Isn't it Romantic?
Who doesn't want to read grand stories about love and passion? That might be what you expect if you peruse the literature written in the Romantic Era. Unfortunately, you'd be in for a surprise.
Ironically, the Romantic authors did not focus on love and affection in their writings. Instead, they had lofty ideas of what role literature, and human beings in general, should play in the world.
The Romantic Period was a literature movement devoted to spiritualism and emotions. It stretched from the later 1700s and peaked near the mid-1800s. Romantic writers were reacting to the Enlightenment Era, which was the previous period, that celebrated rational thinking and the power of reasoning. Romantics were tired of this objective and unemotional approach, and so they looked to do the opposite by promoting emotion and imagination.
Themes of these works include nature, myth, the workings of the human mind, and an emphasis on the self and individualism. Most focused on poetry that, but there are many examples of short stories, too.
Let's first look at the common characteristics seen in the works from the Romantic Period.
The appreciation and reverence of nature is the first major characteristic of Romantic literature.
These writers believed nature had the power to affect man and his imagination. They saw the beauty of nature as an important aspect of life.
These authors argued that every man, should appreciate nature, and not abuse it. In fact, many writers believed nature should be used as a setting for meditation and creativity.
One of the most important characteristics of the Romantic Movement was the emphasis on individualism, which is focused on independence and self-reliance. Romantic writers were obsessed with the idea of delving into the self and analyzing a person's consciousness.
They promoted spontaneity and freedom, striving to establish nonconformity in the way people thought.
Exaltation of the Ordinary
Another characteristic common to Romantic literature focused on placing simple, everyday life on a pedestal. These writers yearned for an older, simpler life, prior to the Industrial Revolution. Their works idealized the past, which was viewed as far away from the greed, and hustle and bustle, of the new booming cities.
A final quality of Romantic literature is the element of the fantastic. Fantasy based literature focuses on the magical, mythical and supernatural. These writers looked for a way to link back to medieval times, glamorizing the stories from that era. This theme connected to their ultimate goal of emphasizing imagination in literature.
Now that you have an idea of the main traits of this era, let's look at some examples. Here are two well-known short stories, written in the Romantic style.
Rip Van Winkle
In this first example, Washington Irving tells the tale of his title character, who becomes an unwitting time-traveler. Published in 1819, the story of Rip takes place in a quiet village in the Catskill Mountains. In this respect, we see the quality of idealizing the simple country life.
However, Rip's life is not ideal for him. He has a nagging wife and two children, whom he doesn't seem to have the time to raise. He disappears into the mountains to escape his hum-drum home life. He is enjoying the scenery, with his faithful dog, when suddenly the fantasy elements come into play.
He meets an unusual stranger, who convinces Rip to take part in drinking some sort of liquor. Rip wakes up in the morning, on the side of the mountain, not remembering much else about his night. Rip slowly realizes that he has slept for 20 years, missing the American Revolution completely. The irony is Rip is ecstatic. He discovers his wife has died, and his children are grown, and on their own. Thus, he has no responsibilities in the world, which is exactly what he always wanted.
This fantastic tale clearly displays some Romantic qualities like the focus on nature, the celebration of an older, simpler life, and the role of fantasy.
Another example of a darker Romantic short story is Nathaniel Hawthorne's Ethan Brand. This story centers on a man who abandoned everything he cared about to find higher intellect. The cost of succeeding in this lofty goal ends up destroying him.
Our main character, Ethan, had lived a simple life as a lime-burner, tending a kiln day in and day out. However, he is not satisfied and leaves to seek out the highest understanding of life. In the process, he gives up everything that makes a person human, including his generosity, humility, and compassion, in order to gain knowledge. In the end, he realizes he gave it all up for nothing and throws himself into the kiln, to end his misery.
The story has a very mystical aspect, as Ethan participates in dark activities, and experiments, in order to attain the knowledge he seeks. He also believes, he has become more than just a man, since he has attained what an ordinary man cannot.
This story also brings up the sin of science; Ethan only cares about the scientific world, (which is more in line with the thinking of the Enlightenment). Hawthorne argues that this is the worst kind of life to lead. In this way, Hawthorne mixes the themes of fantasy, appreciation for a simple life, and the value of emotion over intelligence.
To review, the Romantic Period was a literature movement devoted to spiritualism and emotions. It focused on analyzing the working of the human mind in addition to the following themes:
- Nature - communion and reverence for the natural world
- Individualism - one's independence and self-reliance
- The simple life - idealizing a simpler time in the past
- Fantasy - elements of mysticism, magic and the supernatural
Two examples of short stories written in the Romantic Period are Rip Van Winkle and Ethan Brand.