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Naturalism is a great teaching unit with many ideas and themes that can apply to students. This unit includes a timeline, handouts, and ideas for teaching Naturalism in an American Literature course. This unit should last about 4 weeks. (Note: my classes are shorter, so you
may be able to condense activities into fewer days) Session 1: First, what is Naturalism? Go over the attached introductory handout with students. Discuss with students as you go over the handout. Ask students: • What are objectivity, impartiality, and detachment? What do these words mean? • What do we mean to study humans as “products?” (I gave the example of a cattle ranch—these animals are observed as products, because that is what they will eventually become. We do not ‘moralize’ about whether or not killing them is good or bad (unless you have other beliefs); it is done because it is needed). • What is the scientific method? How might it be used in writing? (I talked about being very methodical and deliberate in writing—you have a hypothesis, an experiment, and you discuss the results). • What do the words heredity and environment mean? How might someone’s life be controlled by heredity? How might someone’s life be controlled by environment? • Discuss with students the type of characters and settings a naturalistic author might use. You could even use movie clips, showing some “down and out” types of characters and places to illustrate this point. Some good examples: West Side Story (immigrants, ill-educated, city setting) Freedom Writers (urban setting, ill-educated) • Why might the authors use urban settings? (I talked about how there are more people and experiences to observe in a city than elsewhere—more subjects to see how they interact with their environment and how their environment might shape them) • What does clinical mean? What about panoramic? What do I mean by ‘slice of life?’ (Clinical meaning a very scientific and removed approach, like observing animals in a lab experiment.) • What does a ‘chronicle of despair’ imply? What is a chronicle? (I talked about how these stories record a downward spiral, how things went from bad to worse) • So, what type of story do you think a naturalist author would write? • What does “the brute within” mean? (I talked about The Hulk or Spiderman— hiding beneath their ‘veneer of civilization’ is a brute waiting to be released, if the right situation arises) • How does Nature perceive human beings? (she is indifferent, unconcerned with their existence) In Naturalistic writing, do human begins have control over their universe and their fate? (no) If they are not in charge, who is? (nature, heredity, environment, their passions) • For naturalistic author, is free will a real thing or is it an illusion? (an illusion, someone else is pulling the strings. Characters are like puppets, being directed by something greater than them and beyond their control)
Read the list of Naturalist authors and discuss the short quote from Crane. How is that quote a good example of Naturalism?
The term naturalism describes a type of literature that attempts to apply objectivity and detachment to its study of human beings. For naturalistic writers, characters can be studied through their relationships to their surroundings. Naturalist authors believed that human beings as "products" should be studied impartially, without moralizing about their natures. Naturalistic writers believed that the laws behind the forces that govern human lives might be studied and understood. Naturalistic writers thus used a version of the scientific method to write their novels; they studied human beings governed by their instincts and passions as well as the ways in which the characters' lives were governed by forces of heredity and environment. The naturalist often describes his characters as though they are conditioned and controlled by environment, heredity, instinct, or chance. Characteristics: Characters: Frequently ill educated or lower class characters whose lives are governed by the forces of heredity, instinct, and passion. Their attempts at exercising free will or choice are manipulated by forces beyond their control. Setting: Frequently an urban setting, like a city. Techniques and plots: The naturalistic novel offers "clinical, panoramic, slice-of-life" drama that is often a "chronicle of despair.” Themes: Survival, determinism, violence, and taboo as key themes. The "brute within" each individual, composed of strong and often warring emotions: passions, such as lust, greed, or the desire for dominance or pleasure; and the fight for survival in an amoral, indifferent universe. The conflict in naturalistic novels is often "man
against nature" or "man against himself" as characters struggle to retain a "veneer of civilization" despite external pressures that threaten to release the "brute within." Nature as an indifferent force acting on the lives of human beings. --here becomes Stephen Crane's view in "The Open Boat": "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. She did not seem cruel to him then, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent." The forces of heredity and environment as they affect--and afflict-individual lives. An indifferent, deterministic universe. 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. Naturalistic Authors: Frank Norris Theodore Dreiser Jack London Stephen Crane Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (1905) Ellen Glasgow, Barren Ground (1925) John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939) Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead (1948) William Styron, Lie Down in Darkness (1951) Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March (1953)
A man said to the universe: "Sir, I exist!" "However," replied the universe, "The fact has not created in me A sense of obligation." --Stephen Crane (1894, 1899)
Session 2: Begin reading “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane. Make a character list with students. See below. Character The Oiler (aka Billie) Description Kind, forgiving, takes orders and does what he’s told, physically strong Overweight, likes food, doesn’t help too much Injured, gives orders, concerned about his shipwrecked boat and his crew Easygoing and willing to help, physically strong as well Strengths/Weakn esses Takes orders well, hardworking, willing to sacrifice for the well-being of others Knows how to help ease the tension of a tough situation, but does not assist in rowing and is physically weak Knows that a leader is needed to help them survive this ordeal, can look past his selfish desires to see what is best for the crew, very smart Willing to work hard and rows with the Oiler, obeys the Captain and the orders he is given, seems upbeat and somewhat positive throughout the ordeal Fate of Character Dies
Possibly lives or dies, it is up to interpretation
Session 3: Finish reading “The Open Boat.” Stop periodically to discuss what is happening in the story. Make sure students know the characters and are filling out their character chart. Session 4: Go over the character handout and Open Boat questions with students (see attached handout). Make sure students can explain how “The Open Boat” is a naturalistic story. Discuss how Crane writes about his characters and their surroundings—isn’t it interesting that he
uses more adjectives and descriptive language when talking about the sea than when talking about the characters?
The Open Boat
Refer back to the beginning of The Open Boat. 1. Write down some of the descriptive language used in the opening: 2. What does it mean, “none of them knew the color of the sky?” What kind of mood does that set for the story? 3. What type of conflict is presented at the beginning of The Open Boat? 4. What kind of imagery does the opening scene present? 5. How does the narrator describe the crew? What adjectives does the narrator use? 6. What kind of point-of-view is the narrator adopting in this story— first or third person? How does this perspective effect the telling of the story? 7. Does the narrator focus on any one character more than the others? Are there any characters that are more significant than the others? Go back to section II of the story (page 561). Read until “the cook was bailing…” 8. What is the relationship between man and nature in this scene? 9. Does Crane see nature as arbitrary, malicious, or something else? 10. Find three passages in the story that emphasizes the power of nature over humans. Write the quote and page number below: 1. 2. 3.
Session 5: Start reading “To Build a Fire” by Jack London. Introduce the author before beginning his story. Session 6: Finish reading “To Build a Fire.” Go over the review questions and do the knowledge chart with students.
Knowledge or Instinct
Use this chart to note passages that discuss knowledge and instinct in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” The shared space is available for those passages where the situation is unclear. Knowledge “The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.” “Empty as the man’s mind was of thoughts, he was keenly observant.” “He had forgotten to build a fire and thaw out.” “But the dog knew; all its ancestry knew, and it had inherited the knowledge.” Unclear Instinct “Its instinct told a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgement.” “But the brute had its instinct.” “…he compelled the dog to go on in front. The dog did not want to go.” “It did not know this. It merely obeyed the mysterious prompting that arose from the deep crypts of its being.”
To Build a Fire
1. Identify the point of view of the story. 2. What is the mood in the opening paragraph? 3. What is the tone of the narrator? How does he feel towards the subject that he is presenting? 4. What is significant about the fact that the main character has no name? 5. Who or what is the antagonist in the story? 6. Discuss the personality of the man. What does he seem to think about his own abilities? How does he behave in relation to his environment? 7. What are some of the mistakes in judgment that the man makes during the course of the story? What is his fatal flaw? Describe the changes in attitude that he undergoes during the story. 8. Discuss the “personality” and role of the dog in the story. In what ways is the dog “smarter” than the man? What did the dog instinctively understand that the man did not? 9. What is the relationship between man and nature in this story? 10. In this story, what is the difference between knowledge and instincts? Use the chart on the back of this page to answer this question. 11. What does the man’s failure to “build a fire” symbolize?
12. What is the significance of the dog’s final movement towards civilization at the end of the story? What does this suggest about the dog’s relationship to nature?
Session 7: Discuss the themes of naturalism: survival, determinism, violence, the "brute within" each individual, Nature as an indifferent force acting on the lives of human beings, the forces of heredity and environment, an indifferent, deterministic universe, and taboo. Use the chart below to locate themes in the writings. Make sure students record their thoughts so that they can share them in the class discussion. Theme of Naturalism Indifference in nature Quotation from story (write OB or BF to indicate the story) It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general. (BF) If this old ninnywoman, Fate, cannot do better than this, she should be deprived of the management of men’s fortunes. She is an old hen who knows not her intention. If she has decided to drown me, why did she not do it in the beginning and save me all the trouble. (OB) Student comments for class discussion
Deterministic, indifferent universe
Violence The brute within Heredity and environment Taboo Survival
Session 8: Begin discussing the “plot of decline” with students. Use the handout below to have students create a chart showing the plot of decline.
Plot of Decline
Naturalist stories often feature a “plot of decline”—a plot that depicts a character’s progression towards degeneration or death. Each story contains a metaphorical journey, with the protagonists encountering nature and succumbing to its indifferent wrath. In groups or on your own, you will need to identify important steps along the character’s journey—key events or narrative observations from either “The Open Boat” or “To Build a Fire”—and plot these key events on a chart. Cite AT LEAST TEN events on your chart. Do the events you cite lead toward the character’s decline? You also need to answer the following questions: 1. How does each event you cite affect the following event? 2. Are the effects or consequences of each event better or worse than the one that preceded it? Why or why not? 3. Can you think of ways in which the protagonist could have changed the course of events? 4. What are several factors that might prevent the protagonist from changing the course of events? 5. How would you describe the ending of your story? What is the outcome like? Session 9: Continue creating “Plot of Decline” chart. Have students present their charts to the class. Discuss the charts and the plot of naturalist stories. Session 10: Put on the overhead projector the image and questions about “Migrant Mother.” Give students time to write the answers to the questions in their journals. Discuss students’ entries as a class. Then read the newspaper article about the girl from the photo. Does this change their point of view about the photo? Begin discussing John Steinbeck and his contributions to naturalist writing. Give a brief overview of “The Grapes of Wrath.” (I felt this novel was too far advanced for my students to read, and I did not have class copies of the novel anyway. If your class could handle it, I would suggest using the novel as part of the naturalist unit). Start watching the film version
of “The Grapes of Wrath.” Students must follow along and take notes on where they see naturalism occurring in the film (see below for Migrant Mother overhead, newspaper article, and Grapes of Wrath character list, summary, and questions.)
What do you believe this mother might be thinking? What could be going through her head? Why are her children turned away from the camera? What significance might this picture have as we learn about Naturalism?
Girl from iconic Great Depression photo:
'We were ashamed'
By Thelma Gutierrez and Wayne Drash Wed December 3, 2008 MODESTO, California (CNN) -- The photograph became an icon of the Great Depression: a migrant mother with her children burying their faces in her shoulder. Katherine McIntosh was 4 years old when the photo was snapped. She said it brought shame -- and determination -to her family. "I wanted to make sure I never lived like that again," says McIntosh, who turns 77 on Saturday. "We all worked hard and we all had good jobs and we all stayed with it. When we got a home, we stayed with it." McIntosh is the girl to the left of her mother when you look at the photograph. The picture is best known as "Migrant Mother," a blackand-white photo taken in February or March 1936 by Dorothea Lange of Florence Owens Thompson, then 32, and her children. Lange was traveling through Nipomo, California, taking photographs of migrant farm workers for the Resettlement Administration. At the time, Thompson had seven children who worked with her in the fields. "She asked my mother if she could take her picture -- that ... her name would never be published, but it was to help the people in the plight that we were all in, the hard times," McIntosh says. "So mother let her take the picture, because she thought it would help." The next morning, the photo was printed in a local paper, but by then the family had already moved on to another farm, McIntosh says. "The picture came out in the paper to show the people what hard times was. People was starving in that camp. There was no food," she says. "We were ashamed of it. We didn't want no one to know who we were." The photograph helped define the Great Depression, yet McIntosh says her mom didn't let it define her, although the picture "was always talked about in our family." "It always stayed with her. She always wanted a better life, you know." Her mother, she says, was a "very strong lady" who liked to have a good time and listen to music, especially the yodeler named Montana Slim. She laughs when she recalls her brothers bringing home a skinny greyhound pooch. "Mom, Montana Slim is outside," they said. Thompson rushed outside. The boys chuckled. They had named the dog after her favorite musician.
"She was the backbone of our family," McIntosh says of her mom. "We never had a lot, but she always made sure we had something. She didn't eat sometimes, but she made sure us children ate. That's one thing she did do." Her memories of her youth are filled with about 50 percent good times, 50 percent hard times. It was nearly impossible to get an education. Children worked the fields with their parents. As soon as they'd get settled at a school, it was time to pick up and move again. Her mom would put newborns in cotton sacks and pull them along as she picked cotton. The older kids would stay in front, so mom could keep a close eye on them. "We would pick the cotton and pile it up in front of her, and she'd come along and pick it up and put it in her sack," McIntosh says. They lived in tents or in a car. Local kids would tease them, telling them to clean up and bathe. "They'd tell you, 'Go home and take a bath.' You couldn't very well take a bath when you're out in a car [with] nowhere to go." She adds, "We'd go home and cry." McIntosh now cleans homes in the Modesto, California, area. She's proud of the living she's been able to make -- that she has a roof over her head and has been able to maintain a job all these years. She says her obsession to keep things clean started in her youth when her chore was to keep the family tent clean. There were two white sheets that she cleaned each day. "Even today, when it comes to cleaning, I make sure things are clean. I can't stand dirty things," she says with a laugh. With the nation sinking into tough economic times and analysts saying the current economic crisis is the worst since the Great Depression, McIntosh says if there's a lesson to be learned from her experience it is to save your money and don't overextend yourself. "People live from paycheck to paycheck, even people making good money," she says. "Do your best to make sure it doesn't happen again. Elect the people you think is going to do you good." Her message for President-elect Barack Obama is simple: "Think of the middle-class people." She says she'll never forget the lessons of her hard-working mother, who died at the age of 80 in 1983. Her gravestone says: "Migrant Mother: A Legend of the strength of American motherhood." "She was very strict, but very loving and caring. She cared for us all," McIntosh says.
The Grapes of Wrath
Released from an Oklahoma state prison after serving four years for a manslaughter conviction, Tom Joad makes his way back to his family’s farm in Oklahoma. Tom gets his home, only to find it—and all the surrounding farms—deserted. Muley Graves, an old neighbor, wanders by and tells the men that everyone has been “tractored” off the land. Most families, he says, including his own, have headed to California to look for work. Tom finds Ma and Pa Joad at Uncle John’s the next day, packing up the family’s few possessions. Having seen handbills advertising fruit-picking jobs in California, they envision the trip to California as their only hope of getting their lives back on track.
Character List for The Grapes of Wrath
Tom Joad - The novel’s protagonist, and Ma and Pa Joad’s favorite son. Tom is good-natured and thoughtful and makes do with what life hands him. Ma Joad - The mother of the Joad family. Ma is introduced as a woman who knowingly and gladly fulfills her role as “the citadel of the family.” Pa Joad - Ma Joad’s husband and Tom’s father. Pa Joad is an Oklahoma tenant farmer who has been evicted from his farm. A plainspoken, good-hearted man, Pa directs the effort to take the family to California. Jim Casy - A former preacher who gave up his ministry out of a belief that all human experience is holy. Rose of Sharon - The oldest of Ma and Pa Joad’s daughters, and Connie’s wife. An impractical, petulant, and romantic young woman, Rose of Sharon begins the journey to California pregnant with her first child. Grampa Joad - Tom Joad’s grandfather. The founder of the Joad farm, Grampa is now old and infirm. Granma Joad - Granma is a pious Christian, who loves casting hellfire and damnation in her husband’s direction. Al Joad - Tom’s younger brother, a sixteen-year-old boy obsessed with cars and girls. Ivy and Sairy Wilson - A couple traveling to California whom the Joads meet on Highway 66.
Connie - Rose of Sharon’s husband, Connie is an unrealistic dreamer who abandons the Joads after they reach California. Noah Joad - Tom’s older brother. Uncle John - Tom’s uncle. Ruthie Joad - The second and younger Joad daughter. Ruthie has a fiery relationship to her brother Winfield: the two are intensely dependent upon one another and fiercely competitive. Winfield Joad - At the age of ten, Winfield is the youngest of the Joad children. Muley Graves - One of the Joads’ Oklahoma neighbors. When the bank evicts his family, Muley refuses to leave his land. Agnes Wainwright - Agnes becomes engaged to Al, who leaves his family in order to stay with her.
The Grapes of Wrath Movie Questions
During and/or after viewing the movie, answer the following questions (refer to your Naturalism notes from two weeks ago for help): 1. What types of characters are the main focus of The Grapes of Wrath? What about the setting? What about the plot? Make sure to answer ALL PARTS of this question. Characters: Setting: Plot: 2. Write about AT LEAST THREE THEMES that you see portrayed in the film (refer to your notes for a list of themes). Write about the THEME and how it is PORTRAYED in the film: Theme 1: Example: Theme 2: Example:
Theme 3: Example: 3. Who or what is the antagonist in The Grapes of Wrath? Why? 4. What, do you believe, is the main idea of this film? 5. What is the relationship between the Joad family and nature? 6. In a complete paragraph, answer the following question: Does this story fit within the Naturalist genre of literature? Why or why not? Give at least THREE specific examples to prove your point: Session 11: Continue “Grapes of Wrath” Session 12: Continue “Grapes of Wrath” Session 13: Finish “Grapes of Wrath.” Discuss the naturalist elements in the film. Have students turn in their notes from the film. Session 14: Begin reading Crane’s “The Blue Hotel.” (I was able to look online and find the text in its entirety, then made copies for the students since this short story was not in our lit books). Students need to be taking notes on their own and identifying naturalist elements in the story. Session 15: Finish reading “The Blue Hotel.” Students must continue their note taking on Naturalist elements in the story. After reading the story, give students the naturalism quiz (see below).
DO NOT WRITE ON THIS QUIZ! MARK ALL ANSWERS ON A SEPARATE PIECE OF PAPER!
Literary Naturalism Quiz
Answer the following questions after reviewing the basic concepts associated with American literary naturalism: 1. Which of the following IS NOT a key theme of American literary naturalism? a. taboo b. survival c. determinism d. romance 2. TRUE or FALSE: Nature is seen as romantic in most stories of American literary naturalism. T ____ F ____ 3. a. b. c. d. 4. a. b. c. d. 5. a. b. c. d. e. Free will for the characters in naturalist stories: is an illusion is a necessity is central to their beliefs doesn’t matter at all Often, literary naturalism contains: a flat plot no plot at all a plot of decline a plot of success Characters in naturalistic stories are usually: Wealthy, upper-class citizens Uneducated, lower-class citizens Citizens whose lives are controlled by passion Both A and C Both B and C
6. Naturalist authors: a. Believed in writing about real events b. Believed that people could control their lives and their futures c. Believed that nature was being destroyed by humans d. Believed that people are controlled by heredity and environment 7. Identify at least ONE naturalistic QUOTE from “The Open Boat” and write the quote below. You may use your literature book.
8. Identify at least ONE Naturalistic THEME from “The Open Boat.” Write what theme can apply to the story and why:
9. Identify at least ONE naturalistic QUOTE from “To Build a Fire” and write the quote below. You may use your literature book.
10. Identify at least ONE Naturalistic THEME from “To Build a Fire.” Write what theme can apply to the story and why:
11. Identify at least ONE naturalistic QUOTE from “The Blue Hotel” and write the quote below. You may use the story handout.
12. Identify at least ONE Naturalistic THEME from “The Blue Hotel.” Write what theme can apply to the story and why:
13. Identify at least ONE naturalistic THEME from “The Grapes of Wrath.” Write the theme and the example that displays the theme below:
14. What is the one thing you found most interesting about Naturalism and Naturalist authors? (“Nothing” is not an answer)
Session 16: Discuss “The Blue Hotel.” Have students bring up things that they saw in the story that fit the naturalist description. Then give students the “Blue Hotel” essay assignment (see below). Students can start writing their essays.
Your essay must answer the following question: In what ways does the story “The Blue Hotel” represent the literary genre known as Naturalism? Use your notes from the Naturalism lecture to help you. You must include THREE examples that prove that The Blue Hotel represents Naturalist literature. Make sure to include QUOTES from the story that prove your point. When you use quotes, remember that you must EXPLAIN the importance of the quote; don’t just plug it in and expect it to speak for itself. Your essay must also have an INTRODUCTION and a CONCLUSION. This means you are writing a FIVEPARAGRAPH ESSAY. Your essay MUST BE: Times New Roman 12pt font, 2 pages, double-spaced, TYPED! This essay is DUE FRIDAY, JANUARY 22nd! Session 17: Work on “Blue Hotel” essays in the computer lab. Session 18: Continue to work on “Blue Hotel” essays, DUE today. Reading Journal Ideas: RJ #1: Have you ever felt like you had very little control over the events in your life? Why do you think you felt (or currently feel) that way? What do you believe DOES (or did) have control over your life? RJ #2: Have you ever had an instance where you thought you were going to die? Who or what do you believe was in control of your fate in that instance? RJ #3: Are you an optimistic person or a pessimistic person? Why? RJ #4: Do you believe in fate? Why or why not? RJ #5: Do you believe that Nature is a powerful force? Do you believe that Nature is more in control of your environment than you are? RJ #6: View the Migrant Mother picture supplied above. Have students respond to the questions at the bottom of the picture in their journals. Extend the Lesson: • Assign the Jack London story “In a Far Country.” Read together as a class after reading “The Blue Hotel” and allow students to choose between the two stories for their naturalism essay. • This is a good introductory unit for teaching the novels The Grapes of Wrath or The Awakening. Both novels are great examples of naturalism, and fit within the time period. • Have students think of examples in popular culture (film, music, tv) that show the futile attempt of humans to have power over nature,
and then they can present a brief synopsis to the class. Or you could listen to the music, watch the tv shows, or watch some of the films. Below are some film examples: Into the Wild Castaway The Perfect Storm Have students think of examples in modern times of the power of nature over humans, like Hurricane Katrina. Students must present their modern event to the class and discuss how one of the naturalist authors discussed in class might view this event or how they might write an account of the natural disaster. Have students pretend to be a naturalist author, and they must write an account of a recent natural disaster from the point of view of a naturalist author. How might a naturalist author view these events? What point of view would he or she use? What kind of adjectives would describe the characters? What about the adjectives for nature? What kind of characters would be chosen to be portrayed in the story?
I hope you’ve enjoyed this unit. You are allowed to reproduce this for classroom purposes, but please do not sell this unit or claim it as your own. Thank you.
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