Week 16–Ambrose Bierce, Stephen Crane, and Notes on Realism and Naturalism

When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples.
Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat”

This week you are going to get to study two of my favorite short stories to teach. The only bummer is that I only get to see you once a week, therefore we won’t get to pretend you are on a boat in the sea, toppling around without the universe batting an eyelash.

Notes (Please copy these into your notebook or print them out and highlight them)

Your notes actually made me angry this week, because I so bad wanted to just copy and paste them. But the words were too academic. And because it is my job to TEACH you, I had to translate them into plain English. Which took me an extra 45 minutes. So appreciate me and don’t complain about taking notes and learning things 🙂


This is a literary technique practiced by many schools of writing; it actually began as a reaction to “Romanticism” (think Hawthorne).  Realism sought to represent the middle class life, normal people. It also sought to document history, but by focusing on the here and now. It encompassed the time between the Civil War and the turn of the century.

* Some critics have suggested that there is no clear distinction between realism and the late nineteenth century movement naturalism. “Pizer suggests that “whatever was being produced in fiction during the 1870s and 1880s that was new, interesting, and roughly similar in a number of ways can be designated as realism, and that an equally new, interesting, and roughly similar body of writing produced at the turn of the century can be designated as naturalism” (5). Put rather too simplistically, one rough distinction made by critics is that realism espousing a deterministic philosophy and focusing on the lower classes is considered naturalism.”

In American literature, the term “realism” encompasses the period of time from the Civil War to the turn of the century during which William Dean Howells, Rebecca Harding Davis, Henry James, Mark Twain, and others wrote fiction devoted to accurate representation and an exploration of American lives in various contexts. As the United States grew rapidly after the Civil War, the increasing rates of democracy and literacy, the rapid growth in industrialism and urbanization, an expanding population base due to immigration, and a relative rise in middle-class affluence provided a fertile literary environment for readers interested in understanding these rapid shifts in culture. In drawing attention to this connection, Amy Kaplan has called realism a “strategy for imagining and managing the threats of social change” (Social Construction of American Realism ix).

Realism was a movement that encompassed the entire country, or at least the Midwest and South, although many of the writers and critics associated with realism (notably W. D. Howells) were based in New England. Among the Midwestern writers considered realists would be Joseph Kirkland, E. W. Howe, and Hamlin Garland; the Southern writer John W. DeForest’s Miss Ravenal’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty is often considered a realist novel, too.

Characteristics of Realism

1.) Selective presentation of reality with an emphasis on looking true, non-fiction–even act the expense of a well-made plot.

2.) The character is more important than the action and the plot, it is more about the choices that the character makes as he struggles to figure out what to do.

3.) Characters appear in their true complexity, showing their personalities and motives. It shows how they relate to each other, society, nature, and their past.

4.) Social class is important–many novels at this time focus on this, like the “House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton and “A Hazard of New Fortunes” by William Dean Howells. But while social class is important, realist literature will focus on showing the truth of each level of society.

5.) Events will be plausible. Realistic novels avoid dramatic elements and sensationalism

6.) The word choice (diction) is realistic. It uses the natural vernacular (you will see this with Mark Twain, and you did see this in Uncle Tom’s Cabin). It is not flowery or poetic. The tone may be comical, satiric, or matter of fact.

7.) It is objective. You don’t have the writer making comments or swaying the narration to promote their own ideas. It is like they just present you with what happened and then ask you to think about it for yourself (we DIDN’T see this in Uncle Tom’s Cabin)

8.) We see psychological realism and interior realism, as we look into the minds of the characters.

Realist Authors: 

William Dean HowellsW. D. Howells. As editor of the Atlantic Monthly and ofHarper’s New Monthly Magazine, William Dean Howellspromoted writers of realism as well as those writing local color fiction.



“Naturalism was a literary movement or tendency from the 1880s to 1930s that used detailed realism to suggest that social conditions, heredity, and environment had inescapable force in shaping human character. It was a mainly unorganized literary movement that sought to depict believable everyday reality, as opposed to such movements as Romanticism or Surrealism, in which subjects may receive highly symbolic, idealistic or even supernatural treatment. Naturalism was an outgrowth of literary realism, a prominent literary movement in mid-19th-century France and elsewhere. Naturalistic writers were influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.[1] They often believed that one’s heredity and social environment largely determine one’s character. Whereas realism seeks only to describe subjects as they really are, naturalism also attempts to determine “scientifically” the underlying forces (e.g., the environment or heredity) influencing the actions of its subjects. Naturalistic works often include uncouth or sordid subject matter. Naturalistic writers were frequently criticized for focusing too much on human vice and misery” (Wikipedia)

Characteristics of Naturalism:

1.) Nature is an indifferent force working on an individuals life. It is no longer good, like it was to the Transcendentalists. It isn’t necessarily evil either. It just doesn’t care. And sometimes you find yourself struggling against it, and when you lose and die because of nature, it doesn’t even matter!!! Which brings us to number 2.

2.) Pessimism–No matter what you do, it may not matter. 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 illusion. You can try all you want and nothing good will come of it.

3.) Survival of the Fittest--Naturalism presents us almost as animals that strive against our vices (passion, lust, greed, power, etc.). The conflict is less about man against man, but usually “man vs. nature” or “man vs. himself.” We see people in a war to survive, despite base instincts–instead of virtue.

4.) Determinism–there is no free will. You have no choice. Everything that will happen will happen. No hope.

5.) Surprising Twists–Another common trait of Naturalist literature is that they like to have a surprising twist at the end of the story.

Naturalist Authors: 

Frank Norris
Theodore Dreiser
Jack London
Stephen Crane
Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (1905)
Ellen Glasgow,Barren Ground (1925)

John Dos Passos (1896-1970), U.S.A. trilogy (1938): The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), andThe Big Money (1936)
James T. Farrell (1904-1979), Studs Lonigan (1934)
John Steinbeck (1902-1968), The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
Richard Wright, Native Son (1940), Black Boy (1945)
Norman Mailer (1923-2007), The Naked and the Dead (1948)
William Styron, Lie Down in Darkness (1951)
Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

Other writers sometimes identified as naturalists:

Nelson Algren, The Man with the Golden Arm
Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio (1919)
Harriet Arnow, The Dollmaker (1954)
Ambrose Bierce
Abraham Cahan, The Making of an American Citizen
Kate Chopin, The Awakening
Rebecca Harding Davis
Don DeLillo
Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Sport of the Gods
Edward Eggleston, The Hoosier School-Master
William Faulkner
Harold Frederic, The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896)
Henry Blake Fuller, The Cliff-Dwellers
Hamlin Garland, Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly
Robert Herrick, The Memoirs of an American Citizen (1905)
Ernest Hemingway
E. W. Howe, The Story of a Country Town
Joseph Kirkland,
Joyce Carol Oates
David Graham Phillips
Hubert Selby, Jr.
Upton Sinclair, The Jungle


“An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge”

by Ambrose Bierce

In class on Friday we read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” by Ambrose Bierce. Bierce is sometimes considered a “Naturalist” writer. I want you to look at the characteristics of Naturalism above and then decide if this story fits into the Naturalist criteria or if the story is more of a Realist piece. Then argue about it in the comments below.

You will also need to complete the packet that I handed out on Friday, with the vocabulary, and questions on the last page.

“The Open Boat” 

By Stephen Crane

Then I want you to read “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane.

PDF of “The Open Boat”

Don’t just read it to be entertained. This isn’t an “entertaining” story. Remember, this literature isn’t just about the plot, but about what the story tells you about the people and the world in general!!!

I was going to ask you to write two informal essays this week, but I changed my mind. What I would like is for you to tell me how you see the characteristics of naturalism in “The Open Boat” and how naturalism is different than Christianity.

Realism and Naturalism in Our Future Reading

This was a quick introduction to the world of Realism and Naturalism, we are going to talk much more about it once we get into Mark Twain and In His Steps, by Charles Sheldon. You will also see it later in “The Old Man and the Sea” by Earnest Hemingway <3. So, this is just a really fun introduction.

But seriously, you will need to have these notes in your folders and bring them to class for our class discussions. Also, remember that you need your notes on Transcendentalism too.

This is fun stuff. You are going to get to see how the philosophy of society changes over time, and how those changes affect the art and literature. This will be especially apparent in the coming weeks when we get into Social Darwinism and Freud. Yucky stuff ahead. Rough seas. It is like you are on an “open boat,” in a wild and turbulent sea of philosophy. But the Lord will give you wisdom!

 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.  But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind.  For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord;  he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (James 1:5-8)

Assignments Due January 16:

  • The Timeline 🙂 Please make it nice.
  • No Journals
  • Comments about “Owl Creek,”  “Open Boat,” and Naturalism in the comment section below
  • “Owl Creek” handout, questions and vocabulary
  • Oh, and don’t forget to print the notes on Realism and Naturalism (and now Romanticism) and highlight them and put them into your folder.

24 thoughts on “Week 16–Ambrose Bierce, Stephen Crane, and Notes on Realism and Naturalism

  1. I believe that Ambrose Bierce shows complete Naturalism in his story, due to pessimism (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 illusion. You can try all you want and nothing good will come of it, such as when the man attempted freedom in his ‘illusion’ or ‘vision’.), survival of the fittest, determinism (the man was still hung and he had accepted his hanging.), and surprising twists (the man had only been dreaming and was, indeed, hung after all.) If you care to argue, I’ll gladly take you down! *insert evil laugh here* 😀

    1. I enjoyed it as well! “Owl Creek Bridge” was a wonderful, teeth wrenching art that was a great amount of Romanticism, balanced with heartache, sympathy, and sadness. Overall, I agree! ❤

  2. Oh Brandi I appreciate you so very much! If we were in a public school we wouldn’t have a class website or a teacher thats actually passionate about what they teach 🙂 thank you for putting this together, it makes things so much easier! Thank you for all you do. We know you also have your daughters to school, so when you have everything ready for us it shows how much you love us ( or just me 😀 ) THANK YOU!! ❤

  3. I think Owl Creek would be Naturalism because of characteristics #3 and #5, but if I compare it to Realism, I see characteristics #1, #2, #3 (kind of) and #8. If we’re comparing about my opinion, Owl Creek would be Naturalism, because the characteristics have better points. But if we’re talking about how many characteristics in general, it would be Realism.

  4. I would see it as naturalist. I see characteristics #3 and #5. Like Nate said they have better points then having more characteristics but not as strong. #5 for sure! I was not expecting it to end like that :/ it escalated quickly.

      1. Why, that’s not always true. :] Our time never escalates because it is at a steady pace. When we want it to speed it, it merely never does because it is not our timing, but it is God’s timing. Does anything truly ever escalate? Isn’t that our timing when we say “that escalated quickly” when, in reality, it has been going at the same pace that it ever has or had been going at?

        Think about it.

  5. An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge, I’d say, is more a piece of naturalism than realism. The reason why I say that is because of characteristic #1, which also follows with characteristic #2. Peyton Farquhar doesn’t even try to plead for his life, or try to get out of his fate, he just lets what happens happen. Another characteristic I saw was #4. Everything that happened in the story happened without anybody thinking. Nobody thought of their next action. It feels like nobody really chooses their fate. Lastly, #5. ok, come on, you can’t say that wasn’t a surprising twist at the end.

  6. In The Open Boat, I believe that it’s naturalism because of characteristics #1, #2, and #4, because the guy was doubting that he would live, and he must drown, and there’s no way to stop it. The whole crew also displayed characteristic #3. Though, this might just be me, but I didn’t find the ending surprising enough to be considered characteristic #5.

  7. “The Open Boat” is more naturalism than realism. However, there is one characteristic of realism that is in “The Open Boat”. That characteristic is #4, because, like Mrs. Brandi had said, It isn’t supposed to be an “entertaining” story, and it isn’t just about the plot, It’s about the people and the world in general, which is why characteristic #4 matches up with it. But, there is more naturalism than there is realism, because of characteristics #1, #2, and #4. There is a little bit of #3 in there, because, put plainly, they’re in the middle of nowhere, on a beat up boat, with rough seas.

  8. “The Open Boat”, even though I understood little of it, is a Naturalist story. Characteristics #1, #2, and #4 all apply to the story, as well as making nature seem inescapable. It is NOT Realism due to the fact that it lacks one major element of Realism: realistic qualities. There is some Realism, such as characteristics #3, #4, #6, and #7, but this is a definite Naturalist story. However, I did enjoy it.

    **Mrs Brandi, you’ve made such a reader out of me! lol XD ❤

  9. Naturalism differs from Christianity because of mainly characteristics #1, #2, and #4. Naturalists seem to give up and have no hope, but Christians usually have great faith and hope.

  10. Naturalism is completely different than Christianity. The reason why I say that is because, put very plainly, it goes against what the Bible says. For instance, characteristic #4 says that you have no free will or choice. God said that he gives us a choice. In fact, we are given multiple choices, every day.

  11. i would say The Open Boat is a naturalist piece, because of characteristics #1, #2 and #4. The whole time it seemed like the sea was against the crew. #2 because I thought for sure they were all just going to die, and #4 because I felt like they had no free will, even though they were fighting against the water they weren’t serious about it.

  12. Man why can’t lituerature just end simply. Like “here’s what happened put a nice little bow and everything is resolved and finished.” Well anyways, I loved Owl Creek Bridge and so during Open Boat I kept waiting for that twist but it never came. But they way the naturalism has like that darker story telling how it’s very “glass half empty so just throw it away” kind of feeling. But also it follows the themes of sort of survival of the fittest, which just seems like wrong. I mean in the end of and all through out Open Boat the captain really watch over all of them and put them beofre himself but was still a leader who they all respected and cared for. But Christiany is pretty much the opposite of naturalism, where there is no hope we still press on becuase we have Jesus. What we do matters and we have a free will, so we are allowed to make are own choices and our own mistakes, just to name a few differences.

  13. You see Naturalism in The Open Boat because of #1 & #2. Definitely not #5 & #4, and we see some of #3. Just like Nate said, one main factor of Christianity is Hope, and without Hope we would all die. Naturalism gives us no hope, no way of escape, as oppose to Christianity were hope is what God gave us to be able to have eternal life. Same thing with #4, Naturalism doesn’t give us free will but God does. Our free will is determining whether we want to except God’s gift of Hope or not. Those are two very obvious ways Christianity and Naturalism are different! (:

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