9 March 2012
The Animal Within: Naturalism in a Lost Lady
History and literature have developed in a parallel manner, as organisms often co-evolve with each other. With the publication of Darwin’s groundbreaking work, the Origin of Species, a new group of people, the Social Darwinists, applied the theory of natural selection to social hierarchy. A most notable Social Darwinist, Herbert Spencer, coined the term “survival of the fittest”, implying that people in higher social groups were more “fit” to survive than those who were in lower social groups (Bannister, “Social Darwinism”). This idea of social evolution contributed to the dehumanization of people. More social theorists, scientists, and writers started considering humans with the characteristics of animals. This new era of thinking led to a new genre of writing known as Naturalism is defined by four characteristics which are exemplified in Stephen Crane’s Maggie, one of the most prominent Naturalist works. Other authors also used elements of Naturalism in their writing, although in a more subtle manner. Willa Cather A Lost Lady and Stephen Crane’s Maggie utilize the three human desires as motivation behind characters’ actions, an apathetic tone in which the author describes their characters, and an emphasis on the bestial side of humans with direct comparisons of characters to entities in nature. The main idea behind Naturalism is that humans are simply another species of animal; they are not “above” other animals in any way. Humans, like other beasts, are driven by natural instincts, instead of acquired knowledge. Naturalist writers portray humans as guided by three basic human desires. They claim that humans do not act upon heroic impulses or morals. The first basic human desire is the need to eat. In Crane’s Maggie, Maggie’s brother, Jimmie, and his friends are getting preached to while in a soup line, but they completely ignore the preacher’s ranting and continue incessantly asking for their soup tickets (Crane 155). The Blum brothers from A Lost Lady strike a parallel with Jimmie and his friends. The Blum boys, although minor characters in Cather’s work, are from a lower social class, and therefore have to worry more about getting enough nourishment to survive. This justifies their desire for food. However, when Adolf Blum catches Mrs. Forrester cheating, he does not act on her adultery and only worries about “fishing for cat… or… waiting for wild duck” (Cather 56). If he were guided by his morals instead of his desires, Adolf would have exposed Mrs. Forrester’s adultery or tried to stop her. However, just like Jimmie ignores the preacher in Maggie, Adolf Blum turns a blind eye to Mrs. Forrester’s sinful actions. It is the need to eat that propels both Jimmie and Adolf to act in a manner that is neglectful of their morals. By committing adultery, Mrs. Forrester shows how human actions are influenced by the second basic human desire; the desire to procreate, most often with the fittest people in their vicinity. This desire is manifested in Pete’s pursuit of Maggie in Crane’s Maggie. Pete only takes notice of Maggie after she grows up into a pretty girl, and he tells Maggie he loves her in order to get her to sleep with him (Crane 428). In a likely manner, Mrs. Forrester was initially attracted to Captain Forrester’s strength and masculinity; when he rescues her from the mountain, he carries her through the toughest terrain (Cather 142). However, shortly after Captain Forrester becomes invalid, we find Mrs. Forrester committing adultery with Frank Ellinger, a younger and fitter man. Mrs. Forrester shows an irrepressible desire to be loved and procreate; therefore she breaks societal expectations that dictate marriage as a partnership where loyalty is held to the highest esteem. Both Pete and Ms. Forrester are driven by their sexual needs to act immorally. Pete’s pursuit of Maggie is driven by his desire to procreate,...