Dark Romanticism - Study Guide
Dark Romanticism is a genre steeped in complex emotions and expressions of individualism. We hope this guide is particularly useful for students and teachers.
Overview of Dark Romanticism, Exemplary Works, Etymology & Historical Context, Quotes, Discussion Questions, Useful Links, and Notes/Teacher Comments
First, let's deal with the meaning of Romanticism. It values beliefs and emotions as more important than logic or facts. The individual comes first, and often involves the worship of nature (or a whale?). Dark Romanticism is distinguished from Romanticism in its emphasis on human fallibility and sin (they are pessimists), whereas Romantics believe in human goodness (they are optimists). According to Dark Romantics, even good men and women drift towards sin and self-destruction, and there can be unintended consequences that arise from well-intended social reforms.
The genre of "Dark Romanticism" is thought to have emerged from the Transcendental Movement in 19th century America. Whereas Transcendentalists felt perfection and their own divinity as innate qualities of mankind (they thiought utopian communes would work), Dark Romantics believed humans gravitate to evil and self-destruction (striving for a utopian society is a waste of time). Stories in this genre share many characteristics of Realism (tell it like it is, what can go wrong, will). Dark Romantics focus on human fallibility, self-destruction, judgement, punishment, as well as the psychological effects of guilt and sin. Authors who embrace this genre include Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson. There's an even darker side of the Dark Romantics: Gothic Literature, which involves sheer terror, personal torment, graphic morbidity, and the supernatural.
Here's a helpful overview of the characteristics, origin, and exemplar authors to help you better understand Dark Romanticism. You might also enjoy H.L. Mencken's analysis of New Puritanism, Puritanism As a Literary Force.
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville is one of the most recognized novels in the genre of Dark Romanticism. Melville's Captain Ahab is the prototype of human fallibility, and he draws upon amble Biblical allusions (including his character names) centering on themes of judgement, guilt, sin, souls, and the end of the world. See Moby-Dick - Study Guide
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne exemplifies Dark Romanticism in its themes of imposed judgement and punishment for those who commit sin, resulting in alienation and self-destruction. Hawthorne's most famous novel examined the human soul and our morality-- certainly a cautionary tale about the dangers of well-intended social reform and blind religious fervor. While Hawthorne dappled in numerous genres, including Transcendentalism, he found his niche in Dark Romanticism, albeit on the less pessimistic side. He believed that for all of our weaknesses, hypocrisy and suffering, "the truth of the human heart" usually prevails. Another exemplary work of Dark Romanticism is his story, Young Goodman Brown.
Practically all of Edgar Allan Poe's canon falls in the Dark Romantic genre, in which he explored the psychology of the conscious and subconscious mind. A Descent Into the Maelstrom is a fine example. Many of Poe's works are on the dark end of the Dark Romantic spectrum, into the realm of Gothic Fiction with macabre tales of horror, morbidity, and madness. Fine example: The Fall of the House of Usher, which deals with mental conditions such as hypochondria and hyperethesia (sensory overload). Poe was also credited as the creator of the detective fiction genre, as in his story, The Purloined Letter. Poe literally provided a template for detective authors to follow, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A fun fact about Poe: he really disliked Transcendentalists, referring to them as "Frogpondians" (after the pool in Boston Commons).
Emily Dickinson challenged the definitions of poetry and exemplify Dark Romanticism. It's well-known that she led an increasingly reclusive life, afflicted by severe depression, and never saw success during her lifetime (she died at 56). Yet, her creative energy, willingness to fight conventions (no titles, short lines), and prolific writing (she published nearly 1,800 poems in her lifetime) established her literary prowess and blazed a trail for other poets and women writers to follow.
The etymology of the word "Romanticism" is from the Latin word "romant" which means "in the Roman manner." It became known as a style of art, literature, and music that drew on emotions, intuition, and imagination, rather than rationality and science. While the Romantic Movement began in Europe toward the end of the 18th century, it migrated to America in the early 19th century.
American Romanticism authors were most prolific between 1830-1865. Within the genre of Romanticism, two opposing sub-genres emerged: the optimists who believed in human goodness and spirituality, grew in to the Transcendentalism Movement; the pessimists, who embraced human fallibility and our predisposition towards sin, grew into the Dark Romantic Movement. The Dark Romantics were drawn to the dark side of the human psyche, the evil side of spiritual truth. The Dark Romantics rebelled against the Puritans, who came to the country to escape persecution, but imposed their own religion and societal rules (government) on others, judging those who did not conform. These authors were drawn to human's imperfections, self-destruction, sin, and the hazards of social reform. Authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote extensively about persecution of minorities in America, as in The Scarlet Letter, and The Maypole of Merry Mount.
It is helpful to understand the historical backdrop for the emergence of the Dark Romantics and the Transcendentalists. America had established itself as an independent nation, and was struggling with the morality of slavery, social reforms, and the rights of the minority. Abraham Lincoln rose to power leading the country with a truly distinctive American voice-- eloquent, yet simple and coarse language embracing the country's failures, triumph, and tragedy. His fallibility was very much in-line with the Dark Romantic authors who published their major works shortly before the American Civil War and its messy aftermath into the Reconstruction era. The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850, the same year Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale was published a year later.
The Transcendentalists were busy at this same time in history: Thoreau's Walden was published in 1854, Whitman's Leaves of Grass a year later (1855). In 1865, the Civil War ended, Lincoln was assassinated, slavery was abolished. The country was no longer naive, more cynical, and a lot wiser than it had been a half century earlier, an ambivalence-- balancing pessimism and optimism-- that was reflected in the works of so many of the period's authors. Visit American History in Literature
Here is an excellent summary of Important Events during the Romantic Period (1825-1910), which encompasses an interesting musical history as well.
Explain what the following quotes meaning and why they are exemplars of Dark Romanticism:
"Cannibals? Who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgement, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy pate de fois gras.” -- Herman Melville's Moby-Dick; or, The Whale
"My Faith is gone!" cried he, after one stupefied moment. "There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given." -- Nathaniel Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown
"The whole forest was peopled with frightful sounds—the creaking of the trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians; while sometimes the wind tolled like a distant church bell, and sometimes gave a broad roar around the traveller, as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn. But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors." -- Nathaniel Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown
"Such was the effect of this simple piece of crepe, that more than one woman of delicate nerves was forced to leave the meetinghouse. Yet perhaps the pale-faced congregation was almost as fearful a sight to the minister, as his black veil to them...A subtle power was breathed into his words. Each member of the congregation, the most innocent girl, and the man of hardened breast, felt as if the preacher had crept upon them, behind his awful veil, and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought." -- Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Minister's Black Veil
"An excited and highly distempered ideality threw a sulphureous lustre over all. His long improvised dirges will ring forever in my ears. Among other things, I hold painfully in mind a certain singular perversion and amplification of the wild air of the last waltz of Von Weber. From the paintings over which his elaborate fancy brooded, and which grew, touch by touch, into vaguenesses at which I shuddered the more thrillingly, because I shuddered knowing not why." -- Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of UsherYet if hope has flown away In a night, or in a day, In a vision, or in none, Is it therefore the less gone? All that we see or seem Is but a dream within a dream. -- Edgar Allan Poe's A Dream Within A Dream
"I saw the lips of the black-robed judges. They appeared to me white--whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words--and thin even to grotesqueness; thin with the intensity of their expression of firmness, of immovable resolution, of stern contempt of human torture." -- Edgar Allan Poe's The Pit and the PendulumBecause I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me; The carriage held but just ourselves And Immortality. -- Emily Dickinson's Because I Could Not Stop for Death As all the heavens were a bell, And Being but an ear, And I and silence some strange race, Wrecked, solitary, here. -- Emily Dickinson's I Felt a Funeral in My Brain
“No, dearest Georgiana, you came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature that this slightest possible defect, which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty, shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection."
"Shocks you, my husband!" cried Georgiana, deeply hurt; at first reddening with momentary anger, but then bursting into tears. "Then why did you take me from my mother's side? You cannot love what shocks you!" -- Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Birthmark
1. Identify the characteristics of Dark Romanticism as expressed in works by American authors.
2. Explain the difference between "Romanticism" and "Dark Romanticism."
3. How does Gothic Literature differ from "Dark Romanticism"?
4. Nathaniel Hawthorne began his writing career considered a Romantic author, then moved towards Transcendentalism, before rejecting it in favor of the genre of his greatest success: "Dark Romanticism." Find an example of his work from each of these genres and discuss their contrasting styles.
5. Discuss the treatment of morality and social conventions (peer pressure) in this genre. Feel free to draw from The Scarlet Letter.
6. Identify a modern author whom you think fits the Dark Romanticism genre (e.g., Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Joyce Carol Oates). Provide evidence to support your choice, providing examples from their work.
7. Discuss Emily Dickinson's seemingly contradictory voices as a poet? Select at least two poems, identify elements of depression/hope, resilience/morbidity, and love/loss.
8. Why are readers drawn to stories about human fallibility? Discuss how Dark Romantic authors appealed to their readers.
9. In Hawthorne's The Birthmark: Georgiana tells her husband, "You cannot love what shocks you!" What is your opinion? Is it the imperfections we all possess that attracts us, or are these the attributes that repel us in disgust? Explain the message in this story.
10. Explain the meaning of this quote from Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (chapter 87) in the context of Dark Romanticism:
“for there is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.”
11. In Hawthorne's The Minister's Black Veil, what does Reverend Hooper's veil symbolize and why does he wear it?
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Creator and CreationPagan and Christian myths abound in Gothic fiction, but they are revised and revisioned in this context. The creator is destroyed by his creation, the quest for knowledge becomes a recognition of one's mortal and mental limitations. The spiritual becomes irretrievably secular as the material world asserts its indissoluble boundaries; there is no transcendence.
From Frankenstein, 82-86.Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs . . .
It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! -- Great God! . . .
I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room . . .
Joel Porte, "In the Hands of an Angry God: Religious Terror in Gothic Fiction," The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism, (Washington State University Press, 1974): 42-64.But let us observe what a darkly Calvinist version of Milton's fable Frankenstein is based on: the creator, though presumably "his heart overflowed with kindness and the love of virtue," commits a deed "of mischief beyond description horrible" by bringing forth a creature who fills his heart with "breathless horror and disgust." Predictably enraged at the "vile insect" ("abhorred monster," "fiend," "wretched devil") whom he has created, Frankenstein easily adopts the rhetoric of an offended Jehovah: "Do you dare approach me? And do not you fear the vengeance of my arm wreaked on your miserable head?" But the creature, no mere puppy in theological disputation, manages to frame the central question of Calvinist man, alternately bewildered and angered at being accused of innate and total depravity by the God who made him: "Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust?" Undermined by such fervent arguments, Frankenstein is forced to reconsider the logic and justice of his position: "I felt what the duties of a creator towards his creature were, and that I ought to render him happy before I complained of his wickedness." But although the possibility of a detente seems to be implies in such a concession, in relaity there can be no relaxation of the struggle between creature and creator.
From Frankenstein, 127."I expected this reception," said the daemon. "All men hate the wretched; how then must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends."
Thus the creature and his creator become locked in a mortal combat that will continue until the creator has fully exhausted himself with attempts at destroying his ignoble creation. The depiction of his wasted body denies the reader the ability to view Victor as a powerful deity. The image of a supranatural inception of life is replaced by an all too natural death of a mortal who overreached his limits.
George Levine, "The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein," The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.Frankenstein's mysterious power derives from a thoroughly earthy, practical, and unideal vision of human nature and possibility. Its modernity lies in its transformation of fantasy and traditional Christian and pagan myths into unremitting secularity, into the myth of mankind as it must work within the limits of the visible, physical world. The novel echoes, for example, with the language and the narrative of Paradise Lost, but it is Paradise Lost without angels, or devils, or God. When the Monster invokes the analogy between himself and Adam or Satan, we are obviously invited to think of Frankenstein as God. Yet, we know that the Monster is a double of Victor himself, and that as he acts out his satanic impulses he is acting out another aspect of Victor's creation of him. God, however, cannot be a rebel; nor can he be Adam or Satan's "double." He cannot be complicit in his creature's weaknesses, cannot be destroyed by what he creates.
Inherent in the revision of the creation myth is man's desire to usurp the power of God, to know what cannot be known by humans. Thus, Victor also shares in the Faustian quest for exceeding mortal limitations, much like other Gothic texts.
Mark M. Hennelly, Jr., "Melmoth the Wanderer and Gothic Existentialism," SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 21:4 (Autumn 1981): 665-679.The kind of high Gothic represented by Melmoth . . . is the embodiment of the demonic-quest romance, in which a lonely, self-divided hero embarks on insane pursuit of the Absolute. This gnostic theme . . . dramatizes a Faustian quest to extend the boundaries of consciousness and often, in effect, to deny or escape the existential nature of reality. The Wanderer's "posthumous and preternatural existence" illustrates such overreaching the limits of mortality: "Mine was the great angelic sin--pride and intellectual glorying! It was the first mortal sin--a glorious aspiration after forbidden knowledge!"
This satanic flaw is also seen in Victor Frankenstein, but he refuses to let anyone else (namely Robert Walton) rush to their own fall without due warning.
From Frankenstein, 81.I see by your eagerness, and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted; that cannot be: listen patiently until the end of my story, and you will easily perceive why I am reserved upon that subject. I will not lead you, unguarded and ardent as I then was, to your destruction and infallible misery. Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.
If Victor has learned his lesson, it is too little too late. However, not every hero/heroine experiences the pilgrimage in the same way.
Mark M. Hennelly, Jr., "Melmoth the Wanderer and Gothic Existentialism," SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 21:4 (Autumn 1981): 665-679.In Immalee's case, and perhaps in that of the involved and committed reader, the analogous "initiation" is a humanizing, not dehumanizing, "painful pilgrimage" through existential experience to the goal of a life-affirming gnosis.
From Melmoth the Wanderer, 236.She turned on him a glance that seemed at once to thank and reproach him for her painful initiation into the mysteries of a new existence. She had, indeed, tasted of the tree of knowledge, and her eyes were opened, but its fruit was bitter to her taste, and her looks conveyed a kind of mild and melancholy gratitude, that would have wrung the heart for giving its first lesson of pain to the heart of a being so beautiful, so gentle, and so innocent.
And what of Victor's creation? As he gains knowledge about himself and his surroundings, he is forced to respond to the world around him and its inhabitants.
From Frankenstein, 244-245.Yet I seek not a fellow-feeling in my misery. No sympathy may I ever find. When I first sought it, it was the love of virtue, the feelings of happiness and affection with which my whole being overflowed, that I wished to be participated. But now, that virtue has become to me a shadow, and that happiness and affection are turned into bitter loathing and despair . . . I am well satisfied that abhorrence and opprobrium should load my memory . . .
Once I falsely hoped to meet with being, who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of bringing forth . . . When I call over the frightful catalogue of my deeds, I cannot believe that I am he whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and majesty of goodness. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even the enemy of God and man has friends and associates in his desolation. I am quite alone.