Friday, March 16, 2012

Edgar Allen Poe's Obsession With Death

            Edgar Allan Poe found his calling as a writer and survived off his works of poetry and short stories. His works are remarkable, filled with layers of brilliant imagery and countless symbolisms that illustrate his niche in the writing world. The imageries, symbolisms, and many elements of Gothic Literature created sinister, grim moods; perfect for his tales of death, darkness, and despair. Authors tend to write about subjects they find interesting, and Edgar Allan Poe was no exception. All his stories, including “The Masque of Red Death”, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Black Cat”, and “The Pit and the Pendulum” relate to his typical theme of death and its contemporaries. These five stories in particular show the obsession Edgar Allan Poe had with death.
            One cause of death is sickness. In “The Masque of Red Death”, Poe writes about a deadly plague. Prince Prospero, the Prince of the affected area secluded himself and friends in a hideaway, where they believed themselves to be safe in the themed rooms, away from the deadly and grotesque plague. The elite paid no mind to the dying citizens of the area, except for when the clock would strike. The hideaway is a mix of the bizarre and beautiful, and the large, ebony clock falls in the category of the former. “Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to harken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation” (Poe, The Masque of Red Death). The clock is located in the “chamber which lies most westwardly”, one that is decorated in sable and gloom. There are blood colored windows, and other than that, everything is a ghastly hue of ebony. The hues of the room’s décor are closely affiliated with death, but the room itself is a symbol for death. Poe made sure to mention that the room was the one that was most westward. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, which is commonly used as a symbol for life and death. The room would not be bathed in light, which resembles goodness, even if the blood red windows did not exist. It is also in this room that the Prince is murdered.  Although Prince Prospero was prosperous and thought he and his subjects could escape Death, Poe shows that Death cannot be cheated. The ringing of the clock at midnight leaves everyone more frightened than usual, and also brings a stranger. He is emaciated, with corpse like clothing and a mask that mirrored the bloody symptoms of the plague. “And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death” (Poe, The Masque of Red Death). Poe personified the plague, and made him a character of his story. After he murders the Prince, the Red Death goes on to extinguish the rest of the living present. As the last of the Prince’s company dies, the clock stops sounding. As long as the clock continued to ring, the lives of the hideaways continued as well. The quiet of the clock represents death, as death happens when time runs out. Poe used obvious symbols for death in “The Masque of Red Death”, as he did also in “The Fall of the House of Usher”.
            “The Fall of the House of Usher” starts with the narrator setting the mood for the story. “I know not how it was- but with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit” (Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher). He goes on to explain that the reason behind his visit to the miserable place is to attempt to help his childhood friend, Roderick Usher, the last of the inbreed Usher family, alleviate his physical and mental sicknesses. The house itself seems to project the sickness of its owner. “No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones” (Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher). The narrator finds his old friend on the brink of madness, and tries his best to soothe him. Roderick is cracked, just like the house, but not yet broken. Poe worked in story inception, and had the narrator read “The Haunted Palace” and “Mad Trist”, both about death, to Roderick Usher.  
            The Usher house was clouded with sickness. Roderick’s sister Madeline was sick as well, with a disease that “had long baffled the skill of her physicians”.  During the narrator’s stay, Roderick pronounced his sister as dead, and enlisted the help of the narrator to entomb her. The madness had gotten to him, as Madeline wasn’t really dead. Roderick had buried her alive, and seeing her alive scared him to death. After the two siblings died together, so did the house. “While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened --there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind --the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight --my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder --there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters --and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the "HOUSE OF USHER” (Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher). The falling of the house symbolized the end of the Ushers. “The Fall of the House of Usher is about madness as well as death, similar to Poe’s famous “The Tell-Tale Heart”.
            The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” is mad. On multiple occurrences throughout the story, he claims that he is not mad, only dreadfully nervous. However, anyone who kills because of a “pale blue eye, with a film over it” is mad. “Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees – very gradually – I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever” (Poe, The Tell- Tale Heart). The madman planed his attack on the old man for seven days, perfecting his technique for the big moment. The madman thought himself as Death. “All in vain; because Death, in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim” (Poe, The Tell- Tale Heart). Once again, Poe personified death. The narrator cannot stand the beating of the human heart, and that’s what ignites his cold-bloodedness.  Poe uses the Gothic element of macabre when describing the hiding of the body in much detail, adding gruesome weight to the murder of the old man. Authorities come to investigate, and the narrator is fine, until he hears the beating of the old man’s heart. The sound of life drives the narrator wild. He can’t stand the life of the old man, and he essentially kills himself, when he admits to the crime. “The Black Cat” is also about death, and somewhat follows the same storyline.
            The narrator of “The Black Cat” seems to be nowhere as close to the narrator of “The Tell- Tale Heart” in terms of madness. He is an animal lover, his most prized possession being an all black cat that evoked superstitious beliefs. With the help of alcohol, his mood sours to the point where he becomes vile. “The fury of a demon instantly possessed me. I knew myself no longer. My original soul seemed, at once, to take its flight from my body; and a more then fiendish malevolence, gin-nurtured, thrilled every fibre of my frame” (Poe, The Black Cat). He became someone else, torturing his favorite companion by cutting its eye out, and eventually hanging him. Over time, the narrator’s mood slightly lightens, and he once again owns another black cat. However, this particular black cat was not pure black- it had a patch of white fur on it. Over time, the white patch becomes more defined as an image of the gallows. The narrator describes that each day the image becomes more defined, symbolizing death approaching slowly but surely.  Once again, the narrator’s hatred for his animal companion returns. “During the former the creature left me no moment alone; and, in the latter, I started, hourly, form dreams of unutterable fear, to find the hot breath of the thing upon my face, and its vast weight – and incarnate Night-Mare that I had no power to shake off – incumbent eternally upon my heart” (Poe, The Black Cat)! What Poe is describing is not clear without context- the narrator is saying that the cat is always trailing and following him, and is heavy; however, Poe could also be describing death and how the heavy burden of death is always present in human’s hearts. He tries to murder the cat, yet his wife stops him, so he murders her instead. Like the former story written by Poe, the narrator tries to get rid of the evidence, and does a good job of it. Again, the authorities come to investigate, but he becomes brash and knocks on the wall. The cat wails, giving the murder away; and again, the narrator has essentially ended his own life. Although it may seem that the most gruesome story would have the most occurrences of death, it is actually “The Pit and the Pendulum” that has the most references to death.
            The narrator, a prisoner of war, finds himself in his enemies clutches. For a while, he knows not where he is- only that it is dark and big, the setting mirroring death. He knows that his captors are notorious for the way they torture and kill their prisoners. While waiting to make his escape, he madly ponders the question of life and death until he reaches his philosophy. “And then there stole into my fancy, like a rich musical note, the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave” (Poe, The Pit and the Pendulum). The prisoner accepts his oncoming death, but he wants it to be quick and easy. Unfortunately, that is not what his captors have in mind. His prison is a place of death, being large, dark, still, and silent, which are all indicators of death. They have constructed the chamber out of walls of moveable heated metal that have pictures of grotesque demons on it. These walls push the unlucky victims towards the pit that represents Hell in the center of the dungeon, which is ultimately their death place.  At the middle of the ceiling, there is Time itself (more commonly known as Death), and instead of holding a scythe like he normally does, he holds a swinging pendulum, which has been made into a weapon of death. He spends his time in this dark, silence, and vermin infested place that Poe refers to as Hades, the Greek Underworld, deciding between which ways to die, as he gives up on the chance of escape. The tale is enthralling, as the pendulum and death steadily makes its way down upon the prisoner. 
            Edgar Allan Poe wrote all these stories. "The Pit and the Pendulum", "The Black Cat", "The Tell-Tale Heart", "The Fall of the House of Usher", and "The Masque of Red Death" all have common themes. This common theme is death. Although a few are also about sickness and madness, these are contemporaries of death. Since he wrote about it so much, it's no surprise that he was obsessed with death.

 Works Cited

"The Black Cat." By Edgar Allan Poe. Web. 16 Mar. 2012. <>.

"The Fall of the House of Usher." By Edgar Allan Poe. Web. 16 Mar. 2012. <>.

"The Masque of Red Death." By Edgar Allan Poe. Web. 16 Mar. 2012. <>.

"The Pit and the Pendulum." By Edgar Allan Poe. Web. 16 Mar. 2012. <>.

"The Tell-Tale Heart." By Edgar Allan Poe. Web. 16 Mar. 2012. <>.

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