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The 18th century’s gothic literature Essay

In the 18th century, gothic literature was originally written as a response to the age of reason and the politics of England. Gothic literature containing anti-Catholic sentiments and mythical aspects, explored the tension between what is feared and what is desired. The stories were usually set in some kind of castle or old building that portrayed human decay and created an atmosphere of mystery and suspense. Frequently, one of the main characters would be some sort of damsel in distress, threatened by another male character. Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”, Charlotte Perkins “The Yellow Wallpaper”, and William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”, all use gothic elements of style in describing the exterior in order to mirror the characters inner thoughts and feelings , as the women are being surprised by the male character of the story.

In Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the story begins on one “…dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year….” (Poe 1) From the very beginning, the reader, as a result of Poe’s imagery, is aware of a sense of death and decay. Even the narrator, Roderick’s childhood companion, describes “a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded spirit” (Poe 1) as he approached the “House of Usher.” The term “House of Usher” refers not only to the crumbling mansion but also to the remaining family members living within the structure, and in this case mirror the attributes of Roderick Usher. Throughout the story, many similarities link the character to the physical attributes of the gothic house. The bleak, discolored walls can be compared to the “ghastly pallor” (Poe 8) of the characters skin and the web like fungi on the wall of the house resemble his web like hair. The “wild inconsistency between” the house’s “perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stone” (Poe 5) and the inconstancy of Roderick as the narrator creates a connection between the physical state of the house and Roderick.

Just as the house represents Usher, the elements within the house come to illustrate aspects of his mental condition. For example, the picture , “A small picture presented the interior of an immensely long and rectangular vault or tunnel, with low walls, smooth, white, and without interruption…and bathed the whole in a ghastly and inappropriate splendor” (Poe 17). This can be viewed as a tunnel or door into Roderick’s mind, which initially seems flawless. The “very large and lofty” (Poe 7) room in which the narrator meets Usher can be viewed as a metaphor for his mind. “Windows were long, narrow, and pointed,” where the windows can represent both windows into Roderick’s mind and be a metaphor for his eyes which are the gateway into his soul.

However as it is hard to “to reach the remoter angles of the chamber,” it is hard to clearly look into the mind of a mentally ill person where “dark draperies hung upon the wall” (Poe 7) cover the secrets lying behind them. The connection between the two states is further developed in the poem read to the narrator by Roderick. It implies that the house had once been “a fair and stately palace – Radiant palace” and “its radiance now being …a dim-remembered story of the old time entombed” (Poe 18). One passage that illustrates the Ushers transition towards insanity refers to them as dancing “To a lute’s well-tuned law” in the past, where as now they “move fantastically to a discordant melody” (Poe 18) which refers to their mental discord.

Roderick’s mental state becomes ever clearer as the narrator is informed that “the lady Madeline was no more” and that Roderick wants to bury her. As the two men carried the encoffined body to its temporary resting place, the friend became aware of the similarities of the vault and a painting Roderick had done. The vault or dungeon, although lying at a great depth, was located directly beneath the portion of the building in which was located the friend’s own sleeping apartment. It was also at this point, that the friend was made aware of the fact that Roderick and Madeline were not just brother and sister; they were twins who shared “…sympathies of a scarily intelligible nature….” (Poe 23) It is at this point where the “fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction,” (Poe 5) attains symbolic meaning.

The fissure becomes a symbol for Roderick’s split personality, and furthermore symbolizes how both characters, Madeline and Roderick are considered two parts of one personality breaking apart, and where they can sense what is happening to each other. The crack symbolically reflects a flaw or fundamental split in the twin personality of Roderick and Madeline. The connection between the house and the twins is revealed as the narrator beings telling a agitated Roderick a tale, during which he heard sounds that were Madeline returning from the grave, “…the breaking of the hermit’s door” illustrates “the rendering of her coffin”; the death-cry of the dragon…was the grating of the iron hinges of her prison as she opened the door, and the clangor of the shield corresponded to Madeline’s struggles within the copper archway of the vault!” (Poe 31). At this point Roderick sprang to his feet. As finally Madeline arises from the dead to die again, she takes her brother with her, and as the twin’s personalities unite in death, the house also falls and becomes one with the earth it was built upon.

Much like Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” In William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” is about a suppressed woman driven into insanity by her father, who in her mental condition kills her last suitor, Homer Baron. Unlike the Ushers, Emily was slowly driven into insanity by her father and other males throughout her life. Initially she was “Young and part of the world with which she was contemporary” and was “a slender figure in white,” contrasted with her father, who is described as “a straddled silhouette.” The Grieson house, described as “white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies,” becomes a further representation of her diminished state, as she transitions toward insanity. In its best times, the house was “big,” and “squarish,” and located on Jefferson’s “most select street.” Viewing the house from this perspective gives the reader the impression that the house was not only very solid, but also larger than life, and gothic in nature.

Emily, a resident of that house, was also perceived in the same manner. However Emily failed to maintain this image of strength as male figures, such as her father and Homer Baron caused her great embarrassment. After her father’s death, Emily was left without wealth, except for the house. After her fathers death she began to deteriorate, and looked like a girl “with a vague resemblance to those angels in colored church windows – sort of tragic and serene,” indicating her increasingly weakened image as a step towards insanity. The house also comes to reflect Emily’s decay as it obtains a “stubborn and coquettish” appearance. The inside of the house, which comes to represent Emily’s mental state, as well as her inner thoughts, also “smelled of dust and disuse.” Additionally Homer does not marry her, making her subject of further shame, which drives her insane and cause her to kills him and spend the rest of her life with his corps in her house, and in her bed.

Overall Emily was always under the influence of men and could never be free. One of the only images of Emily and her father, show her behind her father, with him holding a whip. The whip is a symbol for his strictness control over Emily. Emily has been frustrated by her father, and hindered from taking part in the life of her contemporaries. When Emily murdered Homer after he wanted to leave her, it symbolizes her father’s control over her. Her father had such great influence over her that she felt it was inappropriate for Homer to leave her so she murder him in order for him to stay with her as if they were married. By this she drove herself into the seclusion of her old, broken home, and as can be seen, withdrew herself completely into her own world of insanity. Like in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Emily of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” finds her peace and unity in death as she joins her oppressors in death.

Much like the previous authors, Gillman uses the gothic elements of the house in which the protagonist resides in order to mirror traits of her persona. In Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” many gothic elements are used to depict the setting of the story. The residence that the husband rents for the summer as well as the immediate surroundings is presented right from the beginning of the story. It is a secluded dwelling, located “quite three miles from the village”; this location represents an isolated environment. Because of its “colonial mansion” look, its age, and state of degradation, the house obtains a gothic style as if it is haunted by ghosts. This portrayal also suggests stability, strength, power and control. It symbolizes the patriarchal society of the author’s time.

The image of a haunted house is curiously superimposed with color elements of a gothic setting, a “delicious garden”, “velvet meadows”, “old-fashioned flowers, and bushes and gnarly trees” that come from broken green houses and overgrown roses suggest a dark green brown look. The garden has “deep-shaded arbores,” which are also gothic elements. The unclean yellow of the wallpaper is “strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight”; it is a “repellent, almost revolting” yellow, a “dull yet lurid orange.” The “rings” on the walls, the barred windows, and the nailed down bed all further support this dark atmosphere that persists in throughout story.

Additionally, these elements are used to represent and symbolize the character’s mental condition as she is undergoing this ill-treatment by her husband. Jane becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper that is present in her room. It becomes a reflection of her mental state, becoming more complex and twisted as her condition worsens. “This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had…the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down,” in which Jane could be talking about herself, her influence and strength that is not seen and suppressed making it look like a hideous creature. Furthermore we see a reoccurring gothic image of broken necks and hanging heads, common in people who are hung. These Images of hanging people, which could indicated suicidal tendencies in Jane come up more often as her condition worsens. “They suddenly commit suicide-plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves.”

Another gothic and mythical element used to depict the insanity of the protagonist is the image of “creeping women” behind the walls and in the gardens of the house. These creeping women who are seen by Jane are all images of her multiple selves as she sees them everywhere. She even comes to tell us that she “creeps by daylight” and that she “locks the doors” when she does so As her condition worsens the suppressed personalities that lurked within the protagonist’s subconscious become stronger and appear more as “The front pattern does move–and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it.” In daytime when she is watched and people are around her and she feels in place with society “in the very bright spots she keeps still,” but in secret as her condition gets stronger, in “the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard…she is all the time trying to climb through.”

After this passage it becomes visible that a new personality is emerging from her, but still multiple personalities exist as “it has so many heads.” This alternation between daytime and nighttimes, dark and light images further adds to the mysterious setting in which Jane is placed in. At the end of the story, the final, strongest personality starts to isolate itself within her as that personality “gets out in the daytime” One can see the transition towards complete as the inner voice is coming out as she wants scrape the surface of the paper off to let the women out and as they “pulled” and “shook”, they peeled off some paper assisting the double to break free from the forms that confine her. In the final night before they leave the final transition takes place the new personality surfaces, “I’ve got out at last,” and goes on to refer to the husband and the old personality as “you and Jane,” referring to her old self in the third person as she is now a new and transformed personality that cant be “put back,” and she goes on creeping and crawling around the room.

Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” shares many other similarities with both Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the protagonist is driven into insanity by her husband, who ill-treats her. Just as Roderick Usher, the husband in “The yellow Wallpaper” is acting towards the female character out of love. In both cases they drive the female character insane. This is also the case with Emily as she is driven insane by her father and Homer. However unlike “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Yellow Wallpaper” uses the gothic house and the wallpaper as a representation of the female characters mental state, whereas Poe displays the male character through the house.

Emily, like Jane, reflected y the house itself. In “The yellow Wallpaper,” Jane’s deterioration is described in much more detail in comparison to the other two pieces. When comparing “The Yellow Wallpaper” with “A Rose for Emily”, we find that both Emily Grierson and Jane are forced into solitude by the control the males have over them. Emily’s father rejects all of her potential husbands; Jane’s husband isolates her from any possible stimulation. Emily is a recluse ensnared in a condemned home, and Jane is a delusional woman trapped in a mental ward; the Ushers are reunited in death. Ultimately, when considering the different styles of these authors, and the different themes of these stories, it is interesting to see how the usage of gothic elements in describing the houses is used to personify the characters.

Works Cited

Poe, Edgar Allen. The Fall of the House of Usher. 28 07.2003


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