The Gothic was a mode of writing that sprung from the Romantic period as a reaction to the Enlightenment. It uses the same Romantic concepts such as subjectivity, emotion, and human psychology, however, it adds dark and mysterious undertones. Though the genre originally came from Great Britain in the 18th century, American writers adjusted the methodology to better appeal to the newfound American frontier. It was the turn of the century in the United States and the country was still reeling from the Revolution.
Americans were on edge and full of anxiety while trying to adjust to a newly established government, hostile Native American relations, and the dauntingly unfamiliar wilderness of their new country. Instead of running from monsters and hiding in shadowy castles, American Gothic writers ran from questionable human psychology and through dark, mysterious forests. Edgar Huntly by Charles Brockden Brown and the writings of Edgar Allen Poe comment on the psyche of the new America, free from Great Britain, as they revamp classic Gothic literature.
The American Gothic, unlike its British counterpart, emphasizes human psychology and the dark perplexities of the human subconscious. It questions just how rational the mind is and focuses on how fears can manifest subliminally. Writers questioned the idea of the ‘American Identity’ as they desperately tried to stand out from early British Gothic fiction writers. Americans were now free from the rule of British monarchy and founded an entirely new country. But where does this freedom end? And when does it become destabilizing and destructive?
Both Brown and Poe highlight the dangers of too much freedom in their embodiment of obsession in many of their characters. In Edgar Huntly, the title character attempts to solve the murder of his friend. When out visiting his grave one night, he comes across a mysterious figure and very quickly becomes attached. Edgar immediately believes this man, named Clithero, is responsible for his friend’s murder and follows him for nearly the entirety of the book – into dark forests and into disputes with local Native American tribes. Edgar Allen Poe, one of the most famous mystery writers, often wrote short stories that left the reader with questions.
In “Berenice,” he follows the story of a man who falls into obsessive spells of focus on a particular item. The narrator is set to marry his cousin, named Berenice, though she falls ill. As her body begins to grow pale and decompose, all that remains is her teeth. The narrator becomes obsessed with her teeth, claiming they brought about “the full fury of [his]
monomania, and I struggled in vain against its strange and irresistible influence” (Poe 5). The use of obsession in Gothic writing has two roles: it makes the reader uncomfortable while also putting the reader in the narrator’s place. It hints to the reader that something may not be quite right. Did Clithero actually commit the murder? Was there something special about Berenice’s teeth?
Obsessive tendencies in Gothic fiction are often a result of the mind’s subconscious descent into madness. Edgar Huntly becomes so obsessed with Clithero, finding his friend’s murderer, and solving the mysteries of the small Philadelphia town that he loses sight of all that he had. He ventures into the woods to find Clithero and later ends up crawling on the floor of a cave. He sees a group of men in the moods and his first reaction is to fire on them, assuming they are Native Americans.
When Edgar Huntly began, the title character had a fiancée, a family, and a clear conscience. As the novel ended, Huntly lost all savings he had put aside for his wedding, broken into other character’s homes, ate raw flesh, and killed Native Americans. He constantly rationalizes his behavior as though he is trying to avenge his friend’s death, but in reality, his obsessions had pulled him into insanity. In Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator attempts to convince the reader of his innocence while describing the murder of his older roommate.
The narrator was constantly distressed by the old man’s “vulture-like” eye and one night, he accidentally frightens the old man. The old man’s heart began beating so loudly that it drove the narrator to kill him to stop the beating. He rationalized this by claiming he did so in order to not wake the neighbors. However, the screams of the old man do wake the neighbors, who call the police, to whom the narrator recounts the murder. He justifies his actions by claiming that he took caution during the murder, stating “If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body.”
Poe emphasizes the “vulture-like…Evil eye,” of the old man, the sounds of the clock on the wall, and the old man’s heartbeat to drive the narrator into madness. And yet, the narrator refuses to believe so: “And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the sense?” (Poe 2). His denial of his insanity has put the narrator in his own form of psychosis. Brown and Poe focus on the subconscious anxieties of the mind present in the Gothic to propel their characters into a destabilizing state of madness.
This state of madness often seen in Gothic works manifests in various different ways. In the writings of both Brown and Poe, however, sleepwalking is a common denominator. Usually in Gothic literature, the sleepwalking character is unware of his nightly habits and the writing is made to leave the reader guessing. Edgar Huntly follows not one, but two cases of sleepwalking. When Edgar stumbles upon Clithero at the graveyard in the middle of the night, Edgar sees Clithero’s sleepwalking as justification to believe that Clithero had killed his friend.
Edgar begins to follow Clithero around during his sleepwalking spells, which lead him to a cave in the forest. When confronted, Clithero says, “It seemed as if my senses had been hushed in sleep, while the powers of locomotion were unconsciously exerted” (Brown 55). He still was unable to clearly tell the difference between his state of being awake or unconscious. Throughout the novel, Edgar’s own anxiety builds up and influences his behavior. Edgar wakes up in the middle of the night in the cave, which tells the reader that he himself had begun sleepwalking.
Because there are plot elements missing due to the sleepwalking of major characters, readers have trouble concluding what is real and what is not, as well as to what extent they should believe the narrators. In Poe’s short story “Berenice,” the narrator is fixated on his cousin’s teeth. He has monomania, where he focuses on one object for a period of time. The rest of her health deteriorates throughout the course of the story, but still he only focuses on her teeth. Before they are due to be married, however, Berenice dies and is buried. When the narrator comes to from his focus, he hears that Berenice’s grave was robbed and she was found alive. The narrator looks down and realizes that his clothes are covered in blood and caked in mud and that his hands have bite marks indented into them.
There is a box in front of him, which he opens to find all of Berenice’s teeth (Poe 5). The short story ends there, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks. The narrator was sleeping walking as he dug up Berenice’s grave and pulled her teeth from her body. Though the narrator himself did not kill Berenice, there is no telling what else he could have done while sleepwalking. A great portion of the events in Gothic writing happens during the night, so it is fitting that sleepwalking is common. It also gives an explanation to the reader of an otherwise unexpected circumstance. Nevertheless, the dark setting and unconscious actions are intended to put the readers on edge, just how the new citizens of North America were.
Life in America during the late 1700s was terrifying, something many Gothic writers played into. In the North, there was a constant fear of the neighboring Native Americans and the potential for hostile relations. In the South, slavery was prominent and not disappearing anytime soon. Sickness was rampant and life expectancy was low with no real medical technology and poorly trained doctors. American Gothic writing is characterized by the undertones of post-Revolutionary America. This genre focuses heavily on dark nighttime scenes, unfamiliar territory, and lingering questions of how this new government would work.
It leaves the reader with questions and is intended to make the reader feel uneasy and on edge. Charles Brockden Brown and Edgar Allen Poe were experts at this. Their novels and short stories follow characters through the night and into dark forests or old, creaking houses. Both writers take their characters on a journey of the mind, from obsessions to a fall into madness, and finally to the unconscious activities of sleepwalking. They represent the anxieties everyone in this new nation had: a fear that America would not live up to the ideals of liberty, freedom, and equality that it was founded on.