Subject Midterm
Posted by Zoe
Posted on Sat Jul 1 07:37:06 2000
From IP  

Ferdinand de Saussure, as a linguist, opens up a brand new path for literary criticism to analyze the literary works in a scientific, or more directly, linguistic perspective. Saussure deserts the traditional mimetic theory focusing on each word's referent, but he asserts that his study on language centers on how the language functions. His innovation in linguistics field contributes to shaping structuralism, for what structuralists do in literary criticism is similar to Saussure's methodology on his linguistic study. Saussure thinks by more closely analyzing words, they are basically signs, and signs can be divided into two levels: the signifier and the signified. The former part of the sign is how the word sounds and is written, while the latter then represents less a referent than just a concept of it. However, Saussure believes that the connection between the signifier and the signified is not natural but conventional, thus through decoding a series of signs in language or even literary works, the rule behind the sign systems which is strongly involved with people's attachment to social conventions will be revealed.
Instead of concentrating hia studies on individual elements, Saussure puts more stress on how the signifying system covertly dominants the relations among those elements and determines their meaning. In this way, structuralists may first simplify the text into some basic components, such as mythemes, semiotic rectangles or binary oppositions. Via analyzing how those basic units are combined, selected and interacted with each other, a structuralist finds a signifying system out of a text, or a group of texts. Therefore similar to Saussure, structuralists incline to discovering the intertextual elements, which are actually under the impact of the shared system, and they attempt to decode the way the system governing the components gives meaning to a literary text.
From structuralists' viewpoint on Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, the whole story is composed of several semiotic rectangles while each rectangle relates to one another throughout the text. The first rectangle is manufactured through the relationship between the house owner Roderick Usher and the guest. In the beginning, the narrator comes to the mansion as a guest, like a receiver, listening to his friend Roderick. Yet, while the story proceeds towards the end, the guest turns to be the only survivor so as to be able to become the narrator who tells the story, as the sender, to the readers. Moreover, the weird brother and sister relationship between the Usher twins forms another semiotic rectangle. At first, Roderick plays the role of subject that seemingly possesses some kind of power to deliver a false message about his sister to the guest at his will. Thus, according to her brother's eccentric illustration, Madeline is the powerless and saddening object inanimately described as suffering from serious mental illness. She is primarily the weaker, described object, but then she eventually becomes the subject-- the origin of Roderick's fear-- that overpowers Roderick by taking his life at the end. All these remarkable shiftings among the characters goes around and help to turn the story evolving. Likewise, one thing commonly shared in the rise and fall within these two rectangles would be the change of Roderick Usher's position. In both rectangles, Roderick begins with taking the superior position which empowers him to fake a story about his sister to his friend, but with the story undergoes, he ends up with being scared to death. Roderick is the key that bridges the two rectangles, for it is his inner secret fear that deprives his previous superiority and results in his death that gives away his authority as being the sender and the subject.
As for the binary system within The Fall of the House of Usher, it is essentially constructed upon the doubled imagery of twins, which is notably characterized as two pair-up entities which are supposed to share identical or similar qualities. According to the effect of doubling, there breeds abundant pairs of binary components, including the gender and the state of mind of the twins, and also the setting that echoes the development of the protagonists.
The whole story is tightly attached to the shifting of sameness and difference between the Usher twins. The idea of sameness of twins is radically split, since the Usher twins are given different genders, but however, this little essential difference doesn't cause much conflicts between the two. Other than the differences of genders in the Usher twins, Roderick obviously is differentiated from his sister Madeline for being recognized as the mentally normal one. This influential dissimilarity plants the potential dynamic conflict of the story. From his twin sister's abnormality, Roderick sees his dormant but immense possibility of going insane. His inner resistance to become abnormal like his sister turns to a kind of strong fear, but however his repression is not helpful, for his fear for going mad doesn't prevent him from threat of abnormality but ironically drives him crazy so as to bury his sister alive finally.
Not only the twins are doubled image, Poe also creates the doubling effect on its setting: the House of Usher. According to a passage of a ballad named "The Haunted Palace," there is a lake in front of the House of Usher, and the mansion's distorted reflection is mirrored on the surface of the lake. On one hand, Poe's creating the doubled image of the house and its identical reflection serve to present the binary split of human's consciousness and unconsciousness, which echoes the struggling state of mind from Roderick. He is conscious of the possibility of turning insanity, but repression goes into his unconsciousness and transforms into an invisible fear that comes back torturing him. On the other hand, the mansion and its reflection could imply Roderick and Madeline as well. Apparently, Roderick is like the building itself while Madeline could be viewed as the twisted reflection of him, for he conceives himself the normal one, his sister the abnormal.
The opposing binaries of sameness and difference of the Usher twins seem to be clearly divided into two sides. However towards the end, the shiftings between sameness and difference eventually turn to be all sameness in a sense, since the fact that Roderick's unconscious repression goes back to him and drives him crazy. What he has been afraid of and what he has tried to get away from still comes back to him. As we can see, the author cleverly arranges the house at last collapsing into the lake and thus rejoining its reflection, and he uses the final change of the setting to produce the atmosphere echoing the awkward assimilation of the twins--they are ultimately both abnormal, and both dead. The assimilation of the binaries in the end corresponds to the theme that what goes around goes around, and the binary system begins from the separation of sameness and ends with the reunion split sameness. It amazingly forms a cycling pattern, within this circle, all the opposing binaries are in fact floating, not fixed to one side as they appeared at the start.

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