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Impressionism in literature refers to stories dependent on a character’s subjective point of view. These stories are based around that character’s impressions of their experiences.

The context, details, and interpretive meaning of various plot points are secondary to their experience of them. The edges of what’s true and what’s false or what’s real and what’s fake are blurred because the reader depends entirely on the character’s feelings to understand the story. This often means that these narrators can be defined as unreliable. Impressionism is notoriously hard to comprehend and define as it depends so heavily on impressions. 

Impressionism pronunciation: em-preh-shun-ee-zum
Impressionism in literature

Definition of Impressionism 

In literature, impressionism refers to writing, whether that be prose, verse, or drama, that depends on a character’s impressions of a scene, event, or experience.

This type of literature is hard to characterize but, it should be centered on the character’s mental life and the way they feel and sense things. Interpretations of those emotions are secondary to their experience of them. Some of the best-known works are those which deal with a character’s emotional overhaul or the complexities of someone’s experience. These stories may not have a thrilling plotline or dramatic twists and turns. But, they are just as compelling in that they focus on relatable emotions and experiences. 

Examples of Impressionist Literature 

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf 

Mrs. Dalloway is generally cited as Woolf’s best and most popular novel. It details a day in the life of the author’s main character, Clarissa Dalloway. She lives in post-World War I England and is preparing to throw a party in the evening. It’s well-loved for its use of stream-of-consciousness, a style of writing that’s often associated with impressionistic literature. The author shares the character’s thoughts, one after another, not necessarily connecting them or explaining them. It’s a style of writing that attempts to convey the way that people really think. Here is a quote from the book: 

Up in the sky swallows swooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them; and the flies rising and falling; and the sun spotting now this leaf, now that, in mockery, dazzling it with soft gold in pure good temper; and now again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tinkling divinely on the grass stalks—all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now. Beauty was everywhere.

Here, the author’s use of imagery and experience is represented. The characters experience the world in a pure and emotional fashion that’s conveyed to readers through Woolf’s characteristic style. 

A Season in Hell by Arthur Rimbaud 

‘A Season in Hell’ is Rimbaud’s best-regarded poetic accomplishment. It’s a long poem penned in the 1870s after he split from his partner, fellow poet Paul Verlaine. He wrote this piece while living in the barn loft of his parent’s farm. The poem was self-published in 1873, but the copies weren’t distributed until ten years after his death. It embodies his experimentation with symbolism and surrealism, two genres that are often regarded as impressionistic. Here are a few lines from the “Introduction.” Rimbaud opens the poem with: 

Once, if I remember rightly, my life was a feast where all hearts opened, and all wines flowed.

One evening I sat Beauty on my knees – And I found her bitter – And I reviled her.

I armed myself against Justice.

I fled. O sorceresses, O misery, O hatred, it was to you my treasure was entrusted!

I managed to erase all human hope from my mind. I made the wild beast’s silent leap to strangle every joy.

The first parts of this long poem introduce the speaker’s dark and dreary circumstances. He’s incredibly sad and destroys any possibility, it seems, of him returning to a happy state. The speaker turns to darkness, crime and cultivates sin within his own heart. It is based on his emotional state, something that makes sections of the poem confusing and complicated. 

Read more of Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry.

Finnegans Wake by James Joyce 

Finnegans Wake is a classic example of a modernist novel that can be defined as impressionistic. The book was published in May of 1939 and is notoriously difficult to read. The author deliberately obscured the subject matter through layers of details, unusual language, and confusing syntax. Here is a famous quote from the novel: 

So. Avelaval. My leaves have drifted from me. All. But one clings still. I’ll bear it on me. To remind me of. Lff! So soft this morning, ours. Yes. Carry me along, taddy, like you done through the toy fair! If I seen him bearing down on me now under whitespread wings like he’d come from Arkangels, I sink I’d die down over his feet, humbly dumbly, only to washup. Yes, tid. There’s where. First. We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the—riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

These lines are representative of the author’s use of neologisms and new compound words. The novel combines fables, puns in multiple languages, attempts to recreate experiences like sleep, and an exploration of dreams. 

Explore James Joyce’s poetry.


What is the purpose of impressionism in literature? 

Impressionism tries to connect with readers through a depiction of a character’s experience with the world. Some readers are going to be more drawn to this than others. One narrator’s subjective experience can be quite powerful and moving. 

What are the characteristics of impressionist literature? 

In literature, impressionism attempts to share the subjective experience of a character. These stories are based on one or a few people’s personal experiences with an event, scene, or circumstance. This often means that the emotions are at the forefront rather than the content. 

How to write impressionist literature? 

Impressionist literature depends on ambiguous meaning and a subjective point of view that’s often hard to interpret. When writing, you should depend on your character’s emotions or impressions to lead you. This means pushing the major plot points into the background. 

Related Literary Terms 

  • Graveyard Poets: also known as the Churchyard Poets were a group of writers in England during the 18th century.
  • Lake Poets: a group of English poets who lived and wrote in the Lake District during the nineteenth century.
  • Metaphysical Poetry: marked by the use of elaborate figurative languages, original conceits, paradoxes, and philosophical topics. 
  • Symbolism: the use of symbols to represent ideas or meanings. They are imbued with certain qualities often only interpretable through context.
  • Surrealism: refers to a movement of literature, art, and drama in which creators chose to incorporated dreams and the unconscious, and fuse reality and pure imagination.
  • Literary Modernism: originated in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was mainly focused in Europe and North America.

Other Resources 

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