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Gothic Elements in the Short Stories of

By meganharvey85 Jan 05, 2014 2702 Words
Gothic Elements in the Short Stories of
Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe is known as the Father of the Gothic. He utilized Gothicism in his short stories such as, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and ‘Ligeia.’ Poe has written numerous literary masterpieces that have focused on the Gothic. Not only have his works been focused on the Gothic, but his life had somewhat of a Gothic theme. Through love, death, and depression, Poe’s life had an impact on the way he wrote, which is evident through in his literary works. Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809 to David and Elizabeth Arnold Poe. Poe’s mother Elizabeth died on December 8th after her husband David abandoned the family, Poe was only two years old. Newly orphaned, Poe was taken in by Frances and John Allan. Poe attended a London boarding school in 1818, until the Allans all moved back to Richmond in 1820 (Peeples, xiii). Poe then attended the University of Virginia in 1826, but did not return after Christmas. In 1827, Poe enlisted in the US Army and was stationed at Fort Moultrie in South Carolina. In 1829 he left the army only to return to West Point and re-enroll in 1830. After the death of his wife in 1829, John Allan remarried in 1830 and cut all ties with Poe (Peeples, xiii). In 1831, Poe was expelled from West Point for not going to class or drills. Starting his new, adult life, Poe then moved in with his aunt, Maria Clemm, and her daughter, Virginia Clemm. In 1836, Poe married Virginia Clemm who was only 13 years old. Poe published ‘Ligeia’ in 1838 after moving to Philadelphia, Poe then published ‘Usher’ in 1839 (Peeples, xiv). In 1842 Virginia Clemm, the wife of Poe, contracted Tuberculosis. This disease caused the death of Virginia in 1847, and as a result Poe became depressed and sick. In 1848, Poe attempted suicide by means of an overdose of Laudanum. In 1849, Poe dated Elmira Shelton who was his past fiancé and at the time a widow. Poe then left to Richmond where he was found in a tavern passed out and nearly dead. He was then rushed to a hospital where he finally died on October 7, 1849 (Peeples, xvi). Poe utilizes Gothicism in several different aspects of his writing, one being in incestuous relationships and the death of these women who are not only family but also lovers (Fiedler, 415). Another important aspect of Gothicism in the works of Poe is the dead possessing, harming, or loving him or his characters. This is shown in both ‘Usher’ and ‘Ligeia’ (Fiedler, 416). Gothicism provides adventure to escape from everyday boring lifestyles. Audiences enjoy this because it is new and different (Burcuck, 104). Romanticism also comes into play in the writings of Poe. Poe did not really write romantically, rather he wrote all of his works during the Romantic Era. During this era, poets and writers drift away from utilitarian writings and start to focus on feelings. These writings also started to come from the writers’ imaginative, creative side. The basis of all romantic writing is centered on emotions and feelings (Burduck, 103).Romanticism and Gothicism are parallel because romantic writings are centered on feelings and imaginative images, and Gothicism takes this a step further, for example Poe uses horrific images and manipulates the mind of the audience with his writings (Burduck, 104). In Poe’s short story ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ the three main characters are Roderick and Madeline Usher and also the Narrator. Roderick Usher is the only man left in the Usher family. His characteristics are pale and dark colored hair and eyes. He also has a strange uneasiness and becomes upset when he comes into contact with bright light, the scent of flowers, and certain sounds. Roderick also has the qualities of a hypochondriac. He believes that the House of Usher and the Family of Usher are cursed, which causes him to be living in constant paranoia. The Narrator believes that Roderick is keeping a deep, dark secret about him or his family, because of the way he acts (Wilson, 54). Madeline Usher is the only woman left in the Usher family, she is the twin sister of Roderick. She is sick and dying from a mysterious disease. She is described as frail, pale, and sickly. Madeline also suffers from a disease that makes her body go stiff for periods of time. During one of her episodes she could be described as a corpse undergoing the process of rigor mortis. Madeline also suffers from another disease that is causing her body to look dead-like. When Roderick finds that his sister has died, he and the Narrator place her body in the vault downstairs because they think she is dead (Wilson, 54). The name of the Narrator is never revealed, but it is said that he is the childhood friend of Roderick Usher. Even though they were friends, the Narrator does not really know Roderick personally due to Roderick always keeping his guard up. The sole reason that the Narrator is there is because Roderick sent him a letter pleading for him to come to the House of Usher. The Narrator is constantly giving rational explanations for the irrational behavior of Roderick and for the mysterious instances that occur. He does this to reassure himself of his safety and sanity, ignoring that it disturbs him (Wilson, 54). The House of Usher is described as depressing and dark and is one of the main images described in the short story. The House of Usher though is not a house per se, it is more of a mansion. This mansion is isolated from all human contact and is located in a rural area. The Narrator describes the house in several different parts; he describes the windows as being dusty and dirty and also “empty.” The walls inside the mansion can be described as bland and color-less, while the exterior of the mansion is covered with weeds, ivy, and other plants as it is decaying. The furniture and interior decoration is described as old and worn out (Wilson, 55). The Narrator also goes as far as to call the House of Usher the "Mansion of gloom” (Poe, “Ligeia,” 1). The way the characters in this short story are described as are also important images in the story. Everyone the Narrator comes in contact with is a dark, sad, and depressed character. For example, the doctor who is at the House of Usher makes the Narrator feel depressed just by being there. The doctor avoids all communication with the Narrator but still seems to spread his depression with the Narrator. Roderick’s character is constantly living in fear. Fear that his sister will die before him, and fear of the world in general. Roderick is always nervous and jumpy like he is hiding a secret. This constant paranoia and hesitance is very gothic and very depressing to the Narrator. Roderick’s twin sister Madeline however, is different from Roderick. Madeline, who is not seen very often, is described as ghost-like. She lives in a constant depression that also works alongside with her diseases to make her a very dark and unhappy character (Wilson, 55). The House of Usher is the biggest and most important symbol in this short story. The House symbolizes death, in two different aspects. The first, obvious, aspect of death that the mansion symbolizes is the “death” of the mansion itself. This decaying mansion symbolizes how old it is and how it has not been cared for enough to survive. The second symbol of death is shown in the death of the twins. When the fall occurs, it kills the Usher twins as the mansion crumbles overtop of them. The biggest part of the actual fall of the House of Usher is the symbol of death of the entire Usher family, and with the family, the Usher family secret (Wilson, 56). In ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ Madeline comes back from the dead, even though she never actually died, and attacks her brother. Paralyzed with fear, Roderick can do nothing but die from fear. This is how the theme of fear is apparent in this short story. It is obvious that the theme of insanity is also shown in Roderick’s character. Roderick lives each day in apprehensive paranoia that eventually leads up to his mental and emotional breakdown. Leading up to the death of his sister, Roderick seems extremely irritable. He tries to control this but does not succeed at remaining imperturbable when his sister dies. The death of his sister pushes him over the edge. After her death, the transportation of her body causes him to become mentally insane. During this mental breakdown, the Narrator tries desperately to keep Roderick calm by playing the guitar and reading. As the Narrator continues, both hear a horrific noise which turns out to be Madeline coming back from the grave. This noise and the sight of his sister drives Roderick completely over the edge of insanity. While being attacked by Madeline, Roderick is paralyzed with fear and dies (Wilson, 55). ‘Usher’ possesses the theme of Gothicism by all of the topics which are gothic. For example, incest, death of a beautiful woman, and insanity. It also includes horror and violence in the ways of the death and “resurrection” of Madeline Usher (Wilson, 56). Poe’s short story ‘Ligeia’ is another prime example of Poe using the Gothic in his short stories. Ligeia is described as a beautiful woman who is married to the Narrator. She is the woman of the Narrator’s dreams. She is tall and extremely thin, almost emaciated. She has white, pale skin and dark curly hair and dark eyes. Her eyes are especially liked by the Narrator because they are extremely bright and lively and described as orbs of light. Ligeia is also described as extremely bright and intelligent. She has extensive knowledge about European culture and language. The Narrator is madly in love with Ligeia and he thinks himself so lucky to have found a beautiful and intelligent wife. Ligeia soon falls ill and dies, leaving the Narrator devastated and depressed (Beetz, 5889). Lady Rowena Trevanion is the opposite of Ligeia. She is the second wife of the Narrator and she is described as a blond haired woman with pale blue eyes, and is not as intelligent as Ligeia was. Even though Rowena has never met Ligeia, she is the antagonist against her. It is obvious that Rowena is not the same as Ligeia and it is also obvious that Rowena is unable to fill Ligeia’s shoes in her marriage to the Narrator. Rowena soon becomes ill and also eventually dies from her disease because she is poisoned by the Narrator and the poison worsens her condition (Beetz, 5889). The Narrator in this short story is strange and definitely gothic. He first marries Ligeia because she completes him and he is entranced by the love they have. When Ligeia eventually dies, the part of the Narrator that allows him to love and to remain sane dies with her. After the death of his beloved wife Ligeia, the Narrator becomes addicted to opium (Beetz, 5890). Depressed and reliant on opium, the Narrator remarries into a love-less marriage with Lady Rowena. The new couple moves into his newly refurbished abbey and the Narrator puts the wedding bed into a dark chamber which represents his depression and how he misses Ligeia. The Narrator changes his feelings for Rowena from liking her to hating her. He does not care about her condition and illness and eventually is the reason she dies because he poisons her. Rowena dies and struggles to revive herself as the Narrator sinisterly watches. The Narrator has gone from using Rowena to fill Ligeia’s spot in his heart, to hating her enough to kill her (Beetz, 5891). Ligeia is a symbol of the Narrator’s happiness and love. When she dies, so does his ability to be happy and to truly love again. Ligeia symbolizes the happiness in the Narrator’s life because she is the woman of his dreams. Her curly black hair, pale skin, and skinny frame, are all attributes that the Narrator loves. Above all, her eyes are what he loves the most. Since Ligeia is the best he could have ever imagined, anyone else would let the Narrator down (Beetz. 5889). The bridal chamber is also a symbol of the status of the marriage for the Narrator. When Ligeia is alive and they are married, the Bridal Chamber is nicely decorated and gothic themed, and the Narrator takes pride in how it looks and is decorated. The once nicely decorated Bridal Chamber morphs into the depressed and dark chamber where there is little light. The Bridal chamber represents the relationships because it is obvious that the Narrator loved Ligeia, and that was reflected in the Bridal Chamber. On the other hand, when he enters into the loveless marriage with Rowena the Bridal Chamber also reflects the marriage because there is no love or sincerity, at least from the Narrator (Beetz, 5894). When Rowena is dying, her body seems to be dead, but that is not entirely true. Her body revives itself three times, and on the third revival, the body is reincarnated to be Ligeia. Finally the body of Ligeia dies and does not revive itself again. While this is taking place, the Narrator is watching, somewhat scared and not caring because of the opium. After the three revivals of Rowena and the reincarnation of Ligeia, the body of Rowena officially dies and stays that way (Beetz, 5891). This image is somewhat peaceful for the Narrator. This is because not only are the bodies of Rowena and Ligeia finally at peace, but this also gives the Narrator time to grieve, or at least look at the body of Rowena which is finally at peace (Beetz, 5892). The theme of love is constant in this short story. The Narrator is finally in love with Ligeia and is happy with how his life is going. He is in love with being in love, and when he loses that with the death of Ligeia, he desperately wants to regain that feeling. So he rushes into the marriage with Rowena because he believes that love will solve all his problems and that marriage creates love, which it is clear that neither occur (Beetz, 5893). The Narrator even admits that the marriage is somewhat loveless by saying “the unhallowed hours of the first month of our marriage --passed them with but little disquietude.” (Poe, “Usher,” 1). The connection and theme of Gothicism of ‘Ligeia’ is found in the mental madness and the death of a beautiful woman. The mental insanity is possible because the Narrator was addicted to opium, and the reincarnation and revivals of Rowena could have been hallucinations of his. The theme of the death of a beautiful woman is obvious in the several deaths of Rowena and Ligeia (Burduck, 102). Poe was not only an author, but he was also a literary critic. His criticism is used as a guide for authors today. He also changed the perception of American Literature because the Gothic was so popular, different, and interesting. Poe is known as the creator of the Gothic. He is the author who not only made Gothicism popular, but also influenced other authors to follow in his footsteps (May, 1). Poe influenced not only other authors, but also the audiences. He interested Americans with his new and interesting creative writing that kept them coming back for more of the gothic. Poe kept the audiences on the edge of their seats and scared them, which opened a whole new door for literature. In all of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, he utilized the Gothic in several different ways. He specifically used Gothicism in his short stories ‘Usher’ and ‘Ligeia.’ His focus on the Gothic can be seen as madness and insanity but it also can be seen as creativity and imaginative. Edgar Allan Poe once said “Science has not yet taught us if madness is or is not the sublimity of the intelligence” Poe, “Translation,” 1). This quote sums up what Poe was all about, was he a literary genius or a madman? Better yet, is there a difference between the two?

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