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Edgar Allan Poes Gothic Literature Style English Literature Essay

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) was an American author born in Boston. His use of terror and the supernatural made him famous as one of the popular gothic writers. Poe wrote numerous books and poems with some 18+ noted books to his credit. His mystery writing was recognised by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as being exceptional and the ability to bring life into the characters portrayed. The life and works of Poe are particularly well explored in the book ‘The political economy of literature in antebellum America by Terence Whalen. In addition the book ‘Edgar Allan Poe: a biography’ by Milton Meltzer describes the literary works and criticism of Poe’s books and poems.

INTRODUCTION

Edgar Allan Poe was noted for his gothic horror style of writing. Nevertheless he also used his writing to express political sentiments, particularly that regarding racism, slavery and social distinctions in the Southern USA. This was compared to the situation in Europe with Poe supporting the concept of slavery. The author Toni Morrison in her book entitled “Playing in the Dark” identified Poe along with Mark Twain as an author whose work was haunted by blackness. “Toni Morrison claims that no early American writer was more important than Poe in shaping a concept of "American Africanism” [1] 

The works of Poe were largely obscured for some 50 years after his death owing to copyright restrictions held by his Executor Dr. Rufus B Griswold. “It is nearly fifty years since the death of Edgar Allan Poe, and his writings are now for the first time gathered together with an attempt at accuracy and completeness” [2] . Despite the production of numerous poems Poe was best known for his genre of horror and science fiction novels and Walt Whitman [3] described his works as “Poe’s verses illustrate an intense faculty for technical and abstract beauty, with the rhyming art to excess, an incorrigible propensity toward nocturnal themes, and a demoniac undertone behind every page. … There is an indescribable magnetism about the poet’s life and reminiscences, as well as the poems” [4] .

Poe’s life was surrounded by tragedy with his parents passing away when he was just 3 years old. He became obsessive with drink and gambling and this resulted in his own rather obscure death as a drunk in Baltimore. Despite this his poems and novels that explored the conditions of the human psyche earned him international fame both during his life and after his death. He was viewed as a tortured soul who was obsessed with death, violence and a sense of the macabre yet still gained an appreciation for those mysteries that life had to offer.

Poe was acknowledged by such notary poets as Longfellow, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Whitman. Despite his critics he left a legacy of gothic works that would later inspire film makers and other novelists in the horror and supernatural genre.

Poe was acknowledged by the international community as an acclaimed writer of stories and poems in the gothic horror style. He was also critical of the political scene in light of the turbulent changes in the Southern USA. He brought a style of gothic writing in order to make statements and used the concept of terror, mystery and the supernatural to bring fear and terror to society. This paper explores the different examples of Poe's writing and provides a modern interpretation of his different styles and uses. A cross-section of Poems, Short Stories in the genre of horror, mystery and terror.

LITERATURE OF EDGAR ALLAN POE

THE TELL TALE HEART

The Tell-Tale Heart is a short story composed by Edgar Allen Poe. It is rather a ghoulish story concerning the murder of an old man who is dismembered and his body buried under floor-boards. The murder subsequently loses his sanity believing the heart of the old man is still beating under the floorboards. It talks of the old man having a "Vulture Eye", the apparent reason for the pre-meditated murder. The conflict is on the murders insistence of his own sanity but in so doing it becomes "self-destructive" as the defence build-up the case to his ultimate admission of guilt. It is a saga of guilt, remorse and the dreadful concept of haunting of the human mind for an act so reprehensible. Clearly the murderer is the protagonist at the central theme of this story and the old man the antagonist by the concept of the "vulture eye" [5] 

As the sound of the old man’s heartbeat gets louder. The murder becomes more paranoid and believes that others can hear it, including the police officers who are present at the scene of the crime. The illusion and paranoia eventually lead to the murder believing the police know that he is guilty and the murders tortured soul eventually leads him confessing his guilt of the crime. This leads the murder to the evidence and telling the police the whereabouts of the body and instruction to tear up the floor boards.

The plot demonstrates the struggle between imagination and science. The old man the rationale scientific mind and the narrator the imaginative

THE CASK OF AMONTILLADO

"The Cask of Amontillado” was written by Edgar Allen Poe in 1846. It was developed as a short story in "Godey's Lady's Book". The setting was in an unnamed city in Italy, the period was not indicated but assume somewhere in the 18th Century. The theme of this story is about REVENGE. During the 19th Century the people seemed to have a great interest in this subject matter and as such this was a popular tale. Poe was rather a dark or grim writer and this story was unveiled from the perspective of the murderer. Poe had the unique talent of being able to penetrate the inner mind and psychology of the murder and acts of insanity. From this he could create a graphical depiction of both horror and terror that leaves the sane reader aghast. The subject of revenge is particularly potent material and allows the writer to demonstrate the meaning of hatred and the steps someone would take in order to exact a terrible revenge.

Characters in the story

The story focuses around two main characters that of "Montresor" (Murderer) and his victim "Fortunato", both men of noble birth. Montresor was extremely angry over some unspecified insult from Fortunato and as a result plans his murder. His aim or plan being to distract him during carnival time, when the festivities find the man in a drunken stupor, wearing the disguise of a jester’s attire.

The Plot

Montresor captures the attention of Fortunato by describing a procurement of a very valuable cask of sherry “the Cask of Amontillado" and requires Fortunato's expert opinion on the quality of the wine. From this point he lures Fortunato through a series of subterranean passages beneath his Palazzo. When the two men reach the cellar containing the wine, Montresor grabs Fortunato and chains him to the wall and then proceeds to build a new wall and seal him in leaving him to die.

In re-telling his story some 50 years later Montresor says he has never been captured and in so far as he knows the body of Fortunato still hangs suspended in the niche where it was bricked in all those years ago. The unrepentant murder stating " In pace requiscat" (may he rest in peace). The story undoubtedly had an influence on later writers... “This story and Poe's other short fiction had an undisputed influence on later fiction writers. In the nineteenth century, Poe influenced Ambrose Bierce and Robert Louis Stevenson among others. Twentieth-century writers who have looked to Poe include science fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft and horror author Stephen King." [6] 

Analysis and Symbolism

The theme and plot of the story is based upon murder and revenge. It is not a mystery or detection story, the mystery resides in the actual motives for which Montresor committed murder. Montresor indicated that he received a "thousand injuries", although no substantive reasons were provided. The reader is left to determine the cause of the motives, including the probability that Montresor was in fact insane. There are some contradictions in the story, for example: Fortunato is introduced to the readership as a wine expert... " he becomes so drunk he would be unable to identify the Amontillado and treats De Grave, an expensive French wine, with little regard by drinking it in a single gulp" [7] 

The tale also indicates that Montresor was of noble birth and yet he demonstrated brick laying skills, more normally associated with the working class. It is known that the author had knowledge of the subject matter in his personal life and as such appreciated the visual horrors of such an abstraction to his audience. “Poe worked in the brickyard late in the fall of 1834". [8] Vincent Buranelli made a number of observations about the story and in more general terms about Poe's morbid fascination with death. He expanded by saying how this had influenced musicians of the time including Debussy... “According to Vincent Buranelli, Poe's short stories also influenced the music of Claude Debussy, who was "haunted" by the atmosphere of Poe's tales, and the art of Aubrey Beardsley, as well as the work of other composers and artists in the United States, Great Britain, and in Europe." [9] The gothic style of Poe's writing has a distinct sense of morbidity about it... “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged”. [10] The analysis of the phrase is interesting. It suggests a building of in sufferance from the relationship with Fortunato culminating in a final insult that threw Montresor into a fit of rage and ultimately to a plot of murder. For this to build into such a state illustrates the apparent lack of dialogue and trust between the two supposed friends. This also leads the reader to question the state of mind of Montresor and indeed question his very sanity.

Richard P Benton (a noted writer on Poe) asserted that the character for Montessori was in actual fact based upon "Claude de Bourdeille, Count of Montresor" a political conspirator in the court of King Louis X111. [11] 

THE RAVEN

The Raven was first published in 1845. It is regarded as a classic American poem. The poet describes that of a talking Raven which visits a distressed lover and ultimately traces the man's emotions as he steps into the depths of insanity. The man is considered to be a student who is lamenting over the loss of his lover called ‘Lenore’. The Raven is a mysterious bird symbolic of death and repeats the words ‘never more’. The man asks the Raven questions but it only answers ‘Never more’ and as such he will never be reunited with his Lenore and his soul shall not be lifted ‘Never more’. At the time the poem came in for a fair amount of criticism, in addition to the acclaim from other poets. It was considered to be inspired by the work of Charles Dickens from his novel Barnaby Rudge. The Raven is considered to be a devil like creature that is symbolic of both black magic and the devil. The end result of the poem is that the student will never get over the grief for his lost Lenore. Lenore also translates to Helen [Helen of Troy representing beauty] and the bust of Pallas is representative of the Greek goddess Athena [the goddess of wisdom]. This is symbolic of the fact that grief and sorrow displace wisdom and common sense in the man's life. This is a complex poem with many meanings. Poe was particularly artful at understanding ancient greek mythology and being able to both intertwin this with comparisons to characters in his own narrations. He demonstrated similar characteristics with figures out of European history and related these to American literature. It is important to understand that many of Poes readers were international and particularly from Europe where he had a large following. This translation therefore became an important part of reaching that audience.

THE BLACK CAT

Is a short story narrated by Poe. It was compiled in 1843 and falls under the horror genre. The story focuses upon the deteriorating life of an alcoholic but also it involves animal abuse and murder. It is useful to note that Poe himself had a serious drinking problem and in Baltimore he fell into bad company. This may well have influenced this work based upon his own shortcomings and fear of falling into madness as a result of alcoholism.

The story is a mystery novel and about the unlocking of clues to a murder, as revealed by the mysterious black cat. It is the location of hidden objects that allow you to solve puzzles that allude to the murder. The cat is called Pluto [ Roman name for the God of the underworld] and symbolic of the devil and hell. The black cat is also associated with bad luck and misfortune. The cat is used to depict the insanity of the narrator as he spins out of control due to the worsening effects of alcoholism. This Gothic tale becomes all the more shocking as you're about to get inside the mind of an insane person and ultimately it leaves you to ponder the shocking story and the acts committed by the man i.e. The walling up of his wife and the black cat in the cellar. Poe was highly influenced by drink and opium and this may well account for his ability to graphically define horror, based upon the horrors that he experienced from drink and drugs. Opium was known for its hallucogenic qualities and Poe had a love of cats; hence it becomes easier to understand how his mind finds it easier to start and unravel the workings of insanity and the unfortunate influences of advanced alcoholism.

THE PIT AND THE PENDALUM

The pit and the pendulum is another short story compiled by Poe in 1842. It tells the story of a young prisoner that is tortured as part of the Spanish inquisition. The story depicts what it is like to be tortured and attempts to place to reader in a state of fear, thereby appealing to the senses and sounds that hinge upon realism. The tall candles that are melting depict the prisoner and his life ebbing away with little hope of remission or rescue. The prisoner is locked in a dark prison which he thinks is his tomb. The prisoner becomes aware that he has been bound in a pit with a scythe like pendulum slowly swinging down towards him. This will be the instrument of his execution but the prisoner is able to attract rats to gnaw his bones and release him. He is finally rescued before the inner walls move inwards and force him to his death at the bottom of the pit. Although Poe takes historical license with the story it is widely held that the pit and pendulum were used in torture devices by the Spanish inquisition. The story was later made into a film starring the actor Vincent Price. Some have contrasted this work to the situation of slavery in the Southern States i.e. the concept of bondage and being a prisoner, the sense of life ebbing away with no remission from slavery, the torture being the lashing and brutality inflicted upon slaves by their masters and the final rescue being the freedom from slavery by the Northern Union Army at the end of the civil war. The comparison being the Spanish Inquisition to the plight of the slaves.

FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER

This story relates to the decline of a family and house [the House of Usher]. From the beginning the author paints a bleak view of rot and decay in a cold autumnal setting The novel compares the crumbling decay of the house to that of the family that dwells within. The characters Roderick and Madeleine are twins and represent the mental and physical decline of the family. Roderick believes that the stones of the house have a consciousness and as such they embody the fate of the Usher family. Within the novel Poe gets to grips with the inner workings of the human imagination and the destructive concepts that reside within. The results of this lead to mental illness and death from the torturous terror of the imagination. The house itself “crumbles into the deep and dark tarn”, [12] (Womak 2010) and depicts the narrator fleeing from madness in order to protect his own sanity.

Some critics related this piece to the destruction of the plantations, properties and families in the Southern States by the persecution of the Northern Union armies. The crumbling decay of the house being that of the confederate states and how old ideas and families were being crushed under the concept of change by the slavery abolitionist movement of the North.

The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar

This short story was first published in 1845. This tells the story of a dying man. A mesmerist places a man into a state of hypnosis shortly before his time of death. He examines the concept of hypnotizing a man dying of tuberculosis in order to see what happens to him. The man is left in the hypnotic state for seven months. The dying man (Valdemar) beckons to be woken or allowed to die by wagging his tongue. During the hypnotic state he was pale, cold and without pulse. As the hypnotist eventually wakes him Valdemar’s voice shouts Dead! Dead! And as he comes out of the trance his body instantly decays into a putrefied liquid mass of decayed material. Poe was known to have deeply studied medical tests and post mortem examinations and as such was able to assemble a picture of words in order to depict the horror and gore. Additional influence to this story might have been the suffering and death of his wife Virginia who died from Tuberculosis; having suffered to the point of her departure.

The Masque of the Red Death

This popular short story follows the main character of Prince Prospero who tries to escape a plague called ‘The Red Death’, by hiding in his abbey with his noble friends. During this time they have a masked ball which covers many different coloured rooms. During the ball a strange masked figure enters the room dressed in a shroud like costume. This enrages Prospero who demands to know who this person is and wants him hanged. He ignores the Prince and this enrages Prospero who chases after him with a drawn dagger. Prospero confronts the stranger in the Black room and shortly after is found dead. The guests find both Prospero and the stranger on the floor. They remove the mask from the stranger only to find a faceless creature that is Red Death itself. After this all of the nobility succumb to the disease and are found dead. Although the disease is fictitious it might be symbolic of the Black Death that swept through the middle ages in Europe. The point made is that nobody ultimately escapes death regardless of wealth or position. Death comes to us all in the end. Other theories are that Poe was influenced by the death of his wife Virginia and her suffering due to that of tuberculosis.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue

Poe first published this murder mystery in 1841 in Grahams Magazine. It tells the story of the brutal saying of two women in the Rue Morgue of Paris. One had her throat cut and the other strangled. This was one of the earliest detective novels that inspired fictional characters of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. The central detective figure in this story being one Auguste Dupin. The detective found his first clue by discovering some hair that was not of human origin. In addition witnesses recounted having heard noises and sounds in a language that they had never heard before. Dupin suspected that this might be an Ourang-Outang and set about placing an advert for someone who might have lost such an animal. It was discovered that a sailor had brought one from Borneo and that the animal had escaped with a shaving razor. The animal emulating shaving on the victims.

Poe wrote this story at a time when crime and detection was held in great fascination in both London and New York. It aimed at proving the point of brains over brawn i.e. the brains of the skilled detective versus the brute strength of the ape. Poe was said to have inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) and Agatha Christie (great mystery and detective writer).

Comparisons were made to the captivation and treatment of the Ape. As the Ape was brought from its’ native Borneo to a strange land and subjected to the dangerous practices of its captor (sailor); so the negro was transplanted from Africa to the plantations of the Americas and subject to the bondage and harsh treatment of his new master.

The Premature Burial

This short story was based upon the concept of being buried alive. It focuses upon a person who has been struck down with a condition called ‘catalepsy’ which puts you into a death like trance. Here a person is buried alive and only at a later date when the tomb is opened is the accident revealed. Poe takes advantage of a fear that was prevalent amongst people of the 19th century in the concept of being buried alive. It again illustrates Poe’s fascination with the morbidity of death.

The Imp of the Perverse

This story is about that of an imp or demon that influences a person in order to conduct acts of mischief. The story starts with a candle, having been placed in the room of a victim, and omits a poisonous vapour. The leads to the death of the victim who reads at night by the candlelight in a poorly ventilated room. The narrator, being the murderer, believes he has got away with the crime after the coroner delivers a verdict of ‘an act of god’ The narrator subsequently inherits the house and enjoys the benefits from the deed for many years to come. He feels that the only way he will ever be caught is that if he confesses the crime. He later finds himself running through the streets and confesses the deed to an invisible friend. This leads to him being tried, convicted and sentenced to death.

The story is based upon the premise that all people lean towards self-destructive tendencies and that ultimately we cannot avoid the moral responsibility for the deed that we perform. Other critics have suggested that the story related purely to Poe’s life and his depiction of personal torment and self-destruction. It occurred at a time when he felt betrayed and held a public feud with the English poet Henry Longfellow.

THE ANGEL OF THE ODD

This was a satirical study narrated by Poe in 1844. The story is based upon a man who died after swallowing a needle accidentally. This results in the appearance of an odd character made of a keg and wine bottles (the angel of the odd), who is said to be the root cause of these bizarre events. The man is not convinced of the story and falls into a drunken stupor. The man later wakes up to find that his house is on fire and narrowly escapes death by clambering down a ladder from the upper window of the house. During the escape a hog brushes past the ladder causing the man to fall and break his arm. He later tries to woo two different women who laugh at his wig, this he was forced to wear after his hair was singed in the fire. All of these misadventures lead the man to feel he is cursed and he attempts suicide by drowning. During this incident a crow steals his clothes and the ensuing chase sees the man falling off a cliff only to be rescued by the rope hanging from a hot air balloon. At this time the angel of the odd re-appears and asks him to confess that bizarre events can really happen. The man refuses and the angel cuts the rope allowing the man to fall to his death. This is seen as the revenge of the angel.

The story contains many parallels with Poe’s own life. In particular the results of his addiction with alcohol and possibly drugs. Opiate drugs of a hallucogenic nature were widely used at this time and particularly in sea ports like Baltimore where Poe lived for some time and was known to have become an alcoholic living amongst bad company. Poe was also considered to be a tortured soul of self-destructive tendencies. This contributed to his gothic style of writing.

BERENICE

Berenice was a horror story compiled by Poe in 1835 and follows the sag of one ‘Egaeus’ destined to marry his cousin Berenice. His future bride is seen to deteriorate in health by an unknown disease that leaves only her teeth in a healthy state. Berenice dies and is buried leaving Egaeus with an obsession over her teeth. One day a servant enters his room to inform him that Berenice’s grave has been disturbed and she is still alive. Egaeus is found to have a box containing 32 blood stained teeth with a poem that tells of his visits to the grave of his beloved. This is clearly an indication of the insanity of Egaeus and his obsession with the only healthy remaining component of the teeth.

Critics were shocked by the gruesome account and graphic horror of the story. They questioned Poe’s state of mind to write such stories. Poe may well have been influenced by the suffering of his wife Victoria and dyeing from Tuberculosis as she suffered an agonising and prolonged death. There is also some question over Poe’s sanity given his connection to drink, drugs and tendencies of self-destruction and his fascination with death.

ELEONORA

Eleonora tells the story of the narrator who resides with his cousin in the ‘valley of the many coloured grass’. It was considered to be an idyllic paradise of tropical birds, fragrant flowers, and softly running streams. Eleonora was ill and was beautiful only waiting to die. She did not fear death but only the loss of her lover from the valley to another. Once Eleonora dies the valley starts to fade and lose its splendour. The narrator leaves the valley and moves to a City where he meets and marries Emengarde. Eleonora visits the narrator from the afterlife and blesses the couple stating that they are absolved and the reasons would be made known in heaven.

This has a direct correlation with the life of Poe and particular the suffering and death of his wife Virginia. During the time that she suffered for five years Poe lived with his younger cousin who later became his wife. It is the question of guilt and absolution from sins. Poe considering his feelings for the love of other women whilst his wife was dying. Poe was clearly tormented by the suffering of his wife.

GOTHIC WRITING

PERIOD SIGNIFICANCE

The concept of gothic horror writing derives from the Germanic race of Goths or Visigoths in Europe. These people were well known in Europe as a fierce race of people that dealt in tales of death and the supernatural. Gothic writing has been associated with horror since the mid-18th Century. In particular the literary works of Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker (the author of Dracula). The style of gothic writing gained its popularity during the period 1750-1820. In England the Bronte Sisters and particularly Emily with the story of Wuthering Heights. In the USA this was picked up in the South by such writers as William Faulkner and his book entitled “A rose for Emile”. Another was the Pulitzer Prize winning book of “To kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee and made into a great film starring Gregory Peck.

“Poe believed his art—all art—should be evaluated by international, rather than national or regional, standards, but he was, nonetheless, frequently identified at the time with the South. He did not defend his region's politics or social customs, like other antebellum southern writers, but his lyricism was common to southern poets. Raised a Virginian, Poe sometimes posed as the southern gentleman, even if transcending regionalism in his work.” [13] 

THE POLITICAL CHANGES IN THE SOUTH

During the division between the North and Southern states it was widely held that Poe was politically motivated towards the South “Certain scholars perceive this conflict in terms of a North-South division and view Poe as the representative of a southern literary tradition fighting against the domination of the New England literary circle”. [14] Despite serving in the Union Army and spending time at West Point it was widely held that Poe’s sympathies remained with the south; based upon his formative years in Richmond Virginia.

Poe became somewhat controversial in that he defended the point of view regarding slavery in the South. He drew parallels between ant-slavery agitation at the time of Cromwell (England) and the French Revolution. He pointed out that these were all about an attack on property; the excuse being the freedom of the slaves. He further stated that recent events in the West Indies and the Southern States all give rise to the potential recurrence of a property grab being initiated by Northern States land owners who are politically motivated. Poe went on to say that there existed a relationship between the slave and the master; the slave being very loyal to the Master. The Master in turn provided employment, shelter and security. Poe wrote this from the perspective of a southern family who had owned slaves. He was particularly vocal during his editorship of the ‘Messenger’ in Virginia and he published a number of tablets referred to as ‘Pinakidia’. [15] 

Poe saw a trend in the market place where a huge number of publications were being sold that depicted the graphic horror of slavery. Poe utilized this trend in his own narration covering both the pro and anti-slavery viewpoints. As such many of his tales traded upon the terror of slavery. Poe masters the concept of slavery in order to invoke terror into his readers. In the story of ‘Hop Frog’ he indicates how “the literary market place turns the author into a slave for the voracious appetite of the audiences for horror”. [16] Poe deals with the integration of slavery into that of racial stereotyping as seen in ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’, the ape that has been captured and forced to respond to a strange land.

CONCLUSIONS

Edgar Allan Poe achieved greater acclaim as an author and a poet in international circles as opposed to in the USA. His literary executor ‘Rufus Griswald’ was considered to be both jealous and an enemy of Poe. He branded Poe as a drunkard and opium addict and defamed him to American literary society. It was some 50 years after Poe’s death that the genius of his work started to receive international acclaim. Poe in a way went downhill after the death of his wife and he became much more involved with alcohol, drugs and mixing in bad company. Baltimore was particularly bad during this period and he was found dead lying outside Ryan Inn a tavern in Baltimore. There have been many speculations about his death but the latest theory from the University of Maryland is that he died of rabies, possibly from a rabid cat. Poe was said to be extremely fond of cats and this might have been the result of a bite from one of his pets. The City of Baltimore equally had many sailors passing through it and this led to numbers of rabid animals in the poorer areas of the City. “Poe was also one of the most prolific literary journalists in American history, one whose extensive body of reviews and criticism has yet to be collected fully. James Russell Lowell (1819-91) once wrote about Poe: "Three fifths of him genius and two fifths sheer fudge." [17] 

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