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
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 different political and economic systems generate different expressions? Will there even be observable variances within similar cultures as to how unease is communicated? Will stories of family romance be different, characteristic of their culture? More specifically, if we look at early modern American culture, will it differ from the English culture of the same period in how incest behavior is coded?
Toward the end of Chateaubriand's René, the eponymic protagonist sets out to the new world full of melancholy hope that he may find temporary palliative for his suicidal depression. He has fallen in love with his sister, Amelia, who has been locked away forever in a convent. René heads westward to the land of starting over, the land of dreams, the land where everything can be forgiven, and almost everything forgotten, the land where there is no personal, national, or racial past. He heads off into the American wilderness. And what does he find? He finds Chactas, an Indian chief, as natural a man as Rousseau could ever have imagined, living as pastoral a life as any poet could have desired, and Father Souel, a missionary who has come to the Mississippi lands to teach the Indians how to live the European way. René tells the old chief and the wise Father his story of woe. Instead of comforting the lad, these wise men scold him, tell him he has been a fool, and assure him he will find no comfort here. Father Souel makes it clear to his young countryman that this land of manifold opportunities is not the land of infinite alternatives. He tells René to pack his things and go home:
Nothing in your story deserves the pity you are now being shown. I see a young man infatuated with illusions, satisfied with nothing, withdrawn from the burdens of society, and wrapped up in idle dreams…. Your sister has atoned for her sin, but if I must speak frankly, I fear that through some terrible justice, that confession, emerging from the depths of the tomb, has in turn stirred up your own soul. What do you do all alone in the woods using up your days and neglecting all your duties? You will tell me that saints have retired to the wilderness. Yes, but they were there weeping and subduing their passions, while you seem to be wasting your time inflaming your own…. Whoever has been endowed with talent must devote it to serving his fellow men, for if he does not make use of it, he is first punished by an inner misery, and sooner or later Heaven visits on him a fearful retribution.
The wise chief tells the young European the mixed message of the new world: its tolerance is matched only by its abomination of aberration.
My son, he [Father Souel] speaks severely to both of us; he is reprimanding the old man and the young, and he is right. Yes, you must give up this strange life, which holds nothing but care. Happiness can be found only in the common paths. (pp. 112-113)
René returns home to France and to his wife and unhappiness. Thus, the literary work that introduced incest as a subject of romantic inquiry into Europe ends with the final American response, "You can't do that on our shores."
It may be ironic, but not unpredictable, that American culture, which for the better part of two hundred years has prided itself, even boasted, of its independence from oppressive ancestral traditions, has been in many instances the most supportive of the traditional forms it spurned. Nowhere is this better seen than in family matters. American concepts of domestic relations are often contradictory and short-lived. On the one hand we have stressed the importance of individual choice, of "breaking away," of each generation bettering the previous, of melting-pot diversity. On the other hand we have enforced role behavior, prolonged adolescence, partially abetted the generation gap, fueled xenophobia, and tolerated, at times encouraged, racial and religious barriers we professed to have abolished. The paradox of the last few decades in which beatniks, hippies, and now punks live side by side with "togetherness," the Jesus movement, and jingoism, characterized nineteenth-century culture as well. All Western heterogeneous societies have such diversities and contradictions. The degrees, however, are different.
American domestic boundaries may have occasioned such concern both to maintain and to violate because, with no past and with the clear and present danger of the wilderness before us, we were tempted to exaggerate what we had and did not have. At first this struggle took the form of the bizarre confrontation between Roger Williams and John Cotton over, among other things, family patterns and rights. It would later unfold in the movement west, in race relations, and now in our sense of the nuclear family. As long as there was plenty of room to go around, if you disapproved of your neighbor's conduct, or your own family's, you could move on. By the nineteenth century, however, new land east of the Appalachians had run out. The Renés were sent home, or far across the Mississippi.
For the most part, the struggle over social boundaries had less to do with inherited patterns or with ecclesiastical polity than with economic necessity. The financial panic of 1837 and the transformation from an agrarian to an industrial state had dislocated families, forcing them west or back into population centers. The political upheaval of Jacksonian democracy was extending the concept of nation over state over family and was having profound implications, as we see in the reactionary prose of Thoreau, Emerson, and even Cooper. The industrial revolution was having its impact on what held families together. Separation anxiety, parental love, habit, tradition, and mutual fears were now joined by the possibility of economic gain. American families were different. Those who were not born to wealth could become rich.
In a sense, the promise of organizing the family anew in order to achieve wealth continued the debate between Salem and Provincetown, except that economics replaced religion and the geography of conflict had moved. By the 1830s the literal confrontation was between the axis of Boston and southern New England on the one hand, and, on the other, familylike communities scattered on the near frontier of Pennsylvania and Ohio to the west, and upper New York and southern Vermont to the north. Not by happenstance did Coleridge and Robert Southey intend to head to the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania to start their Pantisocracy based on the communal ownership of everything including each other, for they knew of the experiments in family living that were occurring on the near frontier. As the California coast has become to us today, so the rolling hills of the upper New England states and the eastern Midwest were to the early nineteenth century—a place sufficiently far away to be safe, yet close enough to be noticed.1 With the exception of the Mormons, experimental American communities rarely headed out into the real wilderness. What they did was best done almost in private. They did, after all, have a point to make, and that point almost always had to do with showing both their financial success and the corruption of their neighbors.2
A two-day trek north of Boston in the early nineteenth century would have taken you close to one of the most interesting attempts to deal with the domestic and economic problems of the disease of modern life—an attempt to literally establish the fictional family designs of English romanticism. Of all the Utopian communities that sprang up along the periphery, such as the Shakers, Amish, and Hutterites, none was more important in reconfiguring the modern family than the Putney, Vermont, commune of John Humphrey Noyes. Noyes had seen the problem of the fracturing family and he proposed the obvious return to pure forms. If God was the father of man, and if we were all his precious children, then our relationships should be those of siblings—all our relationships. Noyes was one of the few to confront the specific sexual ramifications of the argument, which has the elegance of the Elizabethan world picture, that our little human world reflects His larger and perfect one.
The Perfectionists, as Noyes humbly called his group, were not the first to learn that propagation à la the angels was difficult. His immediate predecessors in resolving this prickly matter, the Shakers, had already learned what reproductive problems were engendered by literally being in the family of God. Celibacy was their answer, not so much as the result of logic as of the sexual phobias and inhibitions of their founder, Ann Lee. Still, it was clear that for any "little family" to evolve it somehow would have to gain members. The conjugal bed might be "made of embers," as Mrs. Lee reported of her own, but in the frontier commune the alternative to embers was to be frozen forever in one nonreproducing family.
So, literally like the angels, the Shakers added to their family horizontally. They adopted family members, be they orphans or converts. As many modern communes have discovered, the family hierarchy is too strong to subvert, so it must be built upon. Mother was Mrs. Lee, still called "Mother Ann," and "Father" was her own brother William—a substitution that was in no literal way sexual, but nevertheless must have posed a psychological problem. For all the members were their "children." Mixed into this was the mythic older brother, temporarily missing in the flesh but alive in the spirit, Jesus Christ, whose relationship to Mother Ann must have given the family, as both followers and children, another moment of confusion.
It was just this kind of confusion that John Humphrey Noyes wanted to resolve. From the romantics he found inspiration, from Christianity he drew the outlines, and from the Shakers he observed an invaluable example. Noyes adopted many of their organizational practices. After all, he was going to apply the most modern methods of efficiency to communal life and would not make the Shaker mistake of planned anachronism. When it came to the problem of siblings breeding, he resolved the dilemma by fiat.3 He proposed "universal marriage"—all men henceforth would be married to all women, and, it should be stressed, all women married to all men, at least initially. Charmingly, he called the process "omnigamy." Noyes explains:
In a holy community there is no more reason why sexual intercourse should be restrained by love, than why eating and drinking should be, and there is as little occasion for shame in the one case as in the other…. The guests of the marriage supper may have each his favourite dish, each a dish of his own procuring, and that without the jealousy of exclusiveness. I call a certain woman my wife; she is yours; she is Christ's; and in Him she is the bride of all saints. She is dear in the hands of a stranger, and according to my promise to her I rejoice.4
Having Christ as the buffering agent intellectually detoxified any threat of forbidden encounters, but Noyes was sensitive enough to realize that intellectual explanations only satisfy intellectuals. What happens when thinking turns to doing? His method of deflecting the psychological inhibitions as well as the physical threat of inbreeding was accomplished by his self-touted system of "male continence." Males would be allowed to treat all women like sisters, and all sisters like women, only after they had proved themselves able to treat no woman as a wife. In other words, he proposed sex without orgasm. Although Noyes claimed his success was achieved by the conscious constriction of the seminal ducts, it seems more likely that coitus interruptus was simply given new emphasis.
Whether or not sibling incest occurred within the intrepid band that Noyes collected in the southern Vermont woods is now beside the point. At the time, however, this was the only point. One of the reasons the people around Putney were so eager to rid themselves of the Perfectionists was that they could not countenance such sexual deviance so close by. In the first small commune of some twenty people were Noyes's own brother and two sisters, and two brothers-in-law. The probabilities of inbreeding were too great to be overlooked. Noyes's explanation of "complex marriage," of "omnigamy," and of "male continence" may have satisfied commune members. They may have believed him when he said: "The only plausible objection to amative intercourse between near relations, founded on the supposed law of nature that 'breeding in and in' deteriorates offspring [thus had been] removed."5 But the neighbors needed convincing. The Noyes Bible Group was driven out—the proffered charge was adultery; the implied charge was incest.
The Perfectionists went deeper into the hinterlands, into upstate New York, where in relative peace they turned their prodigious energies away from explaining to others and to themselves, and started to behave like Americans. They first manufactured animal traps and then formed a joint stock company to produce flat silverware. How ironic that today we should remember them only by the trade name of the flatware (Oneida) we usually give to celebrate the one institution Noyes abhorred above all—marriage.
Whatever their differences, the romantic movement and fundamental Christianity were similar in almost demanding adult mimicry of childlike relationships. Both stressed the model of idealized childhood as the centerpiece of faith. The success, limited as it now seems, both of the Shakers and the Perfectionists testifies to the profound desire of people under stress to return to simpler states of familial interaction. Here in nineteenth-century America the spirit of Shelleyan romanticism was made flesh. Not only was the language of recognition full of "brothers" and "sisters," but the dress (bloomers, frocks, pantalets) as well as the diurnal habits of sleeping and eating separately, imitated the idealized family of childhood memories. To a psycho-historian these may seem regressionary methods of coping, but to an economist they can be remarkably efficient. If only sex had not become mixed up in family relationships Noyes's vision might have proved prophetic. Even now his words retain their peculiar logic:
Love between the children of God, is exalted and developed by a motive similar to that which produces ordinary family affection … the exciting cause is not sexuality … but the fact that the parties have one Father…. The sons and daughters of God, must have even a stronger sense of blood-relationship than ordinary brothers and sisters, because the Spirit of the Father… is always renewing their consciousness of unity with him and with each other. Marriage, in the world, requires a man to "leave father and mother and cleave unto his wife." But the sons and daughters of God can never leave their Father and Mother. Of course, the paramount sexual affection, required by the law of marriage, can have no place among them. They live as children with their Father forever, and the paramount affection of the household is … brotherly love, an affection that grows directly out of the common relationship to the Father, and of course is as universal as that relationship…. This affection as it exists between the different sexes is necessarily unlimited as to number. A brother may love ten sisters, or a sister ten brothers, according to the customs of the world. The exclusiveness of marriage does not enter the family circle. But heaven is a family circle; and … brotherly love … takes the place of supremacy which their matrimonial affection occupies in this world.6
But sex did become involved; incest was a threat, and, when confronted, Noyes had to admit its clear and present danger. Pressed, as he was in his Essay on Scientific Propagation, he attempted to transform this supposed weakness into a strength. Noyes argued, almost forgetting his vaunted prophylactic method of "male continence," that although
it must be conceded that, in the present state of human passions and institutions, there are many and great difficulties in the way of our going back to the natural simplicity of the Hebrew fathers or forward to the scientific simplicity of the cattlebreeders, yet it is important to know and remember that these difficulties are not physiological, but sentimental … in the pure races, such as the European aristocracies and the Jews … vital power and beauty have been the result of close interbreeding.7
Argue as he might, the threat still remained. And that threat, together with encroaching "civilization," forced these Utopians (numbering now about two hundred) to once again disband. If Noyes had followed his fellow Vermonter Joseph Smith out into the real wilderness of Utah, he might have been able to stabilize his community and perhaps to survive. However, the Latter Day Saints never restructured the family in such a way as to make sibling intercourse a possibility. Polygamy is tame compared to the "complex families" envisioned by Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Humphrey Noyes.
If Noyes had had to depend on the American intellectual community for support of his "errand into the wilderness," he would have been in still more desperate straits—quite possibly he never would have made it out of Vermont. Had his "city upon the hill," his American Eden, been outside Boston, he most probably would have been arrested. Note that Brook Farm was almost closed down by its neighbors, even though the Institute for Agriculture and Education had presented no sexual ambiguities; in fact, there was little sexual activity at all. Although the more intense battle of individual versus state freedoms was to be fought throughout the century, the battle over family organization was short-lived. The patriarchs clearly won.
As with their English counterparts, the radical spokesmen of American romanticism—Thoreau, Whitman, and Emerson—were men who had little or no family of their own. It is of more than passing interest that the American intellectuals who advocated the most sweeping rearrangement of the family were a self-advertised recluse, a homosexual, and a man who was an extremely passive parent and distant husband. In revolutionizing family matters often those with the least family were the most confident in deciding how others should live. They spoke with the confidence of inexperience.8
The American artists who did indeed concentrate on family interactions were not philosophers, not the transcendental stockholders of the "Brook Farm Institute for Agriculture and Culture," but were rather the emotional and intellectual descendants of John Cotton—modern Puritans. For them the family was the anchor of self and thus the center of their fiction. The introspective impulse was vitalized in the fiction of the first American novelist, William Hill Brown; it continued through the first important early gothicist, Charles Brockden Brown, and then unfolded in the central works of nineteenth-century American literature—works by Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville. These Americans were all family men and they all took the family as a central subject of their fiction. In their make-believe families it is clear that they would tolerate little aberrant behavior. If experimentation did occur, it would be quickly suppressed. Fundamental codes would be enforced at the expense of individual freedom. In an economic sense, good business practices would prevail. The "new man," the corporate man, backed by a stable family, would make sure that the John Humphrey Noyeses of the world stay not just on the frontier, but far off in the deepest woods.
To see how this strain of American Puritanism energized, subverted, and finally repressed family romance, I will return to the central prohibition of family life, incest, and trace how it functions from the first native novel, William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy, through the Schauerromans, to temporarily play itself out in the works of Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville. Although I will only briefly discuss the incest theme in modern American literature, I do not argue that this is the dominant theme of American letters, but it certainly is one of the most dynamic and, until recently, one of the most neglected. To a considerable extent the frisson of incest inspired many of the greatest works of American romanticism as well as some of the most awkward.
The transformation of the European romance tradition first into the gothic, and then into the hybrid of the American gothic, was of degree rather than kind. The story remained the same—young people under sexual stress. Viewpoints, participants, and conclusions were just shifted by crucial degrees. Although many critics have argued that "the American experience" led to a unique view of family life more informed by capitalism, or the frontier, or puritanism, or narcissism, than by biology, such singularity is not borne out.9 These are mitigating factors, to be sure, but the peculiar shade cast on the family romance by the "dark" introspective American romantics from Brown to O'Neill was not as much the result of their personal perceptions as it was the gradual evolution in Western culture toward greater concentration on intrafamilial dynamics. One need only read the works of Schiller, De Sade, Müllner, Tieck, Alfieri, and later Wagner, to realize that the situation on the Continent was in many respects like that in America. The industrial revolution that allowed a quick economic escape from family often produced just the opposite result. Families needed to stay close together to consolidate their gains, but not too close. Literature, both serious and popular, reflected this need. The sentimental tradition gave way to the budding gothic, which in turn carried the macabre. The family matrix, cemented for generations by the inability of members to get loose, now risked collapsing in upon itself.
Montague Summers, one of the first catalogers of the gothic, once slyly commented that to make a sentimental tale gothic, all an author need do was substitute a castle for a house, a snarling baron for a father, a knight for a boyfriend, a ghost for an attorney, a witch for a housekeeper, and a midnight murder for marriage. A slight exaggeration here, a minor change there, and tears could be changed into shivers. The only constant was the role of the central protagonist—the young female. The heroine remains forever the center of concentration, for it is always the violation of her privacy that charges our response.10 In the transformation of the sentimental into the "low" gothic, the violator need only be changed from boyfriend to baron to brother. However, for the macabre, the "high" gothic, the shift must be made from brother to father.
What the Americans did to this story line was to compress the nuclear family and excise all the satellite characters. The witch/housekeeper, ghost/attorney, and all the supernumeraries are removed to lesser, or nonexistent roles. The "home" or castle is isolated by surrounding wilderness, and the internal pressure is increased until matters, and occasionally even characters, spontaneously combust. Call it Mettingen, Saddle Meadows, Usher, Yoknapatawpha, the centrifugal forces placed on a usually motherless family as the male sexual violation of daughter/sister is no longer threatened, but often realized, caused a catastrophe so complete that finally nothing of the family remains. Let the English mythologize incest as did Byron, or metaphysicalize it as did Shelley, the nineteenth-century American experience is uniformly horrible, irrepressibly gothic, maybe even characteristically pragmatic.
But not always. Because the exception, while not always proving the rule, at least shows where the rule is supposed to apply, I should like to examine first an overlooked work by a central nineteenth-century American artist—a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, The Spectacles. Although ostensibly The Spectacles satirizes the sentimental tradition of "love at first sight," it shows as well those aspects of human behavior usually only exposed under the dark cloud of the gothic. The plot of The Spectacles was not original with Poe; it had a history as an American tall tale. Clearly, Poe was drawn to expanding its salty humor as a potboiler for the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper. Just as clearly, judging from his lengthy revisions, once he became involved, he could not let it go until he had touched a nerve, a rather particular nerve.
The Spectacles is told to us by a foppish man-about-town who is attempting to enter fashionable society. First, he has changed his name in order to inherit a small fortune from a distant relative. Once "Napoleon Buonaparte Froissart," a respectable enough French name even in the Colonies, he has become simply Mr. "Simpson."11 Still, the exchange was certainly worth it, for what he might have sacrificed in presumptuous name, he more than made up for not just in his current bank account, but in future economic expectations as well. After all, in this country money makes money.
All Mr. Simpson now lacks is the proper lady friend to help him consolidate the gain via matrimony and, at the opera, he thinks he has found one. He spies the aristocratic Eugenie Lalande sitting off at a distance; it is love at first sight. She is the very essence of polite society, complete with sequined gown, a young female companion and opera glasses. Both Simpson and Mme. Lalande are terribly nearsighted. Mme. Lalande solves her problem by bringing her opera glasses; he is too proud to do so. As their myopic eyes meet, he is enraptured: "This was my first love—so I felt it to be. It was love supreme—indescribable. It was 'love at first sight'; and at first sight too, it had been appreciated and returned" (p. 895). What is returned, of course, is only her dim vision of him, but like a Platonic lover gone berserk, that is all the encouragement he needs. Simpson has become "possessed" and is as monomaniacal in his devotion to her vision as his brother narrators in Morella, Bernice, and Ligeia would be toward their inamoratas.
Unlike his other fictional incarnations, however, Simpson keeps his distance, first from diffidence and then from bashfulness. Finally when Eugenie takes a trip out of town he is convinced he must act. After loving her from afar, he approaches and gushes a proposal of marriage. She is literally aghast, asks him to please reconsider, to step back and have another look, but he will have none of it. He will not be restrained:
"My sweetest Eugenie," I cried, "what is all this about which you are discoursing? Your years surpass in some measure my own. But what then? The customs of the world are so many conventional follies. To those who love as ourselves, in what respect differs a year from an hour? I am twentytwo, you say; granted: indeed you may as well call me, at once twenty-three. Now you yourself, my dearest Eugenie, can have numbered no more than—can have numbered no more than—no more than—than—than—than—." (p. 903)
Simpson obviously hopes she will interrupt to tell him her age, but she doesn't. Instead, she only asks if he will please use her opera glasses, her "little ocular assistant," to be sure his vision is clear. But no, his vision is clear enough. Again, she entreats; he refuses. Rather like the narrator of The Cask of Amontillado leading dumb Fortunato down the stairs asking him at every landing if he wishes to continue, Mme. Lalande repeats her offer. In desperation she forces him to take the glasses. He puts them aside until too late.
Almost too late; after all, this is not a horror story but a tall tale. Simpson waits until his wedding day to use the glasses and only then when almost at the altar does he realize his fiancée is an elderly matron. The sight is, in his own words, "horrific": '"You wretch!' said I catching my breath—'you—you—you villainous old hag!'" To which she exclaims that she may be old (in fact, 82 years old), but "hag" she is not. She is the grand dame of a prestigious family, the Froissarts. Dumbfounded, Simpson, aka Froissart, screams hysterically, as he now realizes that he has married his great-great-grand-mother!
The marriage is mysteriously annulled. The materfamilias is understanding if not forgiving, and offers him instead the hand of her lovely young consort: "a distant and exceedingly lovely relative of her second husband's—a Madame Stephanie Lalande" (p. 914). This is the marriage to be consummated with the complete blessing of the family. Any possible horror has been dissipated and the sentimental resolution has carried the day. Or has it? Look again, for as Daniel Hoffman noted Foissart
doesn't have to marry his great, great, grandmother. He married his cousin. Even if we smile at Poe's impostor, aren't we struck by the consanguinity which afflicts his suitor? How curious that his faulty vision leads so precipitously toward incest! And the happy resolution only mitigates somewhat the closeness of the attachment of his heart for a member of his mother's blood.12
Even keeping in mind that Stephanie is not really consanguineous because she is from the great, great, grandmother's husband's family, the point is still well taken. For all the posturing and punning, for all the folderol and foppery, the focus of the story returns us again to the magnetic attraction, the blind attraction, of a young man and his love of/at first sight, his mother, or, in this case, his barely displaced mother. Yes, he will "marry" Stephanie, but his heart is elsewhere. Admittedly, he finally ends with his cousin, his "mother's" consort, in a sense, his sister. Little wonder that Poe should have revised and diluted the relationships, but for all the sublimation and effacement, certain family relationships cannot be erased. After all, it is just these currents that provide the frisson, that excite our interest. The Spectacles concludes when our Hero accepts both his proper Leander, as well as his proper economic and social place in the family—the Froissart family:
Nevertheless I am not the husband of my great, great, grandmother; and this is a reflection which affords me infinite relief;—but I am the husband of Madame Lalande—of Madame Stephanie Lalande—with whom my good old relative, besides making me her sole heir when she dies—if she ever does—has been at the trouble of concocting me a match. In conclusion: I am done forever with billets doux, and am never to be met without SPECTACLES. (p. 916)
When Poe wrote this jeu d'esprit in the 1840s, he was well aware of the melodrama that lurked within his subject especially when the tale was played out in the New World. The mistake of a newly minted American of distinct European background, who allows his ardor to settle on a member of his own family, would be told again and again. It would be told more than a century later in a work Poe himself would surely have been proud of—Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. Although we usually think that this theme was only exploited after Poe, actually, other American writers had already pulled back the curtains of family life. What they saw was always shocking. In fact, in the first extended American novel, William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy; or the Triumph of Nature, published in 1789 just at the appearance of English gothicism, there is a sibling relationship that ushers in what, with Poe, will become the most famous family implosion.
At the commencement of American prose fiction, William Hill Brown inadvertently shows how much of the nascent American gothic was informed by Richardsonian romance. The central subplot of The Power of Sympathy traces the ill-fated love of a Lovelacean Harrington and his almost-Clarissa, Harriot. Harrington is a rogue whose plan is "to take this beautiful sprig [Harriot], and transplant it to a more favorable soil, where it shall flourish and blossom under my own auspices. In a word, I mean to remove this fine girl into an elegant apartment, of which she herself is to be the sole mistress" (1, letter #3, p. 17).13 However well laid his plans of sexual exploitation may have been, her beauty soon transforms his sexual lust into domestic desire. He proposes marriage—the conqueror has been conquered, the victimizer has become victim. Although she is an orphan and destitute, he will make her a place in the world, give her a name, father her a family.
But just as the happy couple are about to stroll altarward, they meet plot complication number three, which turns the sentimental into the gothic. They learn that, because of a paternal indiscretion, they are brother and sister. Drawn together by "the Power of Sympathy" they are now split asunder by "the Triumph of Nature." Although Harriot had earlier assured us that the "link of Nature " had drawn them together, they now learn that Nature will not tolerate this particular "link" (2, letter #50, p. 113). They should have known what they could not have known. Too late Harrington blurts: '"Had I known her to be my sister, my love would have been more regular—I should have loved her as a sister—I should have marked her beauty—I should have delighted in protecting it'" (2, letter #55, p. 127). And too late Harriot confesses, "'O! I sink, I die, when I reflect—when I find in my Harrington a brother—I am penetrated with inexpressible grief—I experience uncommon sensations—I start with horror at the idea of incest—of ruin—of perdition'" (2, letter #50, pp. 109-110). The curtain has fallen: Harriot dies from shock; Harrington by his own hand....
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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...
(The entire section is 532 words.)