Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

"Sympathies of a Scarcely Intelligible Nature": The Brother-Sister Bond in Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher." (Edgar Allan Poe)

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

"Sympathies of a Scarcely Intelligible Nature": The Brother-Sister Bond in Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher." (Edgar Allan Poe)

Article excerpt

Matthew Arnold was in a distinct minority when, in 1853, he criticized the action of Sophocles's Antigone, saying that it "is no longer one in which it is possible that we should feel a deep interest." Arnold finds that we moderns cannot use as a model "that which is narrow in the ancients, nor that with which we can no longer sympathize" (Arnold 12). Unfortunately, he thinks, such is the case with Antigone, "which turns on the conflict between a heroine's duty to her brother's corpse and that to the laws of her country." Arnold's condemnation is uncharacteristic -- both of Arnold himself, who revered everything classical, and of his age.(1) For, as George Steiner, in his work Antigones, says:

Between c. 1790 and c. 1905, it was widely held by European poets, philosophers, scholars, that Sophocles' Antigone was not only that finest of Greek tragedies, but a work of art nearer to perfection than any other produced by the human spirit.(1)

Steiner goes on to point out that, after 1789,(2) the Antigone legend became "talismanic to the European spirit," even if the fascination for it seemed to erupt ex nibilo (In the 35 years prior to that date no painting exhibited in the salons of Paris had that motif; Steiner 61). Why did this theme so suddenly transfix the gaze of nineteenth-century artists and critics? What was it about this "|most sisterly of souls' (Goethe's invocation of her in his |Europhrosyne Hymn' of 1799)" (Steiner 1) that held such an allure?

This generation of readers found in Antigone an idea that thrilled them because they desired its truth and yet, at the same time, they knew it could not be true. It is the "truth" that Hegel had unveiled -- that the sister in her virginal, untainted purity can, through self-sacrifice for her brother,(3) Sustain that most "natural" of all structures, the family, even against the legitimate demands of structures of authority that surround and threaten to engulf it.(4) In their exaltation of this text there also might well have been a guilty acknowledgment of its falsehood, and at some level a recognition that the lie pointed to an indictment of the very centerpiece of their culture -- an indictment, in other words, of the family, and particularly of its synchronic cross-section, sibling relationships as they had been structured in that culture and called "natural."

A study of sibling relationships in nineteenth-century literature, particularly those in which a sister is the primary pole of the relationship, can provide a key to understanding much about that period's complicated and contradictory conception of the family. As a response to the social upheaval created by the industrial revolution, the nuclear family was restructured as a hyperreal and hypersensitive organization that could serve both as a unit for energizing the activities required on the new economic battlefield and, paradoxically, as a moral refuge from the public sphere.(5) As such, it was imperative that the roles within the family be clearly demarcated and strictly disciplined -- that the family be organized in such a way as to convince itself and its sub-units, the individual members of the family, both of the legitimacy of the familial organization of authority and of their duty to fortify and perpetuate it.(6) That authority was, of course, patriarchal, as were the social structures to which the family responded and corresponded; yet the energy to maintain the unit was matriarchal. Feminine desire -- the desire of the mother -- had to be contained and channeled in such a way as to create the home as a sphere of moral perfection so elevated above the predatory struggle of the new economic strife as to seem to justify that very struggle (whose main goal was conceived as the protection of the family and its purity), while offering respite, relaxation, love and servitude to at least one of the bloodied warriors, and offering a training-ground to new warriors for the coming battles. …

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