Romanticism versus Realism based on the House of Seven Gables by Hawthorne and the Ambassadors by James

        Romanticism and Realism are the two important literary movements emerged in the American soil one after the other. Romanticism is an attempt to turn back to the nature after that so called Enlightenment ideology. Due to that reason behind the movement, romantics are the people who place the individual in the centre of their works and they believe that the truth is only achieved by “inspiration, intuition and imagination”(Will XV), which is the most clear point by which they divert from the reasoning of Enlightenment in the process of finding the truth. Just like the romantics, the realists criticize what has left behind and just like the first realist step taken by Cervantes in Don Quixote concerning world literature they start writing either by mocking romantic works or to show the proper way of depicting life in a more realistic way. What they favor most is the observation through which they aim to achieve the truth and they also see writing novel as a historical process which needs the author be more serious. Escaping from larger than life characters, they actually try to complete the characters even if how complex they would seem avoiding the plot, itself but the effects of it on the individual from whose point they are making us see the world and the surrounding of that certain character. The idea of differentiating these two schools is not an easy one as there is no clear distinction of the works even if they are under the same rubric. However, grouped under three main points; plot, point of view and characters, the differences will be explained with the examples from the House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne as a romance and the Ambassadors by Henry James as a novel.

            As one of the vital features of novels, plot differs between romance (a romantic genre) and novel (a realist genre) in terms of its function if we consider American Literature in 19th century. Romantics give the largest place for the plot even using characters as to explain it in a more complete way. However, the realists benefit from the plot as much as it gives the support to the characters. For example, in the House of Seven Gables, Hawthorne tells us about a curse which emerges from an unjust witch trial and it carries on its effects throughout the story from generations to generations till the residents of the “house” change their characters in a way that would stop the ongoing evil effect of it. The content of the book draws the lines of characters and due to the curse being effective when the characters are under the attic of the house; they just seem assimilated by the character of the house even with its outer surroundings including the garden and even the chickens/hens. When they are under the shade of the house they are alive but when they are away from it the author does not show where they are or does not tell what they are doing. For example, when Hepzibah and Clifford have gone to an interesting trip, we do not hear from them till they knock on the door of the seven gabled house. On the other side, as a realist writer, James tries to explain the conflict in Strether when he faces the differences between American and European culture when he was made to go to Paris to take Chad back, which was symbolized as the post of an ambassador. Even if the content is quite rich and large, he just depicts the ramifications of the plot just by giving the effects of it on Strether. The event seems happening inside the main character not outside the persons like it does in the Seven Gables.

The actions which lead the way of plot are also depends on the movement the authors write under the effect of. For example, the gloomy murders are the main events having further effects throughout the plot in the Seven Gables or the decision of Hepzibah about opening a cent-shop to earn her own money after losing her financial status while the way Chad changes the angle of the hat over his head is an important action in the Ambassador; “…then (he) had only pushed it (his hat) back, so that it hung informally on his strong young grizzled crop… (James 107). That event is the one on which James makes further comments and interpretations nearly one and a half page which actually shows how he writes in accordance with his theory as he thinks that if a woman puts her hand over a table then that is the event and if we as readers cannot see the hints that action gives about the character of the doer then that is the job of the author to help his audience (the Norton Anthology 862). While James analyzes the actions of the characters no matter how detailed and tiny-seem they are Hawthorne chooses just a couple of gestures or mimics which actually do not lead us anywhere such as the scowl of Hepzibah, the old maid, who is not only a good but also naïf and affectionate character. He does not give a variety of such details as he may think that these are not helpful if we consider the development of the plot. And there are no complete ends in the realist works as we see in the Ambassadors. Strether’s insight and his own morality after comparing Europe and his home country is the actual point James wants to give us. However, the curse ceases in the Seven Gables and Hawthorne even gives a moral lesson showing how goodness can impede evil no matter how gloomy the fate is by placing his characters in a better place at the end of the story.

As a sub-class, it is necessary to mention how setting plays its role in these two styles. Romantics may use whatever they want and it is not a vital issue whether they place the plot in a common, known or a worldly setting. They can benefit from their imagination as to create a new world for the reader with strange time/place and events. Even if Hawthorne does not seem having a romantic setting as he uses even his own home ‘the house of seven gables’, he comprises a dreamy place yet with his lack of details and letting ambiguity instead throughout the work about either time or place. On the other hand, realist ones seek for the real surrounding. Just like historians they talk about the existing streets, ways, geographical surroundings or the exact time itself. For example, we nearly know every single time period of the day from morning to night and also where the time goes by. As a starting sentence, James tells us about Srterher; “Strether’s first question, when he reached the hotel, was about his friend; yet on his learning that Waymarsh was apparently not to arrive till evening he was not wholly disconcerted.”(James I) by which the reader has the ability to place the event in not only its existential time and place and also in his mind thanks to the replies by James to the basic questions such as who, where, when, how long, why.

Another point under which we can gather some basic differences is that the point of view. Realist works are generally exposed to the world view of the writer as it can be understood how Ha(w)thorne was affected by his puritan ancestors and their evil deeds. However, it is harder to understand what a realist writer thinks; he rather seems showing the things more than telling or explaining. For example, James neither seems favoring for European morality nor the American one, but he wants his readers to evaluate life from their own vantage point as Strether tells Little Bilham; “Live all you can”(Cecil 724). There is also an omniscient view used to a larger extent in romantic works, which is believed to abolish the reality effect of the work according to realists as the reader always realize that there is an author who sits at a place and tells you everything. Even in romances as it is in the Seven Gables, the author intervenes in the work with parentheses and makes some clarifications such as “(W)hen the girl heard this queer and awkward ingurgitation (which the writer never did hear and therefore cannot describe)…”(Hawthorne 143). Even he seems mocking his characters praying god for Hepzibah to help her about her appearance and telling “forgive us for taking a ludicrous view of her position! And he keeps on looking down on her questioning whether there is a possibility of her having any lover. “No; she never had a lover—poor thing” (Hawhtorne 44/38). As a completely different aspect, the realists never give a way for intrusion into their works. According to James, one of the most well-known realists, if a writer expects a serious reader group then he is the one who should be serious first which cannot be achieved if a writer tells you that he has changed his mind in parentheses, which we never encounter in the Ambassadors. Realists also see the author just like a historian which gives facts and writes in accordance with the reality, which makes him study before writing and he cannot say he does not know something if he plans to talk about it as Hawthorne does the opposite (Aytür 48).

As to be more realistic, James uses conversations and dialogs, which Hawthorne lacks most in the Seven Gables. However, there is a balance in the Ambassadors as the author uses conversations and the summaries of the situations in an effective and sufficient way. Different from Hawthorne, he uses third person but shows the plot from the vantage point of Strether. There is even a specific phrase to call what he does is central consciousness or stream of consciousness. Thanks to that style, James also balances showing and explaining things to the readers. With the help of Strether, he can hide his existence, which assists the work be more realistic.

When it comes to the language the characters use, it is easy to trace puritan air in the easy but holy speeches and words in the Seven Gables. However, James uses a complicated and elaborate and in a way unholy language, which should not be evaluated as an unrealistic feature inasmuch as he chooses these characters on purpose and they are generally well-educated and knowing at least two languages. While in the Seven Gables, there are Hepzibah, Clifford and Phoebe speaking much with their common words, James even uses French phrases like “vous allez voir” or some words which are generally used by writers not by common persons.

The last point is the difference while introducing the characters in these movements. Romantics do not give importance to the character much because they put their plot in the centre while nothing can have the same degree of vitality for a realist writer as much as a character has. As we already mentioned above, realists rather use the plot so as to create a more complete, sensible and a realistic character. It is easy to trace the difference when we just look how the main character or one of the main characters of the current time is introduced in both stories. While James opens the first scene with the utterance of Strether, with his ‘interior monologue’, Hawhtorne does not rush to call for Hepzibah till the second chapter. Realists have a more ordered way while creating a character. The readers first know about some physical details of the character as an object then the character demand for his rights so as to speak his mind and it seems to me that as a realist, James has the difficulty to stop Strether’s speaking as he not only speaks with his mouth but also with his mind. However, the characters seem like puppets for Hawhtorne; he can do whatever he wants without the need for explaining what he has done to the readers and he has immediate parentheses for an emergency.

Another difficulty James encounters or the reader is that to make a character complete means to show how complex and elaborate it is as reality is a complicated issue for the realists. They believe the more complex you write the more close it gets to the real world. That leads evil and good to emerge from the same soul so there is no clear cut distinction between good and bad characters in realist works as it is the opposite in romances such as in the House of Seven Gables. We do not have the ability to judge people when we encounter them in realist works. For example, we all experience the changes, the shocks and the cultural crushes of Strether in the Ambassadors but that is in a way hamper the reader from making cruel critics on a character so there created a realistic atmosphere as it is not easy to make such bold distinctions in the real world when we face a person. However, the romantic author already makes his classification before the reader. For example, there are good and bad sides in romances; for the first one, Hawthorne has Hepzibah, Clifford and Poebe and for the latter he introduces Colonel Pyncheon and Judge Pyncheon. And no matter what they do, the places they deserve do not change as it is already decided by the writer.

In conclusion, even if there are some little points these two texts do not represent the movement they emerged within they are really helpful to understand the differences between a realist and a romantic work. However, I do not favor for any superiority for a text when it is more realistic as the representation of reality is another myth of modern life in my opinion, which should not be sought much till there remains no literary taste in a work or a bad-side book because we cannot restrict writers with such limits and it is the right of any people who have a pen in hand to speak up his mind whether it is close to reality or not. And when a writer begs you to see his work as a romance then the House of Seven Gables is also a masterpiece in its genre just like the Ambassadors also is in its realistic one.


Aytür, Necla. Amerikan Romanında Gerçekçilik 1870-1900. Ankara Universitesi Dil ve Tarih-Coğrafya Fakültesi Yayınları 356.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of Seven Gables. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney.

James, Henry. The Ambassadors. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford University Press.

Leitch et al, eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. W.W. Norton & Company. New York. London.