& the night
Literature and the Night
Night in the Literary Imagination
Among a range of possible actions, the darkness of night affects how and what people can know, as well as where and how they can act. Indeed, the night mediates the practices of social power (including associated norms) as well as political authority. Even epistemological clarity is affected, for humans base at least a large part of their knowledge on observation and inferences from observations (including measurements via instruments). Consequently, the idea of the night has no one meaning, and the quotidian (and spatial) activities of humans at night present us with no single type of behavior.
Literature well conveys such multiplicities. Let a few themes, authors, and literary works — with external links to full texts — suffice to illustrate my point:
1. Night is a time of romance and love:
* Lord Byron's "She Walks in Beauty" ("...like the night")
* Robert Browning's "Meeting at Night"
2. But night is also a time and a place of forbidden passions when the norms of propriety are contravened:
* William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet"
3. Night is a time and a space for rest, for then and there we are where we should be, such as snuggled safely in our homes:
* William Blake's "Night"
* Paul Laurence Dunbar's "Good-Night"
4. Or night's time can be spent in places consuming some product (perhaps with friends):
* Shakespeare's Henry IV (Scene IV at the Boar's-Head Tavern)
5. Perhaps nights that are spent in literary production and distribution — weaving tales and recounting stories — bespeak a most vital human capability:
* A Thousand Nights and a Night (i.e., 1001 Nights, or Arabian Nights)
6. Night may not bring the repose of oblivion from the day's travails and bitter disappointments:
* Charles Baudelaire's "Harmonie du soir" ("Evening Harmony")
7. And night for some can contain the terrifying "night-spaces" of home:
* Rainer Maria Rilke's "Third Duino Elegy"
8. Or perhaps night is not contained or even containable:
* Jorge Luis Borges' "History of the Night" ("Historia de la Noche")
9. Night provides us with the transgressive spaces of criminality:
* Edgar Allen Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"
* Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories
10. And night also provides the space in time for dissent against social oppression:
* Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper"
* Edwin Arlington Robinson's "The Children of the Night"
11. Night evokes social disorder when the day and its sunlight — profound symbols of knowledge and order in the Western world — give way to darkness and the social chaos it (re)presents:
* Lord Byron's "Darkness"
* Isaac Asimov's "Nightfall"
12. Indeed, night can be an abode of evil that potentially undermines an ethical stability of diurnal reality:
* Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown"
13. Here and now in the domains of night we find horror incarnate stalking:
* Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
* Bram Stoker's Dracula
14. The things of the night (en)counter a scientific rationality that seeks to make all things knowable and technologically controllable. Here then are the places swayed by the supernatural and the uncanny:
* Horace Walpole's "The Castle of Otranto"
* Rabindranath Tagore's "The Hungry Stones"
* H.P. Lovecraft's "The Unnamable"
Thus do the meanings of the night, emerging in their myriad of forms from human imaginations and practices, counterbalance — sometimes even contravene — attempts to incorporate the darkness into one-dimensional logics.
© 2001-2011 Robert W. Williams, Ph.D. [Bio]