– Indrajit Bose
The American literary imagination has been notably active in recreating a naturalized urban landscape in a variety of realistic settings. Gothicism in art and literature, much in vogue in Britain in the late eighteenth century, with its evocation of subterranean psychological fears and fantasies, as in the boundless arabesques and intricately repeated patterns of Gothic architecture, cast a captivating spell over several American writers in the early nineteenth century. The morbid inscapes of Poe’s tales and the guilt-haunted atmosphere of much of Hawthorne’s fiction bears testimony to some of the forms the Gothic took in American fiction. If Gothic architecture, with its infinitely minute intricacies and divisions-within-divisions, prefigures “the great within in Gothic literature—the psychological recesses of the mind” (Bayer-Berenbaum 65), it had a potent influence on American writers who sought to reduplicate its forms and structures. This paper attempts to explore the complex architectonics of the depiction of Gothic architecture in the fiction of Poe, Hawthorne and James, with special attention to the literary refashioning the Gothic underwent in their hands.
The Gothic Revival style of architecture, a picturesque and romantic efflorescence opposed to the classical and Romanesque, flourished in the United States in the first half of the 19th century. Emboldened by a newfound prosperity and driven by an unprecedented urge to reinvent itself, the young republic looked to European models to create an architectural heritage of baroque grandeur. Popularized by pioneering landscape artists like Andrew Jackson Downing, and architects like Alexander Jackson Davis, Richard Upjohn and Josiah R. Brady, the style had a widespread influence across the United States, and was reflected in the construction of scores of churches, houses and schools of learning. Especially noteworthy was the construction of country houses by wealthy Americans with grandiose features, which continued till the Civil War divided the nation.
The ecclesiastical architecture incorporated elements from the Gothic churches and cathedrals of Europe—the clerestory windows, tall spires, towers and pointed archways—thereby striving to create monuments of enduring magnificence. Universities and educational institutions also sought to recreate the mullioned windows, high pitched roofs and dreaming spires of Oxford or Cambridge. In domestic architecture, the classic features of Gothic architecture were incorporated to create an ersatz “old world” look: the pointed arches of doorways and windows, porches, dormers and gables with decorative wooden trim, latticed windows with diamond-shaped panes.
These Gothic-style country houses indicated a charm of the picturesque and a sophisticated naturalness that was a hallmark of good taste. “A good house,” argued Andrew Jackson Downing in The Architecture of Country Houses (1850) “is a powerful means of civilization.” (Hawthorne 277). He also argued for a moral influence in a family dwelling, deriving from the powerful influences of home and hearth. These houses were chiefly the dwellings of the rich in antebellum United States.
They were also the prototype for a less realistic and fictional dwelling, the Gothic houses of American fiction. There is a long line of such houses, possessing elements of the brooding, shadowy and sinister Gothic houses of the “tale of terror,” which are much more than merely a setting or backcloth for the characters. They mirror the moods of the characters and serve as catalysts of the action. The present paper attempts to trace the varied representations of Gothic architectural forms in the fiction of three American writers—Poe, Hawthorne and James—exploring in the process the amalgam of architectonics of the real and a transubstantiation of the real into complex multi-layered symbols. Though there is no specific line of evolution that can be detected, this fictional depiction of the Gothic arguably becomes progressively less a matter of atmospherics and more a matter of inward, psychological representation.
Poe’s unqualified greatness in evoking a preternatural atmosphere of terror in “The Fall of the House of Usher” owes substantially to his creation of the House of Usher, the mysterious abode that vanishes at the end of the tale. The House is not specifically American; in fact, it might belong to Anytime and Anywhere, being quite unlocalized in space and time. It is the family home of Usher and his sister, the mysterious Lady Madeline. In its features, appurtenances and atmosphere it resembles more a castle or manor and is akin to the dwellings of Radcliffe or Lewis. It is marked by its “excessive antiquity”(Poe 233) discoloured by the ages, its crumbling stones overspread by fungi. Built by a “black and lucid tarn”(Poe 231), it is reached by a short causeway and situated in a lonely and desolate tract of the countryside. Its interiors have pronounced Gothic features: “Gothic archways” (Poe 233), large and lofty rooms with “long, narrow and pointed” (Poe 233) windows where encrimsoned light feebly enters through the “trellised panes” (Poe 234). The ceilings are “vaulted and fretted”(Poe 234), the furniture antique and the draperies dark. In the subterranean depths of the house lies the vault where the narrator and Usher entomb the Lady Madeline. It is a nether world of darkness and terrors associated with the presence of the dead.
The house is permeated by an atmosphere of morbid and unrelieved gloom. At the very outset the narrator is struck by “an utter depression of soul” (Poe 231) on looking at the blank barrenness of the house. He also notices a “barely perceptible fissure” (Poe 233) beginning from the roof and extending to the base of the building. Outward features have symbolic correspondences in the narrative. The decayed house is the “double” of Roderick Usher, who suffers from mental debility and its fissure suggests his split persona. Usher’s attempt to entomb his sister in the subterranean vault represents his attempt to repress/stifle his guilt feelings towards her. Also, the house has a symbiotic relationship with the haunted palace of Usher’s poem.
Notably, the story ends with the complete dissolution of the house, which falls apart and disappears into the waters of the deep and dark tarn. This cataclysmic image, which closes the narrative, suggests not only the destruction of the house but the end of a decadent moral order.
Far more concretely actualized within a recognizably American milieu, is the peaked and gabled family mansion of the Pyncheons on Pyncheon Street, under the shadow of the Pyncheon elm, in Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables. Though Hawthorne calls his work a “Romance”, and discourages seeking for historical verisimilitude, his work, in fact, interrogates class-driven ideas of inherited wealth and gentility, by opposing the aristocratic pretensions of the Pyncheons to the republicanism of the Maules. Wealth, property laws and inheritance occupy a central place in the narrative and probably supersede the Gothic atmospherics of a doomed house and a fatal curse.
Hawthorne was singularly well informed about Gothic architecture, as any reading of his English Note-books testifies. As a tourist in England he had toured Wells, Salisbury, Chester, York and also visited castles, abbeys, churches and manors in Scotland and Ireland. He admired the picturesqueness of the Gothic but is an objective observer and a critic: he especially failed to admire the English practice of reforming old monuments. Though his frankly illiberal comments on English and European manners, customs and institutions earned him Henry James’s castigation as a provincial, Hawthorne was surely entitled to his excoriation of poor aesthetic tastes as they seemed to his American eyes. There is a singular pragmatism in his conceptualisation of historical perspective, a forward-looking vision that is able to see the past as inescapably shaping the present and yet failing to have dominion over it.
“He condemns the dwelling of the Pyncheons to disappear from the face of the earth because it has been standing a couple of hundred years” and in this Hawthorne is “an American of Americans” (Hawthorne 338) wrote Henry James. The Pyncheon family home is set up on land wrongly wrested by Colonel Pyncheon from the carpenter, Matthew Maule, but he pays for it with his death. Successive generations of the Pyncheons attempt to reclaim their lost legacy of vast westward territories but are frustrated. Alice Pyncheon’s father loses his daughter and Judge Pyncheon his life. The house guards its secrets well. It needs Holgrave, a present-day Maule, to fathom its secrets.
The House of the Seven Gables is a Gothic survival in a changed day and age. “This desolate, decaying, gusty, rusty old house,” (Hawthorne 22) with its moss-grown exterior, is a vestige of its former glorious self, peopled by faded relics, memories and ghostly echoes of the past. Appropriately, there is also a return from the dead in a replay of Gothic formulae, with the return of Clifford from his living entombment in prison for thirty years. For Clifford and Hepzibah there is no escape from the house and its oppressive weight of sin: “We are ghosts! . . . [with] no right anywhere, but in this old house, which has a curse on it, and which therefore we are doomed to haunt,” (Hawthorne 121) he exclaims despairingly. But the narrative is not a tale of fatal destruction of a doomed family in a haunted house—interestingly, it is also a tale of love and a reawakening to life. Through the agency of Phoebe, a sunny genius loci of the countryside transplanted to an urban setting, Clifford and Hepzibah are able to return to the life from which they had been sundered. Times are also changing—Clifford from his arched window above the ruined porch of the house looks upon a changed world. The locomotive, the telegraph and transatlantic steamers have wrought unforeseen changes in men’s lives, and the ghosts from the past can be finally exorcised.
The happy ending of the story effectively reverses conventional formulae: the House of the Seven Gables is left behind, its curse laid to rest, and the ghosts of the past exorcised. Clifford, Hepzibah, Phoebe and Holgrave all gain wealth and respectability. They are left free to pursue their lives in the way they choose, the denizens of a brave new world where the past does not matter.
James himself when he turns to the Gothic does so with a lightness of touch which bespeaks a rare mastery. “The Turn of the Screw”, a narrative of great psychological depth and power, is a tale of haunting, perversion and death in the setting of a large English country house. As the outer, frame narrative makes clear, the narrative is a ghost story and a fireside tale holding the circle of listeners spellbound about incidents taking place forty years ago. For the greater part, the narrative is the written narrative “in old faded ink and in the most beautiful hand” (James 316) by a governess and the crux of critical opinion has been the reliability of the account. The psycho-sexual interpretation given is usually that the tale is the hallucinatory account of the governess or that it is the reworking of repressed sexual desires.
The notorious unreliability of the narrative notwithstanding, it can be proved that, inspired by ambience of the country house at Bly, the governess has scripted this tale of supernatural visitations in a bid for empowerment. A sensitive, cultured and educated woman, she is cast in the role of marginalized outsider due to lack of fortune, being “the youngest of several daughters of a poor country parson” (James 318).
Taking up a position in the depths of the country she is apprehensive of tedium and monotony, but this is dispelled by her first impressions. Her very first glimpse of Bly on a golden June afternoon, the “broad, clear front”(James 321), the open windows, spacious lawn and the rooks circling over the treetops, confirms her impression of a house on a grand scale, beyond what she is used to and surpassing her expectations. With no interference from her employer in distant London, her charges two young children, and only an impressionable old housekeeper—who treats her as an equal and confidante—she finds herself catapulted to the position of unrivalled power at Bly. The house is evoked with characteristic ambiguity: “It was a big ugly antique but convenient house . . . in which I had the fancy of or being almost as lost as a handful of passengers in a great drifting ship” (James 324). Unable to script a marriage plot for herself with the master of the house, she envisions herself as a female warrior protecting her young charges from omnipresent evil—“it was . . . a magnificent chance (James 344)”.
The spirits of Quint and Miss Jessel are glimpsed at various parts of the house and grounds, in a way which brings out its solitariness and great antiquity. She sees Quint for the first time at the top of one of the towers flanking the house, “dating in their ginger-bread antiquity, from a romantic revival that was already a thing of the past” (James 331). She could have “visions” about these crenelated and battlemented towers, she confesses. The glimpses are all self-dramatized visions of a febrile, restless preternaturally active imagination. She poses to herself a mystery, a negative quest—“Was there a ‘secret’ at Bly—a mystery of Udolpho or an insane, an unmentionable relative kept in unsuspected confinement?”(James 332)—and it is a quest that leads to her recognition of the children as arch-conspirators in league with the spirits and to her ultimately stifling Miles in an attempt to free him from his “infernal” bondage. She enacts a fantasy of power and dominion in an appropriately preternatural setting, and is unrepentant, unforgiving and unyieldingly constant to her visions.
James’s incorporation of “Gothic” elements in the story is done with far more indirection and subtlety than Poe’s. While Poe’s is a classic tale of terror tracing the disintegration of a demented consciousness, and the depiction is done with utmost candour and artistic sincerity, in Hawthorne and James, there is far more a deployment of self-reflexivity, irony and parody. The reader is left with the impression that Gothic edifices and the phantasmagoric visions they inspire are romantic survivals which may evoke a passing interest but are definitely things of the past, to be read about, discussed but not to be given serious consideration in a changed day and age.
Bayer-Berenbaum, Linda. The Gothic Imagination: Expansion in Gothic Literature and Art. London and Toronto: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982. Print.
A Digital Archive of American Architecture. © Prof. Jeffrey Howe. Web. 18/09/14
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of the Seven Gables. Ed. Robert S. Levine. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.
James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories. Introduction by Michael Swan. New Delhi: Rupa, 2012. Print.
Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. N.p. Web. 18/09/14.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: The Modern Library, 1938. Print.