Realism and Naturalism in Henry James’ Daisy Miller and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie

Realism and Naturalism in Henry James’ Daisy Miller and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie

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To best analyze the works of James and Dreiser, the terms realism and naturalism are critical to comprehend. Realism, as noted in the Norton Anthology, emphasizes, “the interior moral and psychological lives of upper-class people” (9). Accordingly, realism reflects a natural depiction of self, relationships and social interactions (and the class-system). Realist writers explore true interpersonal dilemmas, interactions and experiences within society, highlighting the character rather than a story’s plot. These writings focus on truthfully depicting the mundane aspects of human society. Contrarily (though equally “real”), naturalism seeks to capture “human life as it was shaped by forces beyond human control—our environment” (10). Inclined to favor characters outside of the wealthy caste, naturalist literature underscores lower-class individuals dependent on external factors and their conflicts with environmental conditions out of their control. Literary naturalists, unlike realists, “wanted to explore how biology, environment, and other material forces shaped lives” (11). Naturalists present how humans interact with outside elements, survive and flourish in their environment. Together, realism and naturalism has endeavored to reduce the sensationalism of impoverished life and depict its presence and effects on lower-class society realistically. Late nineteenth century photojournalist Jacob Riis and his publication How the Other Half Lives is one example of naturalist literature and its “intervention that strives to make lower-class lives comprehensible to the middle-class readers” (11). Thus, realism along with naturalism exposes society to a wide variety of authentic experiences.

Henry James’ Daisy Miller is ideally representa...


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...mopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse” (568). Rather than conveying the internalized thoughts and concerns of Carrie herself, Dreiser presents his readers with a general setting of the external challenges Carrie—and by extension a populace of late nineteenth century women—faces. Dreiser’s text demonstrates the struggle of being a woman subject to low wages, aggressive bosses and submissive work. In addition, Carrie does not have any vocational skillset that would afford her a “respectable” place in the workforce. Rather, Dreiser authentically portrays the ruthless nature of city life, predatory men and a capitalist driven economy. Instead of depicting the relationship between Carrie, her sister and the individuals she meets in the city, Dreiser’s naturalistic style focuses on her ability to survive and flourish within her environment by all means necessary.

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