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What is Surrealism in Literature? - Definition, Characteristics & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is Surrealism?
  • 1:52 Characteristics
  • 3:12 Literary Examples
  • 5:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Bryanna Licciardi

Bryanna has received both her BA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. She has been a writing tutor for over six years.

Surrealism began as a movement and grew into a literary genre still used today. Read about how it flourished and what makes it such a powerful method for freeing the unconscious.

What Is Surrealism?

Surrealism in literature can be defined as an artistic attempt to bridge together reality and the imagination. Surrealists seek to overcome the contradictions of the conscious and unconscious minds by creating unreal or bizarre stories full of juxtapositions.

Founded by André Breton (1896-1966), surrealism began as an artistic movement in Paris in the 1920s and lasted until the 1940s. Writer and philosopher Breton propelled this movement with his publication of The Manifesto of Surrealism, as a way of fighting against the way art was understood at the time.

With the horrors of World War I still in Europe's wake, art had become controlled by politics. It came to be used as a way of maintaining order and keeping the revolution at bay. However, surrealists wanted to break free from the constraints being posed on art and to do so in an extreme, yet positive way.

Though they fought against political control, the movement's goal was not political in nature. Surrealism sought to free people spiritually and psychologically. These artists and writers wanted to repair the damage done by WWI. Unfortunately, World War II was on the brink, and such a movement made the surrealists a target. During the rise of Nazism and Fascism, many surrealists were forced to seek haven in America. Fortunately, for American culture, their ideas began affecting changes in the States as well.

While the movement itself may have ended, surrealism still exists in much of today's literature. Using surrealist imagery, ideas, or poetic techniques, writers attempt to stretch the boundaries, free the mind, and make readers think.

Characteristics in Literature

Surrealism is meant to be strange and shocking. It is meant to push the envelope in a way that forces people out of their comfortable ideas, so much so that it has even been known to cause riots. While the idea of surrealism is complex, surrealist literature does have common characteristics.

Surrealist literature will have contrasting images or ideas. This technique is used to help readers make new connections and expand the reader's reality, or rather the reader's idea of what reality is. They pull from Freudian ideas of free association as a way to steer readers away from societal influence and open up the individual's mind.

Surrealism will use images and metaphors to compel the reader to think deeper and reveal subconscious meaning. Instead of relying on plot, surrealist writers instead focus on the characters, discovery, and imagery to force readers to dig into their unconscious and analyze what they find.

Surrealism also uses poetic styles to create dreamlike and fantastic stories that often defy logic. Rather than incorporate the normal prosaic structure like linear plots and structured settings, surrealism uses poetic techniques, like leaps in thinking (free association), abstract ideas, and nonlinear timelines.

Literary Examples

Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) was a French poet known for his obscure and surreal writing style. One collection of poetry, Les Poésies de S. Mallarmé, is known to have inspired and pushed the surrealist movement forward.

(excerpt taken from the poem 'Les Fenêtres')

'And I feel that I am dying, and, through the medium

Of art or of mystical experience, I want to be reborn,

Wearing my dream like a diadem, in some better land

Where beauty flourishes.'

In this excerpt, notice Mallarmé's shift away from reality and towards the 'dream.' Surrealism strives to expand the reader's idea of what reality is. Here, Mallarmé writes of how he uses art to get closer to this new reality, where dreams can be worn like a 'diadem,' or crown, meaning something to show off proudly.

Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) is best known as a surrealist painter, yet his writing is considered one of the prominent surrealist works of his time. Dalí once wrote, 'You have to systematically create confusion, it sets creativity free. Everything that is contradictory creates life.'

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