Alienation in Edgar Allan Poe's work. The black cat", "the purloined letter", "the fall of the house of usher", "william wilson" and "the gold bug".

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Alienation is the sense of being isolated or separated from things. Each of the stories you mention include alienation as a theme:

  • In “The Black Cat,” the narrator is alienated from his cat, Pluto, which he harms in a drunken rage. 
  • In “The Purloined Letter,” Dupin is isolated from the prefect (and indeed everyone else) by his superior intellect.
  • In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the extreme isolation of Roderick and Madeline creates a supernatural aura around the House, such that the fate of the Ushers and of the house itself seem connected.
  • In ”William Wilson,” the narrator’s alienation is part of the structure of the story—the narrator asks the reader to call him “William Wilson,” even though this is not his real name, raising the question of who he really is. This question only becomes more complicated when he meets his double, also named William Wilson, at school. 
  • In “The Gold Bug,” Legrand is physically isolated on his island in South Carolina and mentally isolated by his ability to penetrate the riddle of the parchment. In this he resembles Dupin, another character whose superior abilities set him apart.

In each story, the theme of alienation can be aligned with parallel themes of intuition, exceptionalism, insanity, and paranoia. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In all of the stories you have mentioned, a main character is alienated by his madness or intelligence.

In "The Black Cat," "William Wilson" and "The Fall of the House of Usher," the main characters are alienated by their madness.  In "The Purloined Letter" and "The Gold Bug," the main characters are alienated from others by their superior intellect.

Alienation is a common theme in Poe's work for several reasons.  First, Poe knows alienation because of his personal life: he was alienated from parents, then from his adopted family, and ultimately, from his wife, who died so young.

Alienation also seems a necessary component for the author in order to build either suspense or the presence of madness (or both) into Poe's stories so that there are no witnesses and/or no "voices of reason" to sway the evil or dark intent, or predilection to madness, that so many of Poe's characters experience.

It is interesting to note the irony of alienation for Poe: it haunted his waking moments and made his life a misery, however it is also what drove his creative genius, and "flavored" so many stories that remain Poe's greatest bequest to the literary world.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

To answer your question in general (each work is considered a separate question), the main characters in each of these stories have a personal torment that they have to resolve but that seems to be taking the best of them. All the main characters are in the verge of insanity or are going to become insane at some point due to a fear, preoccupation, or an obsession that is inherent to them. I can give you an example with black cat. The main character was tremendously disturbed by his cat, Pluto, when in fact before he used to love and take care of it. His isolation came as a result of that personal torment, and not caused by something from the outside. It was less of a choice and more of an impulse caused by insanity.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial