World History 2 154 - 10.2.3 Cultural Movements of the Second Industrial Revolution

The industrial city was more than a place for people to live, work, and entertain themselves. It was also the subject of late nineteenth-century art and literature. Industrialization influenced the cultural creations of the time just as much as it did the methods of production and transportation.

The first significant cultural response to industrialization began in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with romanticism, an artistic movement that valued emotion and imagination and took as its subjects the themes of nature, the ordinary person, the exotic, the ancient, and the supernatural. Romantic writers and artists stressed the beauty and awe-inspiring power of nature and decried the effect that cities and industrial development had on people and the physical environment. William Blake’s description of England’s factories as “dark satanic mills” perfectly expressed the romantics’ attitude toward modern life.

Another important artistic and literary movement of the nineteenth century was realism. Realism focused on everyday life in the contemporary world instead of on the exotic, the ancient, and the faraway as romanticism had. Realists depicted life as it was, even if that meant presenting scenes of its uglier side, although some realist painters such as Rosa Bonheur and Jean-François Millet chose to depict life in the countryside and painted rural horse fairs, oxen straining at the plow, and men sowing fields. Modern cities and their inhabitants were the focus of many others such as John Sloan and George Luks, who portrayed the inside of barrooms and the teeming streets of working-class neighborhoods.

Writers also took the city as their subject. One of the greatest realist writers of the nineteenth century was Britain’s Charles Dickens. In his many and widely read novels, Dickens sympathetically depicted the hardscrabble lives of poor, working-class, and middle-class urban dwellers, setting scenes in foundling homes, prisons, impoverished neighborhoods, and dark city streets. Some critics charged him with being unrealistic in his depiction of the virtuous poor, but his portrayals (and his activism) helped raise awareness, especially of the plight of children, and bring about some social change. Other writers focused even more intently on the shabbier side of life. In Russia, novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky described the streets of St. Petersburg, the rundown quarters in which the poor were condemned to live, and the cheap saloons in which they sought relief. Honoré de Balzac of France depicted the seedy side of life in French cities, often focusing on stories of crime. In Madame Bovary, another French novelist, Gustave Flaubert, wrote of a rural doctor’s young wife whose desire for consumer goods and urban pleasures leads to her ruin. American writer Kate Chopin also addressed the problem of women who felt stifled by married life and the social conventions of the time.

In the late nineteenth century, realism was joined and surpassed by naturalism, a style that featured detached and impersonal depictions of characters whose actions were molded by their environment in ways they often had no ability to control. The French novelist Émile Zola was the creator of naturalism, and his numerous works depict people trapped by their environment or their heredity into acting in ways for which they cannot be held fully responsible. For example, in Thérèse Raquin, Zola’s first naturalistic novel, which he published in installments in the magazine L’Artiste in 1867, the title character is an orphan forced by the woman who raised her to marry her sickly son, a man Thérèse does not love and eventually murders, with the help of a brutish man to whom she finds herself drawn by irresistible sexual impulses. Literary critics were shocked by Thérèse Raquin, as they also were by later works of naturalism, and decried it as immoral.

American readers were similarly shocked by McTeague, an 1899 novel by Frank Norris. In this story, McTeague, a dentist, marries Trina, with whom his friend was in love. McTeague’s friend works his revenge by destroying his dental practice, leading McTeague to run away after stealing money from Trina. When he returns, having spent all that he had stolen, Trina refuses to help him, and he beats her to death. He then runs from the law with his former friend in pursuit. The novel ends with McTeague stranded in the desert, handcuffed to the body of his friend, whom he has killed. In the world depicted in McTeague, people are greedy, faithless, and violent, and there is no escape from the horrors of life.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax