Crossing the Threshold: Poe & Hawthorne Challenge Nineteenth Century Gender Roles

In Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat" and Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown,"  both authors question the sociocultural expectations of male and female gender roles. In this analysis, I highlight the differences and similarities between the two Romantic writers, which I believe challenges and questions the traditional values of their time. 


Before the nineteenth century, men and women lived different lives, but the construction of gender roles were not strictly defined. Scholar James Keil notes that it was not until the Romantic period that “the new, nineteenth-century gender ideology... constructed a ‘male’ world that was even more and decidedly self-consciously distinct from the ‘female’” (Keil 35). Within this ideology, the idea of men as “bread-winners” developed, while women were expected to take care of matters inside the home. Men were ultimately cast out in the public sphere and women subsequently in their own, private space. What makes the Romantic writers pertinent to their time is the ways in which they challenged these ideologies, blurring the lines between “male/female, work/home, and public/private” (Keil 35). By breaking down these barriers, the Romantic writers, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), call into question the sociocultural expectations of both male and female gender roles.

In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Black Cat” the narrator plays into the male and female gender constructs by masking his inherent feminine traits with a sense of hyper masculinity. By doing so, the narrator is ultimately left powerless and emasculated, offering a unique perspective on the male and female gender roles that became so fixed in American society during the nineteenth century. The setting at the beginning of the tale is important to note, as the narrator warns us that the events that unfold are simply “a series of mere household events” (Poe 108). This then situates the remainder of the story in a purely domestic sphere, or, in other words, a strictly “feminine” space. The household is where the female has been known to reside up until this point of time through literature and daily life alike. By Poe placing his male narrator in this feminized space at the opening of his story, he seems to be suggesting that his hyper-feminization attributes to his misogynist attitude.

As the story unfolds, the actions committed by the narrator may seem hyper masculine, but the ways in which Poe describes the narrator’s character is contrastingly feminine. Readers learn that, from the narrator’s childhood, he exhibited “docility,” “humanity,” and “tenderness of heart”— traits that would traditionally be considered quite feminine (Poe 108). Interestingly, the narrator’s character becomes even more maternal when he is described taking care of his pets. Poe writes that the narrator is “never so happy as when feeding and caressing” his animals, which further suggests his caring, compassionate nature (Poe 108). Words such as “feeding” and “caressing” imply more than an obligated duty the narrator feels towards his pets; the diction, instead, denotes a primal reliance the narrator’s animals feel towards him. The selfless love that is exhibited between the narrator and his pets in this passage surely resembles the relationship between mother and child, which only reinforces his feminized character.

While the narrator’s role as husband deems him the household provider, he fails to meet these societal expectations, devaluing his masculinity even more so. Throughout the story, the narrator is not employed, nor does he have any children. Scholar Ann Bliss believes that living in this state “indicate[s] the narrator’s inability to meet biologically and culturally determined gender expectations” (Bliss 97). By failing not only to provide for his wife financially but also biologically, the narrator responds extremely violently, both in fear of his masculine power being threatened and in hopes of redeeming it. He turns to alcohol to mask his failures, causing him to abuse his wife and his beloved pets, particularly his black cat, Pluto. The narrator’s inherent “feminine” nature, marked by his inability to meet the sociocultural expectations of a husband directly conflict with his turn to violence. Through the narrator, Poe plays with this gender dichotomy, blurring the lines between the narrator’s innate, inward feminine character and his extrinsic, outward masculine acts.

As the narrator’s actions towards his cat become crueler, his obsession grows not only towards abusing his pet, but rather in sustaining the masculine facade he has now developed. The narrator’s increased violence is dubbed as “perverseness,” which becomes yet another tool he uses to reinforce his masculinity. The narrator believes it is this perverse quality that gives “direction to the character of Man” (Poe 110). Evidently, the narrator recognizes this impulsive quality in direct parallel with his heightened masculine character. The narrator’s push to sustain his masculinity through these violent acts causes his pet to become aloof, which only causes the narrator to become more insane. Instead of turning towards his beloved pet, though, he rejects all traces of his maternal nature and kills the cat. Through this hyper masculine act, Poe reinforces the male/female binary opposition. Although the narrator is pulled by his feminine nature to care for the cat, it is his drive to fulfill his masculine role that forces him to kill.

While the horrific killing of his first cat is enough to satisfy the narrator’s desire for an outward sense of masculinity, it is not until he murders his wife that he is forced to turn inward and come to terms with his femininity. Following the murder, the narrator feels as though he has achieved his ultimate sense of masculinity. He has eliminated his only ties to a female and has concealed the body with little remorse. In the narrator’s mind, he is a free man, but not for long. While the police search his home, the narrator “quivered not” and his “heart beat calmly” (Poe 115). While Poe utilizes words such as “quivered” and “calmly,” which denote a feminine nature, he describes the narrator by rejecting the words’ traditional denotations. The narrator surely did not “quiver,” which shows the narrator’s recognition of his innate feminine characteristics, but also his desire to rid them and reinforce his masculinity. Evidently, Poe seems to be using this rhetoric to imply a negative femininity and, instead, a positive masculinity (Bliss 98). The narrator’s masculine facade does not last, though, as the police officer’s discovery of the wife’s body leaves the narrator powerless. When the location of the body is revealed, the narrator “swoons”— the only stereotypically “feminine” act he commits yet (Poe 115). In the final moments of Poe’s tale, the narrator is proven guilty and left emasculated, revealing his inherent feminine character. The ending seems to be giving into Poe’s misogynist mindset to suggest that those bound by gender roles are ultimately left perverse and sick.

A similar gender dichotomy exists in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “Young Goodman Brown.” Hawthorne’s tale is important to place in a historical context, due to the fact that it was common for many men to be away from home throughout the nineteenth century. Because of war and job obligations, “Americans needed a gender ideology that sanctified woman’s isolation” (Keil 40). With the men gone and the women left secluded indoors, women needed a way to legitimize both the men’s aloofness and their own confinement. Women then began to take on a more prominent role within the home, as they were expected to cook, clean, and attend to their children. Gone were the days of their mundane, non-productive lifestyles; there was now a “socially redeemed image of womanhood: woman as Angel of the Home” (Keil 42). Hawthorne’s short story plays with this socially constructed ideology, perhaps even challenging the tension it brings.

Hawthorne opens his story by presenting the male protagonist, Goodman Brown and his wife, Faith in the threshold between their public and private life. Hawthorne writes: “Young Goodman Brown came forth, at sunset, into the street of Salem village, but put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife” (Hawthorne 165). Brown’s wife then comes to meet her husband by “thrust[ing] her own pretty head into the street” (Hawthorne 165). Through these introductory passages, the scene is set. Readers see two characters in the doorway of Brown’s home, which both joins and separates the public and private spaces from one another. Within this threshold, Hawthorne presents the male figure in a traditional public space, while the female is shown within the home. Interestingly, the male/female dichotomy is broken for intimate reasons, but it is the secluded, private female who chooses to cross this public/private threshold. Goodman Brown’s wife literally “thrusts” her head out into the public sphere, defying her traditional private space to initiate an intimate encounter with her husband. The word choice in this passage even further suggests the sexual, aggressive nature of the wife, which goes against the stereotypical feminine gender role she represents.

Faith’s character both conforms to and challenges this gender ideology as the story unfolds. Her name and the descriptions of her appearance suggest her modesty, spirituality, and devotion to her husband. On the other hand, her character and subsequent actions challenge this feminine role. Upon Brown’s departure, his wife turns even more promiscuous, yearning for Brown to stay and, in turn, going against her socially constructed feminine nature. While stepping outside of her traditional private space and “when her lips were close to [her husband’s] ear,” Faith nearly begs her husband to stay and postpone his journey (Hawthorne 165). She pleas, “‘Sleep in your own bed to-night. A lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts that she’s afeard of herself sometimes’” (Hawthorne 165). The descriptions of Faith’s actions in this passage are important to note, as she does not simply desire her husband’s company; she, instead, moves her lips closer and whispers in his ear. Faith’s intentions seem more than innocent— the closeness and whispering denote her sexual, lustful nature. Furthermore, she yearns for him to stay in his own bed, emphasizing the bedroom as a place of intimacy. Faith attempts to make her husband feel guilty for leaving, using words such as “lone,” “troubled,” and “afeard” to suggest her needed protection. The fact that Faith explains she is nearly “afeard of herself” is questionable in this passage, as it could suggest that she is grappling with her own internal battles. Arguably, her outward masculine advances towards her husband are interfering with the feminine role she is expected to fulfill.

Despite Faith’s lustful pleas, Goodman Brown continues onward, yet his wife’s desires haunt him still, as though she has some sort of hierarchal power over his decision. As Brown walks passed his home, “being about to turn the corner by the meeting house, he looked back and saw the head of Faith still peering after him with a melancholy air, in spite of her pink ribbons” (Hawthorne 166). Here, Brown feels the pull of the societal expectation he must meet by completing his public venture, yet is somehow drawn to “look back” to his wife, who resides in that public/private threshold. She is shown “peering” after Goodman Brown with a “melancholy air,” which suggests both her mistrust and unhappiness with his decision to leave. The innocence her pink ribbons provide contrasts with this somber, depressed tone, bringing the gender contrast to light. In spite of Faith’s outward “feminine” innocence, she casts herself in the public sphere and acts stereotypically “masculine.” Although Brown’s wife does not ultimately sway his decision, her yearning pleas do have an affect on him. Hawthorne presents these male/female and public/private binaries in a way that is tense and problematic. Goodman Brown may continue on his public mission, but he is haunted by his wife’s status within that public/private threshold.

In the final scene of Hawthorne’s story, Goodman Brown is truly shown grappling with this societal pull to leave his wife, as well as the consequences that decision brings. As he ventures further on his mission into the forest, Brown eventually encounters a dream-like ceremony, where he faces voices of the familiar and the unfamiliar, the saints and sinners, beckoning him to face what he believes is the Devil. When he calls out for his wife to save him, “the cry of grief, rage, and terror was yet piercing the night, when the unhappy husband held his breath for a response” (Hawthorne 173). In this moment, Brown hears no response; his wife has now left him. The fact that Hawthorne chooses to describe Brown as an “unhappy husband” further solidifies his masculine role, as well as his negative views towards his wife. Could this unhappiness stem from Faith’s sociocultural failures to uphold her role as wife, especially in Brown’s time of need? Ultimately, left out in the public sphere without a wife, Brown sees, “There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name.” (Hawthorne 173). Wife-less and in the public eye, Goodman Brown is changed for the worse, which challenges the reasoning behind the societal pulls to fill his masculine duty as husband.

While both Poe and Hawthorne challenge the fixed gender constructs of the nineteenth century, the ways in which they highlight these tensions differ. Poe defines the setting of his story to a strictly domestic sphere, whereas Hawthorne plays more with this public/private threshold. Despite these differences in setting, both authors challenge the traditional gender constructions within these spaces. Poe places his male narrator within the home, a traditional feminized space, while Hawthorne shows the main female character in a public, masculinized sphere. Although the remainder of Hawthorne’s story occurs when the main male character is in his traditional, masculine space, it is the actions of the female in this outward sphere that influences these events. Aside from these gendered spaces, both authors depict characters in opposite gender roles. Poe’s narrator is male, but exhibits many inherent feminine qualities, while Hawthorne’s character, Faith, is female, but comes across quite masculine. Poe’s narrator informs his readers of his kind-hearted nature, as well as his maternal love for his pets, which reinforces his femininity, whereas Hawthorne’s Faith’s aggressive, lustful nature suggests a masculine quality to her character. The unfixed gender roles in both stories ultimately conflict with the characters’ struggle to fulfill gendered sociocultural expectations. In Poe’s story, although the male narrator’s character is inherently feminine, it is his desire to sustain his apparent failed masculinity that drives him to commit several horrific acts. In Hawthorne’s tale, the extrinsic masculine actions Faith exhibits affect her husband’s journey so extensively that he is left thinking the world is nothing but sinful. By challenging the traditional gendered spaces, characteristics, and sociocultural expectations of the nineteenth century, Poe and Hawthorne are fearful— fearful of the consequences of breaking the gender binaries that have become so fixed for centuries.

Regardless of their differences, both Poe and Hawthorne have one common tie: communicating a message that reflects the spirit of their time. With uncountable changes occurring throughout the United States during the nineteenth century, Romantics like Poe and Hawthorne used literature as a tool to both challenge and question traditionalism, particularly in regard to gender roles. In a push against the rational thinking of their forefathers, Poe and Hawthorne dismantle and reshape the traditional roles that were once considered a normalized part of American society. With a desire to rid the values of their predecessors, perhaps Poe and Hawthorne could be commenting on the problems fixed gender categories bring. Instead of providing structure, they evidently become oppressive, leaving men and women struggling to fulfill their social and cultural expectations.


Works Cited

Bliss, Ann V. "Household Horror: Domestic Masculinity In Poe's The Black Cat." Explicator 67.2 (2009): 96-99. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Dec. 2014.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "Young Goodman Brown." Hawthorne's Short Stories. New York: Random House, 1946. 165-79. Print.

Keil, James C. “Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown’: Early Nineteenth-Century and Puritan Constructions of Gender.” The New England Quarterly 69.1 (1996): 33-55. JSTOR. Web. 1 Dec. 2014.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Black Cat." The Gold-Bug & Other Tales. New York: Dover Publications, 1991. 108-15. Print.