Approaching Oryx & Crake: The Name Game
To narrow the scope of literature, the science fiction genre is a type of storytelling contains different messages from novel to novel. Scholars and literary critics have the right to label a novel in any way they prefer, yet readers have the right to disagree and call the novel something else. To narrow the focus of this journal article farther, I will examine a recently published novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood. The 2003 dystopian novel Oryx and Crake (Book one of the MaddAdam Trilogy) is highly noted and recognized for its discussion of biogenetics and genetic modification. Yet there is not much published about the stylistic approach that Atwood infuses into her novel. This journal article will describe how Oryx and Crake seamlessly incorporates elements of Realism and Naturalism into the four main topics of the novel which include narration, science, social conflict, and environment struggles. It is imperative to acknowledge that these two forms of literature are not one hundred percent representative in Oryx and Crake, yet there is more evidence supporting this notion than contradicting it. While these two literary genres hold distinct characteristics, they also contain some slight overlap. The history and definitions of Realism and Naturalism will both be introduced into the article as a literary technique. Along with this information, there will be scholarly material and textual support from Oryx and Crake that reveal the concept of the novel’s Realistic and Naturalistic ways. The purpose of these stylistic tendencies is to provide a better understanding for the novel’s messages directed towards audiences.
To get an understanding of the Realism present in the novel, it is important to have background knowledge on the genre. Realism began as a literary art form during the 19th Century. What made this type of writing different from other genres was portraying scenes in a realistic world. The point was to capture characters and environments in their most raw and unfiltered form. Novels of this genre typically contained characters of upper and middle class statues. Authors of this time period wanted books to deglamorize human nature and social situations. By exposing the most realistic depiction of human life, Realism’s goal was to interpret real life to the best of fiction’s ability. Human struggle and inevitability were main topics disused in this genre. Dr. Ashley Reed notes that authors of this movement wanted their writings to prompt some type of social change. To write in this genre, human behavior was given vivid descriptions and details to reveal just how people thought. Yet, the tone towards the human existence in these novels contained optimistic undertones (Reed). In most cases, the writing style contained very blunt and clear diction. One interesting quality about realistic literature is the idea that the settings always occur in unidentifiable locations. Narrators of novels from this period were supposed to be emotionally unattached from the story to give exceptional details (Reed). Dr. Carol Scheidenhelm adds that the stories of Realism can occur in any location. She also informs readers that this 19th century literature period accentuated the ideas of morality and society in its stories, while emphasizing how humans are reliant on their future (Scheidenhelm). The impact of this genre helped storytellers to create a fictional world where readers could relate and sympathize with a character’s social struggles.
In contrast to Realism, Naturalism is a literary genre that began in the late 19th century spilling over into the early 20th century. This genre is very similar to Realism’s stylistic approach, yet contained different principles. Naturalism is a genre with a focus more geared towards science. University of Chicago professor, Donna Campbell, defines Naturalism as: “a type of literature that attempts to apply scientific principles of objectivity and detachment to its study of human beings. Unlike Realism, which focuses on literary technique, Naturalism implies a philosophical position” (Campbell). A Naturalism novel is related to the scientific method’s process of making observations and conducting experiments. Dr. Ashley Reed states that this literary movement involved characters that had pessimistic views and/that dealt with struggles against the outside world which was nature/wilderness (Reed). However, the setting of these stories could be held in metropolises or rural areas. Emotions played a key role in Naturalism texts. Due to the heredity and the surrounding environment, the individuals in these stories used their emotions to reflect the attitudes towards problems in society. Also, Naturalism made the idea of human autonomy seem like a fantasy. With all of the distinctions regarding Naturalism (and Realism) in order, it is essential to discuss just how the four main topics in novel Oryx and Crake embody the characteristics found in these two literary genres.
One of the major elements of Oryx and Crake is the protagonist, Jimmy/Snowman’s, journey. Throughout the third-person omniscient novel, Jimmy’s persona acts as a catalyst for the story’s conflict. In the story, there are moments where he acts progressive and authoritative towards his ideas of what he thinks is right for society. Yet, at some points in the novel, he has a tendency to be lazy and unmotivated. These tendencies depend on the time of the conflict in the novel’s two time periods of past and present. His personality mimics an ordinary person, he is not perfect and that is what makes him a relatable character to readers. By following a protagonist that is not the typical hero, it creates a dynamic in Snowman that he cannot be defined as one simple thing. Dr. Amanda Cole states that the author of the story is obsessed with the idea of her narrator. This storyteller is important since it is the entity that sends hidden messages to the audience about the end of the human species. Cole also claims that the author creates credibility through moments of nostalgia to issue, “a warning no less dire than that found in George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or in Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Night” (Cole). This research proves the idea that one aspect of this story (Jimmy’s character) is not easily describable. Jimmy has the history of being like a Realistic character that is optimistic in spite of challenges to defeat them. Yet at the same time, he has instances where he is pessimistic about overcoming obstacles, making him a Naturalistic character destroyed by his surroundings. What makes Jimmy’s character label difficult, is the fact his story stops mid-conflict and is not finished in the sequel novels.
To further explore the Realistic and Naturalistic ways of Oryx and Crake’s narrator, textual evidence can show the differences explored throughout the novel that prove Jimmy to be a Realistic/Naturalistic character. Jimmy can be seen as the representation of liberal arts in a scientific world (Ingersoll). He declares, “’When any civilization is dust and ashes, art is all that’s left over. Images, words, music. Imaginative structures. Meaning – human meaning, that is – defined by them.’” (Atwood 167). By using this example, it demonstrates a Realistic theme. Jimmy’s declaration establishes the need for behavioral change in society. His straightforward diction and critique on the sciences dominating social norms reveal Realistic principles based on the writing style (Reed). While this example shows how Jimmy can be a protagonist prompting social change amongst upper, middle class characters, it is important to see how his character reacts to conflict. In one part of the novel, Oryx exclaims, “‘You always think the worst of people, Jimmy.’” thus creating the idea that Jimmy is pessimistic about people in general (Atwood 316). Early on in the story, Snowman’s personal views are reflected in a narrative that reveals, “Snowman is sad because the others like him flew away over the sea, and now he is all alone.” (Atwood 9). By having these two examples, they parallel with one another on the grounds of human nature. Jimmy’s pessimistic views of human endeavors were caused by the human forces of a scientific disaster. Therefore, when Atwood seamlessly uses this Naturalistic writing strategy through Jimmy’s narration, she inflicts the horrors of science in Jimmy’s attitudes and emotions. The author wants Jimmy struggles to act as critiques on social conditions (Reed). As it is seen, Atwood builds a strong sense of Realism and Naturalism in Jimmy’s persona. The subliminal messages expressed through his thoughts and actions act as a message to audiences to realize that these writing styles should not be taken lightly, but taken as ways of change.
Oryx and Crake is more than Dystopia; it is pure science-fiction. The emphasis on the novel’s scope of science is largely explored throughout the novel. Oryx and Crake’s use of science in the novel helps to build the arcs of Realism and Naturalism. The science in this novel is focused on inevitability, racism, morality, and Darwinism. While Amanda Cole compared the novel to the Human Genome Project and praised the novel’s consistent pattern of sticking to a dystopian sub-genre, other scholars disagree, claiming that this novel is not consistent. Valeria Mosca provides the idea (along with scholar Shuli Barzilai) that this novel holds too many allegiances to too many genre affiliations. She reasons that Oryx and Crake has characteristics of the following genres: Old English tradition, Bildungsroman, romance, survivor, and science fiction. (Mosca & Barzilai). Also, Mosca claims the story to be a, “large scale extreme vision of recent (Western) scientific & economic trends [and corporate power].” (Mosca). Her argument is constructed around the idea that the stories within the MaddAdam Trilogy are those of a slippery slope. This slippery slope is associated with the extreme extinction of the human race, where Mosca challenges the likeliness of the story’s probability. This viewpoint contradicts Cole’s praiseful perspective, yet relates to the Realism’s belief on USA society. Also, Mosca’s research supports the Naturalist idea of focusing on lower class people. Anthony Griffith’s research leads him to say that: “In Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood flexes her literary muscles to take a swing at the science of genetics. Her message is that genetics dabbles in things that are unnatural and creepy and will surely get us into a lot of trouble. In this view she sides with other writers in the popular media.” (Griffith) Griffith’s efforts are exercised in asking how Margaret Atwood thought of a story with such poise and plausibility. He realizes that the type of scientific technology in the novel is not far ahead from the technology used in the present day. Anthony Griffith’s views support Realism in the story because they both exhibit the desire of change for sake of the human existence. As for his work supporting Naturalism, he dislikes the idea of human nature falling to science’s creations (thus siding with Naturalism’s views). The argument he makes challenges Coles research. Yet, Griffith’s work is similar to Mosca’s due to the fact that they recognize the novel’s tendencies to display societal problems.
By examining Oryx and Crake’s text, it will be discovered that the character’s interactions with science (and discovery) act as the catalyst that drives the story’s plot. The Realistic and Naturalistic tendencies found in Margaret Atwood’s writing will be observed. In the first half of the novel, the OrganInc Farms is described in a way that makes the reader feel sympathy for the working class people. The narrator of the passage goes through multiple thoughts as the story says, “A great deal of money had gone into OrganInc Farms…What fathead was in charge of making those decisions? […] Each one of us must tread the path laid out before him, or her” (Atwood 23). This passage reveals many Naturalistic tendencies. On one note, the Farms greed reveals that the working class people are fighting against an impeccable force (OrganInc) and are losing. The presence of inevitability is seen in this passage through the cycle of giving money to a corporation over and over again. The story wants to advocate change in the USA’s society, thus following the Naturalism genre. The morals of the scientific community are discussed in the Wolvogs chapter of Oryx and Crake. Later a dialogue exchange between Jimmy and Crake prompts the following statements, “Nature is a zoo as God is to churches. Why is it he feels some line has been crossed, some boundary transgressed? How much is too much, how far is too far? Mankind needs barriers in both cases” (Atwood 206). This subject material dives deep into the pool of Naturalism. Naturalistic ideas such as God and nature are included. Yet, this passage could also be considered Realistic since the social interactions focus on detailed conversation of human behavior/morality. Finally, Realism and (primarily) Naturalism are shown hand-in-hand as Crake discusses racism and Darwinism explaining: “It won’t be long before all the visible traces of human inhabitation will be gone. ‘All it takes,” said Crake, ‘is the elimination of one generation. One generation of anything. Beetles, trees, microbes, scientists, speakers of French, whatever. Break the link in time between one generation and the next, and it’s game over forever.’” (Atwood 222-223). This discussion hinting towards preserving animal’s existence relates to Realism’s ideas about the sanguine view regarding the human existence. On the flipside, this passage shows how Crake’s language is stylized in a Naturalistic manner. His statements are about the character’s lives essentially being governed by the heredity of animals. By having characters submersed in problems regarding the scientific world, Atwood builds her claims through skeptical scientific innovations and stylizing her plot in a Realistic/Naturalistic fashion.
While the post-apocalyptic Oryx and Crake incorporates struggles as a main idea of the novel, this journal article will now explore the ways in which social struggle is portrayed through a Realistic perspective and struggles with the environment through a Naturalistic perspective. In this next section of this journal article, the following content will provide more in-depth discussion and examples of pure Realism and pure Naturalism. The upcoming research provided will provide source material that relates strictly to each literary genre whether it be Realistic or Naturalistic.
The novel’s way of dealing with Realistic drama is done with a purpose: to prompt social change. Katherine Snyder acknowledges how Oryx and Crake’s story could be set in a future closer than expected. On many occasions, her research has her repeatedly saying that the novel is “disturbing.” What Synder noticed in the novel was the presence of two sets of character drama as well as two timelines (also shown in Amanda Cole’s findings as well) occurring throughout the story. While this might sound complicated, it can be simplified. Essentially Synder writes that, “Oryx and Crake… juxtaposes the putative ultimate catastrophe of human extinction in Snowman’s presence with a series of smaller scale traumas that shaped the character’s past.” (Snyder). What makes this article interesting is that it has the same critical tone as Valeria Mosca’s article. They both accept the fact that the writing style of the story is written in a way that sounds like this actually happened. Snyder’s viewpoint reminds audiences that the social interaction and human behavior that takes place in Oryx and Crake serves as warning sign for readers. The writing is used to influence a new change in human behavior. The incorporation of deteriorating human relationships in Oryx and Crake shows audiences that characters can be sympathetic, even if their actions are disturbing for some. To show the social problems in the novel, the text of Oryx and Crake is the best place to see Realism written in between the lines of text. There will be four examples provided with explanations for why the passages are Realistic. These topics cover emotion, diction, problem-solving, and morality. Example one is found in the “Lunch” chapter when, “More than anything, Jimmy had wanted to make her laugh – to make her happy, as he seemed to remember her being once.” (Atwood 31). While Jimmy is in tune with his emotions, he acts unemotional around his parents. Also, his mother is concretely depicted as a woman who has no more emotional investment. These two instances reflect Realistic beliefs of displaying emotion. Example two shows Jimmy’s parents in direct conflict with another character in the “Rakunk” chapter. As Jimmy’s mother exclaims, “You and your smart partners. Your colleagues. It’s wrong, the whole organization is wrong, it’s a moral cesspool and you know it.” which leads Jimmy’s father to fire a response back, “You’re the one with the neurotic guilt. Why don’t you dig a few ditches for yourself, at least it would get you off your butt. Then maybe you’d quit smoking – you’re a one-woman emphysema factory” (Atwood 57-58). This passage gives a detailed argument that gives clear and straightforward insults. By showing humans experiences of verbal struggle, it exposes Realistic practices. Example three looks at the social history through the words of a mogul motivational lecturer. In the “Twister” chapter, this man’s statements are used to serve as Realistic optimism. This man describes working with others as he says, “This is surely the lesson taught to us by history. The higher the hurdle the greater the jump. Having to face a crisis causes you to grow as a person.” (Atwood 237). This excerpt perfectly embodies the Realism genre because the subject matter is about being optimistic and facing challenges to resolve them. The final example, and the heaviest, comes from the “Takeout” chapter where Jimmy and Crake discuss a heavy topic. The question, “Would you kill someone you loved to spare them pain?” comes into the conversation (Atwood 320). This question about an actual real-life human experience is a question that has plagued people for generations. Therefore, by mentioning this in the story, the author wants society to answer this question. With these examples now being covered, it should now be easier to understand how Atwood’s stylistic writing creates a story with many Realistic themes.Moving onto the next literary genre of focus more specifically, Naturalism depicts the lower class people that face conflict with the intentions of upper class reading and changing their problem. That being said, research from Earl Ingersoll finds that the theme of survival is the most prevalent theme found in both
Moving onto the next literary genre of focus more specifically, Naturalism depicts the lower class people that face conflict with the intentions of upper class reading and changing their problem. That being said, research from Earl Ingersoll finds that the theme of survival is the most prevalent theme found in both Oryx and Crake and Naturalism. He asks why the story is set in a vague location and what the purpose of that does for the reader. Geographically-speaking, Ingersoll believes the novel is set in the ruins of somewhere in southern United States of America. Also, Ingersoll adds to his research that “the narrative opens up a discussion of the roles the Arts can play in the future.” (Ingersoll). His research is the least concrete out of the other scholarly articles found. Yet he brings an interesting idea to the table regarding Jimmy being the advocate for the arts in a science/mathematical world. Jimmy had to fight people of authority on issues and they have led him to fighting off the environment. To better understand the specific Naturalistic battles there are in Oryx and Crake, it is important to look at the story up close and personal.
Textually speaking, Naturalism in Oryx and Crake can be easy to identify. In the novel, the Naturalistic struggles are composed of problems relating the body, environment, and ability to think. The next three examples will give some evidence for the novel incorporating Naturalism in its story. Example one finds the story “Voice” chapter. The narrator describes the struggle of the human body by saying, “He used to take good care of himself; he used to run, work out at the gym. Now he can see his own ribs; he’s wasting away.” (Atwood 11). This graphic detailed scene shows how the environment itself can afflict pain on any life it chooses to. It seems that God’s presence is not here in this part of the story. Example two begins in the “Nooners” chapter where the harsh weather is in a location where, “evil rays bounce off the water and get at him even if he’s protected from the sky, and then he reddens and blisters.” (Atwood 37). This section of the story describes how Naturalism is used to not only describe a harsh climate, but the harsh society from which this climate spawned from. Ultimately, this Naturalistic approach of having a helpless person in a tough location triggers readers to feel sympathy for the protagonist. Finally, example three takes place in the “Idol” chapter when Crake warns Jimmy about the Crakers’s personalities. He cautions Jimmy by telling him, “Watch out for art, Crake used to say. As soon as they start doing art, we’re in trouble. Symbolic thinking of any would signal downfall” (Atwood 361). This scene is a representation with Naturalism’s views on human autonomy being an illusion. The idea of free thinking in the story acts as a warning sign. Naturalistic genre literatures take place where characters use free will in a place where it is prohibited. Therefore, the art in the story symbolizes the ability to think and prompts a change in society. That change would have to create a place where being one’s true self is possible in a safe and sound location. Naturalism in Oryx and Crake serves as a beacon of hope to remind readers that the struggles characters go through critique the social conditions of society, which in this case would be the ability to be creative.
Margaret Atwood creates a story that is hard to define with just two literary terms. Her plot, characters, themes, etc. create a story that does more than entertain, it informs. With the contributions from various scholars, they help in the process of understanding just what the exact messages are to take ways from Oryx and Crake. While the distinctions of class are shattered in the novel due to the apocalyptic world, Realism and Naturalism categorize the novel in ways that class would. With differing viewpoints and textual evidence, the distinctions between Realism and Naturalism in Oryx and Crake help the reader to interpret the novel in new ways using the ability to think, an ability our people are still lucky enough to possess.
Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2003. Print. MaddAdam Trilogy. Cole, Amanda. “In Retrospect: Writing and Reading Oryx and Crake.” SYDNEY RICKETS (2005): 1-11. Web. Campbell, Donna M. “Naturalism in American Literature. ” Literary Movements. Dept. of English, Washington State University. (2013). Web. Carol Scheidenhelm. “Realism: American Literary History: Romanticism, Realism, and Naturalism.” Dept. of English, Loyola University Chicago. (2007). Web Griffiths, A. “Genetics According to Oryx and Crake.” CANADIAN LITERATURE 181.181 (2004): 192-5. Web. Ingersoll, EG. “Survival in Margaret Atwood’s Novel ‘Oryx and Crake’.” EXTRAPOLATION 45.2 (2004): 162-75. Web. Mosca, Valeria. “Crossing Human Boundaries: Apocalypse and Posthumanism in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.” Altre Modernità (2013): 38-52. Web. Reed, Ashley. “Realism & Naturalism.” Virginia Tech, Blacksburg. 2016. Lecture. Snyder, Katherine V. “Time to Go”: The Post-Apocalyptic and the Post-Traumatic in Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake.” Studies in the Novel 43.4 (2011): 470-89. Web.
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