows that what is happening is beyond anyone’s control, even their own.

Another major aspect of naturalism in literature is the idea of man vs. nature. In Jack London’s short story, To Build a Fire, an unnamed protagonists ventures into the Yukon forest despite warnings about the dangers. He underestimates the risk and dies of hypothermia while trying to light a simple fire. It is the man’s own arrogance that is his demise. The man underestimates the dangers and overestimates his skill. The natural world is unforgiving and does not carry sympathy for strangers. As shown here, “all this—the distant trail, no sun in the sky, the great cold, and the strangeness of it all—had no effect on the man. It was not because he was long familiar with it. He was a newcomer in the land”(2).

Nature does not discriminate against those beings that are adapted to survive or not, it is up to those beings to change in order to survive. A major contrast throughout the story is the difference between the protagonist and the dog that accompanies him. The theme of judgment vs. instinct is prevalent between them as the London hints that the dog has more knowledge about survival than the man. The dog is much more capable of surviving than the man, as shown by when “the animal was worried by the great cold. It knew that this was no time for traveling. Its own feeling was closer to the truth than the man’s judgment”(3). London often compares the man to the dog, such as when “it wanted fire.

Otherwise, it would dig itself into the snow and find shelter from the cold air”(3). It may seem unfair to compare the two given that there are many genetic and physical differences between them, but it is fair for London to criticize the man for believing that it would be not only possible but also smart of him to venture into the Yukon unprepared and with a false sense of confidence. With so many generations of humans straying further and further away from natural instincts and closer to clouded judgement, it is difficult for man to use those instincts when they are really needed. In the story, the protagonist allow his desperation to cloud his common sense as shown by him trying to build a fire under a tree that has collected a large amount of snow, thus putting out his fire.

The protagonist is desperate to survive and fears death, both which in turn lead to his demise at the end of the story with him freezing to death. Granted, those natural instincts are not necessary nor conventional in the society man has built for himself, but that very society is one in which the individual has little to no power against the authority. The individual is important to naturalism in the sense that naturalism encourages the individual to look past the standards set by the society around them and to determine what their own rights and wrongs are. It is important to note that naturalism does not aim to rid the world of society but instead aims to emphasize the importance of the natural world even in the world today.

The goal of both The Grapes of Wrath and To Build a Fire in respect to naturalism, is to point out that it is near impossible to survive in both the societal world and the natural world with the little amount of skill and knowledge in nature that society has taught to humanity and how the natural fears that surround the human race create conflict with the standards created by the society they live in. Another aspect of naturalism is the idea that man is powerless to natural outside forces as a result of social factors around him, along with customs put into place by the same society. The idea of powerlessness is prominent in The Grapes of Wrath, as the Joad family is forced to leave their home because of the dust storms destroying the land they live on. Evidently, in the case of the Joad’s it was not their fault nor was there anything they could have done, it was merely a sheer force of nature that they were unfortunate enough to be caught in the middle of. It is here that the idea of determinism, mentioned earlier, returns and coincides with powerlessness. There is not much to learn from this aspect of naturalism except for the fact that some things cannot be helped. It is more possible to learn a life lesson from To Build a Fire because it serves as a warning to humanity. It would be harder to relearn instincts that have long been gone from the human mind but it is easier to learn to not overestimate man’s skill in the natural world and to also not underestimate the dangers of said world.

Another naturalistic work made by Jack London is The Call of the Wild. In this novel, the reader is told the story of domesticated dog named Buck who has lost his primal instincts. He is at one point kidnapped and served as a sled dog surrounded by savage huskies. After some time and after Buck toughens up from being in those circumstances, he is rescued. After traveling with his new owner they encounter a tribe of Indians who kill his owner. After Buck kills most of the Indians he realizes that he is tired of dealing with humans and goes off to live with the wolves and answer the call of the wild. This work of literature is naturalistic because Buck is forced to react to the situations and environment that he had no opinion on.

To survive, Buck has to let go of his pampered life, and embrace the wild inside him. In doing so, Buck becomes “the successful champion, the dominant primordial beast who had made his kill and found it good”(36). Throughout the novel Buck was being called upon by nature itself. To Buck, “it was the call, the many-noted call, sounding more luringly and compellingly than ever before. And as never before, he was ready to obey…The last tie was broken. Man and the claims of man no longer bound him”(83). In order to understand how this pertains to naturalism in literature, it helps to look at “the claims of man” as society. When society no longer binds the individual and gives them the freedom that natural law grants, that is when naturalism has succeeded.

Naturalism is used differently in works of art than in literature. Naturalism attempts to peel away the layers of exaggerated emotion put in place by romanticism. By doing so, naturalism focuses on the world as how it is perceived by the naked eye. For instance, the world recognized painting by Leonardo da Vinci, The Mona Lisa, is an example of a naturalist painting because of how beautiful it is despite it simplistic qualities. By avoiding the exaggeration of the world, naturalism makes it easier for the individual to look at the world around them and understand it as well. When used in art, naturalism depicts the world in its original or natural form. Art in a sense, is the physical manifestation of thought and it helps to further explain what is difficult to explain solely through text. In contrast to naturalism in literature, naturalism in art is not used as a warning or a threat, but rather as an eye opener to how the world actually looks without the glitz and glamour.

In society today, looks can be just as important as the way person conducts themselves, if not more. However, it is difficult to actually achieve the standards set by society not only because of how extreme they are, but also because they are constantly changing. This is not a dilemma that is only being dealt with now, this was an issue for many people throughout multiple time periods, including that of the Spanish Royal family during the 1800’s. During the reign of Charles IV of Spain, Francisco Goya painted portraits of the royal family. Goya represented the family in a naturalistic way, that is without any flattering or idealizing. In doing so he combated the societal standards of beauty and power, by showing that anything more than what is natural, is not necessary when beauty is the goal.

Naturalism rejects the unrealistic beauty standards set by society by using art, just as it rejects the social pressures set by the same society by using literature. The only difference is that in art, the point is shown in a more delicate way, while in literature the point is shown harshly and coldly. These two methods of representing naturalism, demonstrate the two different aspects of nature itself. Nature has two sides to it, one being the beautiful green forests with crystal clear river flowing through it, the other being the unforgivingly cold tundra that is near impossible to survive in. Both sides are true, both sides are important.

In theatre, naturalism is highly influenced by Darwinism, in other words the characters of a play were heavily influenced by their heredity and social environment, as stated by Emile Zola, a very important contributor to theatrical naturalism. The play Miss Julie, exhibits these characteristics by focusing on the conflict of a woman of title, Miss Julie. In the play, Miss Julie falls in love with a servant and commits adultery given that the servant Miss Julie falls in love with, Jean, is engaged to another woman. Seeing her wrongdoings, along with some convincing from Jean, Miss Julie sees that the only way to escape is to kill herself. There are two reasons why Miss Julie felt that what she had done was wrong, one being the obvious reason that Jean was engaged, but the other is not so obvious in that it was wrong of her to fall in love with a servant given her social status.

If the fact that she committed adultery is put aside, it is easy to see the social pressures that surround her and make her feel that it is wrong of her to love someone in a lower class than she is. Naturalism seeks to point out the wrongs in society, such as ostracizing someone for who they love, and forcing that same person to feel guilt for something they should not feel guilty about. Naturalism focuses on the individual and how they react to given situations. The author of the play, August Strindberg, wanted to be as accurate as possible to the naturalistic movement. To do so, he understood that people can be influenced in many ways and by many forces. The two main forces in the play are desire or love, and social class.

Naturalistic writers believed that “one’s heredity and social environment determine one’s character and influence the actions of its subjects”(1). Writers in this era were influenced by the theory of evolution proposed by Charles Darwin, just as animals adapt and evolve to survive in their environment, the people in naturalistic plays and literature must do the same in their own societies. Miss Julie’s heredity is what causes her to feel guilt for being in love with a man in a lower social class than she is. The societal pressures are what made her heredity so important to the point where she felt the need to kill herself because of the shame and guilt caused by feelings she could not help nor change. In naturalism it is important that individuals avoid trying to please others when deciding what to do when pushed by outside forces, either natural or societal.


Naturalism does not seek to rid the world of society and suggest that all humanity go off into the woods and live under those circumstances, free from society. Instead it encourages humans to understand that society, along with its customs and standards, is not the ultimate factor in life, but that natural order and law is. The goal of naturalism is to teach that the laws of man do not outweigh the laws of nature. It focuses on human beings and how they react given their surroundings and the events that affect them. In literature, naturalistic works give off a sense of despair and helplessness, especially in urban settings that deal with economic hardships, as shown in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

However, the feelings of despair are not exclusive to urban settings, as shown in Jack London’s To Build a Fire, it is more often that a character feels hopeless when they are alone and are without any form of direction. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is used in The Call of the Wild because Buck needed to change not only the way he acted but also the way he thought in order to survive, just like animals in the wild must adapt to their surroundings when there is competition. The novel also exhibits the idea of the survival of the fittest, the dogs that were not capable of pulling the sled were beat to death. Naturalism changes in the way it is delivered when applied to art. In Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting The Mona Lisa, it is the simplicity and natural beauty of the women, thought to be Lisa Gherardini, that makes the painting so eye catching and world famous.

In theatre, naturalism tends to put the characters in inescapable situations, which are not always physical but are in most cases societal or mental. As shown in August Strindberg’s play, Miss Julie, the situation in the play is the guilt put on Miss Julie for her loving a man in a lower class then she is. The pressure becomes even more unbearable after she consummates her love despite her lover being engaged. It gets to the point where she is forced to believe that the only way to escape her situation is to kill herself. The societal standards surrounding Miss Julie expect her to marry a man in her social class or someone above. When comparing natural law to those of society, there are noticeable differences. Natural law focuses on surviving and striving to keep only yourself alive.

The laws of society are not really laws but are instead standards. These standards include helping those in need. In nature, when an animal is injured, it is most likely left behind, in society there are standards set that give a moral obligation to help those who are injured. It is difficult to imagine a world in which those who are injured or in need are just ignored, but naturalism does not aim to see a world in that way. Naturalism looks at humanity as a test subject, and analyzes how it reacts to certain situations. It views how humans react to moments of despair, hopelessness, hardship, and loss. In doing so it determines how they act in the everyday world, thus giving rise to the theme of determinism. With determinism being the opposite of free will, naturalism appears to paint a picture of a bleak world, but that is only because it has been made that way by humans themselves. It is time to use the dark world created by naturalism as a basis and learning guide to see the things that need to be changed in the world today in order to avoid that world tomorrow.

Works Cited

  1. London, Jack. The Call of the Wild ; White Fang ; & To Build a Fire. Modern Library, 1998.
  2. Trimarco, Paola, and John Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath. Pearson Education, 2008.
  3. Cherubini, Lorenzo. Naturalism and the Individual in The Grapes of Wrath, As I Lay Dying, and Old Man.macsphere.mcmaster.ca/bitstream/11375/11670/1/fulltext.pdf.
  4. Zhang, Xiaofen. On the Influence of Naturalism on American Literature. files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1081555.pdf.
  5. Berg, William J. “Émile Zola.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 24 Sept. 2018, www.britannica.com/biography/Emile-Zola.
  6. Campbell, Donna M. “Naturalism in American Literature.” Brief Timeline of American Literature and Events:1850s, public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/natural.htm.

Cite this paper

Naturalism in Grapes of Wrath and To Build a Fire. (2021, Oct 31). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/naturalism-in-grapes-of-wrath-and-to-build-a-fire/

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