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The Study of the Gothic Element of Madness in Poe’s Selected Works

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One of the main features and themes of Poe’s Gothic stories is the theme of madness. In defining madness in Gothic texts, traditional psychoanalytic approaches provide familiar and problematic answers. If according to Botting (1996) Gothic signifies a writing of excess (p.1), then madness is thoroughly a Gothic concern since it exceeds reason. Gothic does not merely transcribe disturbed and vicious or horrifying worlds: its narrative structures and voices are interwoven with and intensify madness they represent. Poe’s “heroes” have obvious flaws or rational strengths that never allow the victory of insane perception over reality. But he loves the exploration of imagination and the power of bringing the effects into artistic existence. Madness in Poe’s Gothic tales is being studied in two ways: mental alienation and madness doesn’t versus reason.

Mental alienation

Though madness and mental illness are brought together in the field of insane and excluded languages, madness and mental illness have no relationship in literature. But in three separate circumstances Poe’s narrator of the “the Fall of House of Usher” refers to Roderick as a ‘hypochondriac’. At first glance it seems odd that he should do so, because he never states his slightest doubt that Roderick is really sick: definitely upon greeting Usher, the narrator is shocked by his friend’s ‘altered appearance’. This contradiction is explained while we come to understand that, the narrator who claims he has some knowledge of ‘the history of mental disorder’ is using a medical term. In fact he correctly diagnosed Roderick’s combination of physical and mental complaints as symptoms of hypochondria, a melancholic disorder which has been discovered for centuries and was widely known and discussed among physicians in Poe’s own time. In Poe’s time the doctors viewed a broad relationship between mental alienation and the imaginative insight. But they in no way distinguished between hallucination and the possibility that the Romantic imagination could break through the bounds of ordinary perception to a higher order. The moment of Romantic triumph, in which the individual imagination succeeded in idealizing the real, was in medical terms, the moment at which a nervous disorder turned to complete delusion.

It could be said that there is a connection between the imaginative power which characterizes people like Usher and the actual madness. There is this possibility that Poe saw a connection between creativity and madness. The puzzle which Poe’s Gothic fiction seems repeatedly to pose is that described by the character of “Elenora”:

In “Elenora” as in “Ligeia” and “Morella” the rebirth or the reincarnation of the beloved suggests that the Romantic idealist may, mad though he be, finally achieve some success in his quest for a higher meaning. If the rebirth is actual and not hallucinatory, then the protagonist imagination succeeds in idealizing his early mistress: if his beloved indeed passes through the tomb, then his sensual affection is transmuted into a bond with the supernatural.

In fact it is in the framework of this connection between madness and idealizing faculty in stories like “Elenora” and “Ligeia” that we can most profitably examine the role which Roderick’s hypochondria plays in “The Fall of House of Usher”. Like the narrators of these tales, Roderick is a madman whose imaginative powers may actually increase as his mind sickens; and as in the other fictions the idealizing capacities of those powers are seemingly confirmed by supernatural events reaching their climax at the end of the tale and involving, although in Usher’s realm, the family mansion plays a part as well, the apparent rebirth of a woman to whom the madman has been closely allied. Usher’s superstitious impressions concerning his ancestral home and the sister he entombs within are thoroughly in keeping with the symptoms of hypochondria. Early in the story he refers to those symptoms when he tells the narrator that he dreads the future, “when he must abandon life and reason together, in some grim phantasm, FEAR”(p.202). When Madeline struggles up from the bowels of their conscious dwelling and Roderick rises to meet her dying and deadly embrace, then the two are at once fulfilling the dark fate of the family line and experiencing the ultimate crisis of the family illness. With the death of the twins their sympathetic mansion sinks into tarn: in keeping with its disorder the house of Usher has finally surrounded to its own worst and most fascinating- fear.

Thus what the narrator tries to do is to comfort and rescue Roderick from an illness in which the exterior self has been lost to the interior world of the imagination. The isolation of Roderick’s life from outer reality can be seen in the atmosphere surrounding the mansion which seems to arise from the decayed trees and dank tarn. In this case Brennan (1997) points out: “Poe evokes Usher’s lack of sane boundaries not only through his creativity, but also through his belief that all vegetable things including fungus encasing House of Usher-are conscious of perception and feeling” (p141).

Roderick’s fantasy world is like that of an artist: his music; his literature which deals with extremes of the human imagination; and his art that portrays a vault which is illuminated from no visible source but is “…bathed…in a ghastly…splendor.” Roderick, unlike an artist, has lost control of his fantasy world so that it has become all of reality.

As a result it can be stated that , what happens in “The Fall of the House of Usher” is that Poe explores the inner workings of the human imagination but, at the same time, cautions the reader about the destructive dangers within. When fantasy suppresses reality and the physical self, as in Roderick’s case, what results is madness and mental death. Madeline’s return and actual death reunites the twin natures of their single being, claiming Roderick as a “victim to the terrors that he had anticipated.”

Madness Does NOT Vs Reason

Brewster (2000) in his essay “Gothic and Madness of Interpretation” discusses Foucault and Derrida’s theory of madness. Foucault in his famous history of madness calls madness as a ‘crisis of reason”(p.282). He claims that there is no relationship between madness and mental illness though they have occupied the same place in language. Therefore madness resists the confines of reason. Derrida, however, argues that madness can be thought within reason, but only by questioning or thinking against reason. The difference between Derrida and Foucault is pointed out by Brewster which is worth quoting:

Derrida observes that Foucault’s archeology of this Silence (madness as silenced other of reason) lends over, system or language to that silence, thus repeating the Capture and objectification of madness by classical reason. Whereas Foucault sees madness expelled from the domain of reason, Derrida traces its inclusion in the cogito. (p.282)

Therefore, writing at the edge of delirium is the condition of thinking. Setting out Foucault and Derrida’s terms, it can be said that Gothic fiction produces the crises of reason in association with the crises of madness. As the result, in this theory, reading Gothic means willingly being involved in the delusional systems of texts and to adopt their hallucination in order to overcome and be overcome by their power of conviction.

In “The Fall of House of Usher” the narrator, who is vulnerable to the delirium built by the Usher territory, constantly swings between the perceptible rationality and ‘the rapid increase of his superstition’. In fact his doubts and confusion mirrors Madeline’s physician who seems ‘perplexed with low cunning’. The narrator, a victim to Roderick’s wild influences, is our only sane witness; however his narrative authority turns out of control. He champions the vision of a fictional; tale to alleviate what he believes to be Roderick’s delusional madness, while his own narrative detachment (itself a construction of events) is progressively crossed by his own enthralling meeting with the Ushers. What makes sense here is that Roderick may have deliberately buried Madeline alive, the narrator may be complicit in her hasty burial, but we cannot validate the madness of the Usher household with certainty. The narrator’s mind staggers between objective knowledge and delirium as he escapes the collapsing house leaving the reader in a state of confusion and doubt.

In “The Tell-Tale Heart” the narrator’s distinction between madness and acute hearing ability seems so important to him that the reader becomes susceptible whether he is really mad or not. At the very beginning of the story he says: “…but why will you say that I am mad. The disease had sharpened my senses-not destroyed-not dulled them. Above all is the sense of hearing more.”(p.354). Whether the sound is the hallucination of his own heart beat or the old man’s heart, first heard in reality and then imagined to be heard or that of deathwatch beetling, the fact is that whatever he actually hears, it shows that he is gradually dissociated from reality. In the third paragraph of the story he says:

Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen so wisely I proceeded-with what caution- with what foresight-with what dissimulation I went to work! (p.354)

This quotation closely examines what was already discussed about Foucault and Derrida’s theory on madness pointed out earlier. Reading the story closely, two sides of the narrator’s personality is apparently seen; very dreadfully nervous and impulsive, nevertheless he seems to be careful, understanding and scheming. He tries to self-justify all the way through by: claiming that he is not mad, feeling power and triumph on the eight night, getting the support of Death and having agony of being laughed at derives him to confess. It can be concluded that it is still his sense/ delusion of the overpowering ‘social’ that brings him to the first kill, to confess to police himself and then tell the story to “you” as readers. The old man is not the only representative of social authorities; rather the neighbor, policemen, god and Death are also counted as representative of overpowering socials.

In the story “The Black Cat,” Poe dramatizes his experience with madness, and challenges the readers’ suspension of disbelief by using imagery in describing the plot and characters. Poe uses foreshadowing to describe the scenes of sanity versus insanity. He writes “for the most wild yet homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor illicit belief. Yet mad I am not- and surely do I not dream,” alerts the reader about a forthcoming story that will test the boundaries of reality and fiction. The fate of the narrator of “the Black Cat” is very analogous to the one in “The Tell-Tale Heart”. It seems that Poe tries to employ irony and exaggeration to rather cruelly mock his characters’ decent into sanity. Both characters clearly have thought a great about this issue and, by mentioning it in the way that they do, have revealed to the reader one of the important dimensions of their insanity: an inability to recognize it. They wrongfully equate sanity with the ability to appear calm and the ability to make and execute plans. Both characters pretend to be sane and rational at the beginning of the story; however; they are broken men, babbling their confessions to the policemen. In “Tell-Tale Heart” nothing of the objective nature seems to cause such transformation, it seems only from his extreme hypersensitivity, while in “The Black cat” the narrator’s situation aggravates in the course of the story by his declining nature and the escalating affection of the cat. Poe expresses his early attachment to the cat and dramatizes the character changes he experiences when he writes “our friendship lasted, in this manner, for several years, during which my general temperament and character-through instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance-had (I blush to confess it) experienced a radical alteration for the worse “He warns the reader of new events in a cynical tone and implies the beginning of the madness he denies. Poe first illustrates this madness when he uses imagery to describe the brutal scene with the cat when he writes “I took from my waistcoat-pocket a pen knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket!” following the course of events Now the reader has crossed over the line of reality versus fiction. The author continues to illustrate the inconceivable story when he describes the scene after the fire that destroyed every part of the house except the one wall that was still standing. He writes “I approached and saw, as if graven in bas- relief upon the white surface the figure of a gigantic cat and there was a rope around the animals neck”, leading the readers to join the madness and believe that this was the same cat that he had savagely destroyed earlier that same day. By using descriptive details, he allows the reader to feel the horrifying experience of a man who believed he was free from the evil of madness. The story ends after utilizing every inch of suspension of disbelief the reader can afford. He sums up the plot of the story when he writes “the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman,” implying that the cat had induced the same torture on him that he had brought on the first cat.

Works Cited:

Botting, F. (1996). Gothic. London: Rutledge

Brennan, M.S. (1997), The Gothic Psyche: Disintegration and Growth in Nineteenth-Century English Literature .Columbia: Camden House, Inc.

Brewster, S. (2000). Seeing Things: Gothic and the Madness of Interpretation. In D. Punter (ED.), A Companion to Gothic Oxford: Blackwell. (pp.281-293).



Source by Somayeh Hoseini

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