Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most acclaimed short story writers of all time. He has achieved ever-lasting fame for his work in many fields of literature, from prose to verse. However, in the short story realm he is most widely known for his Gothic narrative, and is considered one of the foremost masters of horror that the United States has ever produced. The key component to these horror stories is usually the characters’ insanity. The insanity that inflicts the main characters in these stories drives them to commit the acts that they do. For example, it is the madness of the narrator in Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart” that allows him to murder his beloved employer. Poe therefore uses insanity in his stories to drive his characters to heinous endings that elevate his stories to the epitome of Gothic literature.
The Tell Tale Heart
One prominent example of the importance of insanity and its use as character motivation can be found in “The Tell Tale Heart.” This story, beginning with the famous lines, “True-nervous- very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” (“Heart” 354) details the attempts of the narrator to rationally explain the murder he had committed against his own employer. A body servant to a rich, kind man, the narrator has every reason to feel benevolent and caring towards him. However, instead of these normal emotions, the servant feels an irrational desire to kill his benefactor. Why though, would this servant want to kill someone for whom he felt no animosity towards? While he tries to pass it off as rage towards his employer’s so-called “evil eye,” that explanation is ridiculous (“Heart” 354). Rather, it is a mental flaw within the character that allows him to commit such a senseless act of violence (Bloom 41). There is no reason to kill the old man except for the insanity of the narrator. Therefore, Poe has the narrator’s insanity as the direct cause of the man’s death.
Other actions in “The Tell Tale Heart” also point to the insanity of the narrator. He is incredibly methodical in both killing the old man and of disposing of the body. His obsession with his employer causes him to watch the old man’s sleeping form for eight nights, hoping to get a glimpse of the “evil eye.” Finally, after he suffocates the old man he meticulously disposes of the body: dismembering the corpse in a tub, catching every last drop of blood that spills from the body, and hiding it under the floorboards of the dead man’s bedroom. This continuing senseless behavior and the degree of precision with which the narrator performs it continues to point to the narrator’s insanity as a driving force, causing him to commit murder (“Heart” 354-6).
The Cask of Amontillado
Another example of insanity as a driving force in Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories can be found in “The Cask of Amontillado.” The narrator Montresor, talking to his audience in a soliloquy, relates a fateful meeting between himself and his secret enemy Fortunato on the streets of Italy during carnival season. Enraged beyond reason because of a careless insult made to his family by Fortunato, the narrator plots to kill the famous wine taster (“Amontillado” 542).
Luring his enemy into the tombs of his ancestors, doing double duty as wine cellars, Montresor tells his enemy that he has procured a valuable barrel of Amontillado sherry and that he wants Fortunato to taste it. Unfortunately for Fortunato, there is no Amontillado hidden deep beneath the ground. Instead, Montresor chains him up to the wall of the catacombs and buries him alive (“Amontillado” 546).
The actions that Montresor committed against Fortunato are beyond barbaric. No civilized culture would ever condone or even tolerate such despicable behavior. The murder of Fortunato demonstrates the callous disregard for the cultural and moral restraints placed on Fortunato, the very binds that are designed to discourage wanton violence against another person (Bloom 57). Only insanity could allow him to throw away these years of restraint impressed upon him. However, instead of being the cause of Montresor’s murder, as was the case in the old man’s murder in “The Tell Tale Heart,” Poe instead uses insanity to add fat to the fire. Poe makes Montresor angry at a supposed insult committed at the hands of Fortunato. However, instead of leaving his anger at a manageable level, Poe instead causes Montresor to become so angry that he will take a relatively minor transgression done by Fortunato and avenge himself with a horrible murder. In this story, insanity causes Montresor’s simmering anger to be stoked into an intense blaze, allowing him to commit the heinous acts he did.
The Fall of the House of Usher
“The Fall of the House of Usher” is a final example of how Poe uses insanity to motivate his stories’ plots. In it, the narrator, a childhood friend of the rich Roderick Usher has come to meet him on the Usher estate to help alleviate his sickness. The narrator finds Usher unable to leave his mansion, suffering from “over-sensitivity” and unable to experience bright lights, hear loud music, or eat hardy food. He also meets the Lady Madeline, Usher’s twin sister, who is caused by Poe to suffer the opposite of her brother’s malady: she is almost catatonic, unable to feel any outside stimulus (“Usher” 199-203).
For some time the narrator works with Usher to alleviate his illness through artistic endeavors; they paint, compose, and write together (“Usher” 204). However, instead of giving Usher a life line through the arts, Poe instead reveals Usher’s inner soul through his artwork; the twisted mess that is his paintings and poetry are a metaphor for his depraved mind (Bloom 17). The death of Lady Madeline only continues this downward spiral, causing him to become almost wholly unresponsive to the narrator’s ministering until, finally, during a storm, his illness comes to a head. Usher insists that his sister is still alive and flees his apartments. He runs headlong into his sister, somehow still alive, and they both collapse dead on the ground (“Usher” 208-12).
In this story, Poe also uses insanity as a plot mover. However, instead of making a character commit a heinous act, he uses insanity to create the circumstances of the story. The hypersensitivity of Roderick Usher that brings the narrator to his estate is really an incipient madness. The insanity is further highlighted to the reader by the twisted shape that Usher’s artwork takes on. The madness also ends up killing Usher, who, unable to withstand the death of his sister withdraws even further from the world. Finally, the belief that his sister is alive despite all evidence to the contrary shows the detachment Usher has from reality. In this story, instead of using madness as a motive, Poe makes it cause the main character’s death (Bloom 17).
Edgar Allan Poe is a master of the short story. He is able to use insanity as a central character and plot motivator three different ways in three different stories. He is also able to show the reader how insanity can cause someone to commit a murder, how it can cause a person to exaggerate an insult to cause irrational anger, and how it can ravage the mind and even cause death. Because of his many insights into the human mind, Poe will live eternal in the annals of American literature.
- Bloom's Major Short Story Writers: Edgar Allan Poe. Broomall, Pennsylvania: Chelsea House, 1999.
- Poe, Edgar A. The Cask of Amontillado. Edgar Allan Poe: Sixty-Seven Tales. Avenel, New Jersey: Gramercy Books, 1985.
- Poe, Edgar A. The Fall of the House of Usher. Edgar Allan Poe: Sixty-Seven Tales. Avenel, New Jersey: Gramercy Books, 1985. 199-212.
- Poe, Edgar A. The Tell-Tale Heart. Edgar Allan Poe: Sixty-Seven Tales. Avenel, New Jersey: Gramercy Books, 1985. 354-357.
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