In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Adventure Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies and Encyclopedias
  • Marine Adventures: Swashbuckling, Shipwrecks, Pirates
  • The Lost World/Race Adventure
  • Science and Social Science: Anthropology, Archaeology, and Natural History
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Empire and Imperialism
  • Aesthetics, Print History, Maps, and Illustrations
  • Children’s Adventure Fiction

Victorian Literature Adventure Literature
Kate Holterhoff
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0194


Adventure factors into the plots of much 19th-century British fiction, but what sets the adventure literature genre apart is its charismatic heroes, terrible adversaries, and plotting that emphasizes action over character development. The form of Victorian adventure fiction is indebted to the exoticism, excitement, and danger central to the plots of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Sir Walter Scott’s historical romances beginning with Waverley (1814). This genre came into its own during the era of New Imperialism (1875–1914), and literary critics typically credit two fictions with inspiring the popularity of adventure during this period: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (serialized in Young Folks 1 October 1881 to 28 January 1882) and H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and She (1887). These thrilling, wild-minded fictions gained a foothold in the popular imagination which continues into the present. Literary and cultural studies scholarship concerned with adventure literature tends to focus on this genre’s contributions to the discourses of aesthetics, imperialism, children’s literature, print history, gender and sexuality, and the history of science.

General Overviews

Although scholarly prestige continues to elude the adventure literature genre, beginning in the 1970s a number of literary scholars have noted the importance of this form. Much criticism focuses on distinguishing characteristics within the genre. Howarth 1973 and Zweig 1974 examine the character of the masculine adventurer. Green 1979 and Green 1991 identify formal aspects of quest narratives, with the former focusing on imperialism and the latter charting types within the adventure fiction form. Jameson 1981 provides the most enduring Marxist critique of the form. Cawelti 1976 numbers adventure fiction among a range of popular formula fiction genres. Bruzelius 2007 and Fisher 1986 focus on imagination’s formative role in the genre. Fraser 1998 applies an anthropological lens to adventure fiction. Hoppenstand 2018 adopts a diverse series of themes (imperialism, decline, swashbuckling) in his survey of the form. Orel 1995 argues that adventure is foundational to the historical novel. Finally, Simmel 1971 (originally published in 1911) theorizes the significance of adventurers from a sociological perspective.

  • Bruzelius, Margaret. Romancing the Novel: Adventure Fiction from Scott to Sebald. Lewisburg, TN: Bucknell University Press, 2007.

    Bruzelius studies imagination and gender in the popular adventure fiction plots of Sir Walter Scott, Alexandre Dumas père, Jules Verne, and Robert Louis Stevenson, particularly how these fictions intersect with the ideas of Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein, George Eliot, Ursula Le Guin, W. G. Sebald, and Joseph Conrad.

  • Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226148700.001.0001

    Cawaltei researches the idea of formula fiction in the genres of adventure, mystery, romance, melodrama, and fantasy. Although he does not focus on 19th-century texts, Cawelti’s ideas about what makes formulaic plots so appealing and enduring is influential.

  • Fisher, Margery. The Bright Face of Danger: An Exploration of the Adventure Story. Boston: The Horn Book, 1986.

    After decades of writing criticism on the subject of children’s fiction, Fisher focuses on the entwined genre of adventure fiction by examining similarities and differences between stories intended for adults and children. She argues that formal differences in approach, tone, and subject matter are of less consequence than the way readers of all ages experience adventure fictions—ideally with the unprejudiced and susceptible imaginativeness which is characteristic of youth.

  • Fraser, Robert. Victorian Quest Romance: Stevenson, Haggard, Kipling, and Conan Doyle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv5rf2j9

    Fraser surveys major authors in the adventure fiction genre—Robert Louis Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, and Rudyard Kipling—through the lens of anthropology and archaeology. Fraser sets out to distance this study from identity politics, feminist theory, and postcolonialism, especially by engaging the role British imperialism plays in quest romances.

  • Green, Martin. Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire. New York: Basic Books, 1979.

    Green’s study of the transatlantic adventure fiction tradition argues that the heroic, masculine tales of Daniel Defoe, Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, and Joseph Conrad must be interpreted as a symptom of imperialism. These energetic fictions mask real world, modern preoccupations in Western culture with what Green terms caste (predominantly determined by vocation and social character), capitalism, and race, and must be interpreted as such in order not to perpetuate imperialism’s pitfalls of racism and chauvinism.

  • Green, Martin. Seven Types of Adventure Tale: An Etiology of a Major Genre. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991.

    Green leans heavily upon adventure fiction’s well-known formulaic qualities in his examination of this genre’s relation to the ideology of the modern nation state. He structures his chapters on the subjects of the Robinson Crusoe story, the Three Musketeers story, the Frontiersman story, the Avenger story, the Wanderer story, the Sagaman story, and the Haunted man story.

  • Hoppenstand, Gary. Perilous Escapades: Dimensions of Popular Adventure Fiction. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018.

    Hoppenstand surveys key elements in transatlantic 19th- and 20th-century adventure fiction stories. He covers a range of subjects including imperialism (A. E. W. Mason’s The Four Feathers [1902]), decline (C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne’s The Lost Continent [1899]), swashbuckling (Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood [1922]), political adventure (Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow [1883]), and science fantasy (Edwin L. Arnold’s Lieut. Gullivar Jones [1905]).

  • Howarth, Patrick. Play Up and Play the Game: The Heroes of Popular Fiction. London: Eyre Methuen, 1973.

    Howarth’s study of the development of masculine heroes identifies a dichotomy between what he terms the Newbolt Man (imperialistic, loyal to institutions, conformist, fearless, upper middle-class, philistine, sexless) and the more irreverent schoolboy hero characterized first in Tom Brown’s School Days, and continuing in the juvenile fictions of Captain Marryat, Charles Kingsley, R. M. Ballantyne, Rudyard Kipling, and Talbot Baines Reed. Newbolt men, conversely, appear in the adventure fictions of G. A. Henty, Percy Westerman, Stanley Weyman, H. Seton Merriman, Baroness Orczy, A. E. W. Mason, H. Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, Anthony Hope, and P. C. Wren, among others.

  • Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.

    Jameson’s famous Marxist theory demonstrates the implicit political dimensions of artistic works, and particularly their forms, which serve as symbolic means for expressing cultural issues that are unconsciously experienced. According to the portion of Jameson’s book concerning romance, adventure fiction enables the subversion of everyday reality.

  • Orel, Harold. The Historical Novel from Scott to Sabatini: Changing Attitudes Toward a Literary Genre, 1814–1920. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230371491

    Orel’s study of the historical novel critiques the foundational role of adventure to this genre. Many adventure fiction authors including Walter Besant, Richard Doddridge Blackmore, Arthur Quiller-Couch, Conan Doyle, Stanley John Weyman, Anthony Hope, H. Rider Haggard, and Rafael Sabatini all set their plots in the past because pioneers of the historical novel like Sir Walter Scott established temporal distance as well situated for tales of excitement and derring-do.

  • Simmel, Georg. “The Adventurer.” In Georg Simmel: On Individuality and Social Forms. Edited by Donald N. Levine, 187–198. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971.

    Simmel’s seminal 1911 essay argues that the definition of an adventure depends upon context. Adventures are dreamlike, and take on the qualities of a narrative in the imagination with clearly delineated beginnings and ends separating them from everyday life. Adventurers share affinities with artists and gamblers; they are ahistorical and erotic.

  • Zweig, Paul. The Adventurer: The Fate of Adventure in the Western World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974.

    The historical scope of Zweig’s study of the heroic adventurer is uniquely sweeping, ranging from Odysseus to Nietzsche. Zweig’s monograph follows adventurers he characterizes as antisocial individualists who welcome risk, cheat death, and relish combat in order to suggest that the narrative art arose in response to the human need to share adventures. For this reason, Zweig argues adventure stories more closely resemble myth than literature.

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