The Purpose Of The Supernatural In Literary Works
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The purpose of the supernatural in Literary Works The purpose of the supernatural in literature can vary in function from story to story. The supernatural can be used to create a certain mood in writing or to enhance the dramatic effect of a story. The supernatural can also be used as the reasoning behind a story and act as the theme it centers on, creating a paranormal effect and a mystical experience for the reader.
In human nature there exists a morbid desire to explore the darker side of life. As human beings we make every effort to deny our curiosity in the things that frighten us, but deep down we secretly thrive on that cool rush of fear. Despite our efforts to maintain a balance of our emotions, we are a society of people who slow down to look at traffic accidents and find excitement in violence. Fear keeps our hearts pumping and endorphins rushing; it is an emotion that reminds us of our own mortality.
The authors Hawthorne, Jackson, Poe, and Gilman understand this human fascination with death and the unknown, and play upon this attraction. Their stories rely heavily on the supernatural, and our beliefs or disbeliefs in them.
The story, The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson is built on suspense, and the fact that you are never sure exactly what is going on until the end of the story. When the climax is finally reached you realize that she is describing a senseless act of evil and violence, and no reason or purpose is ever given behind it. This story has divine undertones, as if this act may be some sort of ritual performed to please “The Gods”, in hopes for a prosperous harvest. But no significant reasoning is given, which leaves the readers open to develop their own interpretation.
The story is told in the third person. Jackson never gives a specific time or place that this story takes place. In fact, the story is so generalized it would be possible for it to take place in the 1900’s or the present.
At the time this story was written, World War II had just ended. Men were returning home to resume the work that the women had covered while they were away. This has caused some to feel that Jackson is putting down a society where men are held above women. Some also believe that she is indirectly expressing her horror of the holocaust and its senseless killing. Whichever the case may be, this definitely falls into the dark, cynical distinctiveness of these writers.
Hawthorne frequently depended upon the supernatural for an integral part of his stories. Many of Hawthorne’s stories take place in the Puritan society, which was heavily influenced by religion, and the belief that you were being governed from above. Hawthorne uses the supernatural (God) to display the severity of wrong actions and explain the occurrence of extraordinary event. In the novel, The Scarlet Letter, a woman is ostracized and looked down upon in her community for committing adultery. This is considered an extremely severe sin, and despised by God. At the end of the novel, her adulterer reveals a red “A”, which has been burned into his chest for the sin he has committed. The power of God is so real in this society that it is able to burn a symbol of the crime into his chest. There is nowhere for him to hide, and this symbol strongly illustrates the feelings that the puritans had about committing a sin. In “Young Goodman Brown”, Goodman Brown is a Puritan minister who lets his excessive pride in himself interfere with his relations with the community after he meets with the devil, and causes him to live the life of an exile in his own community.
In this story Goodman’s wife’s name is Faith. He is venturing into the woods to meet with the Devil, and by doing so; he leaves faith, meaning his wife and his belief in God. When Goodman Brown finally meets with the Devil, he declares that the reason he was late was because “Faith kept me back awhile.” This statement, of course, has a double meaning because of his wife who actually physically held him back and God who psychologically delayed his meeting with the devil. Throughout this story Goodman constantly refers to his “wife” Faith, for the reason to not be able to do things, this of course acts doubly with his faith in God. This story again reinforces the severity of defying the supernatural, and the strong belief the puritans held in the actuality of a figurative God and Devil. This story repercussions the idea that there is nowhere to hide from these supernatural powers.
Poe uses the supernatural to create a fear and set a mood in his stories. They are dark and always seem to have a surprise lurking around each turn. He reinforces the fear of an overpowering doom that cannot be escaped. In the story, The Telltale Heart, the imagery of a heart beating beneath the floorboards is riveting. You feel that the heart is really beating; it’s not just the imagination of a madman. The narration is done totally in the first person and never gives the sex of the person. The narrator is described as the caretaker of an old man. This technique allows the reader to identify with the narrator/murderer and assume the caretaker is the same sex as the reader. When women read the Telltale Heart most feel the narrator is a woman, as most caretakers are women.
When a man reads this story he believes that the narrator is a man, for most murderers are men. Poe puts good against evil through sharp contradictions in the story. The old man’s deformed eye represents evil, yet the narrator describes him as never wronging her or insulting her. The narrator insists she is not crazy, but then commits the act of a madwoman. The heart is still beating although the old man is dead, but what the narrator is hearing is really her own heartbeat. These contradictions add to the sense of terror and impending doom.
Gilman uses the supernatural to allow the reader to develop breeding ground for developing story. In her descriptions she makes clear her belief in the supernatural and her excitement of their aura. She also clearly depicts the skeptic, represented by her husband, and the opposing belief some hold of the supernatural. “That spoils my ghostliness, I am afraid but I dint care – there is something about the house – I can feel it. I even said so to John over one moonlit evening, but he said what I felt was a draught, and shut the window.” John’s firm non-belief in the supernatural seems almost a way of convincing Gilman of their non-existence in a way to cure her illness, but is actually driving her further into insanity. Because of her denial of emotional and mental stimulus, she begins to associate with a “strange, provoking, formless sort of figure that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design.”
She believes there are things and shapes behind the pattern in the wallpaper that only she can see. It appears to be the shape of a woman, or possibly many women. The wallpaper is in motion and she can see a faint figure behind the bars, shaking the pattern. By daylight, the woman-shapes are quiet and hardly noticeable. However, by moonlight “the woman behind it is as plain as can be.” The woman or women behind the pattern move around the room fast, shaking the pattern as they go. She begins to believe that the woman gets out from behind the pattern. She knows this because she can see her out of the windows. The wallpaper constrains the woman or women and she believes that she must free those women by tearing off the wallpaper. She sees the women creeping “off in the open country, creeping as fast as a cloud shadow in a wind.”
She associates herself with the women and wonders, “if they all came out of that wallpaper as I did?” On the last day, all of the furniture is moved back downstairs. She likes the room now. It is “bare again.” She locks the bedroom door and creeps around the room just as those women. She has locked the door and thrown the key out the window. It has fallen under a plantain leaf. Her husband desperately tries to get into the room. She finally convinces him to get the key. Once he finally gets in, he faints upon the sight of his wife creeping along the wall. Her strong belief in the supernatural is what ultimately drives her over the edge, but also grants her, her salvation for she is finally free of her husbands clutches.
Each of these readers uses the supernatural in a different way, Jackson through the gods, Hawthorne through God, Poe through the conscience, and Gilman through ghosts. Although the function of the supernatural is different in each story, it delivers the same amazing effect. These writers are able to absorb and shock the reader so successfully, that you are left with a fear and puzzlement strong enough to feel as if the event had actually happened.