Gothic Literature is a sub-genre of romanticism consisting of novels and short stories, which emerged between 1800 and 1850. Gothic Literature focuses on the grotesque, desolate, and mysterious usually including supernatural or horror motifs to show the evil inside of humans. Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Joyce Carol Oates use settings, events, and characters to create their own American Gothic Tales.
Known as the Father of the American Gothic Tale, Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher” is an excellent example of how the setting of a story creates a Gothic theme by using the traditional components of the Gothic Genre. Gothic architecture played a large part in the influence of Gothic Literature and “The Fall of the House of Usher”, which takes place in a dark, gloomy family estate that is in a state of decay, stays true to this influence. The castle is isolated leaving the occupants alone contributing to the fear and madness that dwells within the occupants and their home as they, like their castle, are in a state of decay. From the very beginning of the story, when the narrator first comes up the House of Usher, the description of the home creates a gloomy setting. The narrator describes how the dilapidated house makes him feel upon his first impression:
“I looked upon the scene before me – upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain – upon the bleak walls – upon the vacant eye-like windows – upon a few rank sedges – and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees – with an utter depression of soul…” (Poe 499).
The interior of the home does nothing to improve the mood or gloomy setting. The narrator claims that it is a place of sorrow. From the dark draperies and long windows, to the less than comfortable furniture, the atmosphere of The House of Usher was bleak. The spooky sounds of crackling and ripping against the coffin, the grating sound of the iron door that leads to the vault where Lady Madeline is buried add to the Gothic setting in “The Fall of the House of Usher” as Lady Madeline tries to escape from being buried alive.
Events in “The Birthmark,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne create the romantic Gothic theme of an obsessive man and woman who are in love. Aylmer becomes obsessed with a birthmark that he perceives to be the one flaw upon his wife’s beauty; in turn, this causes his wife to become obsessed with it as well, though she had believed it to be a blessing from a fairy. Rather than live with the obvious disgust of her husband she decides to allow him to remove it through the use of one of his science experiments. While in his laboratory Aylmer created illusions with lights that were ghost-like: “Though she had some indistinct idea of the method of these optical phenomena, still the illusion was almost perfect enough to warrant the belief that her husband possessed sway over the spiritual world.” (Hawthorne 634-635).
Shortly after the spiritual light show, Alymer creates a rose for Georgiana. He asks her to pluck the flower, but when she does so, the flower turns black. This event shows that somehow the innocence and life of Georgiana has been tarnished. In the end of the story Aylmer, driven by his obsession with ridding his wife of this birthmark, ends up killing Georgiana with the potion he gives her. By the end of the story, Georgiana declares ‘”Danger? There is but one danger–that this horrible stigma shall be left upon my cheek!” cried Georgiana. “Remove it, remove it, whatever be the cost, or we shall both go mad!”’ (Hawthorne 639). For she would now rather die than live with the thing that her husband hates, and in turn has caused her to hate as well.
In Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are you Going, Where Have You Been?” Connie is a fifteen-year-old girl, who is our protagonist. She is a young, romantic heroine who wishes to appear older than fifteen years old. Connie does not attend church, which leaves her soul vulnerable to the temptations of the demonic Arnold Friend. Arnold Friend is the protagonist and represents a demonic, even devilish figure. Arnold’s shoes do not fit and twist in turn in strange ways, suggesting that his feet might actually be his devilish hooves. His transparent skin and crazy hair add to his grotesque appearance that does not quite mesh with his actions as he tries to appear younger, and even lies about his age. Connie begins to notice these things but it comes too late. “She recognized all this and also the singsong way he talked, slightly mocking, kidding, but serious and a little melancholy, and she recognized the way he tapped one fist against the other in homage to the perpetual music behind him. But all these things did not come together.”(Oates). Adding to the theory that Arnold Friend is a demonic entity, he is skilled in psychological terror as he harasses the young Connie, who is alone is her secluded house.
“Something roared in her ear, a tiny roaring, and she was so sick with fear that she could do nothing but listen to it—the telephone was clammy and very heavy and her fingers groped down to the dial but were too weak to touch it. She began to scream into the phone, into the roaring. She cried out, she cried for her mother, she felt her breath start jerking back and forth in her lungs as if it were something Arnold Friend was stabbing her with again and again with no tenderness. A noisy sorrowful wailing rose all about her and she was locked inside it the way she was locked inside this house.” (Oates).
Arnold uses this skill of terror to lure the innocent, femme fatale, Connie out of her home.
Setting, events, and characters are all aspects used to create American Gothic Tales by Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Joyce Carol Oates. Each author uses these aspects of writing in their own style. Edgar Allan Poe creates the typical spooky environment with a desolate castle; Nathaniel Hawthorne combines the lovers and hints of supernatural to give us a lesson in the dangers of striving for perfection and messing with things that we do not understand. Joyce Carol Oates uses the more modern form of Gothic Literature showing that humans and modern day crime is just as horrific as creepy old castles.
We will continue to talk about Gothic Literature more in the coming days. In the next post we will talk about the elements needed for a story to classify as Gothic Fiction.
Write On, Writers!
McMichael, George, and James S. Leonard, eds. Concise Anthology of American Literature. 7th edition. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2011. Print.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Birthmark.” McMichael and Leonard 630-641.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” McMichael and Leonard 512-519.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” USF Celestial
Timepiece: The Joyce Carol Oates Homepage. Web. 10 March 2012.
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