Return to Literature
Prior to the nineteenth century, literature presented man as a helpless being whose life and actions were determined by forces beyond his control: either by fate and the gods, as in the Greek tragedies, or by an innate weakness, “a tragic flaw,” as in the plays of Shakespeare. Writers regarded man as metaphysically impotent; their basic premise was determinism. On that premise, one could not project what might happen to men; one could only record what did happen—and chronicles were the appropriate literary form of such recording.
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. Romanticism saw man as a being able to choose his values, to achieve his goals, to control his own existence. The Romantic writers did not record the events that had happened, but projected the events that should happen; they did not record the choices men had made, but projected the choices men ought to make.
With the resurgence of mysticism and collectivism, in the later part of the nineteenth century, the Romantic novel and the Romantic movement vanished gradually from the cultural scene.
Man’s new enemy, in art, was Naturalism. Naturalism rejected the concept of volition and went back to a view of man as a helpless creature determined by forces beyond his control; only now the new ruler of man’s destiny was held to be society. The Naturalists proclaimed that values have no power and no place, neither in human life nor in literature, that writers must present men “as they are,” which meant: must record whatever they happen to see around them—that they must not pronounce value judgments nor project abstractions, but must content themselves with a faithful transcription, a carbon copy, of any existing concretes.