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  • Romantic Irony in the Short Fiction of Rebecca Harding Davis
  • Michael D. West

As the author of some 275 short stories, over a dozen novels, and hundreds of juvenile stories and journalistic essays, Rebecca Harding Davis’ prolific output spanning more than five decades naturally invites—and challenges—categorization. Although her novels were well-received, it was the short stories she published chiefly in periodicals, with only one collection in book form, “that earned her greatest critical praise.” Romanticism, sentimentalism, regionalism, realism, and naturalism are all justifiably invoked to explain aspects of her oeuvre, with the palm probably going to realism. But in her pioneering study Sharon Harris claimed that if Davis was a realist, she was often an ironic realist; and more recently Harris has acknowledged that pigeonholing her fiction as “realism” can be misleading since she “was much more diverse in her choices of genres” than that label suggests.1 It is with some trepidation that one ventures to add another to the heap of competing labels, but this paper will argue that many of her stories exhibit the traits commonly categorized as romantic irony. As G. R. Thompson and West have argued, a predilection for romantic irony was shared by all the major figures of American Romanticism and is to some extent at odds with realism.

Although certain literary techniques are closely associated with romantic irony, it is best viewed as a more generalized attitude or temperament underlying much Romantic literature—indeed, underlying much literature before and after that era, as August and Friedrich Schlegel seminally argued.2 That attitude is rooted in the visionary artist’s conviction that the ultimate essence of things is dynamic, constantly changing, and paradoxically compounded of contradictory elements. Literary works trying to render such [End Page 235] ultimate reality will inevitably freeze, oversimplify, and so distort it. Hence romantic writers may feel markedly ambivalent toward their own works. They are driven to create aesthetic order as a means of embodying a vision but also to shatter that order as an inadequate betrayal of their vision.

Romantic ironists may thus cultivate fantasy half-seriously: both as an ecstatic effort to render an otherworldly Absolute and as a jocular admission of their own work’s frivolous inadequacy, its inability to make that vision seem real. As storytellers they may tempt us to believe in a tale, then shatter our belief by narrative devices calling attention to the fact that the tale is after all only fiction—for example, by an intrusive narrator who suddenly addresses the reader directly or who treats its characters deliberately as artificial puppets acting out the author’s whims. They may create works with catalog or medley structure that incorporate within themselves a jarring clash of tones or genres, undermining their assertions by setting them all against one another and making each seem at last only a function of a particular literary convention. Sometimes this literary self-consciousness results in deliberate patches of self-parody. Puns appeal to the romantic ironist because they can puncture a reader’s complacent belief in the reliability and transparency of language. They may hint at occult correspondences between words and things yet suggest that such correspondences are utterly arbitrary and fortuitous, bogus and laughable.

Through these literary techniques and others the romantic ironist seeks to undermine his own credibility. When his eloquence is about to enthrall us, he shatters the spell with some trick. Beethoven once improvised at the piano until a roomful of Viennese aristocrats wept—then laughed at them. He exulted in his artistic power, and much romantic irony seems like an artist’s effort to wring power from a sense of his powerlessness. His work cannot capture his vision, but by treating it with contempt he shows that at least he knows that. Knowledge of its inadequacy makes him superior to it (and to us if we take it with complete seriousness). Simultaneously creating and destroying the world portrayed in a work can breed an almost godlike sense of ironic detachment from the real world. The romantic ironist seeks to transcend its limitations by embracing its contradictions in the spirit of the paradoxical Absolute from which it emanates.

“Life in the...


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pp. 235-249
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