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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.

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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 symbols2.

Horrific themes3. Psychological effects of guilt and sin

Symbols

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.Of course, like many stories, the Dark Romantics knew that good was always battling evil, but unlike your typical super-hero movie, evil usually won out.

But it wasn’t simply the presence of evil that fueled the Dark Romantics’ writing. They wanted to explore the horrors of evil that were lurking in everyone. This meant that they spent a good deal of time looking at the character’s thought processes. It’s not enough to see the character’s actions; we need to see his or her reasons for committing those actions in the first place. Poe wrote another story called ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ that follows a murderer’s increased paranoia after hiding a dismembered body under the floorboards.If you put all of these components together, you end up with more than your run-of-the-mill horror story. These stories are more like the movies Black Swan and American Psycho, that follow the stream of consciousness deterioration of the mind, than say, Scream and Saw, which focus on actions.

These writers want to know ‘why’ rather than ‘how’, so they focus on the psychological, or how the mind works.

The Scarlet Letter focuses on the psychological repercussions of sin and guilt
The Scarlet Letter

Psychological Effects of Guilt and Sin

With all these horrific undertones and creepy symbols, it shouldn’t be a surprise then that the characters in these stories are not your average storybook heroes. Mostly, though not always, Dark Romantic writers want to explore the psychological effects of guilt and sin, so we see characters who are harboring guilt for their sins, and that guilt leads to the grotesque, the fantastic, or the morbid.

In other words, these characters are often deranged or go mad. It also means that the reader is often stuck in the character’s mind, watching as it slowly deteriorates into that madness. Nathaniel Hawthorne illustrates this concept in his novel The Scarlet Letter.

He tells the story of a minister whose affair with a married woman sends him into a guilt-ridden self-punishment, and ultimately death.

Lesson Summary

So, to sum up, the American Romantic period had an explosion of uniquely American literature at the end of the era, from about 1840-1860. During this time, the subgenre of Dark Romantic writers, including Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, used creepy symbols and horrific themes to look at the inner-workings of the mind and to explore the psychological effects of guilt and sin. The result is a collection of short stories, poems, and novels that forced Americans to see that evil was lurking in us all.

Learning Outcomes

After watching this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Define the American Renaissance and differentiate between Romantic and Dark Romantic writers
  • Identify some important Dark Romantic writers and works
  • Describe and give examples of the characteristics of Dark Romantic writing: symbolism, horrific themes, and the psychological effects of guilt and sin

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