Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
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Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.
So we're talking about Romantic literature, and that is not literature that's based on love stories, although some of these novels that we'll talk about do have a romantic element. But what Romantic literature means really is works that were written during the Romantic period. There was a Romantic period all throughout Europe and here in the U.S., but we're specifically focusing on the Romantic period in England, which was from about 1800 to about 1840. There are some books that we'll discuss that were written outside of that period, and that's okay. We'll talk about what makes them Romantic, which is really their characteristics.
What are the characteristics of Romantic prose? I'm so glad you've asked.
The first is a departure from reason. The Romantic period came after the Age of Enlightenment, which really had a focus on logic, reason and science, and the Romantic period was a deviation from that. In Romantic literature, you'll often see an emphasis on emotions, imagination and intuition - elements of humanity that can defy reason.
Next is a focus on nature. You really see this more in Romantic poetry, and we'll talk about that in another video, but there is a lot of Romantic literature in both England and the U.S. that has a focus on connecting with the natural world.
You'll also see an element of the supernatural. To further separate itself from the Age of Enlightenment, from logic and reason, there's really no better place to turn than the supernatural. A lot of the works that we'll discuss in this video, like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, contain elements that require the reader to suspend their disbelief to accept what they're reading and go along with something that will defy logic and reason.
Finally, there's a focus on the individual. A lot of the works that I'm about to talk about talk about the rights and freedoms of an individual and their ability to exert their will even against what might necessarily be logical. A lot of these novels have themes of rebellion in the face of oppression and characters doing things that might seem irrational because it's really what they want to do.
So we're going to start with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which many people believe is the best work of Romantic prose (at least British Romantic prose). It's not really my taste, but it does embody a lot of the typical characteristics of Romanticism, so it's a good one to start with.
Before we get going, I want to make sure that I differentiate between Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the Frankenstein of movies and TV - the green head, bolts in the neck Frankenstein - very different.
Now that we've established that, fun fact about Mary Shelley - she was married to Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was a noted Romantic poet. Their love story is full of scandal; I really recommend you look into it. I don't have time to go into it now, but it's good stuff.
The modern character of Frankenstein, the guy with the bolts in his neck and the green head - big on Halloween - is very different. I really recommend watching the video on Frankenstein to learn more.
But in the tiniest of nutshells, Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein tells the story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein - the doctor who creates the monster, not the monster himself. Dr. Frankenstein believes he has discovered the secret to life. He's really fascinated by this and fashions together, through spare body parts, a creature. That creature is Frankenstein's monster.
Once he realizes what he's done, that he's put together this sort of haphazard creature and brought him to life, he's understandably pretty freaked out, and he tries to ignore it and just goes to bed, which is a really bad choice. The monster will eventually escape and kill his brother - not ideal.
There's a lot more that happens in the novel, but what I really want to focus on here is that Dr. Frankenstein, who's a learned doctor and a man of science, in the name of science creates this creature that ends up committing murder and being pretty dangerous (although, it turns out that the monster is really more lonely and misunderstood than actually violent). It's a great example of Romantic literature making a deviation away from science and logic and saying that there's more to humanity than just putting together a bunch of parts, animating it and bringing it to life. There's more to creating a person - there's more to life - than just what science can explain. So that's Frankenstein.
Another noted British Romantic writer is Sir Walter Scott. Walter Scott was Scottish, but Scotland is part of Great Britain, so we're going to talk about him. His best known works are Rob Roy, which was published in 1817, and Ivanhoe, which was published in 1819 (though it's worth noting that Sir Walter Scott was really prolific and wrote a lot more than that). He's mostly thought of as a historical novelist, but he also wrote poems, essays and short stories - he really did a lot during his career.
We're just going to focus on Ivanhoe for these purposes, though. It's a fun adventure story set in 1194 (way before the period that it was actually written), and it actually features Robin Hood and his merry men. Ivanhoe is a lot of fun, in my opinion. It's got a lot of exciting elements - there's a forbidden romance and a knight in disguise. If you like the movie The Princess Bride, I highly recommend checking out Ivanhoe.
It's a really plot-heavy story, so I'm not going to go into too much detail now, but I'm bringing it up because one of its themes is identity. Beyond just that knight in disguise that I mentioned, there are lots of people in disguise in Ivanhoe, and when you don't know who someone is or someone turns out to be not who you thought they were, it sort of raises the question, 'Who is anybody? Who am I? Who are you?' That notion of identity ties into the concept of who someone is as an individual versus maybe who they're perceived to be by society.
Sir Walter Scott was a big fan of one of his contemporaries, Miss Jane Austen, who happens to be my favorite writer, so I'm really excited to talk about her. She wrote six major novels, including Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Sense and Sensibility. Those tend to be the most 'romantic' in the way that we tend to think of romance - they're love stories. They're usually about a woman or a few women looking to find suitable husbands and typically ended in one or more weddings.
I'm just going to talk about Pride and Prejudice now. It's arguably her best-known and most well-loved novel. It deals with a woman - her name is Elizabeth Bennet - who needs to find a suitable husband for financial reasons but, like a lot of people, would also like to marry someone that she loves. She is given the opportunity to marry a man who will help save her family from financial ruin (it's a long back story about why), but he's terrible. He's really obnoxious, and she knows she wouldn't be happy with him. She refuses his proposal, and her mom freaks out. She thinks that's a terrible idea and says that she's being selfish and is going to ruin the family by not accepting this proposal.
But Elizabeth exerts her will and acts as an individual and is motivated by intuition and by her emotions, thinking about what will make her happy versus what is necessarily the most logical choice. So that's another way that this is a great example of a Romantic novel. It's also romantic in the typical sense because she does end up happily married to a rich guy who saves her family anyway (but that's not the point right now).
Finally, we have the Brontë sisters, Charlotte and Emily Brontë. They published their most famous works, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, respectively, towards the end of the Romantic period, somewhat overlapping with the Victorian period. The Brontë sisters had a pretty rough childhood - they went to boarding schools that seemed to be pretty unpleasant, a lot of their siblings died very young of ugly diseases, but they had strong imaginations and senses of creativity. That's what drove them to become writers, and they started writing from a really early age.
Their novels, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, are good examples of Romantic novels that have an element of the supernatural. Both of their novels are darker than the other ones I've talked about - especially darker than any Austen novel. The elements of the supernatural in these books can almost seem ridiculous to a modern reader because they're not really meant to be fantasy stories. It's not like when you read Harry Potter and something magical happens, you accept it because it's a magical world.
It's really supernatural elements happening in the real world - so, for example, in Jane Eyre, the title character Jane has a really terrible wedding where she finds out her husband's already married. She's horrified and flees, and she's gone and leaves her fiance (understandably, I guess). Years later, she's living with someone else now, and she hears him call her name in the night - he calls, 'Jane, Jane, Jane!' She rushes to his side, thinking that he needs her, and it turns out that he does because his crazy first wife has burned down the house. So that's an element of the supernatural that, when you read it, might seem sort of ridiculous - first you might think, 'Oh, she just heard him in her mind,' but it turns out he really did call her name, and she really did hear him across the miles.
In Wuthering Heights, the main character, Heathcliff, is haunted by the ghost of his estranged love Catherine - he thinks he sees her all the time. It's hard to know necessarily if these writers meant for these supernatural elements to be taken literally - if they wanted us to believe that Jane really could hear Rochester, her erstwhile fiance, calling her name across the miles, or if Heathcliff is really haunted by the ghost of Cathy, or if it's meant to show that these things are just happening in the characters' minds, or maybe that it's meant to be symbolic... All those things can be argued, but they're good examples of supernatural elements that you'll find in Romantic literature.
Neither of the Brontë novels are romantic in the other sense (I don't think so, anyway). They're kind of dark and a little weird but a lot of fun.
So, those are novels that we're going to be exploring in further videos - I recommend you check them out. In summary, as you're exploring Romantic literature - both poetry and prose - keep an eye out for some of the defining characteristics of that period.
To review, those are a departure from logic and reason and a stronger focus on emotions, intuition and imagination - aspects of humanity that can't really be explained through rational ways. Also there will be a strong connection with nature, an emphasis on the individual and individual will and elements of the supernatural, even if they seem totally unfeasible. Have fun!
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Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 137 lessons | 10 flashcard sets