Naturalism as Reflection of Class in Society in Cecil De Thierry’s “On The Toss of a Penny”

© Copyright 2017 Hayotha Thillairajan, Ryerson University

Cecil De Thierry’s short story appears in Volume 13 of This is a collection of ‘The Yellow Book, An Illustrated Quarterly’


Cecil De Thierry’s short story, “On the Toss of a Penny”, published in the Yellow Book, belongs to a collection of literature created in the 1890s. This piece of literature is not only a testament to thoughtful literature but acts as one of the most in-depth reflections of the 1890s. Through analyzation and interpretation, literature encapsulates defining aspects of culture and ideologies prominent in the era. In “On the Toss of a Penny”, analyzing tone, style, character, and plot, offer the opportunity to gain an insightful interpretation of the era in a way that non-fiction historical records can not.   “On the Toss of a Penny” is a short story that is based on the main character’s perspective and impulses in present time. It’s heavily driven by emotions and instances in time, impulses carrying the story. The short story is comprised of many naturalism tropes implying a position about class that Cecil De Thierry alludes to throughout the text. The naturalist elements that drive the story to offer implicit meaning in its context beyond the story. This essay will be examining the role plays in Cecil De Thierry’s “On the Toss of a Penny’,  as a reflection of the 1890’s, heavily focusing on how it defines identity and worth as a human through a naturalist lens.

Naturalism as a Literary Genre

Naturalism is a literary movement that, to define simply, reflects “our faith in science and our doubts in the modern scientific world. Naturalism as a literary style has been diluted throughout the 1890s to 1940s in its intent. It has carried various identities ranging from an “extreme form of romanticism”(Walcutt, 3) to a scientific approach to the novel, contingent on the social culture at the time. Naturalism is a genre rooted in the philosophy and science that humans are fundamentally apart of the world, no more or less than that all else nature consists of and in that are molded by the surrounding social conditions, heredity, and environment.

The Perception of Class

During the 1890s, a shift was occurring in the literature that marked the “decline of the nineteenth-century mental philosophy of “moral character” and the rise of realistic literature motivated to seek the truth, especially regarding influential social constructs that structures society, such as class. In fact, during this era, “the theme of poverty began to appear more frequently not only in journalistic exposes but also in social novels”  (Lees, 112). In “On the Toss of a Penny”, the main character fundamental identity is rooted in this focus on class. He is a beggar who is consistently only described through characteristics relating to class. The society around him interacts with him solely through his identity as a beggar as emphasized in the following passage:  “The prosperous farmer in the country and the sleek tradesman in the town, alike, showed him contempt. They had got on in the world, and so, if they were only honest and industrious, could anyone else, he as much as read in their looks and words. He had not got on in the world, therefore it was impossible that he should be either” (De Thierry). Cecil De Thierry distinguishes the main character from the rest of civilization, describing other people in the story, through their contribution to society and class. This is signified in the adjectives that describe them, through word choice such “prosperous” and “sleek’, which are respected terms and is correlated to the career choice. De Thierry establishes this paradigm, using his authority as the narrator to create this society. He uses the roles of a farmer and tradesman, to represent the dichotomy of people, who both views the beggar with contempt. De Thierry utilizes this contrast to “provide the foil for middle-class moral identity” (Gandal 10). This is further emphasized through the novel in De Thierry’s descriptions of the beggar: “But still he lingered. Perhaps it was the characteristic weakness of the man, or it may have been he was loth to cut short his dreams in the open to face the realities of the settlement.” The only aspect of the character the readers know is that he is a beggar, so for the author to assert a weakness with no explanation, as fact, signifies the qualities ingrained in that of the poor. Throughout the novel, De Thierry never name the main character, removing any indication of the human person, thus removing an opportunity to empathize or relate. This is because the characters do not function as fictional characters but rather representative of figures of class. Unlike other short stories, stories of the naturalist genre use components of the real world, as realistically as possible to illuminate readers with a reflection of their own society. This idea of wealth being directly connected to one’s welfare in society is transparent in this novel as it takes part in the naturalist movement written in 1890’s culture. The naturalist tropes of utilizing representative figures of class in the real world, (a beggar, a farmer, a tradesman) work to unveil to the reader’s the reality of the world they are living. In this way, Cecil De Thierry story is a prime example of naturalist literature because “in a rigorous, not to say obsessive way, it exemplifies… culture”(Micheals 27) of the 1890s Victorian era,  Thus, this story reflects perceptions of wealth and how it was correlated with class and stature during the 1890s.

How Plot Matters

 De Thierry’s narrative is a desolate tale in which plot functions as the only aspect of the story that is not inspired by a reflection of reality. However, what the plot effectively speaks to the setting and characters to create a reality of the world that falls in line with naturalist literature motivations. The story follows a beggar who follows a path that leads him to witness a murder. Left alone with the dead body, he takes the victim’s wallet and is then charged with guilt for the crime.   What is important to note, is that throughout the story, the plot is only driven by cause and result. For example, the following passage illustrates his decision to take the path that leads to him being convicted guilty of a crime: “But, as he had done all his life, he took the easiest road. The omens had been in favor of the other, but indecision will learn neither from misfortune nor experience. However clearly destiny or duty indicated the path for him to follow, his weakness led him in a direction entirely opposite.” (De Thierry). The man tosses a penny to decide upon a route, but ignores the result of this draw, choosing the easy path anyways. The author relates indecision as a symbol of his weakness and holds this accountable beyond circumstances that influence a plot, such as chance, “duty”, or “destiny”. This weakness thus results in him being imprisoned and eventually his death. Although De Thierry would lead the reader to believe that the swagger is met with a chain of unfortunate events he is undeserving of, it is, in fact, the opposite. The title, itself, alludes to the paradoxical relationship between the external influences and plot. “On the Toss of a Penny”  as the title is first perceived as an encompassing description of the story’s theme. However, the plot functions to dismiss any interpretation of this, De Thierry goes out of his way to indicate that the events are not caused by chance but rather a ‘weakness.’ This weakness is never explicitly explained or described but seems to be connected to his indecisiveness rooted in apathy in his affinity to choose the easiest path throughout the story. This attitude toward the poor was prevalent during the 1890s Victorian era. In growing amounts of literature, class was discussed through the naturalist and realism genre due to the, ” emergence  of socialism and of other collectivist movements, which constitutes an increasingly powerful challenge to the traditional  liberal belief in the beneficence of laissez-faire and in the responsibility of the poor for their own misfortunes”(Lees, 107). Therefore, culture and history during the 1890s inspired the plot of De Thierry as a writer cultivating a reflection of culture to belong in the anthology of the Yellow Book.

The Poor Man

The most prominent theme that speaks to the naturalist aspects of this novel is in analyzing the identity of the poor man. Within the novel, the man maintains a lethargic and apathetic personality except when a means to live is presented. For example, his fatal mistake that led to the wrongful persecution of him as a murderer  was a result of his need to reap the victim’s belongings, and ”like a true son of the wilderness he argued from the standpoint of his extremity, not from the higher ground or sentiment.” What De Thierry reiterates throughout the novel, is in times of opportunity that provide the man a means to live he becomes a desperate creature that is less than human. De Thierry establishes the man with a vague identity as a lethargic weak swagger,  and proceeds to strip even that away making his identity “that of the animal, not the man, which was uppermost.”  The representation of the man as an animal carries heavy psychological connotations that were prevalent in the 1890s era. This is largely in part to “the rise of a modern psychology” focused on self-esteem and the “modern excitement of aesthetic and spectacle” that tended to focus on class as it’s subject matter. (Gandal, 10). The story features a direct correlation to the loss of wealth that results in his loss of identity, thus making him animalistic. De Thierry carefully crafts a story featuring a character that the reader does not invest in but rather views as a spectacle. Through his tone in which there is an implicit contempt with which the readers perceive the swagger with, the reader does not empathize but rather analyzes. For example, when a civilian gives him some change, his response is interesting: “But the acutest observation would have failed to discover in him the smallest sign of gratitude. Either he had lost the power to distinguish properly between kindness or unkindness, or he had got into the habit of meeting both with the same apathy of mien. Possibly, also, he was conscious that, under like circumstances, he would have done the same.” De Thierry’s description of the man is removed from empathy and emphasizes the man’s reaction from an analytical perspective. This reflective and nuanced narration throughout the novel lends itself to the naturalist genre as it focuses on the crux of the actions taken and emotions felt. However, the narrator maintains the voice of a third person party that represents his own opinion, and thus the people of the 1890’s psychological rationale, making him an unreliable narrator. Naturalist literature functions as a non-fiction in terms of that it gives insight into the Victorian era beyond the limits of facts. 


This, in it’s essence is the foundation of naturalism in literature. It is not written with the intention of moral valour or change, however it is an active representation of how people are a reflection their circumstance and environment. Analyzing class through naturalist literature provides accurate historical context of “On the Toss of a Penny”. Furthermore, it allows the reader to understand the schools of thought and perspectives during the 1890s Victorian era because it is written in a voice that parallels the voices of the readers at the time. The fundamental influence that makes naturalist literature unlike any other is that it provides a reality of the world through the lens of a time, place and culture. De Thierry’s story mimics one of a society in the 1890s, that holds contempt for the poor, rooted in hard-working ideals. Cecil De Thierry’s, “On the Toss of a Penny” is a perfect example of how through analyzation and interpretation, naturalist literature can capture an insightful interpretation of an entire culture.


An illustration that depicts poverty in the 1890s.
















Works Cited

Gandal, Keith. The Virtues of the Vicious: Jacob Riis, Stephen Crane, and the Spectacle of the Slum. Oxford University Press, 2011.


Michaels, Walter Benn. Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century (The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics ; 2). University of California Press, 1987.

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