Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne are both American writers that use Gothic elements in many of their stories. Particularly, they create sentient objects within the story that participate in the theme of the story. The House of Seven Gables, by Hawthorne, and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” by Poe are stories where the authors used the houses as sentient objects to interact with the characters of the book. However, the way in which the houses are used within the stories are very different; this difference in the effects of the melancholy houses, and the relationship of the houses with the narrators of the stories, show the difference in Poe and Hawthorne as Gothic writers. There are many similarities in how Poe and Hawthorne use the houses in their stories. These similarities are important to show the connections to the Gothic genre, and serve as a basis to show the differences in their writing, and methods of using sentient objects.
The first description of the houses shows the immense melancholy of both houses, with subtle but important differences. Poe sets the House of Usher on a dreary countryside, most likely in Europe (Poe 2498), that is very secluded. In Poe's psychological or mesmeric fiction, he often “confines his protagonists to enclosed spaces or hostile environments,” (Shear 276). This is shown in many of his stories, such as “Ligeia,” and “The Masque of the Red Death,”(Shear 276) but is also prevalent in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The House of Usher is somewhat secluded. It is in the open country, but there are no other civilians to speak of living near the house. The narrator suggests that he traveled for a long time by himself, not seeing any other person, before arriving at the House. The House of Usher could also be seen as a hostile environment, after all, the inhabitants die within it's walls before it falls down, burying both sister and brother.
The narrator of the story tells us that he has “been passing alone... and at length found [him]self...within the view of the melancholy House of Usher,” (Poe 2498). He goes on to describe the complete pervading gloom that overcomes him by just the sight of the house, which mentally affects him. Although this feeling of doom has encompassed him, he can not reason why; he says, “The analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth,” (Poe 2498). The overwhelming power that the House of Usher has on the narrator upon his first viewing of it is just one of many examples of how Poe creates the setting of his stories to interact with the characters.
Similarly, Nathaniel Hawthorne uses the House of Seven Gables to give further insight to the characters in his romance, as well as the history of their ancestors. The narrator in The House of Seven Gables gives his own perception of the house, “The aspect of the venerable mansion has always affected me like a human countenance, bearing the traces not merely of outward storm and sunshine, but expressive also of the long lapse of mortal life, and accompanying vicissitudes, that have passed within,” (Hawthorne 5). Both Hawthorne and Poe create sentient objects in their fiction to add Gothic elements to their story. However, in the case of The Fall of the House of Usher and The House of Seven Gables these sentient objects, that seemingly play the same role, have different effects on the characters of the stories.
The two houses are similar in that they are both places of severe melancholy, however the dreadful gloom that hangs around the House of Usher like a black cloud is visibly absent from the House of Seven Gables. There, the misery lies mostly within. The House was located in the middle of Pyncheon-street, in a New England colony. The physical appearance of the House of Seven Gables is a “rusty,” old, wooden mansion covered in mossy vegetation, with a large elm tree just outside the door (Hawthorne 6). It has the appearance of a house that was once important, but has lost that meaning in the many years past. The Seven Gables is described mainly as old, with the history of its inhabitants pervading the structure, giving it the gloomy atmosphere. The House of Usher is also described as old, but slightly more decrepit. Poe's narrator describes the scene, “I looked upon...the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees,” (Poe 2498). The House of Usher is the gloom, and the inhabitants are affected by the structure. Both carry the idea of futility within, but the House of Usher boldly exposes its melancholy to any passerby.
Both of the houses contain within characters of an almost morbid quality; suggesting death and decay, which is also permeated by the houses. Seven Gables has pathetic old Hepzibah with her scowling face and “gusty sighs,” (Hawthorne 30) and dear Clifford, who, according to Neill Matheson, “has regressed to a time before a trauma or loss.” Both of these characters, who permanently live in the old Pyncheon house, display explicit qualities of melancholy. Hepzibah's and Clifford's connection with the house is much stronger than any of the other characters in the story. However, neither Hepzibah nor Clifford is a stable person. Hepzibah is old and almost lifeless, and the narrator's classification of Clifford is inconsistent, (Knadler 290). Clifford is described as “suffering from mania, melancholia, and dementia, including 'monomania,' and 'moral insanity'... diagnoses multiply until they are dislodged from their metaphysical grounding,” (Knadler 290). This paints a picture of Clifford as completely unstable, and it is made clear throughout the romance that these mental illnesses are caused by family history that is embodied by the house.
Similarly, Poe also creates a world wherein the sentient objects, which are not normally so, seem to, in a way, control the actions and even thoughts of the characters. However, Poe many times gives life to these objects through the minds of the character. To further explain, a character may think, feel, or otherwise sense something—be it true or not—and Poe turns that sensation into actual perception, which can also be regarded as a symptom of the character (Shear 298). This will inevitably create an unstable psyche of the character. For example, in “The Fall of The House of Usher” Roderick is a “dependent effect of his surroundings” because his “morbidly acute senses subject him to his environment,” (Taylor 31).
While Hepzibah and Clifford are affected by the house, the other characters of the romance, Phoebe and Holgrave, who come to live in the old house, have an effect on the house, like the previous inhabitants (only the effect is positive and not morbid). This aspect of the story is something that is absent in Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Toward the end of the first night of Phoebe's stay in the old house, the contrast between her and the house is extreme; the dark, antique canopy that hung over her bed is described as something that “brooded over the girl like a cloud, making night in that one corner,” (Hawthorne 70), while Pheobe herself is described with “a bloom on her cheeks,” (Hawthorne 70). As Pheobe makes a home for herself in the Seven Gables, she changes small parts of the gloomy house into a brighter, and more cheerful surrounding that fits her personality. For example, Pheobe's actions were described as an unplanned process,
She... gave a touch here, and another there; brought some articles of furniture to light, and dragged others into the shadow; looped it up or let down a window-curtain; and in the course of a half-an-hour, had fully succeeded in throwing a kindly and hospitable smile over the apartment, (Hawthorne 72).
Pheobe also nurses some plants back to life (Hawthorne 87), giving the whole atmosphere of the house a new light. Holgrave, not being a descendant of the Pyncheon line—rather a relative of the Pyncheons past rivals, the Maules—is not very affected by the house either. He seems to be a passive observer of the Pyncheon line and the power held over them by the house. This indicates that the melancholy of the house is held in place by the inhabitants of the Pycheon line, there is a direct connection between them and the house, guests are not as affected by the house. This contrasts greatly with “The Fall of the House of Usher” in the sense that the Usher house affects everyone in close vicinity to the house.
The characters in the House of Usher exhibit their own qualities of melancholy. Roderick has written to the narrator, previously divulging his symptoms of an unknown illness. Upon arriving at the House, the narrator also finds Roderick's sister, Madeline, to be ill—with catatonic spells. The decrepit house and the extremely morbid inhabitants of it are seemingly doomed from the beginning. Roderick greets his friend by saying, “I shall perish. I must perish in this deplorable folly. Thus, thus, and not otherwise, shall I be lost,” (Poe 2501). This greeting completely embodies the idea of morbid characters within the stories of Poe and Hawthorne. Roderick's illness that he claims to suffer from proves to be completely mental, only affecting his physical body because of the stress brought on by his specific mental state. This illness is also caused mainly by the house; the narrator describes it by saying,
He was enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted, and whence, for many years, he had never ventured forth...an influence which some peculiarities in the mere form and substance of his family mansion had, by dint of long sufferance, he said, obtained over his spirit--an effect which the physique of the gray wall and turrets...had, at length, brought about upon the morale of his existence, (Poe 2501).
This shows the direct influence of the house on Roderick. However, in an attempt to rationalize this effect, Roderick considers the mental gloom that he has been feeling is caused by the illness of his sister (Poe 2501). Madeline's illness, though, had “baffled” her physicians (Poe 2502), and I believe another affect of the the house on her character. She wanders around the house, refusing to stay in bed, and falls into mysterious cataleptic states (Poe 2502). This coordinated with the mysterious ambiance of the house.
Unlike the house of Seven Gables, the house affects the characters. This is shown by the influence of the house over the narrator. As described earlier, the narrator's first experience in seeing the house put him in an opium-like dream, frightening and mystical, that he could barely awake from (Poe 2499). This first visual affect lays the groundwork for more effects on the narrator by a sentient house; the description of the house as having “eye-like windows” is one example of how the house is personified (Poe 2498).
Even though many of Poe's stories strongly hold Gothic elements, he also used science to reason most things, which made many of his psychological and mesmeric stories seem dreamlike and unrealistic. Everything in Poe's stories ties together; the places, the people, and even inanimate objects interact with each other and many times symbolize something greater. Poe's world of fiction “could push the senses into defining not only a subjective uniqueness but also into examining the ambiguous relationship of that experience to the material world in which the experience occurs,” (Shear 279). Poe can still hold his scientific beliefs by giving his narrators their own form of rhetoric that is completely distinct from his own, (Zimmerman 15). This use of a narrator within the story, on having his own personality and even rhetoric, gives the reader more insight into how the House of Usher specifically affects the visitor in a psychological way.
Hawthorne uses a technique very similar to Poe's; he gives his narrator his own rhetoric and ability to think apart from the actual author; “Within the persona of his 'unreliable' narrator, Hawthorne implicates the repeated critical distance of psychological diagnosis of the self, although the narrator attempts to step outside the immediate social context of his fable to theorize about the personality of the Pyncheons,” (Knadler 290). However, Hawthorne's narrator is an unnamed third party, whereas Poe's narrator is a significant character within the story. Hawthorne's narrator is seemingly in the story; in the first description of Hepzibah, it is as if the narrator is bringing the reader into the story with him to spy on the old woman (Hawthorne 30), and in his description of the house in the beginning of the story, as discussed earlier. I believe that Hawthorne's reason for giving his narrator his own rhetoric separate from his own, is much different than Poe's reason.
Hawthorne's narrator is somewhat unreliable because he is not completely omniscient, although he is a third party narrator. Even though Poe's narrator is an unnamed third party narrator that is not omniscient either, he participates in the story, but is even more unreliable than Hawthorne's narrator. Poe's narrator is shown to be more unreliable because of his first impression of the house, and his reaction to it. He compares it to an opium dream, suggesting that he has done opium previously. Also, his reaction to the gloominess of the house is one of Poe's ways of making the characters in his stories seem like they could have a mental illness because of the way they perceive objects as sentient. So, Poe essentially does what Hawthorne does to make the narrator unreliable, but takes it one step further. The narrator, much like the characters, in Poe's story seem to have a psychosis that permeates throughout the story, in their actions, that is brought on by their viewing the house as sentient.
In Mathew A. Taylor's essay “Edgar Allan Poe's (Meta)physics: A Pre-history of the Post-Human,” he describes the relationship of Poe's characters and sentient objects,
Literalizing the indistinguishability of building and inhabitants inherent to the 'equivocal appellation of the House of Usher,' the Story displays the effects of the mutual 'influence' of structure and lineage over 'the long lapse of centuries,' a reciprocal imbrication made all the more incestuous because the 'very ancient' family tree never 'put forth...any enduring branch' that lived beyond the mansions walls,”(30).
The mansion that Roderick lived in had a strong influence over his consciousness. He knew that his body was merely an ephemeral effect of the house (Taylor 31), as were the previous inhabitants of it. Taylor suggests that the house affects the inhabitants, and the inhabitants affect the house. However, I suggest that the influence of the house on the present inhabitants, Roderick and Madeline, is much stronger than their affect on the structure itself. The narrator describes a scene in which Usher has just finished singing a ballad, from which arose suggestions of the effects of the house on Roderick; “The conditions of the sentience had been here, he imagined, fulfilled in the methods of collocation of these stones—in the order of their arrangement, as well as in that of the many fungi which overspread them, and of the decayed trees which stood around,” (Poe 2505).
Another element that is present in both stories is the theme of a crypt and secrecy within. In Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the crypt is the house itself, entombing all who live within it's walls. This concept is especially clear when Roderick's supposedly dead sister is temporarily kept in the house, in her coffin (Poe 2506). Another way in which it is crypt-like is that the house eventually does collapse and bury its inhabitants (Poe 2510). The theme of the crypt in Hawthorne's work is slightly different. The idea of the house as a crypt is similar to Poe, however in the Seven Gables the house only serves as a tomb for the old Mr. Pyncheon in the form of his portrait that is referenced throughout the story.
A key difference in the two stories is that Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables ends with a kind of hope that is not found in Poe's “Usher.” The main characters, what is left of the Pyncheon family, leave the Seven Gables, and move on with their lives (Hawthorne 314). The death in the end of the story is only the death of the evil, in Judge Pyncheon, and the house left behind to rot without its inhabitants. Overall, the story has a happy ending, very unlike Poe. Poe's ending of his story is more death and gloom. The inhabitants of the House of Usher are damned to the house. They spent their lives in that house, thinking of death, and then inevitably died in the house, which then buried them (Poe 2510). Poe's story ends in the horror of a morbid family, and a mysterious collapse of the house.
Through studying the aspects in which Poe and Hawthorne use sentient objects in their stories to affect their characters differently, I have come to the conclusion that, although seemingly similar on the surface, Poe and Hawthorne are very different writers within the Gothic genre. Both use the idea of perpetuating gloom and melancholy, but Poe's is unending whereas Hawthorne's is not. The use of sentient houses within the stories is different as well. Hawthorne's house is made alive because of the inhabitants, and their perpetuating gloom. This is shown by the changes that the house emulates as certain characters are present in the house, such as Phoebe making the house more cheerful. Poe's house is different; this house affects the inhabitants. Even though the gloom of the house may have been caused by the past inhabitants, the current ones are under the spell of the house. It has complete control of them, as shown by the deaths of the inhabitants. Both authors also use the rhetoric of their narrators to further describe the sentience of the house in different ways, through the unreliability of the narrators in different aspects.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of the Seven Gables. OH: Ohio State UP, 1965.
Knadler, Stephen. “Hawthorne's Genealogy of Madness: 'The House of Seven Gables' and Disciplinary Individualism” American Quarterly. The John Hopkins UP. 1995.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed Paul Lauter, et al. 6th ed. Boston: Hough Mifflin, 2009. 2497-2510.
Shear, Walter. “Poe's Fiction:The Hypnotic Magic of the Senses.” Midwest Quarterly. 47 (Spring 2006):276-89.
Taylor, Mathew A. “Edgar Allan Poe's (Meta)physics:A Pre-History of the Post-Human.” Nineteenth- Century Literature Berkeley 62 (2007):193-216
Zimmerman, Brett. Edgar Allan Poe: Rhetoric and Style. Ithica, Montreal:McGill Queen's UP, 2005.