"I became insane with long intervals of horrible sanity". To what extent can it be argued that torture and insanity are integral elements of The Prussian Officer, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Tell-Tale Heart?
Insanity could be defined as “the state of being mentally ill; madness”, thus it is no surprise that writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and D. H. Lawrence beauteously integrated aspects of insanity into their stories in order to chisel the perfect piece of gothic literature, simultaneously luring the reader in to a world carved by madness and drowned in an eerie atmosphere. Portraying one as insane is a powerful gothic literary device that has been used throughout the era of the gothic, notably in Matthew Lewis' “The Monk” and Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto”. One way in which writers complement and enhance the insanity of their sadistic characters is through the psychological and mental torture that is often inflicted upon the victims of the novel or story, a prime example being Hindley in Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights”. Although many deemed Edgar Allan Poe as “insane” himself, in the words of C. Chauncey Burr in 1852, “that perfection of horror which abounds in his writings, has been unjustly attributed to some moral defect in the man”; indeed it could be suggested that Poe simply embedded his writing with the “unnatural” to enhance its gothic nature. Lawrence, on the other hand, was perhaps influenced by real life events, as, as stated by Keith Cushman, “the temporal, biographical and cultural context of this short story is connected with Lawrence's stay in Germany in the early summer of 1913.”
Extensive use of repetition within “The Tell-Tale Heart” reflects the sheer extent of insanity; the narrator is undoubtedly psychologically unstable and such madness simply heightens the terror the story inflicts upon the “unfortunate” reader. This is clear in the opening sentence when the narrator says “TRUE! --nervous --very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” The enhancement of his insanity is conveyed through the repetition of “nervous” and “very”, which evidently portray his unstable state of mind and thus the likeliness for him to commit such a brutal and sadistic murder. Furthermore, the language and syntax used by Edgar Allan Poe has the ability to lure the reader to believe that the narrator is anxious and uneasy; a character whose insanity shines through his speech. Unlike the narrator of “The Tell Tale Heart”, the narrator of “The Pit and the Pendulum” maintains the capacity to recount faithfully and rationally his surroundings while also describing his own emotional turmoil and the burden of emotional distress does not hinder his account of the event.
Insanity is similarly expressed through repetition whereby the victim of torture expresses “the deepest slumber -- no! In delirium -- no! In a swoon -- no! In death -- no!” The repetition of the word “no!” radiates a feeling of madness as a result of the brutal tribulation to which the prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition is subjected, or perhaps the determination the prisoner has to prevent himself from going insane. "I became insane with long periods of horrible sanity" perfectly defines his state of mind, reflecting that the prisoner extensively dreads the anticipation he is left to endure, anticipation that appears to be far worse than completely losing his mind due to the encroaching insanity. This could, however, be deemed a form of mental entrapment wherein the victim is confined to a certain state of mind. The gothic trope of madness expresses this form of entrapment; the insane are trapped in their own mental universe; a universe which no one else can enter, emphasised to a greater extent when the protagonist says “down -- steadily down it crept…Down -- certainly, relentlessly down…Down -- still unceasingly -- still inevitably down”. The entrapment of characters in gothic literature effectively mirrors the entrapment faced by individuals in the Victorian society; individuals were entrapped as they were forced to repress certain desires in order to observe strict Victorian social decorum whilst working towards an ordered society. Just as Edgar Allan Poe does, D. H. Lawrence uses the literary and language device of repetition in “The Prussian Officer” to express the mild insanity of the Officer that may be present as a result of his pessimistic and mundane life. The Officer not only shows his insanity in his repetition of the sentence “Why have you a piece of pencil in your ear?", but the psychological torture and intimidation that he inflicts on the orderly.
“I do not suffer from insanity, I enjoy every minute of it” - Edgar Allan Poe perfectly defines the opinions of the characters used in “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Prussian Officer”. The narrator of “The Pit and the Pendulum” appears to thrive off his own insanity, evident in the way that he says “Hearken! And observe how healthily --how calmly I can tell you the whole story”; no sane person could recount for their murderous and torturous actions “healthily” and “calmly”. Furthermore, the way in which he constantly reassures the reader of his sanity ultimately has the counter effect of expressing the insanity which he possesses as shown by his rhetorical questioning of “how, then, am I mad?”, “Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this?” and “If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body”. If the protagonist was in fact sane, why would he feel it were his duty to constantly remind the reader of the fact that he is not “mad”? Further evidence of the narrator “enjoying every minute” of his insanity is notable from the way he claims the reader will “have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in!” and how he “smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done.” Enjoyment of insanity is also a gothic element integral to “The Pit and the Pendulum”, however rather than the enjoyment being expressed by the protagonist and victim, it is enjoyed by those enforcing the brutal torture upon him. Evidently, the fact that the torturers appear “thin with the intensity of their expression of firmness” as well expressing “stern contempt of human torture”, they “enjoy every minute” of their insanity. This also plays a pivotal role in “The Prussian Officer” as it becomes apparent that the Officer seeks pleasure in torturing the orderly, thus seeks pleasure in his minor insanity. This is notable when “he had felt at once a thrill of deep pleasure” after brutally attacking the orderly with his belt. Furthermore, after psychologically tormenting the orderly, the Officer expresses a “sickly smile”, showing that his regrets are minimal and he thrives off both his insanity and the discomfort of others.
Torture, “to inflict extreme pain or physical and mental punishment on somebody” often plays a pivotal role in gothic texts; it has the manipulative ability to inflict terror on the reader, much like the victims within the texts themselves face. Since the alleged first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, the human body has been a prominent topic of uncertainty, disruption and transgression, such qualities becoming magnified throughout the texts in question, with torture further enhancing the insanity. Those who enforce torturous acts upon the innocent clearly have a degree of insanity whether it be major or minor. The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” provides a fine example for such an analogy as he takes pleasure from psychologically tormenting the old man, evident when he says “it was the beating of the old man's heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.” That the narrator can hear the beating of the old man’s heart suggests the stress and psychological torture that has been inflicted upon him and becomes an inevitable part of his “downfall” due the heart’s weakening. This is further supported as it is clear that “the old man's terror must have been extreme” as the heart beat “grew louder…louder every moment”. However, the beating could also be expressed in a metaphorical sense; a sign of the protagonist’s guilt or, in contrast, his desire to kill, the heartbeat representing his mind encouraging him. The narrator not only lures the old man into psychological torture, but also physical during and after the inhumane murder. The way in which he “dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him” and afterwards “dismembered the corpse” and “cut off the head and the arms and the legs” conveys the idea that torture is a vital component of gothic texts in order to create a sense of terror, despair and disbelief for the reader. This also reinforces the idea of the body being an integral topic of focus within gothic literature, similar to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein whereby the human body is often conveyed in a disturbing, dehumanising manner as “[Victor’s] limbs were nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering.”
Edgar Allan Poe adopted a similar strategy of engraving torture into the allegory “The Pit and the Pendulum” in order to intensify the gothic nature of the text which is solely based around the prisoner’s account of torture during the Spanish Inquisition. The text opens to the severe degree of torture the prisoner is facing; he is “sick unto death with that long agony”. Furthermore, the prisoner “felt every fibre in [his] frame thrill as if [he] had touched the wire of a galvanic battery”. “Galvanic battery” suggests immense pain, thus conveying the cruel horrors to which the torturers had previously subjected him. Moreover, it conveys the idea that the actions of the torturers become effectively mechanical and consequently the ‘norm’. Of course, the aspects of torture are of high frequency within “The Pit and the Pendulum” much like they were during the Inquisition; an institution of the Catholic government in fifteenth and sixteenth century Spain that persecuted all Protestants and heretical Catholics. Despite the fact much of Poe’s perception of such historical fact is misrepresented, he transforms the theories into enhanced destruction in his gothic pieces; he thrives off the misrepresentation.
Infliction of pain can also be seen to enhance the story’s gothic qualities. The prisoner states “I trembled at the sound of my own voice, and had become in every respect a fitting subject for the species of torture which awaited me”. Poe’s language Poe, notably the word “species”, alienates the methods of torture and enhances the fact that the prisoner remains distant to what he is facing, disregarding them for what they are and providing the methods with a perhaps “gentle” name in order to blind himself from the cruel reality. The prisoner is also “consumed with intolerable thirst”, suggesting that the torturers lack any form of sympathy; they deprive and weaken him, luring him closer to his demise. He continues to say how “entrapment into torment, formed an important portion of all the grotesquerie of these dungeon deaths”, integrating both the gothic element of torture as well as the traditional implementation of entrapment. This is much like the physical entrapment found in Stoker’s Dracula as, when Harker is driven to Dracula’s castle, he is subjected to physical entrapment in the landscape of Transylvania, as is evident when “[it] seemed to me that we were simply going over and over the same ground again; and so I took note of some salient point, and found that this was so.”
How do I write a comparative essay for English?
Comparative essays can be quite daunting. It’s difficult to achieve a balance between texts and to know where to start comparing them – sometimes they can be completely different after all. At A-level I had to write a comparative essay on Webster’s The White Devil and Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, which are completely different genres. Yet any differences or similarities you can pick up on. So I would definitely talk about the fact that these are different genres. The White Devil is a play so how would it be performed when it was published/now and how would this make a difference? Would we have sympathy with Flamineo because he talks directly to the audience? More sympathy than we might have for Satan in Paradise Lost?
Comparative essays raise a lot of questions about the texts and it’s difficult to know how you can include these in a sophisticated argument.
DON’T PANIC however.
Sometimes it’s a good thing when texts are so different because ‘comparative’ doesn’t JUST mean ‘what do they do the same?’ although you can address this but also ‘what do they do differently?’ You could look at how themes such as love or war are treated differently i.e. through different stylistic choices or how the writers have different responses to them (perhaps due to their differing contexts). You could use a quote by a critic and see how it applies to one text and not to another.
It’s also important to remember to meet all the criteria for an exam/coursework essay. For example, OCR A level English asks you to meet certain A0s or objectives in your work, so you have to spend a certain amount of time in your essay looking at the context of both texts and then in language analysis AS WELL AS in comparison between the texts. The best thing to do is use the context or language to support/argue with a comparison. So if you are talking about Flamineo compared to Satan you can discuss why the language of both texts makes the two similar/different (the adjectives used to describe them, the settings they’re found in) and why the writers might have presented them differently (Satan is a Biblical character, one who many contemporary readers would have instantly seen as evil – even if a modern audience don’t - whereas Flamineo is a more ambiguous character).
Using an example I’m going to talk you through how to answer an essay question which requires comparison between texts:
Choose a question. See how it applies to one text and then to another through making mindmaps/notes. I chose “ ‘In order to gain liberation women must use their feminine qualities or get rid of them’. Discuss with reference to the three texts you have studied.” and I would use the question with Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (a collection of short stories) and Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
Therefore I started off by thinking about the position of women in all three texts: in Duffy’s the women seem strong and the fact that she’s chosen historical figures and is rewriting their stories is important, whilst in Carter’s the women seem powerful and the rewriting of fairytales to change views of women is also important and in Shakespeare’s play women such as Beatrice are presented as highly intelligent and witty, but other characters such as Hero are virtually silent throughout the play and therefore seem problematic.
First pick apart the question ( when you actually go to write your essay you can acknowledge that you have done so in your introduction). What is a ‘feminine quality’? What do the writers see as feminine qualities? Duffy and Carter were writing as part of Second and Third Wave Feminism so for them a ‘feminine quality’ would have differed hugely from what Shakespeare thought of as a ‘feminine quality’. For them, ‘feminine qualities’ are often constructs of men, not “true” qualities really.
Examiners like it if you can show you have really thought about the question itself and whether the question itself is worth arguing with. Here you can also show your awareness of the different contexts the writers have: Shakespeare was writing in a century in which women were expected to conform to certain ideals and were seen as mothers, wives, daughters, not the heroes and powerful figures that people Carter and Duffy’s work.
However you must be careful not to lump any writers together – although Carter and Duffy seem to have similar views, make sure you signal that they are different writers with different aims.
I would look at motherhood in all three texts since it is a significant theme throughout – and could be called a ‘feminine quality’ as it is usually. It is quite a good idea to choose a theme that runs through all the different texts but then look at how it is presented differently. So, whilst in Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and Duffy’s ‘Thetis’ or ‘Queen Herod’ the mothers are hugely powerful (which you can show through in depth language analysis) which reflects the writers stances as feminists (bring in some context here), the mother in Much Ado About Nothing goes unmentioned. Instead women are vulnerable to men’s attacks, as when Hero is viciously humiliated and condemned by her father and fiancée. Women are therefore seemingly passive and submissive in Shakespeare’s texts, when they are strong and active in those of Duffy and Carter.
But it is worth always COMPLICATING your argument and being able to show that you have thought of all sides of the argument. Hero might be ‘passive’ in Much Ado About Nothing, but Beatrice is a completely different story (and whilst we’re on the theme of mothers, in some productions Antonio is played by a woman so there is some kind of mother figure, even if still ineffectual which is important). You could find instances where the language she/Shakespeare uses shows her power and intelligence.
In these instances she seems just as powerful as the women in Carter and Duffy’s work. Now bring in context once more: However, is this a good thing in Shakespeare’s view? Is Beatrice dangerous BECAUSE of her intelligence and is that why she has to be safely married off? In the two modern, female writers’ work the women don’t always even marry - their sexuality isn’t dangerous but empowering.
Integrate at least two texts into each paragraph – don’t do one paragraph on one text and then another on the other text so that it reads as para 1) Carter para 2) Duffy para 3) Shakespeare. This will force you to compare the two.
So if you’re struggling to find differences between Carter and Duffy for instance or another two very similar writers, to the point where your essay doesn’t seem to be advancing in terms of argument (this is a danger of only talking about similarities), talking about the differences between how the two have treated the same fairytale, Little Red Riding Hood, in ‘Little Red Cap’ and ‘Wolf Alice’ for example, could raise interesting issues.
It doesn’t have to be as specific as this – Duffy and Carter are really good for comparison and you might not have texts that have such a strong link (the fairytale). However you can always choose a theme that crosses both texts and stick to this. For instance, when comparing Paradise Lost and The White Devil, which don’t seem very similar at all, you could find similarities in the way the theme of corruption is treated and yet COMPLICATE your argument by finding differences underlying this (perhaps due to context as The White Devil is based in a courtly setting whereas Paradise Lost speaks of religious corruption – although it reflects the corruption in the government Milton had worked under).
You can also look at the specifics of the marking scheme: to achieve a good mark in A03 you must be able to compare the three texts, but you are also awarded marks from A03 for bringing in critics. So if you talk about Duffy’s work and then use a quote from a critic (or just an idea, you don’t have to quote them exactly especially in an exam), you would get marks. Therefore, don’t worry too much about constantly comparing the texts. Try always to link them, but if you’re struggling on a certain point or you want to show a difference between them, perhaps bring in a critics argument. This shows that you have read widely about the texts and can show specialist knowledge and it allows you to focus on the detail of a text.
This seems like a lot of information and you might be wondering how you could structure an essay that has to include all of this. But really, a good essay structure that you use all the time can be applied to a comparative essay too. So if you normally write 1) an intro 2) paras agreeing with the question 3) paras arguing against the question 4) a conclusion this could work here as well. Or you can find a new structure. The important thing is that you simply have to include more than one text in each paragraph. This is tricky but it’s supposed to be – and if you can achieve it you’ll get high marks.
So your essay might go something like this (you might have to split up paragraphs because obviously you’ll have a lot to say about each text but make sure you mention at least two authors in each para):
Para 1: Explore how Carter, Duffy and Shakespeare present mothers – women using their feminine qualities, which supports the question.
Para 2: Do any of the characters rid themselves of feminine qualities within these works? What are feminine qualities? You could talk about Beatrice compared to Little Red Cap and The Bloody Chamber – each possesses a violence not usually attributed to women. So does this argue against the question?
Para 3: Do the texts really show women either ‘using’ or discarding their ‘feminine qualities’? Or are they using their intelligence and sexuality, two qualities never previously seen as ‘feminine’, to gain real liberation? Argue that the question itself needs adapting.
Conclusion: Whereas Carter and Duffy show a new version of femininity as a kind of power, subverting old ideas about “feminine qualities”, this power is seen as dangerous in Much Ado About Nothing as Beatrice, the only powerful female figure in the play, is ultimately silenced by the power men possess over her and her complicity in this.