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Literary Impressionisms

Camilla Storskog

Part I: Lirerary Impressionism. A variety of concerns

3. Literary impressionism: the handbook definitions

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  • 1   In particular, between Manet’s painting Nana from 1877 and Zola’s L’Assommoir, published in 1876, (...)

1In The Cambridge History of French Literature, Robert Lethbridge departs from Brunetière’s early codification of the analogies between impressionist painting and literary techniques to explain literary impressionism. Drawing parallels between themes and subjects in painting and in «the work of the majority of the novelists» (Lethbridge 2011: 534) in the age of impressionism1, he suggests that painters and novelists alike were occupied with motifs such as:

stations, steam-engines and railways; the suburbs; river settings west of the capital; scenes from peasant or working-class life; laundresses; cafés and carriages; absinthe drinkers; strolling Parisian crowds; markets and shops; prostitutes and brothels. There are also analogies of perspective in innumerable panoramic views from windows, balconies, or other elevated sights […] overlooking the bustle of the modern cities. And so precise are the correlations of descriptive fabric, with a similar emphasis on the unfocused and the play of light and shade at different times of day according to the weather, that temptations of transpositional identification are hard to resist. (Ibidem)

2The limits of interart analogy are, however, also taken into consideration by Lethbridge, who comments that the act of reading, necessarily sequential, is by nature «at odds with the illusion of undirected optical experience available to the painter» (535). He then suggests that a more valid correspondence to the «optical experience» (537) and the evanescence of the painters is better found in the genre of poetry, indicating the examples of Mallarmé and Rimbaud, because of the «essentially non-referential qualities of [their] poetic language» (Ibidem).

3Ignoring Brunetière’s coinage, the French Dictionnaire historique, thématique et technique des littératures. Littératures française et étrangères, anciennes et modernes (Demougin 1985) describes literary impressionism as a tendency that

cherche à capter la réalité dans ce qu’elle a de plus fugitif […] ce qui compte, ce n’est plus la description ni l’action extérieure, ce sont le sensations, les sentiments, les états d’âme, les impressions. Il aime les formes brèves (poèmes, esquisses, aphorismes, pièces en une acte, courts récits); il mélange volontiers les genres et disloque le vers, la strophe, la phrase pour mieux cerner la sensation éphémère et unique. Ses héros sont des êtres ultrasensibles, passifs, souvent maladifs, enregistrant tels des sismographes (grâce au monologue intérieur) les moindres tressaillements de leur âme […]. (Demougin 1985: 755)

attempts to capture the most fugitive aspects of reality […] what counts is no longer either description or external action but sensations, feelings, states of mind, impressions. It favours short forms (poems, sketches, aphorisms, one-act dramas, shorter tales); it willingly mixes genres and dislocates lines, verses, and phrases, to better define ephemeral and unique sensations. Its heroes are hypersensitive, passive, sickly, registering in the manner of seismographs (thanks to interior monologues) the slightest movements of their souls […].

4While this French dictionary indicates the Austrian Jung Wien school as the foremost representative of literary impressionism, reducing impressionism in French writing to an inclination of literary criticism «dans laquelle prevalent l’intuition et la sensibilité de l’analyste» (755; «in which the intuition and the sensibility of the analyst prevail»), it is remarkable that a Spanish dictionary of literary terms should, on the contrary, indicate precisely France as the home of literary impressionism, and the French writers Paul Bourget and Maurice Barrès as «los primeros escritores a los que se ha asociado a esta corriente» (Estébanez Calderón 2004: 559; «the first writers to be associated with this current»). On the subject of Jung Wien, in The Cambridge History of German Literature, Ritchie Robertson (1997: 348) also departs from Hermann Bahr’s essay to illustrate the heartfelt need within the Viennese circle of intellectuals to «abandon the Naturalistic fictions of a knowable external reality and a continuous self, and focus instead on the sensations and impressions of which consciousness was composed». Peter Altenberg’s sketches of Viennese life, with their attempt to «convey atmosphere through colour and sound» (Robertson 1997: 348) and the use of «unorthodox punctuation to suggest unspoken emotional nuances» (348) are presented as «a verbal counterpart to artistic Impressionism» (348), though Richard Beer-Hofmann’s 1900 novel Der Tod Georgs (The Death of Georg) is, according to Robertson, «the finest piece of Impressionist prose» in the literature written in German.

5In J.A. Cuddon’s A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, the terms «impressionist» and «impressionism» are said to «have crept into literary criticism» although «they are vague terms which we might well dispense with» (Cuddon 1991: 446). As examples of writers connected with literary impressionism, Cuddon cites the French symbolist poets, as well as Oscar Wilde and Arthur Symons, and also states that abundant examples of the specifically impressionist technique «of concentrating on the inner life of the main character rather than on external reality» (Ibidem) are to be found in James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Dorothy Richardson, and Virginia Woolf. A Handbook of Literary Terms (Yelland, Easton, and Jones 1983) lists works by Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Richardson, Mary Sinclair, and Virginia Woolf as impressionist, and refers (1983: 90) to their method as one opposed to realism (which «tries to give all the details with the objectivity of a camera») and to expressionism (dealing not with reproduction of external reality but «with inner life»), concerned with selecting «a few details to convey the immediate sense impression left by a scene». An example of this technique is given through a quotation from Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, where the writer applies a filmic montage-technique consisting of assembling random scenes in no logical order as a way of building up an atmosphere (1983: 114).

6Under the entry ‘impressionism’ in The Oxford Companion to English Literature, we find an account of pictorial impressionism and the (uninspired) concluding comment that «the term is used by transference in literature and music» (Drabble 2000: 516). The Handbook of Literary Terms. Literature, Language, Theory blandly explains impressionist poetry as one cultivating «reflective emotion and refined rhythm and diction» (as in Arthur Symons) and impressionist novels as pieces of prose exploring «the inner lives of characters rather than the reality they inhabited» (Kennedy, Gioia, and Bauerlein 2009: 82). Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature puts the emphasis on a depiction striving to evoke subjective and sensory impressions of a scene rather than the objective reality; writers quoted as impressionists are again Richardson, Woolf, and Joyce, «who employ stream-of-consciousness techniques» (Kuiper 1995: 583). Anthony Burgess’s entry (Burgess 2014) on the novel in the Encyclopedia Britannica identifies literary impressionism with the early twentieth century’s breaking down of narrative conventions such as the omniscient narrator, the rigid space-time continuum, or the eloquence of fictional characters, whose speech is ‘edited’ by the author. In the prose of Ford Madox Ford, the EB detects «fallible, partially ignorant» character-narrators, a liquidation of «step-by-step temporal progression» and a new approach to articulating dialogues and conversations, all aspects of the style of the impressionist novel2.

7The art of Ford Madox Ford is central also to the aforementioned Max Saunders’s reflection on literary impressionism. Ford, together with Joyce, Conrad, and Stephen Crane, are indicated as «the principal exponents of literary impressionism» in English-language letters, according to Saunders’s voice Literary impressionists in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Saunders 2008c). Although Ford, the author of «voluminous writings on the topic» of literary impressionism, is the only one to have «explicitly defined himself as an impressionist», these four writers shared a desire to award «prominence to the fragmentary impressions and memories of intensely visual scenes in the consciousnesses of […] characters» (Saunders 2008c).

8Finally, as to the Scandinavian context, the signature ‘LL’ in Gyldendals litteraturleksikon from 1974, defines impressionism as a late nineteenth-century «modeord for litterære stiltræk […] som kan findes mere eller mindre hyppigt i lit. til vidt forskellige tider, men som bryder særlig stærkt igennem som konsekvens af og reaktion på naturalismen» (‘LL’ 190; «buzzword for stylistic characteristics in literary writing [...], which can be more or less frequent in the literature of any age, but which makes a major breakthrough as a consequence and reaction to naturalism»), involving, among other things, the disappearance of the omniscient narrator in the text, the technique of the filmic montage of scenes, the reproduction of real-life, ‘un-edited’ speech (190-91). In Dansk litterær opslagsbog, Poul Zerlang (1985: 63) sees impressionism as one of the two major literary styles connotating Danish prose in the period 1870-90. Literary impressionism is here explained as a style reflecting the raw and rationally unorganized sensorial impressions, which are often rendered through vague allusions or metonymic description requiring the readers’ collaboration: «den typiske impressionist vil gribe de få, men væsentlige enkeltheder i situationen eller billedet og lade læseren selv udfylde resten» (Ibidem; «the typical impressionist aims at capturing the few, but essential details of situations and pictorial representations and leaves it to the reader to complete the rest»).

9In Svenskt litteraturlexikon, Peter Hallberg (1970: 257-59) explains literary impressionism through the painterly analogy and as the writers’ completion of naturalism by way of substituting the detailed inventories of naturalist description with the reproduction of «intrycket av pulserande liv» (258; «the impression of pulsating life»). Hallberg mentions the Goncourt brothers as forerunners of this stylistic category characterizing the literature of the last decades of the nineteenth century. As to theoretical works on the subject, the author discusses the works of Luise Thon (1928), Sven Møller Kristensen (1938 and 1955) and Torbjörn Nilsson (1965), and, quite apparently drawing on Karl-Erik Lundevall’s (1953: 238-47) observations on impressionism and Swedish literature, adds: «för svensk litteratur under samma skede finns ingen motsvarande undersökning. Men typiskt impressionistiska inslag kan iakttas i Strindbergs prosa fr. o. m. Röda rummet eller i Heidenstams Vallfart och vandringsår» (258; «there exists no corresponding survey of Swedish literature in the same period. But typical impressionist traits can be observed in Strindberg’s prose starting from Röda rummet [The Red Room] or in Heidenstam’s Vallfart och vandringsår [Pilgrimages and Wander Years]»).

10The interart analogy is, according to Hallberg (here heavily dependent on Kristensen’s theorization), visible also in the impressionist writer’s rebellion to grammatical syntax:

Om de impressionistiska konstnärerna förkastade teckningen som grundval för måleriet, så kunde författarna å sin sida sätta den traditionella skriftsspråkssyntaxen ur spel […]. Sålunda bryts ofta den grammatiskt logiska ordföljden för att ge starkare relief åt något drag i verklighetsbilden. Den hypotaktiska satsbyggnaden ersätts i stor utsträckning av en parataktisk. […] På det hela taget dominerar i syntaxen den associativa principen över den analytiska. Som typiska för i:s strävan till syntetisk gestaltning av sammansatta intryck kan man betrakta visa ordkomposita av mer tillfällig art; ”frosttyst” (Ola Hansson), ”sommarblanka kvällar” (Heidenstam), ”blygtförnäm” (Fröding). (1970: 227)

If the impressionist painters disdained drawing as the basis for painting, the writers could, for their part, turn their back on the traditional syntax of the written expression […]. Correspondingly, the grammatically logical syntax is broken up to clearly highlight a single aspect of the image of reality. Hypotaxis is substituted by parataxis. […] On the whole, in syntax it is the associative principle that dominates on the analytical one. Composites of an occasional kind, though typical of impressionism’s attempt to synthetically render complex impressions, are “frost-silent” (Ola Hansson), “summer-bright evenings” (Heidenstam), “shy-elegant” (Fröding).

11Hallberg also mentions the narrator’s position and the presentation of speech as details that allow the reader to recognize writers of the impressionist school. In literary impressionism, Hallberg explains, the narrator hides his own presence, achieving invisibility through the characters’ direct speech and through the presentation of dialogues that do not require authorial intervention but create an illusion of a cascade of lines belonging to different characters:

replikerna kunde komma huller om buller, flimrande, kaotiskt. De behövliga regianvisningarna gavs i korta inskott mellan replikskiftena, referatet inskränktes till ett minimum. Det innebar ett närmande till den dramatiska formen: man skulle uppleva prosafiktionen, som om man bevittnade ett skådespel. (1970: 227)

the lines would be delivered pell-mell, in a flickering chaos. Any necessary instructions were supplied as brief insertions between the dialogues, reports [from the narrator] were reduced to a minimum. This meant drawing closer to the dramatic form: prose fiction was to be experienced as a play.

12Again building on Møller Kristensen’s studies in literary impressionism, Hallberg reports (Ibidem) that a way of creating a pseudo-objective narration is through indirect description, i.e., through the use of linguistic expressions recognized as typical of the character described, and through free indirect speech or stream-of-consciousness technique.

13In summary, the authors’ struggle to make the term manageable is evident in most handbook definitions of literary impressionism. However, even short and concise entries of this kind do not fail to stress the impractical vagueness of a term indicating a literary writing aiming to grasp «fugitive aspects» of reality, «ephemeral» sensations, feelings and states of mind; Cuddon, as we have seen, though including it in his dictionary, goes as far as to suggest its uselessness. Difficulties in pinning down the dominant characteristics of literary impressionism might well depend on the specificities the tendency has taken on during its migration between different cultural contexts: while the English-speaking literary culture seems to consider the stream-of-consciousness technique as a fundamental trait of impressionist writing, German experts still define literary impressionism through stylistic and grammatical categories (Gfrereis 1999: 89-90), and the Danish critics interpret the category mainly in the sense it took on through Herman Bang’s adaptation, i.e., as a kind of literary behaviourism limiting authorial intervention. Nevertheless, some common denominators in the definitions scrutinized above can be traced and might prove helpful in drawing closer to an understanding of the term: (1) the tendency to consider literary impressionism as intersecting with the history of painting, a connection visible in writerly attempts to adopt the visual lexicon (subjects, themes, techniques) of pictorial impressionism; (2) the interpretation of impressionism as a subjective reaction to naturalism, the presumed objectivity of which is hence superseded or completed; (3) the novelty of the impressionist technique of montage uniting instantaneous impressions independent of logical patterns.


1   In particular, between Manet’s painting Nana from 1877 and Zola’s L’Assommoir, published in 1876, between Monet’s and Pissarro’s serial paintings and Zola’s 1878 novel Une Page d’amour (A Love Episode) and, in general, between the writings of Flaubert, Daudet, the Goncourt brothers, and Maupassant, and painting of the contemporary age (Lethbridge 534-35). According to Lethbridge: “even when this is no more than coincidence in terms of detail, such intersections point to a newly expanded focus on the prosaic texture of the modern world and new ways of seeing it” (535).

2 Accessed 13 January 2015.


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