Edgar Allan Poe and Death
Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most well known American authors, who wrote numerous Gothic short stories. Poe wrote stories about dark ideas such as revenge, fear, and especially death. Death is a feature in many of his stories, and is the focal point of more than a few. The stories about death usually focused on the most terrifying, excruciating, and horrible deaths that people of the time could imagine. The stories are written with extensive and vivid detail of an almost obsessive manner. This careful attention to detail about death is abnormal in a person, yet it abounds within Poe’s writings. Through his writings, Poe shows that he is not a normal person, and in fact, he is a very strange person. In his stories The Fall of the House of Usher, The Cask of Amontillado, The Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Premature Burial, the theme of horrifying death is ever present. Within these stories, Poe is shown to not only be a very twisted individual, but to actually be obsessed with death.
One of the main elements of gothic literature is symbolism. Poe uses symbolism in many of his stories, and The Fall of the House of Usher is no exception. What is unique about Poe is not his symbolism, but how he chooses to use it. In the Fall of the House of Usher there are multiple symbols, many of which pertain to death. When first describing the residents of Roderick Usher, Poe multiple times says things like this; “I looked upon the scene before me – 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…” (Poe 231). In the passage, Poe compares the house to a person, bleak walls a tired, worn countenance, vacant windows an empty stare, rank sedges a feeling of unkemptness, and a depressing of soul an air of depression. Poe uses these vivid descriptions to equate the house with a person, but he also puts a twist on it. He speaks about the house as though it is decaying, which could also be used to describe a dead/dying person. Poe had an endless amount of words at his disposal, yet he chose to say that the house was like a dying person, rather than that the house was just run down. At the end of the story, the narrator watches as the house itself is destroyed, even after its master. This shows that Poe has an obsession with death because he goes out of his way to add an element of death beyond the human characters that perish. Poe personifies the house, he makes it seem like a dying person, and then he kills it in the end of the story. A person would have to be obsessed with death to add that extra layer on to a story that already contains a body count.
Poe is also shown to be obsessed with death in The House of Usher by the way he kills off his characters. Madeline Usher, the sister of Roderick usher suffers a fate that is beyond terrible, and one that few normal people would be able to brainstorm. Poe has Madeline buried alive while catatonic, literally being unable to help herself and only able to watch as she is buried under ground. “There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame.” (Poe 245). Madeline is left to die alone, and helpless, and when she escapes she is bloodied from her ordeal, and emaciated to the point of death. Being buried alive was one the most horrifying deaths a person could meet in Poe’s time, or any, and yet Poe felt inclined to put a character into the ground alive. Madeline does not die underground; she escapes, but idea of putting some one through such a fate is what shows that Poe is obsessed with death, along with how Roderick dies. Poe tries to create a scenario where his characters die in the most frightening way possible, and being buried alive or dying of fright, as Roderick did, are both awful ways to go. Poe is shown to be obsessed with death, because he was not forced to think of these things, yet he thought about them in depth and then wrote about them. Most people do not like the reminder that they are not immortal, yet Poe dwells on it with an unusual interest.
A sane person generally does not commit murder, among many other things. That is why it is hard for a sane person to write a story about an insane person because there is often little that they can draw from within themselves to put into the character. However, in the Cask of Amontillado, Poe creates a character that is both believable, and completely mentally unstable. “I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.” (Poe 274). The character Poe has created is responding in this way because one of his friends insulted him. That is not the thought process of a normal person. The character sees murder as the only option to reconcile the situation, and proceeds to kill his “friend” in one the most horrifying ways that Poe could think of; being buried alive. As in the previous story, the focus of this story is of the character that is unfortunate enough to be buried alive, showing that Poe uses this idea consistently. The main character brings his friend down to a deep catacomb, a tomb, filled with bones, and then buries him alive. Poe creates a macabre setting that is most off-putting to many, and then has a character commit a terrible deed in that setting. Poe’s vision is one of murder in a place of death, which is an indicator that he has an obsession with death.
The plague was one of the most brutal and devastating events in human history. The plague is disease that kills horrifically, and still takes lives in parts of the world today. During Poe’s life, medicine was insufficient compared with today’s medicine, and the plague was still hard to survive if you were afflicted. Yet, Poe felt that such suffering was worth putting on paper, and thus he wrote the Masque of the Red Death. In the masque of the Red Death Poe writes about the force that is death. Poe is not known for writing philosophy, yet he makes some very philosophical insights on death. In the Masque of the Red Death, Poe seems to express the belief that death is a living entity in multiple ways. The first way he does this is with the character that disrupts the prince’s costume party. A person, dressed as a plague victim walks through the costume party, which offends the prince. The prince follows this person, attempting to, as is the theme with many Poe stories, kill the person. When he reaches the last room, a dark room which in itself symbolizes death, he ends up dying at the hands of the person. This person is meant to represent death itself, a living character that is death, showing how much of a reality, how important, death was in Poe’s life. The next sign of death being mortal is the symbolization of the clock in the room of death. “And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay.” (Poe 273). Even after everyone, including death, has died, the clock fades, yet time keeps moving, showing the concept that even death dies, yet time is eternal. These thoughts are not light ones, or common ones, yet they are important enough to Poe that he writes about them. It is shown that Poe is obsessed with death in this story because he spends a lot of time going in depth about death itself, and few would devote a story to death if they were not obsessed with it.
A story doesn’t necessarily need to contain death to show the authors fascination with it. This is most true in the case of The Pit and the Pendulum. In this story, the narrator is a victim of the inquisition, trapped in a room with a dangerous pit, and a pendulum with a blade that swings down. The narrator is deprived of his vision, and comes close to death on many occasions. It is these occasions that show Poe’s fascination with death. First the narrator nearly dies from the pit, when, blinded, he walks around his room attempting to gauge its size. He is drugged, and his sense of the room is wrong because of this. He nearly goes over the edge of the pit, a fall to the certain death. Later on, the narrator is trapped in place while a crescent blade swings down toward him, coming closer with every revolution. The narrator escapes this as well. At the end of the story, the narrator jumps into the pit only to be saved at the last second by the French General LaSalle. While the narrator survives, his close encounters with death are what is telling about Poe. The story points out just how close death is; one false move or one minute longer without moving and the person dies. Poe seems to focus heavily on this, and it shows how he obsesses over death and how people die. He even writes lines like this; “Fool! might I not have known that into the pit it was the object of the burning iron to urge me? Could I resist its glow?” (Poe 257). In the passage, he talks about being drawn to his death, something that most people never feel. This story shows that Poe is obsessed with death because of how deeply he looks into how close we are to death, and how he feels that death is calling him.
Few stories are quite as telling about Poe as The Premature Burial. A collection of small, individual stories, the Premature Burial outlines Poe’s obsession with death, especially being buried alive. Poe speaks about numerous cases of people who have been buried alive, some of whom survived, and some who did not. Poe then goes on to talk about how he has his own case of catalepsy, and reveals that he himself often thinks about his own death. “I was lost in reveries of death, and the idea of premature burial held continual possession of my brain.” (Poe 264). This line above all else shows that Poe is obsessed with death. He says so himself; that he thought many times, in-depth, about death and that he was always thinking about the possibility and horror of a premature burial. If the author admits that he is engrossed in depth, then who else is better qualified to dispute his claim. A person knows what is going in their own head better than anyone else, and a person knows what they are thinking and what they believe better than anyone else possibly can. Poe says in no uncertain terms that death and being buried alive were constantly on his mind. To be obsessed with something is for it to be the overriding factor when it comes to what you are thinking, and Poe says that death holds that place in his head. By the very definition of obsession, and by his own words, Edgar Allan Poe is obsessed with death.
The stories that Edgar Allan Poe wrote are pure gothic literature, and he is indeed one of the experts of gothic literature. What makes his works above and beyond others is that, like many good writers, he can put himself into his stories, which he does very thoroughly. Many stories have a common theme of death, and that is not a coincidence. Through the content of what he has written, and by his own admittance, Edgar Allan Poe is definitely a person who is obsessed. With all the evidence that exists to judge him on, it is clear that Edgar Allan Poe has an obsession with death.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York, New
York: Random House, 1975. Print.
York: Random House, 1975. Print.