Incest in Nineteenth-Century American Literature
Incest in Nineteenth-Century American Literature
In spite of, or perhaps because of, the force of the social and moral prohibitions against it, incest was a relatively common motif in early American literature, occurring most frequently in novels of the time. The fascination with incest was associated strongly with a call for a social order proper to the newly independent and still largely "uncivilized" nation. The frequent and diverse use of this theme suggests its symbolic power both in sentimental novels toward the beginning of the century and in gothic novels later on. The most common form of actual or potential incest occurs between siblings, whose sexual union typically is narrowly averted as the truth is revealed at the last possible moment. Early American novels assumed a stern tone with regard to incest: In works such as William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy (1789), neither party involved is granted forgiveness, even if the actions are a result of ignorance. Instead, both parties either succumb to tragic deaths from shock, suicide, or other violent means; they fall victim to such afflictions as madness; or they are punished by exile or ostracism. Toward the mid-nineteenth century, as the family unit stabilized within larger population centers and a greater proportion of society found themselves with both the time and the financial security to enjoy the luxury of reading, sensationalistic, or pulp, fiction rose in popularity. Plots revolving around internal family dynamics, particularly those about the "mentionable unmentionable"—incest—quickly became thrilling favorites.
A central preoccupation of many works of literature in nineteenth-century America was the stability of the social order. The incest theme illuminated the danger of fragmentation of the family, the basic unit of social order. In nineteenth-century literature, the incestuous family is often motherless, and includes a male member who violates a sister or daughter. Typically, the incestuous situation originates with the sexual indiscretions of the father, who begets an illegitimate daughter, casts her off, and thus unknowingly sets up his son's potential incestuous connection with his own half-sister. The experience is so catastrophic—usually concluding with the deaths of those involved—that it literally destroys the family. And often the destruction is blamed on the father. According to Anne Dalke (1988), the "early American father is not only prime sufferer in his children's misfortune, but prime cause of their suffering as well." At times, the father, too, is haunted by his sins, as he finds himself involved in an incestuous relationship with his own daughter.
In many gothic nineteenth-century works, including those of Edgar Allan Poe, this destruction of the family is often literal. In Poe's short story "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), for example, the incestuous family is doomed by its geographic isolation; the house is literally "closed in" by the surrounding lake. Secluded in this way, according to James B. Twitchell (1987), the Usher siblings "are hermetically sealed in the cocoon of family. For them there can be no sexual excursions beyond the family border and so they must collapse in on themselves." This literal destruction is also found in Charles Brockden Brown's novel Wieland (1798), in which the father carries a mysterious curse out of Europe into the New World and then dies, leaving his son and daughter orphans. In time, Theodore, perhaps having inherited the curse, begins confusing his new wife with his sister. He ultimately murders his wife, placing the body in his sister's bed, then kills himself.
This concern with the destruction of the family—and more specifically, with paternal authority—was firmly tied to a deep anxiety over the instability of America's social hierarchy. Many early writers feared the ease with which Americans moved between social strata, and related these fears in sexual terms. In fiction, this usually took one of two forms: in one, a male character chooses to marry a poor woman from a lower class, and she invariably turns out to be his illegitimate half-sister; in another, an older man attempts to seduce a poor, young woman, and she eventually is revealed as his illegitimate daughter. Many critics see these scenarios as metaphoric pleas for a return to a time when the elder males of society—members of the established upper class—understood and maintained their roles as benevolent protectors of their inferiors, and thus ensured a stable and secure hierarchical social structure. At the same time, however, some writers viewed the past as corrupt and questioned whether or not inhabitants of America were doomed to pay throughout eternity for the sins of their fathers. Responding to their country's rejection of England and its attempts to establish an independent culture and society, many writers, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, treated incest as the inability to escape the wrongs of the past in order to forge an unsullied future. For instance, Hawthorne's story "Alice Doane's Appeal" (1835) treats the deep affection a brother feels for his sister. Some critics claim that by treating these possibly incestuous feelings, coupled with another plotline involving a long-lost brother and his sexual interest in the same sister, Hawthorne attempted to instill in his readers feelings of guilt and shame over the past and the need for a sense of moral responsibility for the future. In addition, critics claim, Hawthorne went one step further by bringing into the story his own family's involvement in the past: Hawthorne includes a scene in which a ghostly pageant features the founding fathers of Salem represented as demons and damned souls. As Frederick C. Crews (1966) states: The "idea of past generations here is in keeping with the story's theme; in some tentative, unformulated sense, ancestry is associated with incestry."
The uniquely nineteenth-century American treatment of incest thus most often concerns itself with social issues—whether personal, such as the desires within an individual family—or political, including the hierarchical structure of society. Few novels or short stories of the time feature female narrators relating the incident or danger of incest, and even fewer question the gender roles that dominated the century and that, to some extent, cultivated and idealized the incestuous relationship. Still, the use of incest as a particularly dangerous form of human relation illuminates the extent to which nineteenth-century authors focused on the interaction of authority and desire in relationships between men and women.
Charles Brockden Brown
Wieland; or, The Transformation (novel) 1798
William Hill Brown
The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature (novel) 1789
Ira and Isabella: or, The Natural Children (novel) 1807
James Fenimore Cooper
Home as Found (novel) 1838
"Alice Doane's Appeal" (short story) 1835
Pierre: or, the Ambiguities (novel) 1852
Edgar Allan Poe
"The Fall of the House of Usher" (short story) 1839
Susanna Haswell Rowson
"Marian and Lydia" (short story) 1791
Charlotte's Daughter (novel) 1828
The Wide, Wide World (novel) 1892
Sarah Sayward Wood
Julia and the Illuminated Baron (novel) 1800
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James B. Twitchell (essay date 1987)
SOURCE: "'The Disease of the Last of the Ushers': Incest in Nineteenth-Century American Culture," in Forbidden Partners: The Incest Taboo in Modern Culture, Columbia University Press, 1987, pp. 185-219.
[In the following essay, Twitchell examines the incest taboo in the context of a developing American social order, which chronologically coincided with the rise of the gothic novel.]
Thus the basic question becomes: Why, by and large, don't human beings like it [incest] much? Why, in the vast majority of societies, do they take some trouble, however vague, to discourage incestuous unions, even though most human beings are probably not going to indulge in such unions? … Unease and avoidance seem to be the common denominators—not fierce desire held in check by even fiercer sanctions or lust reined in by the power of taboo. The universal root phenomenon appears to be the ease with which it rouses our unease.—Robin Fox, The Red Lamp of Incest
If the unease we feel in contemplating incest is partially cultural, and if culture carries these feelings from generation to generation through the creation of a shared grammar, will different verbal texts from different cultures betray different methods of avoidance? If the taboo is ideological, will...
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Anne Dalke (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: "Original Vice: The Political Implications of Incest in the Early American Novel," in Early American Literature, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, 1988, pp. 188-201.
[In the essay that follows, Dalke argues that the incidents of unconscious incest in early American novels indicate a concern with social instability.]
The first American novel and many of its most popular successors incorporate a striking motif: that of unconscious incest. Eight times before 1830, the early American novel raises the possibility of unwitting incest. The discovery usually results in madness or suicide; only once does the threat prove specious. By dwelling on such disastrous consequences, the earliest American novelists expressed no literal fear of widespread incest, but rather a fear of the dreadful condition incest symbolizes: the absence of a well-defined social system. They used a story of thwarted love to express, obliquely, deep anxiety about ease of social movement.
The first American novelist, William Hill Brown, the first best-selling American novelist, Susanna Rowson, and the first American gothicist, Sarah Sayward Wood, as well as a medley of less known writers (some of them anonymous), demanded in their fiction the careful establishment, and as careful maintenance, of social and economic difference and responsibility. Those hierarchical distinctions...
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Frederick C. Crews (essay date 1966)
SOURCE: "Brotherly Love," in The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes, Oxford University Press, 1966, pp. 44-60.
[In the following essay, Crews argues that Hawthorne's short story "Alice Doane's Appeal" manifests a narrative tone that reflects simultaneous fascination with and repugnance toward the issue of incest.]
"Incest is, like many other incorrect things, a very poetical circumstance."
At the very beginning and very end of his career Hawthorne produced halting, fragmentary works of fiction which are of peculiar interest for their revelation of essential themes. What is subtle and even problematical in his more polished writing leaps plainly into view in these otherwise incoherent works; we can watch him first trying to subdue, and later trying to fend away from consciousness, obsessive attitudes that are successfully sublimated elsewhere. In a psychologically oriented study we must ask the reader to be more patient with such works than their aesthetic value might warrant; like other ruins, they offer special opportunities for knowledge because their inmost structure is directly exposed to us.
The chief example of such a work before the late romances is "Alice Doane's Appeal," one of the two surviving...
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Barnett, Louise K. "American Novelists and the 'Portrait of Beatrice Cenci'." The New England Quarterly 53, No. 2 (June 1980): 168-83.
Traces the use of the portrait and narrative of Beatrice Cenci—"the embodiment of victimization and crime on the level of the most ancient and absolute taboos, those against incest and parricide"—in the work of Hawthorne, Melville and Edith Wharton.
Becker, Allienne R. "'Alice Doane's Appeal': A Literary Double of Hoffman's Die Elixieredes Teufels." Comparative Literature Studies 23, No. 1 (Spring 1986): 1-11.
Examines the similarities between Hawthorne's "Alice Doane's Appeal" and E. T. A. Hoffman's novel.
Carothers, R. L. "Melville's 'Cenci': A Portrait of Pierre." Ball State University Forum 10, No. 1 (Winter 1969): 53-59.
Analyzes the father-son relationship in Pierre, contending that the association between the two has its roots in a "curious blending of Christian mythology and a sort of pre-Freudian-Jungian psychoanalysis of the unconscious."
Cory, Donald Webster, and R. E. L. Masters. Violation of Taboo: Incest in the Great Literature of the Past and Present. New York: The Julian Press, 1963, 422 p.
Offers a variety of...
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