illustrated portrait of American author of gothic fiction Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

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How does Edgar Allan Poe portray women in his tales?

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The women in Edgar Allan Poe's stories suffer sad fates. Men are Poe's main characters; however, there are two women who come to mind, neither of whom enjoy "happy endings."

The first woman is the wife in Poe's "The Black Cat." Though the narrator describes his early life as one of "docility and humanity," we find that he sinks quickly into the depths of insanity.

When he marries, he and his wife seem to have a great deal in common—including a love of pets—and his wife quickly fills their home with "agreeable" animals:

I married early, and was happy to find in my wife a disposition not uncongenial with my own. Observing my partiality for domestic pets, she lost no opportunity of procuring those of the most agreeable kind.

One is a black cat, and though the man's wife is very superstitious, the main character dismisses this idea of evil attached to the cat: wife, who at heart was [superstitious], made frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise.

As the man's madness takes hold, he kills the cat. Soon another follows him home, and he grows to hate that cat. His wife does not complain about his behaviors, but she tries to stop his attack of the cat in a fit of madness:

But this blow was arrested by the hand of my wife. Goaded, by the interference, into a rage more than demoniacal, I withdrew my arm from her grasp and buried the axe in her brain. She fell dead upon the spot, without a groan.

Patient and kind, she is a victim of her husband's insanity.

In "The Fall of the House of Usher," Usher's sister is also a victim, though of very different consequences. The narrator goes to visit childhood friend Roderick Usher, responding to a letter from Usher asking him to visit. Upon the narrator's arrival, Roderick describes his illness:

It was, he said, a constitutional and a family evil...

The narrator...

implies that the Usher race is the product of inbreeding, intimating that close intermarriage, if not outright incest...

...were the cause of Roderick's sickness. Roderick describes his twin and...

....the severe and long-continued illness—indeed to the evidently approaching dissolution—of a tenderly beloved sister...

She is Roderick's only family. At her death, he will be completely alone. The narrator describes...

...the lady Madeline...passed slowly through a remote portion of the apartment, and...disappeared.

She moves like a ghost. That night, she takes to her bed. At her death, the men carry her coffin to a family "vault." We read...

The disease which had thus entombed the lady in the maturity of youth, had left...the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death.

Seven or eight days pass. Roderick comes to the narrator's door in the night. He declares...

We have put her living in the tomb!

As the doors to the room open...

...there did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher. There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame...with a low moaning cry, [she] fell heavily inward...

Madeline is portrayed as a wraith, the victim of mistaken burial who dies with her brother in that last moment.

Poe's women are not able to defend themselves, but die, victims of sorry circumstance—perhaps a reflection of the lives of the many women lost to Poe in his lifetime.

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Edgar Allan Poe once stated that then most poetic of all subjects was the death of a young beautiful woman. That theme also is common in many of Poe’s tales. Many of his women are young, beautiful, and doomed. Often they have consumption or other fatal conditions. Despite their physical frailty, they are often mentally stronger than his nervous young men, who are drawn to them as candles to a flame. In many ways, the women in Poe have little independent existence, but functions as reflections of male desire or objects of the male gaze.

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