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GOTHIC CONVENTIONS IN JEAN TOOMER'S "THE EYE" Robert B. Jones University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Among the scores of unpublished short stories written by Jean Toomer, a newly discovered one is unique in its evocation of terror in the Gothic tradition. Deciphering the facsimile copy is tedious and laborious. Comprising eighteen pages of typed manuscript, with extensive and numerous corrections on every page, the text contains strikeovers, deleted (and inserted) words and sentences, typographical errors, interpolated pages, and handwritten emendations often bordering on illegibility. A disturbing tale of violence, guilt, and insanity , "The Eye" unfolds as a psychological drama of two Victorian spinster sisters, Edith and EuIa Ogden.1 While the action focuses on Edith's steady descent into paranoia and madness, it also highlights Eula's character as the Gothic villain. In this way, Toomer explores the roles of evil and madness in terms of their links between personal identity and family relationships. According to Northrop Frye's theory of romance, there are four primary narrative movements in literature: the descent from a higher world, the descent to a lower world, the ascent from a lower world, and the ascent to a higher world. "All stories in literature," he declares , "are complications of, or metaphorical derivations from, these four narrative radicals."2 The descent themes, then, fall into two categories : those that suggest descent from one of the two higher worlds, Heaven and Eden, and those that suggest descent to a subterranean nether universe beneath the Edenic or natural world. As Frye defines it, Gothic fiction derives from the romance, although it represents a unique variation within its parent genre. In romance fiction the hero or heroine descends from the Edenic or natural world to the underworld in search of lost identity. In this underworld the protagonist undergoes ritual sufferings, culminating in a reclamation of identity. Following this achievement, the protagonist returns to the higher world and establishes a new Eden. In Gothic fiction there is a similar descent from the natural world to the underworld, in a quest for identity . Despite perpetual ritual sufferings, however, there is no achievement of identity, nor is there a return to the higher, natural world. Instead, the protagonist remains hopelessly fragmented in a demonic nether world of cruelty, evil, and terror. In sum, romance fiction represents a fable of identity, whereas Gothic fiction represents a fable of the impossibility of identity. The narrative pattern of 210Notes "The Eye" conforms to Frye's Gothic fantasy paradigm, as the structure of plot dramatizes Edith's loss of identity and descent into madness. The first stage in Edith's descent occurs when the sisters are children , long before the action of the story begins. In an intentional act, born of "sullen hatred," Edith blinds EuIa in one eye. As a result, EuIa is disfigured and begins wearing an artificial eye. Recognizing her sister's guilt, EuIa soon learns to use her handicap as a weapon. Indeed, she becomes an artful dissembler, skillful in projecting guilt and fear by means of her false eye. This stage continues into the present . In the opening scene of the story, Edith absent-mindedly sketches an eye, revealing her enduring, deep-seated guilt: She let her eyes look straight at the pupil of the eye she had drawn on the margin of the letter, the lashes shaded and curled, the eye itself intense and vivid, like the great eye of some sin burning through one's flesh and fat, through the bone itself and the blood, into the soul (p. 2). Suddenly realizing what she is doing, she crushes the sketch in her palm, in a moment of fear and self-loathing. Periodically, EuIa visits Edith to remind her of the "crime," and on this day Edith ominously awaits her terrible arrival. EuIa is a ghost figure, and her metaphysical presence, as symbolized by her haunting, ubiquitous eye, lingers over every scene of the story. Upon her arrival, EuIa begins taunting her sister with memories of the past. Unable to endure the agony, Edith cries out and begs her sister to leave the house. This is precisely the behavior EuIa had hope to evoke. Slowly, she moves closer and closer...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 209-217
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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