Andrew Hall is a first year English Education student at the University of Sunderland. His interests include American literature and the supernatural. See more in our student profiles.
Edgar Allan Poe was a pioneer of the American Romantic movement, his Gothic interests likely stemming from studying European literature during the period of his childhood spent in England, and he can be shown to have used the supernatural in his works in ways unique from his contemporaries. As Poe claimed himself:
From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were – I have not seen
As others saw – I could not bring
My passions from a common spring (Poe 2003:ix)
which may indicate his acknowledgement of the effect the hardship he endured had on his Weltanschauung, but equally it professes his difference from other Nineteenth Century writers. ‘While Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman are concerned with what America ought to be, Poe […] indicated what America actually was’ (Halliburton 1973:14). This essay will delineate some of the ways Poe used the supernatural tale, and his motivations thereto.
Poe attempted to Americanise Gothic literature; the ‘ruined castles and abbeys [of] European tradition were inappropriate to the new world of North America’ (Botting 1996:114) so instead he set his tales in the uncanny regions of his protagonists’ psyches. For example, in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, the reader becomes aware that the supernatural element is imagined by the narrator. Poe creates an unreliable narrator by highlighting his delusions about the old man’s eye and his irrational denial, ‘why will you say that I am mad?’ (Poe 2003:228) being a polemical entreaty typically reserved for those who are indeed crazed. His understanding of the old man’s fear (‘I knew it was the groan of mortal terror’ (ibid:229)) shows him luxuriating in cruelty, and his obsession with the sound of the ticking watch and beating heart is indicative of psychosis.
Poe blurs the lines between the supernatural and psychological in tales such as ‘Berenice’ and ‘The Masque of the Red Death’. In ‘The Masque’, the revellers find the mummer’s costume ‘untenanted by any tangible form’ (ibid:210), which causes readers to wonder whether he was indeed a spectre or a shared hallucination of their collective subconscious. In ‘Berenice’, the narrator has ‘no definite comprehension’ (Poe 1993:196) of his mutilation of the eponymous antagonist. This implies Freudian traumatic memory repression, but the extracted teeth may symbolise vampiric reanimation which alternatively suggests a supernatural cause for his amnesia.
Poe arguably achieves the synthesis of psychology and the supernatural most effectively in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, where the supernatural elements, such as Madeline’s apparent telekinesis, appear real as they are related by a reliable first person narrator. However, Roderick’s song ‘The Haunted Palace’ (Poe 2003:99-100) alludes to mental deterioration and the psychological effects of isolation. The image of a head is clear: the ‘Banners yellow’ (l.9) are the hair; the eyes are ‘two luminous windows’ (l.18); the teeth and lips are ‘pearl and ruby’ (l.25); and stanzas V-VI describe how seclusion and sadness (‘evil things, in robes of sorrow’- l.33) adversely affect the mind within (‘the monarch’s high estate’ – l.34). The ‘troop of Echoes’ (l.29) becomes a ‘discordant melody’ (l.44), meaning harmonious thought becomes cacophonous madness. Here, Poe has successfully used the supernatural to represent the psychological. Furthermore, the narrator explains that the house is synonymous with the family and therefore with Roderick himself, thereby transforming its collapse into a symbol of Roderick’s own demise. More than being a well executed literary feature, this serves to make the setting relevant to an American audience, who may not have inferred terror from the Gothic house and its surrounding landscape, too distanced from their cultural experience, had it stood as setting alone.
Another way Poe used the supernatural to ‘satisfy a public which craved his gory and macabre stories’ (Mina 2013) was by addressing common contemporary neuroses. Victorian scientists were beginning to contradict the Bible and its reassuring notions of an afterlife; death was made terrifying by the indiscriminate spread of fatal disease (ibid). Medical understanding was not advanced enough to explain the symptoms of lingering illnesses which could be mistaken for death, such as the shallow breathing of tuberculosis (ibid), and the fear of being buried alive was shared by many. Poe exploited this fear many times in his work, for example: ‘a disfigured body enshrouded, yet still breathing’ (Poe 1993:196) and ‘We have put her living in the tomb!’ (Poe 2003:108).
Poe heightens the fear of disease for readers by highlighting its inevitability and the futility of trying to avoid it in tales like ‘The Masque of the Red Death’. Prince Prospero and the thousand revellers fall victim to the Red Death despite closing themselves off from it. The Red Death alludes to the ‘red plague’ that Caliban wishes on Prospero in The Tempest (an allusion rendered plain by the protagonist’s no doubt deliberately assigned moniker). Similar to Prospero teaching Caliban language having the negative effect of teaching him how to curse, the Prince encloses the revellers with the good intention of avoiding disease with the paradoxical effect that, once inside, it can spread amongst them more quickly. The Red Death is a fictional disease but sounds eerily familiar to readers, enhancing the text’s ability to evoke terror; that it holds ‘illimitable dominion over all’ (Poe 2003:211) suggests that the castle’s inhabitants, by attempting to avoid death, risk supernaturally paying the Faustian price for their conceited efforts.
Madness was another contemporary concern and a frequent theme in Poe’s works. The previously discussed unreliable narrator of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, employed similarly in ‘The Black Cat’, has the unsettling effect of making the reader feel as if they are conversing with a madman. A popular and inveterate notion in the critical Zeitgeist was that Poe embodied many of his characters’ traits and was therefore mad himself. There is evidence to support this: ‘for what disease is like Alcohol!’ (ibid:272) may be a declaration of contrition for Poe’s own drinking, and he often seems to be describing his own family situation in his characters’ (‘I, and my cousin, and her mother’ (ibid:195), ‘Berenice and I were cousins’ (ibid:190)), but to deduce that his tales are autobiographical is a false syllogism. If Poe was as mad as some of his characters, he would not have had the mental or literary faculties to recognise them as such or portray them so effectively. Buranelli claims that Poe had to ‘escape […] practical life on occasion or else go mad’ (1977:22), and he must have shared some of the public’s fears hitherto discussed, so perhaps Poe included fragments of himself in his writing as a form of anaesthesia for his own neuroses.
One of Poe’s biggest fears was female abandonment. Through either death or estrangement, he lost almost every woman in his life, and his creation of ‘some of the most distinctive female characters in fiction’ (Mina 2013) can be seen as attempts to reanimate those lost women. The first of these women was Poe’s mother Elizabeth, an actor who died when Poe was two years old. As an infant, Poe would have seen his mother ‘die’ on stage many times, perhaps therefore never fully understanding or accepting her death and subconsciously expecting her to return. This underlying conflict, and the loss of other women throughout his lifetime, may be what led Poe to claim that the death of a beautiful woman was the most poetical subject in ‘The Poetic Principle’ (Poe 2003:449-63). Of course, Poe’s aesthetic ideology here is flawed; beauty is subjective, and one wonders whether the death of an ugly woman, or a man, or a child of any outward appearance, would not be equally as tragic or melancholic. Nonetheless, the demise and resurrection of women blessed, or cursed, with a comely countenance is a recurring motif throughout much of Poe’s work.
In ‘Eleonora’, the reanimated female is comforting and forgiving (‘thou art absolved’ (ibid:200)), rather than vengeful or malevolent as in some of Poe’s earlier work. Eleonora’s fictional death is a bitterly ironic, haunting pre-echo of Virginia’s condition. Poe’s young wife contracted tuberculosis soon after ‘Eleonora’ was published (Galloway: 2003:xlii) and she suffered undulating health for five years before her death, repeatedly declining and recovering in a bitter parody of the women in Poe’s fictional oeuvre. During this period, Poe ‘became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity’ (ibid:xliv) but also finally achieved literary acclaim with the publication of ‘The Raven’ (Mina 2013). Full of allusion to Virginia’s illness (ibid), there is more bitter irony in that his greatest achievement came from his worst pain, and Poe, in high demand for public readings (ibid), may have felt guilt at having to leave her for long periods to pursue his career.
Poe may have felt responsible for the loss of other women in his life too, as it seems those he did not lose to death, he lost because of his own actions. He lost his friend Frances Osgood through public flirtation (for example, see ‘A Valentine’ (Poe 2003:41), a complicated acrostic poem dedicated to Osgood) which led to salacious rumours of infidelity, the scandal of which Virginia blamed for hastening her death, and Sarah Whitman ended their engagement because he failed to stop drinking (Mina 2013). In the poetry composed near the end of his life, Poe presents speakers who seem resigned to solitude and death. In ‘For Annie’, the speaker expresses disdain for ‘the fever called ‘Living’’ (Poe 2003:37), and ‘Annabel Lee’s speaker resigns himself to ‘lie down […] / In her tomb’ (ibid:43). In a final twist of bitter irony, ‘Annabel Lee’ was published on 9th October, 1849, the day Poe died.
Poe, then, used the supernatural tale to address and explore social anxieties regarding madness, disease and death in a psychological reinterpretation of Gothic literature, and to attempt to reconcile his own neuroses about female abandonment and guilt. Reflecting on the points discussed in this essay, one has to conclude that Poe did this effectively in short fiction and poetry that helped define American Romanticism and which still resonates with readers today.
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