Ambiguity of American Gothic Fiction

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Julie Fallows
6423747
Sean Moreland
November 27, 2012
Ambiguity of American Gothic Anxieties

Since the 19h century, American Gothic fiction started to exist independently from the British type. In fact, the latter was marked by its use of fantastic, externalized and metaphysical elements as opposed to the boundaries of American Gothic fiction in which were expressed by historical, internalized, racial and psychological characteristics. (Edwards, XVII) In Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, Fall of the House of Usher and The Tell-tale heart and The narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and in Charles Broken Brown’s Edgar Huntly expresses a transformation of certain gothic conventions to an American setting which are the result of 19th century anxieties. This change was adapted to the cultural and psychological anxieties of that time, which were the ambiguity of the integration of miscegenation of African Americans and Native Americans, the fear of the wilderness and of the unknown and the suggestion of an apocalypse or failure of the American dream. The rhetorical and gothic discourse advocates these concerns subliminally and defines American Gothic literature to that of the British.

The stress of that period is well reflected in Poe’s Gothic tales as racist constructions are represented to depict the common social projections towards African Americans of the 19th century. Therefore, many authors’, namely Poe, would integrate the ideologies of American culture within their tales. “Nineteenth-century racial theories were significant in that it justified slavery within a nation that proclaimed the equality of all men.” (Edward 7) For instance, in Poe’s tale The Raven, there are colors of black and white in which depicted racial ambiguity towards the social integration of African Americans. (Edwards, 111) The rhetoric of the Raven advocates the definition of dark words as malevolent and lighter ones as good: such as “Bleak December,” “dying ember,” “angels” and “ebony bird” from the tale. Poe has been depicting images of blackness and whiteness through his tales, compelling the reader to perceive the colors of slavery. (Edwards 3) Thus, the feeling of terror, deformity and deterioration or monstrosity for blackness denotes African Americans.

Gothic fiction was able to bring headfirst issues that society was ignorant about or would simply not discuss because of its taboo origins. In Poe’s The narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the black cook is demonized “who in all respects was a perfect demon” (Poe 94). Throughout gothic novels of the 19th century, black men are embodied as the foulest of all kinds of men. Poe further demonstrates this point by presenting the word “hybrid” in his novel to describe the breeding of two different racial types known as miscegenation. In his case, the man in question is Dirk Peters, born a half-breed Indian and a “ferocious-looking men I ever beheld” (Poe 95) with a “head equally deformed […] with an indentation on the crown (like that on the head of most negroes).” (95) The author brings forth many racial stereotypes, as African Americans were seen as the “lesser breed”. (Carlson 420) Yet, throughout the novel, Peters is able to prove that despite, his ‘deformities’, he is an instinctive thinker with high intelligence; hence the portrayal of his inferiority is misdirected. (Poe 95) Nevertheless, most Americans disagreed of miscegenation between whites, blacks and Indians, for they feared “corruption of American ‘whiteness’ and the loss of an ‘original’ American identity.” (Edwards 5) Racial mix was deemed unnatural, so separation of Caucasians and other races was the ideal social model to put men in exclusive mutual categories. A theorist Samuel George Morton attested that blacks were inferior, for they were not very fertile and had more sicknesses and diseases than Caucasians. (Charles 17) Consequently, states proposed to send the blacks back to Africa and the Native...
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