Stephen Crane, best known for the Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage, also wrote the stark short story, The Open Boat.
Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
Dismissing realism as "the drama of a broken teacup," Frank Norris was just one of many writers seeking to document the harsh realities of American life in the transition from the 19th into the 20th century, as opposed to the trials of the parlor often described in realist texts such as those written by Henry James. Whereas literary realism tended to focus on the travails of life in the upper classes, naturalist writing featured characters surviving in far grittier surroundings, often in a universe indifferent to human suffering. Heavily influenced by social and scientific theories, including those of Darwin, writers of naturalism described—usually from a detached or journalistic perspective—the influence of society and surroundings on the development of the individual. Jack London and Stephen Crane also participated in this tradition of literary naturalism, writing about city life, social class, industry, and, in two memorable short stories, the callous indifference of nature. In the following lesson plan, students will learn the key characteristics that comprise American literary naturalism as they explore London's "To Build a Fire" and Crane's "The Open Boat."
Note: this lesson plan is best taught as a concluding lesson to the following two EDSITEment lesson plans:
Naturalism is often described as the representation of the negative forces of real life, and fiction in this literary sub-genre is often populated with characters whose relationship with their surroundings is especially difficult or challenging. In fact, naturalist plots typically follow a noticeable "plot of decline," or a plot that often depicts a character's progression (or retrogression) toward degeneration or death. These narratives tend to be written in the third person, omniscient point of view, presenting an objective or detached tale of a main character's downward spiral. It is no surprise that several of the most widely read American naturalists—Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Jack London—also wrote journalistic pieces, non-fiction prose, and essays. This lesson will introduce students to the genre known as American literary naturalism in the context of Jack London's "To Build a Fire" and Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat."
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: for naturalistic writers, since human beings are, in Emile Zola's phrase, "human beasts," characters can be studied through their relationships to their surroundings."
Share with students, or have them visit and read, literary critic Donna Campbell's review of Naturalism in American Literature, via the EDSITEment reviewed Internet Public Library. In particular, review with students Charles Child Walcutt's common themes of naturalism as noted in his American Literary Naturalism: A Divided Stream (cited at Donna Campbell's Literary Movements website). As a summary, Walcutt notes the following themes in naturalism:
If you wish, use this interactive quiz to test their reading comprehension or understanding of these concepts. A PDF version is also available, along with a teacher version of the PDF with the correct answers highlighted.
Finally, ask students to imagine how a character might look from a novel or short story written in the literary style of naturalism. What settings might be appropriate? What is their social situation? What choices are or are not available to them? Ask them to create this character at the beginning of this imaginary story or novel. Students might speculate about a wealthy patron of the arts, a noble dock worker, or a charming school teacher. Ask them to keep this image in mind—they will return to this newly formed character at the end of the lesson and speculate what might become of him or her if they follow the path of typical naturalist fiction.
Divide students into groups appropriate to your class size. Drawing from the overview of the common themes of naturalism, ask each student group to complete the PDF chart to use as the basis for class discussion. Each student group should explore only one of the following topics; in other words, assign one theme per group (but note that some groups may apply different themes to the same passages from a text). Students can use the online version of Crane's "The Open Boat" and London's "To Build a Fire," to cut and paste passages into a word processing document.
After students have spent 10 or 15 minutes in their groups, ask the group leader to share one or two of their passages from the text and explain why it relates to their assigned theme. Note that this exercise might be completed as an at-home activity to prompt discussion for the following day's class.
Now that students have explored many of the general themes of naturalist fiction, reintroduce them to the idea that naturalist plots typically follow a noticeable "plot of decline," or a plot that often depicts a character's progression (or retrogression) toward degeneration or death.
Ask students to note at least three to five major plot shifts in "The Open Boat" and/or "To Build a Fire" (arrange students in groups or run as a general class discussion, as best suits your classroom arrangement). Each story contains a metaphorical journey, with the protagonists encountering nature and succumbing to its indifferent wrath. Students first should cite passages from each story to represent important steps along the journey, and then they should chart these steps on a graph, noting whether or not the characters' situation improves or devolves.
Encourage students to focus on descriptions that relate the fragility of experience, and draw out other themes of naturalist literature (they can and should build on some of the passages found in the previous exercise). For example, students can cite key events/narrative observations from "The Open Boat" as follows:
The oiler, steering with one of the two oars in the boat, sometimes raised himself suddenly to keep clear of water that swirled in over the stern. It was a thin little oar and it seemed often ready to snap. The correspondent, pulling at the other oar, watched the waves and wondered why he was there.
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. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers.
In his childhood, the correspondent had been made acquainted with the fact that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, but he had never regarded the fact as important. Myriads of his school-fellows had informed him of the soldier's plight, but the dinning had naturally ended by making him perfectly indifferent. He had never considered it his affair that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, nor had it appeared to him as a matter for sorrow. It was less to him than breaking of a pencil's point. Now, however, it quaintly came to him as a human, living thing. It was no longer merely a picture of a few throes in the breast of a poet, meanwhile drinking tea and warming his feet at the grate; it was an actuality -- stern, mournful, and fine.
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.
But finally he arrived at a place in the sea where travel was beset with difficulty. He did not pause swimming to inquire what manner of current had caught him, but there his progress ceased. The shore was set before him like a bit of scenery on a stage, and he looked at it and understood with his eyes each detail of it.
Ask students the following questions:
As students consider the outcome for "The Open Boat," encourage them to think of each character individually, but also the group as a whole. While many characters managed to survive, including the captain, the loss of the oiler—the strongest among them—presents a stark view for his weaker companions. Return to the mental exercise that students began earlier in this lesson plan. As students imagine their character, ask them to imagine where their character might end up if they were featured in a naturalist novel or short story. The wealthy patron of the arts might have been too enamored by a work of art, only to lose their wealth and position by pursuing it. The dock worker might have attempted to nobly save another, only to suffer a crippling injury (while the person they saved moves into a position of esteem or wealth). As students spend five minutes creating a plot of decline for their character, ask them to note which elements of naturalism they choose to include in their story framework. How might they also deviate from this framework of naturalism? In this exploration, they should come to understand that not all plots of naturalism are exactly the same. Encourage them to tinker with the conventions (perhaps as an at-home activity with their parents) so that they can continue to develop a nuanced view of the genre.
Ask students to write a 2-3 page essay in which they compare and contrast the narrators of "To Build a Fire" and "The Open Boat" and each story's "plot of decline."
Assign the Jack London story "In a Far Country." Have each student write a 2-3 page argumentative essay on the following topic: "In what ways does Jack London's "In a Far Country" represent the genre known as American literary naturalism?" Prompt students to consider the narrator and the story's key themes.
Assign the Stephen Crane story "The Blue Hotel." Have each student write a 2-3 page argumentative essay on the following topic: "In what ways does Stephen Crane's "The Blue Hotel" represent the genre known as American literary naturalism?" Prompt students to consider the narrator and the story's key themes.
Also, there are several EDSITEment lesson plans and websites that complement this lesson. You may want to visit the EDSITEment lesson Metaphorical Gold: Mining the Gold Rush for Stories in order to introduce your students to Jack London in the Klondike. Or, for a brief overview of the genre of American realism, see the EDSITEment lesson plan Kate Chopin's The Awakening: Chopin, Realism, and Local Color in late 19th-Century America.
1-2 class periods