The Battling Psyche
The human psyche is a mysterious and unknown force that human beings have attempted to understand for centuries. It is understood that as human being we possess this psyche, however the nature of this psyche is not known and has thus been examined and hypothesized upon by many great minds. Literature in particular seeks the means to offer a theorized explanation of the workings of this mysterious psyche in a multitude of ways, from scientific writings, to poetry and fiction. Although these thoughts lie subtly embedded in the fictional stories, they often offer the best explanations. Two of the earliest and best known American writers that attempted to explain such a complex matter in their stories are Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe. Both of these authors use twisted fictional stories, such as “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Young Goodman Brown” to try to explain the inner workings and struggles of the human psyche. These stories expose the psyche’s continuous battle between right and wrong, reality and illusion, and sanity and insanity, and look into things that affect these battles. Although Poe and Hawthorne’s writing differentiate vastly from one another, both of them expose the instability and frailty of the human psyche and the traumatic effect loneliness has on breaking the psyche.
Edgar Allen Poe’s works primarily center on death and the effect death has on one’s mental sanity. Poe uses death and fear to create horrific stories that entice his audience, but underneath all this he examines and displays the inner workings of the mind. “He Poe worked hard at structuring his tales of aristocratic madmen, self-tormented murderers, neurasthenic necrophiliacs, and other deviant types so as to produce the greatest possible horrific effects on the reader” (696). Fear is a very important aspect of the human psyche and Poe allows his readers to investigate it through their own feelings of fear produced by his works. In his stories the characters struggle to maintain mental sanity primarily because they are left all alone with nothing but fear and this fear consumes them.
The consumption of fear is particularly evident in “The Fall of the House of Usher”. In this tale the narrator rushes off to visit an old friend, Roderick Usher, who has the desire to see him. Upon arriving the narrator finds a large decaying house containing two decaying individuals inside. Roderick’s twin sister Madeline suffers from her body decaying due to the force of a peculiar disease, while Roderick himself suffers from a decaying mind due to his own fears and superstitions. Due to the failure of his mental state Roderick’s psyche can be observed from outside perceptions so that one can examine the inner manner of that which they possess themselves, but are unable to view objectively. When the narrator first encounters his old friend he is “at once struck with and incoherence – and inconsistency; and I soon found this to arise from a series of feeble and futile struggles to overcome an habitual trepidancy, and excessive nervous agitation” (717). The inner struggles of the human psyche are brought outwards through Roderick. The narrator can physically perceive the inner struggle and inconsistency that Roderick’s mind is undergoing. Throughout his stay, the narrator observes these battles with more intensity and the reader to is able to see how hard the mind battles itself until finally it falls. With his sister’s assumed death, Roderick’s mind is at its breaking point, and when she comes back, Roderick dies of that which he has always feared of dying from: fear itself. Roderick’s fear or fear kills him due to his frail and lonely state of being.
Nathaniel Hawthorne also focuses on the delicacy of the human psyche, but rather than examine this through fear, he examines the psyche through morality and sin. Just as Poe’s life was consumed by thoughts of death, Hawthorne constantly struggled with thoughts of sin. This is reflected in most all of his stories, for his characters all commit some sort of sin and then are unable to reconcile it or escape their own guilt. In “Young Goodman Brown”, Hawthorne takes the moral struggle of what is right and wrong and adds even more ambiguity. In the story Young Goodman Brown sets off from his house one night for some mysterious and unknown reason to the reader, yet we know it is of an evil nature. Through out the entire story he tries to justify to himself what is right and wrong, good and evil, but the further into the woods he goes, his mind loses the ability to distinguish. All of those whom he had admired for their piety and goodness he finds to be consorting with the devil. We see the psyche’s struggle against evil as “there they stood, the only pair, as it seemed, who were hesitating on the verge of wickedness, in this dark world” (618). They are trying to hesitate, but are they successful? Again the outward struggle of the character reflects the inner conflicts of the human psyche, but this time the character and reader alike are unable to determine the actual outcome, for Hawthorne throws a twist in the story.
He uses ambiguity to show the further confusion of the mind as it not only struggles between the forces of good and evil, but it also must determine, that which is real, and that which is only a dream. The narrator asks: “Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream of a with meeting?” (618). Again we see the inner struggle of the psyche as Goodman Brown tries to find clarity in his mind. Yet regardless of this, the great battle that the psyche fought has forever scarred Goodman Brown because “A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful if not a desperate man, did he become, from the night of that fearful dream” (618). The battles that our psyche’s fight greatly affect who we are and who we become to the outside world. The forces of the human psyche are very powerful, but the psyche itself is instable and frail against those forces, which it battles. Our psyche always struggles, but when we are left all alone, our psyche begins to falter and may even be shattered.
Loneliness is a very important aspect in examining the downfall of the human psyche, which both Poe and Hawthorne share. The human psyche continually struggles between opposing forces, however loneliness weakens the psyche and eventually breaks it. This is evident in both “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Young Goodman Brown”. In both stories the character’s psyche begins to fail when they are left alone.
Roderick, although he lives with his sister, once she falls ill he is left all alone. The sister basically walks about the house as if she does not really exist. The two characters have almost no interaction of conversation, thus leaving Roderick in a state of loneliness. Perhaps this is why the narrator is called upon for a visit. Loneliness can also be examined through the narrator, for he arrives in good mental health, but after being left basically all alone his mental sanity also begins to fail. The more time he spends in the house the more we see his sanity also begin to slip. By the end of the story the narrator possess the same traits as Roderick. “I struggled to reason off the nervousness which had dominion over me” (723). Now both the narrator and Roderick are consumed by this nervousness. In the case of fear, humans tend to fell worse fear when they are all alone and this loneliness gives fear more power. Loneliness weakens the individual and gives the fighting forces greater power, and as such the psyche begins to break.
We also see the breaking of the psyche in “Young Goodman Brown”. Goodman Brown’s psyche begins to fail him once he leaves Faith, and when he thinks he has lost her completely he renounces the will to even fight. Again loneliness gives power to the outside forces and perhaps that is why we rely so strongly on relationships. At the beginning of the story, even Goodman Brown’s wife Faith is worried about being alone. “A lone a woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts, that she’s afeard for herself, sometimes” (610). With loneliness comes a certain weakness and fear overcomes the individual. We see this also in Goodman Brown when he is walking alone to the woods. The further he goes, the more uncertain he becomes, but when he thinks that he has lost Faith he collapses. “‘My Faith is gone!’ cried he, after one stupefied moment. There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come devil! For to the is the world given'” (615). After believing he is entirely alone, he no longer even fights against the evil; he gives into it. There is a certain power in numbers and we are able to help one another, but alone the psyche is rendered helpless.
The continual battling of the human psyche is rendered helpless when it is left all alone. These two great stories allow the reader to examine the human psyche from an objective view. Through normal characters in twisted circumstances, the inner human psyche is brought outwards and can thus be viewed. From literature we can learn many things, and in such a case the lesson perhaps is not how the psyche works, but the importance of relationships in our lives. Our human nature depends upon one another for without it we fall. By looking at the consequences of loneliness we can value the importance of relationships in our own lives.
Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Hershel Parker New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003. 714-727
Hawthorne, Nathaniel.. “Young Goodman Brown..” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Hershel Parker New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003. 610-619