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Similar Gothic Elements In The Work Of Edgar Allan Poe And Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Apart from bringing the world an enviable amount of novels, theatrical plays, puritan and native literary pieces, 19th-century American literature has provided authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. These masters of the macabre use similar characters, setting, and narration in their writing in order to build up a sense of impending doom. Even today numerous readers enjoy, study, and discuss the shared gothic elements within their works. The gothic style is concerned with the dark side of society—an evil that lies within the individual. Poe and Hawthorne’s stories contain these dark struggles between characters and society; they entertain and, at the same time, include scathing social and political commentary. In this sense, their works become cathartic. It is through the use of comparative gothic elements that Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe allow themselves and readers to cope with the problems of society, their own lives, and their inner demons.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of the most valiant and significant writers of fiction before the Civil War. He gained fame for publishing The Scarlet Letter and was praised for his literary style. The Scarlet Letter allowed him to direct attention to issues he valued. Other stories, like “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” provide a unique view of how a male-dominated society can harm women. For the setting, Hawthorne takes the reader to Padua, Italy (1). Here, the irony in choosing a traditionally romanticized city—which works as a classical allusion—for a dismal story presents itself. Further, the characters refer to Rappaccini’s backyard as “the Eden of the present world” (Hawthorne 2), and Rappaccini, a mad scientist, is compared to Adam. The use of religious allusions implies a certain naïvety toward the circumstances which the reader, unlike the other characters within the story, must look beyond.

Hawthorne begins his third-person narration with the element of isolation. Much like Poe describes the decaying house, environment, and mind of the protagonist in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,” Hawthorne gives us a taste of loneliness, while simultaneously being surrounded and admired by numerous people. He and Poe do not differ much when it comes to transferring melancholy and heartbreak to paper. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is an astonishing 20 pages of getting to know the unknown, falling in love with it, and eventually going mad because of it. This somewhat sums up the story of Giovanni Guasconti and Beatrice Rappaccini.

The prevalent gothic element in this story is poison. When comparing the character Beatrice with Roderick, one can easily regard that both characters are in their own way poisoned mentally. Roderick has an illness, whereas Beatrice is an outcast who suffers from a “curse” that grants her beauty but at the same time reveals the dreadful perfume of the man-made poisonous plants. In contrast to Beatrice, old man Rappaccini is described as “a tall, emaciated, sallow, and sickly looking man, dressed in a scholar’s garb of black” (Hawthorne 2). Again similar to Poe’s pale and well-schooled Usher. Apart from Poe’s deathly and thoroughly pessimistic tale telling, however, Hawthorne manages to encompass the almost Emersonian theme of love, or innocence, within Beatrice. Although her father tries to corrupt her body with poisonous fumes from birth, her heart and soul remain gentle. A perfect example is the scene when she falls in love with Giovanni and proves that her love is unconditional—that of an inexperienced, innocent child. This leads Giovanni to identify the beautiful Beatrice in Professor Baglioni’s story of an Indian prince who sent a beautiful woman to Alexander the Great. This woman is appropriately described as “lovely as the dawn, and gorgeous as the sunset; but what especially distinguished her was a certain rich perfume in her breath – richer that a garden of Persian roses” (Hawthorne 14).

The garden itself becomes an extended metaphor of the evil Rappaccini has been attempting to create. It is the source of poison despite its incredible beauty because the flowers that make it beautiful could kill anyone who comes close to them. This tale is a critique of the nature and efficacy of conflicting values with which moral problems can be met. Inspired by his Puritan heritage, Hawthorne uses his writings to explore the exchange of and the difficulty between situations dealing with desires and imagination. He looks at moral problems and the limitations where desires and actions connect and struggle.

Though he seems to favor poetry, Edgar Allan Poe is an expert weaver of horror tales. “The Fall of the House of Usher,” written in 1839, is regarded today by critics as an early and, at the time, supreme example of Gothic horror stories. The story itself is a reflection of Poe’s belief in the art-for-art’s-sake concept of literature—that it should be deprived of any kind of political or moral teaching. Instead of creating a moral environment in his writing like Hawthorne, Poe creates a tense mood culminating with the reader covered in chills as the story nears its epilogue. The short story does not provide the audience with an exact time period in which the story takes place. Rather, the overall setting of the Usher family mansion, which is isolated and located in a “singularly dreary tract of country” (Poe 216), plays an integral part in establishing the atmosphere that prevails throughout the plot.

The central theme of Poe’s tale is terror that arises from the complexity of human relations. The horrifying events described at the very end of the story, with Madeline coming back from the dead and back to the mansion, are not the result of a single circumstance but from a collision of events. One of the most prominent themes visible within Poe’s gothic fiction is death and decay. Both of which are central themes in the story at hand. The gloomy and melancholic tone of the setting is recognizable through the description of the “vacant eye-like windows upon a few ranked sedges and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees,” which Poe vividly compares to the “after dream of the reveler upon opium” (Poe 216). Certainly all the elements are there; the aged house with its decaying, half-mad and ill residents, and even the reading of a poem that mirrors his current state of body and mind in a medieval gothic style (Poe 226-227). The supernatural element is also evident to the point where one comes to see the spiritual tie between Roderick and Madeleine. One of which is undead, and the other is brain-dead.

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When talking about Roderick, madness is clearly a prominent theme as the author describes the protagonist in contrast to the house itself—“physique of gray walls and turrets, and of all the dim tarn into which they all looked down” (Poe 223)—which is a direct equivalent to the deteriorating condition of the Usher family. Poe uses imagery to transform “The Fall of the House of Usher,” into a rebellion of inharmonious elements. The house has the same structure as a human head, with windows shaped like eyes. As it begins to fall into disrepair, so do the humans inhabiting the home. Roderick and Madeline are no longer governed by reason, and there is a shift to corruption, insanity, and irrational behavior. The disintegration of the home mirrors the impending death of those living in the home as well. Ultimately, the home crumbles and is swallowed into the waters of a small lake after Madeline and Roderick die.

Poe manages to create a setting which intrigues the reader and makes them forget the real world by being immersed into the plot and the atmosphere. The “I” narrator is a stand-in for the reader, allowing them to experience Usher’s madness. In doing so, Poe creates a pattern called “ironic doubles” that appear throughout the story. Examples of these are seen when the narrator compares the fissures in the house’s construction with the fissures in Roderick’s and Madeleine’s relationship (Poe 223) and contrasts the living and the dead. The most direct “double” here is the protagonist twins themselves. Both Roderick and Madeleine suffer from illnesses reminiscent of those of Hawthorne’s Giovanni and Beatrice. Catalepsy, a symptom of Madeline’s illness, is a condition that causes muscle rigidity and temporary loss of consciousness and feeling for several minutes, several hours, and, in some cases, more than a day. Generally, it is not an illness in itself but a symptom of one, such as schizophrenia, epilepsy, hysteria, alcoholism, or a brain tumor. Certain drugs, too, such as opium, can trigger a cataleptic episode.

The victim does not respond to external stimuli, even painful ones such as a pinch on the skin. In the past, a victim of catalepsy was sometimes pronounced dead by a doctor unfamiliar with the condition. Poe, however, is ahead of his time. He has a different attitude toward science and its potential usefulness than Hawthorne, who sees it as a way of playing God and obstructing the individual human heart. Poe appears to understand the condition, as he first mentions it and goes into detail about its symptoms in “The Premature Burial.” With this knowledge, he explains that Madeline is not dead when her brother and the narrator entomb her; instead, she is in a state of catalepsy. When she awakens from her trance, she breaks free of her confines, enters her brother’s room, and falls on him (Poe 236). She and her brother then die together.

The traditional Gothic taste for portraits is frequent in both Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables and Poe’s “Oval Portrait.” Hawthorne and Poe both have a fascination with death and the supernatural, which they include in their writing. The characters in these romances are haunted by the tyranny of the past, which is inescapable. The portraits, as a result, often lead to the destruction of their loved ones. The painter in Poe’s story introduces the portrait as overwhelming to him. He changes his behavior by no longer seeing his wife as his wife but as an image through the lens of his painting. This idea of portraits signifies a curse that plays with the painter’s emotions. In The House of the Seven Gables, the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon is presented as an everlasting reminder of its dark past and the curse’s presence within the house. Clifford, Hephzibah, Phoebe, and the Judge all inherit this guilt of family history and the sins of Colonel Pyncheon which continuously pursues them. The portrait of Colonel Pyncheon and the painter’s wife plays a significant role as a curse that manipulates bad behavior, and determines the fate of the painter and the Pyncheon family.

As dark romantic writers, both Hawthorne and Poe portray the evil sides of mankind. The Colonel’s portrait symbolizes a supernatural curse that revisits the Pyncheon family a few times. Hawthorne describes the portrait of the Colonel as “evil.” (Hawthorne ch. 1). He avoids responsibility for the supernatural at times by introducing it as a tradition. The tradition remains because the portrait hangs on the wall and watches the next generations after him trying to endure the house of the seven gables. Miss Hephzibah is an example of how the Colonel curse influences her, as she is a direct representation of her ancestor, or a “mildewed piece of aristocracy” (Hawthorne ch. 2). Every time Miss Hephzibah enters her home or the shop she revisits the portrait and “[comes] to a pause; regarding it with a singular scowl, a strange contortion of the brow which, by people who did not know her, would probably have been interpreted as an expression of bitter anger and ill-will” (Hawthorne ch. 2). The portrait somehow reminds Hephzibah, Clifford, and Phoebe who they really are: Pyncheons. They are hereditary of Colonel Pyncheon, the man who committed such atrocities, so the entire family is also seen as committing the atrocity.

In “The Oval Portrait,” the narrator discovers that the portrait is life-like and enters a state of shock (Poe 356). This is followed by a long description in which the painter places all his concentration on his work, not realizing that his wife grows paler as the portrait grows more life-like. When the painter finishes the portrait, he stares at it and declares, “This is indeed Life itself” (Poe 359).

These gothic motifs influence characters in an evil manner. For example, Clifford and Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon were victims of this greed and behavioral change due to Colonel Pyncheon’s past. The presence of the portrait of Colonel somehow brings this traditional curse which is not unlike a “black stain of blood” (Hawthorne ch. 1) within the family in the years that follow, including the death of one patriarch in a manner similar to that of the Colonel and the murder of Uncle Jaffrey Pyncheon by his own nephew in an attempt to gain the property (Hawthorne ch. 21). Similar traits are shown of the chaos that this curse brings in “The Oval Portrait.” The painter’s greed for art consequently takes the life of his loving wife. The narrator says, “I thus saw in vivid light a picture all unnoticed before. I glanced at the painting hurriedly, and then closed my eyes. Why I did this was not at first apparent even to my own perception. I ran over in my mind my reason for so shutting them and make sure that my vision had not deceived me” (Poe 356). This action of closing one’s eyes maps onto the painter, for he was blind to his wife’s well-being when he painted her. The death of the painter’s wife highlights both Hawthorne and Poe’s authentic expressions of the dark truths of human behavior in Gothic works of art and literature. The significance of the portrait, then, becomes the perfect showcase of ambiguity within the painter and the Pyncheon Family.

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