Four major literary movements can claim some aspect of The Awakening, for in this "small compass . . . [is illustrated] virtually all the major American intellectual and literary trends of the nineteenth century" (Skaggs, 80). The Romantic movement marked a profound shift in sensibilities away from the Enlightenment. It was inspired by reaction to that period's concepts of clarity, order, and balance, and by the revolutions in America, France, Poland, and Greece. It expressed the assertion of the self, the power of the individual, a sense of the infinite, and transcendental nature of the universe. Major themes included the sublime, terror, and passion. The writing extolled the primal power of nature and the spiritual link between nature and man, and was often emotional, marked by a sense of liberty, filled with dreamy inner contemplations, exotic settings, memories of childhood, scenes of unrequited love, and exiled heroes.
In America, Romanticism coalesced into a distinctly "American" ideal: making success from failure, the immensity of the American landscape, the power of man to conquer the land, and "Yankee" individualism. The writing was also marked by a type of xenophobia. Protestant America was faced with an influx of Catholic refugees from the Napoleonic Wars, of Asian workers who constructed the railroads, and the lingering issue of Native Americans. An insular attitude developed, the "us and them" in Whitman. The major writers of the period were Irving, Cooper, Emerson, Poe, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, Dickinson, and Melville.
There are various romantic elements in The Awakening. Perhaps the most obvious and elemental are the exotic locale, use of color, and heavy emphasis on nature (click here). The overriding romantic theme in the novel is Edna's search for individuality and freedom: freedom to decide what to be, how to think, and how to live. This search amounts to her own romantic quest for a holy grail, a grail of self-definition. In the process two classic motifs of the Romantic movement occur: rebellion against society and death. Ringe points out that Edna lies between two extremes in life and is completely alone in the universe (204-05): a condition that is a hallmark of romanticism. As are the other prototypical romantic elements of the text: frequent inner thoughts, memories of childhood, the personified sea and its sensuous call, the fantastic talking birds, the mysterious woman in black, the romantic music playing almost constantly in the background, the dinner party, the gulf spirit, and the desire to express herself through art.
Realism developed as a reaction against Romanticism and stressed the real over the fantastic. The movement sought to treat the commonplace truthfully and used characters from everyday life. Writers probed the recesses of the human mind via an exploration of the emotional landscape of characters. This emphasis was brought on by societal changes sparked...