Edgar Allan Poe is perhaps the best-known American Romantic who worked in the Gothic mode. His stories explore the darker side of the Romantic imagination, dealing with the grotesque, the supernatural, and the horrifying. He defined the form of the American short story. As one might expect, Poe himself eschewed conventional morality, which he believed stems from man’s attempts to dictate the purposes of God. Poe saw God more as a process than purpose. He believed that moralists derive their beliefs, and thus, the resultant behavioral patterns, from a priori knowledge.
In Eureka, we find that Poe shunned such artifices of mind, systems which, he professed, have no basis in reality. Yet Poe employed in his writing the diction of the moral tome, which causes confusion for readers immersed in this tradition. Daniel Hoffman reiterates Allan Tate’s position that, aside from his atavistic employment of moral terminology, Poe writes as though “Christianity had never been invented. ” (Hoffman 171) Poe did offer to posterity one tale with a moral.
Written in 1841 at the dawn of Poe’s most creative period, Poe delivers to his readers a satirical spoof, a literary Bronx cheer to writers of moralistic fiction, and to critics who expressed disapprobation at finding no discernible moral in his works. The tale “Never Bet the Devil Your Head: A Tale with a Moral” presents Poe’s “way of staying execution” (Poe 487) for his transgressions against the didactics. The story’s main character is Toby Dammit, who from infanthood, had been flogged left-handed, which since the world revolves right to left, causes evil propensities to be driven home rather than driven out.
The narrator relates that by the age of seven months, Toby was chasing down and kissing the female babies, that by eight months he had flatly refused to sign the Temperance Pledge, and that by the end of his first year, he’d taken to “wearing mustaches, but had contracted a propensity for cursing and swearing, and for backing his assertions with bets. ” (Poe 488) As Toby reaches manhood, the narrator finally accepts that his young friend is incorrigible. By this time, Toby utters scarcely a sentence without oaths, his favorite of which is to bet the devil his head that he can accomplish whatever challenge lies before him.
One day as the narrator accompanies Toby Dammit on a route which requires the crossing of a covered bridge, Toby bets the devil his head that he can leap over a bridge stile, pigeon winging as he performs the feat. Unexpectedly a “little lame old gentleman of venerable aspect” (Poe 491) interrupts with an emphatic “ahem” to take Toby up on his bet. The elderly gentleman wears an “a full suit of black, but his shirt was perfectly clean and the collar turned very neatly down over a white cravat. ” Oddly, his eyes are “carefully rolled up into the top of his head,” and he wears a black silk apron. 91)
After he takes charge of Toby, allowing him a running start, the elderly interloper takes his position just behind the stile. The narrator awaits the gentleman’s “One–two–three–and–away,” when Toby initiates his running leap. To all appearances, the young reprobate is destined to clear the stile easily, pigeon-winging as he flies, when abruptly his progress is arrested, and the luckless Toby falls flat on his back on his side of the stile. The elderly gentleman is indistinctly seen wrapping a bulky object in his apron and taking his leave of them.
When the narrator throws open an adjacent window, he sees that Toby has been deprived of his head by a sharp, heretofore unnoticed cross-support located directly above the stile. Stated so that the targets of Poe’s ridicule cannot miss it, the moral of his tale is the title of the story. Yet the moral of the tale is not its theme. Poe purposes ridicule of those who presume to judge him, and of their small-mindedness. This ridicule is his theme. His rendering of this riotous spoof illustrates that Poe believed he had more important things to do than pass moral judgment in his tales.
Poe instead opted to depict what occurred to him as the natural order of man’s behavior, rather than to engage in baseless speculation concerning what God intended for the individual. Appropriately, Poe asks, “if we cannot comprehend God in his visible works, how then in his inconceivable thoughts, that call the works into being! If we cannot understand him in his objective creatures, how then in his substantive moods and phases of creation”? (Poe 280-81) Instead, Poe’s work penetrated to the truths which govern the universe. How petty the moralists of his day must have seemed to him!
Best known for his poems and short fiction, Edgar Allan Poe deserves more credit than any other writer for the transformation of the short story from anecdote to art. He virtually created the detective story and perfected the psychological thriller. He also produced some of the most influential literary criticism of his time–important theoretical statements on poetry and the short story–and has had a worldwide influence on literature. Poe did not find it sufficient that he essays his theory of perversity in one story only. Perhaps his most lucid portrayal of perversity resides in his masterfully told tale “The Black Cat.
That work’s narrator owns a black cat named Pluto, which he dearly loves. However, the cat’s owner takes to drinking, and one day, in a tantrum, he is seized by perverse impulses beyond his control. He captures the unfortunate creature, and with his pen knife, removes one of its eyes. This is but the beginning of the narrator’s sorrows. He recognizes that it was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself–to offer violence to own nature–to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only–that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute.
One morning, in cold blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree;–hung it with tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart;–hung it because I knew it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no offense;–hung it because I knew that in doing so I was committing a sin–a deadly sin that would jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it–if such a thing were possible–even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God. (Poe, “The Black Cat” 225)
Again, Poe employs language which can send a traditional moralist howling about the wages of sin. But catch the subjunctive, “if such a thing were possible. ” Poe makes it clear, even in this extreme set of circumstances, that he does not believe it possible to be beyond the reach of God. In Eureka, we saw why. In that work, Poe portrayed God as manifest in the works of his own creation. We saw him further declare that all things of the universe contain “the germ of their inevitable annihilation. ” Speaking through his narrators,” Poe illustrates perversity as the “germ” of annihilation as it resides in the human psyche.
But, for now, let us return to the story and witness perversity wreak its havoc. The night of the day he hanged Pluto, a fire swept through the narrator’s house. He, his wife, and the servant escaped, but the conflagration completely destroyed the house; yet one wall had not fallen in. Upon visiting the ruin, the narrator witnessed in the standing wall, “as if graven in bas relief upon the white surface, the figure of a gigantic cat… There was a rope about the animal’s neck. ” (Poe 66) The image of the cat detailed in what had been a freshly plastered wall profoundly affected the fancies of the narrator.
As if to atone for his actions, the narrator begins a search to adopt a similar cat, which he finally locates “in a den of more than infamy… reposing on the head of one of the immense hogsheads of Gin, or of Rum. ” (66) The new cat is completely black except for an indefinite white splotch on its chest. It follows him home. At first, he likes the cat, for it is quite affectionate. But his attitude changes; tension builds anew. The tension grows to hatred, caused in part by the narrator’s discovery that, like Pluto, the new cat has been deprived of an eye.
The narrator, only because of his terrors about his first cat, restrains himself from doing the new cat harm. But to his horror, the white patch of fur on his new cat’s chest gradually assumes the shape of the gallows. The narrator begins to fancy the cat as the tormentor of his heart, its hot breath in his face. Perversely, the narrator succumbs entirely to evil thoughts, “hatred of all things and of all mankind. ” (Poe 68) Finally, one day as the narrator and his wife descend the steps into their cellar, the cat causes the narrator to lose his footing.
In turn, the narrator flies into a rage and tries to axe the cat. The wife, trying to save the life of the cat, catches hold of the axe. Then entirely out of his mind, the narrator plants the axe in her skull. To avoid detection in his crime, he bricks his wife into a cellar wall. But the luckless narrator accidentally bricks the cat into the wall as well. After searching for the dreaded cat, the narrator concludes that the beast has “in terror, fled the premises forever. ” However, the fourth day, the police arrive to thoroughly examine the house.
They leave no “nook or corner unexplored. Poe 60) Even upon their third or fourth visit to the cellar, the narrator remains sublimely calm. Finally satisfied, and preparing to quit the search, the police are interrupted in their ascension of the stairs by the triumphant voice of the narrator. “Gentleman,” I said at last…, I delight to have allayed your suspicions. I wish you all health and a little more courtesy. Bye the bye, gentleman, this-this is a very well constructed house. ” [In the rabid desire to say something easily, I scarcely knew what I uttered at all. ]–“I may say an excellently constructed house.
The walls–are you going, gentlemen? these walls are solidly put together;” and here, through the mere frenzy of bravado, I rapped heavily, with a cane which I held in my hand, upon that very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom.
No sooner had the reverberations of the striking of the cane died away, than there issued forth the howl, “a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of the triumph… , such as might have arisen… from the throats of the damned in their agony and of the demons that exult in the damnation. ” The cat had completed its conquest, revealing the location of the corpse and consigning the wretch to the gallows.
The final horror of the narrator, his crowning act of perversity, is reminiscent of the crazed killer of the old man in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” who had succeeded in hiding his atrocity, only to betray himself in direct effect, again to the police. Later, we shall see a similar psychological immolation performed by the narrator on himself in “The Imp of the Perverse. ” “The Black Cat” illustrates many manifestations and vehicles which the perverse can assume. First, the narrator succumbs to alcohol; then the narrator’s spirit of perversity, given a foothold in his psyche, causes the eventual decline in his temperament.
As the story progresses, the narrator reaches the point which Poe describes: “With certain minds, under certain conditions, it [perversity] becomes absolutely irresistible… radical… primitive… ” Alas, the hapless narrator cannot help himself. As mentioned previously, a traditional moralist will always be tempted to overlay his own principles on Poe’s tales, in this story, expostulating the evils of drink, perhaps. And understandably, when such tenets reside at the core of one’s belief structure, the temptation to perform moral judgment can be preemptory; yet Poe’s system of mind deserves our efforts to comprehend his system.
Certainly, Poe recognized the lure of alcohol; yet he chose to examine the primitive cause for the urge, rather than submit to the prescriptions of the moralists of his time. So let us, too, seek to discern Poe’s intentions. And what of this flailing narrator who possesses seemingly so little command of his life? He knows that he has violated his own vitality by removing Pluto’s eye, and by later hanging the cat in the tree. He displays regret for his actions, a conscience. But what can his conscience constitute in Poe’s system of morality? And for that matter, what is morality when one leaves God’s intention for man out of the picture?
Poe’s perversity is taken further with his story “The Imp of the Perverse” opens in the style of an essay, describing “the prima mobilia of the human soul,” a propensity which has been ignored by phrenologists and moralists, “although obviously existing as a radical, primitive, irreducible sentiment. ” (Poe 271) The sentiment thus described as “perverseness is subsequently delineated in three examples: The first involves a speaker’s tantalizing an audience by circumlocution, fully aware that he displeases, and though intending to please, he opts to indulge the “uncontrollable longing” to displease. 72-73)
After its July 1945 publication of “The Imp… ,” Poe spoke to open the Lyceum season on October 16. One cannot help wondering whether Poe’s self-effacing introduction and his reading of the whole of “Al Aaraaf” to an audience of Bostonians did not represent enactment of this episode from his story. (Silverman 267) The second example is much like that of the graduate student cited earlier. Procrastination as an agency of the perverse also seems to have plagued Poe before the Lyceum reading, since he had promised to read a new poem, which he never wrote, then disappointed with the lengthy and unsuccessful poem from his youth.
In contrast to the success of the graduate student in overcoming his perverse inclination, the “chanticleer-ghost” petrifies the victim in Poe’s illustration, until the striking of the hour designating that alas, “it is too late. ” (Poe 273) The third example places the victim on the brink of a precipice, where he begins to yearn for the “delight” in the horror of a “rushing annihilation” from such a height. What “would be our sensations? ” (273) The narrator points out that it is the very loathsomeness and ghastliness of such a death which causes one to most vividly desire it.
If there be no friendly arm to check us, or if we fail in a sudden effort to prostrate ourselves backward from the abyss, we plunge and are destroyed. ” (Poe 274) A similar account can be found on the Isle of Tsalal in Poe’s novel, the Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, when the narrator is saved from a fall from a steep cliff only by the arms of Peters. Next, the reader discovers that he reads not an essay, but a tale of horror from a young man who has fallen victim to the spirit of perverseness he had so well portrayed.
One can also bet that Poe had John Allan in mind when he formulated the plot for this episode. The narrator devises a scheme that will secure his fortune from his benefactor-to-be. He poisons the wax of a candle and exchanges it for the candle at his benefactor’s bedside. Of course the benefactor suffocates; the evidence burns away; the taper is disposed of. The scheme is a success, as the crime goes undetected. For a number of years, the narrator enjoys his good fortune. But he begins to mutter to himself, “I am safe,” and finally, “I am safe–I am safe–if I do not fool enough to make an open confession.
At this suggestion, the narrator confronts his own double, his perverse self who reveals him “as the very ghost of him I had murdered…. ” (Poe 275) The narrator feels the pangs of suffocation as if it were he who is now being poisoned. Finally, completely dominated by his perverse spirit, the narrator rushes madly through the heavily populated avenues to confess his crime to the authorities. He relates all that is needed to convict him of his crime, then falls “prostrate in a swoon. ” (275) Those whom Poe satirizes in “Never Bet the Devil Your Head: A Tale with a Moral” would likely find a moral in “The Imp…
They would avow that the narrator’s guilt caused the confession. He was a bad egg, and, sonny boy, if you don’t want to end up like him, you won’t kill people. Moralists would completely ignore the narrator’s explicit explanation of perversity at the story’s outset, to insist that Poe tells herein a moral tale. It seems to this writer that we must give Poe credit for knowing what he was doing. If he presents a narrative in illustration of human perversity, the reader should take him at his word. But what of his confession?
Is this not the voice of his conscience? Yes, assuredly, his confession is the utterance of conscience, but it is a conscience in Poe’s scheme, an agent of the perverse, revealing the “deep secret,” the seed of annihilation residing in the human breast. It is not conscience which brings the individual into submission to a moral code. Perhaps the conditions which I described in the preceding paragraphs illustrate that creativity and perversity do, as Poe declared, walk hand-in-hand, just as do the attraction and repulsion motions of the universe.
Consider the possibility that man’s prolific creative genius necessarily must be just as abundantly perverse. Certainly, this antipodality of action and reaction seems to follow the basic laws of Newton, as well as the oscillations manifested throughout the universe. But what prevents the individual from recognizing his own perversity in Poe’s terms, as a primal force governing many of the activities of the psyche? After Toby’s debacle, I would not bet the devil my head, but could it be our own cultural conditioning which blinds us to this truth which Poe proclaimed as self-evident?
Must we deliberately shed the accouterments of the convention to travel Poe’s intellect? Yes, yes, emphatically, yes. It is also helpful to consider that Poe performed his search very much from the Romantic tradition and in the American spirit. He searched individually, passionately, but entirely alone. Yet his quest for transcendence to the unity of the Godhead and his profound postulates governing the spiritual universe rarefied him from his literary and social compatriots, and even from many modern readers. Readers of Poe’s time and of ours have much to unlearn before they can hope to decode his macabre.
In addition, Poe’s psychological theory, which represents the mind’s compulsion to kill the body, drew from the society of his time the author’s own imps of the perverse, most notably the Reverend Rufus W. Griswold, who believed Poe to be demented. Yet how could Griswold be expected to grasp Poe’s belief in a spiritually governed universe where God is manifest in his own creation. How could he comprehend Poe’s psychic landscape, where the mind wars against the body to rejoin the spirit with God. Griswold recoiled.
Though we disparage his onslaught of Poe’s reputation, his alteration of letters and other records of fact, we can also perceive the Reverend’s desperation. He was bright enough to see what Poe undertook and was scared silly. So what is being undertaken here is a psychical study of man, an examination of the seasons of intellect, body, and spirit, through which we all cycle. Also attempted is a portrayal of Poe’s creative spirit. Though hyper-aware of his own tendency to perversity, what creative impetus must have been requisite for Edgar Poe to have penned poems and stories which so closely mirror the psychic patterns of his own mind!