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The Romantic Novel: "Popular" and "Literary"

The Romantic Novel: "Popular" and "Literary"

September 29, 2021

More than anyone in the 20th Century, the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand kept alive the memory of the Romantic revolution in literature. That literary movement, among the most pervasive, democratic (popular), and enduring in art history. usually is dated from about 1780 to 1850, but, of course, no powerful pulse in the arts starts and stops in a specific year. 

Most of Victor Hugo’s novels—the exception is The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831)--were published several decades after the official end of Romantic Revolution. The novels of Hugo admirer and Polish icon, Henryk Sienkiewicz, came even later and won the Nobel Prize for literature (1905)—the first, and last, Romanticist to take the prize before “Realism” (literature as an adjunct of sociology and proclaimed “scientific,” swept the field).

It was Ayn Rand, almost alone, who recalled the world to the Romantic movement in literature that expressed and reflected the sunlit Nineteenth Century in the developed world, culminating in the “Gay ‘Nineties.” Gay not because all was well in the world, but because progress in science, industry, living standards, health, and economic and other freedoms seemed unstoppable. Man and reason seemed destined for unlimited progress.

“Man as a being who possesses the faculty of volition did not appear in literature until the nineteenth century. The novel was his proper literary form—and Romanticism was the great new movement in art.)”  (The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature, by Ayn Ran. New American Library (New York City: 1969). 

In the 20th Century, Ayn Rand reminded us, the school of Realism had driven the Romantic novel from serious literature. In realms that the intellectuals could control, Romantic literature was banned as “unrealistic” and “unscientific.” What was supposedly “scientific” was Realism, which explained how the illusion that man has volition is dispelled by understanding how society determines his actions.

But that could not stifle the popular yearning for the fundamentals of Romantic literature:  the complex plot, the conflict of values, the portrayal of black and white heroes and villains, the evocation of sometimes exotic settings, and, above all, the dominating hero. 

In every decade, the great popular Romanticists such as Erle Stanley Gardner, Agatha Christie, Mickey Spillane, Ian Fleming), and others dominated bestseller lists for months and years. They outsold “literary” novels. The gap was widened by proclaiming literary novels as serious reading, popular Romantic novels as mere entertainment.

Even as she acquainted readers with “popular” novels, Ayn Rand carried forward the torch of literary Romanticism--except for her novels, extinguished in the era of Realism.

Ayn Rand’s favorite Bond novel, Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love, exposes the hideous face of Soviet communism’s use of torture and political assassination to achieve the ends of communist idealism. I know of no “serious” fiction with that subject matter or the novel’s incredible impact. Indeed, so great was his impact that when the era of “détente” with Soviet communism dawned, Fleming, identified with the British political establishment, became persuaded to stop making Russia his villain. Bond began battling an imaginary international criminal cartel, “Spectre.” It was the new specter supposedly haunting Europe, not the old specter of the Communist Manifesto.

An idol of literary critics, Vladimir Nabokov, admittedly is one of my favorites. I am enchanted by literary style and Nabokov’s style seems sharper than sight itself. Ayn Rand treated style versus other aspects of literature quite differently. Style, she said, reflected the “psycho-epistemology” (habituated level of conceptual consciousness or level of mental “focus”) of the writer. And appealed to the same psycho-epistemology in the readers.

Thus, she was dazzled by Nabokov’s style, but got only half-way through Lolita when she quit in disgust. (Middle-aged man seduces teenaged girl, treated humorously.)  There are no heroes in Nabokov novels. He would have laughed at the concept, I think. Where is the clear-cut conflict of values, the hero and the villain, in Lolita? Or Pnin?  Or Ada? I can pat myself on the back that I enjoyed them all for their style. My psycho-epistemology. The demanding and magic beauty of the Nabokov style is expressed in the line of a poem that begins the novel Pale Fire: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain in the false azure of the windowpane.” (A “waxwing” is a bird.)

Ayn Rand introduced a generation to what she called the triumphant height—and sunset, dying fire--of the Romantic Movement in the novels of Victor Hugo and a late masterpiece of Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis (1895).

What, then, is “literary” or “serious” Romanticism that distinguishes it from the brilliant works of “popular” Romanticism?  If we have an embarrassment of riches in popular Romanticism, most recently in the form of fantasy novels, what have we lost? 

My lead to an answer is found in Ayn Rand’s novels, which are defined (or denounced) as “philosophical,” even as here heroes are derided as cartoon caricatures. And her themes as “selfish,” “egoistic,” and “fascist.” I hesitate even to repeat these charges (there is a saying, “When you repeat an insult, you insult me again”), but the literati have gone to these lengths to dampen the explosive force of the only contemporary Romantic novels—and, of course, their cultural, philosophical, and even political impact.

What distinguishes great novels of popular Romanticism from literary Romanticism?

The Romantic novel is plotted. It is not a “narrative,” however charming. It is defined by emphasis on the fundamental, defining human capacity for volition (“free will”), not “destiny” or “determinism.” Man’s radical freedom is the choice to think or not to think (to initiate conceptual thought, to “focus” the mind), the free embracing of values, and the resulting freedom of action.

It is a freedom, a responsibility, that is glory to some, unbearable to others. In its place, Naturalism put the concept of determinism, the philosophical foundation of what we call, today, “Realism.”  By those terms is meant the view that all human action is determined by factors such economic status, race, war or peace, and other social forces.

In the popular Romantic novel, plot is driven by conventional conflict such as detective versus criminal, secret agent versus enemy secret agent, or any good guy versus bad guy. Brilliant imagination and inventiveness are brought to these entertaining novels. But always there is a pattern (called today a “genre”). You will not find the plot driven by the complexity of motives at work in Atlas Shrugged, Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, or Dostoyevsky’s dark Romanticism in The Possessed (1871). 

The Romantic novel’s is complex and philosophical. The theme, or, as Ayn Rand characterized it, “the total abstract meaning,” of the literary Romantic novel is not the detective versus the criminal, the patriotic agent versus the enemy, or any “genre” of good versus evil. The theme of Atlas Shrugged is the role of man’s mind in existence (survival and flourishing). The theme of The Man Who Laughs is the irrelevance of the merely physical (for example, personal appearance) in the presence of man’s spirit. The theme of Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo (1844-46) the inextinguishable human yearning for justice.

The Romantic novel’s characters exemplify a code of morality. Right and wrong are paramount, in a general sense, but the nature of the good and the evil is not assumed, not conventional. A goal of the novel is to explore them. In Atlas Shrugged, the distinction between good and evil is the choice to think or not to think, to focus on reality or “blank out.” The heroes exemplify reason, orientation to reality, loyalty to the facts. The best description of the villains in the face of challenges is “blank out.” In  Victor Hugo’s Ninety-Three (1874), the glory of man is his loyalty to his values, expressed politically, which is held above all other personal affections.

The Romantic novel’s has a literary style. Ayn Rand often made the point that the best popular Romantic novels have a style more effective—more descriptive, more evocative of feelings through particulars, less lost in fuzzy abstractions—than novels hailed by reviewers as stylistic masterpieces. But it is nevertheless true that the chief literary value preserved by contemporary fiction is style. In other words, the literary means is still held to a certain standard, but the Romanticist standards for content (plot, character, philosophic theme) are gone. There is something of an analog in non-objective art, today, where color, line, form, shading, and other elements (the means) are used to represent nothing. The artist is using the means to express…the means. “In art, and in literature, the end and the means, or the subject and the style, must be worthy of each other. …That which is not worth contemplating in life, is not worth re-creating in art.” (The Romantic Manifesto, page 85.)

The Romantic novel and the hero. Popular Romanticism has clung, above all, to the concept of the hero  The hero is implied in the nature of plot, where individual choice of values dominates. The capacity to freely choose good or evil creates heroes and villains—in fiction and in life. The hero is the perfect exemplar of a given code of morality. In Hugo’s Les Miserables, the novel where he aspires to "tell it all, the theme is commitment to values as such. A host of characters represent different commitments. in The Man Who Laughs, it is the triumph of the spirit over any physical limitations. (Dea, the beautiful blind girl who loves the Gwynplaine, with his mutilated face, says: “God closed my eyes so I could see only the real Gwynplaine.”)

As much as we enjoy novels of contemporary popular Romanticists—some of the finest story tellers of our time— we are poorer for extinction of literary Romanticism with its philosophical themes, plot driven by crucial conflicts, characters with challenging new assertions of morality, and, the beauty of literary style that uses language to describe things but also to summon up a world we long to understand.

A world with James Bond and Hercule Poirot is exciting and, yes, inspiring. A world with Howard Roark and John Galt is glorious for the human spirit and a challenge to the best within us. 

This article was originally published by Walter Donway and has been reprinted with the author's permission. For more on Ayn Rand & Romanticism from Walter Donway, check out Romanticism Reborn.

Walter Donway
About the author:
Walter Donway

"Walter's latest book is How Philosophers Change Civilizations: The Age of Enlightenment."

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