Poe’s short fiction offers a broader range of themes and greater psychological complexity. The uniqueness of his style is that Poe puts readers into the world of fantasy and strong emotions and feelings. Many of his works mixed with murder and suspense depicting the worlds full of cruelty and violence. One of the most unnerving qualities in Poe’s fiction is the construction of tales that feature human mind. His works center upon interior crises where the human mind is under assault. Thesis Fear of premature burial dominates in many Poe’s stories as a reflection of troubles and hardship he experienced all his life.
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Edgar Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston. When he was only two years old, Edgar lost both his parents, traveling actors. Frances and John Allan were to bring Edgar into their home, although that Frances had to convince her husband to assume guardianship over. The main personal problem of Edgar was that he was never legally adopted by John Allan (Silverman, p. 2). Allan treated his foster child kindly, although real affection came from Allan’s wife. Frances was apparently devoted to Poe during his childhood (Carlson, p. 5). During Poe’s adolescence, John Allan became increasingly impatient and demanding. In England, he attended Manor School at Stoke Newington. Then, the family moved back to Virginia. Poe attended the University of Virginia only one year and was expelled for his gambling. He started his career as a poet and writer in Baltimore in 1930s. From 1831 to 1835 Poe lived in poverty in Baltimore. He tried unsuccessfully to find work as a schoolteacher, an editorial assistant, and for a spell may have even rejoined the army. During these years, he struggled to make a living, occasionally writing poems but never making enough money to secure a decent diet or purchase sufficiently warm clothing (Silverman, pp. 15-17).
The theme of fear of premature burial dominates in most of his stories and can be explained as a result of desperation and emotional distress. The Gold Bug, “The Tell-Tale Heart” and The Murders in the Rue Morgue etc. depict fear of death and scenes of murder (Silverman, p. 212). In Poe’s stories of revenge, the fear of death helps to undercut the protagonist’s criminal plan. Most of these tales reveal a desire to be caught or at least a need for self-punishment that is as strong or stronger than the urge toward violent crime and the attendant anarchy of its brief personal freedom (Jacobs, p. 43). For instance, in The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat the police arrive and stimulate a desire on the part of the narrator to confess his crime and undergo punishment from the state. In The Masque of the Red Death and The Tell-Tale Heart, clock imagery is associated with the destruction of criminals (Bloom, p. 122). Poe’s characters commit their crimes and almost instantaneously activate some principle of judgment. These tales of homicide often conclude with the understanding that the destruction of another human being (Bloom, p. 56). Bloom underlines:
in his 1844 tour de force, “The Premature Burial,” Poe wrote, “the boundaries which divide Life from Death, are at best shadowy and vague.” Describing one of those “cessations… of vitality” known to result in accidental burial, he mused, “where, meantime, was the soul?” The question of the soul’s whereabouts during sleep and after death has a long tradition in Western philosophy, stretching back to Plato and Aristotle” (Bloom, p. 127).
In the short stories, Poe tells readers about his true feelings and emotions, fears and distress. It is possible to say that inner feelings and fears are more real for his protagonists than elements found in reality (Bloom 23). Poe’s first-person narrators force the reader to enter a world of fear. Following It is a world of gross distortion, unreal construction, and irrational propensities toward violent behavior. For instance, the protagonists in The Tell-Tale Heart, The Imp of the Perverse, The Black Cat, The Cask of Amontillado, and The Masque of the Red Dead all emerge from similar conditions (Jacobs, p. 38). They spend too much time alone, divorced from meaningful social community, family, and friends. Fear of premature burial is expressed through obsessive behavior and delusions. As this occurs, thoughts of murder and the pursuit of selfish pleasures are inevitable consequences (Bloom, p. 115).
The Cask of Amontillado is one of the best exampled of fears and doubts experiment by Poe. Montressor meets Fortunato on an Italian street and entices him home to his wine cellar. Fortunato has no awareness that he has insulted Montressor. Montressor sealed him between two stone layers by building a wall in front of Fortunato. Poe writes: not only punish, but punish with impunity” (Poe, p. 76). Foe portrays ability to assess and judge situations accurately. Poe’s narratives of murders and murdering pivot around acts of violence and the criminality; the darkness of these stories is not lightened by any degree of love or affection (Bloom, p. 145).
The Masque of the Red Death is an example of Poe’s fear of death and premature burial. This story suggests an imaginative nature of the plot. Overwhelmed by images of costumes, bejeweled masks adding to the allure and mystery of beautiful and privileged people, and a decadent environment of rich colors and sounds, Poe portrays sudden death and premature burial: “black chamber the effect of the fire-light that streamed upon the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes,.. there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all” (Poe 45). In the Tell Tale Heart, Poe creates the world of fantasy using unique symbols and settings (Jacobs, p. 32). The narrator claims to be totally sane, he admits that there never existed a real motive for murder; it was just that the old man’s eye vexed him: As the narrator spends a week preparing himself to commit the crime, he forms a bond with the old man, acknowledging that the victim’s terror of death is likewise shared by the man who will bring death into the bedchamber: “Many a night, just a midnight, when all the world slept, [terror] has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me. I say I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him” (Poe, p. 65). These fears and terrors can be found in many stories of homicide and revenge. Following Joseph Patrick Roppolo: “a parable of the inevitability and universality of death.” Death cannot be barred from the palace, he argues, because it is in the blood, part and parcel of our humanity, not an external invader. Hence, according to Roppolo, the spectral figure is not a representation of mortality (which is already present) but a figment of the imagination: man’s “self-aroused and self-developed fear of his own mistaken concept of death” (Bloom, p. 120).
Using the themes of death and fear of premature burial, Poe puts readers into the world of monsters and murders. Critics (Bloom, p. 34) admit that alcoholism was the main caused of emotional distress and fear of death.
Many of Poe’s protagonists have much in common with Poe himself. “Poe witnessed in losing his mother and wife to tuberculosis, and both at the age of twenty-four, took on an obsessive quality for Poe the writer, since the two most important women in his life essentially “bookended” his artistic career with their strikingly similar deaths” (Davidson, p. 54), These fears and terrors were mirrored in many stories including “The Black Cat”. For instance, after disposing of wife and cat, the narrator of The Black Cat says, “My happiness was supreme! The guilt of my dark deed disturbed me but little…. I soundly and tranquilly slept; aye, slept even with the burden of murder upon my soul” (Poe, p. 76). “The burden of murder,” proves too heavy for these men to bear (Bloom 145). They descend into self-punishment that is narrated from within the lonely silence of the tomb, the jail, or the lunatic asylum. The black cats in this tale possess certain supernal qualities that certainly confound the narrator. The wife of protagonist in The Black Cat: “made frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise” (Poe, p. 51). It is a story that confronts the issue of alcoholism and the destructive effects that it produces upon marriage. When the narrator confesses that “my disease grew upon me—for what disease is like Alcohol” (Poe 54), he reflects a thought that Poe himself understood. Alcohol produced violence and aggressive behavior (Bloom, p. 140).
Poe’s alcoholism not only cost him friendships and important connections because of he quarreled violently with others, he also spent time in jail for public drunkenness. In creating the narrator in The Black Cat, Poe invested him with many of his own character flaws while drunk; the narrator is not meant to be Poe himself, but Poe used many of the particulars of his own experience in rendering the narrator’s personality. Similar to this story, in The Masque of the Red Death Poe reminds readers that the devastating and incurable effects of the Red Death, with its horrible “bleeding at the pores,” isolates the victim “from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men” (Poe, p. 57). In the end, it is Prospero himself who is “shut out from the aid and sympathy” not only in his selfish pursuit of pleasure and arrogant exclusion, but in the very manner in which he dies: alone in the black room, face-to-face with Death. Critics (Davidson 61) admit that death of his young wide Virginia had a great impact on his physiological well-being and addiction. Poe lived another two years after the death of Virginia, and they were perhaps the most miserable of his life (Bloom, p. 116).
Poe died on October 7, 1849 in Baltimore. Similar to many of his tragic characters, he faced the same tragic death. Following Silverman, alcoholic ‘was hurrying him to the grave’. Similar to the writer, Poe’s protagonists feel elation; they awarded themselves psychologically at the same time that they have eliminated the oppression and fears of death. It is possible to say that fear of premature burial and death is caused by life troubles (death of his relatives) and intoxication state which led him to distress and anxiety.
- Bloom, H. The Tales of Poe. Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
- Carlson, Th. C. “Biographical Warfare: Silent Film and the Public Image of Poe”. The Mississippi Quarterly 52 (1998): 5.
- Davidson, Edward H. Poe: A Critical Study. Harvard University Press, 1957.
- Jacobs, R.D. Poe, Journalist & Critic. Louisiana State University Press, 1969.
- Poe, E. The Complete Stories. New York: Everyman’s Library/Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
- Silverman, K. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. Harper Perennial, New York, NY. 1991.