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Edgar Allan Poe: A Paradox on Human Attractiveness to the Preternatural Aspects of Death
Dr. Alfred Hanley ENG 204: Survey of American Literature 11/21/05
Boileau 2 Throughout the history of American Literature, there have been many poets, novelists, autobiographical and biographical writers, and fictional and non-fictional authors who have written about various topics that are unsettling, and sometimes downright disturbing. Several of these topics include incest, depression, suicidal undertones, and connotations of the preternatural aspects of death, the underworld, and the afterlife. There are a slew of romantic poets and authors who may be easily categorized into this methodology of writing; however one in particular stands out as a poet who exhibits a unique fascination with the preternatural aspects of death, and its relationship and attractiveness to the human person. This poet is Edgar Allan Poe. Poe demonstrates his inimitable fascination with the preternatural aspects of death in various stories. One story in particular clearly evidences this point, however. In Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, death is brought to the forefront of the story immediately at the very start. The first line of the story sets the setting of a dark and dreary mood without delay: “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.”1 Poe uses words such as “dull”, “dark”, “soundless”, “dreary”, and “melancholy” all within the first sentence of the story. Through this, it is visibly noticed that death is looming over this story, and Poe’s “obsession with death”2 is made clear instantaneously.
Harry Clarke, Edgar Allan Poe: Tales of Mystery and Imagination (London: George C. Harrap and Co. Ltd., 1919), 131. 2 Clarke, Preface.
Boileau 3 The story takes place in autumn, which signifies the end, or “death”, of the year is approaching. “The shades of the evening” also suggest that nightfall was upon the narrator, which meant that a chill was probably in the air, forming a spine-chilling, deathlike frigid wind. After describing the morbid setting, Poe continues the “dark side of his genius”3 by describing the house of Usher. He begins by saying he looked upon the “mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain – upon the bleak walls – upon the vacant eye-like windows – upon a few rank sedges – and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees – with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveler upon opium – the bitter lapse into everyday life – the hideous dropping off of the veil.”4 In this excerpt, it can be said that Poe almost “personifies” the house of Usher, by giving it “eye-like windows”, and speaking about how it caused him to experience an “utter depression of soul”. Poe’s personification of the house of Usher portrays the house as if it were death itself, and describes the effect death would have on a person, if it were to be stared at face-to-face. This opening description “of the ‘sickening’ decay of the external setting symbolically figures the hero’s physical and mental condition”5. Poe is trying to convey to his readers that the narrator is in a state as though he was confronted with death itself, appearing weak and fragile, and mentally exhausted and fatigued. The decayed trees also associate with death in that the leaves on the trees have all fallen off by this point in autumn, and the trees, as they were, are “dead”. This is implying that “death” is
Vincent Buranelli, Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1961), 17. Clarke, 131-132. 5 David B. Kesterson, Critics on Poe (Florida: University of Miami Press, 1973), 96.
Boileau 4 surrounding the house of Usher, engrossing it, surrounding it so that whoever enters the house will become encompassed by death, and lost in its dark thoughts. The narrator then goes on to describe a very intriguing flaw to the house of Usher. He states what “perhaps the eye of a scrutinizing observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn.”6 This description of the zigzag fissure descending down the front of the house is highly symbolic, and is a vivid example of the preternatural. Poe believed in an afterlife; one where the soul, or “psyche”, would become separate from the body. By splitting the house down the middle with a crack, there is a slight undertone of metaphorically conveying death to the reader by splitting the house, just as the soul would “split” from the body after death, and the body would no longer be “whole” with its psyche. By making this analogy, Poe “clearly capitalized on a popular commodity of his day and outdistanced all rivals in the dramaturgy of death and the dead”7. Poe knew that Americans were fascinated with death during his time, therefore he, “perhaps better than any other writer of his time, defined the idea of death as that idea which was held most sacredly by Americans in the third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century”8. The narrator continues his description of the house, now moving on to the interior. Continuing with the notion of death, he says
Clarke, 134. Edward H Davidson, Poe, A Critical Study (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1957), 105. 8 Davidson, 106.
Boileau 5 “the eye, however, struggled in vain to reach the remoter angles of the chamber, or the recesses of the vaulted and fretted ceiling. Dark draperies hung upon the walls. The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered. Many books and musical instruments lay scattered about, but failed to give any vitality to the scene. I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all.”9 Death rears its gloomy head in this excerpt. Poe states that the narrator’s eyes struggled to look into the corners of the room, suggesting the room was very dark and musty. The draperies, being described as dark, only add to this effect. The furniture is depicted as being comfortless and tattered, implying that one would not want to even approach it, as if the furniture were dark spirits, “invading” the room, and claiming it as their own. This can also be said of the books and musical instruments which lie scattered about the room. They are illustrated as failing to give “vitality” to the scene. Vitality comes from the Latin word “vitae”, meaning life, therefore the books and instruments are clearly evidenced as affecting the scene in a negative way, opposite that of life, which would be positive. The atmosphere and stern air provide even further evidence of the deathinfested room in which the narrator is standing. James Russell Lowell wrote an article for Graham’s Magazine, stating “The situation of American Literature is anomalous. It has no center, or, if it have, it is like that of the sphere of Hermes. It is divided into many systems, each revolving round its several suns, and often presenting to the rest only the faint glimmer of a milk-and-watery way”10. Poe proves Lowell wrong by making clear his “center” of his stories, which is
Clarke, 135. I.M. Walker, Edgar Allan Poe, The Critical Heritage (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Inc. in association with Methuen Inc., 1986), 156-157.
Boileau 6 obviously death. Later on in The Fall of the House of Usher, the narrator begins to explain how he helped Roderick Usher in the entombment process for his twin sister, Madeline. They had buried lady Madeline of Usher alive, and she had broken out of her coffin, and stood before them, with “blood on her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame”11. Death itself is manifested in Madeline, evident not only in her physical appearance, but also symbolically, whereas death is slowly walking towards the narrator throughout the entire story, and he never noticed it. Now, at the very end, he can physically see that very same death that was stalking him throughout the story. Poe uses the “grotesque” in his stories, especially in The Fall of the House of Usher, to “indicate an ambiguous comic genre, creating what is on the one hand ‘deformed and horrible,’ and on the other what is ‘comic and farcical’”12. This is characteristic of the overtones of death in The Fall of the House of Usher, as described above, and it follows Poe’s own criterion for the success of a story. “He said that it should create a strong effect13”, so that readers will want to keep reading, and that the stories would appeal to their liking. Poe “had always shown considerable interest in the ways and forms of spirits”14, and he knew that many of his readers also had the same interests. In conclusion, Poe advocated the human attractiveness of the preternatural aspects of death, and demonstrated this paradox within his story, The Fall of the House of Usher.
Clarke, 150. G.R. Thompson, Poe’s Fiction, Romantic Irony In The Gothic Tales (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973), 109. 13 Stuart Levine, Edgar Poe: Seer and Craftsman (Florida: Everett/Edwards Inc., 1972), 52. 14 Burton R. Pollin, Discoveries In Poe (London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1970), 51.
Boileau 7 Works Cited Buranelli, Vincent. Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1961. Clarke, Harry. Edgar Allan Poe: Tales of Mystery and Imagination. London: George C. Harrap and Co. Ltd., 1919. Davidson, Edward H. Poe, A Critical Study. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1957. Kesterson, David B. Critics on Poe. Florida: University of Miami Press, 1973. Levine, Stuart. Edgar Poe: Seer and Craftsman. Florida: Everett/Edwards Inc., 1972. Pollin, Burton R. Discoveries In Poe. London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1970. Thompson, G.R. Poe’s Fiction, Romantic Irony In The Gothic Tales. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973. Walker, I.M. Edgar Allan Poe, The Critical Heritage. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Inc. in association with Methuen Inc., 1986.
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