the dwarf as a symbol in gothic literature
The figure of a dwarf appears as the center of two gothic tales, Henry Clay Lewis's "A Struggle for Life" and Edgar Allan Poe's "Hop-Frog." A dwarf also plays a role in Harriet Prescott Spofford's "The Amber God." These dwarf characters share striking similarities, which are embodiments of fears and suspicions held by White Europeans of the time against other races. The three characters therefore represent the racial Other for the dominant White Europeans of the time period.
A physical comparison is the most obvious tie between Lewis's and Poe's dwarves. Lewis's is described as "a Negro dwarf of the most frightful appearance... with legs and arms of enormously disproportionate length; his face" is "hideous: a pair of tushes (tusks)" project "from either side of a double hare-lip" (66). The dwarf is then said to look like a cross between a monkey and a devil. The protagonist "could not look at him without feeling disgust" (Lewis 66). This degrading description is nearly identical to the bits of description the reader receives about Poe's dwarf, Hop-Frog.
Hop-Frog is a "professional jester," commonly called a fool. He came "from some barbarous region... that no person ever heard of," very similar to the origins of the Negro slave (Poe 72). His arms were incredibly muscular, although this was due to the fact that his legs were crippled, and he possessed "fang-like teeth," a direct parallel to the "tushes" of Lewis's dwarf (Poe 76). The narrator of the story comments that, "many monarchs would have found it difficult to get through their days... without both a jester to laugh with, and a dwarf to laugh at," implying that the dwarf is funny-looking by nature (Poe 72). Hop-Frog's name itself also marks him as odd-looking because he is named after the sort of movement he has to make to move across the floor, a hop like a frog. When he has something to climb, though, he resembles "a squirrel, or a small monkey" (Poe 72). Lewis's dwarf is also compared to a monkey, an "ourang outang" to be exact. It is apparent that at the very least the dwarf had a consistent physical representation in authors' minds at the time, from the nearly identical descriptions. The mutual traits in themselves lend to the symbolism of the dwarf.
Spofford's dwarf is not described in so much physical detail, yet she still shares some qualities with the other dwarves. She is Asian, definitely an exotic country of origin (as far as Europeans of the time were concerned), and "the heigh of a yardstick" (Spofford 202). Her other characteristcs are really what align her soundly with her counterparts in Lewis's and Poe's stories. Her nature is "like a thing of the woods," and she is incredibly wild and uncontrollable when her captors bring her to New England. Lewis's dwarf is also a slave, as is Hop-Frog, who is given as a gift to his king. Spofford's Asian dwarf is also a gift to a New England housewife. Now it can be firmly established that the dwarf represents the Other in its racial-Other aspect, by the different origins but similar ugliness of the characters, their animal-like qualities and natures, and the fact that they are all slaves.
All three dwarves lack proper names. Lewis's and Spofford's dwarves have absolutely no proper name, being referred to as the Negro dwarf or Asian dwarf, respectively. Poe's dwarf has a name, Hop-Frog, but it isn't a true first or last name and is obviously demeaning. As mentioned earlier, Hop-Frog is named after the way he is forced to move due to his crippled legs, definitely not a flattering nickname. This lack of names in combination with the mutual physical disfigurements establishes a definite state of hegemony throughout all three texts. The character of the dwarf is obviously the lowest culture.
The phyiscal attributes and lack of names are not the only common threads, though. Lewis and Poe's dwarves react almost exactly the same when drinking alcohol. Lewis's dwarf receives two sips of brandy from the doctor, who then fails to notice the "wild sparkle of his (the dwarve's) eye" (66). When lost in the swamp, the doctor realizes the dwarf's condition and the narrative comment is that he "had given him too much brandy for his weak brain" (Lewis 67). As the dwarf demands more brandy his eyes are "flashing and sparkling with electric light" (Lewis 68). The doctor was unaware of the effect of alcohol on his Negro dwarf, but Hop-Frog's king delights in the same effect in Hop-Frog. Wine excites "the poor cripple almost to madness" (Poe 73). A single cup and the king exclaims, "Why, your eyes are shining already!" (Poe 73). The narrator furthers this with, "Poor fellow! His large eyes gleamed, rather then shone; for the effect of wine on his excitable brain was not more powerful but instantaneous" (Poe 73). This is an exact replay of Lewis's drunken dwarf, with the quick effect, the bright eyes, the weak/excitable brain and the rising temper, although Hop-Frog's temper is more provoked.
The anger of all three dwarves has profound consequences. Lewis's dwarf attacks and kills the doctor in the swamp (although whether the doctor truly died or not is debatable). The doctor was at first confident that he could take on such a small creature, but the strength of the enraged dwarf proved more then his match. The dwarf ends in the fire, apparently passing out in it while he was drunk and burning to cinders.
Hop-Frog's revenge is more successful. With a great deal of irony he has the king and his advisors dress as "ourang outangs" during a costume party, chaining them together as slaves were at the time. The costumed court is hoisted into the air with Hop-Frog clinging to the chain above them, pretending to play along with the game. He then sets fire to the group as they hang, in a way mirroring the death of Lewis's dwarf, and escapes with his companion.
Spofford's Asian dwarf has a much more indirect, but no less deadly, effect. She has carried with her most of her life a string of amber beads carved in the shapes of her gods. The the Pope himself blessed the beads, which are in the form of a rosary, when they are to be given up to her former owners, the Willoughbys, the Asian dwarf curses them. While this curse may not be the direct cause of Giorgione Willoughby's death it seems to be distinctly implied that it is what set in motion the events that lead to her death.
The death of all three dwarves' captors (or former captors, or representatives of captors as in the doctor's case) displays the fear that White Europeans had of the Other, in its racial form. The interpellation that the dwarves experienced resulted in acts of violence and the dominant culture is left wondering if they were truly the roots of the outburst. Although Lewis' dwarf perishes in the end, it still remains that he killed a "white man" (68). The "dwarf's attack did not surprise the family," a significant indication that violence from their slaves was an expected outcome (Lewis 70). The family can be seen to represent the general population, and therefore this was a very real fear of the times. Lewis is more optimistic in allowing the doctor to live in the end, unlike Poe's tale.
The death of the king and his advisors, while they are dressed as monkeys, brings out another aspect of the fear of the other races. Already the dwarf, as a slave turning on his master, is established. By dressing the king and company as monkeys and chaining them like slaves, Poe expresses the fear that not only could other races turn on the White Europeans, they could subjugate White Europeans as White Europeans have done to them. The finality of the death in flames suggests the extreme depth of this fear. There is no returning for the king and his entourage.
A final aspect of the fear is represented in the symbol of the racial dwarf as written by Spafford. The curse left by her Asian dwarf also kills the master, although in this case it is the descendant of the master. This represents the potential danger of the influence theses races and their culture could have. Giogione's father willingly allows her to have the amber necklace and Giorgione is fascinated with it, as anyone would be with something new and exotic. Giorgione has admitted to being closer to nature, by following her own nature, so it is no real surprise that she may have succumbed to the pagan curse. The possibility that White European children could be corrupted or harmed by other races and their cultures was a very real and frightening thing to many parents.
Through the three considered texts the Other symbol of the dwarf is clearly revealed. Racial fears are focused into this character, warping his body to make him easy to hate, shortening him so that he can be looked down upon and giving him an animal nature that we can also disdain. By the outcomes of the stories, though, true worries are revealed and so the dwarf becomes a symbol of the feared racial Other.
Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses." Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin, Michael Ryan. Maldan, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998. 294-304.
Gramsci, Antonio. "Hegemony." Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin, Michael Ryan. Maldan, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998. 277.
Lewis, Henry Clay. "A Struggle for Life." American Gothic An Anthology. Ed. Charles L. Crow. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999. 65-70.
Poe, Edgar Allan. "Hop-Frog." American Gothic An Anthology. Ed. Charles L. Crow. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999. 71-76.
Spofford, Harriet Prescott. "The Amber Gods." American Gothic An Anthology. Ed. Charles L. Crow. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999. 197-226.
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