Naturalist Writers: Guide Questions
Stephen Crane “The Open Boat”
1. Although objectivity is often considered a characteristic of naturalism, Crane’s style clearly varies from that objectivity in his use of irony. Which scenes from the story do you find the most effective in using irony, and how do they do so?
2. Does Crane weaken the naturalistic force of his works by his use of irony? Can the death of Billy be taken as naturalistic irony?
3. Is the second paragraph of The Open Boat a statement by a reliable narrator, or is it a summation of the views of the men in the boat?
4. What do Crane’s alternate close-ups and panoramic vistas suggest about the condition and the importance of man in the universe? What do they show the reader about the true situation of the men in the boat?
5. What is the effect on the reader of the intrusion of the narrator in The Open Boat with the information that “It is fair to say here that there was not a life-saving station within twenty miles in either direction, but the men did not know this fact”? What does it add to the reader's understanding of the situation of the men in the open boat?
6. Notice how Crane’s style often becomes impressionistic rather than strictly realistic. Respond to the story’s impressionistic descriptions that you find most effective, and explain your choices.
7. How does Crane portray Nature in this tale? What commentary, if any, does the story present about the importance of human beings in the natural order?
8. Compare and contrast the expressions of hope and the perceptions of objective reality by the men in the open boat. To what extent are humankind’s insignificance and nature’s indifference the truths that the correspondent comes to understand at the end of The Open Boat?
9. Should the last paragraph of The Open Boat be taken ironically? Were the men simply deluding themselves once more, or if they could now truly become interpreters, what has occurred that has given them the insight they had previously lacked?
Frank Norris: “A Deal in Wheat”
1. In what ways does this story seem an example of literary naturalism? Consider the extent to which characters have or lack free will. To what extent are they dominated by social, political, and economic forces?
2. To what extent is the change in the final section consistent with the naturalism of the rest of the story?
3. In what ways do you find the story serving as a comment upon socioeconomic issues? Who or what seems to be responsible for the suffering of the working man? Can the failure of the wheat farmer and that of the hat factory both be seen as re[resentative of economic injustice within the capitalist system?
4. Discuss the irony of the failure of the “bread line.”
5. Comment on the descriptions of nature in this story. How may they be compared with nature in other stories we’ve read?
6. To what degree is the story’s structure linear or circular? In what ways are the beginning and ending similar or different?
7. How are the various characters manipulating prices in this tale? How is the appearance of the new grain for sale to be explained? What views does the story offer about the capitalist system? (Consider not only the wheat business, but the failure of Lewiston’s brother’s hat factory.)
8. What does this story suggest about human efforts to have significant effects upon their circumstances?
Jack London: “The Law of Life”
1. What elements of London’s naturalism are evident in this story? How does it depict Nature?
2. Why does Koskoosh die? Why does he accept his death so readily and stoically.
3. What is the importance you find in the scene about the death of the moose? How does it relate to the death of Koskoosh?
4. What are the conventional and unconventional religious attitudes in The Law of Life? Comment on the "missionary."
5. Outline the narrative structure of this story. Compare the alternative frames of the fire and Koskoosh's memories.
6. Is the conclusion of the story consistent with what has gone before? Support your answer with references to the story itself.
Jack London, “To Build a Fire”
1. Notice this story went through several reprints, including one edition for a juvenile audience. What can you tell about the audience appeal of the story?
2. What is significant about the fact that the main character has no name? Discuss the personality of the man. 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.
3. Discuss the “personality” and role of the dog in the story. In what ways is the dog “smarter” than the man?
4. What is the relationship of man and nature in the story? What is the difference between knowledge and instinct? In what ways might the story be considered naturalistic or Darwinian?
5. Are there religious or anti-religious attitudes evident in To Build a Fire?
6. Discuss the point of view in To Build a Fire. What is the narrator’s attitude toward the protagonist?
7. What mistakes does the narrator make? What is the thematic function of his competence versus his mistakenness?