Moby-Dick; or, The Whale
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

Dark Romanticism - Study Guide

Dark Romanticism is a genre steeped in complex emotions and expressions of individualism. We hope this guide is particularly useful for students and teachers.

Overview of Dark Romanticism, Exemplary Works, Etymology & Historical Context, Quotes, Discussion Questions, Useful Links, and Notes/Teacher Comments

Dark Romanticism: The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter

Overview of Dark Romanticism

First, let's deal with the meaning of Romanticism. It values beliefs and emotions as more important than logic or facts. The individual comes first, and often involves the worship of nature (or a whale?). Dark Romanticism is distinguished from Romanticism in its emphasis on human fallibility and sin (they are pessimists), whereas Romantics believe in human goodness (they are optimists). According to Dark Romantics, even good men and women drift towards sin and self-destruction, and there can be unintended consequences that arise from well-intended social reforms.

The genre of "Dark Romanticism" is thought to have emerged from the Transcendental Movement in 19th century America. Whereas Transcendentalists felt perfection and their own divinity as innate qualities of mankind (they thiought utopian communes would work), Dark Romantics believed humans gravitate to evil and self-destruction (striving for a utopian society is a waste of time). Stories in this genre share many characteristics of Realism (tell it like it is, what can go wrong, will). Dark Romantics focus on human fallibility, self-destruction, judgement, punishment, as well as the psychological effects of guilt and sin. Authors who embrace this genre include Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson. There's an even darker side of the Dark Romantics: Gothic Literature, which involves sheer terror, personal torment, graphic morbidity, and the supernatural.

Here's a helpful overview of the characteristics, origin, and exemplar authors to help you better understand Dark Romanticism. You might also enjoy H.L. Mencken's analysis of New Puritanism, Puritanism As a Literary Force.

Dark Romanticism: The Fall of the House of Usher
The Fall of the House of Usher

Exemplary Works

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville is one of the most recognized novels in the genre of Dark Romanticism. Melville's Captain Ahab is the prototype of human fallibility, and he draws upon amble Biblical allusions (including his character names) centering on themes of judgement, guilt, sin, souls, and the end of the world. See Moby-Dick - Study Guide

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne exemplifies Dark Romanticism in its themes of imposed judgement and punishment for those who commit sin, resulting in alienation and self-destruction. Hawthorne's most famous novel examined the human soul and our morality-- certainly a cautionary tale about the dangers of well-intended social reform and blind religious fervor. While Hawthorne dappled in numerous genres, including Transcendentalism, he found his niche in Dark Romanticism, albeit on the less pessimistic side. He believed that for all of our weaknesses, hypocrisy and suffering, "the truth of the human heart" usually prevails. Another exemplary work of Dark Romanticism is his story, Young Goodman Brown.

Practically all of Edgar Allan Poe's canon falls in the Dark Romantic genre, in which he explored the psychology of the conscious and subconscious mind. A Descent Into the Maelstrom is a fine example. Many of Poe's works are on the dark end of the Dark Romantic spectrum, into the realm of Gothic Fiction with macabre tales of horror, morbidity, and madness. Fine example: The Fall of the House of Usher, which deals with mental conditions such as hypochondria and hyperethesia (sensory overload). Poe was also credited as the creator of the detective fiction genre, as in his story, The Purloined Letter. Poe literally provided a template for detective authors to follow, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A fun fact about Poe: he really disliked Transcendentalists, referring to them as "Frogpondians" (after the pool in Boston Commons).

Dark Romanticism: Because I Could Not Stop for Death
Because I Could Not Stop for Death

Emily Dickinson challenged the definitions of poetry and exemplify Dark Romanticism. It's well-known that she led an increasingly reclusive life, afflicted by severe depression, and never saw success during her lifetime (she died at 56). Yet, her creative energy, willingness to fight conventions (no titles, short lines), and prolific writing (she published nearly 1,800 poems in her lifetime) established her literary prowess and blazed a trail for other poets and women writers to follow.

Etymology & Historical Context

The etymology of the word "Romanticism" is from the Latin word "romant" which means "in the Roman manner." It became known as a style of art, literature, and music that drew on emotions, intuition, and imagination, rather than rationality and science. While the Romantic Movement began in Europe toward the end of the 18th century, it migrated to America in the early 19th century.

American Romanticism authors were most prolific between 1830-1865. Within the genre of Romanticism, two opposing sub-genres emerged: the optimists who believed in human goodness and spirituality, grew in to the Transcendentalism Movement; the pessimists, who embraced human fallibility and our predisposition towards sin, grew into the Dark Romantic Movement. The Dark Romantics were drawn to the dark side of the human psyche, the evil side of spiritual truth. The Dark Romantics rebelled against the Puritans, who came to the country to escape persecution, but imposed their own religion and societal rules (government) on others, judging those who did not conform. These authors were drawn to human's imperfections, self-destruction, sin, and the hazards of social reform. Authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote extensively about persecution of minorities in America, as in The Scarlet Letter, and The Maypole of Merry Mount.

Dark Romanticism: A Descent Into the Maelstrom
A Descent Into the Maelstrom

It is helpful to understand the historical backdrop for the emergence of the Dark Romantics and the Transcendentalists. America had established itself as an independent nation, and was struggling with the morality of slavery, social reforms, and the rights of the minority. Abraham Lincoln rose to power leading the country with a truly distinctive American voice-- eloquent, yet simple and coarse language embracing the country's failures, triumph, and tragedy. His fallibility was very much in-line with the Dark Romantic authors who published their major works shortly before the American Civil War and its messy aftermath into the Reconstruction era. The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850, the same year Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale was published a year later.

The Transcendentalists were busy at this same time in history: Thoreau's Walden was published in 1854, Whitman's Leaves of Grass a year later (1855). In 1865, the Civil War ended, Lincoln was assassinated, slavery was abolished. The country was no longer naive, more cynical, and a lot wiser than it had been a half century earlier, an ambivalence-- balancing pessimism and optimism-- that was reflected in the works of so many of the period's authors. Visit American History in Literature

Here is an excellent summary of Important Events during the Romantic Period (1825-1910), which encompasses an interesting musical history as well.

Dark Romanticism: Hawthorne's The Minister's Black Veil
The Minister's Black Veil


Explain what the following quotes meaning and why they are exemplars of Dark Romanticism:

Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson

Discussion Questions

1. Identify the characteristics of Dark Romanticism as expressed in works by American authors.

2. Explain the difference between "Romanticism" and "Dark Romanticism."

3. How does Gothic Literature differ from "Dark Romanticism"?

4. Nathaniel Hawthorne began his writing career considered a Romantic author, then moved towards Transcendentalism, before rejecting it in favor of the genre of his greatest success: "Dark Romanticism." Find an example of his work from each of these genres and discuss their contrasting styles.

5. Discuss the treatment of morality and social conventions (peer pressure) in this genre. Feel free to draw from The Scarlet Letter.

6. Identify a modern author whom you think fits the Dark Romanticism genre (e.g., Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Joyce Carol Oates). Provide evidence to support your choice, providing examples from their work.

7. Discuss Emily Dickinson's seemingly contradictory voices as a poet? Select at least two poems, identify elements of depression/hope, resilience/morbidity, and love/loss.

8. Why are readers drawn to stories about human fallibility? Discuss how Dark Romantic authors appealed to their readers.

9. In Hawthorne's The Birthmark: Georgiana tells her husband, "You cannot love what shocks you!" What is your opinion? Is it the imperfections we all possess that attracts us, or are these the attributes that repel us in disgust? Explain the message in this story.

10. Explain the meaning of this quote from Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (chapter 87) in the context of Dark Romanticism:
“for there is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.”

11. In Hawthorne's The Minister's Black Veil, what does Reverend Hooper's veil symbolize and why does he wear it?

Dark Romanticism: Bartleby, the Scrivener
Bartleby, the Scrivener

Teacher Resources
A Teacher's Work Is Never Done

Notes/Teacher Comments

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