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FAIRY TALES AND NECROPHILIA: A NEW CULTURAL CONTEXT FOR
ANTEBELLUM AMERICAN SENSATIONALISM
ROBIN JEAN GRAY NICKS
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Robin Jean Gray Nicks
First, I want to express my gratitude to David Leverenz for reading and
commenting on endless drafts, encouraging me when I was on the verge of breakdown,
and pushing me to take my analysis to the next level. I also appreciate the support and
comments from Marsha Bryant, Kenneth Kidd, and Louise Newman. I simply could not
have dreamed of a better committee.
Thank you to the staff of the New York Public Library. They helped me find
primary sources and filled me in on seemingly trivial information about why some
sources were nearly impossible to track down. They went above and beyond the call of
duty, and without their help and interest this project would have been impossible.
I want to thank my parents for instilling in me a love of education and for indulging
my love of books, even when it was financially difficult. Finally, I want to thank my
husband for his unending support and encouragement. I would not have finished without
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S .................................................................... ......... .............. iii
LIST OF FIGURES ............................... ... ...... ... ................. .v
ABSTRACT .............. .................. .......... .............. vi
1 INTRODUCTION ............... ................. ........... ................. ... .... 1
2 BEFORE DISNEY: READING PEDOPHILIA, INCEST, AND NECROPHILIA
IN CLA SSIC FAIRY TALES ........................................................ ............. 11
3 FROM THE FAIRY TALE PRINCESS TO THE NEW YORK PROSTITUTE:
SLEEPING BEAUTY AND THE BIG CITY..........................................................36
4 NECROPHILIA AND INCEST IN POE: THE REVENGE OF THE DEAD-
U N D E A D W O M A N ......................................................................... ...................67
5 SUBVERTING CAPITALISM, SUBVERTING FAIRY TALES: WICKED
WITCHES AND LIBIDINOUS BEAUTIES IN GEORGE LIPPARD'S THE
Q U A K E R C IT Y .............................................................................. ....................9 9
6 REINFORCING THE FAIRY TALE: PRETENDED SUBVERSION IN
GEORGE THOMPSON'S FICTION....................... ...............132
7 C O N C L U SIO N .......... .................................................................. ......... ....... .. 162
L IST O F R E FE R E N C E S ......... .. .................. ...................................... .......................168
BIO GR A PH ICA L SK ETCH .................................... ........... ................. .....................175
LIST OF FIGURES
2-1 Illustration for "Sleeping Beauty" from R. S. Gent's 1795 translation of
Perrault's Tales ofPassed Times ii /th Morals by Mother Goose ...............................27
2-2 George Cruikshank' s illustration for the Grimms' "Brier Rose"...............................28
3-1 "Ellen Jewett." Alfred M. Hoffy's rendering of Helen Jewett's corpse..................47
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
FAIRY TALES AND NECROPHILIA:
A NEW CULTURAL CONTEXT FOR ANTEBELLUM AMERICAN
Robin Jean Gray Nicks
Chair: David Leverenz
Major Department: English
My dissertation investigates an understudied area of American sensational fiction
in the antebellum period-the influence of fairy tales. I trace the development of a
literary fascination with women's bodies from the fairy tales of Giambattista Basile,
Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm through the media coverage of the 1836 murder
of prostitute Helen Jewett, through the short fiction and poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, and
finally through the "porno-gothic" literature of George Lippard and George Thompson. I
argue that the English translations of Basile's, Perrault's and Grimms' fairy tales laid the
cultural groundwork that encouraged a fascination with women's dead bodies and the
seemingly necrophilic, incestuous, and pedophilic desires demonstrated in the American
public's fascination with Jewett's murder and the popularity of antebellum sensational
My argument maintains that each subsequent author contributes something new to
the tradition of the fairy tale princesses by building upon the adaptations of previous
authors and twisting the plots and descriptions to suit his immediate purpose. James
Gordon Bennett adapts the tradition of the Sleeping Beauty to evoke erotic desire for a
murdered prostitute and further encourage passivity among women in Antebellum
America, whereas Edgar Allan Poe combines the sleeping beauty motif with active
women, like Jewett, who refuse the ultimate passivity of death and return to terrorize
their male oppressors. George Lippard mixes the fairy tale descriptions with Bennett's
sensational reporting style and Poe's Gothicism to create apocalyptic, anti-capitalist fairy
tales that work to reveal the excesses of the ruling elite. George Thompson, seeing the
success of the politically and socially subversive fiction of Lippard, couches his nearly
pornographic adaptation of fairy tale themes and descriptions in mock subversion.
America's fascination with fairy tales is seemingly never-ending. From the 1729
English translation of Charles Perrault's Contes du Ma Mere L' Oye to the 2005 movie
The Brothers Grimm, Americans have engaged in a love affair with anything fairy tale
related. Americans' other passion seems to be reality television and crime dramas, the
gorier and more sensational the better. In fact, sex crimes and political scandals, most of
the time a mixture of the two, dominate the story lines of the highest rated non-reality
shows on television.
Writers on shows such as Law and Order: Special Victims Unit have capitalized on
American's love of fairy tales and sensational storylines by creating an amalgam that
keeps their ratings high enough to survive in a forum where viewers' tastes change
rapidly. From "Blue Beard" to "Sleeping Beauty" and "Snow White" to "Cinderella,"
The Law and Order franchise has referenced fairy tales too many times to count. Even
shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer have used "Sleeping Beauty" and "Blue Beard"
in at least two story lines, and reality shows such as What Not to Wear and Extreme
Makeover: Home Edition have incorporated elements of "Cinderella" into their very
premises. Each of these shows reinforces America's capitalist ideology that deserving
people get to move up the socio-economic ladder and live happily ever after, whereas
criminals receive their due punishment.
This amalgamation of fairy tale motifs with more risque fare is not new. In the
early nineteenth century, the antebellum American authors of sensationalism saw the
popularity of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, Giambattista Basile, and Charles
Perrault and seized upon the opportunity to capitalize on their popularity by incorporating
fairy tale motifs into the sensational news and fiction of the day. That the authors of
sensational works wrote to evoke sensations, shock, and thrills from their readers,
purported to uncover '"the miseries and mysteries" of various urban centers, and used
their work as forum for their own political and social views worked well with the themes
and messages of the fairy tales.1 In fact, the use of popular fairy tale motifs helped
establish the New York Herald and catapult George Lippard's The Quaker City and
George Thompson's work to bestselling status. Even Edgar Allan Poe, who strove for
success throughout his career, wrote stories filled with references to fairy tales.
This dissertation will examine the works of each of these men, paying attention to
the ways in which each builds upon the work of his predecessor by incorporating Snow
Whites, Sleeping Beauties, and Cinderellas and adding his own take on the meaning and
place of the passive woman in Antebellum America. These writers did not simply use
fairy tales as they were; each transformed them and built upon the work of his
predecessor to further his personal agenda and enter into the antebellum debate about
American women's roles. This debate occurred among women and men alike, and "some
nineteenth-century women channeled their frustration with women's restricted roles
combined with a sense of superior rightness legitimized by the Cult of True Womanhood
1 For more on the content or the political and social work of antebellum sensationalism, see Stephen John
Hartnett, Democratic Dissent and the Cultural Fictions ofAntebellum America (Champain, IL: University
of Illinois Press, 2002); Shelley Streeby, American Sensations: Class, Empire, and the Production of
Popular Culture (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002); and Isabelle Lehuu, Carnival on the
Page: Popular Print Media in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press,
into the reform movements of the first half of the nineteenth century."2 These women's
increased activity concerned many men and many other women, who encouraged the
piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity that the reformists rejected. Reformist
women worked within their prescribed roles, but their increased political and social
activity demonstrated their displeasure with an America that promised freedom but
oppressed over half its citizens.
Herald editor James Gordon Bennett's agenda was simply to sell more papers by
toying with both sides of the debate and creating sensational news stories that appealed to
the public's baser desires; Poe, like Bennett, catered to "the mob's" desires, but he
twisted the formula to demonstrate the horror of active women who refuse passivity.
Lippard had a more social and political motive in that he twisted the formula of the fairy
tale to further a socialist critique of the capitalist city in his sensational novels.
Thompson masked his nearly pornographic work by pretending to offer an anti-capitalist
critique like Lippard's, but the way in which he uses fairy tales simply reinforces the
repressive state structures that it pretends to subvert.
Chapter 2 begins by introducing the popularity and prevalence of fairy tales in
nineteenth-century America. Charles Perrault's Fairy Tales or Histories ofPast Times
was translated to English in 1727, and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's German Popular
Stories, translated from the Kinder und Hans Marchen was translated in 1823. Both
went through several reprintings and editions throughout the Nineteenth-Century. I
incorporate statements from Edgar Taylor, the English translator of the Grimms' stories,
magazine articles, and research on the number of translations and editions of these works
2 Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), 109.
to establish the American popularity of Taylor's translations. The popularity of the tales
prompted Taylor to re-edit the tales, making them more suitable to British and American
culture. American writers tried their hands at both writing their own fairy tales, as
Nathaniel Hawthorne did with his Wonder Book, and at adapting fairy tales to American
settings, as Lydia Maria Francis Child did with her Evenings in New England.
I also discuss the political and social implications of the tales, especially those of
the Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Cinderella tale types. Each tale underscores and
reinforces patriarchal authority, even when that authority dictates a daughter marry her
father. Too, any woman who dares to assert her independence suffers severe punishment
and, often, death. The tales do not restrict their punishment to evil stepmothers. Though
Snow White and Cinderella's stepmothers suffer by the end of those tales, in many
others, the heroines themselves suffer before they find happiness. Their suffering clearly
results from their refusal to abide by their father's wishes, even when that wish is
incestuous. In each of these tales, the young woman has to disguise herself and become a
servant in another kingdom, where other servants and the king mock and abuse her. The
ending of these tales has the girl marrying the very king who has mocked and abused her
throughout her time as a servant, thus reestablishing the patriarchal authority that she had
subverted by running from her incestuous father.
After the discussion of fairy tales, Chapter 3 turns to the 1836 murder of New York
City prostitute Helen Jewett. I begin with a discussion of James Gordon Bennett's
descriptions of the scene and Helen Jewett's body. Bennett fails to include the autopsy
incisions, the charred nature of the body, and the gashes in her head. Had he described a
mutilated corpse, Bennett could not have talked of Jewett's "body" as "white" or of her
"perfect figure." Jewett had been mutilated not only by the murderer's axe, but also by
the autopsy knife before Bennett viewed the murder scene. Yet Bennett never mentions
these details, choosing, instead, to portray her as a modern version of Snow White or
Sleeping Beauty. Bennett positions himself as the prince who has discovered a "sleeping
beauty": "It was the most remarkable sight I ever beheld-I never have, and never
expect to see such another. 'My God,' exclaimed I, 'how like a statue! I can scarcely
conceive that form to be a corpse.' For a few moments I was lost in admiration at this
extraordinary sight-a beautiful female corpse." Like the fairy tale princes created by
Perrault and the Grimms, Bennett is compelled to look upon the dead "beauty."
Bennett's sensational reporting was not the end of the country's fascination with
Jewett's murder. I also examine the pamphlets and novels based upon the case. As late
as 1982, authors were continuing to focus their attentions on the case, and in each popular
pamphlet or novelization, Bennett's reports make up the foundation for the ending. Each
author literally reprints Bennett's articles with nearly no commentary or description of his
own. Obviously, this incorporation of "factual" reporting lends some authority or
credence to each fictionalized account, but it also demonstrates the importance of
Bennett's authorial voice in constructing the account of Helen Jewett's life and death.
Bennett and each successive author of Jewett's story incorporates details and motifs from
fairy tales to create an acceptably sympathetic figure out of a prostitute. They also
uncover the latent sexuality of the fairy tales in overtly emphasizing the erotic appeal of a
After Chapter 3 establishes the similarities between fairy tales and Bennett's
reporting of the Jewett murder, Chapter 4 examines the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe,
comparing and contrasting them to Grimms' and Perrault's fairy tales and Bennett's
descriptions of Jewett's corpse. Once I establish this connection between Poe, Bennett,
and necrophilic desire, I show how Poe's stories use and twist fairy tales. Indicating an
indirect relationship between Poe and the fairy tales, Francine Prose argues in her essay
"Sleeping Beauty," "By now it's probably clear that what I'm talking about is a sort of
modified necrophilia ... And yet it can be imagined, and has been imagined, again and
again, by the likes of Basile and Charles Perrault (the original authors, transcribers-or
whatever-of "Sleeping Beauty), by Edgar Allan Poe ... and, more recently, by Alfred
Hitchcock." Prose only mentions that Poe "imagined" necrophilia, as did Basile and
Perrault; she never suggests that fairy tales served as an impetus for Poe's literary
necrophilia. I build upon Prose's indirect association, establishing a direct correlation
between fairy tales and Poe's sensational fiction. In his reviews, Poe mentions the fairy
tales of the Grimms, Perrault, and even Giambattista Basile several times.
This section focuses on the stories in which Poe's male narrators are drawn to the
corpses of dead women, describing the dead bodies in terms such as "the mockery of a
faint blush upon the bosom and the face," "marble hand," "skin rivalling the purest
ivory," and "raven-black, the glossy, the luxuriant and naturally curling tresses." The
analysis of Poe's stories also considers the actions of the primary male characters and
narrators. In "The Premature Burial," a woman's male lover travels to her grave with
"the purpose of disinterring the corpse and possessing himself of its luxuriant tresses."
Once he has unearthed his lover's corpse, he discovers, "In fact, the lady had been buried
alive. Vitality had not altogether departed; and she was aroused, by the caresses of her
lover, from the lethargy which had been mistaken for death." Not only are the
descriptions of the women in Poe's stories similar to those of the fairy tale princesses, but
his male characters' actions parallel those of the fairy tale princes who awaken their
princesses with kisses.
I also detail the similarities between the settings of Poe's stories and those of the
fairy tales. In "Fall of the House of Usher," for example, the narrator describes the house
as being infused with "a sense of insufferable gloom," possessing "bleak walls," being
surrounded by "decayed trees," and evoking in the observer "an iciness, a sinking, a
sickening of the heart." The narrator's descriptions of the House of Usher are in keeping
with the descriptions of the homes in which the sleeping beauty of the fairy tales is
imprisoned. Both narrators describe the scenes in terms of "horror" and "silence."
Scenes of "gloom" or "death" are everywhere in both the House of Usher and the palace
in which Sleeping Beauty lies. The narrator of "Usher" never actually uses the word
"death" to describe the scenery, yet the "decayed trees," "insufferable gloom," and "bleak
walls" of the Usher home are as much the "image of death" as what the prince in
Perrault's tale encounters. Moreover, both Poe's narrator and Perrault's prince experience
a feeling of icinesss" or being "frozen with terror" upon first confronting the house or
At this point in the chapter, I look at the differences between Poe's stories and
those of the fairy tales. Wheras the fairy tales separate good and evil women into
different characters like the wicked stepmother, the wicked witch, the fairy godmother,
and the kind-hearted princess, Poe creates more complex female characters, combining
good and evil in one character. Drawing on Dawn Keetley's study "Victim and
Victimizer: Female Fiends and Unease over Marriage in Antebellum Sensational
Fiction," I read Poe's Ligeia, Morella, and Lady Usher as fiends and not just fairy-tale-
like heroines.3 In fact, Poe's stories, rather than emphasizing or encouraging passivity in
women, demonstrate men's terror of the active woman who refuses to remain dead.
Instead of instructing women to be passive, pious, pure, and domestic by encouraging
identification with a heroine who embodies these traits, Poe's stories encourage
identification with mentally ill narrators who fear active, unholy, tainted, and worldly
women who return from the dead to exact revenge on the men who sought to imprison
them within the confines of the home.
Chapter 5 considers the sensational works of Poe's contemporary and friend
George Lippard. Looking at Lippard's The Quaker City, or The Monks of Monk-Hall: a
Romance ofPhiladelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime, I compare and contrast Lippard's
work with Poe's stories by examining the descriptions of female corpses, the actions of
the male characters, and the settings of the stories. Moreover, I investigate Lippard's
reliance upon the popular fairy tales of the Grimms, Perrault, and Basile, Bennett's
reporting style, and Poe's dark romanticism as a means of gaining popularity. Since
Lippard was also a reformer, he incorporates these themes in a more politically
subversive manner than Poe's work does. Lippard's novel condemns those men who
would take advantage of women's passivity and piety and the very idea that women
should be passive.
The Quaker City repeatedly subverts the belief that woman's nature was passive
by depicting her "slumbering animal nature." In doing so, the novel also demonstrates
the dangers that the capitalist city poses to the True Woman. Thus, Lippard condemned
3 Dawn Keetley, "Victim and Victimizer: Female Fiends and Unease over Marriage in Antebellum Sensational Fiction," American
Quarterly 15.2 (1999), 344-384.
not only patriarchal control over women, but also the entirety of the cult of domesticity.
Equally important, his sensational and sexual novel builds upon those fairy tales that
depict father-daughter incestuous desire, by incorporating a reverend who attempts to
rape his daughter. The text, unlike those of the fairy tales and Poe, condemns incestuous
desire, demonstrating that a father's complete control over his family leads to ruin.
Throughout Lippard, he develops the motifs from fairy tales, Bennett, and Poe to further
his anti-capitalist agenda, pointing out the faults of the various repressive structures of
Turning to George Thompson, Chapter 6 demonstrates that Thompson used the
techniques of each subsequent author to help his novels Venus in Boston and City Crimes
get past the censors. I explore Thompson's relationship with publishers who were known
pornographers and argue that, contrary to the assertions of scholars such as David
Reynolds, Thompson was no radical democrat with a goal of subverting social norms and
political views. Indeed, Thompson masks his work in the language of subversion; he
mimics Lippard in pretending to subvert Christian ideology, the cult of domesticity, and
classism. Yet in every instance, Thompson's work immediate undoes any subversion by
reinforcing the notion that the evil capitalist who refuses to help the poor will be
punished in the afterlife, allowing only the pure and passive women to lead happy lives
whereas their active counterparts receive cruel punishments and death, and ensuring that
hardworking and honest poor men move up in society on their own merits and become
Chapter 7 revisits women's social reform movements, exploring the reasons that
male writers like Bennett, Poe, and Thompson would turn to sensational depictions of sex
and violence to reinforce the Cult of True Womanhood. Looking backward to Susanna
Rowson's poem "The Rights of Woman," I reflect upon male writers desire to encourage
women to see their duties in a more favorable light. Bennett's and Thompson's works
emphasize the belief that when women succumb to the temptations of the world and
neglect their rights to piety, submissiveness, domesticity, and purity, they end up
abandoned, punished, or dead; In Thompson's work, it is all three. Poe's work takes a
different approach, forcing his reader to feel the terror of his male narrators when active
women refuse death and the ultimate passivity. Lippard approaches the issue of women's
rights and liberties in a different manner altogether, showing that capitalism gives women
few choices other than selling their bodies-through prostitution or marriage-to secure
stable futures for themselves.
Each point in my argument depends upon an understanding of and familiarity
with fairy tales from seventeenth century Italy and France and nineteenth century
Germany. These tales were the sensational fiction of their day, featuring familial
violence, death, incest, and what looks to us like pedophilia. Thus, it is no wonder that
the sensational authors of antebellum America turned to the fairy tales for inspiration and
thematic content. Like Basile, Perrault, and the Brothers Grimm, American sensational
writers used their art to instruct society on the proper behaviors for women-piety,
purity, domesticity, and passivity. Unlike the fairy tale authors, however, American
sensational writers' messages were complex and often contradictory, exposing the
conflict over gender roles and ideologies in the antebellum period.
BEFORE DISNEY: READING PEDOPHILIA, INCEST, AND NECROPHILIA IN
CLASSIC FAIRY TALES
In 1937, Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full-length
animated film. Since then, it has been re-released to theatres an unprecedented nine times
and remains a favorite of children and adults everywhere. Disney used Jacob and
Wilhelm Grimms' 1812 version of "Little Snow White" as their guide, but watching the
film, one would never know how violent and strangely erotic the Grimms' tale is. The
Grimms' version of the "Snow White" tale, like all of the tales Disney adapted into
animated features, deals with far more adult themes than its more contemporary
counterpart. Motifs of what we now consider pedophilia, incest, and necrophilia are not
anomalies; they are intricately woven into many versions of the fairy tales across
These themes cross over into nineteenth century American popular culture after the
English translations of the fairy tales become widely available. This chapter will address
the role of the English translations of Giambattista Basile's IIPentamerone, Charles
Perrault's Tales ofPassed Times by Mother Goose i ih Morals, and Jacob and Wilhelm
Grimms' German Fairy Tales and Popular Stories as Told by Gammer Grethel in
socializing readers to Victorian models of gender-appropriate behavior, at the same time
weaving in overtly erotic material. It argues that the translations of these tales helped to
lay the cultural groundwork for and encouraged a fascination with women's dead
bodies-a necrophilic desire-incestuous relationships, and pedophilia-and that these
subjects, certainly taboo in antebellum America, contributed to solidifying the power of
men over women and the notion that "good" women were innately pious, pure,
submissive, and domestic. 1
The authors of fairy tales did not simply collect the tales and publish them as they
were. Basile wrote his tales in the Neapolitan dialect, fashioning them according to his
own tastes. Nancy L. Canepa explores theories relating to Basile's use of dialect: "many
critics view the use of dialect in literary form as part of the general phenomenon of
political and cultural decentralization and the ensuing regionalistic or municipalistic
fervor. Moreover ... its use implied a questioning of both literary predecessors and the
contemporary advocates of tradition."2 More importantly, Canepa explains, "[Dialect]
was almost automatically relegated to the domain of 'low' literary forms ... it could
serve the function of signaling that the work ... was not to be taken seriously and ... any
'message' contained therein could pose no significant threat to literary or social
institutions."3 Though Canepa's assertions that Basile's use of dialect serves to
undermine the authority of both literary and social institutions, she neglects an important
1 Many books and articles have been published about fairy tales and their interpretation and influence on
literature, but to my knowledge, there has been nothing written on fairy tales as one of sensationalism's
influences. See James M. McGlathery, Fairy Tale Romance: The Grimms, Basile, and Perrault (Urbana,
IL: Illinois UP: 1991); Nancy L. Canepa, From Court to Forest: Giambattista Basile's Lo cunto de li
cunti and the Birth of the Literary Fairy Tale (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1999); Maria Tatar, Off with Their
Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1992); Jack Zipes,
Victorian Fairy Tales: the Revolt of the Fairies and Elves (New York: Routledge, 1987) and When
Dreams Came True: Classical Fairy Tales and Their Tradition (New York: Routledge, 1999); Jennifer
Schacker, National Dreams: The Remaking of Fairy Tales in Nineteenth-Century England (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003); and Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore their
Favorite Fairy Tales, ed. Kate Bernheimer (New York: Anchor Books, 1998). See also the Norton
Critical Editions of Maria Tatar's The Classic Fairy Tales (New York: Norton, 1999); and Jack Zipes's
The Great Fairy Tale Tradition from Straparaola and Basile ot the Brothers Grimm (New York: Norton,
2 Canepa, 67.
3 Canepa, 69.
facet of the tales-the inherent messages about the evils of talkative, active women. Yet
her assertions about the use of dialect in literature bring to light aspects of George
Lippard's antebellum city novels, which will be discussed in Chapter Five, that might
otherwise be obscured.
Perrault, too, adapted the tales he collected to fit his agenda. The morals appended
to the end of each tale serve to socialize women to be less curious, more passive, and less
talkative. At the end of "The Blue Beard," the moral blames the curiosity of Blue
Beard's wife for upsetting him and, thus, putting herself in a dangerous situation: "0,
Curiosity, thou mortal bane! / Spit of thy charms, thou causes often pain ... And always
costs, alas! too dear the prize, / Which, in the moment of possession dies."4 That Blue
Beard murdered his previous wives and planned to do the same to the heroine of the tale
is overlooked in this moral. The woman in the tale bears the sole blame in its final moral.
Perrault added a second moral to the tale after readers' complaints revealed they were
unhappy with the fact that the original moral ignored Blue Beard's crimes. The narrator
takes on a more tongue-in-cheek tone in the second moral, asserting that the tale takes
place in the past and that husbands no longer behave so "terribly."
The first part of the three-part moral of Perrault's "The Sleeping Beauty in the
Wood" remains true to the author's patter of encouraging women to passively obey their
husbands. It proclaims:
To get a husband rich, genteel and gay,
Of humour sweet, some time to stay,
Is natural enough, 'tis true.
But then to wait an hundred years,
And all that while asleep, appears
4 Perrault, Charles, "The Blue Beard," Histories or Tales of Past Times with Morals, trans. Robert Samber
(London: J. Pote & R. Montagu, 1729), 30.
A thing entirely [sic] new.
Now at this time of day,
Not one of all the sex we see
To sleep with such profound tranquility.5
The story lauds the passivity of the story's main character over "the sex" "at this time of
day." She waited with "profound tranquility" for the perfect man rather than pursuing
him. Perrault clearly promotes the sleeping beauty's passive role in her relationship with
her rescuer and future husband. Perrault's addition of the morals and his removal of
"offensive" elements like rape is in keeping with his desire to make the tales useful and
The Grimms too edited their tales from their original oral forms. Ruth B.
Bottigheimer clarifies the Grimms' similar role: "Despite the ancient and international
lineage of many of the tales, the process of editing, codifying, and translating them
produced a distinctly nineteenth-century text, incorporating the gender-related
assumptions of Grimms' informants and of Wilhelm Grimm himself"7 Feminist critics
have gone further in explaining the messages inherent in the Grimms' tales: "Most
popular fairy tales, like 'Cinderella' and 'Snow White' and "Sleeping Beauty,' had
heroines who were passive, apparently dead or sleepwalking, dependent on the arrival of
5 Charles Perrault, "The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods," Tales ofPassed Times by Mother Goose with
Morals Trans. R. S. Gent (New York: J. Rivington, 1795), 57-58.
6 See Philip Lewis, Seeing Through the Mother Goose Tales: Visual Turns in the ;a ;r,,ii, of( 1l,, I..
Perrault (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1996), 5, 149, & 168-170; and Ruth B. Bottigheimer, Grimms' Bad
Girls and Bold Boys: The Moral and Social Vision of the Tales (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1987), 3. See
also Ruth B. Bottigheimer, "Silenced Women in Grimms' Tales: The 'Fit' between Fairy Tales and
Society in Their Historical Context," Fairy Tales and Society: Illusion, Allusion, and Paradigm ed. Ruth
B. P'. ,ihi.. ,,.. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986).
7 Ruth B. Bottigheimer, "Silenced Women in Grimms' Tales," 117.
the prince for any animation and for entry into a real life."8 In compiling and publishing
their Kinder- und Hausmarchen, the Grimms brought together a collection of stories that
encouraged women and girls to be passive, silent, and nearly lifeless. In the Grimms'
tales, the only perfect women are dead women. The nineteenth century American
public's fascination with Jewett's corpse and the female corpses in sensational fiction
reinforces this premise, as I will discuss in the following chapters.
Just as Basile, Perrault, and the Grimms did not simply record the tales from their
oral sources, the men who translated the tales into English worked to make the tales more
appealing and acceptable to English and American readers. In fact, Edgar Taylor's 1823
translation of the Grimms' tales, along with George Cruikshank's illustrations for
Taylor's edition, "fully transformed the tales into a popular and commercially viable
form of reading material."9 Jennifer Schacker maintains that like the Grimms, whose aim
was partly that their volumes "become a manual of manners," Taylor translated and
edited the tales with an eye to the customs and beliefs of his English and American
readers. Taylor's work clearly helped catapult the tales in the popular imagination.
Whereas the Grimms' tales were never best sellers (there were still 350 copies of the
second volume of the first edition on the shelf when the second edition was released, and
that took twenty years to sell 1500 copies), Taylor's translation proved popular with the
masses.10 In the September 1881 issue ofAtlantic Monthly, in "Koschei the Deathless;
or, the Diffusion of Fairy Tales," John Fiske discusses the immense popularity of the
8 Elizabeth Harries, Twice upon a Time: Women Writers and the History of the Fairy Tale (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton UP, 2001), 137.
9 Schacker, 13.
10 Schacker, 24-25.
fairy tales of Straparola, Basile, Perrault, Grimm, and The Arabian Nights in the Western
world, specifically focusing on American reception from the time of the first translations.
Fiske argues that they were so popular that each new translation led to demand for fairy
tales from other authors and regions.
In the preface to his 1856 translation of the Grimms' tales, Edgar Taylor (also the
translator of the 1823 version on which this essay relies) presents as justification for a
new edition of the tales that he was "first induced to compile this little work by the eager
relish with which a few of the tales were received by the young friends to whom they
were narrated."12 He continues, "Popular fictions and traditions are somewhat gone out
of fashion; yet most will own them to be associated with the brightest recollections of
their youth."13 Taylor's production of a new edition of the tales and his assertions in the
preface to the 1856 edition, as well as Fiske's comments about fairy tales in the Western
world, an 1846 translation by John Edward Taylor, and numerous "unauthorized"
translations and editions, further establish the popularity of the Grimms' tales.
The literary fairy tales written by Basile and Perrault enjoyed immense popularity
as well, though Basile presented a challenge to his early translators, who were wary of his
ribald humor and overt sexual references. Basile's Il Pentamerone proved a popular
source for folklorists as soon as the popularity of the Grimms' tales became evident. In
11 John Fiske, "Koschei the Deathless; or, the Diffusion of Fairy Tales," Atlantic Monthly 48.287
(September 1881), 310-321. See also Siegfried Neumann's "The Brothers Grimm as Collectors and
Editors of German Folktales," Donald Haase's "Response and Responsibility in Reading Grimms' Fairy
Tales," and Ruth B. Bottigheimer's "The Publishing History of Grimms' Tales" all in The Reception of
Grimms' Fairy Tales: Responses. Reactions. Revisions, ed. Donald Haase (Detroit: Wayne State UP,
1Edgar Taylor, "Preface," German Fairy Tales and Popular Stories, as Told by Gammer Grethel
(London: H. G. Bohn, 1856), iv.
13 Edgar Taylor, iv.
Edgar Taylor, iv.
1828, Thomas Keightley included several of Basile's more risque tales in his Fairy
Mythology, and he late included others in his 1834 Tales andPopular Fictions. The first
English translation of IIPentamerone by John Edward Taylor in 1848 includes an
expansive preface explaining the process of translating and editing the tales for a
nineteenth century audience and placing the tome in the larger emerging body of folklore
studies. Taylor chose only thirty ofBasile's fifty stories for publication, changing even
those he included to omit "matter of offense." Taylorjustified his changes as necessary
for the English and American cultures of the day: "The gross license in which Basile
allows his humour to indulge is wholly inadmissible in a work intended for the general
reader; the moral sense of our age is happily too refined and elevated to tolerate
indelicacy."14 Writing just six years after the publication of George Lippard's best-
selling Quaker City, Taylor seems to have overlooked the immense popularity of the
penny presses and sensational fiction like Lippard's that featured humor and indulged in
immoral scenes of rape, incest, and murder.
Or, perhaps Taylor's reasons went further than he wanted to admit; perhaps he
realized that the tales' scenes of fatherly incest, rape and domestic abuse go unpunished
and uncritiqued, in contrast to those in Lippard and the sensational presses. Given the
success of such "indelicate" material as that frequently reported in the press, it is unlikely
that the masses' tastes were "too refined and elevated" to be able to handle Basile's tales.
More probably, John Edward Taylor recognized that the rewarding of what his nineteenth
century readers frowned upon would have left a strange, if not disgusting, taste in their
14 John Edward Taylor, "Preface," II Pentamerone (London: David Bogue and J. Cundall, 1848), xv.
Charles Perrault's tales also proved popular, if the number of translations is any
indication. In 1729, Robert Samber translated Contes du MaMere L' Oye for the first
time into English. After this initial introduction to the English speaking world,
translators produced editions of both the full book and the individual tales, selling them
as small, cheap pamphlets.15 Because of the nature of the printing of the pamphlets with
cheap materials, there is no record of sales or of the actual number of different editions in
circulation in the nineteenth century. Yet this mass production in an affordable medium
suggests that they would have been widely read and circulated. Perrault also presented
fewer problems to his translators, since his stories rely on implication and subtext to hint
at "objectionable" or "offensive" elements; thus, even more than John Edward Taylor's
translation of Basile, these tales appealed to both adults and children.
In the same way that Basile, Perrault, the Grimms, and their translators did not
write down the tales as they were told them, Disney did not create a film that simply
reiterated the Grimms' tale. Disney's Snow White bears little resemblance to the tale on
which the company claims to have relied. Disney asserts that they made changes in order
to tone down the violence in their film, yet many of the changes have nothing to do with
the level of violence in the Grimms' original tale and everything to do with erotic
elements. Though Disney does not explicitly state Snow White's age, visual cues, such
as the character's height and fully developed body, hint that she is in her late teens or
early adulthood. In the first few minutes of the film, Snow White meets her prince at a
wall on the very day her stepmother decides to have her murdered.
15 Between the time of the first English translation of Perrault's tales in 1729 to 1850, there were at least
nineteen publications of individual stories and one grouping of three stories. In the same period, there were
at least twelve different editions of the entire collection.
Later, after Snow White eats the apple and falls into a deathlike sleep, the dwarfs
place her body on a pedestal. The dwarfs then chase the wicked stepmother, who
accidentally runs off the side of a cliff, plunging to her death in the raging water below.
A short time later, Prince Charming arrives, grief-stricken at the sight of his beloved
Snow White in her "sleeping death." He kisses her, she magically awakens, and they ride
off into the sunset to live happily ever after. Obviously, Disney's assertions that it
removed or changed the more violent episodes of the original tale suggest that their intent
was to make the story more appropriate for an audience of young children. Yet, they also
removed or changed episodes that have nothing to do with violence, episodes that deal
with erotic themes and that depict Snow White as vain and vengeful.
Though Wilhelm Grimm went back to the Kinder undHausmarchen, editing it so
that subsequent versions were more appropriate for children, the first version published in
1812 was intended to serve as a record of German folklore, reflecting the adult themes
inherent in the tales. Their "Snow White" of 1812 is far more violent than their final
version of 1857 and certainly more "adult" than Disney's film. Early in the story, the
narrator tells us, Now Snow White grew up, and when she was seven years old, she was
so beautiful, that she surpassed even the queen herself."16 The queen of the story is not
Snow White's stepmother; she is the girl's biological mother, the woman who is
supposed to lover and put her well being above all others.
The major conflict in this story, and in many fairy tales, occurs because of female
jealousy. Here, Snow White's mother's jealousy overrides her love for her own
daughter; in all versions of the "Cinderella" tale, the heroine's stepmother and stepsisters
16 Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, "Snow-White," German Fairy Tales and Popular Stories, as Told by
Gammer Grethel trans. Edgar Taylor (London: H. G. Boh, 1823), 152.
torment the girl only because they envy her youth and beauty. Female jealousy or vanity
sets many of these tales in motion. The archetype of the "evil stepmother" or "evil
stepsister" pervades antebellum American sensationalism, prompting James Gordon
Bennett to speculate that the "true" murderer of Helen Jewett was one of her housemates
who had become jealous of the girl's beauty, charms, and success with men.
The Grimms' Snow White presents an element of the tale that is as strange as her
mother trying to kill her; the heroine is but seven years old. The age of the heroine
creates a pedophilic air about the text that also persists in sensationalism. The major
events that lead to her death occur over a four-day period, and though "she lay there in
the coffin a long, long time," "she did not decay She lay there as if asleep.""17 The
narrator implies that the girl not only does not decay, but also does not age as she appears
"as if asleep." Thus, when the prince, whom she has never met, finds her and seems to
fall in love with her, he falls in love with a child, an element even more disturbingly
evoked in the tales of Edgar Allan Poe.
The narrator affirms that although she looks as though she is living, Snow White is
really dead: "There came no breath out of her mouth, and she was dead ... They would
have buried her, but that she looked still as if she were living, with her beautiful
blooming cheeks."18 Unlike the Disney version, in which Snow White has fallen down
in a deep slumber, the Grimm version makes it clear that "she was dead." Rather than
falling down "as if" dead, Snow White looks "as if she were living." When the prince
looks upon Snow White's body in her glass coffin, he declares, "I beseech you to give it
17 Grimm, "Snow-White," 155.
18 Grimm, "Snow-White," 155.
to me, for I cannot live without looking upon Snow White."19 The prince does not
express love for Snow White; her "beautiful female corpse," an "it' to possess, enthralls
him. A man's obsession with the beautiful corpse of a woman appears continuously in
American fiction of the nineteenth century in the penny presses, Poe's fiction, and the
sensation fiction of writers such as George Lippard and George Thompson.
Though Disney omits the prince's obsession with Snow White's corpse from their
film, in Grimms' tale it readily presents itself. The narrator explains that when the prince
first sees Snow White in the glass coffin, he is so struck by her beauty that "he cannot get
enough." More importantly, the narrator describes the depth of the prince's interest in the
He read the golden inscription and saw that she was the daughter of a king.
He asked the dwarfs to sell him the coffin with the dead Snow-White, but they
would not do this for any amount of gold. The he asked them to give her to him,
for he could not live without being able to see her, and he would keep her, and
honor her as his most cherished thing on earth. Then the dwarfs took pity on him
and gave him the coffin.
The prince had it carried to his castle, and had it placed in a room where he
sat by it the whole day, never taking his eyes from it. Whenever he had to go out
and was unable to see Snow-White, he became sad. And he could not eat a bit,
unless the coffin was standing next to him.20
Here, unlike in Disney's version, the prince obsesses over the object of his lust-Snow
White. He has never met her, and he falls in love not with a dearly departed love but
with the corpse of a child upon whom he has never before laid eyes. Moreover, he does
not see her as someone with whom he can have a relationship, nor can he since she is
dead. He sees her as a gaze-object to be bought and sold, offering the dwarfs "any
amount of gold" for her. When they refuse to sell here, he begs them to let him have her
19 Grimm, "Snow-White," 156.
20 Grimm, "Snow-White," 156-7.
so that he can "see her," assuring them that he will treat her as "his most cherished thing
on earth." He does not love her; he does not even see her as a person. He refers to her as
a "thing" to be cherished, and much like a horse, she has exquisite breeding.
The prince's insistence that he be able to view Snow White's body at all times
seems at best neurotic, but it also points to his power over her. The prince's power
directly correlates with his ability to gaze at the girl's body. Elizabeth Bronfen explains
the prince's need to "see" the coffin and Snow White: "Seeing means possession and
pleasure while the act of idealizing annuls both the femininity of the adored dead object
and its insertion in temporality."21 Snow White's prince can possess her in death in a
way that he cannot in life. He has full control over her and laments if he has to be away
from her body because it reminds him of the limits of his power. Death and the prince's
idealization of her corpse annul Snow White's femininity, that part of her that holds
power over men. Because she is dead and because the prince can look upon her with rare
interruption and no censure, Snow White presents no challenge to his authority. She
cannot object or fight back; she cannot say that she does not want to go with him. The
prince has her as his complete command; thus Snow White is the perfect woman by
Even though the narrator of Basile's "The Young Slave" never gives a detailed
description of Lisa when she is dead, the queen's reasons for disguising Lisa as a slave
reveal an awareness of men's necrophilic desires. When Lisa's mother dies, she gives
her brother, the king, the key to the room in which Lisa's corpse lies seven crystal
coffins, one inside another. She never tells him what is inside the room; she only asks
21 Elizabeth Bronfen, Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity, and the Aesthetic (New York: Routledge,
him to swear not to enter it. He leaves his new wife in charge of the key while he travels,
telling her, as Blue Beard tells his wife, not to enter the room. Of course, she enters it
and finds the "beauteous" dead body of Lisa. 22
Not knowing Lisa's identity, the queen reacts violently:
'Bravo, my priest; key in waistband, and ram within; this is the reason why
I was so earnestly begged not to open this door, so that I should not behold
Mohammed, whom he worshippeth within these chests.' Thus saying, she pulled
her out by the hair of her head she at once cut off the damsel's hair, and gave
her a good drubbing, and arrayed her in rags.23
The queen believes that the king kept her from the room because he "worshippeth" Lisa.
At the very least, she believes that he admires the "beauteous" corpse lying within the
chests. Likely, she believes her husband has been having sex with the corpse, releasing
the "ram within." The queen's violent behavior upon finding the girl evinces her
jealousy. If she merely thought that the king was looking at Lisa's corpse, her reaction
would have been less violent toward the girl. The queen's actions indicate her keen
awareness of male desire for a lifeless woman with whom to engage in intimate
The male gaze functions in other fairy tales as well, pointing to the hero's power
over the subjugated, dead female body. The narrator of Charles Perrault's "Sleeping
Beauty" describes the prince's reactions upon entering the palace, saying that what he
sees is enough to "freeze his blood with terror" and that "Death seemed to be
everywhere."24 Despite the "death" that seems to be around him, the prince presses
22 Giambattista Basile, "The Young Slave," II Pentamerone, or The Tale of Tales. trans. Sir Richard
Burton (New York: Boni & Lieveright, 1927), 117. Reprint of the 1893 edition.
23 Basile, "The Young Slave," 117.
2Charles Perrault, "The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods," Histories or Tales of Past Times with Morals,
trans. Robert Samber (London: J. Pote & R. Montagu, 1729), 20.
onward and encounters the sleeping princess, who possesses "radiant charms" that make
her appearance "luminous and supernatural."25 In their "Brier Rose," Jacob and Wilhelm
Grimm's narrator explains the prince's reaction upon finding the sleeping princess after
encountering seeming death: "There she lay, and her beauty was so marvelous that he
could not take his eyes off her."26 Similarly, in the Grimms' less familiar "The Glass
Coffin," the narrator describes the hero's reaction upon finding a "glass coffin" in which
lay a seemingly dead woman: "How his admiration increased when he saw therein a
maiden of the greatest beauty!"27
Sexual imagery figures more prominently in the texts of both Perrault's and the
Grimms' fairy tales. In Perrault's "Sleeping Beauty," the narrator explains, "great trees
and brambles and thorns opened of their own accord and allowed [the prince] to pass
through."2 Similarly, in Grimms' "Brier Rose," "Beautiful flowers that opened of their
own accord, let him through, and then closed again like a hedge."29 By describing the
prince's penetration of the barrier that had grown up around the castle, the narrator
alludes to the prince's penetration of the "sleeping beauty." Because the "trees and
brambles and thorns" and "beautiful flowers" "opened of their own accord" in both
Perrault's and the Grimms' versions of the tale, the reader understands that the prince's
penetration of the sleeping beauty is consensual.
2Perrault, "The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods," 20.
2Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, "Brier Rose," German Fairy Tales and Popular Stories, as Told by Gammer
Grethel trans. Edgar Taylor (London: H. G. Bohn, 1823), 30.
27 Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, "The Glass Coffin," The Complete Tales of the Brothers Grimm ed. Jack
Zipes, 3rd edition, (New York: Bantam, 2003), 483.
28 Perrault, 19.
29 Grimm, "Brier Rose," 29-30.
In an earlier version of the "sleeping beauty" tale, Giambattista Basile's "Sun,
Moon, and Talia," penetration is literal rather than figurative, and it is not consensual.30
In this tale, "Unfortunately, one of the chips of the flax entered her nail, and Talia fell
dead upon the ground."31 The princess is not a "sleeping beauty" but a "dead" beauty.
When the hero of the tale finds the "dead" woman, "he believed that she slept, and he
called her, but she remained insensible, and crying aloud, he felt his blood course hotly
through his veins in contemplation of so many charms; and he lifted her in his arms, and
carried her to a bed, whereon he gathered the first fruits of love."32 The king of this tale
"believed" the princess was sleeping, but he cannot wake her. He "called her," and still
she did not respond. Though the reader knows that the princess is dead, the king
"gathered the first fruits of love." He does not hesitate to put out the fire that "her
charms" had set, and the fact that she was dead may have been part of the allure. As a
corpse, the princess does not possess the ability to reject the king's advances. Basile also
includes a hint of realism in his tale when the king returned to his kingdom and "for a
time thought no more of this incident."33 Instead of Talia waking up and living "happily
ever after" with the king, Talia remains dead or asleep, and the king forgets all about her
for nearly a year.
3In his preface to the 1856 English translation of Grimms' tales, Edgar Taylor discusses the similarities
between Basile's story and both Perrault's and Grimms' versions. Thus, even though Basile was not yet
translated into English it is possible that his stories were also widely known.
31 Giambattista Basile, "Sun, Moon, and Talia," II Pentamerone, or The Tale of Tales. trans. Sir Richard
Burton (New York: Boni & Lieveright, 1927), 420. Reprint of the 1893 edition.
32 Basile, "Sun, Moon, and Talia," 421-422.
33 Basile, "Sun, Moon, and Talia," 422.
Though Basile had not yet been translated into English, English and American
readers likely knew the tale well, since Poe and his contemporaries reference this tale on
several occasions prior to John Edward Taylor's edition of 1848. In his edition, Taylor
includes the tale but removes the rape. Instead, the king "admired her beauty a while,"
and nine months later Talia gives birth to twins. Clearly, a sexual encounter must have
taken place, but Taylor takes great pains to obscure it. Even so, the sexual aspect of the
tale must have been widely known. In his 1823 translation of the Grimms' tales, Edgar
Taylor footnotes his translation "Brier Rose" to explain that Basile's version was one
source that the brothers used in writing their own tale. Taylor summarizes the plot of
Basile's version, touching upon the prince's sexual encounter with the sleeping woman.
This explanation functions to further highlight the latent sexuality in the Grimms' tale.
Taylor's summary adeptly hints at the appeal of the more sanitized tales of the Grimms
by pointing to Basile as the repressed ground from which the Grimms' stories grew.
The illustrations of Perrault's and Grimms' "Sleeping Beauty" tales further point to
both the power of the male gaze and the tales' latent sexuality. In R. S. Gent's 1795
translation of Perrault's Tales ofPassed Times by Mother Goose itil Morals, the picture
of Sleeping Beauty shows the princess asleep with her head turned slightly to the side,
facing the reader (Figure 2-1). A light shines in upon the young woman's body,
illuminating only her and her servant girl even though a third, faceless and seemingly
sexless figure appears to be slumped over in the floor next to the bed. Though Sleeping
Beauty is fully clothed, the dress of her servant seems to have slipped off the shoulder;
moreover, the neckline of the servant's dress plunges, and she sits with legs spread in a
most unladylike manner.
Figure 2-1. Illustration for "Sleeping Beauty" from R. S. Gent's 1795 translation of
Perrault's Tales ofPassed Times n iith Morals by Mother Goose34
Though this drawing obviously conveys less overt sexuality than Alfred M. Hoffy's
pornographic depiction of the dead prostitute Helen Jewett, the servant girl's slightly
revealing dress and splayed legs are certainly suggestive. By associating the more sexual
components with the servant girl, the illustration preserves the piety and chastity of
Sleeping Beauty while still incorporating a sexual element.35 That the girls are depicted
34 From Perrault, 14.
35 None of the critics who have examined fairy tales mentions this aspect of the tale.
as sleeping gives the presumed male viewer power. Though they are turned toward the
viewer, the girls do not gaze out. They sleep the sleep of death, completely passive and
vulnerable to the desires and power of the viewer, who sees them just as the prince of the
story does. Neither prince nor reader risk rejection from the sleeping, or dead, girls.
In George Cruikshank's illustration for Taylor's 1823 translation of the Grimms'
tales, Brier Rose is alone, lying on her side with her head turned toward the reader
(Figure 1-2). A light shines on her. In addition, even though this portrait presents a fully
clothed and less sexualized sleeping woman, the bed linens are pulled slightly down,
revealing Brier Rose's upper torso. The illustration demonstrates her voluptuous figure,
again giving the reader an experience similar to that of the story's prince. Both reader
and prince are again in a position of power over the lifeless girl, who cannot look out of
the picture. She cannot wield any power, nor can she actively participate in choosing her
own future; she is at the mercy of the reader and the prince.
Figure 2-2. George Cruikshank's illustration for the Grimms' "Brier Rose"36
36 From Grimm, 25.
Many fairy tale heroines are at the mercy of the people who should have their best
interests at heart-their parents. As mentioned earlier, her own mother tortures and kills
a seven-year-old Snow White in the Grimms' 1812 version of the tale. Another parental
villain poses a threat to the heroines of tales such as Basile's "The She-Bear," Perrault's
"Donkey-Skin," and the Grimms' "All-Fur." In each of these tales, after the main
character's mother dies, her father commands her to marry him to satisfy both his desires
and his wife's dying wish that he not marry until he finds a woman who surpasses her in
beauty. Though incestuous marriage between a father and daughter seems an odd subject
for a fairy tale, the theme runs through many tales from different cultures. The frequency
with which the subject of incest occurs in fairy tales suggest that it may have been an all
too common reality for many women.37 Maria Tatar explains that there was "no distinct
dividing line between the fiction of fairy tales and the facts of everyday life, or at least
the most sensational aspects of everyday life."38 Thus, fairy tales likely functioned in
much the same way as today's tabloids and antebellum America's penny presses, as a
means of entertaining their audiences with the sensational.
In each of these tales, the motivational force behind the inest is the mother's dying
wish that her husband only remarry when he finds a woman who surpasses her beauty.
When the father overcomes his grief, he succumbs to the need to produce a male heir, but
fearing a curse from his dead wife, he searches for a woman to fulfill her wish. In each
tale, the only woman who even comes close to surpassing the wife's beauty is the
37 Threatened or actual incest occurs in at least eight tale types on the Aarne-Thompson scale. See types
313E, 510B, 706, 706A, 706B, 706C, 712, and 883A.
38 Maria Tatar, The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1987), 140.
daughter. Rather than trying to fight the incestuous desire to marry his own daughter, the
father in each tale commands her to marry him.
The dying wish of the queen makes clear that she does not wish to be replaced; she
wants to remain the sole object of her husband's affection. The wish also clarifies the
queen's vanity. The queen in Basile's "The She-Bear" threatens her husband: "Show
unto me a proof of thy love and give me a promise that thou wilt never marry, unless thou
meetest one beautious as I have been; and if thou wilt not do so, I will leave thee a curse,
and I will hate thee even in the other world."39 The queen's threatened curse weights
heavily on the kind's mind and, in fact, is the only thing keeping him from remarrying
quickly. In Perrault's tale, the queen takes a gentler approach, making no threats but
executing what the narrator later explains is an impossible wish: "Wait [to remarry] until
you have found a woman more beautiful and better formed than myself"40 The queen in
the Grimms' tale, like most of their female characters, has no dialogue, but the narrator
tells us of her dying wish: "[She] asked him not to marry anyone following her death,
unless she was just as beautiful as she, and unless her hair was just as golden as hers."41
The king's search for a woman to fulfill his wife's conditions yields no fruit until
he discovers that his daughter possesses every required characteristic. The narrator refers
to the girl as "made from the same mould as her mother," possessing "a charm and
beauty which even the queen had not," and "as beautiful as her mother, and she had the
39 Giambattista Basile, "The She-Bear," II Pentamerone, or The Tale of Tales. trans. Sir Richard Burton
(New York: Boni & Lieveright, 1927), 151. Reprint of the 1893 edition.
40 Charles Perrault, "Donkey-Skin," The Grey Fairy Book ed. Andrew Lang. (Longmans, Green, & Co.,
41 Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, "All Fur," The Great Fairy Tale Tradition from Straparaola and Basile ot
the Brothers Grimm ed. Jack Zipes (New York: Norton, 2001), 47.
same golden hair" in Basile, Perrault, and the Grimms, respectively.42 The girl becomes
a replacement for her mother, with the narrator referring to her only in terms of
comparison with her mother. She has no true identity of her own; Perrault and the
Grimms don't even give her character a name. Her father sees only her mother in her, a
motif that will recur in Poe's "Morella" and Lippard's Quaker City.
Basile's "The She-Bear" serves as an exemplar of his incest tales. The tale, along
with Perrault's "Donkey Skin" and the Grimms' "All Fur," is actually classified as type
510B ("A King Tries to Marry His Daughter") on the Aarne-Thompson scale of folktale
classification. Certainly, the tale involves this motif, but Basile's tale also hints of
bestiality. In Basile's version, the king's desire goes further than simply wanting to
marry his daughter, reaching to the overtly incestuously sexual: "The king made his way
to [his daughter Preziosa's] bed chamber, and called to the bride to come and fulfill his
desire."43 Even though the father's insistence that his daughter "fulfill his desire" in her
bed chamber disturbs the modern reader, most of the tale focuses on another man's
disturbing attraction to Preziosa.
With the help of an old woman, Preziosa turns herself into a bear to escape her
father. When she arrives in the woods, a handsome prince comes upon her, and she puts
her head down for him to stroke. He takes her home to live in his garden and becomes so
obsessed with her, even though she remains in bear form, that he brings her inside to
cook, clean, and take care of him. Still in bear form, Preziosa performs her domestic
duties to perfection, an implication that gender roles are innate, and the prince's
42 Basile, "The She-Bear," 153; Perrault, "Donkey-Skin," 3; Grimm, "All Fur," 48.
43 Basile, "The She-Bear," 153.
obsession with her grows: "If he had been consumed himself in a slow fire before, he
burned with intense heat now ... Then the bear obediently neared the prince, who taking
her cheeks between his fingers, could not leave off kissing her on the lips."44 It is not
until after the prince has kissed the bear that she changes back into the princess.
Basile's story hints at bestiality, brining the reader to the point at which the prince
begins to consummate his attraction to the bear and stopping just short of that
consummation. That the bear is really a princess serves to obviate the bestiality at play in
this tale, making it part of the overall love story. This trick of titillation and obviation is
one that Lippard uses in The Empire City to titillate his reader with a seemingly
homosexual, pedophilic relationship between a minister and his student. We learn
several pages into the scene that the minister lavishes his affections not on a boy but on a
young woman in disguise. Just as in Lippard's novel, where the true identity of the
young woman masks an erotically homosexual encounter, the reader knows the bear's
true identity, and the narrative almost masks the prince's bestial desire. Yet the story
makes clear that the prince desires the bear.
Perrault's "Donkey Skin" takes the incestuous desire to a different level. The tale
includes a moral that characteristically encourages women's obedience and virtue. The
narrator explains: "It is not hard to see that the moral of this tale is that it is better to
undergo the greatest hardships rather than to fail in one's duty, that virtue may sometimes
seem ill-fated but will always triumph in the end."45 The moral presents a puzzle to the
careful reader: are the "greatest hardships" related to the incestuous advances of the
44 Basile, "The She-Bear," 157.
45 Perrault, "Donkey-Skin," 15.
father or to her life as a "poor wretch" who cleans pig troughs? Might the narrator want
the reader to equate the two? Could cleaning pig troughs be as horrible as being
proposed to by one's own father?
The story presents other difficulties to the reader. When the princess's father
proposes marriage, her godmother urges her that she must not disobey but must ask for
gifts that the king cannot possible acquire-a dress"the color of the sky," then a dress
"the color of the moon," then one "as shining as the sun," and finally, the skin of a
donkey who, instead of dung, "dropped a great load of gold coins." As the king
acquires each item, the princess's resistance to marriage with her father diminishes. With
each request, she is "filled now with both happiness and fear," is "again delighted with its
beauty," and "did not know how to thank the king."47 The princess's resolve wavers in
proportion to the beauty of the gifts her father bestows upon her. It's as though she sees
shiny dresses and is ready to marry her father. More significantly, when the marriage
does not take place, the people at court are heartbroken because there will be no feast or
That the girl's flight from her father works, at first, to her disadvantage further
complicates the story: "She looked so unattractive and indeed so repulsive in her Donkey
Skin disguise that no one would have anything to do with such a creature .. she was
exposed to the low jokes and ridicule of all the other servants."48 Her treatment after
fleeing her father functions as a sort of punishment for her disobedience. Rather than
46 Perrault, "Donkey-Skin," 2-6.
47 Perrault, "Donkey-Skin," 2-8.
48 Perrault, "Donkey-Skin," 13.
being lauded for her high moral character, the young woman loses her family, her friends,
and her beauty. She must work in filth and fact the scorn of even the lowest of the low.
Only after a long time in her life as a servant, after she has been fully punished, does she
find happiness with the prince.
Grimms' "All Fur" features motifs and action nearly identical to "The She-Bear"
and "Donkey Skin." Yet this story, unlike those of Basile and Perrault, features domestic
violence that appears both acceptable and an inherent part of a love relationship. She
must pull off the king's boots before he gets into bed at night. Every night, "when she
had pulled them off, he always threw them at her head."49 This abuse does not occur
only once; it "always" happens. That king abuses her in her role as his servant would not
be at all strange if the girl does not go to great lengths to arouse the king's notice and a
marriage proposal. More importantly, the Grimms actually toned down the abuse. In
many versions of the tale, the prince's abuse of his future bride takes a far more violent
track, featuring frequent beatings, as well as, in one instance, rape.o The young
woman's pursuing the king with an eye to marriage says to the reader that this type of
domestic abuse was not only acceptable, but possibly desired.
In none of these tales does the father receive any sort of punishment. His authority
over his child remains unchecked even when he clearly does not have her best interests in
mind. In fact, D. L. Ashlimann performed a study whose results indicate that modem
readers frequently read these tales thinking the king that the girl meets in the forest (or for
whom she goes to work) is, in fact, her father. Ashlimann argues that it is likely people
49 Grimm, "All Fur," 49.
50 D. L. Ashliman, "Incest in Indo-European Fairy Tales," 14 November 1997 D. L. Ashliman 's Homepage.
22 February 2006 hup \\ \ \\ .pitt.edu/-dash/incest.html.
hearing the stories in the days preceding their recording and people who read the stories
communally after their literary publication read them as stories about the consummation
of a father's incestuous desire.51 Thus, the ending pairs the princess with her father,
living happily ever after.
These fairy tales in their original languages and in their English translations serve
to encourage the traits of what came to be known as the Cult of True Womanhood-
purity, piety, submissiveness, and domesticity-in an age when the "woman question"
began to rage. They maintain paternal authority when a father is present, and the primary
conflicts in stories where a father is absent occur between women competing for male
attention. The authors literalize active women as ogresses, who die tortuous deaths in
snake pits and red-hot iron shoes. The function of socialization has a prominent place in
these texts, but the proliferation of the motifs of necrophilia, incest, and pedophilia
remains most striking.
These motifs became staples of the sensational press. As we will see in the next
chapter, James Gordon Bennett and other editors institutionalized their papers with the
sensational news coverage of the 1836 murder of Helen Jewett, a prostitute in New York.
Bennett and others transformed Jewett into various fairy tale characters, evoking
sympathy for her and simultaneously warning others of the dangers of the female fiend.
Jewett's corpse becomes a sleeping beauty, and the owner of the brothel where Jewett
resided and conducted business becomes a wicked stepmother envious of the young
51 D. L. Ashlimann, "Incest in Indo-European Fairy Tales."
FROM THE FAIRY TALE PRINCESS TO THE NEW YORK PROSTITUTE:
SLEEPING BEAUTY AND THE BIG CITY
On 10 April 1836, New York City brothel owner Rosina Townsend and one of her
prostitutes discovered Helen Jewett's murdered and charred body. The murder instantly
became a sensation, with the city's men lining up to see the body of the young woman;
moreover, it helped put the penny presses, particularly The New York Herald, on the map.
Newspapers and subsequent fictional accounts printed in pamphlets covered not only the
events surrounding the murder and subsequent trial, but also Jewett's background, the
background of alleged murderer Richard P. Robinson, the relationship between the two,
and the crime scene, specifically the body of the murder victim.1 Scholars such as
Patricia Cline Cohen and David Anthony believe this case to be the primary catalyst for
sensationalism.2 The press coverage of the case reached proportions previously unheard
of. Complete transcripts of Richard P. Robinson's five-day trial ran in several major
papers, at least six pamphlets about the murder and trial were published, and local artists
distributed lithographs of"Jewett on her bed in various states of undress."3
1 David Anthony, "The Helen Jewett Panic: Tabloids, Men and the Sensational Public Sphere in
Antebellum New York," American Literature 69.3 (1997). Patricia Cline Cohen, The Murder ofHelen
Jewett: the Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century New York (New York: Vintage Books,
2 Anthony explains that the penny presses anticipated "the representational politics of much of the
sensational fiction being produced during the period, including not only Gothic and detective narratives by
Poe in the 1830s and 1s4''. but also neo-Gothics of the mid 1840s and early 1850s ... such works resemble
the tabloid coverage of the Jewett case" (491). See also Patricia Cline Cohen, "The Mystery of Helen
Jewett: Romantic Fiction and the Eroticization of Violence," Legal Studies Forum 17.2 (1993).
3 Anthony, 489.
As Cohen argues more directly, "In fact, the genre (sensationalism) dates precisely
from the antebellum years of the Jewett murder, and the sensation and popularity of
murder mystery and detective fiction, whose literary conventions were pioneered by
Edgar Allan Poe, a resident of New York City in the year 1837."4 Cohen implies that
even though Poe moved to New York City after Jewett's murder, he may well have been
inspired by the crime and the public sensation it caused. Indeed, it would have been
difficult for Poe, or anyone living in the United States in the years immediately
succeeding the murder and trial, to avoid knowing about the case. It was covered in
newspapers across the country, including the Cincinnati Mirror and Saturday Evening
Post, and was still a fixture in the penny presses for years after the trial.5 One hundred
and fifty years after the murder, an historical novel made the Jewett murder its focus. As
we will see in later chapters, fiction of the period alluded to both Bennett's coverage and
the pamphlets that fictionalized the case.
The descriptions distributed in the penny presses and pamphlet fiction based on the
murder echo those of the fairy tales. Still, while the accounts of Jewett's life and murder,
like the fairy tales before them, demonstrate society's desire to warn women of the
dangers of life outside of marriage and family, they betray a competing desire for access
to women's bodies and sex lives. These accounts leave little to the reader's imagination
when they detail Jewett's relationships with men; they allow the reader full access to the
life and the body of the dead woman, access they would not be granted to the body of a
4 Cohen, "The Mystery of Helen Jewett: Romantic Fiction and the Eroticization of Violence," 133.
5 The Cincinnati Mirror. Cincinnati, OH, June 18, 1836. Page 1; Atkinson's Saturday Evening Post. New
York, June 25, 1836 and July 16, 1836.
living woman or of a virtuous woman. But why were readers so interested in this case, in
the life and body of a prostitute, for so long?
Discussing death and desire in the Nineteenth Century, Russ Castronovo explains,
"Dead women are politically erotic for men, bearing a privacy invulnerable to the claims
of the past and needs of the present ... The female corpse's passivity offers comfort."6
Later Castronovo links the political eroticism of the female corpse to literary eroticism:
"Perhaps Poe best appreciated women's death as an occasion of male cathexis in his 1846
remark that 'the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably the most poetical
topic in the world.""7 Castronovo's assessment of female corpses as political and Poe's
assessment of them as poetical touch on aspects of the fairy tales of Giambattista Basile,
Charles Perrault, and the Brothers Grimm-all of whom created poetical, political tales
that encouraged passivity in women, with many of the tales centering on female corpses.
Jewett's murder helped establish the penny presses within the world of journalism.
Andie Tucher explores the rise of the penny press in her Froth and Scum: Truth, Beauty,
Goodness, and the Axe Murder in America's First Mass Medium, asserting that their
development and evolution contributed to objectivity in reporting. Tucher examines the
differences in reporting styles of the 1836 murder of Helen Jewett and the 1841 murder
of Samuel Adams. Asserting that James Gordon Bennett's style had changed in the five
years between the Jewett and Adams cases, Tucher claims that Bennett reported on all
6 Russ Castronovo, Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth-Century
United States (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2001), 130.
7 Castronovo, 149.
aspects of both cases, but in the Adams case, he created no fictions and called for the
blood of the perpetrator.8
In her analysis of Bennett's changing style, Tucher looks only at the Jewett and
Adams cases; she looks at none of Bennett's reporting in the five years between the
murders, nor does she look at Bennett's other stories that appeared at the same time or
after the Adams case. In fact, my research demonstrates that Bennett continued his
periodic reporting and speculation on the Jewett case for several years. He focused
especially on the lives of Robinson and the prostitutes who testified against him.9 On
November 21, 1839, Bennett wrote about the authorities' failure to find and punish
Jewett's murderer: "The blood of Ellen Jewett continually cries from the ground for
vengeance on her murderer, and though he has escaped by the force and influence of the
foulest corruption from the justice of the law, he is not beyond the justice of Heaven."10
Bennett's anonymous biographer explains that Bennett's reference to the justice of
Heaven alludes to a report that Robinson had been wounded in Texas, which is a
dramatic shift from Bennett's earlier assertion of Robinson's innocence. Each of his
reports through the years continues to speculate about the guilt and innocence of the
major players in the case. Upon hearing of the suicide of Robert Furlong, one of
Robinson's alibi witnesses, Bennett writes in 1838: "What ought those person's do, who
knew Robinson's guilt, and yet aided to defeat the laws during that trial? Ought they not
8 Andie Tucher, Froth and Scum: Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and the Axe Murder in America's First Mass
Medium (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).
9 The Life ofJames Gordon Bennett, Editor of the New York Herald (New York: NA, 1844).
10 The Life ofJames Gordon Bennett, 22.
injustice to go and hang themselves also?"11 Again, Bennett accuses Robinson of the
murder outright, neglecting to mention that he had declared the young man innocent and
supported his case in the pages of the Herald.
Bennett's reports on the murders of other women are in keeping with his reports on
the Jewett murder and further clarify that Bennett's reporting style changed not with time
but with the sex of the victim. According to Amy Gilman Srebnick, when reporting the
disappearance of Mary Rogers in 1841, Bennett also speculated about the particulars of
the crime and its victim. 12 More importantly, Bennett's description of the corpse
allowede] what was not permissible in life-the full physical exposure of the female
form. Presenting Rogers as a corpse, a female body no longer private, but instead totally
exposed, the necrophilic descriptions of Mary with lace petticoat strips around her neck
and blood leaking from her mouth, were pictorial, dramatic, and erotic." Again, Bennett
portrays the female corpse as an object of desire.
So why did Bennett fabricate the details of the deaths of Jewett and Rogers? In the
Adams case, John C. Colt confessed to the murder; there was little about which to
speculate. On the other hand, in the Jewett case, Robinson maintained his innocence and
was subsequently acquitted, and Mary Rogers' case had no perpetrator on whom to place
blame. Yet, the most important differences between these cases and that of Adams are
the gender of the victims and the relevance of sexual intercourse to the circumstances
surrounding their deaths. Bennett never described the corpse of Samuel Adams in terms
1 The Life ofJames Gordon Bennett, 22.
12 Bennett speculated that Rogers had been "violated by several rowdies, and ultimately strangled." Since
witnesses later revealed that Rogers had died during an abortion and that they had arranged the scene to
look like murder, Bennett's version of the crime is clearly fiction. Quoted in Amy Gilman Srebnick, The
Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers: Sex and Culture in Nineteenth-Century New York (New York: Oxford
UP, 1995), 28-29.
of how it aroused him sexually, whereas implicit lasciviousness characterizes his
descriptions of the corpses of Jewett and Rogers. The deaths of these women allowed
Bennett and his readers access to their bodies that they were not allowed in life.
The fact of their deaths makes them desirable because they are completely passive,
completely incapable of refusing these men access to their bodies. Equally important, the
sexual nature of the women's deaths removes the usual decorum and propriety that social
relations between men and women dictated. Helen Jewett was a prostitute murdered in a
brothel. Mary Rogers died in the middle of an abortion. Clearly, these women refused to
abide by societal dictates in life. They were sexually active, and at least one of them was
active in determining if and when she would become a mother. Their deaths rendered
them inactive. They became sleeping beauties whom men could view and desire freely.
When we look closely at news reports and illustrations of Jewett's murder in
conjunction with the tales of Basile, Perrault, and the Grimms, similarities in the
descriptions of the dead women and their surroundings become obvious. Close readings
of Basile's, Perrault's, and the Grimms' versions of "Sleeping Beauty," the Grimms'
"Snow White," and Basile's "The Young Slave" alongside descriptions of Helen Jewett's
body and the circumstances of her downfall and murder illustrate the striking correlations
among them. More importantly, close readings illustrate the ways in which each
nineteenth century reporter or author transforms fairy tale motifs so that the female
corpse becomes more indicative of the consolidation of the ideology of domesticity with
the cautionary tale in antebellum America.
That New Yorkers were interested in the Jewett case from the minute the word of
her murder spread is evident. James Gordon Bennett's account of his "visit to the scene"
describes the mob that stood outside Townsend's home and filled the parlor inside:
A large crowd of young men stood around the door, No. 41, and several
groups along the street in various directions. The excitement among the young
men throughout the city was beginning to spread in all directions ...
A Police officer opened it [the door], stealthily. I told him who I was. "Mr.
B. you can enter, "said he, with great politeness. The crowds rushed from behind
seeking also an entrance.
"No more comes in ," said the Police officer.
"Why do you let that man in?" asked one of the crowd.
"He is an editor-he is on public duty."
I entered-I pressed forward to the sitting room or parlor. There I found
another Police officer in charge of that apartment. The old lady of the house, Mrs.
Townsend, was sitting on a sofa, talking to several young men, in a great state of
That "a large crowd of young men," including a young George Thompson, stood in line
to look at Jewett's body is telling.14 One gets the impression that they lined up in the
same manner that people today line up for an amusement park ride. Just as people today
wait in line to get a kind of thrill from a roller coaster, men and boys in 1836 New York
anticipated the thrill of seeing what James Gordon Bennett later described as "a beautiful
female corpse."15 Many of them had likely been rebuffed by Helen when she was alive,
as she had a reputation of being "choosy" with her partners, but in her death, they had full
visual access to that which she had denied them in life.
13 James Gordon Bennett, "Visit to the Scene," The Herald. New York, April 12, 1836. Page 4. The
article was originally published in the April 11, 1836 edition, but a problem with the steam engine attached
to the press limited the number printed, and Bennett reprinted the article in this issue.
14 See George Thompson, My Life: Or the Adventures of Geo. Thompson. Being the Auto-Biography of an
Author. Written by Himself (Boston: Federhen & Co., 1854). Reprinted in Venus in Boston and Other
Tales of Nineteenth-Century Life. Ed. David S. Reynolds and Kimberly R. Gladman. (Amherst:
University of Massachusetts Press, 2002). 315-317.
15 Bennett, "Visit to the Scene," 4.
In this passage, Bennett attempts to distinguish himself from the throng of thrill
seekers by establishing that the police officer recognizes that he is there "on public duty"
unlike the others. Like the mob who lined up outside the brothel, Bennett's readers
experienced an excitement in reading his reports. Whereas Bennett markets his own
persona as more restrained and observant, he builds the readers' "excitement" by
providing them with the exciting access of the mob. When he enters the brothel, he must
"press forward" through the crowd to arrive at the parlor where Rosina Townsend
recounts the tragedy with much detail, bringing her male listeners to a "great state of
excitement." They are not appalled or saddened by Jewett's death, even though many
likely knew her or had at least seen her walking up Broadway in her infamous green
dress; rather, they become aroused by the details. Clearly, the men who lined up to view
Jewett's corpse and Bennett adhered to what Karen Halttunen refers to as "the Romantic
tendency" to see dead bodies as objects of beauty and desire." 16
Though the authorities allowed Bennett to view both the corpse and Jewett's room
at length, his description of the scene strays from the facts and relies on romance.
Jewett's murderer had struck her in the head with an axe three times and set her on fire.
The body had been autopsied. Yet Bennett describes what he saw upon entering Jewett's
What a sight burst upon me! ... I looked around for the object of my
"Here" said the Police officer, "here is the poor creature."
He half uncovered the ghastly corpse. I could scarcely look at it for a
second or two. Slowly I began to discover the lineaments of the corpse as one
16 Karen Halttunen, Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic I,,,ii,,,l,. ',, (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard UP, 1998), 66.
would the beauties of a statue of marble. It was the most remarkable sight I ever
Though he attempts to set himself up as an objective observer, the thrill Bennett gets
from viewing the body is evident from the beginning. The mere sight of Helen's room,
the scene of both her sexual escapades and her murder, elicits an exclamation-"What a
sight burst upon me!" Immediately, he terms Jewett as not "the body" or "the victim" but
"the object of [his] curiosity." Even the officer refers to her as a "creature." She is not a
person; she is simply an object on display.
Apparently forgetting the "ghastly" nature of the corpse he'd been unable to look at
for a moment, Bennett goes on to describe the object of his arousal:
How like a statue! I can scarcely conceive that form to be a corpse. Not a vein
was to be seen. The body looked as white-as full-as polished as the purest
Parian marble. The perfect figure-the exquisite limbs-the fine face-the full
arms-the beautiful bust-all-all surpassing in every respect the Venus de
Medici according to the casts generally given of her. [sic] ... I was lost in
admiration at this extraordinary sight-a beautiful female corpse that surpassed
the finest statue of antiquity."18
Despite the fact that one side of Jewett's body was charred, Bennett sexualizes her as "a
beautiful female corpse." Though he notes the "burnt pieces of linen, blankets, pillows,
black as cinders" in the beginning of his description, Bennett omits all evidence that she
was set on fire to depict her as "snow white." She is certainly like a statue in that neither
can move, but detailing her "perfect figure" and "beautiful bust" as "white as the purest
Parian marble" is more than just hyperbole.
The dashes betray Bennett's and his readers' desire for the dead woman's body.
Bennett creates a fantasy Venus with no visible imperfections and certainly no burns or
17 Bennett, "Visit to the Scene," 4.
18 Bennett, "Visit to the Scene," 4.
incisions. One can almost hear Bennett's heavy breathing: "as white-as full-as the
purest Parian marble .. the exquisite limbs-the fine fact-the full arms-the beautiful
bust." His excitement builds with each dash. At last, unable to contain himself, he
releases this build up as he declares himself lost in the "extraordinary sight" of"a
beautiful female corpse." Bennett, and therefore his readers, forget his original hesitance
to look at the "ghastly corpse." Indeed, as described in Bennett's account there is nothing
ghastly about her. Finally, Bennett returns to reality when he sees "the dreadful bloody
gashes on the right temple, which must have caused instantaneous dissolution."19
Strangely, for minutes, Bennett misses the one detail that would stand out to any
observer. He spends nearly a full column of newsprint describing the body before he
mentions the gashes that killed her. He is clearly more interested in cataloging the
beauties of "the object" in view than in the fact that she'd been murdered. Equally telling
is that Jewett had been mutilated not only by the murderer's axe, but also by the autopsy
knife. Yet, Bennett never mentions this last detail at all; it would have impeded him from
describing her "beautiful bust." Clearly, Jewett's body bore little resemblance to
Bennett plays with and builds upon a set of descriptions that recur in fairy tales, a
set of descriptions that any reader would likely recognize as evoking Snow White and
Sleeping Beauty. Given the tales' popularity, it is probable that both Bennett and his
reading public were familiar with them.21 Where Bennett exclaims, "What a sight burst
19 Bennett, "Visit to the Scene," 4.
20 See Cohen, The Murder ofHelen Jewett, 17 and Anthony, 504.
21 In the September 1881 issue of Atlantic Monthly (48.287: 310-321), in "Koschei the Deathless; or, the
Diffusion of Fairy Tales," John Fiske discusses the immense popularity of the fairy tales (Straparola,
upon me, in their "Brier Rose," the Grimms' prince finds that the sleeping princess's
"beauty was so marvelous that he could not take his eyes off her."22 Similarly, in the
Grimms' "Snow White," the narrator affirms, "There came no breath out of her mouth,
and she was dead ... They would have buried her, but that she looked still as if she were
living, with her beautiful blooming cheeks."23 Similarly, Jewett's white, statue-like form
echoes the Grimms' description of their Snow White. Indeed, Bennett's picture of
Jewett's corpse allows his reader to forget that the object of his voyeurism is a corpse,
just as the princes in the fairy tales forget that the women upon whom they stumble are
"Beautiful female corpses" and sexuality figure prominently in the illustration found
alongside Bennett's first report. The illustration by Alfred M. Hoffy published in The
New York Herald shows Jewett's body with the sheet pulled far enough down to expose
her breasts, nipples erect (Figure 3-1). Her legs are exposed and bear no marks of the
body's actual condition. In fact, she looks as though she were sleeping peacefully. Not
only is Jewett's body free of any signs of brutal murder, fire, and autopsy, but her bed
and linens are also free of these signs. As in the illustrations of Sleeping Beauty
discussed in Chapter 2, a light shines in the room, illuminating only Jewett's body so that
the onlooker may see its details. David Anthony discusses this lithograph and its overt
Basile, Perrault, Grimm, and Arabian Nights) in the western world, specifically focusing on American
reception from the time of the first translations. The article argues that they were so popular that each new
translation led to demand for fairy tales from other authors and regions.
22Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, "Brier Rose," German Fairy Tales and Popular Stories, as Told by Gammer
Grethel, trans. Edgar Taylor (London: H. G. Bohn, 1823), 30.
23 Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, "Snow-White," German Fairy Tales and Popular Stories, as Told by
Gammer Grethel trans. Edgar Taylor (London: H. G. Bohn, 1823). 155.
sexualization of the corpse: "Even more than in Bennett's written description, the viewer
is invited to indulge not only in the pleasure of gazing at Jewett's body but also of gaining
imaginary access to it."24 Like Bennett's sexualized description of the body, Hoffy's
illustration sexualizes the corpse and arouses the audience, stimulating desire and
fantasies of access to satisfy that desire.
... si. .
Figure 3-1. "Ellen Jewett." Alfred M. Hoffy's rendering of Helen Jewett's corpse.25
Certainly, Patricia Cline Cohen's assertion that this particular crime created a
sensation because of the sheer novelty of murder and because the victim was an infamous
prostitute holds truth, but it does not account for the fact that people remained interested
in the affair for nearly a century and a half. To be sure, Robinson's acquittal fed into the
frenzy, creating further mystery. Yet, the fact that George Wilkes, editor of the National
Police Gazette, penned The Lives ofHelen Jewett and Richard P. Robinson in 1849-
24 Anthony, 507.
25 New York Historical Society.
thirteen years after Robinson's acquittal- alludes to something more at work in this
story. That Wilkes was a news editor lends authority to his text being a product of the
"news," a feat that later texts attempt to imitate.
Wilkes' novel was popular enough that after publishing it serially in the Gazette, he
published it as a complete volume. In 1878, parts of it were copied by an anonymous
"author" and published as The Truly Remarkable Life of the Beautiful Helen Jewett, Who
Was so Mysteriously Murdered. In 1932, Nearly one hundred years after the murder,
Manuel Komroff penned A New York Tempest, a novelization of the murder and trial, as
well as the events leading up to them. Even more striking is that in 1982, nearly one
hundred fifty years after Jewett was murdered, Raymond Paul wrote the historical novel
The Thomas Street Horror, narrated by a fledgling Sun reporter investigating Jewett's
murder and including multiple articles from Bennett's Herald, The Sun, and competing
papers. How did these reporters and authors convince their readers that Jewett was worth
their sympathies, that she was worthy of their lust, especially after so many years?
Each subsequent author builds upon the narrative created by Bennett; though
Komroff uses the murder and trial only as an inspiration for his novel, Wilkes and Paul
go so far as to incorporate the actual news reports from the Herald into their
novelizations. Thus, it is important to understand the ways in which Bennett made Jewett
an acceptable object of sympathy and lust. Perhaps to justify his desire for and
fascination with this woman of ill repute, Bennett seeks to create a sort of Cinderella out
of Jewett. Bennett's story of Jewett's childhood moves her class status upward toward
the backgrounds of many of the heroines in fairy tales. According to Bennett, Jewett's
real name was Dorcas Doyen. Her mother had passed away, and her father remarried.
He claims that she was taken in by a neighboring judge and his family, who pitied her
situation with her stepmother: "At that time Dorcas was young, beautiful, innocent,
modest, and ingenuous. Her good qualities and sprightly temper won the good feelings
of the Judge's family."26 This story ignores Jewett's lower class status, claiming her to
be a playmate and best friend of the judge's daughters when she was, in fact, one of their
servants. In presenting an "evil stepmother" and Jewett's "sprightly temper" in the face
of reduced circumstances, Bennett sets up her background to mirror that of Snow White
Surprisingly, authors writing after Bennett also sought to establish Jewett as a
middle to upper class girl. Wilkes writes of the Westons' interest in the young woman:
"Dorcas Doyen soon became a general favorite of the family which had adopted her, and
instead of being allowed to remain in a condition of servitude, she was promoted to the
more comfortable dependence of companionship."27 Her intellectual capabilities further
evinced her natural upper-class status: "Her quickness of apprehension and extraordinary
proficiency soon exceeded all calculation .. her conduct was precise and exemplary, and
... she merited by her demeanor and her studious habits, all the encomiums and kindly
feeling, which were extended to her by her teachers and her friends."28 This description
of Dorcas contrasts with an earlier description in the same novel that depicts her as a
seductive eleven-year-old (possibly an eight-year-old, as Wilkes's date would indicate)
26 Quoted in Cohen, The Murder ofHelen Jewett, 49.
27 George Wilkes, The Lives ofHelen Jewett and Richard P. Robinson, (New York: George Wilkes), 1849.
28 Wilkes, 6.
who loses her virginity to a fifteen-year-old boy.29 Of course, attempts to blame her
"intemperate" father's influence help to salvage Dorcas in the reader's mind.30
Many fairy tales are about girls who have been stripped of their class position and
fallen into desperate circumstances. This plot is true of "Snow White," "The Young
Slave," and most famously "Cinderella." Snow White's "innocent heart" and "lovely"
disposition keep the huntsman from carrying out her stepmother's command that he
murder the girl and cut out her heart.31 The stepmother is not deterred, however. She
continues to seek the girl out and try to kill her with lace, a poisoned comb, and an apple.
Even though Snow White no longer lives as a princess and performs domestic chores for
the dwarfs, her class shows through in her beauty and charm. Lisa, the heroine of "The
Young Slave," is forced into slavery by her wicked aunt, the queen. The king realizes
that Lisa is his niece once he converses with her because her manner of speaking reveals
her royal background, though she is disguised in the rags of a slave. Cinderella's upper-
class status also shines even though her envious stepmother and stepsisters force her to
wear rags and serve them.32
Corresponding even further to fairy tales, James Gordon Bennett's attempt to place
the blame for Jewett's murder on another woman in the brothel parallels "Sleeping
Beauty," "Brier Rose," "Sun, Moon, and Talia," "Snow White," and "The Cat
29 The first page of the novel says that Dorcas was born in 1813. After a passage of two years from the
time of Dorcas' losing her virginity, she is said to be thirteen, but the date Wilkes provides, 1823, makes
her only ten. If the date is correct, then Dorcas was but eight years old when she had her first sexual
30 Wilkes, 6.
31 Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, "Snow White," 100.
32 Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, "Cinderella," German Fairy Tales and Popular Stories, as Told by Gammer
Grethel trans. Edgar Taylor (London: H. G. Bohn, 1823).
Cinderella." In both Perrault's "Sleeping Beauty" and Grimms' "Brier Rose," an old
fairy curses the infant princess because she is jealous of the favor shown to the other
fairies and feels slighted at not being invited to the child's christening. An old lady is
also the one who presents the princess with the opportunity for pricking her finger. In
Basile's "Sun, Moon, and Talia," the hero's wife discovers her husband's infidelity and
in a jealous rage attempts to feed his children to him and to burn Talia alive. In "Snow
White," the princess's stepmother repeatedly attempts to kill Snow White because the
older woman is jealous of the girl's beauty. Basile's "The Cat Cinderella" further
reinforces that women are jealous and conniving. When Zezolla, the heroine of the story,
complains to her governess about the evil treatment she receives at the hands of her
stepmother, the governess encourages Zezolla to murder the stepmother. Soon after the
murder, the governess convinces Zezolla's father to marry her and begins to mistreat
Zezolla in favor of her own children. The governess tempts Zezolla to commit murder
and tricks the girl into believing that she has Zezolla's best interest at heart.
Like the fairy tale narrators, Bennett invents a female villain. Discussing possible
suspects and motives for Jewett's murder, he claims, "It cannot be possible that [Richard
P.] Robinson was the person! How could a young man perpetrate so brutal an act? Is it
not more like the work of a woman? Are not the whole train of circumstances within the
ingenuity of a female, abandoned and desperate?"33 Bennett suggests that Jewett had
money and costly jewelry of which her coworkers were likely jealous. Just as the beauty
of the princesses in fairy tales evoked desperation in the hearts of other women, Bennett
argues that Jewett's beauty and fortune spurred another woman to "desperate" measures.
33 Quoted in Cohen, The Murder ofHelen Jewett, 18.
Like Snow White's stepmother, who feared that her beauty had "abandoned" her, another
woman may have been so jealous of Jewett that she killed the girl.
George Wilkes' novel takes the villainess ploy a step further, bringing in numerous
"evil" women who sabotage any chance that Helen has at making an honest life for
herself. First, there is Nancy, a "negress" and former servant in the home of the
paramour of Dorcas' youth, who for a bit of money offers up her home first for the
clandestine meetings of Dorcas and the young Sumner, and later encourages Dorcas's
rendezvous with other suitors by pretending to be interested only in Dorcas's well being.
Dorcas repays Nancy's kindness with small gifts of money when she can, and truly
believes that the old woman is her friend.34
Yet, when Dorcas is expelled from the home in which she had been "adopted," she
goes to Nancy's cottage for solace, but Nancy rebukes her: "It amused [me], it did, to see
some people put on airs; people, too, who was no better than any other people, and who,
if the truth came to the truth was only servants at last!"35 Nancy's true feelings toward
Dorcas become clearer still:
She was astonished, she was, to say the least, that a person who had seduced and
ruined an innocent young man, and sent him off to sea, should talk about being
ruined herself! For her part, she was sick of such characters, and she had made up
her mind to have nothing more to do with them. They had made her sinful
enough already, and if she harbored or countenanced 'em any longer, she would
expect some judgment of the Lord to fall upon her.36
Poor Dorcas is so taken aback and outraged that she verbally attacks Nancy and leaves
the cottage with no notion of where to go next. Her ruin comes at the hands of one who
34 Wilkes, 7-12.
35 Wilkes, 12.
36 Wilkes, 12-13.
was interested only in self gain and putting Dorcas in her rightful place. Wilkes'
portrayal of Nancy adheres to the fairy tales, which place the blame for young women's
troubles squarely on the shoulders of their mother figures. Since Dorcas had no mother
figure, Nancy fills that void, but she uses her power and influence to coerce Dorcas into a
life of degradation. When Dorcas's degradation becomes public, Nancy turns her back
on the young girl, literally turning her out to the woods like Snow White.
Dorcas never learns wariness in her dealings with women attempting to fill the
mother role in her life, and the "wicked stepmother" reappears multiple times. In her first
foray into city life, Dorcas ventures to Portland and begins to look for work as a
seamstress. When she encounters a kind woman, Mrs. Burras, who offers to give her
work as a personal seamstress for her and her "nieces" complete with salary and room
and board, Dorcas jumps at the offer. Upon arrival at Mrs. Burras's home, Dorcas
quickly realizes that she's trapped inside a brothel and is tricked into prostitution again by
the other young women's implications that her first love Sumner is a regular customer.
They revel in her downfall because they are jealous of her beauty37 This is not the last
time that Helen will be tricked by a woman who professes to have her best interest at
heart. Like Snow White, Wilkes' Helen Jewett encounters many such women without
ever learning to discern their real intentions.
Even after years as a prostitute, Helen's naivety about the women she chooses as
mother figures continues, contradicting her otherwise worldly nature. In the next city
into which Jewett enters, Boston, she passes out on the street at the sight of one of her
former lovers. She is "rescued" by an African American family who practically holds her
37 Wilkes, 13-18.
hostage while they sell off her personal property. When the authorities rescue her from
her "rescuers," one of the men takes her to live with his family. There, as Maria Benson,
she begins a new life, complete with fiance and the prospect of respectability. Later, the
local brothel owner, Mrs. Bryant, discovers Helen's true identity. She offers to "help"
Helen if the latter's background should ever be discovered and if the family who has so
lovingly taken her in should cast her out as a result. Helen sees this not for what it is-a
threat-but as an honest offer of shelter in dire circumstances.
Soon after Mrs. Bryant offers to help Helen, an anonymous letter to the kind family
reveals that Helen had been both a prostitute and a mistress. Immediately, the family
casts her from their doors, and Helen goes straight to Mrs. Bryant with no thought that
her confidant might be the anonymous person who tipped off the family.38 Repeatedly,
Helen, like Snow White before her, naively falls victim to the same betrayer. Mrs.
Bryant later sabotages Helen's attempts to make a match with an impressionable youth
who cares nothing about her past. Again, even though Mrs. Bryant has hinted that
someone might tell the boy's father about Helen, the young woman never imagines that
her "friend" would sabotage her hopes.39
Mrs. Bryant, like Nancy, fills a motherly role in the young woman's life, a role that
had been unfilled since her own mother's death when she was only nine years old. Just
as a young Snow White seeks female companionship in the old hag who visits the
dwarves' home and turns out to be her stepmother, Helen seeks a mother-daughter
relationship with older women because of a sense of abandonment by her mother's death.
38 Wilkes, 27-30.
39 Wilkes, 30-33.
Nancy, Mrs. Burras, and Mrs. Bryant are motherly figures, comforting Helen at the most
crucial times and giving her motherly advice just when she needs it most. Unfortunately,
Helen seeks a mother figure in the wrong women. None of these women has her best
interest at heart. Two are jealous of her-Nancy that Helen has risen above her caste and
Mrs. Bryant that Helen's beauty and grace allow her to pass as a member of the upper
classes. Mrs. Burras, like Nancy, sees only monetary profit for herself in her relationship
with Helen, not caring that she is "ruining" a young woman forever. Like her mother
before them, Helen's "mother figures" abandon her emotionally and sometimes
physically, leaving her to fend for herself in a society that cares little about what becomes
of immoral women.
In Wilkes' version, Jewett's story clearly diverges from that of the fairy tales in that
her downfall is overtly sexual. Rather than eating an apple that symbolizes "forbidden
fruit" as did Snow White, Jewett becomes sexually active. More importantly, after being
tricked three times by a "wicked witch" in disguise, Helen comes to understand and use
her sexuality as power. She refused to
shrink from publicity, she wore always one description of rich green silk
dress, and carried a letter in her hand, that her appearance might be indicated
without mistake by those who had seen her to those who had not, but who might
so desire ...
In this manner did she make profit out of her pastime, and pastime out of
her talents, while her companions were lolling upon sofas or stuffing themselves
with cake or confectionary through live-long hours of continual eating.40
She walks up the promenade alone, dressed to garner attention. She is a self-sufficient
business woman, and her entire life is centered on attracting more business for herself.
40 Wilkes, 54.
Rather than lazily lying about filling up on confections and hiding in the brothels, waiting
for men to come to her, she makes herself known so as to increase her "sales."
Helen's independence and self-promotion conflicts with the tenets advanced by
the Cult of True Womanhood, and her behavior and attitude so contradict the dominant
beliefs of the age that it stuns her when people look down upon her. Helen's confidence
and strength is so powerful that she does not hesitate to have one of her johns arrested
when, in ajealous rage, he commenced "cutting her most costly dresses into shreds ...
He likewise had strangled her canary bird .. and had wound up his exploit, by writing a
ribald couplet in her album, that was intended as an insult to her person."41 Confident in
herself and her station, Helen is shocked when the magistrate throws out the complaint
once the gentleman promises to pay the value of the property he'd destroyed. She's even
more taken aback when she only receives half of the award because of "the immense
trouble [the officer] had incurred in hunting the Captain up, and the superior sum he had
refused from that gentleman, as a bribe to let him leave the city."42 Though one could
read her reaction as naivety on Helen's part, previous scenes in the novel demonstrate
that she would have been intimately familiar with the corruption in local government.
Upon entering Mrs. Burras's establishment, she had received a visit from a
magistrate who had been sent to "save her" from the clutches of the prostitutes in the
house, but instead of performing his official duty, he partook of Helen's wares as a bribe
by Mrs. Burras.43 Later, upon her earliest arrival in New York, she was let out of jail
41 Wilkes, 51.
42 Wilkes, 52.
43 Wilkes, 17-18.
because the magistrate takes liberties with her.44 Since Helen is already well acquainted
with the corruption of law enforcement, she would have no reason to expect fair
treatment from them. In fact, she does not expect fair treatment; she expects that because
of her position as a "high class" prostitute and because of her first-hand knowledge of
police corruption, she'll have the upper-hand. That her status as a prostitute works
against her, making the magistrate view her complaint as frivolous, offends her. When
the officer steals her money, she has no choice but to recognize that her degradation has
indeed placed her in a class to which she feels superior.
Wilkes' narrator constantly establishes Helen's superiority over the other
prostitutes with whom she comes into contact. Unlike the behavior of her peers, "there
was, however, nothing gaudy or vulgar in her manner. She was always lady-like and
elegant, and though her carriage was self-assured and free, it was devoid of flashy
ostentation or pert parade."45 Moreover, when Richard Robinson first encounters Helen,
he is taken with her because "her attire evinced a cultivated taste," and her appearance
demonstrates that she possesses a "cultivated intellect" and is "well-bred."46 Just as
Cinderella's rags cannot hide her natural grace and poise, Jewett's occupation does not
interfere with her natural elegance and intellect. That Jewett's appearance belied her
occupation and actual status makes her most appealing. Had she been "gaudy or vulgar"
or dressed less fashionably and more flashily, there would have been no intrigue. Wilkes
44 Wilkes, 36-37.
45 Wilkes, 54.
46 Wilkes, 63.
has either forgotten Jewett's green dress or views it as part of what marks her as above
Perhaps, in Wilkes' narrative, that Jewett seemed a walking contradiction was part
of the attraction. As it was, her paramours, especially Robinson, could maintain the
fantasy of the virgin while having sex with the Magdalene.47 This fascination of the
contradictory nature of one woman also fed the frenzy surrounding her murder and the
subsequent trial for years after. While Bennett, Wilkes, and others certainly fabricated
the details of Helen's life, they captured her appeal perfectly.48
Jewett's charm and the combination of the virgin and the whore in one figure were
not the only aspects of the case that elicited attention. The coverage of the murder and
subsequent trial diverge from the fairy tale motifs in that the male protagonist of the story
holds a contradictory appeal for readers. He is not the nameless rescuer of the princess
about whom the reader knows little or nothing. Robinson intrigued readers because of
the seeming contradictions in his outward appearance and his inner self. Though he had
practically pronounced Robinson guilty but two days earlier, on Wednesday, April 13,
1836, and would later denounce the justice system that acquitted him, Bennett questions:
"Is it possible for a youth, hitherto unimpeached and umimpeachable in his character, to
have engendered and perpetrated so diabolical an act as the death of Ellen Jewett was? Is
47 It is important to note that throughout Wilkes' and Bennett's narratives, the reader is reminded that
Jewett is not a virgin (even though both take great pains to establish her as "worthy") by referring to her as
48 Judge Weston, the head of the family who took Dorcas in as a servant when she was a child, was so
outraged by the false accounts of her being like a sister to his children and like a daughter to his wife and
himself, that he wrote a letter to the major newspapers to set the record straight. Still, proof exists of
Helen's dual personality. See Cohen The Murder ofHelen Jewett; Ann Royall, The Black Book; or, a
Continuation of Travels in the United States (Washington, D.C.: NA, 1828) and testimony from the trial
collected from and based on transcripts in various New York newspapers and published in The Trial of
Richard P. Robinson, Before the Court of Oyer and Terminer on the 2nd of June, 1836, for the Murder of
Ellen Jewett, on the s.;it of the 9th ofApril, 1836 (New York: George Wilkes, 1849).
it the character of crime to jump at once from the heights of virtue to the depths of
vice?"49 Bennett quickly establishes Robinson as a virtuous young man, a noble prince
who has been caught up in a situation beyond his control, who has been framed for a
crime he couldn't have committed. His dealings with a prostitute contradicted everything
Bennett's readers knew about Robinson. Thus, describing Robinson as simply led astray
by the attractions and temptations of the city worked to Bennett's advantage. Indeed, the
figure of Robinson must have struck at the very core of readers; their brothers and sons
were similarly situated.
Wilkes seems to recognize the appeal of Robinson's contradictory character too.
Wilkes' novel introduces Robinson about half way through, after the reader has already
formed an attachment to Jewett. The narrator's first mention of Robinson plays upon the
reputation described in Bennett:
He was of the middle size, rather below it if anything, and there was to his gait
and general carriage, a litheness and an elasticity which indicated extreme youth.
he was manifestly genteel ... he was a very handsome youth, of not more than
eighteen years of age, [with] damask cheek expansive blue eye, handsome mouth,
and hair of golden brown, which curled about his temples.50
This description forces an impression of innocence-the "extreme youth," the blonde
hair, the blue eyes, all of his features conjure images of a handsome prince, not of a
The narrator of Wilkes' novel begins to contradict this first impression with a tale
of Robinson's seduction of an innocent orphan girl who lives with relatives. At the same
49 Quoted in The Life and ; i,,,i ofJames Gordon Bennett, Editor of the New York Herald. New York:
NA, 1844. 17.
50 Wilkes, 57.
time, the tale immediately questions whether Robinson and other young men like him are
actually responsible for their actions:
What else could be expected of him? What else could be expected of the majority
of youths similarly situated, and who, like him, are brought from the quiet routine
of country life, to be plunged into the midst of all the intoxicating pleasures and
dazzling temptations of this great Vanity Fair? Having the appearance of a
gentleman; being evidently taken for a gentleman; knowing what a gentleman
should be, he of course, resolves to behave as much like a gentleman as possible;
and liberality being necessary to the assumed character, he is tempted to sustain it,
by slight loans from the till, which being repeated, settle into methodized
The narrator excuses Robinson's conduct by blaming the temptations of the city. It's not
his fault that the temptations are there; it's not his fault that he must steal to preserve his
appearance. In fact, the narrator doesn't refer to Robinson's actions as stealing; he takes
"slight loans from the till." Presenting these thefts as loans instead of small robberies
again excuses Robinson from any real wrong-doing.
Time after time, Wilkes defends Robinson's character from his own actions.
When he sees Helen at the theatre, he does nothing to stop the two ruffians who accost
her: "Though not deficient in courage, he was not created for a knight-errant ... Had he
interfered, he might have been very well beaten without contributing any aid or comfort
to his unknown flame."52 Here the narrator leads his reader to believe that Robinson's
creator is at fault for his not being a "knight-errant." More importantly, the rational
explanation that he may have been so badly beaten as to be useless in offering aid is so
reasonable as to again remove the spot from his character. Whereas Perrault includes a
moral at the end of his "Blue Beard" to make it clear to his readers that the blame in the
51 Wilkes, 60.
52 Wilkes, 65.
story lies with the woman and not with her murderous husband, Wilkes creates a
conflicted male figure, who is, like his female counterpart, neither wholly good nor
wholly evil, and uses that conflict to its full advantage.
After establishing the tensions within Robinson's character, the narrator takes the
reader a few steps further into the young man's sensibility. When the narrator describes
Robinson's journal entries cursing his employer, who has made Robinson a veritable
member of his family, the reader sees into his true character.53 Much later, the novel
depicts Robinson's treatment of the young woman whom he had seduced when he first
arrived in New York. Not only does he repeatedly coax her from her family, he also
attempts many times to set her up in a brothel. Finally, once she has finally understood
that his intent is to leave her for good rather than to marry such a degraded creature, she
takes ill. Robinson visits the home of her nurse, and he dropped something into the
medicinal brew that had been prepared for the ill woman. We later discover through
Helen that what he dropped in was "Arsenic!"54 Robinson's actions toward Emma
anticipate his relationship with and subsequent murder of Helen Jewett. Here, Wilkes
diverges from the fairy tales' and Bennett's motif of blaming women for the harm done
to other women. While he is clear that women are to blame for Helen's downfall, Wilkes
does not shy from depicting the wrongs done to women at the hands of Robinson, in spite
of the earlier rationalization of his thievery and lack of chivalry.
53 The narrator describes Robinson's journal: "This was the record of course thoughts ... but what showed
in the most striking light his demoniac disposition was an entry which he mad on salary day, in relation to
his income. After remarking at some length, on the insufficiency of this sum for his expensive course of
life, he bestowed upon his employer... all the vulgar appellations within the range of confumelious
epithet, ending with the malediction-"Cursed be he, twice, and all his family, forever!" Wilkes, 67.
54 Wilkes, 59-62; 80-84; 96-97; 101-105.
Robinson's diabolical personality emerges toward the end of Wilkes' novel.
When Helen is out of town, Robinson cavorts with various women about town. A
confrontation between Robinson and one of Helen's friends ensues when she makes him
aware that she knows of his infidelity:
"Why you don't think that I've forgotten Hester Preston and Elizabeth
Salters, do you?"
"Mere harmless visits, I assure you ..."
"Well, if they were harmless visits ... what will you tell me of the young
lady at Mrs. Stewart's .. ."
Robinson paused a minute and then made an earnest request that his fair
informer would not spread the circumstance any further ....
[she told him] that he would have no right to complain if she (Helen) had
revenge upon him, by exposing his licentious and extravagant habits to his
"Why, I would blow her brains out!" slowly and resolutely, through his
Robinson's demeanor and threat foreshadow Jewett's murder. His threats come as no
real surprise. Though found not guilty at trial, by the time ofWilkes' novel, Robinson
was presumed guilty by many, including James Gordon Bennett, both in and out of the
Surprisingly, Wilkes' novel depicts a scene where but a few short weeks prior to
murdering her, Robinson stops Helen from killing herself. Though Robinson's rescue of
Helen seems like the heroic act of a lover, the narrator makes it clear that Robinson is
anything but heroic, describing it as a "performance." 56 The narrator details the effect on
He had been disturbed for the moment, but the prospect of Helen's death brought
with it no real alarm, for it had long been the subject of his thoughts. When,
therefore, she was declared convalescent, he felt as if his fortunes had miscarried
55 Wilkes, 99.
56 Wilkes, 111.
and his brain, almost without intention, was driven to conjecture how the
miscarriage might be remedied.57
Robinson cares nothing for Helen. He performs the role of the dutiful lover, but his
thoughts have long entertained her demise. He feels no sadness that he's the source of
her unhappiness that caused her suicide attempt. He only regrets that he saved her,
revealing that he deserves none of the sentiment expressed by other authors and by the
jury in his trial.
When Wilkes addresses the murder and Robinson's trial, he provides none of the
speculation that has filled the pages of his novelization. Instead, he paraphrases the
reports of James Gordon Bennett, including Bennett's articles in his footnotes. In fact the
amount of text that Wilkes uses from Bennett is so large that the difference between
footnote and novel becomes difficult, if not impossible to discern.58 This confusion of
fiction with Bennett's reality allows Wilkes to imply that his story is not a novel, but a
real account of the lives of these young people. The mere inclusion of Bennett's
reporting confuses the line between novelization and news, as Bennett changes opinions
about the crime with each article he writes. By incorporating the reports into the novel in
a manner that renders them almost indistinguishable from one another, Wilkes establishes
his novel as the definitive history of Helen Jewett and Richard Robinson.
Indeed, Wilkes constructs the entire novel as though it is a factual representation of
facts rather than a fictional account of the lives of Jewett and Robinson. In addition to
presenting its author as the editor of the National Police Gazette to give the novel the
appearance of "news," the story has many footnotes that work to establish the events in
5 Wilkes, 111.
58 See Wilkes, 120-130.
the story as fact. On the fourth page of the text, Wilkes includes the following note about
how young Dorcas lost her virginity:
This story of the lover is not, as some will be ready to suspect, the production of
the imagination of the writer. It is related in a series of epistles which Dorcas
Doyen, when shame made her heiress of another name, directed in a friend. Their
original draft, or copies, were found transcribed in a large scrap-book taken from
the trunk at the time of her murder. In the reproduction of this portion of its
contents, nothing is altered but the style. The letters were probably written during
her career in Boston, as they are signed "Helen Mar." They are, without doubt,
accurate records, as far as they go, of her earliest attachment.59
Though Wilkes claims that the letters are locked in his newspaper office, no other source
corroborates even the existence of these letters. Still, Wilkes uses this footnote and many
others throughout the text to establish his story as fact rather than fiction. Some of his
notes even provide "citations," though those works he cites cannot be found. It is
possible that given the more than 150 years separating Wilkes's period from our own,
these works no longer exist. However, extensive archival research has found no sources
that even remotely resemble those he references, making it likely that the author
fabricated them all.
Another device that Wilkes uses to establish the truthfulness of his tale is the
inclusion of Helen's letters to various paramours and their letters to her. Again, that
these letters exist anywhere but in the mind of the author cannot be corroborated, yet
because Wilkes claimed to have them in his possession, their placement in the text
establishes the events therein as "fact."
Wilkes also builds on Bennett's reporting, by using Bennett's articles to build his
novel. Yet Bennett was not the only influence at work. The immense popularity of fairy
tales in America at this time spoke to the public's desire for literature that encouraged
59 Wilkes, 8.
domesticity, passivity, domesticity, and submission in women and gave the public access
to women's bodies. Bennett realized that the public's desire was a conflicted one. True,
they wanted their wives and daughters to remain chaste outside of marriage and passive
in all matters outside the realm of the home. Yet the access that fairy tales granted to
women's bodies did not satisfy a competing, voyeuristic desire for knowledge of women
who refuse to adhere to such stifling roles as the Cult of True Womanhood demanded of
women. Unlike the fairy tale princesses before her, Helen Jewett was a woman of the
world, a prostitute, which granted the public full access to her sexual exploits and body
without the guilt that would have been associated with a chaste woman.
Bennett uses the fairy tales to create an acceptable object of desire for his readers.
He describes her in terms of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White as well as Cinderella, to
make her a sympathetic victim. Too, he uses her position as a prostitute to provide his
readers with access to an intensely erotic subject. Bennett walked a narrow line in his
conflicted depiction of Helen Jewett, but so did her other biographers. Wilkes'
novelization of Jewett's life takes the fairy tale Cinderella and imbues her with a natural,
animalistic sexuality. In Wilkes' novel, at eleven (or eight), Helen's sexual nature has
been awakened, and because of a few evil stepmother figures, she is unable to tame it.
Helen's Snow-White-like naivety furthers the image created in making her a Cinderella,
making the reader sympathize with her even as she turns her back on propriety.
Bennett and Wilkes also create a conflicted Richard P. Robinson. Bennett's
changing position on the guilt and innocence of Robinson, while motivated by monetary
gain, mirrors the public's wavering about the young man's culpability. Similarly, Wilkes
creates a Robinson who is both innocent and evil. He is not to blame because his creator
did not instill a character of strength and fortitude, according to Wilkes' novel, but he
undeniably commits robbery and murder. In other words, Robinson is a Prince Charming
who happens upon the good fortune of meeting the princess, and a Blue Beard who
murders all of his wives. The novel tells its reader that yes, Robinson likely murdered
Helen Jewett, but no, it wasn't entirely his fault. In the end, Helen's death is both
punishment for and recognition of her licentious nature. A young woman who paraded
about town in an infamous green dress and always carried a letter to attract attention and
elicit remembrances from passersby, Helen likely would have enjoyed the attention that
her dead body held for the public. The lover of romance and fiction in her would have
been proud that she helped to inspire a new genre that continued to feature versions of the
beautiful young prostitute years after her murder.
NECROPHILIA AND INCEST IN POE: THE REVENGE OF THE DEAD-UNDEAD
The odd syndrome of child-love, necrophilia, and incest in Poe is too personal and
pathological to shed much light on the general meaning of the latter theme in American
literature and life. It is not without interest, however, to reflect that the tales of Poe have
come to be thought of as a children's classic."
-Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel1
As demonstrated in the Chapter 2, nineteenth century American translations of
fairy tales-also considered "children's classics"-combined "child-love, necrophilia,
and incest," achieving immense popularity and remaining staples of American childhood
for nearly two centuries. Edgar Allan Poe, too, combines these elements, and as Leslie
Fiedler points out, his stories and poetry are deemed perfectly suitable for children. This
chapter contends that, contrary to Fiedler's assertion, the "odd syndrome" at play in
Edgar Allan Poe's fiction does indeed shed light on its "general meaning" in American
I will begin by establishing Poe's familiarity with fairy tales and the striking
similarities among his tales, James Gordon Bennett's descriptions of Helen Jewett's
corpse, and the fairy tales ofBasile, Perrault, and the Grimms. Then I will examine the
ways in which Poe's tales diverge from the fairy tales, creating horror alongside
necrophilic desire. In his tales, Poe twists the familiar formula of the fairy tales into
something new. His sleeping beauties such as Lady Madeline Usher and Ligeia return
1 Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Criterion Books, 1960).
from the grave, abjecting their male counterparts. In "The Fall of the House of Usher"
and other tales, such as "Morella," Poe incorporates incest to both titillate and repulse his
readers, whereas in yet other stories and his poems, he uses a strange combination of
necrophilia and child-love. Whereas the sentimental novels of the period identify with
and appropriate the victim's suffering,2 Poe's tales twist that by having the victim
appropriate the master by putting him in an abject position. Twisting fairy tales and the
sentimental, Poe uses the Gothic to both appropriate those genres and undermine them.
Poe worked to increase his readership. As such, he was forced to cater to "the
mob" that he detested. Terence Whalen explains, "Poe discovered that the mass audience
could not read pure novelty. Dependent on the common knowledge of the masses, yet
driven by the onward rush of information, writers attempted to construct new effects out
of old materials."3 Accordingly, Poe gave the mass audience what it wanted-an "odd
syndrome" of "child-love, necrophilia, and incest." Though these elements exist in the
earliest versions of fairy tales and continue to play subtle role in even our current
versions, Poe takes this combination to more extreme limits and in a culture very
different from those that were first introduced to fairy tales.
In the nineteenth century, children were first recognized as a category of person
separate from adults. When the Grimms first published their fairy tales, the stories were
full of incest, as in "The Maiden without Hands," and sexualized portrayals of young
2 Paula Bennett, Poets in the Public Sphere: The Emancipatory Project ofAmerican Women's Poetry,
1800-1900 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 54-56.
3 Whalen continues, "For the mass audience, in other words, the use-value of reading consists not in
intimations of unreachable bliss but in appeals to common fancies and desires. This means that the
writer-especially the writer of genius-should occupy a middle ground between absolute novelty and
common knowledge." Terence Whalen, Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: the Political Economy of
Literature in Antebellum America, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 46, 101.
girls, as in "Snow White." In subsequent editions, the Grimms toned down their tales to
be more suitable for children, a concern they did not have in 1812.4 Poe's time was only
a few years removed from a time when children were seen as little adults and their
sexuality seen as a given. He plays with contemporary taboos of incest and child-love,
knowing that his audience's reaction will mingle dread with desire. Too, Poe plays with
the emerging categories of child/adult, subject/object, and living/dead, and his tales play
with the ways in which crossing these boundaries threatens patriarchal control.
There is a direct relationship between Poe's works and the fairy tales. As early as
1823, Sir Walter Scott wrote to Taylor of the public's interest in the Grimms' tales:
"There is also a sort of wild fairy interest in them." This "wild" interest was not confined
to the Kinder- undHausmarchen. A few sentences later, Scott tells Taylor that he and his
friends have editions of tales from other countries, including Perrault.5 Like Sir Walter
Scott and his friends, Poe knew the fairy tales well. In his Arabian Nights: a
Companion, Robert Irwin discusses the influence that The Thousand and One Nights had
on Western authors, mentioning Poe's satire "The Thousand-and-Second Tale of
Scheherazade" as evidence.6 Poe was familiar not only with the versions of fairy tales in
Arabian Nights, but also with the popular fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, Charles
Perrault, and Giambattista Basile. In August 1836, writing "Pinakidia" for the SN,,ithe ii
Literary Messenger, Poe explains a comparison of a particular work to "The slipper of
Cinderella": "Cinderella is a tale of universal currency. An ancient Danish ballad has
4 See Fairy Tales and Society: Illusion, Allusion, and Paradigm, ed. Ruth B. Bottigheimer (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986). See also The Reception of Grimms' Fairy Tales: Responses.
Reactions. Revisions, ed. Donald Haase (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1993).
5 Quoted in Ruth Michaelis-Jena, The Brothers Grimm (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 173-175.
6 Robert Irwin, "Children of the Nights," Arabian winI' a Companion (New York: Penguin, 1996).
some of the incidents. It is popular among the Welch-also among the Poles-in Hesse
and Sweden ... It is in the Italian Pentamerone under the title of Cenerentola."7
Poe's awareness of Basile's II Pentamerone signals that he was likely familiar with
the more accessible tales of the Grimms and Perrault. He knew enough about George
Cruickshank, the artist who illustrated Taylor's translation of the Kinder und
Hausmarchen, to comment about his artistic contribution to Henry Cockton's Stanley
Thorn. Speaking about Cruickshank and a fellow contributor named Leech, Poe claims,
"It is observable that those of the latter [Leech] are more effective in every respect than
those of the former and far more celebrated artist."8 Cruickshank's illustrations for the
English translation of the Grimms' tales were included in a collection of his work in
1827; thus, it is unlikely that Poe could be aware of this "celebrated artist" and not his
fairy tale artwork.
Poe's awareness of and familiarity with fairy tales become apparent in his short
stories. Several, especially those featuring a dead or supposedly dead woman and her
surroundings, bear remarkable likenesses to Grimms', Perrault's, and even Basile's
versions of the "Sleeping Beauty" story, as well as to the Grimms' "Snow White" and
"The Glass Coffin."9 Poe's reviewers and critics noted this similarity as early as 1885
SEdgar Allan Poe, "Pinakidia," Southern Literary Messenger (August 1836), 577-578.
8 Edgar Allan Poe, Review of Stanley Thorn, Graham 's Magazine (January 1842), xx.
9 Poe's poetry demonstrates these same characteristics. See especially the fairy-tale-like beginning of
"Annabel Lee" and the obvious necrophilia in this poem. See also "The Raven" in which the speaker
laments his lost love Lenore and Poe's "Lenore" in which the speaker speaks of the "life upon her yellow
when one critic refers to Poe's works as "his fairy tales."10 Even earlier, an 1836 review
for the Richmond Compiler questions, "Why will he [Poe] not disenthrall himself from
the spells of German enchantment and supernatural imagery?""
Although this earlier review of Poe could be read as relating Poe to the German
Romantics or even Gothics, its references to "spells," "enchantment," and "supernatural
imagery" more closely resemble the German fairy tales collected by the Grimms.
Though Poe does not directly address fairy tales as an influence, he mentions them
numerous times in reviews, referencing "Sleeping Beauty" in a review of Hawthorne's
Twice-Told Tales and referring to Christopher Pease Cranch's style as "Cinderella
Fancy."12 More importantly, Poe's reviewers refer to his stories as "fairy tales," an
aspect that needs further exploration. Poe recognized an opportunity to increase
readership by incorporating elements of popular fairy tales into his own works. Perhaps
he took advantage of the "particular demand" for fairy tales, supplying the public's
"unstable and perhaps unfathomable tastes" by incorporating the more macabre elements
of the tales such as female corpses and necrophilia and twisting them into terror.13
10 Quoted in Lubov Breit Keefer, "Poe in Russia," Poe in Foreign Lands and Tongues, ed. Jeanne Rosselet,
Lubov Keefer, Herbert Schaumann and Pedro Salinas (Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1941):
1 Richmond Compiler, (February 1836), "Bits and Pieces-II," E. A. Poe Society of Baltimmore. 23 May
1Edgar Allan Poe, "Tale-Writing-Nathaniel Hawthorne," Godey's Lady's Book (November 1847), 252-
256. and Edgar Allan Poe, "The Literati-Part III," The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, vol. III
13 As Terence Whalen argues, "Since he could not support himself by writing poetry, he had to adapt his
talents to the unstable and perhaps unfathomable tastes of a distant mass audience. Some of his most
extravagant tales were, by his own admission, composed 'to supply a particular demand."' Whalen, 7.
"The Oblong Box" shares obvious themes in common with both "Snow-White" and
"The Glass Coffin." In Poe's story, the narrator tells of hearing the main character after
his "wife" had left the room each night. He recounts:
I fancied I could distinguish the precise moment when he fairly disengaged the
lid-also, that I could determine when he removed it altogether, and when he
deposited it upon the lower berth in his room After this there was a dead
stillness, and I heard nothing more, upon either occasion, until nearly daybreak;
unless, perhaps, I may mention a low sobbing, or murmuring sound ... I say it
seemed to resemble sobbing or sighing ... He had opened his oblong box, in
order to feast his eyes on the pictorial treasure within ... Just before dawn, on
each of the two nights of which I speak, I distinctly heard Mr. Wyatt replace the
lid of the oblong box, and force the nails into their old places, by means of the
muffled mallet. 14
At the end of the story, the reader finds out that Mr. Wyatt's dead wife-not a painting as
the narrator supposes-is the "pictorial treasure within" the oblong box. Because the
reader now knows that it is Mrs. Wyatt's corpse in the box, this portion of the narrative
takes on a new meaning. Every night Mr. Wyatt "disengaged the lid," "removed it
altogether," and "deposited it upon the lower berth in his room." The narrator surmises
that Mr. Wyatt puts the lid on the "lower berth," or bunk, because there was so little room
in his cabin. Given the ending of the story, the reader can suppose that Mr. Wyatt
actually places it upon the bunk because he is not sleeping there, sleeping, instead, inside
the oblong box with his deceased wife. His "sobbing, or murmuring sound," is now
obviously attributable to the fact that his wife is dead and that he opens up her makeshift
coffin to sleep with or, at least, "feast his eyes on" her each night.
Poe's "Sleeping Beauty" motif is most evident in one of the cases his narrator
relates in "The Premature Burial." Monsieur Renelle and "every one who saw her"
14 Edgar Allan Poe, "The Oblong Box," Poe: Poetry, Tales, and Selected Essays (New York: Library of
America, 1984): 649-650.
suppose his wife dead; thus, Monsieur Renelle has her buried. Her former lover
"journeys from the capital to the remote province in which the village lies, with the
romantic purpose of disinterring the corpse and possessing himself of its luxuriant
tresses." When he unearths the coffin, he discovers that "the lady had been buried alive.
Vitality had not altogether departed; and she was aroused, by the caresses of her lover,
from the lethargy which had been mistaken for death."15 Poe's tale builds upon and
adapts the themes in Grimm and Perrault. The woman's former lover, much like Bennett
and the fairy tale princes, does not care that the woman is dead; rather, her corpse is just
as (and possibly more) desirable than the woman was when she was alive. Like Bennett,
the dwarfs, and the princes, the lover yearns to have one final look at her and to possess
her or something that was once a part of her. In the fairy tales, especially "Snow White,"
the men possess the heroine's dead body; here, the lover wishes to possess the dead
woman's "luxuriant tresses." In contrast to the fairy tales, "Premature Burial" is more
overt in its intentions. The "lover" has a "romantic purpose" and he "caresses" her. Here
Poe presents a more adult and overtly erotic theme than do either the Grimms or Perrault,
while still centering the story in the overtly necrophilic.
In both Perrault's and the Grimms' versions of the "sleeping beauty" tale, only a
certain, preordained prince can pass through the brambles surrounding the palace to
awaken her. As the Grimms' narrator explains, "He stooped down and gave her a kiss.
But the moment he kissed her she opened her eyes and awoke, and smiled upon him." In
Poe's story, even though "vitality had not altogether departed," the prematurely buried
15 Edgar Allan Poe, "The Premature Burial," Poe: Poetry, Tales, and Selected Essays (New York: Library
of America, 1984): 668.
woman regains full consciousness only after the lover kisses and "caresses" her. 16 In
"Sleeping Beauty" and "Brier Rose," the brambles and thorns that part "of their own
accord" signal a mutual encounter between the prince and the sleeping beauty. In Poe's
tale, the woman's subsequent relationship with her lover is also mutual. Not only does
she only awaken after he arrives at her grave, but she also leaves with him, refusing to
tell her husband that she is alive. More importantly, the story ends "happily ever after"
with the woman fleeing with her lover and living out the rest of her days with him. 17
Though it does not provide a happy ending, "The Fall of the House of Usher" also
parallels the fairy tales. When read alongside "Snow White," a description of Lady
Madeline is noticeably similar to that of the fairy tale heroine. The narrator of the
Grimms' story explains, "They (the dwarfs) would have buried her, but that she looked
still as if she were living, with her beautiful blooming cheeks."18 The narrators of both
Poe's and the Grimms' stories note that the woman is dead but looks alive. Lady
Madeline has a "mockery of a faint blush" rather than simply a "faint blush," thus
implying that the blush is not real because she is dead.19 Snow White "looked still as if
she were living." Both descriptions allow the narrator to let his audience know that the
woman in question seems dead but may not be. Moreover, because of the appearance of
16 Grimm, "Brier Rose," German Fairy Tales and Popular Stories, as Told by Gammer Grethel trans.
Edgar Taylor (London: H. G. Bohn, 1823), 30.
17 Before the woman and her lover can live "happily ever after," they encounter her husband on the street
many years after her burial and resurrection, and she must sever her ties to her husband in a court of law.
Nevertheless, the "happily ever after" motif survives as the woman's plea to have her marriage ended by
the court is granted and she and her lover continue to live with one another.
18 Grimm, "Snow White," German Fairy Tales and Popular Stories, as Told by Gammer Grethel trans.
Edgar Taylor (London: H. G. Bohn, 1823), 155.
19 Edgar Allan Poe, "The Fall of the House of Usher," Poe: Poetry, Tales, and Selected Essays (New
York: Library of America, 1984): 329.
life that the dead women possess, neither Usher nor the dwarfs can bring themselves to
bury them. Though Usher claims that he does not want scientists to dig up his sister to
investigate her ailment, not burying her serves the same plot function as does the dwarfs'
refusal to bury Snow White-both women come back to life.
An even more striking similarity is the voyeurism that the tales dramatize and
induce. As previously explained, James Gordon Bennett's voyeurism mirrors the
voyeurism of the prince in Snow White. Similarly, Usher and the narrator of Poe's story
contribute to what David Reynolds describes as "social voyeurism."20 They do not
simply take Lady Madeline to her tomb; they remove the lid of her coffin "and looked
upon the face of the tenant." 21 Though there is no explicit sex in this passage, sexual
desire is inherent. Why must they remove the lid? That Poe places the scene at this point
in the text demonstrates that the two men cannot leave without one final look at what
Bennett called Jewett, the "beautiful female corpse." Moreover, placing Lady Madeline's
body in a room "lying, at great depth, immediately beneath that portion of the building in
which was my own sleeping apartment" means that the narrator literally lies on top of the
corpse every night.
As with Bennett's account of Helen Jewett, the description of the home in Poe's
"The Fall of the House of Usher" resembles the home described in Perrault's "Sleeping
Beauty." In Poe's tale, the narrator describes the house as being infused with "a sense of
insufferable gloom," possessing "bleak walls," being surrounded by "decayed trees," and
20 David Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive I,,g,,Jr,,i,,. '1, in the Age ofEmerson
and Melville (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988), 215.
21 Edgar Allan Poe, "The Fall of the House of Usher," 329.
evoking in the narrator "an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart."22 A valet takes
him to see Usher in complete "silence."23 These descriptions serve to let the reader know
that the house is a place filled with death and decay. Later, the narrator describes the
lower parts of the house where they lay Lady Madeline to rest as "a region of horror" and
the rest of the home as "the scarcely less gloomy apartments of the upper portion of the
house."24 Here, the narrator sets up the house as a place of "horror," thus foreshadowing
the return of Lady Madeline.
The narrator's descriptions in "The Fall of the House of Usher" are in keeping with
the descriptions of the homes in which the sleeping beauty of the fairy tales is
imprisoned. In Perrault's tale, the narrator recounts the hero's reaction to the scenery of
the home: "He came into a spacious outward court, where every thing he saw might have
frozen up the most fearless person with horror. There reigned all over a most frightful
silence; the image of death every where shewed itself; and there was nothing to be seen
but stretched out bodies of men and animals all seeming to be dead."25 Both narrators
describe the scenes in terms of "horror" and "silence." Scenes of "gloom" or "death" are
everywhere in both the House of Usher and the palace in which Sleeping Beauty lies.
The narrator of "The Fall of the House of Usher" never actually uses the word "death" to
describe the scenery, yet "decayed trees," "insufferable gloom," and "bleak walls" of the
Usher home are as much the "image of death" as what the prince in Perrault's tale
22 Ibid, 317.
23 Ibid, 320.
24 Ibid, 329.
25 Charles Perrault, "The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods," Histories or Tales of Past Times with Morals,
trans. Robert Samber (London: J. Pote & R. Montagu, 1729), 20.
encounters. Moreover, both Poe's narrator and Perrault's prince experience a feeling of
icinesss" or being "frozen with terror" upon first confronting the house or palace.
In the "sleeping beauty" tale, the death and reanimation of the castle is inextricably
linked to that of the heroine. When she dies, the castle dies; all work ceases and the
entire structure exudes death. Upon the princess's awakening, the castle too awakens.
Poe's tale of the Usher family and house plays with the notion that the home and its
inhabitants are tied together. Yet, Poe's story takes an already traditional characteristic
of the Gothic-that the existence of the familial home is linked to that of the family
itself-and twists it as he does other aspects of the Gothic and fairy tale traditions. The
Usher home serves not only as a symbol of the deterioration of the Usher family, but the
home serves as antagonist, possessing self-awareness and causing the family's
deterioration (and, finally, their deaths).
Clearly, the narrator questions how much the "House of Usher" (meaning home)
had affected the "House of Usher" (meaning the family). He speaks of "the perfect
keeping of the character of the premises with the accredited character of the people, and .
. [speculates] upon the possible influence which the one, in the long lapse of centuries,
might have exercised upon the other." He goes on to explain that "the original title of the
estate ... "House of Usher" [was] an appellation which seemed to include, in the minds
of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion."26 Thus, the
narrator recognizes the not only the ties between house and family, but also the power of
the ancestral home over the Usher line.
26 Poe, "The Fall of the House of Usher," 319.
In Poe's tale, the narrator and Roderick discuss that the house seems sentient.
Roderick insists that the "evidence" and "result" of the house's sentience is "discoverable
... in that silent, yet importunate and terrible influence which for centuries had moulded
the destinies of his family, and which made him what I [the narrator] now saw him."27
The narrator's choice of the word "moulded" to describe the house's effect on the Usher
family holds a dual meaning. On the surface of the statement, the home shapes the
family. As the home "moulded" and decayed, so did the family. But, "mould" also
means "to deteriorate" and "to soil." And although the use of"moulded" as a transitive
verb does not usually carry either of these meanings, as an affective force upon the
family, the home, according to Roderick, contributes to the deterioration of the family,
soiling and destroying them until they are no more.28
Just as "The Fall of the House of Usher" is similar to the Grimms' and Perrault's
fairy tales, Poe's "Ligeia" resembles both "Snow White" and "Sleeping Beauty" and
"Brier Rose." The narrator tells us that Ligeia is characterized by a "marble hand," "skin
rivaling the purest ivory," and hair that is "Raven-black, the glossy, the luxuriant and
naturally curling tresses."29 Much as Bennett describes Jewett's corpse as the whitest
"Parian marble," the narrator of"Ligeia" uses the image of "purest ivory" to describe
Ligeia's skin, summoning visions of Snow White's skin that "was as white as snow."
27 Poe, "The Fall of the House of Usher," 327-328.
28 Roger Corman's 1960 movie version interprets Poe's story in such a way that the house literally tries to
kill the family. When the characters attempt to leave the house, chandeliers fall, nearly killing them, and
the house collapses around the dying Usher family at the closing of the movie.
29 Edgar Allan Poe, "Ligeia," Poe: Poetry, Tales, and Selected Essays (New York: Library of America,
The added image of Ligeia's "raven-black" hair furthers the comparison to Snow-White
in that the latter's hair is "as black as ebony."30
"Ligeia" also bears a strong resemblance to Perrault's "Sleeping Beauty" in that the
narrators of both tales describe the heroine's beauty in terms of spectrality or divinity.
Ligeia's beauty was "the radiance of an opium dream-an airy and spirit-lifting vision
more wildly divine than the phantasies which hovered about the slumbering souls of the
daughters of Delos."31 Thus, Ligeia's beauty is more than "divine;" it is far above that
conceived of by even the gods. Perrault's Sleeping Beauty is described in a similar
fashion. The narrator represents Sleeping Beauty as possessing "bright, and in a manner
resplendent beauty, [that] had something in it divine."32 The word "divine" tells the
reader that the women are superior to any other woman, an idea taken even further in
"Ligeia" when the narrator marries a woman he grows to hate because she is so unlike
The story's ending recalls Bennett's sexually aroused description of Helen Jewett's
corpse. Upon the transformation of Lady Rowena's corpse into Ligeia, the narrator
exclaims, "Here then, at least, can I never-can I never be mistaken-these are the full,
and the black, and the wild eyes-of my lost love-of the lady-of the LADY
LIGEIA!"33 Just as in the earlier passage by Bennett, the dashes evoke the heavy
30 Grimm, "Snow-White," 148.
31 Poe, "Ligeia," 263. In Greek myth, Asteria, one of the Titanades, transformed herself into a meteor and
threw herself into the ocean, becoming the island of Delos in an attempt to escape Zeus. Her sister Leto
came to this island seeking refuge and gave birth to Apollo-god of music, medicine, prophecy, and
poetry-and Artemis-goddess of childbirth, harvest, and hunting. Bullfinch's A iili. ..-: (New York:
Gramercy Books, 1979).
32 Perrault, 20.
33 Poe, "Ligeia," 277.
breathing of the narrator as he looks over the corpse. His excitement builds with each
dash. At last, unable to contain himself, he releases this build-up as he shouts the name
"LADY LIGEIA!" Yet, while Bennett's desire is more restrained, Poe's narrator
communicates a desire mingled with horror. Unlike Jewett, Ligeia comes back from the
dead to confront her voyeur, and though his desire has not dissipated, it is now mixed
More so than in his inclusion of sexual overtones in "The Oblong Box" and "The
Premature Burial," Poe adapts the motifs of the fairy tales in both "The Fall of the House
of Usher" and "Ligeia." While ill or dead, the women in Poe's stories cannot resist the
violence perpetuated by the male protagonists, but when they return from the grave, they
frequently become a source of terror for the male narrators, who become the passive
objects of the tales. Unlike Lady Madeline, Ligeia displays not only a "violent" passion,
but also intellect while alive. The narrator explains, "I was sufficiently aware of her
infinite supremacy to resign my self, with a child-like confidence, to her guidance
through the chaotic world of metaphysical investigation at which I was most busily
occupied during the earlier years of our marriage."34 Ligeia acts as loving and patient
teacher to the "child-like" narrator. On her deathbed, Ligeia does not complain of her
discomfort. Rather, with a passion that "amounted to idolatry," she dwells upon her love
for her husband.35 Ligeia controls her husband so much that she infantilizes him, which
is why she must die. Her assertiveness takes too much power from her husband, and the
only path to passivity is death.
34 Ibid, 265-266.
35 Ibid, 267.
Moreover, the narrator of "Ligeia" not only mistreats his new wife, Lady Rowena,
but also may have killed both wives, the objects of his desire.36 The passivity of death
cannot contain the active will of Ligeia. In her return from the grave, Ligeia no longer
lovingly teaches her husband; instead, she becomes an active terror for both the narrator
and his audience. As Karen Weekes suggests, "The narrator is terrified by Ligeia's
reappearance not so much because it means she has conquered death but because she
does it through an act of vehement will, a powerful volition that renders him prostrate."37
Leland S. Person similarly argues that Ligeia's return "also explodes the Angel in the
House ideology."38 Whereas Snow White and Sleeping Beauty awake to marry their
princes and live "happily ever after" likely as domestic goddesses, Ligeia returns to
wreak terror upon her husband.
Women writers like Charlotte Perkins Gillman in "The Yellow Wallpaper" used the
gothic to demonstrate the horrors of domestic ideology. Poe's gothic tales undo any
pretended subversion that they offer of that domestic ideology. Like the poetry of
women in the antebellum period, Poe's tales "cleave to the figure of the Angel
nonetheless, ignoring the price paid by 'living' women forced to 'die' into this role."39
Though Poe's tales do demonstrate that women die to become the pious, passive objects
that men desired, the dead, passive woman is desirable. Even still, his focus is not on the
36 Cynthia Jordan, Second Stories: The Politics of Language Form and Gender in Early American Fiction,
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 135-139.
37 Karen Weekes, "Poe's Feminine Ideal," The Cambridge Companion to EdgarAllan Poe, ed. Kevin J.
Hayes (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002): 159.
38 Leland Person, "Poe and Nineteenth-Century Gender Constructions," A Historical Guide to EdgarAllan
Poe, ed. J. Gerald Kennedy (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001), 145.
39 Paula Bernat Bennett,, 116.
price the women have paid to conform to societal expectations about domesticity and
become desirable. When his women characters transgress the boundaries between
masculine and feminine norms, they wreak havoc on their male counterparts, with whom
the reader sympathizes because the male is the teller of the tale. While dead, she is "the
most poetical topic in the world," but when reawakened, she becomes more than an
object.40 She is an active force that creates terror in the heart of her husband because she
steps outside of her role as a passive object and firmly places him in that role.
Similarly, in "The Fall of the House of Usher," Roderick Usher does not attempt to
rescue his sister from her premature entombment even though he comes to know that she
is still alive. When Lady Madeline arises from the depths of her tomb, she kills her
brother: "For a moment she remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the
threshold-then, with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her
brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse,
and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated."41 Though Lady Madeline also dies in this
scene, she is entirely active. She "fell," but she also "bore [Roderick] to the floor."
Because Usher has been "anticipating" Lady Madeline's rising from her tomb, she is the
"terror" to which he becomes the "victim."
Because Madeline and Ligeia refuse to die, they refuse to accept their subordinate
positions. Elizabeth Bronfen explains, "Death is not just the end of organic existence, but
also the removal of a social being from society."42 Upon the assumed deaths of Ligeia
40 Edgar Allan Poe, "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe: Poetry, Tales, and Selected Essays (New
York: Library of America, 1984): 1379.
41 Poe, "The Fall of the House of Usher," 335.
42 Elizabeth Bronfen, Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity, and The Aesthetic (New York:
Routledge, 1992): 77.
and Madeline, the narrator of "Ligeia" and Roderick Usher "stand erect, imbued with a
feeling of superiority" over the supposedly dead woman who "is in the passive,
horizontal position, cut down, fallen."43 The narrators of these two stories attempt to
remove Ligeia and Madeline from society, to retain their power, but the women's returns
from their graves illustrate men's fear that this is an impossible feat. The abjection of the
narrator conveys an important message of fear to others-Beware the willful woman; she
In the fairy tales of the Grimms, Perrault, and Basile, in Bennett's descriptions of
Jewett's Corpse, and in Poe's short stories, men control the narratives. In "The Oblong
Box" and "The Premature Burial," Poe retains these formulas, twisting them by making
them more overtly necrophilic. In other tales, Poe twists these formulas even more,
ending them with the return of the dead woman. But Poe's reanimated women are no
"Sleeping Beauties" or "Snow Whites," content to live "happily ever after" with whoever
is standing close by when she awakens. When she reappears, as in "Ligeia" and "The
Fall of the House of Usher," she functions to demonstrate men's fear of women who
refuse passivity, instead asserting their own will. Whereas scholars like Person suggest
that the tale can "be read from a woman's point of view for its depiction of the domestic
Angel's revenge," the fact that the narration is first-person presents a serious difficulty to
reading it from a woman's point of view.44 The reader has no insight into the female
characters, no insight into their motives for reappearing after their deaths. The "I" of the
male narrator places the reader solely within his perspective. It is the man's terror, men's
43 Bronfen, 65.
44 Person, 145.
fear of the truly active woman, that the reader experiences. If the Grimms encouraged
passivity in women through their tales, Poe demonstrated the terror that active women
Most critics have overlooked the mingling of terror of and desire for a female
corpse, the inherent necrophilia, at work in Poe's tales.45 Even when scholars mention
necrophilia, it is frequently in relation to the erotic fiction of the time, not to Poe. David
Reynolds, who notes that "Antebellum erotic novels, most of which fall into the Dark
Adventure or Subversive categories, commonly included scenes with necrophilic
undertones," later differentiates this popular genre from what he calls "the major
literature."46 In contrast, in Leslie Fiedler's discussion of the theme of incest in Poe's
work, he refers to "The Fall of the House of Usher" and Lady Madeline's return from the
It is the most horrific of Liebestods, the ultimate expression of Poe's obsessive
dream of being possessed by the dead, raped by a cadaverous sister-beloved,
elsewhere projected in the story of Ligeia, who returns from death to take over the
body of a second bride. But there is in Poe a complementary desire to possess the
dead, to return embrace for embrace, violation for violation. At its mildest and
most conventional, this longing is satisfied in fantasies of lovers joined as fellow
ghosts beyond the grave or chatting cozily after the cataclysmic destruction of the
world. ... Occasionally, however, Poe's necrophiliac heroes descend living into
the tomb .. .47
Here Fiedler recognizes the necrophilia inherent in Poe's works, but he does so in the
context of incest, quickly moving from Poe to incest in the works of Hawthorne and
45 In addition to Terence Whalen, see J. Gerald Kennedy, Poe, Death, and the Life of i; ,', ; (New Haven:
Yale UP, 1987) and David Leverenz, "Spanking The Master: Mind-Body crossings in Poe's
Sensationalism," A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe ed. J. Gerald Kennedy (Oxford: Oxford UP,
46 Reynolds, 221, 222.
47 Fiedler, 399-400.
Melville. In his other discussions of Poe, Fiedler focuses on the biography and popularity
of the author without any further mention of necrophilia.
Even in works where necrophilia in nineteenth century America is central, critics
gloss over Poe. For example, Russ Castronovo's Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism,
and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth-Century United States fails to fully engage Poe's
use of necrophilia. Investigating the intersections between death, citizenship, and the
public sphere, Castronovo argues that "necro ideology" presents a means of going
"beyond thematic readings of death by drawing attention to knowledge and discourses
that produce dead citizens. That is, necro ideology offers a point of intervention in a
public sphere that fears radically democratic and contestatory politics as overly vibrant
and animated."48 In his book, Castronovo discusses mediums, mesmerism, and
ghostwriting alongside the literary works of Emerson, Hawthorne, and Harriet Jacobs. It
would seem that any argument dealing with necrophilia, especially one that includes
discussions of mesmerism, would have to discuss Poe. Yet in his argument, Castronovo
never launches into a discussion of any length about the author.49
Moreover, in writing about the specific tales that I am examining, scholars tend to
focus their attentions on other aspects of the texts such as the reliability of Poe's
narrators, psychological breakdown in "The Fall of the House of Usher," Ligeia's race,
or the patterns of death and resurrection that recur in Poe's fiction. Some critics have
attempted to fashion Poe into a male feminist ahead of his time. Cynthia Jordan argues
for this vision of Poe, claiming that there are, in fact, three phases evident in Poe's
48 Russ Castronovo, Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth-Century
United States (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2001), 14-15.
49 Only five pages of text and two notes even mention him.
fiction, and that the second and third phases progress toward a "reject[ion of] one-sided
male authored fictions and to a new fictional form-a second story that provides a text
for female experience." In the third phase, the detection stories featuring "androgynous"
Auguste Dupin, Jordan argues, "Poe created a new and unquestionably heroic caretaker
of social and political order, and Dupin fulfills these responsibilities by going beyond the
imaginative limits of the male storytellers around him and fully recovering the second
story-the woman's story-that has previously gone untold."50 Jordan's argument is an
interesting one, but it overlooks one important detail of Poe's work-a female narrator
tells only one story, a satire of sensation fiction and women writers titled "How to Write
a Blackwood Article." Every other Poe tale is narrated by a man.
"The Fall of the House of Usher," the tale Jordan singles out as representative of
Poe's second phase, all but ignores the female point of view. The narrator and Roderick
Usher bury the lone female character, Lady Madeline, alive. Seconds before Lady
Madeline reappears, her brother proclaims, "We have put her living in the tomb! Said I
not that my senses were acute! I now tell you that I heard her first feeble movements in
the hollow coffin. I heard them-many, many days ago." If the "androgynous" Usher
does, as Jordan argues, clear a space for female experience, why is it that he does not set
his sister free upon hearing her trying to escape from her coffin? Why is he only now,-a
word emphasized in Poe's text-"many, many days" later, telling the narrator that they
buried Lady Madeline alive? Clearly, Usher's true intent is not to reveal a second story;
he wishes to bury Lady Madeline, to rid himself of the feminine completely. Yet, Usher
50 Jordan, 135. Similarly, Leland S. Person argues, "Even as male characters work to transform women
into aesthetic objects, female characters resis that effort ... Poe criticizes the objectifying tendencies of
his male characters." See Aesthetic Headaches: Women and a Masculine Poetics in Poe, Melville, and
Hawthorne (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1988), 23.
vanishes into the "crack" as the house falls apart. Perhaps the true second story of this
tale is the revenge of the "dead-undead" woman and the abjection of the male.
As Usher's twin, Lady Madeline represents his feminine side; her presence disrupts
his identity and nineteenth century ideals of femaleness. Usher's attempt to rid himself of
his feminine identity exemplifies Julia Kristeva's theory of the abject in works of horror.
Kristeva explains that the abject "draws me toward the place where meaning collapses...
. It lies outside ... And yet, from its place of banishment, the abject does not cease
challenging its master."51 Roderick's relationship with Madeline leads him into abjection.
Not only are they twins, but the narrator implies that the siblings are also lovers, causing
the meaning of his identity as her brother to collapse.52 That the Ushers' family structure
and Roderick's identity collapse is nothing new in the Gothic. William Patrick Day tells
us, "The past that creates fear in the Gothic fantasy is not so much the past of the
ancient regime as it is the immediate past of parents and family."53 Poe's Gothic
challenges this past, disrupting and eventually destroying it.
Madeline continues to "challenge" Roderick even after he attempts to bury her and
the family curse of incest and insanity, and Usher must die when Madeline returns from
the grave. He becomes abject when the "dead-undead" Madeline appears outside the
51 Julia Kriesteva, Powers ofHorror: An Essay on Abjection, Trans. Leon S. Roudiez, (New York:
Columbia UP, 1982), 2.
52 The narrator explains early in the story, "I had learned, too, the very remarkable fact, that the stem of the
Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch; in other words,
that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very
temporary variation, so lain." Poe, "The Fall of the House of Usher," 318.
53 William Patrick Day. In the Circles of Fear and Desire: A Study of Gothic Fantasy (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1985), 32.
door to his study. Madeline returns, falls "heavily inward upon [Roderick's] person."54
Even Madeline's final action blurs boundaries, collapses meaning, as she gives birth to
Usher's death. Usher "anticipated" Madeline's return, the return of the abject. He is
unable to rid himself of it, and it returns, violently obliterating his person in a final act of
In a similar act of willful vengeance, Ligeia returns from the dead, abjecting the
person of the narrator. From the beginning of his story, the narrator describes his
relationship with Ligeia and his grief at her demise and death in ambiguous terms. The
very first sentence highlights the ambiguity of their relationship: "I cannot, for my soul,
remember how, when, or even precisely where, I first became acquainted with the lady
Ligeia." A few lines later, he explains, "And now, while I write, a recollection flashes
upon me that I have never known the paternal name of her who was my friend and my
betrothed, and who became the partner of my studies, and finally the wife of my
bosom."56 Most couples can recount every minute detail of their first meeting, and
husbands do not forget their wives' maiden names. The narrator refers to Ligeia as his
"beloved," yet he knows very little about her. He forgets significant details about her,
and his attempts to convey the emotions he experienced during her illness and death are
equally uncertain. He recalls, "How poignant, then, must have been the grief' at
discovering Ligeia's waning health. The narrator does not recall that his grief was
"poignant," just that it "must have been."
54 Poe, "The Fall of the House of Usher," 335.
55 See also Diane Lond Howeveler, "The Hidden God and the Abjected Woman in 'The Fall of the House
of Usher," Studies in Short Fiction, 29.3 (1992): 385-395.
56 Poe, "Ligeia," 262.
The narrator's seeming forgetfulness is an attempt to rid himself of the abject. If he
cannot tell us about Ligeia, then he is free from her power. Yet, like any attempt to rid
oneself of the abject, his fails. She returns in Rowena's body, exploding the narrator's
assertions that the two women were so different. The narrator's own meaning rests upon
the notion that his second wife was so unlike Ligeia that he hates her. When Ligeia
returns from the dead in Rowena's body, the reader sees that they are the same and
meaning collapses. The strong-willed female refuses to be removed from the story.
Ligeia refuses to die. She returns with each retelling and, so, refuses to be forgotten.
Contrary to Jordan's argument that this is some sort of feminist move on Poe's part, it,
demonstrates the horror of the female will. Ligeia's husband tells the tale; the first
person narrative places the reader in a position of empathy with the narrator. His horror
(and desire) at her return is our horror.
The horror of Poe's tales does not always lie only in the return of the willful
woman from death. Many of his tales incorporate incest among their themes. In "The
Fall of the House of Usher," the reader knows little about the incest between Roderick
and his sister Madeline; the reader is simply told that their family tree has "no enduring
branch." The incest at work in "Berenice" occurs between seemingly consenting parties
of similar standing, whereas in "Morella" the narrator's daughter literally becomes a
substitute for her deceased mother. The varying degrees of incest in these tales function
in different ways. In "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "Berenice," they are
symptoms of the narrators' madness and obsession with their female victims. The incest
and seeming pedophilia in "Morella," on the other hand, are significant contributors to
the actual horror of the tale.
In "Berenice," a tale of a man's obsession with his cousin, the narrator, unlike
many of Poe's others, tells the reader his name, Egaeus.57 Not only do we know the
narrator's name, but he is the only narrator to admit his mental illness. These factors
force the reader into a tenuous relationship with Egaeus. On the one hand, the narrative
is in the first-person, so the reader feels complicit as he reads "I" over and over. On the
other hand, the addition of personal details about the narrator allows the reader to
consciously remember that he is not a participant, that a madman is recounting his
misdeeds. While the reader may feel sympathy with Egaeus., the reader is not forced into
a position where he is empathetic and understanding.
More importantly, Egaeus points out that he and Berenice, the alleged subject of
the tale, were not only cousins, but that they "grew up together in [his] paternal halls."58
When the reader later learn that Egaeus has proposed marriage, the reader is mildly
shocked because he has just explained that he "had never loved her;" his proposal comes
during "an evil moment."59 Havelock Ellis explains that when people grow up together,
they become accustomed to one another, and any incestuous desire that might exist
disappears during puberty. Ellis goes on to explain that "examples of really passionate
incestuous attraction ... are nearly always between those persons who have been
separated during the pubertal period, so that the dulling effect of familiar life on the
development of sexual stimuli has been suspended."60 Assuming Ellis' assertion is true,
57 Edgar Allan Poe, "Berenice," Poe: Poetry, Tales, and Selected Essays (New York: Library of America,
58 Ibid, 226.
60 Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology ofSex. Volume III. (New York: Random House, 1936). 507.
why then would Berenice have harbored feelings of love for the narrator? He tells us,
"She had loved me long." If they had indeed grown up together, shouldn't her love for
Egaeus have become more like that of a sister for a brother? Clearly, something is amiss
in their relationship and in their development.
That the narrator has never loved Berenice comes as no surprise. He begins his tale
discussing Berenice and the illness which had befallen her, yet in the middle of the
paragraph he launches into a detailed discussion about himself, continuing for several
paragraphs before again mentioning the title character of his tale. When he returns to her,
it is only in reference to his perception of her and her disease as caused by his
"monomania": "True to its own character, my disorder reveled in the less important but
more startling changes wrought in the physical frame of Berenice-in the singular and
most appalling distortion of her personal identity."61 And while the tale carries
Berenice's name as its title, the entire tale has very little to do with her.
His cataloging Berenice's features along with his admission that he does not love
her demonstrate Egaeus' perception of her as an object rather than as a lifemate. Like the
narrator of "Ligeia," Egaeus details his object's features:
My burning glances at length fell upon the face.
The forehead was high, and very pale, and singularly placid; and the once
jetty hair fell partially over it, and overshadowed the hollow temples with
innumerable ringlets now of a vivid yellow, and jarring discordantly, in their
fantastic character, with the reigning melancholy of the countenance. The eyes
were lifeless, and lusterless, and seemingly pupil-less.62
61 Poe, "Berenice," 229.
62 Ibid, 230.
Here and in "Ligeia" and other tales, Poe makes literary use of what Laura Mulvey calls
"the male gaze."63 Though Mulvey coined the term specifically in reference to film,
Poe's works clearly lend themselves to similar discussion.
Each of Poe's tales that is told by a male narrator forces the reader into a position
where he is "viewing" the story and the woman from a male point of view. As mentioned
earlier, the tales refuse to incorporate the female experience. Like Ligeia, Berenice is no
longer a person to either the narrator or the reader. She is only a composite of her
features. In fact, Egaeus does not even acknowledge that these features belong to her.
They are merely "the forehead," "the eyes," "the once jetty hair." The reader does not
really become complicit in Egaeus' actions, but he revels not only in the narrator's
objectification of the woman, but also in his perversions, which range from incest to
murder to violation. Still, Egaeus, in telling "Berenice," involves the reader in his
"monomania." As he becomes fixated on Berenice's teeth, so too does his reader.
Because he can think of nothing more, the reader can think of nothing more. His
confusion about his violation of Berenice's grave is the reader's confusion, and his horror
is the reader's horror.
Unlike the narrator of "Ligeia" and Roderick Usher, Egaeus never suffers
abjection at the hands of his victim. He violates Berenice, rather than her returning to
violate him. Berenice is buried, and though the reader can infer that she was not really
dead when Egaeus pulled out all of her teeth, she does not return. Since she never played
a large role in the tale that bears her name, it is not surprising that the tale ends without
even a glimpse at her reanimated form. More importantly, Egaeus is so unsure himself of
63 Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures (London: Macmillan, 1989).
the events of the tale that the reader cannot be certain that Berenice was alive. The
ending is ambiguous, yet it is clear that Egaeus has succeeded of ridding himself of the
female completely, at least as far as his narrative is concerned. Even when the servant
comes in to speak to him "of a wild cry disturbing the silence of the night... of a
violated grave-of a disfigured body enshrouded, yet still breathing, still palpitating, still
alive!"64 he never mentions Berenice by name. She has become a "disfigured body"
without name and without gender.
Whereas the incest in "Berenice" seems mostly consensual and its horror lies in
the monomania of its narrator, in "Morella" the narrator is in a position of authority over
his daughter; thus, a part of the horror of the tale lies in the implication of incest between
father and daughter. Here is another of Poe's "un-fairy tales." Taking off from the
"incest" tales ofBasile, Perrault, and the Grimms, Poe incorporates the basic elements of
the 510 b tale type, which is characterized by a father who wishes to marry his daughter.
Morella the mother sets the events of the tale in motion by cursing her husband as she
breathes her last breath: "The days have never been when thou couldst love me-but her
whom in life thou didst abhor, in death thou shalt adore."65 Morella goes on to explain
that she is pregnant and that after her death, her child will live, but "the hours of thy
happiness are over; and joy is not gathered twice in a life."66 The narrator is confused by
Morella's words, but soon, the reader learns that her curse has dire consequences for her
64 Poe, "Berenice," 232.
65 Edgar Allan Poe, "Morella," Poe: Poetry, Tales, and Selected Essays (New York: Library of America,
66 Ibid, 236.