Poe vs. Hawthorne: Dark But Not Necessarily Gothic

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In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, a new literary genre sprung up, the Gothic story. In the United States, the most prominent exponent of Gothic fiction was Edgar Allen Poe, whose “horror” tales conjure up the dark side that many of us at least half-believe is hidden just beneath the surface of the most conventional lives. In this paper we will discuss the Gothic in light of two of Poe’s stories, “Ligeia”, and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and contrast Poe’s story with a somewhat dark tale of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, “The Minister’s Black Veil.” We will also analyze why Poe’s stories are Gothic’s and Hawthorne’s is not.

Critic Mark Edmunson calls Gothic literature “the art of haunting”, adding that “Gothic shows that life, even at it’s most ostensibly innocent, is possessed, that the present is in thrall to the past. All are guilty; all will, in time, pay the price. And Gothic should also possess the reader; scare him, so he can think of nothing else. He has to read it--or see it--again and again to achieve some peace.” Edmunson quotes Chris Baldick, author of a book on the Frankenstein myth, that Gothic literature "should combine a fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an impression of sickening descent into disintegration” (Edmunson, p. 48).

The Gothic imagination, in short, is contradictory to mighty American optimism. A nation of ideals, America has also been, not surprisingly, a nation of disillusionment, and we often find some sort of sympathetic resonance in tales of the dark and unholy. And the first prominent American exponent of the Gothic was Edgar Allen Poe. So what characterizes a Gothic...

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...debts to the classic Gothic tradition. According to Edmunson, this is largely because, at this century’s end, we are again simultaneously cynical and insecure. “For we now find ourselves in a culture where the Gothic idiom has slipped over from fiction and begun to shape and regulate our perception of reality, thrusting us into a world in which serial killers, bizarre molesters and the like constitute actuality. They are -- to more and more of us -- what's out there” (Edmunson, p. 48). In its weird language of archetype and symbol, the Gothic horror tale may represent today’s reality.

Works Cited

Edmunson, Mark. “American Gothic”, Vol. 3, Civilization, 05-01-1996, pp 48.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches. Library of America edition, NY, 1982.

Poe, Edgar Allen. Selected Writings of Edgar Allen Poe. Riverside Editions, Cambridge, Mass. 1956.
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