ANALYSIS OF MAJOR CHARACTERS
As one of the two surviving members of the Usher family in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Roderick is one of Poe’s character doubles, or doppelgangers. Roderick is intellectual and bookish, and his twin sister, Madeline, is ill and bedridden. Roderick’s inability to distinguish fantasy from reality resembles his sister’s physical weakness. Poe uses these characters to explore the philosophical mystery of the relationship between mind and body. With these twins, Poe imagines what would happen if the connection between mind and body were severed and assigned to separate people. The twin imagery and the incestuous history of the Usher line establish that Roderick is actually inseparable from his sister. Although mind and body are separated, they remain dependent on each other for survival. This interdependence causes a chain reaction when one of the elements suffers a breakdown. Madeline’s physical death coincides with the collapse of both Roderick’s sanity and the Ushers’ mansion.
The central theme of "The Fall of the House of Usher" is terror that arises from the complexity and multiplicity of forces that shape human destiny. Dreadful, horrifying events result not from a single, uncomplicated circumstance but from a collision and intermingling of manifold, complex circumstances.
The plot of Poe's tale essentially involves a woman who dies, is buried, and rises from the grave. But did she ever die? Near the horrific finale of the tale, Usher screams: "We have put her living in the tomb!" Premature burial was something of an obsession for Poe, who featured it in many of his stories. In "The Fall of the House of Usher," however, it is not clear to what extent the supernatural can be said to account for the strangeness of the events in the tale. Madeline may actually have died and risen like a vampire--much as Usher seems to possess vampiric qualities, arising "from a sofa on which he had been lying at full length" when the Narrator first sees him, avoiding all daylight and most food, and roaming through his crypt-like abode. But a more realistic version of events suggests that she may have been mistaken for dead--and luckily managed to escape her tomb. Either way, the line between life and death is a fine one in Poe's fiction, and Usher's study of the "sentience of all vegetable things" fits aptly with Poe's own preoccupations.
Poe writes that Usher "entered, at some length, into what he conceived to be the nature of his malady." What exactly is his "malady" we never learn. Even Usher seems uncertain, contradictory in his description: "It was, he said, a constitutional and a family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy--a mere nervous affection, he immediately added, which would undoubtedly soon pass off." The Narrator notes an "incoherence" and "inconsistency" in his old friend, but he offers little by way of scientific explanation of the condition. As a result, the line between sanity and insanity becomes blurred, which paves the way for the Narrator's own descent into madness.
If we were to try to define Roderick Usher's illness precisely, we might diagnose him with acute anxiety. What seems to terrify Usher is fear itself. "To an anomalous species of terror," Poe writes, "I found him a bounden slave." Usher tries to explain to the Narrator that he dreads "the events of the future, not in themselves but in their results." He dreads the intangible and the unknowable; he fears precisely what cannot be rationally feared. Fear for no apparent reason except ambiguity itself is an important motif in Poe's tale, which after all begins with the Narrator's description of his own irrational dread: "I know not how it was--but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit." Later, Usher identifies fear itself as the thing that will kill him, suggesting that his own anxiety is what conjures up the blood-stained Madeline--or that she is simply a manifestation of his own deepest neuroses.
What binds Usher to Madeline, and what renders him terrified of her? If he conjures up her specter, arisen from the grave to bring him to his own, why does he do so? There is a clear incestuous undertone to the relationship between the brother and sister. Without spouses they live together in the great family home, each of them wasting away within the building's dark rooms. The Narrator describes the strange qualities of the Usher family--that it never has put forth "any enduring branch," that "the entire family lay in the direct line of descent." The implication is that incest is the norm for the Ushers, and that Roderick's and Madeline's strange illnesses may stem from their inbred genes.
The Narrator arrives at the House of Usher in order to visit a friend. While the relationship between him and Roderick is never fully explained, the reader does learn that they were boyhood friends. That Usher writes to the Narrator, urging him to give him company in his time of distress, suggests the close rapport between the two men. But Poe's story is a chronicle of both distancing and identification. In other words, the Narrator seems to remove himself spiritually from Usher, terrified of his house, his illness, his appearance, but as the narrative progresses he cannot help but be drawn into Usher's twisted world. Alas, family (if not incest) trumps friendship at the end, when Usher and Madeline are reunited and the Narrator is cast off on his own into the raging storm.
There are three images of would-be "tombs" or "crypts" in "The Fall of the House of Usher." The house itself is shut off from the daylight, its cavernous rooms turned into spacious vaults, in which characters who never seem entirely alive--Madeline and Usher--waste away. Second, Usher's painting is of "an immensely long and rectangular vault or tunnel," foreshadowing the third image of a tomb, the real one of Madeline's temporary burial. What Poe has constructed therefore is a kind of mise-en-abime (story-within-a-story)--tombs being represented within tombs. The implication, especially once the entire House of Usher sinks into a new grave below the tarn, is that the world itself is a kind of crypt.
Despite (or because) of his madness, Usher is skilled at music and apparently is quite a painter. The Narrator compares Roderick's "phantasmagoric conceptions" to those of a real artist, Fuseli, and the Narrator seems both entranced and terrified by them. "If ever mortal painted an idea," he proposes, "that mortal was Roderick Usher." Insofar as art might be deemed a stab at immortality, the death-obsessed Usher, so certain of his own demise, strives to cling to time itself by producing works which can last beyond him. And insofar as art is a fleeting good in itself, Usher might at least claim a bit of beauty in the midst of his anxieties. Ironically, though, the one painting of his that the Narrator describes portrays a tomb, and everything is finally destroyed by the House's collapse. It would seem that his art fails Roderick Usher.
The Fungus-Ridden Mansion: Decline of the Usher family.
The Collapsing Mansion: Fall of the Usher family.
The “Vacant eye-like” Windows of the Mansion: (1) Hollow, cadaverous eyes of Roderick Usher; (2) Madeline Usher’s cataleptic gaze; (3) the vacuity of life in the Usher mansion.
The Tarn, a Small Lake Encircling the Mansion and Reflecting Its Image: (1) Madeline as the twin of Roderick, reflecting his image and personality; (2) the image of reality which Roderick and the narrator perceive; though the water of the tarn reflects details exactly, the image is upside down, leaving open the possibility that Roderick and the narrator see a false reality; (3) the desire of the Ushers to isolate themselves from the outside world.
The Bridge Over the Tarn: The narrator as Roderick Usher’s only link to the outside world.
The name Usher: An usher is a doorkeeper. In this sense, Roderick Usher opens the door to a frightening world for the narrator.
The Storm: The turbulent emotions experienced by the characters.
In Poe’s stories, as in his famous poem, “The Raven,” love and death are often intertwined, with the beloved being a beautiful woman dying young, only to be obsessively sought after but found “nevermore.” Poe was traumatized by the sudden death of his own young wife, Virginia, and the sudden shocking death of a young woman became a constant motif in his work.
Whatever affection seems to exist between Roderick and “his tenderly beloved sister” (p. 42) is not healthy but doomed. They are both hypersensitive, and because they are twins, they have “A striking similitude” and “sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature” (p. 46). It is as though they are one soul in two bodies. Roderick is stricken by Madeleine’s impending death yet inexplicably speeds it up. He predicts both their tragic deaths and then makes them happen, perhaps understanding death is imminent and unavoidable, a family curse. The family is known to have mental illness as a legacy. The other possibility is that what is between the brother and sister is sinful and painful, and that neither can bear the consequences.
Poe makes death and decay frightening because he reveals them to be the hidden destiny of everyone and everything. The narrator gets this insight immediately on approaching the house and feeling a “depression of soul” which he compares to the opium eater coming out of his pleasant illusions to find “the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil” (p. 38). Death is the truth we all fear at the end of life, and love is not enough to stop it from happening. The narrator’s friendship and devotion to Roderick can do nothing to avert the tragedy. He too is drawn into complicity with death by going along with the plan to bury Madeleine.
The Sentience of All Things
Having material or normally inanimate objects come alive is one of the stock motifs of gothic or horror stories. Shrieking trees, moaning or talking paintings, furniture, houses, animals, and natural locations are thus to be expected in a story like Poe’s. Poe takes this archetype further, however, and makes Roderick Usher propound a theory of the correlation of matter and spirit. Poe suggests there is a spiritual world beyond the material one, and that one influences the other. He does not mean this in a particularly positive or religious sense, but evokes the spiritual in terms of the demonic. The narrator describes the House of Usher and the black tarn that swallows it as having “no affinity with the air of heaven” but instead having a “pestilent and mystic vapor” (p. 39).
Of particular interest is Usher’s reading of Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), the Swedish mystic, whose doctrine of correspondences helps to explain Usher’s theory about the House of Usher being sentient. Swedenborg taught there are correspondences or equivalent laws and relationships in the spiritual and physical worlds—one reflects the other. The human soul is a microcosm that precisely mirrors the macrocosm. Thus, it is not fantastic to think that the material House of Usher, the mansion, is alive and reflecting the mental or spiritual life of the Usher family.
Roderick Usher, however, blames the house itself for producing the evil influence. Is the house evil in itself, the agent of evil, infected with evil spirits as the ballad suggests, or has it just accumulated the evil influence and fate of the family over the centuries? Poe does not say, but the story implies a unified or quantum world where spiritual forces interact with the material world in a sort of field effect. This is proven when a stranger, the narrator, enters that field and is affected with some of the same symptoms as the Usher family (depression, fear, loss of normal moral perception, distorted judgment). This theory of the unity of matter and spirit is further developed in Poe’s essay, “Eureka.”
Hypochondria and Madness
Many of Poe’s stories detail the distorted thinking of a person going mad, such as in “The Black Cat,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Poe, the victim of hypersensitivity, like many of his characters, is interested in mental processes, both rational and irrational. He is credited with inventing the detective story in which a brilliant mind rationally solves riddles. In another vein, his horror stories show the mind coming unbalanced.
The Usher family has a “peculiar sensibility of temperament” that has a positive result in their artistic and philanthropic endeavors (p. 39), but which also shows itself as hypochondria, a very popular topic in nineteenth century fiction, which today might be labeled depression. Roderick is described by the narrator as incoherent and inconsistent. He engages in “a series of feeble and futile struggles to overcome an habitual trepidancy—an excessive nervous agitation” (p. 41). Perhaps he is bi-polar, as the narrator suggests: “His action was alternately vivacious and sullen” (p. 41). The narrator continually likens the atmosphere of the house and Roderick’s behavior to drunkenness or to an opium hallucination. Roderick says he has a constant terror and dread, not of anything in particular, but calls it an “agitation of the soul” (p. 41). He has “unnatural sensations,” “a morbid acuteness of the senses,” and “superstitious impressions” (p. 41). The narrator finds out about Roderick’s fears “through broken and equivocal hints” (p. 41) rather than any coherent communication. Indeed, at the end, Usher is reduced to a “gibbering murmur” as he rocks in his chair (p. 49) and makes his confession.
The story details Usher’s descent into madness, and his complete awareness of what is happening to him. He sings and makes music from “the highest artificial excitement” (p. 43). The narrator knows that Roderick has a “full consciousness” of his “tottering” and “lofty reason” when he hears him sing “The Haunted Palace” (p. 43) about a once “Radiant palace” that loses “wit and wisdom” as it becomes taken over by “a discordant melody” (pp. 43, 44).
The reader realizes Roderick’s madness before the narrator does, when Roderick decides to bury his sister in the basement. The narrator seems convinced by Roderick’s reasons for doing such a terrible and irrational act, but then, he has been in the house for many weeks and is obviously affected. In the last scene, he is almost in as much fear as Roderick is. He is aware that his friend is mad by now.
EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY AND MODERNISM
1901 – 1950
NORTH AMERICAN HISTORY
1900 – 1950
As the 20th century dawned, the United States was poised to change the relationship with the rest of the world. Up until then it had been content to stay out of international disputes, but as its economic power grew, it saw how the colonial influence over other countries had benefited European powers and consequently began to end its historic isolationism.
The United States did not embark on a blatant (ostentativ) policy of colonization. In 1898, the inhuman treatment of Cuban rebels at the hands of the Spanish colonists had strongly affected public opinion in America and led to a short war with Spain which saw the United States victorious. The United States, therefore, had become, almost overnight, a colonial power.
Following the Second World War, the United States officially took on its role as leader of the western world.
While foreign policy changed, the economy continued to expand. Average incomes rose steadily, there was a fivefold (incincit) increase in exports, and the world looked on admiringly at the economic miracle of the age.
The 1920s, known as the Roaring Twenties, were years of excess end enjoyment as people put the First World War firmly behind them. The prosperity of those years, however, was to come to a sudden end in 1929 when the Stock Exchange in Wall Street collapsed. Public confidence in financial institutions vanished, and America slipped into the Great Depression during which millions lost their jobs while some farmers were reduced to starvation.
Despite the great hardship of the 1930s American society continued to evolve and develop.
One of the major features of the Roaring Twenties was the freer role allowed to women. In the jazz era young women, often preferring a masculine to a feminine style of dress, danced and drank the night away in illegal drinking clubs.
These clubs were illegal because between 1920 and 1933 the sale and consumption of alcohol was prohibited, but the only lasting effect of the measure was the increased power and influence of organized crime gangs who trafficked in alcohol.
Money that could not be spent on alcohol was spent on other goods as a consumer society was born. The consumer boom only really started after 1945, but before that, the radio, telephone and fridge had become features of most American homes.
Along with the improved status of women, the changing attitude towards nonwhite Americans was a significant social development. Although racism was still widespread in 1950, the participation of two million blacks in the defence forces during the Second World War marked their conditional acceptance into mainstream American life.
Race relation would remain a major issue right up the present day, but the first tentative steps were being made towards the creation of a multicultural nation.
In 1950 this nation, thanks to its economic power and military might, had become a superpower that was ready to face and challenge the world’s other superpower, the Soviet Union.
NORTH AMERICAN LITERATURE
The 19th century had seen the beginnings of a Native American literature with the publication of such classics as ‘The adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘Moby Dick’ and the emergence of a national poet in the shape of Walt Whitman. In the first half of the 20th century, American writing was to move from being a peripheral adjunct to the world of English letters to being a dynamic and fully accepted branch of world literature. Writers like Hemingway and Faulkner were translated into every major language and helped put an end to America’s literary isolation at the same time as the United States was coming out of political isolation.
Perhaps the greatest contribution that American writers made to the world literature was in the field of fiction. In the early years of the century, the realism of European novelists like Emile Zola was much admired, as it allowed novelists to describe graphically the dynamic, competitive and often violent nature of American life. One of the most strikingly realistic writers was Jack London.
When America emerged rich and strong from the First World War, and as the world watched and envied the excesses of the Roaring Twenties, a group of writers began to question the unswerving (fidel) belief in limitless progress and fabulous wealth that the United States was seen to represent. In so doing they brought to their writing a directness and clarity that have become one of the hallmarks (marca, standard) of American writing in English.
The first, in chronological order, of this group was F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose work is inexorably linked with the 1920s. Fitzgerald was a product of and an active participant in the carefree madness of his age but in his book he reveals the darker side of the glamour. In ‘The Great Gatsby’ the veneer of youth, beauty, wealth and success fails to cover up the moral black hole at the centre of American society.
The world of William Faulkner is very different from that of Fitzgerald, but a similar sense of decadence pervades his work. His decaying world is that of the Deep South, in which old established white families fall into disrepute (a se compromite) and where traditional values are slowly eroded. By using the stream of consciousness technique, he builds up a comprehensive picture of the intense pride and passion of the people who make up the racial cauldron of the South.
Like Faulkner and Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway dealt in his work with the more primitive and elemental sides of human life. In a deceptively simple direct style he presents an almost nihilistic vision of reality in which man is constantly fighting against the forces of death. The struggle against hostile nature is the main theme in ‘Death in the afternoon’ and ‘The old man and the sea’, while the destructive folly (absurditate) of war acts as a backdrop to personal tragedy in ‘A farewell to arms’.
THE ADVENTURES OF KUCKLEBERRY FINN – MARK TWAIN
Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in the town of Florida, Missouri, in 1835. When he was four years old, his family moved to Hannibal, a town on the Mississippi River much like the towns depicted in his two most famous novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).
The pen name Mark Twain, derived from the riverboat leadsmen’s signal—“By the mark, twain”—that the water was deep enough for safe passage. Life on the river also gave Twain material for several of his books, including the raft scenes of Huckleberry Finn and the material for his autobiographical Life on the Mississippi (1883).
Clemens continued to work on the river until 1861, when the Civil War exploded across America and shut down the Mississippi for travel and shipping. Although Clemens joined a Confederate cavalry division, he was no ardent Confederate, and when his division deserted en masse, he did too. He then made his way west with his brother Orion, working first as a silver miner in Nevada and then stumbling into his true calling, journalism.
Throughout the late 1860s and 1870s, Twain’s articles, stories, memoirs, and novels, characterized by an irrepressible wit and a deft ear for language and dialect, garnered him immense celebrity. As the nation prospered economically in the post–Civil War period—an era that came to be known as the Gilded Age, an epithet that Twain coined—so too did Twain.
Twain began work on Huckleberry Finn, a sequel to Tom Sawyer, in an effort to capitalize on the popularity of the earlier novel. This new novel took on a more serious character, however, as Twain focused increasingly on the institution of slavery and the South. In the early 1880s, however, the hopefulness of the post–Civil War years began to fade. Reconstruction, the political program designed to reintegrate the defeated South into the Union as a slavery-free region, began to fail. The harsh measures the victorious North imposed only embittered the South. Concerned about maintaining power, many Southern politicians began an effort to control and oppress the black men and women whom the war had freed. Ultimately, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has proved significant not only as a novel that explores the racial and moral world of its time but also, through the controversies that continue to surround it, as an artifact of those same moral and racial tensions as they have evolved to the present day.
Analysis of major characters
From the beginning of the novel, Twain makes it clear that Huck is a boy who comes from the lowest levels of white society. His father is a drunk and a ruffian who disappears for months on end. Huck himself is dirty and frequently homeless. Although the Widow Douglas attempts to “reform” Huck, he resists her attempts and maintains his independent ways. The community has failed to protect him from his father, and though the Widow finally gives Huck some of the schooling and religious training that he had missed, he has not been indoctrinated with social values in the same way a middle-class boy like Tom Sawyer has been. Huck’s distance from mainstream society makes him skeptical of the world around him and the ideas it passes on to him.
Huck’s instinctual distrust and his experiences as he travels down the river force him to question the things society has taught him. According to the law, Jim is Miss Watson’s property, but according to Huck’s sense of logic and fairness, it seems “right” to help Jim. Huck’s natural intelligence and his willingness to think through a situation on its own merits lead him to some conclusions that are correct in their context but that would shock white society. For example, Huck discovers, when he and Jim meet a group of slave-hunters, that telling a lie is sometimes the right course of action.
Because Huck is a child, the world seems new to him. Everything he encounters is an occasion for thought. Because of his background, however, he does more than just apply the rules that he has been taught—he creates his own rules. Yet Huck is not some kind of independent moral genius. He must still struggle with some of the preconceptions about blacks that society has ingrained in him, and at the end of the novel, he shows himself all too willing to follow Tom Sawyer’s lead. But even these failures are part of what makes Huck appealing and sympathetic. He is only a boy, after all, and therefore fallible. Imperfect as he is, Huck represents what anyone is capable of becoming: a thinking, feeling human being rather than a mere cog in the machine of society.