‘Impressionism’ in Literature

Posted on October 24, 2008


The term ‘Impressionism’ comes from the school of mid-nineteenth century French painting, which was in reaction to the academic style of the day. The Impressionists, as they called themselves, made the act of perception the key for the understanding of the structure of reality. They developed a technique by which objects were not seen as solids but as fragments of colour which the spectator’s eye unified. The basic premise involved was that “truth” lay in the mental processes, not in the precise representation of external reality.
The literary use of the term ‘Impressionism’ is, however, far less precise. Many of the French Symbolist poets have at one time or another been called Impressionists. In England, Walter Pater, concerned with aesthetic matters, used the term ‘impressionism’ in ‘The Renaissance’ (1873) to indicate that the critic must first examine his own reactions in judging a work of art. Arthur Symons felt that the Impressionist in verse should record his sensitivity to experience, not the experience itself; he should express the inexpressible. In Wilde’s ‘Impression du Matin’, perhaps influenced by Whistler’s painting, the Impressionist technique is apparent in the subjectivity of description.
In the modern novel, ‘Impressionism frequently refers to the technique of centering on the mental life of the chief character rather than on the chief character rather than on the reality around him. Writers such as Proust, Joyce and Virginia Woolf dwell on their character’s memories, associations, and inner emotional reactions. In ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, for example, Joyce presents Stephen Dedalus’ unarticulated feelings but little of physical surroundings.