The Dark Romantics in American Literature

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  • 0:05 American Renissance
  • 1:50 Symbols
  • 3:00 Horrific Themes
  • 5:01 Psychological Effects
  • 5:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Carroll

Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.

This video introduces the characteristics of Dark Romanticism, a movement at the end of the Romantic period where literature embodied creepy symbols, horrific themes, and explored the psychological effects of guilt and sin. Authors, such as Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote short stories, poems, and novels that encouraged Americans to see evil in everything.

American Renaissance

The American Renaissance in literature is actually a very specific part of the larger literary period, the American Romantic period. The Romantic period, which lasted roughly from 1800-1860, experienced an explosion of uniquely American literature near the end of the time period. This surge of American literary masterpieces from 1840-1860 is known as the American Renaissance.

During the American Renaissance, writers could generally be placed into one of two subgenres, or categories: the Dark Romantics and the Transcendentalists. In this video, we're going to look at the Dark Romantics.

Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville were key Dark Romantic writers
Dark Romantic Writers

To begin, it's best to explain that Dark Romantic doesn't mean darkly romantic, so we're NOT thinking of a 50 Shades of Grey type-thing (I'm sorry to disappoint you) - though both are exploring the inner workings of the mind. Instead, we are talking about a subgenre of writing that took a shadowy approach to the fantastical.

The Romantic writers took an optimistic approach to the mystical aspects of the universe, where sins are properly punished and those who are truly good are rewarded. For example, in Washington Irving's 'The Devil and Tom Walker,' Tom Walker is punished for his greed. It's a moral tale to warn against hypocrisy and evil. On the other hand, the Dark Romantics, like Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville, sometimes called Gothic, were more serious and found the darkness and evil in those same aspects, with evil taking over the good. As a result, their writing typically has the following characteristics:

1. Lots of creepy symbols

2. Horrific themes

3. Psychological effects of guilt and sin


A symbol is something that represents something else. A red rose, for example, is a common symbol for love, romance, passion, and vitality. But if we change the color of the rose to black, it becomes a symbol of something more sinister - death, loss, and possibly evil. Authors use symbols to help readers make connections beyond the story itself. Sometimes objects in a story are symbols. Sometimes characters are symbols.

Most people are familiar with Edgar Allan Poe's poem 'The Raven,' which is a Dark Romantic piece of writing that is still popular today (even the The Simpsons have their own version). In that poem, the raven is a symbol for death and hopelessness as it sits and watches the narrator, who is slowly going mad. Poe could have chosen any bird, but he chose a bird who is known for hanging out at battlefields and picking away at the dead. These connections through the use of symbols are intentionally made by the author and reinforce the overall meaning of the story. For the Dark Romantics, sin and evil were everywhere, so their symbols often represent evil entities, like devils or spirits. These symbols often reinforce one of many horrific themes found in the story.

The Dark Romantics used evil beings as symbols for sin
Dark Romantic Symbols

Horrific Themes

A story's theme is a statement that the text seems to making about the subject, and for the Dark Romantics, this statement was drenched in terrifying ideas. In some cases, they studied the struggles of human nature. More specifically, they believed that human nature was less than good, so evil was able to take hold of a person. Like the Puritans before them, they believed evil and sin were everywhere, but it was not as easy to identify, so it could easily lead to self-destruction.

It was not just human nature that harbored evil, though; the Dark Romantics also saw darkness in the external world. The idea that our surroundings could be filled with evil fueled much of their writing, encouraging readers to question everything around them. Edgar Allan Poe, a famous Dark Romantic writer, encompasses this theme in his short story 'The Fall of the House of Usher.' As despair takes over the home, it deteriorates and finally collapses.

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