Monday, April 20, 2009

The Legacy of Poe: Return to the House of Usher

Note: As with all my literary analysis, there is a heavy SPOILER ALERT. While I do not give any explicit plot summaries, many of the things I discuss may reveal the plots, so if this happens to be a book sitting on your shelf you've been meaning to read, please read it first and come back. I'd hate to ruin it for you.

Return to the House of Usher
by Robert Poe was given to me by the professors of the English Department at my college, chosen by the professor which I was fortunate enough to do a one on one study of The Flowers of Evil. Fitting, since Baudelaire was a fan of Poe's, this new novel being a sort of sequel written by E. A.'s descendant. The events of the novel take place in little over a week, during a hurricane that, at first, is assumed to not come so far inland. The worsening weather provides a climactic backdrop for the story leading up to the second destruction of the famous house, now a Sanatorium founded by the new Roderick and Madeleine (who are twins).

This was a captivating novel, in that there was a drunk main character (and narrator), his best friend whose sanity slips because he is haunted by Edgar Allan Poe's story involving his ancestors, and both are involved in a sort of mystery involving a few awful secrets.

As usual, I interpreted this novel through my feminist lens.


I certainly hope it was intended that I hate the main character, though as many of you know intent does not always equal the result. As I have not met Mr. Robert Poe, nor have I read anything else by him (and I admit I don't even know if he has written anything else, though I could easily check), I do not assume that these ideas are indicative of him as a body existing outside the novel--as I safely assume the sexism of David Eddings based on the fact that I've read just about everything he's written, and the same sexist attitudes are present IN ALL OF THEM.

That being said, I hated the main character.

John Charles is a worthless drunk. He is a writer for the small newspaper in the fictional town of Crowley Creek. He has unresolved issues with his father--at some points he gets drunk and wallows in self-pity as he reflects on his poor relationship with his father, who is dead. He treats women poorly, and is guilty of the insulting objectification of them, and also of comparing cars to women.

With the three women characters provided,* we are presented with three versions of womanness.

In the first mention of Marilyn, we learn that she is "the town's sexiest woman" (31). She works as a hairstylist, and John Charles provides us with a colorful description of her:

Marilyn herself was a small, curvaceous blonde, whose ornate mop of curls would have made Dolly Parton stand up and take notice. I had always assumed her hair was a kind of professional advertisement. It had a sort of bedroom look that gave a man ideas (37).
Marilyn is presented as a woman whose main concern is her appearance, and she measures her looks off of other women. She's highly aware that she's beautiful, and finds that it is her duty to be as beautiful as she can so that men find her attractive:
Only one thing disappointed her: the hairstyles of the other women. "I don't know who they think they're kidding, John Charles," she told me as the waiter poured our wine, "but there's not a woman in the world who doesn't look better with big hair. Now look at the gal over there," she pointed to a plain-looking blonde in a black dress, dining with an older gentleman at a far table. "She's got a big rock on her wedding ring finger, so they can't be hurting for bucks, but she's done herself up dull as a dishwasher. With her money, she could have some decent highlights, get a little sex appeal, know what I mean? That guys she's with's been givin' me the eye for the last half hour. She's prob'ly boring him to death" (122).
Marilyn blames the man getting the "wandering eye" on the other woman's lack of superficial effort. Basically, if a woman isn't pretty enough, it's her fault her man fucks someone else.

But John Charles is one of those simple-minded menz:
She wore glittery blue stuff on her eyelids, which gave her brown eyes a sparkle, and a dark-red dress cut so low in front that I found it hard to concentrate on what she was saying whenever she leaned over to reach for the breadbasket. No question of my getting bored (123).
She probably wasn't saying anything important anyways.

We are introduced to Edith in the same scene we meet Marilyn. Her description sharply contrasts that of Marilyn, effectively creating two converse images of femininity:
An elegant-looking woman of an indeterminate age, her face seemed drawn and sad. She was looking into the mirror with an expression that seemed to suggest that whatever she saw there was not going to be sufficient to solve her current problems (37-8).
When John Charles speaks of Marilyn, age is never discussed--she's just attractive. With Edith, there's always a mention of her being older than he is. The word "elegant" also connotes a certain image associated with age, leading us to assume that Edith is not "young."

But Edith is not just some older woman that finds herself involved in a mystery surrounding the Usher place, aiding John Charles to figure out why Mayor Winsome, Mrs. Boynton, and Mr. Prynne are after the property. She's an intelligent woman, and also a motherly figure. Where Marilyn is single-minded and pretty, Edith is deep and nurturing. Her husband has just left her for his (supposedly younger and prettier) secretary (38), leaving her to care for their two teenage boys. Not only is this sudden situation difficult for her, but her ex has been telling the boys it's all her fault he's not around any more, turning them against her. She's constantly worrying about her children, since the man is known to have a temper (144-5, 232).

Mrs. Boynton
Completing the women and age spectrum, is the editor of the Crowley Sentinel. John Charles describes her as
a stout woman in her middle sixties, the epitome of a certain kind of Southern womanhood. Tough as nails, she ruled her domain with an iron hand and brooked no resistance from anyone. But underneath, she couldn't resist a little flattery and she had a vast and cynical understanding of human nature, which could always be appealed to in a pinch (61).
Boynton is also in on the deal to procure Usher's property, part of the bullying scheme to sell the land and house for less than it's worth. Basically, the impression we get of Boynton is that of a greedy old bitch. Which works, since this underscores the image of her being an old shrew.

John Charles
The entire novel is told from John Charles' point of view, and as such the women are filtered through his manly biases. His attitudes toward women are somewhat frustrating, when he tells the reader such things as "loud women's voices assailed my ears" (37) and "Sometime I'd like to be a fly on the wall when two women are talking. I've always wondered how they can go on for hours and hours and never once touch on anything important, like, say, cars, hunting or sports" (164); basically, typical manly things.

John Charles is particularly lovable when he helps his co-worker get his car out of the mud:
Back, sweet as a caress on a lady's soft skin, then put her in gear so gently and just slide her out of that sucking pothole[...]and she shot out like a greased pig. Damn, it felt good! (135-6).
Interesting how driving a car is synonymous with fucking a woman.

Chapter Seven is perhaps the best example of John Charles' despicability. He visits the town bar for (yet another) drink, and Marilyn joins him. How he treats her in this scene illustrates how he thinks of her as disposable:
I hadn't asked her to join me. I just wanted to get quietly drunk all by myself[...]
Marilyn looked at me. "I think maybe you should ease off a bit, John Charles. You have to drive home in the storm and I wouldn't want anything to happen to you."
It was none of her business[...]
I had forgotten she was there. I felt annoyed. Couldn't she see I was trying to concentrate. "I need to concentrate," I said to her.
"Well, thanks a lot!" she said.
I could see she was upset. One bad thing about women. They don't understand when a man needs to concentrate[...]
"Well, let me tell you one thing, Mr. Poe. I've had it up to here with hard-drinking men and I don't intend to have any more of 'em. You can't handle the whiskey, you can't handle me, you get my drift?"[...]
She got up and I watched her good-looking ass, in those tight jeans, sashay out of there. Quite a few other men watched it too. It's unfair, the way women do that. They always get the last word even when they don't say anything (184-7).
Revoltingly peppered throughout John Charles' sexism, is his insistence of his own Nice Guy-ness:
Why had she married him in the first place? I never get why smart, pretty women seem to go for the wild, irresponsible guys--the losers. The nicest guys I know seem to have no luck at all with women (144).
So nice of John Charles to pity Edith, while simultaneously engaging in victim-blaming.
He also admits:
It kind of makes my blood boil when a man takes off on a woman like that, after she's raised his kids and all. And it was not as if Edith Dunn had let herself go. For her age, she was a truly fine-looking woman (39).
Before he really gets to know her, he already has made assumptions about her regarding her roles as mother and wife--the first being that he assumes as a mother she is nurturing, and as a wife, she's a trophy (for her age).

As for John Charles and his being a man, there's an interesting scene in the novel that reeks of a masculinity struggle, between John Charles, and the New York mobster, Aldo Marco, who comes to Crowley Creek to get the Usher property. The hurricane reaches the town, and causes flood damage. As a result, a large crack appears from the foundation of the Usher house, splitting one wing of the house open. The two men exchange threats, John Charles telling Marco to back off and stop bullying the already unstable Roderick, and Marco hinting at causing harm to Edith if John Charles prevents Usher from selling the land (213-15).

So, to be clear, to John Charles, women are supposed to keep him interested, so they must be beautiful; they talk about nonsensical things; and even the "smartest" women are stupid because they fall for losers. Got it.

Oh, and he's also racist. The only black character in the entire novel doesn't even have a name (23). Here, a standard has been created in the novel, because the only time the race of a person is mentioned is with the black man, the "other." The rest of the characters have assumed whiteness.

Within the novel there is great use of metaphor and symbolism, which I'm sure was intended to echo the original story by Edgar Allan Poe. The storm itself is a symbol of destruction, its worsening effects foreshadowing the inevitable destruction of the House of Usher. Certainly it is not mere coincidence that the eye of the storm passes over the House of Usher when Edith and John Charles find Roderick after he'd been missing three days.

Similarly, the two peach trees mirror the illicit relationship between Roderick Usher and his twin sister, Madeleine, the "female" tree being the one that was ripped up in the storm, taking the entwined branches of the "male" tree with it (236), like Madeleine's threat to leave, and her death, did to Rod (258-59).


John Charles is an interesting character to read, since he's a self-centered sexist racist drunk. I think if I ever reread this novel I will take note of each time he drinks some whiskey--at least twice a chapter, I think. The final chapter is quite indicative about what really matters to John Charles in what he doesn't mention. For instance, what happened to Buzz, Aldo Marco's cousin who worked with John Charles at the Crowley Sentinel? After John Charles gets his car out of the mud, we don't see him again; we don't know if he survived the storm.

Similarly, we don't know what happened to the "ghosts," people supposed to be dead that Usher keeps locked in a room, hiding them from the state (and is thus the leverage that Marco uses to blackmail Usher into considering his property deal). But at the end, when John Charles is reflecting on everything that happened to Rod, Edith, the Mayor, Prynne, and Boynton, there is no mention of the old people--they're really alive, so where did they go? Who's caring for them now that they've been exposed to be alive? Clearly, these poor people are not worth an extra thought from John Charles. In the last chapter, he tells about the scars on his hands, mourns the loss of "the most beautiful trees," casualties of the storm (279), and even tells of how the tarn on the Usher property has polluted the land, condemning it. But nothing of the people that Rod Usher hid away and treated like prisoners.
*I chose not to include Madeleine in this analysis, since she's only alive for a few pages. She is certainly gendered. We first see her gathering daisies, and even her "ghost" carries a basket of dried daisies--certainly there is gendering involved when Roderick dresses up as her, haunting the grounds: everyone is fooled into thinking it's really Madeleine's ghost.

Works Cited
Poe, Robert. Return to the House of Usher. New York: Forge, 1996.