Arnold Bennett’s Compelling Engagement of Fin-de-Siècle Naturalist Realism in “A Letter Home”

© Copyright 2017 Shiana Puri, Ryerson University

Introduction 

Enoch Arnold Bennett’s “A Letter Home” in Volume 6 of The Yellow Book magazine is a short story conscientiously representing life and human conduct in a mellow manner by displaying its subject matter through fictional portrayals of reality. The short story depicts a desolate marine veteran in the course of his final days before his death. Consisting of three parts, the story begins with the homeless war veteran, located in a dreary little town, waiting outside a place of lodging and shelter alongside a friend named Darkey. They are having a conversation, when suddenly the veteran loses consciousness. The following sections of the story emphasize the event of his death and the journey of his final letter home, which he writes to his mother before passing. Bennett’s unique artistic representation of the veteran’s life pays attention to the detail of human and contemporary life, and rejects romanticized ideologies, further displaying the emergence of fin de siècle naturalist realism in the piece. His philosophy for writing is depicted as constantly striving to support a theory of human conduct through carrying “an artistic representation of life remarkable for its fullness, its energy, its gusto, its pathos, its play of tragic and comic lights, its dramatic clashes, its catastrophes, and its reconciliations—in short, for its adequacy” (Sherman). Noted as an artistic producer of realist texts, Bennett’s pieces have maintained a central interest in relating to society and presenting community life, which is evident in “A Letter Home” as he captures both a sensitive and quaint topic within the story.

Emerging from Romanticism to Naturalist Realism

“Arnold Bennett.” Project Gutenberg. Wikimedia Commons, 2005. Public Domain.

1890s fin de siècle naturalist realism was a time of abiding expansion of the array of subject matter associated with mid-century constructions of realist writing. Authors amongst those like Bennett intended on publicizing the development of romanticized texts into something infinitely more modern. The intention was to create an aesthetic which carried a large emphasis on subjective experiences and reality. Realist authors at the time worked with displaying interior truths and new literary styles in subject matter, all of which were previously unseen and disregarded. 1890s fin de siècle naturalist realism strived to become fluid and complex in nature, incorporating old social traditions and curating the rise of modern texts and their authentic experiences (Saler 1496).

Bennett’s “A Letter Home” explores these naturalist and common view experiences of human life as the emergence of realism became more prominent and appreciated during the fin de siècle period. The significance and reception of 1890s fin de siècle naturalist realism displayed in Volume 6 of The Yellow Book serves as a key example of the emergence of this literary technique during the 1890s as writers like Bennett forever changed the perception and ways of interpreting stories for audiences. Certain aspects of the short story including the dull and time specific atmosphere, the characterization of the war veteran upon social contexts, and the raw, local dialogue all contribute towards Bennett’s naturalist realism piece by allowing his audience to be immersed in an emotional experience of reality, rather than romanticized ideologies. Although realist techniques were also looked down upon during its materialization, as they often lacked amusement and recreation, to counteract, there was a particular undertone of important and positive reception allocated towards its use. The overall development of 1890s fin de siècle naturalist realism with the coming of a new century, displayed in The Yellow Book, were strongly driven to meet 1890s culture, even through its criticism.

An Aesthetic Spectatorship

Invested in the fin de siècle spectatorship during the 1890s was the outré and queer form of its performance (Saler 230). Arnold Bennett’s “A Letter Home” carries a naturalist realism perspective in regards to some aspects within the short story, including its setting and atmosphere. With the disregard of romanticized ideologies, and more contemporary influences, Bennett moves away from a generic or typical setting and situates the story in a very time specific period. The story opens in a post-war situation, where the war veteran is waiting on a bench at dawn for a place of lodging and shelter. The specific detail of time and place in history depicted in the short story allows for it to depart from old traditions, into more modern representations and the authenticity of historical, real life experiences (White).

“Arlington Street Showers.” (c) Unknown Artist. Wikimedia Commons, 1983. Public Domain.

Within the first few paragraphs, Bennett’s strong use of imagery evokes pathos. The audience is able to relate to the dull and sorrowful atmosphere that he intends to create, similar to the one exhibited in a 1983 painting titled “Arlington Street Showers”. One example of this in the short story is displayed when Bennett uses the gloomy atmosphere to introduce the character, Darkey: “The rain-drops clinging to the rim of an ancient hat fell every now and then into his grey beard, which presented a drowned appearance. He was a person of long and varied experiences” Bennett 94). As the dull and weary setting correlates with the characters, this changes the readers’ experience and understanding as they are able to better connect with the characters and relate to their experiences.  Bennett’s detailed descriptions of the setting and effort to create a distinct ambience truly allows his audience to become immersed in the dull and sorrowful atmosphere that he presents, and relate to these subjective experiences of reality.

Moreover, the veteran is seen to be situated in peculiar settings. As the story opens, he is located on a park bench. Upon falling out of consciousness, the second part of the story opens with him in a hospital ward, just before writing his letter home and shortly after, he passes away. The third part of the story displays the veteran’s friend, Darkey, in a bar after being given the letter home. Bennett’s choice of settings exhibit very raw circumstances where the audience may even feel uncomfortable. Imbedded in these settings, Bennett uses a unique set of word choice including words like “bedraggled”, “misfortune”, and “nonchalantly” which truly offer his audience a look into subjective experiences and common life, as he intends to depict. Through these peculiar settings that Bennett describes in the story, his audience is able to visualize the transformation of a text from unrealistic and imaginative ideas to dealing with more direct, everyday realities. While still maintaining old social traditions in “A Letter Home”, Bennett’s creation of a seemingly truthful story through its setting allows for a distinctive aesthetic spectatorship.

Adapting to Social Relations and Society’s Circumstances through Characterization

The characterization of the war veteran is often displayed as dull and mixed throughout the story. Prior to the 1890s fin de siècle naturalist realism period, stories were more so romanticized in terms of their unrealistic and imaginative approaches (Saler 1416). By Bennett developing his character in relation to social relations and the circumstances of society, which was post war, he was true at adapting to a more authentic and direct approach. Romanticism would display characterization through generic and very typical forms, like having distinct character labels including heroes, villains, oppressors, underdogs, etc. (White). In contrast, as can be seen in “A Letter Home”, the war veteran, also the main character in the short story, does not have a definite label. His character has a rather mixed characterization, supporting Bennett’s coherent use of naturalist realism.

 Bennett still displays the main character as a round character who engages with the audiences’ imagination and empathy as a homeless veteran, which ultimately makes the story more relatable and emotional. However, the prominent use of naturalist realism can be seen as the character holds onto different responsibilities and social issues. In the passage, “He was young, and his cap, and manner of wearing it, gave sign of the sea. His face showed the rough outlines of his history”, one can see how Bennett displays his character in a way that evokes emotion and a particular response from his audience. As Bennett incorporates social relations and society’s circumstances by displaying the young man’s life and his “rough” experiences during the war, the story is able to take on a verisimilitude approach. The audience is drawn away from unrealistic and imaginative approaches, as the incorporation of real life circumstances allows the audience to better relate and connect with the story, rather than fantasize. Whereas a romanticized character would simply have one face of personality and a distinct label, 1890s fin de siècle naturalist realism strived to become a fluid and complex nature, making characters adapt to real, authentic experiences, but also incorporating old social traditions (Saler 1496).

Conclusion

John Lane, cover of The Yellow Book, vol. 6, 1895. The Yellow Nineties Online, Ryerson University, 2010. Public Domain.

Arnold Bennett’s “A Letter Home” can be critically analyzed in the context of Volume 6 of The Yellow Book in terms of its exploration of naturalism and common view experiences of human life, as the emergence of realism became more prominent during its time. During a period of emerging from romanticized ideologies towards more realist interpretations, “A Letter Home” can be seen as a prime example of this change. Manifestly, other contents within The Yellow Book, including Henry James’s “The Next Time,” which appears in Volume 6, as well as Ella D’Arcy’s “Irremediable,” express very raw and real perspectives of human life. 1890s fin de siècle realism was a point of recognition for artists like Bennett, as there was much more conversation of the idea of displaying human life and aesthetics in literature. Being presented to a 20th and 21st century audience during this transition, the particular reception of naturalist realism was very appreciative of its relatability in terms of incorporating social realities and circumstances, as well as contemporary influences (Marcovitch 79). As one of the main goals was to depart from old traditions of literature during the 1890s and throughout The Yellow Book, into something infinitely more modern, 1890s fin de siècle naturalist realism exhibits an eccentric change in literary technique that can be seen within The Yellow Book, and throughout “A Letter Home”.

 

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Works Cited

Patten, Robert L. Review of British Literary Culture and Publishing Practice, 1880-1914, by Peter D. McDonald. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, https://muse-jhu-edu.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/article/35636.

Saler, Michael. “Part VII: Aesthetics The Fin-de-Siècle World, Taylor and Francis, 2014, pp. 1496-1497.

Sherman, Stuart P. “The Realism of Arnold Bennett.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, edited by Sharon K. Hall, vol. 5, Gale, 1981. Literature Resource Center, http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&u=rpu_main&id=GALE%7CH1420011057&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon&authCount=1#

Marcovitch, Heather. “The Yellow Book: Reshaping the Fin De Siècle.” Literature Compass, vol. 13, no. 2, 2016, pp. 79–87., https://journals-scholarsportal-info.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/pdf/17414113/v13i0002/79_tybrtfds.xml

White, Craig. “Realism.” Terms & Themes, coursesite.uhcl.edu/HSH/Whitec/terms/R/Realism.htm.

Bennett, Enoch Arnold. “A Letter Home.” The Yellow Book 6 (July 1895): 93-102. The Yellow Nineties Online.Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2011. Web. [Date of access]. http://www.1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV6_bennett_letter.html

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