Artists, including writers, use their works to reflect what is going on in the society. As such, one can tell the prevailing circumstances in a given historical period by examining the works of artists at the time. However, Poe and Melville appear to express themes that persist over time in their writings. The current paper is a comparative analysis of Poe’s and Melville’s works.
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Edgar Alan Poe and Herman Melville reveal the dark side of the human psyche through their focus on the themes of death and other tragedies. They achieve this through the theme of death that is evident in their texts. Unlike other story tellers that focus on the bright side of humanity, these writers tend to concentrate on the mostly ignored dark aspects of human life. They do not shy away from such controversial themes as the selfish nature of man.
To this end, the current paper is a comparative review of Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” and Melville’s “Billy Budd”. The author of the current paper will start by comparing the history of the two scholars and their literary orientations. To this end, a number of themes, including death and selfishness, will be reviewed. In addition, the dark romanticism elements in the two stories will be reviewed.
Comparing the Authors
Edgar Allan Poe
Poe is regarded as one of the earliest advocates of American short stories. He is known for his penchant for the dark romanticism style of writing. According to Dwight and Jackson, Poe is viewed as a pioneer of the “detective fiction” genre (p. 12). Most of his writings focus on the dark aspects of the human nature. In line with this, most of his stories revolve around the themes of death and other forms of tragedies afflicting humanity.
Dwight and Jackson further argue that, “the death of Poe’s wife may have prompted him to focus on the tragic and dark themes apparent in most of his writings” (p. 12). The themes are discernible in two his most popular stories, “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Pit and the Pendulum”.
According to Horth, “Herman Melville is (also) regarded as one of the pioneers of dark romanticism in early American literature” (p. 8). His stories focus on horrific themes. However, his use of ‘dark’ themes pales in comparison to Poe’s works. However, just like Poe, his writings reflect the psychological consequences of sin and guilt. The same is evident in his story “Billy Budd”.
“The Masque of the Red Death” and “Billy Budd” Poe’s Story
“The Masque of the Red Death” is a story narrated in the third person voice. It is about a fictitious country that is ruled by an uncaring prince called Prospero. The country suffers an outbreak of an incurable disease, which is referred to as the ‘Red Death’ (Poe 256). Once an individual contracts the disease, they develop seizures, which are accompanied by hemorrhage from all orifices on the body. The prince confines himself to a fortress with a thousand of his friends to escape the plague. He lives his people behind to suffer from the calamity.
At one point in the story, a mysterious masked figure emerges from one of the rooms in the fortress. The prince attempts to kill him. However, he falls prey to the ‘Red Death’ in one of the chambers. His death is instance. Within no time, the prince’s friends suffer a similar fate. At the end, none of them is left alive (Poe 256).
Melville’s “Billy Budd”
The author follows the story of a man working for the government. The story revolves around a young sailor attached to the navy. The boy, Billy, is innocent, full of disposition, and without malice towards anyone (Lauter and Yarborough 2693). However, he has a hot temper. Another character, Claggart, harbors evil intentions against the young man. He swears to destroy him. However, Claggart’s treachery ends up destroying both of them. He is killed by Billy in a fight. On his part, Billy is hanged for the murder.
Poe’s and Melville’s Narratives
The theme of death is discernible in both stories. In Poe’s narrative, people die from a strange disease. However, in Melville’s story, death is caused by fellow human beings. The nature of these fatalities points to the dark psyche of human nature. The prince in Poe’s text neglected his people, while the protagonist in Melville’s story planned the death of his friend (Lauter and Yarborough 2690).
Analyzing Major Themes in the Stories by Poe and Melville
Transcendental Movement, Poe, and Melville
According to Horth, “the late 18th and early 19th century America saw the rise of the transcendental movement and its representations” (8). The movement based on the beliefs touching on man’s spiritual essence. It was also characterized by the belief that the soul was capable of transcending the physical. Poe’s and Melville’s works are a reaction to the ‘hunky dory’ world picture perpetuated by transcendentalism. It appears that these two scholars did not agree with the tenets of the movement. Their disagreement is reflected in their works. They focus on the themes of tragedy, horror, the supernatural, and macabre to oppose the transcendental’s idea of human good.
The narratives by Poe and Melville promote ideas of obscurity in relation to the human mind. In addition, the tendency of the human psyche to move towards the dark and the unknown realms of life is a major premise in the works of these authors. As a result of this, Horth concludes that Poe’s and Melville’s works led to the birth of dark romanticism (10). According to Horth, this form of romanticism focuses on the supernatural (10). It relies heavily on the use of imagery. Consequently, the movement is emphatically high on the imagination. It also has “a flair for quotient” (Horth p. 10).
Death and Dark Romanticism
The theme of death is common among the two dark romanticists, Poe and Melville. Horth supports their leanings towards the ‘unpalatable’ by stating that, “there is no way the human experience can be inquired into without covering death” (p. 10). Apparently, death and human life are inseparable.
In “The Masque of the Red Death”, Prince Prospero seeks to defy death in a selfish manner. The prince and his friends chose to hide from the ‘Red Death’ by locking themselves in the fortress with iron gates. The ruler ignored the welfare of his subjects, who were left at the mercies of the plague outside the abbey. According to Poe, the prince and his companions “resolved to leave means neither of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within” (p. 257). Poe continues to say that, “the abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself” (p. 257).
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The fortress is sealed in such a way that the ‘evil reaper’ had no access to it. The prince’s self assurance can be regarded as foolish and ignorant. Poe reveals the inevitability of death irrespective of what precautionary measures one takes in their life (258). Death cannot be stopped by any form of impediment, such as iron gates and fortress walls.
According to Poe, “now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel” (p. 258). No one was spared from the wrath of this menace. Nothing could deny death its prey.
In “Billy Budd”, Melville provides the reader with an intriguing perspective about death. An important lesson about this element is highlighted through the demise of the two sailors. According to Lauter and Yarborough, actions have consequences in Melville’s story (2693). The activities of human beings can determine who lives and who dies.
With regards to Claggart’s demise, Captain Vere declares that, “It is the divine judgment on Ananias!” (Lauter and Yarborough p. 2693). Death is portrayed as a form of justice meted out on the wicked members of the society. Claggart dies as a result of his treachery. However, in his death, Claggart succeeds in destroying Billy. The scenario portrays some form of cynical victory. Billy’s death is even portrayed like the ascent of Christ. Melville describes it by saying, “Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, and simultaneously therewith, watched by the wedged mass of upturned faces, Billy ascended; and, ascending, took the full rose of the dawn (Lauter and Yarborough p. 2708).
Different Meanings of Death
Death has different meanings in the story “Billy Budd”. It claims the victim and the protagonist. The difference between the demise of the two characters brings out two aspects of this phenomenon. In Claggart’s case, death is regarded as a form of punishment. His demise does not bring him any peace. However, to Billy, death is a reward. It brings him peace. Billy’s conscience could have caused him immense suffering if he was declared innocent. However, his death offers him a passage from the world without much corruption from its evil.
Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” and Melville’s “Billy Budd” share some similarities in their exploration of the issue of death. For instance, both narratives portray this phenomenon as an inexorable force that every living person has to contend with. The elite in Poe’s tale think that they can escape death by isolating themselves from other people. However, their plan does not work. They all die at the end, just like other humans (Poe 257). In Melville’s “Billy Budd”, Claggart orchestrates Billy’s destruction. However, he ends up destroying himself in the process. Here, death does not discriminate or favor any one (Lauter and Yarborough 2693). Given the opportunity, death will destroy everyone standing on its way.
The analysis of “The Masque of the Red Death” and “Billy Budd” reveals the dark romanticism of Poe and Melville. The two writers propagate this notion using the mysterious and inevitability nature of death. In addition, they make clear the capability of nature to determine the end of human life. Claggart’s fate is sealed by his scheming mind. His evil nature causes his death. On the other hand, in spite of his good nature, Budd’s destiny is informed by his actions. However, his death is regarded as a form of relief.
Every day, people deal with joy, love, sorrow, hatred, and other emotions. The emotions form the essence of human existence. Consequently, when authors incorporate these elements into their works (as is evident in Poe and Melville’s writings), the reader has easy access to the world created by the artists.
Dwight, Thomas, and David Jackson. The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849, Massachusetts, Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. Print.
Horth, Lynn. The Writings of Herman Melville, Vol.14: Correspondence, Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1993. Print.
Lauter, Paul, and Richard Yarborough. Heath Anthology of American Literature, volume 2. 4th ed. 2001. New York: Houghton Mifflin. Print.
Poe, Edgar. The Masque of the Red Death, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 2011. Print.