Friday, December 08, 2006

The Origin of Evil in the House of Usher


"I looked upon the scene before me — upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain — upon the bleak walls — upon the vacant eye-like windows — upon a few rank sedges — and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees — with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium — the bitter lapse into common life — the hideous dropping off of the veil." (Edgar Allen Poe - The Fall of the House of Usher p. 1535)
(Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare)

In this passage, the narrator is describing the delaphidated Usher estate and the very strong and unexplainable reaction he feels to it. He attempts to describe what the combination of the two inspire and can only compair it to an expierence of coming off of an opium trip and returning from that euphoric state to a dull, dark and broken reality.

I went back and examined Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher after our class discussion and it seemed an entirely different story to me. In Poe's tale, evil seemes to come from many sources, from nature and from the house itself but its root, the point in which all of the evil in the story converges, is the mind.

Throughout the story, Poe repeadedly alludes that what the narrator is expierencing is not necessarily based exclusively in reality. Many times the narrator isn't able to express exactly what is bothering him about a particular thing as with his first sight of the Usher house. "I know not how it was - but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit." (p. 1534) It's clear that the narrator is feeling deeply gloomy, but he isn't able to describe what is making him feel that way. Later in the story, the narrator says that he will never forget the many hours he spent in the house with Roderick, but that "[he] should fail in any attempt to convey an idea of the exact character of the studies, or of the occupations, in which he involved me..."(p. 1539) The fact that the narrator is missing this information - that he is unable to recall any details or describe with any certainty the nature of what troubles him alludes to the idea that his expierences my not be entirely real or taken a step further, completely in his mind. Both of these passages are laced with language of a dark and evil mood - "insufferable gloom" and a "pervaded spirit" have evil connontations and in the later passage, the narrator describes this memory of time spent with Roderick as a "shroud" which makes an allusion to death and in this case, (as one wouldn't usually bear the memory of spending time with some one as a "shroud") also has evil connontations. When coupled with the idea that both of these passages not only describe dark and evil feelings, but that they are completely rooted in the narrators mind, you can see how Poe brings the two together to craft a picture of the mind as the origin of evil.
The narrator isn't the only place we see evidence for Poe's intentional implications to the mind as the origin of evil in The Fall of the House of Usher. In a contrasting moment for the narrator, one of the details he can remember is of a "verbal improvisation" (p.1540) Roderick performs in the form of a poem or song. "Snow-white palace — reared its head. /In the monarch Thought's dominion —/It stood there!" (p. 1540) This poem being one of the only solid details that the narrator remembes serves as an emphisis for its importance in the story. In these lines, it states that the kingdom is under "Thought's" dominion and that is where it stands - in thought or the mind. Later the poem describes a scene in the kindom where "A troop of Echoes whose sole duty/ Was but to sing . . ./The wit and wisdom of their king."(p.1541) In these lines, the Echoes can be explained as those of the mind.
(Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare [Frankfurt Version])
Here you see an interation that mirrors the insanity of Roderick and the narrator himself - echos symbolizing past thoughts being re-"sung" and nothing more than shadows of the king's mind (as his "wit and wisdom") but also personifies the echoes as people - tangible, reality based interaction, linking it directly to the story. The narrator says that the title of Roderick's poem is "The Haunted Palace" (p. 1540) Poe is drawing a clear parallel between the story and the poem, thereby alluding to the idea that what is happening to the narrator and Roderick is also in the kingdom of thought. Poe uses the trappings of mental instability as a device to illustrate evil in Usher again, pointing to the mind as the origin of evil.
Throughout Usher we see the mental breakdown of Roderick as well as the effective pacifiation of the narrator which ultimately allows Roderick to go unchecked by anyone. By the end of the story, we know that it is Roderick's actions that lead to the supernatural fall of both the metaphoric and material House of Usher. Through Roderick's insantity, shared in part (or maybe even in full) by the narrator, horror and evil are depicted and Poe gives demonstrates how the mind itself can be a source of evil.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Love Him / Shove Him


Love Him / Shove Him

"Lincoln committed himself to the elimination of slavery throughout the country by degrees. Initially, he wished only to contain it; then he say that "a house divided against itself cannot stand," and he proceeded cautiously, with the Emancipation Proclamation . . . finally, he took the leading role in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery everywhere and forever in the United States." ( Nina Baym, pg. 1609, The Norton Anthology of American Literature, "Abraham Lincoln")

The editor of Norton is saying that it took ol' Mr. Lincoln a while to come around to fully embracing the total abolition of slavery. He was pushed further into the direction because of his realization that having two stances on slavery was going to rip the union of the states apart. He ultimately ended up spear-heading the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment.

I've been thinking about Abe since Wednesday. It's a tough one. As a woman of color, and just as someone who thinks that slavery is plain wrong, it is troubling that Abe wasn't really about ending slavery - he was about preserving the union. Despite that, he does deserve credit for taking a stand eventually and doing the right thing by passing the Emancipation Proclamation as well as the Thirteenth Amendment for whatever reason he did it.

I don't agree that he was just another fake, placating, politician out to cover his own butt. He may not have been about abolishing slavery, but he realized that things wouldn't work they way that they were, that there was going to be a fight, and once he realized that, he took a stand. The seeds of civil war had long been planted by the time Lincoln got around to being president.

I feel that he was the only person who could've been president during the Civil War. The nation needed a leader that was conscientious of the needs of the nation and of the fact that on the issue of slavery, the right choice was abolition. It should be noted that things usually aren't very simple and that even when it seems there is a clear right and wrong choice, the fallout of those choices still must be contended with. Being president meant that whatever decision you make, it isn't just a personal one, it's about the country - besides, who wants to be the president who killed America? There must have been an infinite amount of pressure, I can't even imagine. In friendship, I don't know that I would be cool with Abe. As a president, you want the person who can make the decision that is in the best interests of the nation and I think he tried his hardest to do that. I get the impression that he truly thought about slavery and what it meant for the future of the nation and that he deeply struggled with it; I respect that.

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan - to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations." ( Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address)

I believe that his Second Inaugural Address supports the idea that Lincoln wasn't perfect, but he wasn't horrible either. In the last paragraph of his address, he talks about charity, healing and peace. This should've been his "Ha, I was right, I won, suckers!" moment, but instead, he took the opportunity to share his grief over the war. The whole thing seems seeped in guilt and sadness. He doesn't call for punishment - he says we've all been punished by the war. By not singling out either the North or the South, he gives the idea that as a nation we were collectively wrong. He calls for "firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, ..." saying that not only were we all in the "wrong" but that none of us will unfailingly be the bearers of what is right and that we need a higher power to assist us. Those simply don't seem like the words of a man that is only in it for damage control.

Lincoln may have not cared about slavery, or even African Americans, but he still managed to do great work and you can't argue with that. Besides, everyone is a jerk if you look close enough.

Givin' The Ol' Man the What For


" 'You oughtenter wish that to any human crittur. '
[...] 'Lor, if the devil don't get them, then what's he good for?' And Anunt Chloe covered her face with her checked apron, and begain to sob in good earnest
'Pray for them that 'spitefully use you, the good book says,' says Tom.
'Pray for 'em!' said Aunt Chloe; 'Lor, it's too tough! I can't pray for 'em.' " (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin)

This is an exchange between Tom and his wife, Chloe. Here Tom has over heard a conversation that Chloe is having with little Jake and Andy about Mr. Haley and slavers in general. Tom overhears Jake and Andy say that they wish that they would burn in eternal damnation (or go to hell forever :o)). This quote opens with his chastisement of the boys for saying that and following is Chloe's interjection and response to Tom's disapproval. Tom thinks that wishing someone to damnation is wrong and is so terrible that it shouldn't be wished on anyone, not even slavers. Chloe disagrees with Tom and flatly says that if damnation isn't for people like the slavers, then hell isn't serving its purpose. Tom responds with a quote from the bible essentially saying to be merciful to people who are cruel and to not be so judgmental to which Chloe retorts that it is too difficult not to judge them and wish good for them.

This is an awesome exchange. Chloe saying "Lor, if the devil don't get them, what's he good for?" has got to be my favorite quote of the whole piece. Chloe is asserting her opinion as valid she is calling Tom out on his inability to stand up for himself and it's incredibly funny. This is a moment in the book where the exchange isn't as high-melodrama as it is in other places (although there is the crying.) and Chloe's reaction seems genuine; what is hell and the devil good for if it isn't for punishing bad people? That's what I thought the concept of hell was all about.

Fun bits aside, the real reason I wanted this to be my quote for this entry is that it is an example of one of the reasons why I think Uncle Tom's Cabin is valuable in feminist literature. This exchange between Chloe and Tom is just one of the many points in the book where the women of the book assert themselves. They all have their own opinions and thoughts and they freely and fearlessly express them. All the women in Uncle Tom's Cabin aren't necessarily wonderful characters, but each of them do what they feel is right when the time comes. Women have a very central and dominate role in this book.

"You ought to be ashamed, John! Poor, homeless, houseless creatures! It's a shameful, wicked, abominable law, and I'll break it,for one, the first time I get a chance; and I hope I shall have a chance, I do!" (Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin)

Here, Mary Bird is laying into her husband Senator John Bird for voting for the Fugitive Slave Law. She is not only expressing her opinion of the law, but chastising her husband for his role in passing it; more than that, she is boldly announcing her opposition to her husband and her intentions to disobey a law he helped to pass. It is amazing to see these type of exchanges because they aren't common place. Obviously it should be said that Stowe's own opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law clearly played a role in this passage, but she did choose a woman to express her feelings, where she could have very easily had a man express it. I think that is powerful and important to notice. One other thing is that this exchange parallels the one that Chloe and Tom have, illustrating the connections between the two groups as well as validating the relationships and ideas of black women.

Something else that is interesting is the role that men play. Stereotypically, men are supposed to be forceful and assertive. There isn't a lack of those sort of men in Uncle Tom's Cabin rather, there is a presence of men who aren't all about stereotypical male gender. Tom is a good example of this. He is gentle and nurturing. He is a caretaker for Eva and for people in general. St. Clare also exhibits some non-alpha male behavior when dealing with Ophelia. St. Clare buys Topsy for Ophelia. Sure, he is trying to show her that her racist feelings are wrong, but he is doing it in a way that caters to her. He isn't going around, bellowing and enforcing his ideas on her - instead he's come up with a way to prove his beliefs.

That Harriet is pretty cool.