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Naturalist Philosophy in the Works of Bierce and Crane

The Inherent Folly of Man

Near the end of the mid-19th century, the scientific world was entirely changed by the publishing of Charles Darwin’s On the Origins of Species. Darwin’s work not only altered the way scientists viewed nature, but it modified the way that the everyday man looked at his world. With the advent of Darwinian philosophy comes the advent of Naturalism. Authors such as Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane subscribe to the Darwinian beliefs of humanity existing exclusively in nature, and the forces of nature determine their actions. In the works of Bierce and Crane, the usage of Naturalist themes related to the inherent nature or condition of humans reveal the greater naturalist philosophy at work in the world.

As recognized by Darwin, humans, as a whole species, are a social animal, and isolation is contrary to their nature. Though in isolation, humans subvert behavioral expectations and often act out of character. In the realm of Naturalist literature, characters can be put in the experimental world of ink, and individual factors, such as isolation, can influence how they act. Isolation, as a human condition and its use in “One of the Missing”, influences the actions of Private Jerome Searing, a spy for the Union army. Bierce describes Searing as “young, hardy, intelligent, and insensible to fear” and possessing “woodcraft.. sharp eyes… and truthful tongue” (245). In all respects, Searing is the archetype of a spy and expected to carry out his duties mechanically. In being a spy, though, Searing exposes himself to intense isolation as he gets sent behind enemy lines and becomes completely isolated from his fellow soldiers. Searing almost finishes his mission, except when he deviates from the plan and wishes to snipe a retreating Confederate soldier. Moreover, Searing had “learned all that he could hope to know” about the Confederate lines, but yet his inner animal side took over, and he craved a kill (247). Justifying his actions, he believes that “it is the business of a soldier to kill” (247). However, Jerome Searing is no soldier; he is a scout. And so the universe, or perhaps just a random chain of circumstances prevents him from shooting when a Confederate officer fires a cannon into the house, causing it to collapse upon Searing and trap him. Searing, as an experimental character, would, in normal circumstances, perform his duties without any deviance, but since he experiences isolation behind enemy lines, he subverts these expectations and acts out of characters. In Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat”, Crane places four men on a “ten-foot dingey” and isolates them from humanity on the open ocean (333). Each of the four men is an archetypal character that Crane uses to reflect humanity as a whole. The captain represents leadership, the cook embodies foolishness and naivety, the correspondent is the objective reporter, and the oiler represents the working man. Each character has a certain way that they should act and behave per their personality, but they subvert these expectations the readers have for them when exposed to the isolation of the open ocean. The captain, when first introduced in the story, lies in the bow of the dinghy and “buried in... profound dejection and indifference” (332). In this situation, the captain should be taking control and become the leader he is supposed to be, but instead, he wallows in sadness. The cook and the oiler both follow their archetypes rather accurately, with the oiler working hard rowing the boat and the cook acting naive and merely bailing the boat as he cannot do much other work. The correspondent is a character who very much differs from his supposed character traits. As a reporter, the correspondent is supposed to be objective and view their situation with little emotion, but he does the exact opposite. Crane describes the correspondent as a person “who had been taught to be cynical of men,” but “knew [that the comradeship on the boat] was the best experience of his life (337). The correspondent, though cynical, reports the story with an emotional connection to both the other characters in the boat but also to the ocean. He often wonders why he is in the boat, and this deviation from his character of just reporting the facts. The captain and the correspondent, like Jerome Searing, when placed in isolation by their authors, subvert the reader’s expectations and act out of character, revealing the vaster Naturalist thought of a rejection of romantic ideals and archetypal characters. This rejection of romantic ideals also repudiates the idea of the importance of humanity, consigning humans to be just another of billions of species in the universe.

Though thinking that they comprehend everything, humans lack the necessary capacity to understand the meaning of circumstances and life itself. In “The Open Boat,” there are many people on the shore that see the dinghy as it gets near shore, but all the people there do not know the true nature of why the dinghy is out there. As one of the four on the boat states, “He thinks we’re fishing. Just giving us a merry hand,” because one of the members of the crowd began to wave his coat over his head (343). The people on the beach who should realize that their fellow man is in trouble, fail to see this and instead engage in a spectacle of amusement and observe the boat and its crew These people on the shore were merely vacationers staying at a nearby resort, showing that even characters who are precise and mechanical, miss these same essential elements. Adrian Searing, a Lieutenant in the Union army, is one of these people who, by attempting to control and monitor all things, misunderstands or misses simple events and their meaning. He acts “mechanically” and precisely checking his watch when he hears sounds in this distance (253). His watch says, “Six o’clock and eighteen minutes” when he hears a building crash, unbeknownst to him, his brother is the one involved in that collapse (253). When he and his men move to the collapsed building, they find a ‘Confederate’ body amongst the rubble, which is the body of Jerome Searing. Again, Adrian Searing marks the time; “Six o’clock and forty minutes”, only twenty-two minutes passed since the sound of the crash, yet Searing says the body has been “dead a week” (254). When it comes to recognizing his own brother, Adrian Searing, though precise and mechanical, is unable to accomplish this simple feat. If humans are not able to understand the basic aspects and events that occur in life, how are they to understand the intricate meanings of life?

What is a Hero?

The concept of heroism and being a hero has captivated the human mind since the first story was ever told. Though heroism is the cheese that humans, like mice, attempt to eat but often become caught in the hammer of the mousetrap. Humans like to believe themselves to be not only important but also heroic. In the Civil War, Bierce experienced one of the few times when humans can truly achieve heroism, a time of crisis. However, many humans do not participate in war and often have romantic ideals of their capabilities of heroism. Peyton Farquhar was a “well to do planter” who was prevented from joining the Confederate war effort but was very devoted to the Southern cause (232). So when he hears of an opportunity to sabotage a Union railroad bridge from a Union scout, he pounces on this opportunity to serve his cause. Instead of being the hero who helped the Confederacy, the Union sentenced him to hang from the ties of the bridge. With the noose around his neck, Peyton Farquhar realizes that he is trapped in this mousetrap as his watch sounds to him “like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil” (231). He hears the hammer of the mousetrap falling upon him, and at this moment, he thinks, “If I could free my hands… I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home” (231). Farquahar thinks about this fantasy escape, and right before his sentence is carried out, he hallucinates the escape he thought of moments before, and in his mind, he is successful. He thinks much of himself to have escaped the powerful Union force, but his heroism is simply an elaborate fantasy, and his body swings with a broken neck “beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge” (237). Bierce traps another one of his wartime characters with the bait of glory and being a real soldier. Jerome Searing, as aforementioned, is a spy in the Union army, but when he is on a scouting mission and views the Confederate retreat, he attempts to murder an enemy soldier from a distance. Though a force, whether it be God, a plethora of gods, fate, chance, or simply, just random circumstance, a cannonball fired by the Confederate army collapses the dilapidated house around him, pinning him in the rubble. He is “caught like a rat in a trap,” with the bait being glory and the trap, life itself (248). Whenever humans attempt to seek glory, which is an intrinsic part of human nature, they will always become ensnared by that same glory. Crane, like Bierce, situates his characters in problems where humans often will attempt to act heroically when they are not a hero. However, Crane also takes the naturalist approach, that heroism, even if it exists, means nothing in the universe. The four men on dinghy find themselves in the precarious situation of being exposed to the full force of the open ocean after a deadly shipwreck. One could say they are rats trapped in the mousetrap of life, but the hammer of that mousetrap is still primed to crash down. The men do, however, end up making it near shore, where they then attempt to swim the rest of the way to shore. The swim proves to be fatal for the oiler as “in the shallows, face downward, lay the oiler” (355). The cause of his death can be directly linked to his rowing of the lifeboat, which was described as “weary business” (341). Some may say that his death in and of itself was heroic, as he was the one who rowed the boat to shore, exhausting himself in the process, thus sacrificing his own life for the survival of his comrades. Though this is not the case as death is not chosen nor sacrificed, all events happen at the whim of the universe, yet the universe has no personification. The cause of the oiler’s death was the inconsequential arrangement of aleatoric circumstances, consistent with the naturalist philosophy of Bierce and Crane. Heroism is the bane of man and the trap of the imagination and is the final part of human nature that naturalism utterly destroys.

To debate the philosophical worth of naturalism is in and of itself a denial of naturalism. To say humans live a fulfilled life, possess the ability of individualism, and understand their existence is to deny naturalism. Yet Bierce and Crane do no such thing; instead, they both embrace naturalistic philosophies in their works and show the reader that our existence is not of divine providence nor universal interference but merely the combined effect of a random adaptation of minuscule cells to create other animals and then humans. Crane, most of all, exemplifies naturalist philosophy in his writing through his usage of human nature, with Bierce giving him fierce competition, though with a more fatalist worldview. Through isolation, we challenge our own existence as we change ourselves. The ability of self-change is no ability at all, but rather a random circumstance that affects a person. Through putative understanding, one attempts to comprehend that which a person can understand, but also that which he is not able to understand. This attempt reveals that knowledge is not there to gain, as there is no unattainable divine knowledge, not unlike how knowledge exists only in the brains of humans and is a fleeting possession. With heroism, comes the most fatal of all human flaws, the belief of their importance as a species or as an individual. Human importance is the most exceptional apocryphal thought of the thousands of years of human civilization. Furthermore, when compared to the vast expanse of the universe, humans with all their inventions and thoughts are no greater than a speck of dust on a mouse in a mousetrap.


Bierce, Ambrose. “One of the Missing”

---. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”

Crane, Stephen. “The Open Boat”

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© 2022 Lucas Delille

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