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Madness in the Tales of Poe and Hawthorne Essay

With madness and confusion dominating short stories such as some of the tales written by Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, the psychological states of their main characters are of the utmost importance. The meanings of the stories depend on whether the characters are truly insane, suffering from a physical ailment or merely intensely angry and hungry for revenge. Poe’s tales “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Cask of Amontillado” both explore themes of madness and premature burials.

However, while Roderick Usher seems to be suffering not only from a physical illness but also from insanity which may have stem from a “history of mental disorder” (Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher), Montresor seems to have been under the grip of intense hatred that have been caused by his victim’s previous insult on his person. It may be argued that Montresor is demented like Usher, but his well-planned crime contradicts the supposition of an unhinged mind. Meanwhile, the psychological troubles of Hawthorne’s characters in “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Minister’s Black Veil” are apparently milder, but not subtler.

People may regard Goodman Brown as a recluse and a snob and Minister Hooper as someone mourning over his or other people’s sins. Hawthorne explores isolation in both stories, highlighting the possible self-destruction that may result from intensely reclusive lives. Though the stories may vary and the level of mental disorder may differ, both Poe and Hawthorne present people with emotions that are overly sensitive and with mental faculties that are more distraught than most. Poe is fascinated by madness. His stories are sometimes even narrated by persons whose mental and emotional facilities are questionable.

This results to a more interesting reading of each of the stories. The reader is left to wonder if he or she is able to extract the accurate account of the story or a deranged version of it. In “The Fall of the House of Usher” the narrator observes what goes on in his host, Roderick’s house. He “rejects evidence of the supernatural”…”He is predisposed to regard Roderick as mad and therefore to reject any explanation Roderick suggests” (Bailey 446). The narrator of the story depends on the accounts of his host, Roderick but he does not trust his friend’s sanity.

This creates a tension that is experienced by both the narrator and the reader; this tension is the uncertainty of what is unfolding because it is through the guidance of such an unreliable source like an apparently mad Roderick. Montresor of “The Cask of Amontillado” may not have the gaunt and unhealthy look of Roderick Usher but what he has done to his enemy, Fortunato, is exceedingly cruel. The deed may have seemed perfectly planned and efficient but someone who can avenge an insult received by murder must be somehow unhinged.

The criminal’s mind is exaggerated as is evident in his narration: “THE thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge” (Poe, The Cask of Amontillado). My heart grew sick; it was the dampness of the catacombs that made it so. I hastened to make an end of my labour. I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up. Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat. (Poe, The Cask of Amontillado)

Though Montresor displays some strong emotion over what he has done to Fortunato, he continues with the crime methodically. Moreover, this contradiction, along with uttering “Rest in Peace” to his victim seems to suggest that Montresor is indeed insane. In the two short stories, Poe illustrates insanity that has been passed through generations and then insanity that has been triggered simply by an insult. Nathaniel Hawthorne shows some concern about the fate of souls in his two stories “The Minister’s Black Veil” and “Young Goodman Brown”.

While Poe illustrates madness that has resulted from being either inherently insane or predisposed to mental illness, Hawthorne explores zealous religiosity that can result to madness. Minister Hooper’s strong sense of religiousness has driven him to an extreme means of discerning the pious from the hypocrite. “Why do you tremble at me alone? … Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? ” (Hawthorne, The Minister’s Black Veil) The man has decided to put a black veil on his face.

Not even his fiancee has been able to persuade him to take off the veil which in turn has given him a continuously mourning persona. Though he is mentally capable to continue his duties as minister, he does them with a somber aura which the veil produces for him. The insistence on constantly wearing the black veil displays obsessive behavior related to his faith despite the fact that he has not actually stated what his real reason for wearing the veil is. In “Young Goodman Brown”, Hawthorne again tackles the effects of the perception of sin. Here, the main character is oppressed by what he thinks is the real knowledge of other people’s sins.

What he is not aware of is that the Devil, which he has consorted with in the woods, has made him believe that every single person in his community is involved in atrocious deeds. “…elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widows’ weeds, has given her husband a drink at bedtime and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their fathers’ wealth; and how fair damsels… have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest to an infant’s funeral” (Hawthorne).

Having believed the Devil’s lies, Goodman Brown is continually suspicious of his neighbors’ intentions. He even believes their good deeds to be merely pretentious displays of piety. Because of this behavior, Goodman Brown isolates himself from the rest of the community and dies a lonely death. Hawthorne explores the themes of isolation and zealous religiousness in his two short stories, expressing the dangers of the two themes. Both Poe and Hawthorne have effectively expressed the psychological terrain that their main characters are in.

Through using a narrator that is either the character with the questionable mental state or one that distrusts that character, the stories become more mysterious and subject to individual interpretation while the intensity of emotions coming from the main characters are able to shine through. The two authors explore mental instability in different forms; Poe’s stories are about inherent, maybe even genetic tendencies to lose one’s mind while Hawthorne’s two tales are about isolation that has resulted from obsessive spirituality.


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