Naturalism is the idea that only natural forces and laws operate in the world. This is in direct opposition to the belief that supernatural and spiritual principles are in control. Adherents of naturalism assert that the structure and behavior of natural elements in the universe arise from nature itself. The philosophy is naturalism occasionally emerges in Ann Petry’s novel, chiefly in the characterization of William Jones. Jones, also known as “cellar crazy,” is the building’s super who openly lusts after Lutie (Petray 301). He is portrayed as a lonely man who cannot control his nature, behavior, and intent to lust or break moral codes. Seemingly, Petray intends to use Jone’s circumstances to show that Harlem is not only a deserted city but a destructive setting that compels its inhabitants to adopt horrible and roguish lifestyles. Markedly, the deterministic philosophy of naturalism and the absence of free will comes down to Jones, who is determined to exploit and oppress other characters sexually.
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Conceivably, the city of Harlem strips Jones the freedom of partaking in his desired activities and ambitions while his skin color further limits him from enjoying social freedom. The fact that Jones is genetically black suggests that he cannot change his circumstances, despite knowing how much better he can fare if he had white skin. The social environment in which he lives only promotes the oppression that he faces and advances his restricted state of mind – he is accustomed to a lower quality of life and menial jobs that strips away his morality. It is only when the novel continues to unfold that the reader fully comprehends how the character of Jones is limited. By merely living in Harlem, he is doomed to experience a repetitive toll of bad experiences that he cannot escape and the reality of hopelessness that all city residents must adapt. The idea of pessimistic naturalism helps Petry call the reader’s attention to the prevailing injustice and illustrates the maddening, oppressive, and hostile environment to which the blacks like Jones are exposed.
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Jone’s sexually predatory behaviors are a significant aspect of the story that signposts naturalistic tendencies. He misreads his environment and situation into believing that he can please Lutie with brightly-painted walls. However, Lutie’s reaction is unexpected and inconsistent with Jone’s line of thought. Rather than esteeming the look by obligation, as Jone’s would have predicted, she expresses surprise: “Oh, the windows have been washed” (Petry 101). Jone’s miscalculated perception of the walls’ effect on Lutie and her unanticipated reaction provide a painful proof of Jones’s desperation and desire to please his tenant. Jone’s delusions make him dangerous as he is determined to rape Lutie and trick her son into committing a crime. Despite that, Petry wants the audience to be compassionate to Jone’s victims. The narration in the first part of the novel aligns well with Lutie’s perspective but later shifts to align with Jone’s view. This reveals the author’s aim to direct the attention of the readers to the conditions that created the characters.
Ann Petry’s portrayal of Jones’ naturalistic predispositions showcases how a man’s helplessness overwhelms him in the face of mysterious forces, leading him to morph into an immoral and dangerous person. The absurd social conditions at Harlem in part facilitates Jones’ delusions and propels him towards his corrupt disposition. In line with naturalist philosophy, the material world of the Harlem is the only one that residents like Jones experience. Petry is keen to note the oppressive conditions that bring along malice and predation that thrives among the city’s derelict buildings and confined spaces.
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