With imagination comes independence and with independence comes imagination. In a time of redefining literature, opposition to the totalitarian rule became vital to the conceptions of being free, exploring contrasting views that did not fall behind the traditional core values of a classical society. During the early to mid-19th century, the era of Romanticism emerged in the United States, becoming the basis for straying away from the standard norm. In envisioning an era where not everyone must think, act, or understand alike, the Founding Fathers of America created an independent nation for independent individuals, entitled to their own means of expression and assertions.
Gothic horror came to forefront of literary innovation, putting to test the imagination of an individual as they entered a field stressed with intuition, freedom, emotion, horror, and decay. The Romantic Period became a breath of fresh hope and revival to the ideals forgotten by a patriarchal society, contradicting neoclassicism, and promoting the idea that not everyone must think alike.
Several literary authors, including Edgar Allan Poe, relied on the uniqueness of individualism to discover the scope of imagination throughout Romantic literature.
First, the product of Romantic work allocated much of its inspiration to the political sphere and the heavy influence it directed towards the realm of independent, individualistic literature. Put into perspective by Gale Student Resources in Context in 2012, the historical roots of Romanticism are “closely tied to the ideals of the American Revolution,” inspiring change in “the spirit of revolt and upheaval of the existing order.
” The literary source continues to describe Romanticism by categorizing it as a “backlash against the austerity of the neoclassicist movement,” providing justification to the reasoning behind the initiation of the Romantic Era. With the United States gaining its independence from the oppressive monarchy of Great Britain, the fresh start of a new political government became the head image of an independent society, free from unwanted control and power. Taking command as the first president of the United States, George Washington led the charge to create a world power that challenged the traditional forms of government, constructing a rule fulfilled by the people of the United States. Similar to the Romantic breakaway of Neoclassicism during the beginning of 19th century, the United States broke away from the tyrannical leadership of Great Britain, forming an identity of self-independence often modeled by many literary artists of the century.
Furthermore, the political sphere brought about another form of isolation to the United States, one of suppression and concealment to the African American community. According to the database Research in Context in 2017, the American Renaissance, which included the Romantic Period, was “brutally interrupted by the Civil War.” With the buildup of many decades filled with tensions between the North and the South, slavery climbed with great prominence into heated political discussions, serving as a platform for many literary authors in the 1800s. The source proceeds to characterize this time period as one sustained with “optimism, nationalism, and splendor.” Although this many be true after the abolition of slavery in 1865, the events prior proved nothing but brutal to African Americans. In constant isolation from societal norms, blacks could not vote, attend schools, and fulfill constitutional rights, always left behind in a white America. Many authors, including Poe, may look to these injustices within American society as a basis of the creation of unusual characters, always in a state of isolation and seclusion from the normal interactions within society.
Secondly, the pop culture and entertainment of the 19th century largely influenced many of the minds of authors and poets of Romanticism. According to the article Romanticism published in 2012, artists explored “altered states of consciousness as a means of unlocking hidden creative powers of the mind.” Undoubtfully being true, authors examined various topics by drawing inspiration from the environment around them. Therefore, much of gothic horror came from the lack of lightening within one’s home, causing darkness and desperation to engulf many of the authors, including Edgar Allan Poe, to write about topics associated with depression, decay, and death.
Furthermore, the limited and lack of entertainment options during the 1800s only reinforces the dull, insipid, and dismal environment many authors surrounded themselves by. Circuses, board games, and public plays could only consume so much time, leaving the rest for an individual to ponder on their own thoughts and ideas. Lack of interactions with the social world only led to the destructive behavior exuded in much of the literary work published by an author. No communication, no light, and limited entertainment all correlate to the dark, unusual, and depressive themes written by many Romantic authors of the 19th century.
Finally, the perception of women within the 1800s came under extreme amounts of pressure as they strived to emerge as a driven force within American society. According to American Renaissance, women started to “create an image for themselves” redefining the standard norms and finding outlets to express their emotions to a certain issue at hand. Prior to the credibility of women in association with text, many men tried to subdue the abilities of what a woman could fulfill within society. The inadequate and subjective gender roles always portrayed the man as the head of the household, making a woman subservient to his command. The era of Romanticism gave women the option to channel their thoughts and explore a world where not everyone had to think alike.
The literary authors of the Romantic Period explored harsh issues often in correlation to the theme of madness and its direct result to destruction. According to Literature Resource Center, various authors, such as Mary Shelley, examined the political and social issues prominent during the 19th century. Writing Frankenstein in 1818, Shelley tackled the difficulties associated with society and its direct impacts to certain individuals like Frankenstein. The discrimination, loneliness, and oppressive behavior bestowed upon the monster creates a mentality of how mad society was because of the differences an individual possessed. The thoughts of advancing to a new era filled with individuals who do not think, act, or understand alike, scared many in destructing the progression before it could even begin.
Aside from Mary Shelly, other literary authors, such as Charlotte Bronte continued to emphasize on the inequalities that so often shaped society into a box, defining what one could and could not do. Literature Resource Center continues to examine the madness of society and how the repressive view possessed by the all inhibited the opportunities of minorities, especially young girls. In Bronte’s novel, Jane Erye, the author challenges the patriarchal rule, creating public themes often straying away from the standard, classical norm of society. Jane’s oppression and subjection to unusual punishments only reinforces the closed mentality and inability for society to accept those who do not fit into the traditional picture of success. The isolation, loneliness, and emotion exuded by Jane creates a destruction to her persona and image, fueling the tainted lens of madness incorporated into society, creating an inability to accept those different from the standard.
When looking into the mind of Edgar Allan Poe, the uniqueness to his own literary style and work overwhelmingly enforces the common idea of individualistic literature throughout Romanticism. According to The Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, Poe was born to “a pair of impoverished actors,” a father who abandoned him at birth, and a mother who died the following year. Upon being adopted by a family of wealthy decent, Poe attended several universities in Virginia and London, but ultimately had to withdraw within in a year for engaging in large gambling debts and consumption of alcohol. Poe often lived in an independent world, one where he constantly felt abandoned, unrestrained, and set free to figure life out on his own. These recurring forms of failure and misfortune constantly confronted Poe and his abilities to achieve success, often serving as the main basis to his self-made career that entails literature filled with unrestrained characters who seek to explore their different, unusual minds.
The strange, unfamiliar mind of Poe not only comes from his uncommon childhood, but the family life he built for himself and the career he embarked on to expand his interest in a literary genre unusual to eras before him. In the article Edgar Allan Poe by the Encyclopedia of Britannica, the author mentions the “strange duality” of Poe’s character, one that professes a devotion and sharp critique to literature, while another professes a strange, unusual, and somewhat scary perspective to large issues untouched by previous literary writers. Poe’s marriage to his thirteen-year-old cousin fuels his strange personality as it tended to not be normal to marry a family member in the mid-19th century. Amid dismissing criticism for participating in a different marriage, Poe strived to support his literary hunger by contributing various essays, articles, and stories to several public magazines and annuals. Although Poe portrayed a distinct personality, it only served to aid his writing in a literary world where new forms of imagination filled the minds of many in the United States.
The imagination of Poe and his ability to write about characters who do not think like the standard norm only emerge as evident in several of his short stories and poems. In the story The Tell-Tale Heart, Poe writes about a character who kills an old man with an eye that “resembled that of a vulture.” Through characterization, Poe allows the reader to enter the mind of the protagonist and understand the thoughts and ideas he often contemplates when carrying out an act unusual in the average American. By reassuring the reader “how wisely” he proceeded and how he “refrained and kept still” in the act of killing, the main character wants to promote the idea of control and a sense sanity in order to justify his actions. Poe strictly uses the eye as a symbol for the protagonist’s fear of allowing an outside source to see his true intentions and deepest insecurities. The protagonist reveals the motive for his act as not one based on the actions of the old man but based on the feeling exuded when the eye “fell upon” him made and his “blood run cold.” Acting solely based on fear, the main character carried out his actions in a way to reassure himself of protection, solving the issue at hand quite differently from an individual who may not resort to extremes to resolve problems.
Furthermore, Poe continues with the idea of unusual thinking by writing another complex story often in comparison with the Tell-Tale Heart. In the Fall of the House Usher, Poe once again uses characterization to underline the mentality of Usher and the various thoughts he exudes when extreme circumstances arise. As the narrator enters Usher’s house, Poe describes the home as a “remodeled and inverted image of gray sedge” filled with “vacant and eye-like windows.” Similar to the Tell-Tale Heart, Poe creates a house as a symbol of watching those who may pose a threat to Usher and his family as they enter near the property. Usher’s fears are confirmed after the death of his sister which results from allowing the narrator into his home, exposing the secrets and emotions filled within the property. The “evidently restrained hysteria” exuded by Usher as he tries to cope with seeing the ghost of his sister only reveals a “mad hilarity,” causing his own death to occur. The inability for Usher to control his thoughts and actions paved the way for his chaotic death, owing much of the blame to his unconventional mentality, so often unseen by anyone prior to the 1800s.
In addition to the chaotic thoughts exerted by many of Poe’s characters, he continues to explore an idea of revenge and the demented thinking that is so often overlooked in a bustling society. In the short story, The Cask of Amontillado, Poe not only creates a character filled with extreme amounts of pride, but explores how far an individual will go in order to fulfill a desire felt by so many. With Montressor vowing to obtain revenge on Fortunato, he will not only punish, but “punish with impunity.” Poe already creates a character who resorts to violence and unprecedented actions in order to achieve extreme goals in mind. Asides from building upon the unusual mentality of a character, Poe foreshadows the end result by referencing to Fortunato’s cough which “is a mere nothing” and “will not kill” him. Poe intends for a reader to infer that Fortunato will not die by a simple cough, but by the wrathful hands of Montressor who vows to avenge the unfaithful actions done to him. Therefore, Poe continues to evaluate the different forms of thinking within society, presenting a story in which a character references to multiple violent actions in order to fulfill a desire so often left unfulfilled by others in the 19th century.
Similarly, Poe continues to expand on the idea of revenge and the individualistic forms of thinking so often unseen prior to Romanticism. In the story The Black Cat, Poe writes about a drunk character who resorts to impulsive behavior in order to satisfy unrealistic needs. After returning home from a day of drinking, the protagonist expects to receive love and compassion from his cat, Pluto. Instead of receiving the desired sentiments, the main character is met with neglected behavior as the cat “avoided his presence.” Acting out of rash anger and emotion, the protagonist strikes the cat and ultimately causes its death from the uncontrollable, impulsive behavior. In addition to the conflict throughout the short story, Poe relies on an allusion in order to provide a deeper meaning throughout the literary work. By naming the cat Pluto, Poe alludes to the Roman god the underworld, allowing a reader to infer that the death of a black cat will only bring hell upon the killer. Poe not only creates a scenario filled with impulsive ways of thinking, put writes with a purpose the explore the unimaginable ways certain individuals act in order to fulfill aching desires.
Overall, Poe’s literary works emphasize individualistic manners, containing characters who do not think or act in traditional ways. The short stories created by Poe explore a common central theme, expanding on the differences between the minds of the normal and the minds of impulsive. The connection between mind and body often becomes overlooked in American society, hiding the disfunctions that may arise from those who do no think like the majority. In a time of expanding literature, Poe’s works fall behind the Romantic era and everything it stood for. Filled with rash emotion, unusual thinking, and expansion of imagination, Poe strayed away from the traditional standards of literature and paved his own path through Gothic Horror. Other literary authors, such as Mary Shelly and Charlotte Bronte, explored Gothic Horror and understood what it took to create their own creative forms of literature. Categorized by change and the ability to view certain issues with a different perspective, the Romantic Period redefined the meaning of literature and what one could and could not do. Poe’s legacy continues to live throughout American history well into the 21st century, paving the way for new Gothic Horror novelists in literature. Strong in style and form, Poe reimagined the structure and precision of literature, creating stories to entertain those who wished to take a chance and stray away from the common view of classical times in history.