Incest in Nineteenth-Century American Literature Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.