Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism, and Local Color The Literary Context of
Four major literary movements can claim some aspect of
, for in this "small compass . . . [is illustrated] virtually all the major Americanintellectual and literary trends of the nineteenth century" (Skaggs, 80).
The Romantic movement marked a profound shift in sensibilities away fromthe Enlightenment. It was inspired by reaction to that period's concepts of clarity, order, and balance, and by the revolutions in America, France, Poland,and Greece. It expressed the assertion of the self, the power of the individual,a sense of the infinite, and transcendental nature of the universe. Major themes included the sublime, terror, and passion. The writing extolled theprimal power of nature and the spiritual link between nature and man, andwas often emotional, marked by a sense of liberty, filled with dreamy inner contemplations, exotic settings, memories of childhood, scenes of unrequitedlove, and exiled heroes.
In America, Romanticism coalesced into a distinctly "American" ideal: makingsuccess from failure, the immensity of the American landscape, the power of man to conquer the land, and "Yankee" individualism. The writing was alsomarked by a type of xenophobia. Protestant America was faced with an influxof Catholic refugees from the Napoleonic Wars, of Asian workers whoconstructed the railroads, and the lingering issue of Native Americans. Aninsular attitude developed, the "us and them" in Whitman. The major writers of the period were Irving, Cooper, Emerson, Poe, Thoreau, Hawthorne,Whitman, Dickinson, and Melville.
There are various romantic elements in
. Perhaps the mostobvious and elemental are the exotic locale, use of color, and heavyemphasis on nature (click here). The overriding romantic theme in the novel isEdna's search for individuality and freedom: freedom to decide what to be,how to think, and how to live. This search amounts to her own romantic questfor a holy grail, a grail of self-definition. In the process two classic motifs of theRomantic movement occur: rebellion against society and death. Ringe pointsout that Edna lies between two extremes in life and is completely alone in theuniverse(204-05): a condition that is a hallmark of romanticism. As are theother prototypical romantic elements of the text: frequent inner thoughts,memories of childhood, the personified sea and its sensuous call, the fantastictalking birds, the mysterious woman in black, the romantic music playingalmost constantly in the background, the dinner party, the gulf spirit, and thedesire to express herself through art.
Realism developed as a reaction against Romanticism and stressed the realover the fantastic. The movement sought to treat the commonplace truthfullyand used characters from everyday life. Writers probed the recesses of thehuman mind via an exploration of the emotional landscape of characters. Thisemphasis was brought on by societal changes sparked by
The Origin of Species
by Darwin, the Higher Criticism of the Bible, and the aftermath of theCivil War. A deeper, more pessimistic, literary movement called Naturalism