Disgust, Guilt, Redemption. Ugly War and Cathartic Potential in Naturalist Fiction

Riikka Rossi

In this presentation, I explore emotions in naturalist and neo-naturalist fiction involving war. By means of case studies in Finnish and French literature – from Émile Zola to F. E. Sillanpää and Sofi Oksanen – I examine the workings of emotions in novels, which feature disgust and fear yet unveil a critical or “cathartic” potential. Through my reading, I illustrate the community-building function of negative emotions: I outline how the unembellished depiction of war realities offers tools for challenging the emotional regimes of patriotic and heroic discourses, and points towards an emotional liberty of the imagined communities under construction. By tracking the pessimistic and optimistic views inscribed in the emotions of naturalist fiction, I go beyond the juxtaposition of positive and negative emotions to grasp the ideological foundations of “critical” emotions.

Theoretically, I continue the recent discussions on collective emotions and the ways in which emotions contribute to imagining the nation. The starting point for my reading is the understanding of all-encompassing affectivity in language, which manifests itself from a text’s emotional tone to genre-specific emotion effects and affective valences inscribed in poetic frames and cultural emotional scripts. By creating and adjusting languages for expressing emotions and feelings, fictions not only represent but also transform reality, thus shaping the emotional communities we live in.


Riikka Rossi, PhD, is a Docent (Adjunct professor) of Finnish literature at the University of Helsinki, Finland, a former fellow at the HCAS (2013–2014) and a university researcher in an Academy of Finland project Literature and Emotions. Her current research focuses on emotions and affects in literary realism and naturalism. She has authored e.g. Le naturalisme finlandais. Une conception entropique du quotidien (SKS 2007) and co-edited several anthologies, e.g. Nostalgia (2007, in Finnish), Rethinking Mimesis: Concepts and Practices of Literary Representation (2012) and Re-reading Zola and Worldwide Naturalism (2013).