Term Paper: Naturalism and Realism

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Upton Sinclair's Novel Oil! And Paul Thomas Anderson's Movie There Will be Blood

Like Realism, literary Naturalism attempts an objective depiction of human beings in the context of their social and natural environment. The difference between the two is that naturalism also adopts a philosophical attitude towards men: humans are no more than 'beasts' whose character and behavior is deeply influenced by their environment, heredity or by their instincts. Thus, the naturalist writers focus on the 'natural' instincts of men that make them products of their environment. A human being is inevitably dependent and bound to her or his social and natural environment. As an integral part of their extraneous context, men lose their individuality and become a homogenous mass.

One of the best known naturalist writers of the American literature is Frank Norris. His short story, a Deal in Wheat, is built around a single narrative thread: the price of the wheat and how it can ruin or, on the contrary, save the life of Sam Lewiston and his wife Emma. The almost ridiculous importance that an economic detail like the price of wheat has in the life on an individual emphasizes the philosophical stance of the naturalist writer. Thus, the naturalists ironically suggest that human beings are not allowed to develop spiritually and they are left a prey to their environment which clutches them in its grip. This is what explains the abrupt introduction of Norris' story, which presents the fall of the what price as a real tragedy: "The time was late in the summer the place a ranch in southwestern Kansas and Lewiston and his wife were two of a vast population of farmers wheat growers who at that moment were passing through a crisis -- a crisis that at any moment might culminate in tragedy. Wheat was down to sixty-six."(Norris) a Deal in Wheat thus portrays the workings of the social systems and the way they catch the individual into their clogs, relentlessly dragging him into their swirl: "But Lewiston never forgot. Dimly he began to see the significance of things. Caught once in the cogs and wheels of a great and terrible engine, he had seen -- none better -- its workings."(Norris) Sam Lewiston thus is almost ruined to absolute poverty by the wheat dealers that dupe him but, in the end, he miraculously manages to revive and save himself and his family from disaster. The schemes done by those involved in the deal are significant because they emphasize the lengths to which business men go to accomplish their purpose, thus becoming almost inhuman: "Took it abroad! Say, he's just been running it around Chicago, like the supers in 'Shenandoah,' round an' round, so you'd think it was a new lot, an' selling it back to you again.' 'No wonder we couldn't account for so much wheat.' 'Bought it from us at one-ten, and made us buy it back -- our own wheat -- at one-fifty.'"(Norris) the same mechanisms are present in Upton Sinclair's lengthy and riveting novel Oil!. The California business man Joe Ross is clearly the product of his environment. Like a typical naturalist character, Joe Ross is driven almost exclusively by his desire to accumulate money. He exploits the land but also his workers without scruples and without seeing beyond his immediate gain. The central naturalist aspect of the novel is thus found in the character of Joe Ross, who gets swept away in the emerging oil business which practically changed the face of the early twentieth century. Ross' character is molded by the environment in which he lives and it can even be said that he identifies with his passion for oil. Another crucial naturalist aspect of the novel is the fact that the Joe Ross is not only blinded by his unbounded desire to accumulate more and more; he actually seems to be devoid of a spiritual side. He is cruel and unfeeling, an exploiter of his workers and an uncaring father. His mind and his actions are entirely coordinated by his greed for more. Oil! is thus a classical rags to riches story, emphasizing the naturalistic aspects of the American society at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Upton Sinclair's Novel Oil! And Paul Thomas Anderson's Movie There Will be Blood

Upton Sinclair's classical novel, Oil! has seen a comeback ever since Paul Thomas Anderson adapted the story in his movie, There Will be Blood. The two versions are, however, interestingly different and thus have been the subject of much debate. The titles are significant as they already preview the differences between the book and the movie. Thus, the book certainly has a few naturalistic aspects, but it can be said that its social realist side is even more prominent.

Thus, Oil! spans the whole social and economical picture of the oil business rise in America, as well as the first World War and other major events of the twentieth century. Not less important in the novel is the capturing of the emerging opposition between Capitalism and Communism, two political systems which are eventually equally harming for democracy. Moreover, the novel recounts everything in the voice of Bunny Ross, Joe Ross's son, who grows from an idealized vision of his father to a bitter acknowledgement of his failings and of his unfeeling actions. In the book thus the relation between the father and the son sums up the tensions between capitalism and communism that will get a hold of the political world of the twentieth century. The exclaiming title highlights the crucial role that oil and its exploitation have played for the American economy as well as for the development of capitalism.

In There Will be Blood, the title that Sinclair actually intended at first for his novel, Paul Thomas Anderson focuses specifically on the main character that bears here a different name from his correspondent personage in the book. Thus, Daniel Plainview, interpreted in the movie by Daniel Day Lewis, is the same rich businessman who exploits the land and grimly annihilates his competition to make sure the whole scene of oil exploitation belongs to him exclusively. Thus, whereas Sinclair's novel focuses broadly on the social panorama offered by the beginning of the twentieth century, the movie narrows its interest down to the main character whose grisly murders and evil actions form the core of the film thread. Interestingly, the movie almost effaces the character of the son and highlights the Daniel Plainview in opposition or compared to the preacher of the village, Eli Sunday. The pivotal scenes of the movie centered on these two exploiters, who are equally sinful and malicious. Thus, the movie clearly focuses on the naturalistic aspects of the story, and principally on the two characters, Daniel Plainview- the oil exploiter- and Eli Sunday- the spiritual exploiter. At the same time, the social context so widely discussed in the novel is almost absent here. The silent but gruesome combat between the two social leaders, both representatives of corruption, is certainly the main focus of the movie.

As Lars Ahnebrink points out, naturalism is a philosophy which focuses on the theory of determinism and the causality which molds all the actions of men: "Naturalism is a manner and method of composition by which the author portrays 'life as it is' in accordance with the philosophic theory of determinism." The movie certainly accentuates this aspect: the two main characters, the corrupt business man and the corrupt preacher are bent on exploiting the masses to achieve their own personal interests. A few essential scenes mark this point. Daniel Plainview is initially made uncomfortable by the presence of the fanatic spiritual leader who importunes his business. Their relationship afterwards turns into a grim and facetious conflict which is hidden away from the view of the public and played as a friendship for the eyes of the others. In the 'salvation scene' for instance, Plainview practically sells his soul by submitting himself to a baptism solely for getting to exploit the land of the parish. The scene is powerful however because it unmasks the grim struggle between the two evil characters. Moreover, the moment when Eli makes Daniel confess that he has abandoned his child after the accident is moving as it reveals the father for the first time as a weak character who can feel remorse.

Another substantially naturalistic scene is the closing scene of the movie, in which Daniel kills Eli with a bowling stick. The scene recalls the first mute and rather long scene of the movie when Daniel persistently hits the land with a rock, delving for oil. Before the actual killing occurs, Daniel threatens Eli using a powerful and very suggestive metaphor: he tells him he will "drink his milkshake," significantly alluding to the oil drainage. This metaphor accomplishes a truly naturalistic effect as the extent to which the environment and the business affect the psychological structure of a man can be seen here. Another naturalistic aspect is revealed by the obvious connection… [END OF PREVIEW]

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