Critics of early American literature argue that, “the conflict present in early American Literature is internal,” and that it, “is often presented as having a cosmic scale,” with “characters [who] are often alienated and isolated” (class handout). These internal conflicts take place in the protagonists’ minds and they drive the plot’s action by focusing on struggles about the very nature of life so that the characters pitted against them suffer from their problems on a personal level thereby rendering them utterly alone and separate from other characters.
It is their loneliness in a time of mental anguish that creates the drama and suspense necessary for reflecting the interior action of the story that leads to a reader’s understanding of the character is split in arriving at a solution to the problem.
Two authors that support this idea are Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe. Both authors tend to focus on protagonists that are both figurative and literally split from society and suffering emotionally from internal struggles over choices and actions of their pasts. Moreover, these two authors’ characters demonstrate conflicts that examine the consequences of past acts on the present and the grand schemes of their lives.
Edgar Allen Poe’s story, “The Fall of the House of Usher” is one example of this type of internal conflict and its effects on the character, Roderick Usher. This story uses the gothic elements of the dark, depressing setting to communicate the isolation of first Roderick and Madeline Usher and then the story’s protagonist and narrator whose mental capacities weaken within the diseased setting of the Usher household. The narrator seeks to help his friend, Roderick Usher overcome some mysterious malady described as, “some oppressive secret, to divulge which he struggled for the necessary courage” (cite here).
Clearly, Poe creates the idea of Usher’s desire to overcome an internal conflict of cosmic proportions, but by the end of the story it is the narrator who has become isolated in a struggle to overcome an internal conflict created in the dark, empty hours of his time spent in the alienated and spiritless world of the Usher’s once grand house. The conflict that never fully materializes culminates in the narrator’s discovery of the evil working of Roderick Usher upon his “sick” sister, Madeline and his complicity in burying her alive and the witnessing of Roderick’s well-planned death alongside his sister in her tomb.
His conscience then splits like the Usher house and choosing good over evil, the narrator resolves his conflict when he, “fled aghast” from the house as it shook and crumbled to the ground. His survival and surmounting of the internal struggle he helped to create as he sought ways to help his sick friend is shown through his retelling of the story from a present perspective that recognized the horror and emotional torture of his the conflict that moved forward the story’s action.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story, Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” presents another example of a character who suffers from an internal conflict of cosmic proportions that leads to his isolation from the rest of society. Dr. Heidegger possesses an elixir that when consumed reverses aging and renders people young again. He tempts others with its seductive promises of eternal youth but he does not desire that state for himself; he is content to live reflect the decay of his study, “a dim, old fashioned chamber, festooned with cobwebs, and besprinkled with antique dust” (Hawthorne).
Dr, Heidegger’s interest in the potion is only its ability to breathe life into a faded, fifty-year-old rose given to him by his love that has long since died. His guests are only a part of his experiment to create a potion strong enough to give everlasting life to his rose so that it may accompany him to death, “’My poor Sylvia’s rose!’ ejaculated Dr. Heidegger, holding it in the light of the sunset clouds” (Hawthorne).
Upon the realization of his failure and his miserable, lonely struggle to bring back the past and the love it bore, he resolves his internal misery with the realization that the rose is no less beautiful dead than alive. He states, “I love it as well thus” at the moment he concludes that it is really Sylvia that he loved and the rose, in its withered state was nothing more than a symbol of that love.
Both Poe and Hawthorne are known for creating story’s with characters who suffer internal conflicts against dark, depressing setting that support deeply disturbing atmospheres and moods. Moreover, their characters grapple with issues that seek to answer questions that have no solutions available to man. They only resolve their internal struggles when they recognize the futility of their struggles.
The narrator in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Dr. Heidegger in “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” reflect critics ideas about early American literature’s treatment of conflict and its impact upon individuals who find themselves utterly alone and alienated through the choices they made. The horror of this realization leads them to ultimately resolve and overcome the misery they are responsible for cultivating.
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