"Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul." - Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
By Emma Schneider, Library Page
January 5, 2021
Aesthetics, or guidelines for the style of an artistic movement, enable individuals to connect to, seek out, and find involvement in these movements. Dark Academia, an aesthetic trend, has recently become mainstream over social media platforms such as Instagram, YouTube, and Tumblr. What is Dark Academia beyond individuals dressed like Donna Tartt in tweed and big glasses? It is a concept steeped in the history of classic literature and academic culture. I, a casual Dark Academian, will be your guide through the basics of Dark Academia and specifically how this style is influenced by popular literature and classics. Let’s adjust our glasses, grab a warm drink, and get to it!
Dark Academia: What is it and Where did it come from?
Dark Academia is essentially an artistic movement focused on self discovery, education, and classical literature/history. While this may sound like just any academic aesthetic (since Dark Academia trended there have been subgroups of this movement such as light and chaotic academia), it is focused primarily on historical pieces of literature and mythology, as well as books that promote heightened emotions. Dark Academia is based upon education and the lifelong pursuit of answers and knowledge and aims to be totally inclusive - especially to the LGBTQIA+ community. The word “dark” is used to describe visually what those who consider themselves as a “Dark Academian” try to achieve in tone and style. Furthermore, the books selected often hold darker themes, a connection with unbridled emotion, and an emphasis on decadence. Dark Academicians also appreciate books that are thought to be “ahead of their time” at publication.
The Dark Academia trend has lived subtly throughout literature, though without the title. The culture of Dark Academia has long existed among intellectuals as well as lovers of classic literature/film. The unaware founders of the aesthetic were the Romanticist writers and poets of England in the early 1800s and this carried on throughout the Victorian Era (1837-1901). Dark Academia is rooted deeply within the desire to be Eurocentric, with very little American influence beyond F. Scott Fitzgerald - sorry Faulkner. The popularity of this style was revived with the publication of The Secret History by Donna Tartt in 1992, with the novel focusing on elite college students who take this obsession with aesthetics and knowledge too far.
With popular sites such as Tumblr and Instagram, those who identify as this specific group have found a home on social media sharing their tastes in art, music, film, literature, and fashion. They even share note-taking techniques (I have yet to master how to make my notes on Moby Dick look appealing). With the pandemic leading many to find solace in the world of literature, this subculture has greatly evolved and become more mainstream.
Classics for Every Dark Academian - A Starter Kit:
Inspired by classic literature, most of those who identify as being a Dark Academian have read (or at least convincingly pretended to have read) the books listed below. So if you are looking to dive head first into the world of pretending to be in an elite private college as an English major, here is where you start:
- The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: Dorian sells his soul for eternal youth, only to have a portrait of himself that ages grotesquely.
- Dracula by Bram Stoker: A ragtag team of amateur vampire hunters try to stop the Count from wreaking havoc across London.
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: Victor Frankenstein was not expecting his monster to be capable of human emotions - oops.
- Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh: The story of Charles Ryder's infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly-disappearing world of privilege they inhabit.
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte: Kathy and Heathcliff engage in the most toxic of relationships on the wild English moors - Kate Bush has a killer song about it.
- Shakespeare - any of the immortal bard will do (bonus points for Hamlet).
- The Odyssey by Homer: Odysseus struggles to get home after the Trojan War as his wife Penelope tries to avoid the hundreds of suitors waiting at her door.
- The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov: The Devil and his entourage cause mischief around Russia, featuring a talking cat who walks on its hind legs.
- Maurice by EM Forster: In order to be true to himself, Maurice goes against the grain of society’s often unspoken rules of class, wealth, and politics.
- Sherlock Holmes mysteries by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The titular detective solves infamous cases through the power of deduction with the help of his colleague Dr. Watson.
Modern Adult Lit Featuring Dark Academia:
Not looking to read Homer in your free time? Have no fear! You can vicariously live out the Dark Academia experience through these great novels featuring elite schools, eccentric characters, and unfortunate events:
- Sleepwalking by Meg Wolitzer: Three college students are obsessed with the deaths of female poets, but one wants to leave it all behind.
- Bunny by Mona Awad: Samantha attends Warren Arts College and is drawn to an enigmatic group of girls known as the “bunnies”.
- Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo: Follow Alex Stern as she navigates the world of Yale’s secret societies and the magical horrors in them.
- The Lying Game by Ruth Ware: Three adult women reunite after a message from a fourth brings back haunting memories from the private school years together.
- Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth: A horror-comedy about a cursed New England Boarding School.
- Black Chalk by Christopher J Yates: A fun game of consequences turns sinister for these Oxford students.
- If We Were Villains by ML Rio: Shakespearean actors soon begin playing their roles in real life - hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingenue, extra.
Young Adult Lit for Soon-to-Be Dark Academians:
It is never too early to start wearing tweed, solving mysteries, or using magical powers:
- The Raven Boys by Maggie Steifvater: Blue Sargent reluctantly helps a group of Aglionby Academy boys look for a dead Welsh king.
- A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik: The Students - Magical. The School - Actively Trying to Kill Them.
- People Like Us by Dana Mele: When a dead girl is found in the lake of her school, Kay’s perfect life begins to unravel.
- Wilder Girls by Rory Power: A school has been quarantined due to a body-altering disease running rampant on the island it inhabits.
- Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson: Ellingham Academy is a famous private school in Vermont for the brightest thinkers, inventors, and artists - until a past kidnapping resurfaces as students try to solve it.
- Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs: Jake travels to Wales to learn more about his beloved grandfather and discovers children with amazing capabilities and the evil that wishes to harm them.
Dark Academia is not a genre as intimidating nor pretentious as it seems at first glance. Though those infatuated with this movement tend to have a certain flare to how they present themselves, that is not what Dark Academia is at its core. It is a genre that focuses on the value of education in and out of the classroom. It can feature students at an elite university behaving badly or just be about individuals going against what is expected of them in both the realistic and fantastical sense. So, curl up in a comfortable chair with a big blanket with some classical music this winter and delve into a world of self-discovery and mystery!
- Mount Holyoke News, “‘The Secret History’ Makes Strides in Budding Dark Academia Genre,” Mount Holyoke News (Mount Holyoke News, October 6, 2019).
- Haven Worley and Haven Worley, “Dark Academia Is More Than Just an Aesthetic - It's Building a Community,” Study Breaks, November 10, 2020, https://studybreaks.com/tvfilm/dark-academia/.