The American renaissance refers to the American literature in the 17th century era from 1840s through the Civil War period. The renaissance was characterized by efforts by American writers to develop literary works that reflect native issues such as American history, local dialect and geography. As such, the themes revolved around scientific progress, abolitionism, interreligious dialogue and the situation of the Native Americans.
During the American Renaissance, short fiction stories covered a wide range of subjects including Gothic romance, sea tales, and horror and detective stories, among others. The short stories by Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe are representative of the American Renaissance that explored the political and literary concerns of the time.
Poe’s Gothic work, “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Melville’s sea tale “Benito Cereno” reflect the situation of Native Americans in the 18th century era. In particular, their cultural, socio-political and religious practices and beliefs are the overriding themes in these fiction stories. Both authors explore love and tragedy in their fiction stories in the context of the Native Americans.
While Poe employs reincarnation as a literary theme that involves rising the dead back to life to explore love/family relationships, Melville explores conspiracy and mistrust as the causes of tragedy in his fiction story. While the two fiction stories involve different symbols, themes and motifs, the plot development is similar and has a tragic ending.
The Fall of the House of Usher
The narrator, whose identity is not revealed to readers, enters a house of the Usher on invitation in a “dull, dark, and soundless day” (Poe 1). The house itself belongs to Roderick Usher, his boyhood friend. The house, according to the narrator, appears mysterious and gloomy with decaying trees and ponds surrounding it. The narrator observes that, though the house is disintegrating in certain places, the entire structure remains stable.
Only small cracks appear in front of the building. He visits his friend after an invitation; a letter sent by his friend Roderick requesting his company (Poe 13). In this regard, Poe shows how mutual trust embodied in friendships and social concern in Native American context.
In fact, the main purpose of the narrator’s visit is to assist his ailing friend. The narrator mentions that Usher had fewer relatives as only one descendant of Usher’s family survived from one generation to another. As such, the family had a direct lineage with not many relatives.
The narrator appears surprised of the status of his friend’s house, with the inside appearing as spooky as the compound of the house. He notes that his friend is frailer and less energetic than before. Roderick reveals to the narrator that he suffers from fear and nerves.
By confiding in the narrator, Poe shows that Roderick trusted and relied on his friend for emotional support. The narrator also observes that Roderick appeared afraid of the status of the house. Additionally, Roderick’s sister, Madeline, is suffering from a mysterious illness, “the loss of coordination of one’s limbs, which the doctors cannot reverse” (Poe 9).
Roderick spends several days playing guitar and singing. The narrator tries to cheer up Roderick by reading him stories to no avail. Soon Madeline succumbs to sickness, and Roderick buries her in the tombs in the basement of the house. He does this to avoid doctors exhuming her body for scientific investigations, as the disease was uncommon.
Here, Poe shows the beliefs that shaped the 18th century cultural practices regarding the dead where prior preparation of tombs was common. Additionally, Poe points out to the status of health research during this period; majority of the diseases were not well understood and their medicines largely lacking.
The narrator realizes that Madeline and Roderick were fraternal twins. For the next few days following Madeline’s death, Roderick becomes even more uncomfortable and weary. One night, Roderick knocks on the narrator’s door, appearing shaken and hysterical.
The two proceed to a window, from where they observe a bright gas emission around the house. The narrator explains to Roderick that the gas emission is a common natural phenomenon, not a strange thing. The narrator then reads Roderick a medieval romance story, “Mad Trist” by Sir Launcelot Canning to die the night (Poe 11).
However, as he reads, eerie noises, which correspond to the story’s description, fill the house. Here, Poe shows the superstitions regarding the dead spirits and reincarnation in the 18th century period. Roderick reveals to the narrator that the sounds have been there for many days since Madeline’s death, and he believes that Madeline was buried alive and is trying to escape from the tomb.
The door opens and there stands Madeline wearing white bloodied robes. She attacks her brother forcing the narrator to flee the house. As he flees, the house cracks along the central frame and crumbles down.
In “Benito Cereno,” Amasa Delano is the narrator and the captain of a ship. The story begins with the ship, Bachelor’s Delight, anchored off Chile. The narrator and the other sailors spot another ship headed towards the direction of the island. Captain Delano decides to sail over with a small boat and investigate.
When he and the crew arrive at the other ship, the San Dominick, they are accosted by black slaves hungry for water and food supplies. Captain Delano sends his men back to the Bachelor’s Delight to fetch the supplies and tries to investigate the misfortune.
He meets Benito Cereno, the captain of the San Dominick who appears nervous and somewhat strange. Cereno has frequent fainting spells and subsequently under constant care of Babo, a black servant.
Cereno reveals to Delano that they left Buenos Aires and have been sailing for the past six months. Heavy winds near Cape Horn forced them to throw their supplies into the sea to lighten up the ship. Delano notes that Cereno had many coughing fits as he told this: a condition Delano attributes to mental sickness.
Cereno also reveals that most of his crew had died of scurvy after spending many months on the sea and applauds Babo for his loyalty to him throughout this period. Delano offers to assist Cereno reach the next port, briefly cheering him up. As Delano examines the ship further, he develops mixed feelings about the purpose of the sail.
He observes a young black slave beat a white cabin boy of which Cereno does not intervene (Melville 8). Subsequently, Delano seeks to know the owner of the slaves. Cereno tells him that they belonged to Cereno’s friend Alexander Aranda, who had died earlier of fever.
Delano questions Cereno again about their ill-fated sail mentioning Cape of Horn. Nevertheless, Cereno responds, “Who talked of Cape Horn?” (Melville 16). At this point, Delano becomes suspicious. They later take lunch together in the presence of Babo.
Later it emerges that Babo and the black slaves revolted, killing many of the Spanish crew and redirected the ship to Senegal where they planned to escape. However, before the journey is over, they ran out of supplies. Delano sends his men to recover the ship and holds a trial of the slaves led by Babo.
The trial ends with the execution of Babo over his role in the killing of Alexander Aranda. Subsequently, Cereno becomes depressed. A few months later, he dies.
Although the stories revolve around different central themes, the plot development in the two literary works is similar. The stories start with mischief that is not apparent to the narrator; evolve into misdeeds perpetrated by one party and end with a tragic death of the perpetrator.
Poe starts out by describing the narrator’s visit to his boyhood friend, who, as it turns out was suffering from nerves and had become so frail. The Usher had a sister, who, the narrator came to learn, was a twin sister to Usher.
Here, it implies that the narrator bore different expectations and knew less of his friend including the consistent sounds that that haunted his friend following the death of his sister. Similarly, Melville starts out with Captain Delano visiting a ship, San Dominick, which apparently had been taken over.
In fact, Captain Cereno’s earlier explanation involving unexpected heavy winds that forced them to throw away their supplies seemed to convince Captain Delano. However, as it turns out, a revolt led by Babo left the ship’s control in the hands of the slaves.
In both stories, the narrator is the main character around whom the story revolves. In both stories, the intervention of the narrator to rescue the situation defines the ending of the story. Captain Delano, on learning the truth behind San Dominick’s misfortune instructs his men to take the ship back from the slaves.
He holds a trial of the mutiny leader, Babo, resulting to his execution with his head being placed at the top of a pole. Thus, in Melville’s story, the narrator is portrayed as a just and noble person with a goal to assist the oppressed and disadvantaged in society. Similarly, in Poe’s story, the main character, the narrator, visits his friend who suffered emotional and physical conditions and tries to help him.
Even after the death of Usher’s sister, the narrator consoles his friend and helps him overcome his fears over the house’s invasion by ghosts. As such, Poe portrays the narrator as an understanding person who offers emotional support to his friend during the difficult time.
The plot in Poe’s story and Melville’s fiction work is similar. In particular, the ending in both stories is tragic. In Poe’s story, the narrator hears the sounds that his friend, Usher, had been referring to, and just then, a door opens where he sees Usher’s “dead” sister enter.
Madeline then proceeds to attack his brother. The narrator flees just in time before the house, which was in a bad state, crumbles down. Usher and his sister die giving the story a tragic ending. Similarly, in Melville’s story, after the trial and the subsequent execution of Babo, Captain Cereno falls into severe depression and dies afterwards giving the story a tragic ending too.
Melville, Herman. Benito Cereno, 2011. Web.
Poe, Edgar. The Fall of the House of Usher, 2011.Web.