Crane, London, and Literary Naturalism

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."

Guiding Questions

In what ways do Jack London's "To Build a Fire" and Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat" represent the genre known as American literary naturalism?

How do the two stories differ as representations of American literary naturalism?

Learning Objectives

Identify key characteristics of the genre known as American literary naturalism, including the naturalist "plot of decline"

Understand the literary context for Jack London and Stephen Crane's work

Conduct in-depth character analysis

Compare and contrast two writers' literary styles