There were several authors who helped contribute to the greatness of American literature, but Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe made an impact all on their own – usually making use of how the conscience and subconscious manipulate one’s behavior. They have revolutionized the standards of typical storytelling that their works have set a template so remarkable that most modern writers only hope to imitate it. (Southam and Crowley 432) This piece is to tackle the comparison and contrast of their prominent works – Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter.
The tale of The Fall of the House of Usher began with the narrator arriving in a gloomy castle to heed the call of his friend, Roderick Usher.
Roderick Usher had a sister, Madeline, who was also sick. Together with the house’s innate strangeness, the narrator was to face bizarre phenomena. Roderick’s sister supposedly died and he was requested to help lay her body in the house’s vault. It turned out that Madeline was not really dead when she was taken to the vault. She was just in a death-like trance and was trapped alone and cold in the terrifying vault. She was apparently making efforts to free herself and was making unbearable sounds from inside the vaults. It drove Roderick so mad that he was forced to admit screaming that he knew Madeline was alive, and he intently trapped her inside the vault. When Madeline was finally released, she fell lifelessly to her brother and scared him literally to his death. The narrator was so shocked that he hurriedly left the house. As he was leaving, he saw lightning strike the house continuously that it crumbled to the ground, leaving no trace of the once great symbol of the line of Usher. The story of The Fall of the House of Usher proposes the idea that crime does not pay. The evildoer does not go unpunished because he was sought by a force stronger than violence and more imprisoning than the actual incarceration – his own conscience.
In Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter the story began when the main character, Giovanni Giasconti, moved to Padua. He lived in a gloomy room in an old building overlooking a garden. It did not take long for him to notice Beatrice Rappaccini. She is the beautiful daughter of Dr. Giacomo Rappaccini, a scientist who performs experiments with poisonous plants. And since she had been working in this poisonous garden almost all her life Beatrice Rappaccini had been immune to them becoming poisonous herself. His professor and mentor, Dr. Baglioni, warned Giovanni that Dr. Rappaccini’s work must be abandoned, as it will bring no good. But Giovanni had already fallen in love with the scientist’s daughter, so he goes to the garden where Beatrice is kept a tight rein on. Giovanni had to deal with the effects of the plants on him but he was poisoned too. Beatrice proves resistant to the plants, having inhabited the garden, but she turns out to have been toxic to him. He hands her an antidote to help her live a normal life, only to die from it.
Both stories dealt with unusual health conditions and astonishing deaths. In The Fall of the House of Usher, the story did not reach a happy ending as both Ushers died miserably. The same goes for Rappaccinni’s Daughter who died of drinking an antidote to the poisons that were fed to her by her own father. The observable difference in the stories was that Roderick Usher knowingly put his sister in harm’s way and was willing to kill her only for his own survival – dying himself in so doing; while Beatrice had died because she drank an antidote given to her by her lover supposedly to cure her from the poison that her own father had been feeding her all her life.
The stories were set in gloomy and menacing environments. The tale The Fall of the House of Usher was set in an old and seemingly dying castle depicting the doomed existence of its inhabitants; while in the story Rappaccini’s Daughter the young man lived in a high and dismal room in an old building overlooking a magnificent garden with an atmosphere likened to that of the Garden of Eden. (Luedtke 173)
In Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, the story takes place in an old, large house that looks like a skull. The castle was old and, although it looked like it was once brilliant and incomparable – dust, cobwebs and fungi has taken over it. The house was seemingly dying, adding to the more dreariness to the doomed Usher line. The vault where Madeline was kept was dark and inescapable denoting the fate that both she and her brother are to share.
The story Rappaccini’s Daughter takes place in Padua. The male character Giovanni Guasconti lived in a dark and desolate room in a tall building. It seemed like the room has not been inhabited in a while and it was not at all likeable. It had a view of a very beautiful garden filled with a variety of plants and flowers. It had a marble fountain in the center with flowing water making it look lush and picturesque. (Hawthorne 2) The contrast of these environments seemed like an allusion to the inverse conditions their inhabitants have – although Giovanni was not in a beautiful place, he was free; while although Beatrice was in a magnificent garden, she was trapped in more ways.
Through the narrator, Poe directly tells us that the Usher family is an old, wealthy family – isolated in their old, creepy house. Changes in Roderick’s appearance reflected the ways in which he underwent transformation emotionally. For example, his regression may be traced from the moment the narrator turns up at the mansion, to the death of Madeline, to the night Roderick himself dies. His eyes and his skin seem to be in synch with what is happening within the house.
Moreover, Poe’s main character, Roderick Usher, may be interpreted as a hypochondriac. He was consistently saying that he was sick and shows a diminishing enthusiasm and general sluggishness but there was no real evidence presenting that he was sick, this frightful disease that he spoke of does not even have a name – the Ushers actually had been known to have peculiar temperament and this seemed to be one of its manifestations. (Poe and Marlowe 111)
In Rappaccini’s Daughter, we are inclined to think that one of the reasons why Giovanni Guasconti fell in love with Beatrice is that he sees her as a challenging woman. (Person pg 59) She is not seen as simply a victim in the story; she was a passionate and determined woman. She was full of life and energy that young men, like Giovanni Guasconti, could not help but admire her. (Hawthorne 4)
Edgar Allan Poe undoubtedly had a great command of storytelling. He had an extraordinary grasp of the language and was able to convey horror, romanticism and gloomy morale in his works. However, Nathaniel Hawthorne had been known for his keen eye for humanity and exquisite sympathy for the soul. (Southam and Crowley 307) He is as romantic as he intelligent. They were both detail-oriented and had precise attention to the elements of prose.
Together, they are acknowledged as two of the most profound writers in American Literature.
Person, Leland S. The Cambridge introduction to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Cambridge
University Press, 2007.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Rappaccini’s Daughter. Kessinger Publishing, 2004.
Luedtke, Luther S. Nathaniel Hawthorne and the romance of the Orient. Indiana University
Poe, Edgar Allan and Stephen Marlowe The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales.
Signet Classic, 1998.
Southam, Brian Charles and Donald Crowley. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Routledge, 1997.