Edgar Allen Poe was a famous American author, editor, and literary critic of the 19th century. He born in 1809 and died in 1849 (Stableford 2003). In this time, he succeeded to write over sixty short stories. Metzengerstein was his first short story, and it was published in 1832. In most of his written work, death was his continuous focus. In this article, a couple of stories will be analyzed in order to prove this statement.
Before Poe’s death, he wrote an essay called “The Poetic Principle” that was published in 1850. In that essay, Poe said that melancholy was thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones. Of entirely melancholy themes, death was the most melancholy's and death of beauties was the tightest combination of death and beauty. Hence, some have observed this as the sole starting point to understand his stories, and believe that his vast descriptions of death were for the sake of such beauty.
In Poe’s short stories descriptions of death were very common, and contrast in different works. Characters could be divided into two groups depending upon their final fates: those who were dying and those who went beyond death. This essay will mainly discuss the first group. Characters in the first group had a beautiful life at the very beginning of the story, but draw near death slowly and could not escape from death even though they had made a painful complaint. Based on diverse forms of death, their death could be divided into disease and murder. The two stories will be analyzed; each story will represent one form of death. After that, the research will focus on the reasons behind the existence of the death theme in the author’s life.
The first form of death that will be discussed is the death because of disease. Due to physical illness, there was a deterioration of the character’s health in the stories and at the end characters selected to surrender to death, which was the expression of death triggered by disease in Poe’s short stories.
This form of death was distinguished from other death forms discussed above because most victims of death caused by disease were females, for example, female characters in Berenice and other stories like The Oval Portrait, The Fall of the House of Usher and Morella all died at early ages, which were not simple the embodiments of indeterminate destiny or to make people crying through destruction of beauties. On the other hand, death caused by disease was of significance if roles played by males were considered.
Poe loved to make females in his novels charming and beautiful. Death caused by disease regularly was widely different from murder because disease brought physical damages and withering of appearance. At an advanced stage, the characteristics of beauty held by women were stripped, and the time beauty died away was exactly the time death falls.
One example of the theme of death which will be discussed is Berenice. Berenice was a short story containing mainly two characters, Egaeus and his beautiful cousin Berenice. Egaeus grew up in a luxury mansion but he had poor health. His favorite place in the mansion was the library where he was born, and his mother died. He used to spend his time reading the books, performing meditations. Bernice was among his memories because they grew up together. At the beginning of the story, Poe described the beauty of Bernice. She was a joyful, elegant and energetic girl until she was affected by a strange nervous disease that awfully changed her character and shape. This reversal of the story line is a typical scenario in Poe’s stories. She became, a gloomy, pale and a sad girl, with a morbid and terrible aspect: “The forehead was high, and very pale, and singularly placid, and the once jetty hair fell partially over it” (Poe 1903). The disease sometimes caused a false impression of death that made her suddenly wake up. Egaeus was attracted to Bernice, not for love, but for interest in her new aspect so that he decided to marry her. “During the brightest days of her unparalleled beauty, most surely I had never loved her” (Poe 1903).
In some parts of the story when Egaeus spoke of Berenice, he sometimes referred to her as an object. For example, when he described Bernice’s gauntness as she stood before him in the library, he said, "I remained for some time breathless and motionless, with my eyes riveted upon her person” (Poe 1903). It was clear that Poe mentioned “her person” for a purpose to show how much the beautiful wife was suffering.
At the same time, Egaeus developed his own disease. He suffered from a type of monomania. He explained his monomania was not the same joint reflection from the dreamers, in which the attention in the object was replaced by assumptions and meditations about the world and life. “This monomania, if I must so term it, consisted in a morbid irritability of those properties of the mind in metaphysical science termed the attentive” (Poe 1903).
After a while, Berenice died and the story ended when a servant entered the library. He was afraid and said something that Egaeus just understood in pieces: a female cry, a violated grave, a blemished body that remained alive.
Such a type of ending makes Poe’s stories differ from others. In Berenice, it was not just about how much the beautiful Berenice suffered, but also a mysterious end that could lead the reader to read the story one more time to figure out any hidden details that might bring Berenice to life.
The accumulation of scientific knowledge in Poe’s life as we will show later and cultivation of scientific habits made him yearn for science, which was of particular use even in stories the theme of death. At the same time, Poe was a reader with great hobbies; besides works of literature and philosophy, he was also interested in science and cryptology and uses this knowledge to write mysteries. In addition, he learned some popular pseudoscience, hypnotism and some additional knowledge to explore instincts. He finds that human’s sense was the most active and their emotions were the least repressed regarding life and death. Therefore, there were lots of images about mental disorder, telepathy and some other abnormal or special thoughts, like the next example “The Tell-Tale Heart”.
The second form of death is murder which was a typical form of death in Poe’s stories. The concept of murdering was related to two personalities: perpetrator and victim. The perpetrator was driven by some motivations to take away the life of a victim on purpose. This was clear in The Tell-Tale Heart.
The Tell-Tale Heart was about an anonymous person who was extremely nervous but was not insane. “True! —nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am” (Poe 1903). The narrator (an anonymous person) had a "disease" which made all his senses, especially his hearing, very sensitive. To show that he was not insane, the narrator shared an event from his past. The narrator had an idea that he could not shake. He loved the old man who was his neighbor, and he had nothing against him except his horrible eyes, which were pale blue eyes. The narrator hated the eye and decided to kill the old man to get rid of his eyes.” I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever” (Poe 1903).
To that end, the narrator was visiting the old man's room every night at 12 am, for seven days. Each night the narrator opened the man's door and put in a lantern. After the lantern, the narrator put his head through the doorway, very slowly, and then he opened the lantern, so a tiny beam of light shone on the old man's eye. Each night the old man did not open his eye, so the narrator felt that he could not kill him.
The old man heard the narrator at the door and woke up at the eighth night although the narrator was so cautious. “Upon the eighth night I was more than usually cautious in opening the door” (Poe 1903). The old man started to scream, and the narrator dragged the old man off the bed, and then pulled the bed on top of the man to kill him. After that, the narrator cut the old man up and hid his remains under the floor.
A neighbor heard a scream and called the police, and then three police officers came. The narrator said he screamed while sleeping, and claimed that the old man was out of town. After convincing the police nothing bad had happened, the narrator brought them into the old man's bedroom. While the narrator was speaking to the police, he heard a terrible ticking noise, which was getting louder and louder until the narrator lost control. He confessed, and pointed the police to the old man's body, stating that the sound was coming from the old man's heart. “"Villains!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks! here, here!—It is the beating of his hideous heart!" (Poe 1903).
Poe discussed death in this story not only from the murder’s perspective but also to provide a study of mental deterioration. This type of story is very important to keep us aware of the consequences of mental illnesses. Poe succeeded to write this kind of story because while he was studying at the University of Virginia, he read many literal works and some books on American history. He also studied at West Point and received military training and learned scientific knowledge on algebra, physics geometry, and chemistry. This study made him interested in science, and his sensitivity helped him easily capture slight changes of human mentality.
There are many factors that make death one of the most significant themes in Poe’s short stories. For example, cultural perspective, social, historical background, knowledge structure, hobbies and interests and life experiences as discussed previously all influence his theme to varying degrees.
On the personal level, Poe had astonishing imagination. He described death in excessive details for us as he had experienced much death in his life. He was born in Boston in 1809 (Quinn 1998). In 1810, his father abandoned the family, and his mother died in 1811 his mother Elizabeth Poe died of tuberculosis (Meyers 1992).
After Poe’s mother death, he was taken to live with John Allan, a Scottish merchant in Richmond. Although Allan never formally adapted Poe, he gave him the name “Edgar Allan Poe” (Quinn 1998). The series of death in Poe’s life continued when his adoptive mother passed away in 1829, and he left home for Baltimore as he broke up with his adoptive father (Sova 2001).
In Baltimore, he lived with his aunt, Maria Ctemm and his sister Virginia and his brother Henry Poe. However, his brother Henry died of intemperance and tuberculosis in August. Poe adored Henry as Henry had rich experiences: he had been a sailor and written poems in newspapers. Therefore, his death influenced Poe greatly.
Poe married Virginia in 1836. His wife and aunt had given him great comfort, and they lived a peaceful and happy life even though they were poor. However, good times did not last long. In 1842, Virginia’s blood vessels burst when she was singing. Though her life was saved, she was never as healthy as before, and her disease constantly repeated, which resulted in Poe’s fluctuation between desperation and hope. Then he began intemperance. He was found to be unconscious on the street of Baltimore on 3, October 1849, and after three days, he passed away in the hospital.
As a conclusion, in over forty years, Edgar Ellen Poe had been from Richmond to London, and then back to Richmond. He had described death many times in his stories. He had to face the death of so many people, Elizabeth, Dave Poe, Fanny Allen, Henry Poe and Virginia, and eventually his own death. In his novels, there was reverence toward death, humorous banter, courage facing death and efforts to go beyond death. In fact, he had recorded all his painful and pleasant moments in the stories and described those common feelings of human beings subtly.
Published by Mohamed Abouzid