Naturalism vs. Symbolism

What's the Difference?

Naturalism and Symbolism are two distinct literary movements that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Naturalism focuses on depicting the harsh realities of life through detailed and objective observations of the natural world and human behavior. In contrast, Symbolism seeks to convey deeper, often abstract meanings through the use of symbols and metaphors. While Naturalism aims to present a realistic portrayal of society, Symbolism delves into the realm of the subconscious and the spiritual. Both movements offer unique perspectives on the human experience, with Naturalism emphasizing the tangible and observable, and Symbolism exploring the intangible and symbolic.


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FocusRealism, objective portrayal of lifeSubjective, use of symbols to convey deeper meanings
RepresentationDepicts life as it is, often gritty and unfilteredUses symbols and metaphors to represent abstract ideas
TechniqueDetailed descriptions, emphasis on accuracyMetaphorical language, emphasis on emotions and ideas
PhilosophyBelief in the scientific method and observable realityBelief in the power of symbols and the unconscious mind
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Further Detail


Naturalism and Symbolism are two distinct literary movements that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While both movements sought to explore the human experience and the world around us, they did so in very different ways. Naturalism focused on depicting reality in a raw and unfiltered manner, while Symbolism aimed to convey deeper, often abstract, meanings through the use of symbols and metaphors. In this article, we will delve into the key attributes of Naturalism and Symbolism and compare how they approach storytelling and representation.

Themes and Subject Matter

In Naturalism, the themes and subject matter often revolve around the harsh realities of life, such as poverty, violence, and social injustice. Writers of this movement sought to portray the world as it truly was, without romanticizing or idealizing it. Characters in Naturalist works are often depicted as victims of their circumstances, with little agency to change their fate. On the other hand, Symbolism delves into the realm of the subconscious and the mystical. The themes explored in Symbolist literature are often abstract and esoteric, focusing on dreams, emotions, and the spiritual world. Symbolist writers use symbols and metaphors to convey deeper meanings that go beyond the surface level of reality.

Writing Style and Language

Naturalist writers employ a straightforward and objective writing style, aiming to present reality as accurately as possible. The language used in Naturalist works is often simple and direct, with a focus on detail and observation. Dialogue in Naturalist literature tends to be realistic and reflective of everyday speech. In contrast, Symbolist writers use a more poetic and lyrical writing style, with an emphasis on imagery and symbolism. Symbolist works are often characterized by rich, evocative language that seeks to create a mood or atmosphere. The language in Symbolist literature is often highly symbolic and metaphorical, inviting readers to interpret the text on a deeper level.

Characterization and Symbolism

In Naturalist literature, characters are often depicted as products of their environment, shaped by external forces beyond their control. These characters are portrayed in a deterministic light, with their actions and choices predetermined by their circumstances. Naturalist writers seek to show the impact of social and environmental factors on human behavior. On the other hand, Symbolist literature often features characters who are symbolic representations of abstract concepts or ideas. These characters may not be fully developed in a traditional sense, but rather serve as vessels for deeper meanings and themes. Symbolist writers use characters as vehicles for exploring complex emotions and philosophical ideas.

Setting and Atmosphere

The settings in Naturalist literature are often gritty and realistic, reflecting the harsh conditions of urban life or rural poverty. Naturalist writers pay close attention to detail when describing the physical environment, aiming to create a sense of authenticity and verisimilitude. The atmosphere in Naturalist works is often bleak and oppressive, mirroring the struggles faced by the characters. In contrast, Symbolist literature tends to feature dreamlike and surreal settings that defy conventional logic. Symbolist writers create atmospheric worlds that are imbued with symbolism and metaphor, inviting readers to interpret the setting on a symbolic level. The atmosphere in Symbolist works is often mysterious and otherworldly, evoking a sense of wonder and enchantment.


In conclusion, Naturalism and Symbolism are two distinct literary movements that offer unique perspectives on the human experience. While Naturalism seeks to depict reality in a raw and unfiltered manner, Symbolism aims to convey deeper meanings through the use of symbols and metaphors. Both movements have made significant contributions to the world of literature, challenging readers to think critically about the world around them and the mysteries of the human psyche. Whether one prefers the stark realism of Naturalism or the enigmatic symbolism of Symbolism, both movements continue to captivate and inspire readers to this day.

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