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The Nineteenth Century, Romanticism


Society and Culture

  • The spirit of the French and American revolutions, along with economic and social change, influenced a shift away from the fundamental assumptions and concerns of the Enlightenment toward ideas of democracy, individual rights, and a belief in the limitless possibilities inherent in change and progress.
  • The term “Romanticism” refers to this period of cultural shift and generally extends from the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century.
  • A new emphasis on the individual and the self led to suspicion of the restraints imposed by social institutions and an increased attention to the inner psychological life.
  • The movement away from universal assumptions to the individuality of the particular also contributed to the rise of national identity, particularly in America.
  • Spontaneity, imagination, and originality emerged as valued forces through which the individual could connect with universal truths and communicate those
    truths to others.
  • An appreciation of nature and the natural world reflected the Romantic belief in the spiritual transcendence experienced in the physical presence of nature.
  • New laissez-faire economic theories and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution produced a rising middle class, urban migration, and increasingly poor living conditions for those who left their rural homes to work in the manufacturing cities.


  • As feeling and emotion replaced the Enlightenment emphasis on reason, alternative literary genres, such as the novel of sensibility, the Gothic novel, and lyric poetry rose in importance.
  • From the increased attention to the transcendent spirit of the natural world and the growing sense that societal institutions corrupt human nature, Romantic writers turned away from classical themes to those concerned with primitive cultures and medieval legends, from urban societal settings to images of rural life and common people, from the experience of adulthood to the innocence of childhood.
  • The new emphasis on the emotion of the individual brought with it the possibility of new subject matter concerned with issues such as psychology and Romantic love as expressed in Rousseau, Goethe, and Alexander Pushkin.
  • Woman writers—including the Brontë sisters, Christina Rossetti, Anna Petrovna Bunina, George Eliot, and George Sand—established themselves in poetry and fiction as insightful commentators on Romantic emotion and the injustices imposed by social restrictions.
  • Romantic writers and philosophers reflected the negative as well as the positive effects of nineteenth-century accomplishments by protesting the oppressive consequences of capitalism, the moral decline of the middle class, or the melancholy and alienation of the individual at odds with society.