“Sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature”: the brother-sister bond in Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher.” – Edgar Allan Poe
Leila S. May
Matthew Arnold was in a distinct minority when, in 1853, he criticized the action of Sophocles’s Antigone, saying that it “is no longer one in which it is possible that we should feel a deep interest.” Arnold finds that we moderns cannot use as a model “that which is narrow in the ancients, nor that with which we can no longer sympathize” (Arnold 12). Unfortunately, he thinks, such is the case with Antigone, “which turns on the conflict between a heroine’s duty to her brother’s corpse and that to the laws of her country.” Arnold’s condemnation is uncharacteristic — both of Arnold himself, who revered everything classical, and of his age.(1) For, as George Steiner, in his work Antigones, says:
Between c. 1790 and c. 1905, it was widely held by European poets, philosophers, scholars, that Sophocles’ Antigone was not only that finest of Greek tragedies, but a work of art nearer to perfection than any other produced by the human spirit.(1)
Steiner goes on to point out that, after 1789,(2) the Antigone legend became “talismanic to the European spirit,” even if the fascination for it seemed to erupt ex nibilo (In the 35 years prior to that date no painting exhibited in the salons of Paris had that motif; Steiner 61). Why did this theme so suddenly transfix the gaze of nineteenth-century artists and critics? What was it about this “|most sisterly of souls’ (Goethe’s invocation of her in his |Europhrosyne Hymn’ of 1799)” (Steiner 1) that held such an allure?
This generation of readers found in Antigone an idea that thrilled them because they desired its truth and yet, at the same time, they knew it could not be true. It is the “truth” that Hegel had unveiled — that the sister in her virginal, untainted purity can, through self-sacrifice for her brother,(3) Sustain that most “natural” of all structures, the family, even against the legitimate demands of structures of authority that surround and threaten to engulf it.(4) In their exaltation of this text there also might well have been a guilty acknowledgment of its falsehood, and at some level a recognition that the lie pointed to an indictment of the very centerpiece of their culture — an indictment, in other words, of the family, and particularly of its synchronic cross-section, sibling relationships as they had been structured in that culture and called “natural.”
A study of sibling relationships in nineteenth-century literature, particularly those in which a sister is the primary pole of the relationship, can provide a key to understanding much about that period’s complicated and contradictory conception of the family. As a response to the social upheaval created by the industrial revolution, the nuclear family was restructured as a hyperreal and hypersensitive organization that could serve both as a unit for energizing the activities required on the new economic battlefield and, paradoxically, as a moral refuge from the public sphere.(5) As such, it was imperative that the roles within the family be clearly demarcated and strictly disciplined — that the family be organized in such a way as to convince itself and its sub-units, the individual members of the family, both of the legitimacy of the familial organization of authority and of their duty to fortify and perpetuate it.(6) That authority was, of course, patriarchal, as were the social structures to which the family responded and corresponded; yet the energy to maintain the unit was matriarchal. Feminine desire — the desire of the mother — had to be contained and channeled in such a way as to create the home as a sphere of moral perfection so elevated above the predatory struggle of the new economic strife as to seem to justify that very struggle (whose main goal was conceived as the protection of the family and its purity), while offering respite, relaxation, love and servitude to at least one of the bloodied warriors, and offering a training-ground to new warriors for the coming battles. That is to say, feminine desire had to will its own constraint and negation, had to will itself as a kind of impossible purity and virtuousness. Such purity and virtuousness were unattainable for the mother, who had already been “sullied,” contaminated by the unwholesome desire of another who had himself been contaminated by his contact with the ferociousness of the world beyond the walls of the home. Only in heaven could there exist a truly Virgin Mother; but such a vestal vessel was nevertheless required to be elevated, touted, and sacrificed, and could exist on earth only in the being of the sister, a sanctum sanctorum of moral virtue, whose desire would be molded to fit the necessary ends.(7) This disciplining (and often self-disciplining) of sororal desire was relatively successful in the nineteenth century, but the tremendous pressures brought to bear on the family unit, and particularly on its female members, created deep anxieties and fears — anxieties from without concerning the true nature of the feminine desire that was being purified and distilled, anxieties from within based on the dread of the yet unimagined potential of that same desire — the unimagined potential of the liberation of female selfhood and sexuality.
In nineteenth-century literature, sisterhood itself is conceived in the same contradictory fashion as is the family — viz., as both an ideological justification of the patriarchal system and a potential subversion of those same structures; and, in its most hysterical lauding of the sister’s virtue, nineteenth-century patriarchy registers its deepest fears and allows in them to be painted a very different portrait of sisterhood and of feminine desire from the one it means to depict. These fears and anxieties take the form of a dread — that is, of a horrible attraction to the thing feared(8) — and this dread is revealed in the fiction of the period. The failure of disciplined feminine desire results in the instability, slippage, uncertainty and unreliability of desire within the family, as assigned roles lose their boundaries, overlap, and confound themselves. In the literature of the fantastic, this phenomenon is raised to a feverish pitch as the principle of individuation itself collapses, taking along with it the very possibility of the family and the social system that it sustains, and prefiguring a release and discharge of feminine desire in new and revolutionary forms — hinting at the subversive forms of sisterhood that may have been precisely the ones that lay hidden and smoldering in the deepest fears of Victorian patriarchy itself.
“The Fall of the House of Usher,” written mid-century, is prophetic in its anticipation of a vision of the collapse of a society built on the seemingly secure foundations of the family. One might say, in a certain sense, that Poe heralds — or, if you will, “ushers” in — a new era. Although innumerable studies have analyzed the symbolism of Poe’s “House of Usher,” and particularly that of the Usher twins,(9) no one has yet discussed the twins as “simply” representing themselves: the apogee of the nineteenth century’s figuration of the brother-sister dyad. Poe, unlike many of his contemporaries, makes not even a nominal attempt to include a parental presence; we have entered a world in which the nineteenth-century family has been reduced to its most basic unit: the sibling dyad.(10) In this work we witness, with Poe’s narrator, “the hideous dropping off of the veil,” wherein the fundamental building block of the Victorian family — the “ideal” brother-sister relationonce revealed for what it is and taken to its logical extreme, must necessarily (and horribly) self-destruct. As in texts as diverse as Antigone, Frankenstein, and Wutbering Heights, it is significantly the sister who must be sacrificed — here literally entombed, buried alive deep within the foundations of the familial edifice — and it is her breaking free from that entombment that provokes the collapse of the entire structure.
Poe’s tale begins in twilight, “in the autumn of the year” — at a moment, in other words, of twofold transition. When Poe’s narrator first comes upon the house, he gazes at the “vacant eye-like windows” and wonders, “what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?” (Poe 397). The narrator muses over his friend’s “very ancient family” (398) which,
all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch; in other words, . . . the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain . . . . [I]t was this deficiency, perhaps, of collateral issue, and the consequent undeviating transmission, from sire to son, of the patrimony with the name, which had, at length, so identified the two as to merge the original title of the estate in the quaint and equivocal appellation of the “House of Usher” — an appellation which seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion. (399)
The “House of Usher,” then, is explicitly meant to “stand for” family as well as estate;(11) and both of these entities are equally deathly, equally verging on collapse. G. R. Thompson points out that the house is described as a “death’s-head looming out of a dead landscape,” and asserts that Poe “obviously intended the image of the skull-face of the house to dominate as the central image of the tale, for he returns to it again and again, placing the most extended descriptions of it at symmetrically located places in the narrative” (89-90).(12) The narrator takes note of the “pestilent and mystic vapor, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued,” which hangs about the manor house. He then goes on to describe the mansion itself:
Its principle feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity. The discoloration of ages had been great. . . . Yet all this was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation. No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones. . . . Beyond this indication of extensive decay, however, the fabric gave little token of instability. Perhaps the eye of a scrutinizing observer might have discovered a barely discernible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn. (400; emphases added)
One can scarcely imagine a more apt description of the nineteenth-century familial institution — a reeking, crumbling, and decaying structure that nevertheless remains seemingly intact on the surface. As Marilyn Chandler observes, [c]omparing the house to woodwork in a neglected vault that no |breath of external air’ can reach suggests by association that this environment, too, is somehow mysteriously hermetically sealed’ (53). This, I would add, further enhances the image of the “hermetically sealed” familial enclosure.
The interior of the house is equally airless, dismal, and repellent. Its entire contents are in a state of deterioration, the furniture “profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered.” Even the “[m]any books and musical instruments . . . failed to give any vitality” to the place wherein an “air of stem, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all” (401). The house’s proprietor, Roderick Usher, is himself rendered in precisely the same terms of de-generation. His beautifully delicate, refined features are marred by a “cadaverousness of complexion,” “lips somewhat thin and very pallid,” and “a want of moral energy” (401-02).(13) Roderick ambiguously describes to his friend “the nature of his malady” as “a constitutional and a family evip’ (402; my emphasis) — an “evil” that “enchain[s]” him to his house, from which he has not ventured for many years. He then admits, “although with hesitation” (why?), that his “family” ailment can be “traced to a more natural and far more palpable origin” — namely, to his “tenderly beloved sister — his sole companion for long years — his last relative on earth” (403-04). Although at this very juncture the object of discussion slowly drifts past, we are not privy to any physical description of her — a striking contrast to the earlier detailing of her brother’s appearance. Yet we know already what Madeleine looks like, for we sense that her portrait is contained within the one we have been given of Roderick. The narrator has described Roderick as possessing lips of a “surpassingly beautiful curve; a nose of a delicate Hebrew model . . . ; a finely moulded chin . . .; hair of a more than web-like softness and tenuity; . . . [a] ghastly pallor of the skin. . . . silken hair . . . [which] in its wild gossamer texture . . . floated rather than fell about the face.” There is at least as much to suggest a woman’s appearance in this depiction as there is a man’s; indeed, one might construe that the narrator is himself hinting at precisely this when he remarks upon Roderick’s “peculiar physical conformation” (401-02). Of course, Madeleine and Roderick are twins, and hence there is bound to be a close physical similarity. Yet it is telling that it is the sister’s appearance that defines the brother’s-much as Catherine Earnshaw’s “look” is etched onto other characters in Bronte’s text.
As in other nineteenth-century texts about sibling bonds, like Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights, “The Fall of the House of Usher” presents us with a persistent doubling, thematically and structurally, as characters, events, and the narrative structure itself, repeat one another.(14) Poe’s story, like Shelley’s and Bronte’s, is inundated with the blurring — indeed, complete breakdown — of boundaries between identities. And, once again, it is the sibling axis across which this collapse of distinctions so critical to the bourgeois ideology of the period takes place. As Marilyn Chandler notes in a different context,
The house mirrors its inhabitant, Roderick Usher, who is doubled also in his twin sister and again in the narrator, who describes himself as in certain respects a twin Roderick. Doubling effects multiply throughout the story until everything becomes an analog or image of everything else — boundaries of identity break down not only among characters, but among the house, the body, nature, and the text, all of which manifest similarities of structure and behavior that bind them into claustrophobically close metaphorical relationship.(50)
With this unraveling of (hicrarchical) distinctions between male/female, culture/nature, inside/outside, sameness/difference, we are presented with a simultaneously terrifying and potentially liberating vision. Yet because it is Poe and not Bronte who is writing, the emphasis is certainly placed much more firmly on the terrifying. The question as to whether Poe himself was aware of the radical implications of his tale is beyond the bounds of the discussion at hand. Nevertheless, his portrayal of this brother and sister with their “sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature” (410) is so central to the issues and debates of his day that it might appear as though he were directly engaging them.
Such a distillation of the family into its most concentrated and undiluted element would indeed be, Poe seems to be telling us, more than sufficient cause for the “horror” and “dread” so repeatedly evoked in his narrative. When the narrator lays eyes on Madeleine, he inexplicably regards her “with an utter astonishment not unmingled with dread — and yet [he] found it impossible to account for such feelings” (404). In a peculiar sense, it is as though in this text the sister is simultaneously all-pervasive and hollowed out — already a ghost. Her desire is never expressed, yet is everywhere felt. The pressure put on the sister in the nineteenth-century is brought to its logical conclusion in Poe’s dreadful tale, in which “the disease of the lady Madeleine had long baffled the skill of her physicians. A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character” are the symptoms of this sister’s malady. Although we are told that “[hlitherto she had steadily borne up against” it, Madeleine does at last succumb “to the prostrating power of the destroyer” (404). The precise nature of this “destroyer,” I want to argue, is none other than that family evil” — nineteenth-century bourgeois domestic ideology itself that silent, yet importunate and terrible influence which for centuries had moulded the destinies of [Usher’s] family, and which made him . . . what he was’ (408).(15)
The sister’s body is the very site upon which this ideology so crucial to the perpetuation of patriarchy is enacted, and its effects are expressed nowhere more clearly than in the “apathy” and “gradual wasting away” of the ghostly, ghastly Madeleine. The bedrock of the nineteenth-century middleclass fantily is the sister, and her desire must be buried deep within the very foundation of the familial edifice itself. When Roderick informs the narrator “abruptly that the lady Madeleine was no more” the latter aids the bereaved brother in entombing his sister’s body within a vault “half smothered in its oppressive atmosphere’ (409) — an uncannily fitting description of the metaphorical entombment of the sister in Victorian society. This sister, too, like many of her fictional and nonfictional contemporanes, is buried alive, but, unlike Antigone, she breaks free, and, when shc does, brings the entire structure down with her. The “once barely-discernible fissure’ is rent asunder, and there is “a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters” (417) — a voice representing perhaps a thousand sisters emerging from their airless vaults.
(1) In an article on the nineteenth-century reception of Antigone, Gerhard Joseph draws attention to this anomaly. (2) This timing clearly had to have some connection to the momentous events of that year. One wonders why all of the icons of the revolution were women-including the figure representing fraterniti itself. (3) Stephen Mintz describes this idealized bond and its literary representations:
The significance attached to the sibling bond in [nineteenth-century] novels can be properly understood only when it is seen in relation to larger social changes that raised profound questions of duty, personal identity, and continuity. In an increasingly individualistic society, in which the individual household was more and more cut off from broader structures of kinship and work, familial relationships acquired significance above all other social obligations . . . .[T]he sibling bond is specifically upheld as the epitome of loyalty and selflessness, continuity and cohesion. (147) (4) Hegel regards Antigone’s act as a perfect manifestation of the ethical. The relation between brother and sister is not one of responsibility or dependence, as in the parent-child relation, nor is it one of sexual desire, as in the relation between husband and wife. In The Phenomenology of Mind Hegel writes,
They are the same blood, which, however, in them has entered into a condition of stable equilibrium. They therefore stand in no such relation as husband and wife, they do not desire one another; nor have they given to one another, nor received from one another, this independence of individual being; they are free individualities with respect to each other. The feminine element, therefore, in the form of the sister, premonizes and foreshadows most completely the nature of the ethical life. (475-76)
For Hegel, then, there is a higher ethical level at which a pure relation between male and female as equals can exist: an egalitarian relationship unsullied by desire or power, or the contingencies of history; a bond of difference and sameness-difference in sex and sameness in blood, but blood neither turbulent nor compromised. Only the relation between a brother and a sister satisfies these ethical prerequisites; only they are united in a kind of naturalness that triumphs over nature. Theirs is the bond that forges true love, obligation and ethical duty, and all other fines thereof must radiate out from this center, even those that inevitably must return to collide with it in the name of a more universal love, obligation and duty — to the community, to the nation. For Hegel, Antigone’s death is the martyrdom to that deepest and perhaps purest of all human ties. (5) Although this has been the more generally-accepted direction of the cause-and effect-relation between the family and industrialized society, as Johanna Smith points out, historians now suggest that some features of the modern family antedate the industrial revolution and may indeed have helped to produce it (49). She cites E. A. Wrigley (77) and Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr. (326-27). Smith also notes the contradictions inherent in the nineteenth-century domestic ideology, which simultaneously “shores up the capitalist sphere even while critiquing it” (49). (6) Deborah Gorham comments upon the period’s need to create a sharp division between the public (male) and private (female) sphere, and its consequences for the construction of “femininity”: “[S]ince the end of the eighteenth century, the concept of femininity, which is based on a conception of human psychology that assumes feminine qualities are |natural,’ has been the major ideological agent in enforcing the subordination of women.” “Victorian children’s literature emphasized sex differences, and should be seen as one of the period’s main agencies for inculcating sex role differentiation” (6-7; 18). Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall also comment that “much childhood propaganda went into creating these putative natural characteristics which were the hidden texts of stories, poems and tracts for early nineteenth-century children’ (98-99). (7) Gorham notes that the
ideal of feminine purity is implicitly asexual; how, then, could it be reconciled with the active sexuality that would inevitably be included in the duties of wife and mother? These contradictions could be resolved by focusing on the femininity of the daughter rather than on the adult woman. Much more successfully than her mother, a young girl could represent the quintessential angel in the house. Unlike an adult woman, a girl could be perceived as a wholly unambiguous model of feminine dependence, childlike simplicity. (6-7) (8) Kierkegaard’s notion of dread is that of a “sympathetic antipathy” and antipathetic sympathy.” (9) These analyses have ranged, for example, from seeing the two as representative of the duality between nature and culture, feminine and masculine, real and ideal, sensuous and intellectual, the nonrational and rational, the unconscious and consciousness. (10) Poe’s mother died before his third birthday. A number of years later, after Poe had become estranged from his stepfather and guardian, he was taken in and treated as a son by his father’s sister, Maria Clemm. In 1836, when his cousin Virginia Clemm was 13 years old, Poe and she were married. There is still much debate as to whether Poe regarded Virginia as more of a sister than a wife. The former view seems the more compelling one, not only for the purposes at hand, but in light of records revealing that he persisted even after their altered status in referring to Virginia as “Sis” (Peithman ix-x). (11) It “stands” perhaps for a physical state as well. As David Clayton ingeniously puts forth, “|edifice’ and |race'” are both synonyms for “house,” and we need not search far to discover a third, less common if not irrelevant, synonym: “erection” (73). (12) Thompson claims to be the first critic to remark upon this similarity. (13) Hammond maintains that Usher is in fact “a mirror image of Poe or at least a projection, a doppelginger, of himself as he imagined himself to be” (73), and Thompson notes that Usher’s “famous face [is] supposedly a pen portrait of Poe’s own according to biographically oriented critics” (95). Yet another doubled image is pointed out by Stephen Peithman, who notes the physical resemblance between Roderick and the earlier description of the house (65n26). Moreover, “The Haunted House” — the poem that Usher reads to his friend — depicts a palace that Poe himself claims represents an allegory of the human mind (cf. Ostrom 160). (14) “Symmetrically, the psychological themes of the first part of the tale are exactly repeated in the second, but with the fears of both Usher and the narrator at a higher pitch” (Thompson 93). (15) In a brilliant discussion of Melville’s Pierre, a text published 13 years after Poe’s, Michael Rogin brings to bear some historical material that might readity be applied to “The Fall of the House of Usher.” One of the most striking parallels between the two texts is that the pivotal, most intense relationship in each is that between brother and sister. Melville’s twins, like Poe’s, are rendered in clearly incestuous — and ultimately fatal — terms. Moreover, in each case, it is the sister who quite literally “falls upon” her brother and kills him. The domestic ideology of midcentury America was much like that of England in its insistence on the sanctity of the brother-sister dyad. As in England, there existed a dual-and conflicting-demand that siblings were expected to have as intense a bond as any husband and wife (indeed, the sibling bond was explicitly designed to rehearse that between husband and wife). Rogin describes Pierre as “a declaration of war against domesticity” (160), and he paraphrases William Alcott’s injunction that young men look upon young women as sister figures. “To obey that injunction,” Rogin observes, “would be to spread the incest taboo throughout society and, turning exogamy into endogamy, to paralyze all libidinal ties” (182). The connections to Poe’s endogamously doomed siblings are, I think, obvious.
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