The Incest In Literature: Fall Of The House Of Usher

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In 1896 Freud delivered a talk in the Society for Psychiatry and Neurology in Vienna where he presented his seduction theory. He claimed that the etiology of hysteria was in sexual abuse in early childhood. Freud believed that women didn´t have a conscious memory of the traumatic event but the memories connected to trauma were dissociated and repressed in the child´s mind. Freud´s theory was received coldly by his colleagues. The following year Freud admitted that his theory was incorrect, and he developed her theory of Oedipal complex, concluding that those scenes of seduction by the fathers were in fact fantasies. The reasons for this change could have been his inability to accept the huge incidence of incest cases and that the main perpetrators of those abuses were the victim´s fathers, and his impossibility to verify that those seductions have occurred. Although, according to Freud he abandoned his seduction theory because he discovered “love for my mother and jealousy of my father” (qtd. in A., K. S., & Rachman, A. W. 2015). After dreaming that he wants to possess his mother and expel his father, and not having memories of being possessed by his mother, he deduced that his dream is a sing of his incestuous desire for his mother and his hate for his father, as his rival for his mother love. He extended those personal feelings creating the Oedipal complex, which he thought affected any child. The consequences of accepting the Oedipal theory and rejecting the seduction theory was that memories of sexual abuse were dismissed by being considered fantasies, and women who report incest experiences were considered hysterical who falsified the experience. In addition, the focus of psychoanalysis was put on the sexuality of the child and not in the father’s sexuality (ibid.).

Despite his shift toward Oedipal theory, Freud was among the first authors to realize the huge rates of father-daughter incest and the psychological traumatic effects for the victim. After World War I psychological trauma was revisited due to the huge number of soldiers that presented symptoms similar to hysterical women. At first those symptoms were considered to have a physical origin and were called shell sock, because they were attributed to the effects of exploding shells. However, it became obvious that soldiers suffered a psychological trauma, not a physical one. Despite that, psychological trauma would not be applied to the experiences of women sexual abuse until 1970s/80s when some feminist authors focus on rape and other forms of violence against women and children. Those authors develop the idea that rape is a mean to maintain male power. According to Grogan, “[m]illions of American girls are socialized into victim roles in a culture that allows and support violence”, she claims that violence against women and children is inherent to patriarchal society, specially in the domestic sphere (Grogan 2011).

Feminist works brought to light the incidence of incest in American society. Herman and Hirschman in their work Father-Daughter Incest (1977) claimed that according to the Children´s Division of the American Humane Association around 100,000 children are sexually molested each year and that in most of the cases the offender is known by the victim and in a 25 percent the offender is a relative. Those authors also highlighted that the real number of incest cases could be superior because many victims do not report their experiences.

As Freud had pointed out trauma was inaccessible and difficult to understand and articulate, and can create dissociation in victim´s psyche, making difficult for the victims to tell their experiences. According to Grogan (2011),

Trauma is an event that simultaneously destabilizes language and demands a vocabulary—but one that will always be incommensurable in conveying it. To put it another way, as trauma signifies the collapse of signification, there exists a compulsion to speak and the failure of speech.

To the impossibility of telling a traumatic experience women have to add the difficulty of fighting against the indoctrination that patriarchy has imposed to them. Patriarchy has taught women to remain silent. In Herman (1992, qtd. in Grogan 2011) words, “When the victim is already devalued (a woman, a child), she may find that the most traumatic events of her life take place outside the realm of socially validated reality. Her experience becomes unspeakable.”.

Some trauma theorists believe that a more complex definition of psychological trauma “that accounts for the social structures that perpetuate female victimization” should be developed. In addition, they claim that trauma that is not the consequence of a single event but of a series of repetitive and cumulative traumatic experiences, should be labelled in a different category than posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Repeated and prolonged trauma is called “insiduos trauma” by Root and “complex posttraumatic stress disorder” by Herman and Van der Kolk and those authors believe that it could be applied to female victims of incest (Grogan 2011).

Incest in American Literature

Incest has been a recurrent theme in universal literature since ancient times, starting with Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, the story of a man that unknowingly kills her father and marries her mother, a classical tragedy that served Freud to develop his psychoanalytic theory of Oedipal Complex. The universal taboo of incest has been approached in different forms in literature: as a didactic theme to propagate proper moral conducts and behaviors; as a powerful tool of social and political critique; as a transgression of the limits of society and family and as a source of literary pleasure (Nesteruk 1994).

In medieval and early modern literature, incest is represented as a way for aristocratic families to preserve their political power. In the Jacobean period, feudal economy starts to decline, and market economy arises, threating kinship structures. Sibling incest is a response to the fear of high society to be contaminated by lower classes. In the Jacobean tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, written by John Webster and published in 1623, the incestuous desire of Ferdinand toward his sister the Duchess, who marries beneath her class, could be understand as a desire of avoiding “degrading associations with inferiors” (Whigham 2002) . Another play of the same period, ´Tis Pity She´s a Whore, John Ford´s tragedy published in 1633, “represents the dividing line between aristocratic privilege and bourgeoise transgression” (Barnes 2002). The incestuous relationship of Giovanni and his sister Annabella ends in tragedy because incest is allowed for kings and gods but not for middle-class families (Hopkins 2002).

During the Restoration period, John Dryden´s plays related to incest theme Aureng-Zebe, Don Sebastian, and Love Triumphant serve to question the limits of patriarchal power. In seventeenth and eighteenth centuries patriarchal power was a central debate due to the works of Locke and Hobbes between other social theorists who questions if the power of the father is a natural power or if it emanates from a social contract (Nelson 2002).

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In eighteenth century, there is a predominance of sibling incest theme in drama and also in some novels as Daniel Defoe Moll Flanders (1722). Moll a woman that lives outside the constrictions of family and who ignores her familial origins, looking for her economic independence unwittingly marries her brother. This incestuous relationship serves to highlight the dangers of ignoring the rules that govern the familiar distribution of power (Pollak 1989).

American literature presents similar concerns to English literature about class and family and the incest theme appears in it since its origins. Early American literature incorporates unwitting incest with catastrophic consequences: madness or even suicide. The incest theme serves to introduce questions of class and family, it expresses the fear of inappropriate sexual behaviors and of the dangers of marriages between different social classes. According to Anne Dalker (1988) in Early American novels there are two varieties of the incest theme: a wealthy young man wants to marry a woman beneath his class who results to be his bastard half-sister or a and old man tries to seduce a poor young girl who results to be his unacknowledged daughter. Some examples of the first variety are: William Hill Brown´s novels The Power of Sympathy (1789, considered the first American novel) and Ira and Isabella (1807, the only example of “specious incest”); Sarah Sayward Wood´s The Illuminated Baron (1800) and Susanna Rowson´s Charlotte´s Daughter (1828). To the second variety belong the novels: Mentoria (1794) and The Trials of the Human Heart (1795) by Rowson and the anonymous work Margaretta (1807). Those novels condemn inappropriate behaviors of the patriarchal figures showing the fatal consequences it can bring to the whole family, and advocate for maintaining class hierarchy. In America the concept of nuclear family is inherently twined with the concept of nation, thence any threat to familial order represents a menace to the nation stability (Dalker 1988).

Temperance was a very important genre in nineteenth century American literature and incest was a very common theme in that genre. In numerous temperance novels a drunken father (patriarchal figure) is redeemed “in the bed of a child”. According to Sánchez-Eppler, “this hardly veiled erotic contact” instead of being presented as sexual abuse is presented as the best way to avoid any kind of physical abuse (1995). Love functions as a redemptive mechanism. Little girls are the agents who discipline her fathers, the patriarchal figures that are not fulfilling their duties as family rulers, through love, reorganizing the family order. Fathers are redeemed by the love of their submissive daughters, who take the place of the mother, usually absent (ill or dead), not only as housekeepers and care takers but also taking the wife sexual obligations. Submission enables fathers to be discipline, if the daughters had confronted them, the drunker fathers would have respond aggressively seeing their patriarchal power threatened. Due to the threat that it could supposed to patriarchal power mothers cannot be the ones in charge of disciplining men, it must be done by powerless innocent children. Some of the temperance stories that present a drunker father in the bed of a child are The Baby in the Brown Cottage, The red Frock (1873) and The History of Threepenny Bit (1873) (ibid.).

However, incest not only appears in temperance literature in the nineteenth century, it is also present in the works of big figures of American literature as Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. In Hawthorne´s short story Alice Doane´s Appeal (1837), Poe´s story Fall of House of Usher (1839) and Melville´s Pierre, or The Ambiguities (1859), incest occurs between brother and sister and is more related to the concerns of eighteenth century incest literature linked to class and family, and as a form of transgression of the limits of society (Nesteruk 1994).

If eighteenth and nineteenth century literature is linked to the question of family and class, twentieth century literature is linked to family and race. Early twentieth century literature represents incest as a metaphor of the decline of Western civilization. Sibling incest is present in William Faulkner´s works The Sound and the Fury (1929) and in Absalom, Absalom (1936) and it is used to talk about the collapse of the patriarchal and cultural order in post-Civil War South. In Faulkner’s works the incest theme appears linked to miscegenation, another important sexual taboo. F. Scott Fitzgerald´s Tender Is the Night (1934) shows the decline of Western civilization after World War I, and the traumatic effects of war, but moreover, it is a pioneer work in incest literature because, although not in the center of the story, it represents father-daughter incest in a white wealthy family. In nineteenth century, father-daughter incest was placed in the house of poor or racial others. In addition, Fitzgerald´s work shows for the first time the devastating effects this traumatic experience has for the victim, Nicole Diver, who was raped by her own father at fifteen and is under mental treatment due to that incestuous act.

Although incest has pervaded American literature since its origins, it is in the second half of twentieth century when it reaches its peak thanks to African American and feminist authors that yearn to break the taboo of telling incest and want confront patriarchal culture showing the consequences that patriarchy, and more specifically, white patriarchal culture, has on the more vulnerable members of society: children, but also women and racial minorities. Ralph Ellison´s acclaimed novel Invisible Man (1952), published on the eve of civil rights movement, tells the story of a nameless black man in search of identity. The novel deals with a central theme in African American literature, invisibility, but father-daughter incest is also represented as a metaphor for racial relationships. In a short episode Trueblood, a poor black farmer (a non-central character that only appears in that part of the book), tells to a white wealthy man, Mr. Norton, and Invisible Man how during a dream he raped his own daughter. This incest story that could seem to reinforce the stereotype of black men as oversexed, moral and intellectually inferior, in fact challenges those assumptions of black masculinity, showing that white patriarchal culture emasculates black men. Although Ellison´s novel successfully confronts the trauma of racism, it fails to represent the trauma of incest not given voice to female characters and portraying them as simple stereotypes (Grogan 2011).

Toni Morrison´s novel The Bluest Eye (1970) published in the midst of second wave feminism signifies Invisible Man. In addition of representing how black men are victims of “patriarchal phallocentrism”, she mainly focuses on the female perspective and how devastating are the effects of child sexual abuse. Morrison multiple narrator story presents how white oppression emasculates Cholly Breedlove, and how his traumatic past leads him to rape his daughter Pecola, an eleven-year-old protagonist who longs for blue eyes as a symbol of white beauty. Morrison portrays “child abuse as a social and political problem, an effect of institutional racism, classism and imperialism” (Grogan 2011). Although , some authors as Janice Doane and Devon Hodges criticize Morrison for failing to give voice to Pecola, who only speaks when she has become mad, and whose traumatic experience is told by the main narrator of the novel Claudia MacTeer, another poor black girl (2001), the Bluest Eye is a landmark in American literature that encouraged many female authors to address subjects as incest, racism and colonialism, and who inspired a whole generation of African American writers as Alice Walker or Mary Angelou.

Inspired by the courage of African American writers in 1970s white feminist authors started to tell their experiences of incest with the desire of breaking the taboo of telling incest and blaming a patriarchal system “that provides the ideological rationalization for male exploitation of the bodies and labor of women” (Doane and Jones 2001). Louise Armstrong’s Kiss Daddy Goodnight (1978), a collection of sixteen true incest stories about women of all races and classes, is one of the most known non-fiction books of the period that tried to confront patriarchal power challenging the prevalent idea of women incest stories as fantasies and shifting the blame from seductive daughters to seducer fathers.

Alice Walker, influenced by the works of Morrison and feminist writers, wrote The Color Purple (1982), a best-seller and Pulitzer Prize winner incest narrative about recovery from trauma. This epistolary novel tells the story of Celie a woman that was raped by her father and who suffered a whole life of oppression by male. Celie through writing her own story in the form of letters, addressed firstly to God and later to her sister, is able to recover from the trauma she suffered and to empower herself thanks to sisterhood and economic independence. Walker depicts strong female characters that confront patriarchal power and portrays how recovery can only be achieved by confronting and telling traumatic experiences. Although Walker´s work was highly acclaimed, it was criticized by some authors by its harsh depiction of African American men and for its fairy tale ending.

Thanks to the success of incest stories by African American writers, to the works of feminist authors to break the taboo of telling incest, and to the advances on new therapies to help women to confront incestuous experiences and to recover childhood incest memories, a large number of autobiographies and memoirs mainly written by middle-class women were published at the end of twentieth century. Those works challenge the assumption that educated, successful and respected white men cannot commit such atrocity as incest. Due to the fact that the memory of some of those incest stories were only recovered by the victims on therapy and seeing them as an attack to middle class values, they are labelled as false memory recovery stories in which is known as the memory wars (Doane and Jones 2001).

In 1990s two successful novels, Dorothy Allison´s Bastard out of Carolina (1992) and Sapphire´s Push (1996) seem to confirm nineteenth century dominant idea that incest happens in the house of poor or racial others. However, those novels, following the steps of the previous literary works and adopting some of their conventions, not only challenge those stereotypes but also, they develop a new incest genre based on the incestuous experiences of their authors, autobiographical incest novels. Allison´s and Sapphire´s stories on the border of reality and fantasy, perfectly depict the traumatic effects of incest dealing with class, race and patriarchal issues.

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