Romantic and Gothic Literature
The gothic literary movement is a part of the larger Romantic Movement. Gothic literature shares many of the traits of romanticism, such as the emphasis on emotions and the imagination. Gothic literature goes beyond the melancholy evident in most romantic works, however, and enters into the areas of horror and decay, becoming preoccupied with death. “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe is a powerful example of gothic fiction, whereas James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans serves as the romantic predecessor, illustrating the differences and the similarities between romantic and gothic literature.
One of the most defining characteristics on romanticism is the tendency to exalt nature. The wilderness is often described to the minutest detail, as fully fleshed out as many of the human characters in the story. The Last of the Mohicans is a prime example of the nature worship practiced by romantics. Cooper describes the area in which Hawk-eye and Chingachgook hold a discussion as follows: “The vast canopy of woods spread itself to the margin of the river, overhanging the water, and shadowing its dark glassy current with a deeper hue. The rays of the sun were beginning to grow less fierce, and the intense heat of the day was lessened, as the cooler vapours of the springs and fountains rose above their leafy beds, and rested in the atmosphere” (1003).
Cooper continues to elaborate further on the wilderness in which the heroes of the tale are currently residing. Cooper spends nearly as much text detailing the land as he does describing Chingachgook, one of the main characters in the story. Ten lines of text describe the forest in full detail, while only twelve lines are used to describe the Indian Chief. Cooper’s in-depth telling of the land seems to personify the forest, making it a living, feeling being and nearly as important to the story as the humans that Cooper writes about.
Poe, one of the forerunners of the Gothic Movement, understood as well the role the environment played in his stories. Poe, like Cooper, also personifies the environment through his description of it, describing the House of Usher as “an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and gray walls, and the silent tarn, in the form of an elastic vapor or gas- dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued" (1554). Poe takes the personification of the environment even further, having the character Usher tell the audience of his theory of sentience, that all plants have the capability to think and feel (1560).
This personified nature is prevalent in most works of romantic literature, gothic included. The difference in the two fields occurs within the way the environment is portrayed. Cooper’s nature seems to act as a benevolent friend, helpful to the heroes. As the sunlight and the heat of the day relent, Hawk-eye and Chingachgook are able to have their conversation in comfort because of their “friend” nature providing for them.
Poe, conversely, portrays the environment as a hostile, malevolent entity. The narrator himself commented on the environment in and around the home in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” stating that “the dim tarn into which they all had looked down, had, at length, brought about upon the morale of his existence” (1557). The narrator claims that the environment itself is what led to Usher’s sickness. This tendency to vilify the environment in gothic literature is a device used to find the protagonists “facing a world that is almost fiendishly physical, one whose material nature they will come to regard as their chief obstacle” (Shear 1). Indeed, in many gothic tales and poems, such as “The Raven,” nature itself is the antagonist, not some human agent.
Death is often a topic in romantic literature. This seems only natural, as death itself is a part of life. Every person is affected by death at some...
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