Discuss the difference between Romanticism and Realism
From the beginning of the nineteenth century, and continuing into the latter half of that century, the primary style of writing employed by American authors was that of romanticism. With a central focus on the author as the sole creator, the romantics were not concerned with accurate portrayal of events; the author has ‘a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writers own choosing or creation’[footnoteRef:1]. However, the idealistic and fantastical notions of the romantics became outmoded as emphasis shifted towards the sentimentalist and abolitionist movements. Moreover, the extreme hardship and squalor many people in America experienced as a result of the civil war and subsequent mass influx of immigrants, initiated the realist movement, which aimed accurately to depict the reality and brutality of life. Accordingly, there was a shift in the purpose of literary texts, from being instruments of self-expression and individuality, to presenting a critique of society and an outcry for change. [1: Hawthorne, Nathaniel, The House of Seven Gables (1851) ]
One of the key features of romanticism is its emphasis on the individual, with the imagination of the author being the guiding force in the creation of the text. This mentality stems from the philosophical origins of romanticism, which were explored by Robert Emerson in his discourses about individuality and the soul. In romanticism, the author of the text becomes a god like figure, as the author’s depiction of events is apprehended by the reader exactly as the author chooses to direct. The focus on the author’s individual choice of narrative contrasts with the approach of realism, where the author’s role is to display the events of the text, set in the real world, as accurately and realistically as possible. Moreover, the importance of the individual is replaced in realism by the importance of mankind as a whole, as is argued by William Dean Howells: ‘The realist feels in every nerve…the unity of men’[footnoteRef:2]. ‘Under the Lions Paw’, a realist text by Hamlin Garland, displays this approach, as the kind and charitable characters of Mr and Mrs Council are praised as ‘good enough to be angels’, while the selfish landlord Mr Butler is vilified; additionally, the tragic ending exemplifies the need for unity and selflessness.
[2: Howells, William Dean]
In romanticism, the authority of the writer’s imagination means that the setting of the novel is often fantastical: many are set in exotic locations, while others, such as ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, by Edgar Allen Poe, are profoundly gothic. The author’s ability to depict the scene so as to create the desired atmosphere is described in Hawthorne’s definition of romanticism: ‘manage his atmospherical medium as to… mellow the lights…deepen and enrich the shadows, of the picture’[footnoteRef:3]. This atmospherical enrichment is evident in ‘The Fall of...