English Literature
Dark Romanticism

Dark Romanticism

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The Influence of Dark Romanticism on American Literature

If you are a fan of horror films, then you may already be familiar with creatures such as vampires, ghosts, demons, and the devil. However, these sinister beings are not limited to the big screen; they can also be found in the written works of Dark Romanticism.

Understanding the Subgenre of Dark Romanticism

Dark Romanticism emerged as a literary movement in America between 1836 and 1840, but its influence continued for many years. It is a subgenre of Romanticism, a larger literary movement that celebrates individualism and the beauty of nature. Dark Romanticism, however, explores the themes of human fallibility and the tendency towards sin and self-destruction.

In comparison to Romanticism, Dark Romanticism takes on a more pessimistic tone, with a focus on the negative aspects of humanity. While optimists tend to see the good in every situation, pessimists see the bad.

Fallibility: the inclination to make mistakes.

The Historical Context of Dark Romanticism

The emergence of Dark Romanticism can be seen as a response to the Transcendentalist Movement, another subgenre of Romanticism. While Transcendentalists believed in the innate goodness of people, Dark Romantics held the belief that humans are inherently drawn towards evil.

Furthermore, Dark Romantics rebelled against the strict moral code enforced by the Puritans. The Puritans were a group of English Protestants who sought to purify the Church of England in the 16th and 17th centuries. Due to religious persecution, many Puritans migrated to America, spreading their influence.

Dark Romantics rejected the Puritan idea of perfection and instead focused on exploring the darker aspects of humanity.

On the other hand, Transcendentalism was a movement that believed in the purity and goodness of the individual. They also argued that institutions, whether social, educational, or religious, corrupted individuals. Transcendentalists believed that divinity could be found in everyday life and that the spiritual world was ever-changing.

Key Characteristics of Dark Romanticism

There are four primary characteristics that define Dark Romantic texts as a literary genre:

  • Individuals prone to sin and self-destruction
  • The embodiment of evil
  • Nature depicted as both sinister and spiritual
  • The inability of individuals to change for the better

Individuals Prone to Sin and Self-Destruction

Dark Romantics believed that humans are naturally inclined to sin and engage in self-destructive behaviors, in contrast to the Transcendentalist belief that divine perfection can be attained. Many prominent Dark Romantic authors, such as Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, depict protagonists in their works who struggle with sin. For example, in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Minister's Black Veil" (1836), the protagonist, Mr. Hooper, wears a black veil that creates panic among his congregation. This symbolizes his inner turmoil and suggests that he may have committed a sinful act.

The Embodiment of Evil

Dark Romantics anthropomorphized evil and gave it a tangible form through the use of ghouls, ghosts, vampires, Satan, and demons. While Transcendentalists believed that divinity could be found everywhere, Dark Romantics developed the idea that evil is also omnipresent. In Edgar Allan Poe's "The Imp of the Perverse" (1845), the main character is driven to commit murder by an invisible "fiend." The same "fiend" ultimately pushes him to confess his crimes. In this story, the "fiend" represents the embodiment of evil, as it speaks to the main character in a human-like manner.

Dark Romantics viewed nature as a spiritual realm full of beauty and poetry, but also as a sinister and mysterious place. Unlike the Transcendentalists who saw nature as a divine force, the Dark Romantics believed that it held dark truths about humanity.

The Power of Nature in Moby Dick

Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick (1851) tells the story of Captain Ahab's obsessive quest for revenge against the whale that took his leg. Throughout the novel, Melville portrays nature as a force that reveals dark truths and ignites fear and unease in those who encounter it.

The Enigma of Nature

In Moby Dick, Melville describes the sea as possessing a "subtleness" that disguises its "dreaded creatures" beneath its "loveliest tints of azure". He also highlights the "devilish brilliance and beauty" of certain species of sharks and the "universal cannibalism" that exists within the sea. These descriptive words embody the Dark Romantic view of nature as both alluring and dangerous, evoking both awe and fear.

An Individual's Struggle with Change

While Transcendentalists believed in the power of social reform to bring about positive change, Dark Romantics had a more pessimistic view of human nature. They believed that even the best intentions could lead individuals down a darker path. This idea is evident in Herman Melville's short story Bartleby the Scrivener (1853), where the protagonist's good intentions ultimately lead to harm due to his underlying selfish motives.

Notable Dark Romantic Authors

Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne are often considered the pioneers of the Dark Romantic genre. Emily Dickinson, though not traditionally classified as a Dark Romantic, is recognized by literary critics as a significant poet within the movement.

Edgar Allen Poe: A poet, writer, critic, and editor, Poe is one of the most prominent Dark Romantics. His works often explore themes of mystery, macabre, and death, with characters who are led astray and commit acts of sin.

Herman Melville: Best known for Moby Dick, Melville's works delve into the darker side of human nature and the power of nature to reveal unsettling truths.

Nathaniel Hawthorne: Hawthorne's works frequently touch on themes of guilt, sin, and the supernatural, making him a quintessential Dark Romantic author. His most famous works include The Scarlet Letter and Young Goodman Brown.

Emily Dickinson: Though not traditionally seen as a Dark Romantic, Dickinson's poems often embody the themes and style of the movement. Her works explore the darker aspects of human nature and the mysteries of the spiritual realm.

One notable critic of transcendentalism was Edgar Allen Poe, who famously referred to them as "Frog-Pondians" and criticized their focus on mysticism. This term was coined by Poe after the pond located in Boston Commons, the center of transcendentalist thinkers and writers. Some of Poe's notable works include "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843), "The Black Cat" (1843), "The Raven" (1845), "Ulalume" (1847), and "Anabel Lee" (1849).

Emily Dickinson (1830-1889) was a relatively unknown poet during her lifetime, known for her reclusive nature and publication of only ten poems. After her death, her sister Lavinia discovered over 1800 poems written in a unique style. In 1955, her collection "The Poems of Emily Dickinson" was published, introducing her work to a wider audience. Today, she is considered one of the most influential American poets, with her poetry often delving into themes of death, illness, immortality, and the mysteries of nature and spirituality.

Herman Melville (1819-1891) was an American novelist and poet, best known for his novel "Moby Dick" (1851). His works often revolve around characters struggling to become superhuman but grappling with doubts, morality, and the blurred line between reality and illusion. He also explores themes of God's existence, the power of nature, and the concept of evil. In his poem "A Dirge for Mcpherson" (1864), Melville reflects on the death of Major General Mcpherson, embodying his dark romantic style.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's Works and Relationship with Dark Romanticism and Gothic Literature

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was an American novelist and short-story writer, renowned for his deep exploration of themes such as religion, morality, and history in his works. His storytelling often depicted human nature as sinful, guilty, and inherently evil, with his protagonists facing the consequences of their actions. One of his most famous works, "The Scarlet Letter" (1850), tells the story of a woman who must atone for giving birth to a child out of wedlock under Puritan law. Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, famously known for the Witch Trials of 1692. Interestingly, he was related to John Hathorne, a prominent judge during the trials, prompting him to add a "w" to his name to distance himself from his family's dark past.

Other Notable Works by Hawthorne

  • "The Minister's Black Veil" (1836)
  • "Twice-Told Tales" (1837)
  • "The Scarlet Letter" (1850)
  • "The House of Seven Gables" (1851)

Fun Fact: Dark Romanticism and Gothic literature are often confused, but they have distinct differences. Gothic literature originated in England with Horace Walpole's "The Castle of Otranto" (1764) and became popular in the 19th century. Examples of Gothic literature include Bram Stoker's "Dracula" (1897) and Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" (1818).

The Contrast between Dark Romanticism and Gothic Literature

Gothic literature and Dark Romanticism are two significant genres in literature. While these genres share similarities, they also have distinct differences. Gothic literature creates a mysterious and suspenseful atmosphere, often involving supernatural events and creatures to evoke feelings of horror and intense emotions in readers. For instance, in the novel "Wuthering Heights," the protagonist is terrorized by a ghostly child, which leaves the reader feeling unsettled and scared. This exemplifies how Gothic literature aims to elicit emotional reactions in its readers.

On the other hand, Dark Romanticism, a subgenre of Romanticism, focuses on the fallibility of human beings. It emerged in the 19th century, gaining popularity between 1836 and 1840. Many authors, including Edgar Allen Poe, who also wrote Gothic literature, are considered part of the Dark Romanticism movement. However, the main difference between Dark Romanticism and Gothic literature is the underlying message of the texts. While Dark Romantics believed that humans are inherently prone to sin and self-destruction, Gothic literature aims to evoke intense emotions while also focusing on the sublimity of decay and elements of horror.

The Elements of Dark Romanticism

Dark Romanticism is characterized by four main elements: the human tendency to turn to sin and self-destruction, the anthropomorphization of Evil, the sinister and spiritual nature, and the individual's inability to make positive changes. This literary movement grew out of Transcendentalism, another subgenre of Romanticism. Despite being similar in some aspects, Dark Romanticism and Gothic literature have different themes and underlying messages.

In Conclusion

In summary, Gothic literature and Dark Romanticism are two prominent genres that emerged in the 19th century. While Gothic literature aims to evoke intense emotions and fear in readers through its mysterious and supernatural elements, Dark Romanticism focuses on the fallibility of human beings and their tendency towards sin and self-destruction. Despite their similarities, these genres can be distinguished by their underlying messages, making them unique and captivating in their own ways.

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