Edgar Allan Poe American Literature Analysis
Poe is best known as the author of numerous spine-tingling stories of horror and suspense. He should also be remembered, however, as the author who helped to establish and develop America’s one real contribution to the world of literature—the short-story form. Poe was the first writer to recognize that the short story was a different kind of fiction than the novel and the first to insist that, for a story to have a powerful effect on the reader, every single detail in the story should contribute to that effect. His stories and criticism have been models and guides for writers in this characteristically American genre up to the present time. No one who is interested in the short-story form can afford to ignore his ideas or his fiction.
Poe was influential in making American literature more philosophical and metaphysical than it had been heretofore, especially in terms of the dark Romanticism of Germany rather than the sometimes sentimentalized romanticism of New England Transcendentalists. Poe also helped to make periodical publishing more important in American literary culture. American writing in the mid-nineteenth century was often discouraged by the easy accessibility of English novels. Lack of copyright laws made the works of the great English writers cheaply available; thus, American writers could not compete in this genre. Periodical publishing, and the short story as the favored genre of this medium, was America’s way of fighting back. Poe was an important figure in this battle to make the United States a literary force in world culture.
Although much of his early criticism is routine review work, he began in his reviews to consider the basic nature of poetry and short fiction and to develop theoretical analyses of these two genres, drawing upon both the German criticism of A. W. Schlegel and the English criticism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Poe’s most important contribution to criticism is his discussion of the particular generic characteristics of short fiction in his famous review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1837). Poe makes such a convincing case for the organic unity of short fiction, argues so strongly for its dependence on a unified effect, and so clearly shows how it is more closely aligned to the poem than to the novel, that his ideas on the short tale have influenced short-story writers and literary critics ever since.
In his theories of the short story, Poe argues that, whereas in long works one may be pleased with particular passages, in short pieces the pleasure results from the perception of the oneness, the uniqueness, and the overall unity of the piece. Poe emphasizes that by “plot” he means pattern and design, not simply the temporal progression of events. It is pattern that makes the separate elements of the work meaningful, not mere realistic cause and effect. Moreover, Poe insists that only when the reader has an awareness of the “end” of the work—that is, its overall purpose—will seemingly trivial elements of the story become meaningful in its total pattern.
Poe is too often judged as being simply the author of some horror stories that many people remember vividly from their adolescent days but that few adult readers take very seriously. Moreover, Poe is often judged on the basis of errors and misunderstandings about his personality. He has been called an alcoholic, a drug addict, a hack, and a sex pervert. As a result of these errors, myths, and oversimplifications, serious readers are often reluctant to look closely at his work. There is little doubt that Poe, however, both in his criticism and in his dark, metaphysically mysterious stories, helped create a literature that made American writing a serious cultural force.
“The Fall of the House of Usher”
First published: 1839 (collected in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 1902)
Type of work: Short story
A young nobleman, haunted by a family curse, buries his twin sister alive after she falls into a cataleptic trance.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” is Poe’s best-known and most admired story, and rightfully so: It expertly combines in a powerful and economical way all of his most obsessive themes, and it brilliantly reflects his aesthetic theory that all the elements of a literary work must contribute to the single unified effect or pattern of the work itself. The central mystery on which the thematic structure of the story depends is the nature of Roderick Usher’s illness. Although its symptoms consist of an extreme sensitivity to all sensory stimuli and a powerful unmotivated fear, nowhere does Poe suggest its cause except to hint at some dark family curse or hereditary illness.
The actual subject of the story, as is the case with most of Poe’s work, is the nature of the idealized artwork and the precarious situation of the artist. Roderick, with his paintings, his musical compositions, and his poetry, is, above all, an artist. It is the particular nature of his art that is inextricably tied up with his illness. Roderick has no contact with the external world that might serve as the subject matter of his art. Not only does he never leave the house, but he also cannot tolerate light, sound, touch, odor, or taste. In effect, having shut down all of his senses, he has no source for his art but his own subjectivity. The narrator says that if anyone has ever painted pure idea, then Roderick is that person. As a result, Roderick has nothing metaphorically to feed upon but himself.
The house in which Roderick lives is like an artwork—an edifice that exists by dint of its unique structure. When the narrator first sees it, he observes that it is the combination of elements that constitutes its mystery and that a different arrangement of its particulars would be sufficient to modify its capacity for sorrowful impression. Moreover, Usher feels that it is the form and substance of his family mansion that affects his morale. He believes that, as a result of the arrangement of the stones, the house has taken on life. All these factors suggest Poe’s own aesthetic theory, that the “life” of any artwork results not from its imitation of external reality but rather from its structure or pattern.
The only hold Roderick has on the external world at all is his twin sister, who is less a real person in the story than the last manifestation of Roderick’s physical nature. By burying her, he splits himself off from actual life. Physical life is not so easily suppressed, however, and Madeline returns from her underground tomb to unite her dying body with Roderick’s idealized spirit. As the story nears its horrifying climax, art and reality become even more intertwined. As the narrator reads to Roderick from a gothic romance, sounds referred to in the story are echoed in actuality as the entombed Madeline breaks out of her vault and stalks up the steps to confront her twin brother. Madeline, Roderick, and the house all fall into the dark tarn, the abyss of nothingness, and become as if they had never been. In Poe’s aesthetic universe, the price the artist must pay for cutting himself off from the external world is annihilation.
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”
First published: 1841 (collected in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 1902)
Type of work: Short story
Dupin, the great amateur detective created by Poe in this story, solves his first and most unusual case.
Experimenting with many different fictional forms, such as the gothic tale, science fiction, occult fantasies, and satire, Poe gained great recognition in the early 1840’s for his creation of a genre that has grown in popularity ever since: the so-called tale of ratiocination, or detective story, which features an amateur sleuth who, by superior deductive abilities, outsmarts criminals and outclasses the police. Such stories as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget” created a small sensation in the United States when they were first published. “The Purloined Letter,” the third and final story in the Dupin series, has been the subject of much critical analysis as a model of ironic and tightly structured plot.
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is the most popular of the three because it combines horrifying, inexplicable events with astonishing feats of deductive reasoning. The narrator, the forerunner of Dr. Watson of the Sherlock Holmes stories, meets Auguste Dupin in this story and very early recognizes that he has a double personality, a bi-part soul, for he is both wildly imaginative and coldly analytical. The reader’s first encounter with Dupin’s deductive ability takes place when Dupin seems to read his companion’s mind, responding to something that the narrator has only been thinking. Dupin, as he explains the elaborate method whereby he followed the narrator’s thought processes by noticing small details and associating them, is the first of a long history of fictional detectives who take great pleasure in recounting the means by which they solved a hidden mystery.
The heart of the story, as it was to become the heart of practically every traditional detective story since, is not the action of the crime but rather Dupin’s extended explanation of how he solved it. The points about the murder that baffle the police are precisely those that enable Dupin to master the case: the contradiction of several neighbors who describe hearing a voice in several different foreign languages and the fact that there seems no possible means of entering or exiting the room where the murders took place. Dupin accounts for the first contradiction by deducing that the criminal must have been an animal; the second he explains by following a mode of reasoning based on a process of elimination to determine that apparent impossibilities are, in reality, possible after all. When Dupin reveals that an escaped orangutan did the killing, the Paris Prefect of Police complains that Dupin should mind his own business. Dupin is content to have outwitted the prefect in his own realm; descendants of Dupin have been outwitting police inspectors ever since.
“The Tell-Tale Heart”
First published: 1843 (collected in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 1902)
Type of work: Short story
A young man kills the old man he lives with because of the old man’s eye; he then feels compelled to confess.
Poe is often thought to be the author of stories about mad persons and murders, but attention is seldom given to the psychological nature of the madness in his stories. “The Tell-Tale Heart,” one of his best-known stories about murderous madness, is also one of his most psychologically complex works. The story is told in the first-person voice by the killer, who has obviously been locked up in a prison or in an insane asylum for his crime. He begins by arguing that he is not mad and that the calm way he committed the crime and can now tell about it testify to his sanity.
The central problem of the story is the narrator’s motivation for killing the old man. He begins by assuring his listeners (and readers) that he loved the old man, that he did not want his gold, and that the old man had not abused him or insulted him. There was neither object nor passion for his crime; instead, it was the old man’s eye. He says that when the eye fell on him, his blood ran cold and that he made up his mind to kill the old man and rid himself of the eye forever. Because the narrator provides no explanation for his extreme aversion to the eye, the reader must try to understand the motivation for the crime, and thus for the story itself, in the only way possible—by paying careful attention to the details of the story and trying to determine what thematic relationship they have to one another.
To understand a Poe story, one must accept Poe’s central dictum that every element in the work must contribute to its central effect. The determination of those elements that have most relevance to the central effect of the story, and are thus true clues rather than mere irrelevant details, is the principle that governs the communication of all information—the principle of redundancy or repetition. Because the narrator who tells the story is a man obsessed, those things that obsess him are repeated throughout the story.
In addition to the motif or theme of the eye, which lies at the center of his obsession and thus is repeated throughout, another central theme of the story is the narrator’s identification with the old man. As he plots his crime by nightly placing his head inside the old man’s bedroom door, he says the old man sits up in his bed listening, just as he himself has done night after night. Moreover, he says that the old man’s groan is a sound he knows well, for many a night at midnight he has felt it rise up within himself. “I knew what the old man felt,” he says, “and pitied him.”
If the reader ties these two ideas together and listens to the sound of “eye” rather than sees it, it is possible to understand the narrator’s desire to rid himself of the “eye” as his desire to rid himself of “I”—that is, his own self or ego. Such a displacement of the image of an “eye” for that which it sounds like—the “I”—is not an uncommon “mistake” for the dreamlike nature of the narrator’s madness. In order to understand why the narrator might wish to destroy himself by destroying the old man—which he does succeed in doing by the end of the story—one can turn back to the motifs of time and the tell-tale heart, which also dominate the story.
Throughout the story, the narrator notes that the beat of the old man’s heart is like the ticking of a watch. Moreover, he says, he and the old man have both listened to the “death watches” (a kind of beetle that makes a ticking sound) in the wall at night. Finally, there is the theme of the tell-tale heart itself—a heart that tells a tale. Although in the surface plot of the story, the narrator thinks that it is the old man’s heart that “tells a tale” on him when the police come to check on a scream that has been reported to them, it is clear that it is his own heart he hears beating. On the psychological level of the story, however, the tale that the heart tells that so obsesses the narrator is the tale that every heart tells. That tale links the beating of the heart to the ticking of a clock, for every beat is a moment of time that brings one closer to death.
Once the narrator becomes obsessed with this inevitability, he becomes obsessed with the only way one can defeat the tale of time—that is, by destroying the self, or “I,” that is susceptible to time and thus death. Because the narrator cannot very well escape the time-bound death of self by killing the self, he must displace his desire to destroy the “I” by projecting it onto the “eye” of the old man with whom he identifies. Thus by destroying the “eye” he does, indirectly, succeed in destroying the “I.”
“The Tell-Tale Heart,” like many of Poe’s other tales, seems at first to be a simple story of madness; however, as Poe well knew, there is no such thing as “meaningless madness” in the short story. The madness of the narrator in this story is similar to the madness of other Poe characters who long to escape the curse of time and mortality but find they can do so only by a corresponding loss of the self—a goal they both seek with eagerness and try to avoid with terror.
“The Cask of Amontillado”
First published: 1846 (collected in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 1902)
Type of work: Short story
In this sardonic revenge story, Poe undermines the plot with irony.
“The Cask of Amontillado” is one of the clearest examples of Poe’s theory of the unity of the short story, for every detail in the story contributes to the overall ironic effect. The plot is relatively simple. Montresor seeks revenge on Fortunato for some unspecified insult by luring him down into his family vaults to inspect some wine he has purchased. However, Montresor’s plot to maneuver Fortunato to where he can wall him up alive is anything but straightforward. In fact, from the very beginning, every action and bit of dialogue is characterized as being just the opposite of what is explicitly stated.
The action takes place during carnival season, a sort of Mardi Gras when everyone is in masquerade and thus appearing as something they are not. Montresor makes sure that his servants will not be at home to hinder his plot by giving them explicit orders not to leave, and he makes sure that Fortunato will follow him into the wine cellar by playing on his pride and by urging him not to go. Every time Montresor urges Fortunato to turn back for his health’s sake, he succeeds in drawing him further into the snares of his revenge plot.
Moreover, the fact that Montresor knows how his plot is going to end makes it possible for him to play little ironic tricks on Fortunato. For example, when Fortunato says he will not die of a cough, Montresor knowingly replies, “True, true.” When Fortunato drinks a toast to the dead lying in the catacombs around them, Montresor ironically drinks to Fortunato’s long life. When Fortunato makes a gesture indicating that he is a member of the secret society of Masons, Montresor claims that he is also and proves it by revealing a trowel, the sign of his plot to wall up Fortunato.
The irony of the story cuts much deeper than this, however. At the beginning, Montresor makes much of the fact that there are two criteria for a successful revenge—that the avenger must punish without being punished in return and that he must make himself known as an avenger to the one who has done him the wrong. Nowhere in the story, however, does Montresor tell Fortunato that he is walling him up to fulfill his need for revenge; in fact, Fortunato seems to have no idea why he is being punished at all. Furthermore, the very fact that Montresor is telling the story of his crime some fifty years after it was committed to one who, he says, “so well know[s] the nature of my soul,” suggests that Montresor is now himself dying and confessing his crime to a priest, his final confessor.
That Montresor’s crime against Fortunato has had its hold on him for the past fifty years is supported by another detail in the story, the Montresor coat of arms—a huge human foot crushing a serpent, whose fangs are embedded in the heel; the accompanying motto translates as “No one harms me with impunity.” If the foot is a metonymic representation of Montresor crushing the metaphoric serpent Fortunato for his bite, then it is clear that, even though Montresor gets his revenge, the serpent continues to hold on.
The ultimate irony of the story then, is that, although Montresor has tried to fulfill his two criteria for a successful revenge, Fortunato has fulfilled them better than he has. Moreover, although Montresor now tells the story as a final confession to save his soul, the gleeful tone with which he tells it—a tone that suggests he is enjoying the telling of it in the present as much as he enjoyed committing the act in the past—means that it is not a good confession. Thus, although the story ends with the Latin phrase “rest in peace,” even after fifty years Montresor will not be able to rest in peace, for his gleeful confession of his story damns him to Hell for all eternity.
Although “The Cask of Amontillado” seems on the surface a relatively simple revenge story, it is, in fact, a highly complex story riddled with ironic reversals. Every detail in the story contributes to this central effect, and it is the overall design of the story that communicates its meaning—not some simple moral embedded within it or tacked on to the end.
First published: 1845 (collected in The Raven, and Other Poems, 1845)
Type of work: Poem
A young student is visited by a raven that can only utter one ominous word.
“The Raven” is unquestionably Poe’s most famous poem. After its publication, it became so well known that its refrain “nevermore” became a catchphrase repeated by people on the street. Poe, who told one friend that he thought the poem was the greatest poem ever written, was delighted one night at the theater when an actor interpolated the word into his speech, and almost everyone in the audience seemed to recognize the allusion.
The work remains Poe’s best-known poem today partly because, in his “Philosophy of Composition,” Poe describes what he claims was the method by which he composed the poem. Whether or not that description is an accurate account of how the work was composed, it is surely a description of how Poe wished the poem to be read. Thus, Poe himself was the first, and is perhaps still the best, critic and interpreter of his own poem.
As Poe makes clear in “The Philosophy of Composition,” he wished to create an effect of beauty associated with melancholy in the poem; he decided that the refrain “nevermore,” uttered to a young man whose mistress has recently died, was perfectly calculated to achieve that effect. According to Poe, the basic situation, the central character, and the plot of the poem were all created as a pretext or excuse for setting up the “nevermore” refrain, to be repeated with a variation of meaning and impact each time.
The plot is a simple one: A young student is reading one stormy night in his chamber, half-dreaming about his beloved deceased mistress. He hears a tapping at his window and opens it to admit a raven, obviously someone’s pet which has escaped its master, seeking shelter from the storm. The raven can speak only one word, “nevermore.” When the student, amused by this incident, asks the raven questions, its reply of “nevermore” strikes a melancholic echo in his heart. Although he knows that the raven can only speak this one word, he is compelled by what Poe calls the universal human need for self-torture to ask the bird questions to which the response “nevermore” will cause his suffering to be even more intense. When this self-torture reaches its most extreme level, Poe says, the poem then naturally ends.
The sorrow of the young student and the stormy midnight hour contribute to the overall effect of the poem, but the most important feature is the sound of the refrain—a sound that is established even before the raven appears by the dead mistress’s name “Lenore.” The echo of the word “Lenore” by “nevermore” is further emphasized in stanza 5, when the student peers into the darkness and whispers “Lenore?” only to have the word echoed back, “Merely this and nothing more.”
Once the lost Lenore is projected as the source of the student’s sorrow, the appearance of the raven as a sort of objectification of this sorrow seems poetically justified. When he asks the raven its name and hears the ominous word, “nevermore,” the student marvels at the bird’s ability to utter the word but realizes that the word has no inherent meaning or relevance. The relevance of the bird’s answer depends solely on the nature of the questions or remarks the student puts to it. For example, when he says that the bird will leave tomorrow, like all his “hopes have flown before,” he is startled by the seemingly relevant reply, “nevermore.”
The student begins to wonder what the ominous bird “means” by repeating “nevermore.” When he cries that perhaps his god has sent him respite from his sorrow and memory of Lenore, the bird’s response of “nevermore” makes him call the bird “prophet” and compels him to ask it if, after death, he will clasp the sainted maiden whom the angels call Lenore; to this question he knows he will receive the reply, “nevermore.” Obsessively pushing his need for self-torture to its ultimate extreme, the young man calls for the bird to take its beak from its heart and its form from his door, once again knowing what response he will receive. Although the poem is often dismissed as a cold-blooded contrivance, it is actually a carefully designed embodiment of the human need to torture the self and to find meaning in meaninglessness.
First published: 1847 (collected in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 1902)
Type of work: Poem
A young man visits the tomb of his deceased lover on the anniversary of her death.
“Ulalume” is a striking example of what Aldous Huxley characterized as the “vulgarity” of Poe’s poetry when he was trying too hard to make his work poetical. It is also an example of what made critic Yvor Winters, in the most severe attack ever launched against Poe, call him an “explicit obscurantist.” Winters’s distaste for the poem begins with its use of unidentified places such as Weir, Auber, and ghoul-haunted woodlands, which he says are introduced merely to evoke emotion at small cost. He also claims that the violent emotion suggested by the references to Mount Yaanek and the Boreal Pole in the second stanza are not adequately accounted for or motivated. Finally, Winters argues that the subject of grief in the poem is used as a general excuse for obscure and only vaguely related emotion.
Such criticism, however, ignores Poe’s critical theory that a poem should be the “rhythmical creation of Beauty” derived from those techniques that communicate the melancholy feeling of the loss of a loved one. “Ulalume” shares many characteristics with “The Raven,” for the basic situation is the same. Instead of a repetition of a refrain as in “The Raven,” however, the important repetition here is a dramatic one: the speaker’s return to the place where he buried Ulalume exactly one year before—a return he seems to make in a dreamlike and hallucinatory trance.
The subtitle of the poem, “A ballad,” justifies the rhythmic repetition of references to “crispéd and sere” leaves; the leaves serve as an objectification of the treacherous and sere memories that haunt the speaker and bring him unwittingly down by the dim lake of Auber, in the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir. The narrator roams here with Psyche, his Soul, with whom he carries on an interior dialogue. When the narrator and his Soul see the planet Venus, the goddess of love, the narrator is enthusiastic about her, but the Soul says she distrusts the star and wishes to flee. The narrator pacifies Psyche and soothes her, however, and they travel on until stopped by the door of a tomb. When the narrator asks his Soul what is written on the tomb, Psyche replies, “’Tis the vault of thy lost Ulalume!” At this point the narrator remembers that it was last October at this same time that he brought the body of Ulalume to the tomb. In the last stanzas of the poem, the narrator asks whether the spirits of the dead have thrown up the “sinfully scintillant planet” in front of them to hide the secret that lies in the wood.
Although “Ulalume” is indeed lush in rhythm, rhyme, and sonorous words, its actual subject—the thematic motivation for the repetitions and rhythms that hold the poem together—is Poe’s notion that the ideal of love (as objectified by the goddess of love, Venus) can only momentarily obscure the fact that the physical beauty that arouses love ultimately leads to the dark secret of the ghoul-haunted woodlands—the ultimate secret of death itself. Thus, although what is most obvious about the poem is its dark music, its theme of the transitory nature of physical beauty is what makes it a typical Poe poem.
“The Philosophy of Composition”
First published: 1846 (collected in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 1902)
Type of work: Essay
Poe explains his theory of aesthetic unity and describes how he wrote “The Raven.”
From the beginning of his career as a poet, short-story writer, and critic and reviewer, Poe was developing a body of critical doctrine about the nature of literature. Basically, the doctrine assumes that, whereas the lowest forms of literary art are realistic works and works created to illustrate a didactic moral lesson, the highest form of literary art is the aesthetic creation of beauty. Bits and pieces of this theory can be found developing from Poe’s earliest reviews and prefaces. The theory comes together in a unified fashion in Poe’s most extended and famous theoretical statement, “The Philosophy of Composition.”
Poe begins his discussion by asserting that literary works should start with the conclusion or denouement and then work back to the motivation or causes that lead to the “end.” Only in this way, Poe insists, can the writer give the plot an indispensable air of consequence by making both the incidents and the tone contribute to the development of the overall intention. Poe says he always begins with an “effect,” preferably a novel and a vivid one; then he determines what combination of incidents and tone will best aid him in the construction of that effect.
Poe then launches into an extended discussion of “The Raven,” his best-known poem, to illustrate this procedure. The first consideration in the writing of the poem, Poe asserts, was the issue of the length and scope of the work. Poe always argued that a long poem was a contradiction in terms—a long poem is actually a succession of brief ones. His first criterion for the length of a work is that it can be read at a single sitting. If the work is too long to be read at a single sitting, it loses the important effect derivable from unity of impression. Thus, Poe arbitrarily decided to limit his poem to about one hundred lines; “The Raven” is actually 108 lines.
Second, Poe decided on the “impression” or “effect” that he wished to convey. Because for Poe the sole province of all poetry is beauty, he decided that his poem should focus on this universally appreciable effect. Once making that decision, he had to decide on the “tone” of the poem. Because beauty always excites tears in the sensitive person, he concluded that his tone should be one of sadness and melancholy. Having made these decisions about the effect he wished to achieve, Poe then made decisions about what techniques would best bring about these effects. His first decision about method was to make use of the refrain, for it is universally appreciated in poetry, and its impression depends on repetition and a monotone of sound. Although the sound would remain the same, however, the thought conveyed by the sound should constantly vary. Deciding that the best refrain would be a single word, Poe claims that the first word that came to his mind to suggest the melancholy tone he had chosen was the word “nevermore.”
After he made those decisions, Poe says he then decided on a “pretext” for the use of this word in such a manner. This is an important point, for Poe does not begin with the plot, theme, or the so-called personal dilemma of his primary character. Rather, the character and the plot—what one often thinks are the most important elements—are really only a pretext or an excuse for using the techniques that will create the effect that he wants.
Realizing that the monotonous repetition of the word “nevermore” would belie any reasoning person, Poe decided to have an unreasoning creature utter the word; the raven, a bird of ill omen, was the natural choice. Next, Poe decided on the subject of the poem. After admitting that the most melancholy subject is death, Poe then, in one of his famous pronouncements, asserts that the most melancholy subject occurs when death is associated with beauty: “the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”
Readers and critics have often criticized Poe for this essay, arguing that it makes the creation of a poem sound cold-blooded and rational, rather than the stroke of inspiration some would prefer to credit. Poe’s central theoretical assumption, however, is that poetry is the careful creation of beauty and should create pleasure in the reader. Above all, Poe is a formalist for whom the technique and pattern of a poem, not its so-called theme or human interest, is its sole reason for being.