Edgar Allan Poe Short Fiction Analysis
The variety of Edgar Allan Poe’s short fiction cannot be conveyed fully in a short introduction. Though he is best known for his classics of gothic horror such as “The Fall of the House of Usher” and his portraits of madmen and grotesques such as “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” he is also the author of detective stories, “The Purloined Letter”; science fiction, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym; parodies, “The Premature Burial”; satires, “The Man That Was Used Up”; social and political fiction, “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether”; and a variety of kinds of humor, “Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences” and “Hop-Frog.”
Three stories that illustrate some of this variety while offering insight into Poe’s characteristic themes are “A Descent into the Maelström,” “The Purloined Letter,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Among Poe’s central themes is an emphasis on the mysteries of the self, of others, of nature, and of the universe. His stories usually function in part to undercut the kinds of easy optimism and certainty that were characteristic of popular thought in his time.
“A Descent into the Maelström”
“A Descent into the Maelström,” which first appeared in Graham’s Magazine in May, 1841, and was collected in Tales, opens with a declaration of mystery: “The ways of God in Nature, as in Providence, are not as our ways; nor are the models that we frame any way commensurate to the vastness, profundity, and unsearchableness of His works, which have a depth in them greater than the well of Democritus.” In using this epigraph, slightly altered from the seventeenth century English essayist Joseph Glanvill, Poe announces several motifs for the story that follows. One of these is the mystery of how God acts and, therefore, may be revealed in nature. Another is inadequacy of humanly devised models for explaining nature or God’s presence in nature. Yet another is the idea of the multiple senses of depth, not merely the physical depth of a well or a maelstrom, but also the metaphorical depths of a mystery, of God, of nature, of God’s manifestation in nature.
The story is relatively simple in its outline, though interestingly complicated by its frame. In the frame, the narrator visits a remote region of Norway to look upon the famous maelstrom, an actual phenomenon described in contemporary reference books that were Poe’s sources. There, he encounters an apparently retired fisherman, who guides him to a view of the whirlpool and who then tells the story of how he survived being caught in it. In the main body of the story, the guide explains how a sudden hurricane and a stopped watch caused him and his two brothers to be caught by the maelstrom as they attempted to return from a routine, if risky, fishing trip. He explains what the experience was like and how he managed to survive even though his boat and his brothers were lost. Poe carefully arranges the frame and the fisherman’s narration to emphasize his themes.
The frame narrator is a somewhat comic character. The guide leads him to what he calls a little cliff and calmly leans over its edge to point out the sights, but the narrator is terrified by the cliff itself: “In truth so deeply was I excited by the perilous position of my companion, that I fell at full length upon the ground, clung to the shrubs around me, and dared not even glance upward at the sky—while I struggled in vain to divest myself of the idea that the very foundations of the mountain were in danger from the fury of the winds.” On one level this is high comedy. The narrator professes to be worried about his companion’s safety but cannot help revealing that he is personally terrified, and his resulting posture contrasts humorously with the equanimity of his guide. On another level, however, Poe is also suggesting at least two serious ideas. The narrator’s description of the cliff, with its sheer drop...
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