Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Disjointed Series of Things to Think About

Okay, only for a given value of "Romantic," because we have to make certain we define it correctly, but here are some pre-test things to think about that might prove profitable on Thursday.

What makes Edgar Allan Poe "gothic" as opposed to merely another overwrought Romantic, staring down the abyss? The concept of the sublime only sort-of comes into play with Poe. I'd venture to say that none of his settings fall into the "sublime" category of nature that Romantics were so fond of, but his storms do. The thunderstorm in "The Fall of the House of Usher" is definately siblime. And, happily, it scares the mortal poo out of everyone. I digress. "Ligeia" has so many gothic elements, it's hard to list them all, but you can't go wrong with dead women, weird turreted bedrooms, Medieval wall hangings, and the suggestion of madness and decay. Don't forget ghosts, suspected vampires, and unreliable narrators.

Yet another Poe question intrigues me. He writes in the first person so that he can show the interiority of his narrators -- their emotions, thoughts, fears, and insanity -- in ways that you just can't do with an external narrator. This limits him, though, because it means that his narrators always have to survive. You know at the beginning of a first-person story that the narrator isn't going to croak at the end of it; otherwise how would that person finish the tale? Does this survival-of-the-narrator strategy hurts the overall horror factor of Poe's tales? I kind of think it does, because I'm always thinking, "If this was so scary, how did you make it out?" I suppose this is a good place to remember the differences between terror and horror.

One of the characteristics of literature of this period is its unwillingness to do all the work for the reader. The endings of everything from "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" to "Ligeia" leave the reader with questions. Why do these writers refuse to tie up all the loose ends, and how does that reflect the ideas of literary Romanticism?

Let's see, we might also find ourselves discussing the condition of women in the 19th Century and the things that shaped that condition -- Romanticism, Christianity, and the American legal system come to mind. How do women fare in the stories and poems we read these past few weeks? Which writers seem sympathetic to women, and which are clearly not?

Sojourner Truth can obviously be paired with Phillis Wheatley, although their lives never overlapped. The contrasts between the two are more important than the similarities, but one has to wonder what ST would have been like if she'd had Wheatley's education. Perhaps she would not have been as forceful an advocate for justice; the experience of injustice at the hands of her owners is what made her so adamant to protect others, after all. Wheatley was less an abolitionist because she had no abuse or injustice to protest. This lack of personal experience in injustice is also what kept a number of women quiet on the subject of women's rights. They were comfortable, and felt that other women's discomfort was their own fault.

One of the characteristics of Romantic literature is the unreliable narrator, or the unreliable experience. It would be helpful to think about the ways that Goodman Brown's experiences may or may not be real, and the ways the narrator in "Ligeia" might be unreliable. Come to think of it, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" may be pulling our leg, and so might "The Raven." I see a trend.

Some short takes: It's good to know the ways that the Enlightenment and Romanticism opposed one another. Situate Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Fenimore Cooper in the same philosophical box, too, in their treatment of Native Americans. Women and slaves have some of the same problems, but not the same solutions.


  1. I think it's pretty funny that a alot of Romantic literature may just be well done jokes to fool readers. We think think of this time period as dark and gloomy but it seems like writers from ths time period were just haveing fun with people. Maybe thats the rue nature of Romanticism, to make fun of society and you would expect.

  2. Well . . . I think the Romantics took themselves way too seriously for them to be engaging in a grand joke at everyone's expense. It's more likely that we interpret some things as elaborate jokes because we see them through the lens of our own culture. Someone within the early 19th Century culture would not have seen any irony or satire.

  3. Edgar Allen Poe seems to theme his gothic elements around the imagination. The loose ends found in his work are always left open for interpretation. Works such as "The Fall of the House of the House of Usher" especially themes on the human imagination. Poe does this by showing the extent that fantasy can take the mind to while also showing how damaging it can be. This element was most likely a parallel from his personal life. His life in poverty probably created many senses of false hope that he learned could be detrimental if taken too seriously.