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Mystical Novels: Ligeia and Rip Van Winkle

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Development of Genre in Early American Literature

Beginning in the late 18th century, several genres emerged in American literature. Hannah Webster Foster published The Coquette, which became an early example of novel writing. Edgar Allan Poe demonstrated the Gothic genre in short stories including Ligeia, while Washington Irving utilized romanticism in “Rip Van Winkle.”

Eliza and Peter Sanford both make the mistake of infidelity. Both characters are conscious of this mistake and acknowledge this in their letters to Mrs. Wharton and Charles Deighton, respectively. Eliza tells her mother that “she has become the victim of her own indiscretion, and of the intrigue and artifice of a designing libertine, who is also the husband of another.” She describes this as a “disgrace to [her friends].” In her apology, Eliza acknowledges that she is “polluted, and no more worthy of [her mother’s] parentage.

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The novel provides moral lessons through its tragic ending. Since the affair ends with Eliza death and Peter going bankrupt, the consequences for their actions aren’t subtle. Throughout the novel, both Eliza and Peter acknowledge that their actions are wrong. Eliza warns herself in the third-person that “though strowed with flowers, when contemplated by your lively imagination, it is, after all, a slippery, thorny path.” Peter compares his relationship with Eliza to stealing. He includes a quote in his letter, which says “stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.” He acknowledges and enjoys the sinfulness of their relationship.

In his letter to Charles, Peter expresses guilt that Eliza died. He takes responsibility for his actions, believing Eliza’s death is at least partly his own fault. He writes that the “upbraidings of [his] mind” accuse him “as the murderer of Eliza.” So while his mistake was his infidelity, he doesn’t regret that he loses his wife. He tells Charles that as they “lived together without love, they parted without regret. Since Peter decided to marry someone he didn’t love, it’s possible that he didn’t love Eliza either. Though he speaks highly about Eliza in his letters, he also discusses his disdain toward marriage. Earlier in the novel, Peter tells Charles that Eliza “would make an excellent wife,” but he plans to stay unmarried “so long as [he] can keep out of the noose.” Even after Eliza dies, Peter acknowledges that he seduced Eliza. Comments like this suggest he was aware that he didn’t love her.

Ligeia is an example of Gothic literature in both content and writing style. The story combines Poe’s romantic and idealistic feelings toward Ligeia with the horror of her death. Poe describes Ligeia in abstract ways, using grandiose diction and frequently alluding to Greek mythology. He writes that it’s a “vain attempt to portray the majesty” and “quiet ease of her demeanor.” Poe describes her eyes as “divine orbs” that “become to [him] twin stars of Ledas.” He discusses her knowledge of classical languages and sciences, and mentions that he “was sufficiently aware of her infinite supremacy.” Ligeia writes a poem for him to recite while she dies, and this poem is another example of Gothic literature. It uses the same kind of flowery language use elsewhere in the story, including its horrific elements. Ligeia’s poem includes lines such as “the seraphs sob at vermin fangs in human gore imbued” and “the curtain, a funeral pall comes down with the rush of a storm.”

Irving’s writing style is drastically different. While Poe uses ornate descriptions of ideal figures, Irving’s writing focuses more on nature. The story takes place in a small village, where Rip lives a simple life on a small farm. Irving describes how Rip neglects the farm, and lists the different crops he grows. Irving writes that the estate “had dwindled away under his management…until there was little more left than a mere patch of Indian corn and potatoes.” Rips children are also neglected and described as “ragged and wild as if they belonged to nobody.”

Despite the realism of the setting, “Rip Van Winkle” becomes more mystical. Rip’s solitude and the focus on history are both characteristics of romanticism. Rip falls asleep for a long period of time, and wakes up with a long beard. Shortly after waking up, his political affiliations are questioned. He’s pulled aside and asked “whether he was Federal or Democrat.” So although the story was written in the 1800’s, it focuses on Colonial America instead of the present day. George Washington appears in the story, and a crowd of people become outraged when Rip tells them he’s “a loyal subject of the King,” and proclaims “God bless him!”

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