Gothic Beginnings: “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Bartleby, the Scrivener”

September 7, 2017

Our first unit, “The Haunted House,” begins with readings by Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville. While “The Fall of the House of Usher” has long been recognized as an established and influential ghost story in American letters, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is typically read as a “realist” story with anti-establishment and anti-capitalist critiques. However, in Tuesday’s discussion students were asked to consider the similarities between these stories, at the level of form (how it informs content and/or creates textual hauntings) and thematic similarities. Students astutely spoke to issues of isolation, physical and mental decay, creations of knowledge/possibilities of knowing, and structural enclosures as predominant themes in both narratives.

We began our conversation about Poe’s short story, and I contextualized his place in the literary canon by highlighting how his work overturns the concerns of the Romantic period by underscoring human fallibility and man’s expansive capacity for sin. Poe’s depiction of nature is also crucial in this short story: the mental and moral disintegration we see in Usher is analogous to the crumbling of the landscape itself. As such, nature and scenery are spaces of fear and terror.

I encouraged students to think about how the short story in fact has two beginnings: 1) the changed epigraph (“His heart is a floating lute/at the slightest touch it resonates”) and 2) the narrator’s description of his arrival at Usher’s house. We discussed how the opening scene’s use of specific words such as “dull,” “dark,” “soundless,” “dreary,” “melancholy,” “bleak,” “rank,” and “decayed” creates an ominous setting and tells us what to expect in the rest of the narrative. Moreover, students made the wonderful connection between the dark imagery (and the soundscape these words create) and the deep isolation “Usher” explores. We asked of the narrative: Who is speaking in the epigraph? Who’s heart is floating in the midst of this dark landscape? In conjunction with these questions, I asked students to consider what the house was doing in this story: What does a house usually represent (domesticity, familial relationships, comfort, homeliness) and how does “Usher” capsize these conventions? How does this story demonstrated larger anxieties (through the symbol of the house) about property/ownership, nationhood and citizenship, identity in relation to wealth and property, and stagnation?

I was greatly impressed with how students responded to these questions by pointing out how the story demonstrates deep anxieties about Usher’s inability to reproduce. As the last of his name, the story focuses on his ties to the land and the house. Many students expounded on the story’s publication date (1839) and the U.S.’s nascent stages, which perhaps reveal anxieties about the country’s future. The narrative describes the house’s oppressive atmosphere(45) in conjunction with Usher’s excessive and strange disease (48), demonstrating anxieties about the inability of family lineages being continued in the landed gentry. Importantly, these notions are intimately tied to aesthetics: Usher and the narrator spend their time painting, listening to and creating music, and reading, highlighting the central role Art play in this text, and the ways in which form reveal content. This is a notion we will continue to explore in this class, as we move from short stories to serialized novella’s to novels, graphic novels, and film.

After our exploring “Usher” we discussed “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” which we continued on Tuesday, September 7, and which I will summarize here:

I begun this discussion by asking the class to consider the implications of the story’s subtitle “A Story of Wall Street” in relation to Bartleby’s pronouncement “I prefer not to” and his fixture in the office (behind the screen). Although Bartleby’s polite statement seems passive, it is actually a demonstration of individuality and freewill. Indeed, as our class concluded, this American ideal (enterprise, individuality, freewill) are taken to the extreme in Melville’s novella and show the monstrosity and infection that occurs because of it: As Bartleby becomes an office fixture, almost like a piece of furniture, never leaving the office in his “dead-wall reveries” (18), the narrator, Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut start repeating “prefer” (“queer word, I never use it myself”; 11), showcasing how Bartleby’s demonstration of individual desires enable others to start exploring their own.

As our discussion underscored, “Bartleby” exhibits the anxieties surrounding breakdowns of communication and the loneliness of capitalism. As the story highlights, the narrator longs for the connection his profession does not provide (Wall Street is described as an incredibly lonely place)–”I burned to be rebelled against again” (14)–and wishes to show his potential for empathy and kindness through his treatment of Bartleby.

However, the novella does not allow the narrator (or readers) to know or aid Bartleby, and this machine-like entity (a haunt?) becomes a mechanism for impeding work–an anti-capitalist and anti-relationship device. In effect, readers learn about Bartleby’s work at the “Dead Letter Office,” which one student importantly pointed out was the enactment of aborted communication in the text.

Our next text, The Turn of the Screw, will also explore these issues: isolation, communication and its breakdown, seeing and knowing. Stay tuned!

 

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