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Naturalism in Jean Toomer’s Cane

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Naturalism describes a type of literature that attempts to apply scientific principle of objectivity and detachment with regard to the study of human beings (Campbell). Charles Darwin, renowned biologist postulates his natural selection theory in his work, “The Origin of the Species”. In the animal kingdom, the strongest survive. The reasons for survival of the fittest are the inborn mechanisms to fight adversity and reproduce. Applied in the social sphere, Darwin’s philosophy is called social darwinism. Social Darwinism forms the cornerstone of Naturalism, where the prime focus is on the survival of the fittest. Man, a human beast, survives because of innate ability and primal instincts. Although man is endowed with a powerful mind that distinguishes him from the animal species, he retains instincts which aid him in self-preservation in the rat race of life. In Cane, one contemplates Jean Toomer as a naturalist author, who focuses on man’s instinctual passion to have coitus and fight.

In Cane, human beasts instinctively act on libido, responding to the natural need to have sexual relations. When male and female are in close proximity, tides of passion overwhelm both sexes. Dan, Muriel’s lover, “has an obstinate desire to possess her” (Toomer 2011). Dan and Muriel are locked in an embrace and although she argues with him and tries to break up with him, a basic, masculine passion ignites and masters him. In the natural world, the male’s nature is to dominate and possess the female. Likewise, in Avey, an enamored male protagonist experiences “an immediate and urgent passion (sweeping) over (him)” (Toomer 2011). Lovers feel “a new (flaring) passion” (Toomer 2011). At the club, the speaker describes lovers with “their instinct (leading) them” (Toomer 2011). When man’s bestial nature emerges, and his instinct governs, thus he is powerless to fight against it. By referring to man’s libido as an uncontrolled, instantaneous action, Toomer manifests naturalist views. Toomer compares Muriel’s sexual response to an “animalism, still unconquered by zoo-restrictions and keeper-taboos” (Toomer 2011). She responds and submits to her lover’s animalistic desire to have sexual intercourse. No reason, consideration, nor premeditation occurs. The febrile heat of sexual desire unleashes man to animalistic action.

Toomer expresses naturalist views likening man, in heat, to an animal. Biologically speaking, man is a member of the animal kingdom; therefore his proclivity to animal desires is expected. In the animal domain, males usually compete for the best females and in the human realm, the same thing occurs. Bob’s body, in a jealous rage for his girlfriend, responds by outstanding veins, salivating, and growing desire to taste blood (Toomer 2011). Bob is activated by the fight-flight hormone which stimulates man’s mechanism for self-preservation. As Bob approaches his enemy-competitor, a hound and several other dogs surround him. Toomer skilfully emphasizes animalism by mirroring Bob’s passions with dogs, animals with which man is associated. In Darwin’s theory, continuation of the species, raw animal combat is necessary to produce the fittest descendant. In the modern world, animals are caged, and in the same way, man’s base instincts are refined, repressed, and civilized. However, there is a point when bounds are broken, and the animal inside commands. Wild-eyed Kabnis, in an angry fit, kills a hen that disturbs his peace at night. Like a predator, with bare hands, Kabnis mercilessly wrings the chicken’s neck as the poor animal’s blood gushes on him (Toomer 2011). Kabnis does not kill the hen for food but for vengeance. His lack of pity and restraint animalizes him.

In conclusion, naturalism pervades Toomer’s work as he describes man’s interaction with his counterparts in a naturalist context. Man’s free will is hindered by natural forces which dictate his direction and action. As his sexual desires magnetize the opposite sex, brute strength allows him to react with violence against opposition. It is often said that man is his own worst enemy; therefore, what naturalism indicates is man’s utter powerlessness to rise above his nature, and conquer himself. As man competes with other species to survive, he has become enslaved to passions and instincts which hold him bound to fate/destiny.

Works Cited:

Campbell, Donna M. “Naturalism in American Literature”. Washington State University. 12/01/2008 <>.

Leverette, T. (2008). New Americans: Race, Mixture, and Nation in the Work of Jean Toomer and Jos? Vasconcelos. South Atlantic Review, 73(3), 61-85.

Karrer, W. (2009). Black Modernism? The Early Poetry of Jean Toomer and Claude McKay. Bloom’s Modern Critical Views, 35.

Sollors, W. (2000). Jean Toomer’s Cane: Modernism and Race in Interwar America. Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance, 18-37.

Toomer, J., & Gates, H. L. (2011). Cane: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. R. P. Byrd (Ed.).

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