Poe, Edgar Allan (1809 - 1849)

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(1809 - 1849)

American short story writer, poet, novelist, essayist, editor, and critic.

Poe's stature as a major figure in world literature is primarily based on his highly acclaimed short stories, poems, and critical theories, which established an influential rationale for the short form in both poetry and fiction. Regarded in literary histories and handbooks as the architect of the modern short story, Poe was also the principal forerunner of the "art for art's sake" movement in nineteenth-century European literature. Whereas earlier critics predominantly concerned themselves with moral or ideological generalities, Poe focused his criticism on the specifics of style and construction that contributed to a work's effectiveness or failure. In his own work, he demonstrated what has been assessed as a brilliant command of language and technique as well as an inspired and original imagination. Poe's poetry and short stories greatly influenced the French Symbolists of the late nineteenth century, who in turn altered the direction of modern literature. It is this philosophical and artistic transaction that accounts for much of Poe's importance in literary history.


Poe's father and mother were professional actors who at the time of his birth were members of a repertory company in Boston. Before Poe was three years old both of his parents died, and he was raised in the home of John Allan, a prosperous exporter from Richmond, Virginia, who never legally adopted his foster son. As a boy, Poe attended the best schools available, and was admitted to the University of Virginia at Charlottesville in 1825. He distinguished himself academically but was forced to leave after less than a year because of bad debts and inadequate financial support from Allan. Poe's relationship with Allan disintegrated upon his return to Richmond in 1827, and soon after Poe left for Boston, where he enlisted in the army and also published his first poetry collection, Tamerlane, and Other Poems (1827). The volume went unnoticed by readers and reviewers, and a second collection, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems, received only slightly more attention when it appeared in 1829. That same year Poe was honorably discharged from the army, having attained the rank of regimental sergeant major, and was then admitted to the United States Military Academy at West Point. However, because Allan would neither provide his foster son with sufficient funds to maintain himself as a cadet nor give the consent necessary to resign from the Academy, Poe gained a dismissal by ignoring his duties and violating regulations. He subsequently went to New York City, where Poems, his third collection of verse, was published in 1831, and then moved to Baltimore, where he lived at the home of his aunt, Mrs. Maria Clemm.

Over the next few years Poe's first short stories appeared in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier and his "MS. Found in a Bottle" (1832) won a cash prize for best story in the Baltimore Saturday Visiter. Nevertheless, Poe was still not earning enough to live independently, nor did Allan's death in 1834 provide him with a legacy. The following year, however, his financial problems were temporarily alleviated when he accepted an editorship at The Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, bringing with him his aunt and his twelve-year-old cousin Virginia, whom he married in 1836. The Southern Literary Messenger was the first of several journals Poe would direct over the next ten years and through which he rose to prominence as a leading man of letters in America. Poe made himself known not only as a superlative author of poetry and fiction, but also as a literary critic whose level of imagination and insight had hitherto been unapproached in American literature. While Poe's writings gained attention in the late 1830s and early 1840s, the profits from his work remained meager, and he supported himself by editing Burton's Gentleman's Magazine and Graham's Magazine in Philadelphia and the Broadway Journal in New York City. After his wife's death from tuberculosis in 1847, Poe became involved in a number of romantic affairs. It was while he prepared for his second marriage that Poe, for reasons unknown, arrived in Baltimore in late September of 1849. On October 3, he was discovered in a state of semi-consciousness; he died four days later without regaining the necessary lucidity to explain what had happened during the last days of his life.


Poe's most conspicuous contribution to world literature derives from the analytical method he practiced both as a creative author and as a critic of the works of his contemporaries. His theory of literary creation is noted for two central points: first, a work must create a unity of effect on the reader to be considered successful; second, the production of this single effect should not be left to the hazards of accident or inspiration, but should to the minutest detail of style and subject be the result of rational deliberation on the part of the author. In poetry, this single effect must arouse the reader's sense of beauty, an ideal that Poe closely associated with sadness, strangeness, and loss; in prose, the effect should be one revelatory of some truth, as in "tales of ratiocination" or works evoking "terror, or passion, or horror."

Aside from a common theoretical basis, there is a psychological intensity that is characteristic of Poe's writings, especially the tales of horror that comprise his best and best-known works. These stories—which include "The Black Cat" (1843) "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846) and "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843)—are often told by a first-person narrator, and through this voice Poe probes the workings of a character's psyche. This technique foreshadows the psychological explorations of Fyodor Dostoevsky and the school of psychological realism. In his Gothic tales, Poe also employed an essentially symbolic, almost allegorical method which gives such works as "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), "The Masque of the Red Death" (1842), and "Ligeia" (1838) an enigmatic quality that accounts for their enduring interest and also links them with the symbolical works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. The influence of Poe's tales may be seen in the work of later writers, including Ambrose Bierce and H. P. Lovecraft, who belong to a distinct tradition of horror literature initiated by Poe. Just as Poe influenced many succeeding authors and is regarded as an ancestor of such major literary movements as Symbolism and Surrealism, he was also influenced by earlier literary figures and movements. In his use of the demonic and the grotesque, Poe evidenced the impact of the stories of E. T. A. Hoffman and the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, while the despair and melancholy in much of his writing reflects an affinity with the Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century. It was Poe's particular genius that in his work he gave consummate artistic form both to his personal obsessions and those of previous literary generations, at the same time creating new forms which provided a means of expression for future artists.

A tale of sickness, madness, incest, and the danger of unrestrained creativity, "The Fall of the House of Usher" is among Poe's most popular and critically examined horror stories. The ancient, decaying House of Usher, filled with tattered furniture and tapestries and set in a gloomy, desolate locale is a rich symbolic representation of its sickly twin inhabitants, Roderick and Madeline Usher. Besides its use of classical Gothic imagery and gruesome events—including escape from live burial—the story has a psychological element and ambiguous symbolism that have given rise to many critical readings. Poe used the term "arabesque" to describe the ornate, descriptive prose in this and other stories in his collection. "The Fall of the House of Usher" is also considered representative of Poe's idea of "art for art's sake," whereby the mood of the narrative, created through skillful use of language, overpowers any social, political, or moral teaching.

The story is also one of several of Poe's which utilize as a central character the Decadent Aristocrat. This mad, often artistic noble heir took the place of the traditional Gothic villain in tales portraying the sublime hostility of existence itself rather than the evil embodied by individuals. In addition to "The Fall of the House of Usher," such characters appear in his stories "Metzengerstein" (1840), "Berenice" (1840), "Ligeia" (1838), "The Oval Portrait" (1842), and "The Masque of the Red Death" (1842). Central to the setting in many of these stories is a large, ominous castle, likened by critic Maurice Lévy to the medieval fortresses that appear in the writing of Radcliffe, Charles Robert Maturin, and Horace Walpole. Interior architectural elements, such as the moving tapestry in "Metzengerstein," serve almost as characters in these tales.

A second group of Poe's tales center, in obsessive detail, on the horror and misery wrought by a guilty conscience. These include "The Black Cat," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and the doppelgänger story "William Wilson" (1840). "The Black Cat" is narrated by a once-kind man who has fallen into alcoholism. One day, in a rage, he hangs his cat and is forever haunted by the image. Upon attempting to kill the cat's replacement, he instead kills his wife. It appears his deeds will go unpunished until he is given away by the screaming animal, who is sitting on his dead wife's head. "The Tell-Tale Heart" features a similarly mad narrator forever tormented by the heartbeat of a man he has murdered. While not widely acclaimed during his lifetime, it has become one of Poe's most famous stories. While the stories "Hop-Frog: Or, the Eight Chained Orang-Outangs" (1849), "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1843), and "The Cask of Amontillado" do not take a guilty conscience as their starting point, they share the same paranoid intensity demonstrated in these tales.

Poe first gained widespread acclaim for his poem "The Raven" (1845), which exhibits elements of the tales in both groups identified above. Set at the stroke of midnight in an otherwise empty chamber, the narrator hears a tapping at his door. The narrator, tormented by the ominous raven revealed to be the source of the noise, is not wracked with guilt, however. Rather, he mourns the loss of his love, Lenore, while the raven serves as a despicable and terrifying reminder of her death.

Poe completed only one novel, and it was written in the Gothic tradition. Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), the story of an ill-fated sea voyage, has captured the attention of generations of readers with its action-packed plot, imaginative use of symbol and myth, depiction of cannibalism, and numerous unusual occurrences. Critics studying the imagery of Pym have frequently cited Freudian and Jungian analyses, with the voyage identified as a seminal symbol of a journey inward into consciousness, or denoting a return to the womb.


While most of his works were not conspicuously acclaimed during his lifetime, Poe has come to be viewed as one of the most important American authors in the Gothic tradition. While even today some critics deride the author's style as amateurish and overwrought, Pamela J. Shelden (see Further Reading) argues that Poe turned hackneyed styles to new and advantageous use. Likewise, Maurice Lévy regards the author as steeped in the tradition of Radcliffe, Walpole and Maturin, yet wholly original. Poe's stories and poems have become some of the most widely read in English-language literature.

"The Fall of the House of Usher" has been lauded by scholars as a prime example of the Gothic short story. Over the years, there have been many interpretations of the story, and much recent scholarship has viewed the tale as a fictional representation of many of Poe's own literary and social theories. For example, Stephen Dougherty sets the tale in the context of racism and fears of miscegenation in nineteenth-century society and also examines the potential influence of French theorist Michel Foucault's political ideas on the work. In general, "Usher" is acknowledged as one of Poe's most cerebral tales, with little or no action to carry the plot. Because of this, the story has lent itself to numerous interpretations, eliciting a large amount of scholarship that continues to explore the text from a variety of perspectives.

Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym underwent a remarkable transformation in reputation during the twentieth century. When it was first published and for the remainder of the nineteenth century, the novel was ignored completely, dismissed as a literary hoax, or deemed just another of Poe's fantastic tales. In the second half of the twentieth century, however, Pym emerged as the most frequently discussed of all of Poe's works. Critics have studied Poe's handling of language and Gothic imagery and explored Poe's use of narrative structure to produce special effects in the novel. Leslie Fiedler notes that many of the literary conventions used by Poe, and for which he was widely censured, were intended to offer ironic commentary on slavery and other accepted nineteenth-century practices and challenge the notion of innocence in the Western world. A. A. Markley traces Gothic authors who may have influenced Pym, such as William Godwin, and credits Poe with building on this tradition.

Today, Poe is recognized as one of the foremost progenitors of modern literature, and of the Gothic style in particular. In contrast to earlier critics who viewed writer and works as one, criticism of the past twenty-five years has developed a view of Poe as a detached artist who was more concerned with displaying his virtuosity than with expressing his soul, and who maintained an ironic rather than an autobiographical relationship to his work. His writing is viewed as highly revelatory of the darkest elements of human nature. Poe's tales "are a concatenation of cause and effect," observes D. H. Lawrence. "His best pieces, however, are not tales. They are more. They are ghastly stories of the human soul in its disruptive throes."


Tamerlane and Other Poems. By a Bostonian (poetry) 1827
Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems (poetry) 1829
Poems. By Edgar Allan Poe. Second Edition. (poetry) 1831
"MS. Found in a Bottle" (short story) 1832; published in the journal Baltimore Saturday Visiter
"Ligeia" (short story) 1838; published in the journal American Museum
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, of Nantucket, North America: Comprising the Details of a Mutiny, Famine, and Shipwreck, During a Voyage to the South Seas; Resulting in Various Extraordinary Adventures and Discoveries in the Eighty-fourth Parallel of Southern Latitude
[published anonymously] (novel) 1838
"The Fall of the House of Usher" (short story) 1839; published in the journal Burton's
∗Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque
. 2 vols. (short stories) 1840
"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (short story) 1841; published in the journal Graham's Magazine
"The Masque of the Red Death" (short story) 1842; published in the journal Graham's Magazine
"The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" (short story) 1842; published in the journal Snowden's
"The Oval Portrait" (short story) 1842; published in the journal Graham's Magazine
"The Black Cat" (short story) 1843; published in the journal Saturday Evening Post
"The Pit and the Pendulum" (short story) 1843; published in the journal The Gift
"The Tell-Tale Heart" (short story) 1843; published in the journal Pioneer
"The Oblong Box" (short story) 1844; published in the journal Godey's Lady's Book
"The Premature Burial" (short story) 1844; published in the journal Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper
"The Imp of the Perverse" (short story) 1845; published in the journal Graham's Magazine
The Raven, and Other Poems
(poetry) 1845
Tales by Edgar A. Poe (short stories) 1845
"The Cask of Amontillado" (short story) 1846; published in the journal Godey's Lady's Book
Eureka: A Prose Poem
(essay) 1848
"Hop-Frog: Or, the Eight Chained Orang-Outangs" (short story) 1849; published in the journal Boston Flag of Our Union
"Von Kempelen and His Discovery" (short story) 1849; published in the journal Boston Flag of Our Union

∗ This collection includes, among other stories, "Metzengerstein," "Berenice," "William Wilson," and "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar."

† This collection includes, among other stories, "The Purloined Letter," "The Gold-Bug," and "The Man of the Crowd."



SOURCE: Poe, Edgar Allan. "Shadow—A Parable." In Great Tales of Terror from Europe and America: Gothic Stories of Horror and Romance, 1765–1840, edited by Peter Haining. 1972. Reprint edition, pp. 503-06. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1973.

The following short story was first published in The Southern Literary Messenger in 1836.

'Yea! though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow.'

                               Psalm of David

Ye who read are still among the living; but I who write shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows. For indeed strange things shall happen, and secret things be known, and many centuries shall pass away, ere these memorials be seen of men. And, when seen, there will be some to disbelieve, and some to doubt, and yet a few who will find much to ponder upon in the characters here graven with a stylus of iron.

The year had been a year of terror, and of feelings more intense than terror for which there is no name upon the earth. For many prodigies and signs had taken place; and far and wide, over sea and land, the black wings of the Pestilence were spread abroad. To those, nevertheless, cunning in the stars, it was not unknown that the heavens wore an aspect of ill; and to me, the Greek Oinos, among others, it was evident that now had arrived the alternation of that seven hundred and ninety-fourth year when, at the entrance of Aries, the planet Jupiter is conjoined with the red ring of the terrible Saturnus. The peculiar spirit of the skies, if I mistake not greatly, made itself manifest, not only in the physical orb of the earth, but in the souls, imaginations, and meditations of mankind.

Over some flasks of the red Chian wine, within the walls of a noble hall, in a dim city called Ptolemais, we sat, at night, a company of seven. And to our chamber there was no entrance save by a lofty door of brass: and the door was fashioned by the artisan Corinnos, and, being of rare workmanship, was fastened from within. Black draperies, likewise, in the gloomy room, shut out from our view the moon, the lurid stars, and the peopleless streets—but the boding and the memory of Evil, they would not be so excluded. There were things around us and about of which I can render no distinct account—things material and spiritual—heaviness in the atmosphere—a sense of suffocation—anxiety—and, above all, that terrible state of existence which the nervous experience when the senses are keenly living and awake, and meanwhile the powers of thought lie dormant. A dead weight hung upon us. It hung upon our limbs—upon the household furniture—upon the goblets from which we drank; and all things were depressed, and borne down thereby—all things save only the flames of the seven iron lamps which illumined our revel. Uprearing themselves in tall slender lines of light, they thus remained burning all pallid and motionless; and in the mirror which their lustre formed upon the round table of ebony at which we sat, each of us there assembled beheld the pallor of his own countenance, and the unquiet glare in the downcast eyes of his companions. Yet we laughed and were merry in our proper way—which was hysterical; and sang the songs of Anacreon—which are madness; and drank deeply—although the purple wine reminded us of blood. For there was yet another tenant of our chamber in the person of young Zoilus. Dead, and at full length he lay, enshrouded;—the genius and the demon of the scene. Alas! he bore no portion in our mirth, save that his countenance, distorted with the plague, and his eyes in which Death had but half extinguished the fire of the pestilence, seemed to take such interest in our merriment as the dead may haply take in the merriment of those who are to die. But, although I, Oinos, felt that the eyes of the departed were upon me, still I forced myself not to perceive the bitterness of their expression, and, gazing down steadily into the depths of the ebony mirror, sang with a loud and sonorous voice the songs of the son of Teios. But gradually my songs they ceased, and their echoes, rolling afar off among the sable draperies of the chamber, became weak, and undistinguishable, and so faded away. And lo! from among those sable draperies where the sounds of the song departed, there came forth a dark and undefined shadow—a shadow such as the moon, when low in heaven, might fashion from the figure of a man: but it was the shadow neither of man nor of God, nor of any familiar thing. And quivering awhile among the draperies of the room, it at length rested in full view upon the surface of the door of brass. But the shadow was vague, and formless, and indefinite, and was as the shadow neither of man nor God—neither God of Greece, nor God of Chaldea, nor any Egyptian God. And the shadow rested upon the brazen doorway, and under the arch of the entablature of the door, and moved not, nor spoke any word, but there became stationary and remained. And the door where-upon the shadow rested was if I remember aright, over against the feet of the young Zoilus enshrouded. But we, the seven there assembled, dared not steadily behold it, but cast down our eyes, and gazed continually into the depths of the mirror of ebony. And at length I, Oinos, speaking some low words, demanded of the shadow its dwelling and its appellation. And the shadow answered, 'I am Shadow, and my dwelling is near to the catacombs of Ptolemais, and hard by those dim plains of Helusion which border upon the foul Charonian canal.' And then did we, the seven, start from our seats in horror, and stand trembling, and shuddering, and aghast: for the tones in the voice of the shadow were not the tones of any one being, but of a multitude of beings, and, varying in their cadences from syllable to syllable, fell duskily upon our ears in the well-remembered and familiar accents of many thousand departed friends.


SOURCE: Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Oval Portrait." In Great Ghost Stories: 34 Classic Tales of the Supernatural, compiled by Robin Brockman, pp. 55-7. New York: Gramercy Books, 2002.

The following short story was first published in Graham's Magazine in 1842.

The château into which my valet had ventured to make forcible entrance, rather than permit me, in my desperately wounded condition, to pass a night in the open air, was one of those piles of commingled gloom and grandeur which have so long frowned among the Apennines, not less in fact than in the fancy of Mrs Radcliffe. To all appearance it had been temporarily and very lately abandoned. We established ourselves in one of the smallest and least sumptuously furnished apartments. It lay in a remote turret of the building. Its decorations were rich, yet tattered and antique. Its walls were hung with tapestry and bedecked with manifold and multiform armorial trophies, together with an unusually great number of very spirited modern paintings in frames of rich golden arabesque. In these paintings, which depended from the walls not only in their main surfaces, but in very many nooks which the bizarre architecture of the château rendered necessary—in these paintings my incipient delirium, perhaps, had caused me to take deep interest; so that I bade Pedro to close the heavy shutters of the room—since it was already night,—to light the tongues of a tall candelabrum which stood by the head of my bed, and to throw open far and wide the fringed curtains of black velvet which enveloped the bed itself. I wished all this done that I might resign myself, if not to sleep, at least alternately to the contemplation of these pictures, and the perusal of a small volume which had been found upon the pillow, and which purported to criticise and describe them.

Long, long I read—and devoutly, devoutly I gazed. Rapidly and gloriously the hours flew by and the deep midnight came. The position of the candelabrum displeased me, and outreaching my hand with difficulty, rather than disturb my slumbering valet, I placed it so as to throw its rays more fully upon the book.

But the action produced an effect altogether unanticipated. The rays of the numerous candles (for there were many) now fell within a niche of the room which had hitherto been thrown into deep shade by one of the bedposts. I thus saw in vivid light a picture all unnoticed before. It was the portrait of a young girl just ripening into womanhood. I glanced at the painting hurriedly, and then closed my eyes. Why I did this was not at first apparent even to my own perception. But while my lids remained thus shut, I ran over in my mind my reason for so shutting them. It was an impulsive movement to gain time for thought—to make sure that my vision had not deceived me—to calm and subdue my fancy for a more sober and more certain gaze. In a very few moments I again looked fixedly at the painting.

That I now saw aright I could not and would not doubt; for the first flashing of the candles upon that canvas had seemed to dissipate the dreamy stupor which was stealing over my senses, and to startle me at once into waking life.

The portrait, I have already said, was that of a young girl. It was a mere head and shoulders, done in what is technically termed a vignette manner; much in the style of the favorite heads of Sully. The arms, the bosom, and even the ends of the radiant hair melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow which formed the background of the whole. The frame was oval, richly gilded and filigreed in Moresque. As a thing of art nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself. But it could have been neither the execution of the work, nor the immortal beauty of the countenance which had so suddenly and so vehemently moved me. Least of all, could it have been that my fancy, shaken from its half slumber, had mistaken the head for that of a living person. I saw at once that the peculiarities of the design, of the vignetting, and of the frame, must have instantly dispelled such idea—must have prevented even its momentary entertainment. Thinking earnestly upon these points, I remained, for an hour perhaps, half sitting, half reclining, with my vision riveted upon the portrait. At length, satisfied with the true secret of its effect, I fell back within the bed. I had found the spell of the picture in an absolute life-likeliness of expression, which, at first startling, finally confounded, subdued, and appalled me. With deep and reverent awe I replaced the candelabrum in its former position. The cause of my deep agitation being thus shut from view, I sought eagerly the volume which discussed the paintings and their histories. Turning to the number which designated the oval portrait, I there read the vague and quaint words which follow:

"She was a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee. And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter. He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art: she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn; loving and cherishing all things; hating only the Art which was her rival; dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover. It was thus a terrible thing for this lady to hear the painter speak of his desire to portray even his young bride. But she was humble and obedient, and sat meekly for many weeks in the dark high turret-chamber where the light dripped upon the pale canvas only from overhead. But he, the painter, took glory in his work, which went on from hour to hour, and from day to day. And he was a passionate, and wild, and moody man, who became lost in reveries; so that he would not see that the light which fell so ghastly in that lone turret withered the health and the spirits of his bride, who pined visibly to all but him. Yet she smiled on and still on, uncomplainingly, because she saw that the painter (who had high renown) took a fervid and burning pleasure in his task, and wrought day and night to depict her who so loved him, yet who grew daily more dispirited and weak. And in sooth some who beheld the portrait spoke of its resemblance in low words, as of a mighty marvel, and a proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her whom he depicted so surpassingly well. But at length, as the labor drew nearer to its conclusion, there were admitted none into the turret; for the painter had grown wild with the ardor of his work, and turned his eyes from the canvas rarely, even to regard the countenance of his wife. And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sat beside him. And when many weeks had passed, and but little remained to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp. And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, 'This is indeed Life itself!' turned suddenly to regard his beloved:—She was dead!"



SOURCE: Lévy, Maurice. "Poe and the Gothic Tradition." ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 18, no. 66 (1972): 19-29.

In the following essay, translated by Richard Henry Haswell and first published in French in Caliban in 1968, Lévy assesses Poe's works within the context of the Gothic tradition.

Since the appearance of Marie Bonaparte's study, only the daring speak of Poe without evoking his dipsomania, opiomania, cyclothymia, paraphrenia, and sado-necrophilia, all so obviously characterizing the major part of his work. Today how does one dare to see in Poe's architectural structures anything but mother-figures, or in the inextricable maze of the island of Tsalal where Pym got lost, anything but a fantasy of the maternal body from an intestinal point of view? The "shadows" and "doubles" and the Devil must be symbols of the castrating father-figure and "The Oval Portrait" must illustrate the sadomasochistic, partly necrophilistic theme of the Life-in-Death mother-figure.

But, at the risk of appearing profane, I feel that these themes, however attractive, codify too rigorously the most intimate impulses of the poet, and make too much sense in stories which also contain, I believe, on the very principle of the "bizarre," the "grotesque," and the "extravagant," something of the completely unmotivated and something—of tradition. Before Poe wrote, other authors had described tottering buildings, castles in ruins or on the point of collapse, or dark passages twisting in the bowels of the earth. At the time he was writing, the Gothic novel had formed an integral part of the Anglo-American literary patrimony for many years. In 1809, the year of Poe's birth, the genre that Walpole had created was still very much alive. And the young man landing in England in 1815, if he was old enough to be interested, no doubt would have noticed books with strange titles having to do only with "Haunted Castles," "Ruined Priories," "Italians," and "Monks" in the windows of the bookstores. He probably did not return to America before 1820, the year Melmoth was published.

Is it too daring to imagine the young pensioner of the "Manor House School" at Stoke Newington reading under his coat, in the manner of so many of his contemporaries, some really scary Radcliffean imitation? Or later the student at the brand-new university at Charlottesville feverishly turning the pages of The Castle of Otranto or The Monk, borrowed from the nearest circulating library? For the Gothic novel had extended its domain to New England. William Lane, whose Minerva Press, more than any other publishing house, had been responsible for the outpouring of "horrors" that had inundated the nation, had had a correspondent at New York since the end of the eighteenth century. During these years, Louis-Alexis Hocquet de Caritat, an exile from Champagne who owned on Broadway the most important lending library in town, offered to his innumerable clientele, alongside the insipidities of certain post-Richardson novels, the substantial pleasures of the terror that Walpole, Radcliffe, and Lewis so generously dispensed.

An observer of the epoch tells us that "the Library of Mr. Caritat was charming. Its shelves could scarcely sustain the weight of Female Frailty, The Posthumous Daughter, and The Cavern of Woe; they required the aid of the carpenter to support the burden of The Cottage on the Moor, The House of Tynian, and The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne; or they groaned under the multiplied editions of The Devil in Love, More Ghosts! and Rinaldo Rinaldini."1 One would have recognized there several of the more representative titles from the "Frantic School."2 But an examination of the "Catalogue of Novels" published by this enterprising book-seller is more informative; in 1804 nearly 200 titles out of the 1,500 recorded represent the growing vogue of the transatlantic Gothic novel.3 The disillusioned protests of the critics were unavailing.4 Charles Brockden Brown, in the preface to Edgar Huntly, denounced in vain the puerile methods, the "Gothic castles and their chimeras," of the fiction of the day.5 Far from confining itself to the ports and the larger towns, the "evil" little by little conquered the country. With his return to the United States after a prolonged absence, Royall Tyler, the author of a small forgotten novel, affirmed in 1797 that each rural village had its "social library" and that milkmaids and hired hands in the most remote areas trembled so much at the reading of the novels of Radcliffe that they did not dare go to bed alone.6 When Poe began writing his tales, the duodecimos of Lane for a long time had found their place on the shelves of the descendants of the pilgrim fathers, to the neglect, said Tyler, of the family Bunyan.

That Poe had heard of them, that he himself had applied them, is occasionally acknowledged in his own works. "The Oval Portrait" is placed under the avowed patronage of Mrs. Radcliffe from the very first page.7 In the "Letter to B―" he mentions Melmoth, moreover, in respectful terms and in order to say that the Wandering Jew did not strike him as a satanic figure (Works, VII, xxxviii). In The Southern Literary Messenger in 1835, he gave a laudatory account of The Heroine, an amusing parody of the Gothic novel which Eaton Stannard Barrett had published in England in 1813 and which had just appeared in America. Without doubt the review was an occasion for Poe to relive the scenes and episodes of The Romance of the Forest, The Mysteries of Udolpho, or The Children of the Abbey by Regina-Maria Roche. Elsewhere he speaks of Godwin, and he mentions Vathek; and if Beckford's novel, much less Caleb Williams, does not truly belong to the genre created by Walpole, at least these references testify to his taste for what one could call more generically the "roman noir."8 A closer reading of Poe's tales, in fact, makes inevitable the recognition of the presence of a certain number of "obsessive motifs," as well as certain characters and techniques of writing which are all, to differing degrees, connected with the Gothic tradition. My purpose here is to assemble these motifs and to juxtapose them with those affined motifs that characterize the countless descendants of The Castle of Otranto, allowing the reader to decide for himself the fitness and the merits of this approach.


The most obvious point of departure is the close resemblance of the huge, gloomy, and menacing Gothic castles which rise on the horizon of "The Oval Portrait," "Ligeia," and "The Fall of the House of Usher" to the medieval fortresses that form the obligatory setting for the fictional adventures in Walpole, Lewis, Radcliffe, and Maturin. The château to which the wounded hero of "The Oval Portrait" is led by his servant is "one of those piles of commingled gloom and grandeur which have so long frowned among the Apennines, not less in fact than in the fancy of Mrs. Radcliffe" (Works, IV, 245). It is the castle of Udolpho that we are here explicitly invited to recall, with its turrets, battlements, and ruined ramparts, standing "silent, solitary, and sublime" in the heart of the Apennines. Moreover, the protagonist establishes himself in "a remote turret of the building." One thinks of the "Western Tower," the "Southern Tower," and the "Eastern Tower" dear to the Gothic imagination. It is also amusing to recall the "Southwest Tower" which perplexed M. Dabaud in the delightful pastiche by Bellin de la Liborlière, in La Nuit Anglaise (1799), because as a reader of "romans noirs" he could not remember any tower situated between cardinal points.9 The apartment where Poe's character proposes to pass the night has the "antique and dilapidated" appearance of those which Mrs. Radcliffe's heroines harmlessly explore. Like the apartment of Signora Laurentini that Emily visits in The Mysteries of Udolpho, also accompanied by a servant, Poe's is also "abandoned." All human presence has vanished and the hero is alone face to face with the unexpected. In particular, as in Radcliffe's scene, the mysteriousness condenses around the portrait of a woman, whose strange gaze fascinates the hero.10 The motif of the isolated turret and the closed-off apartment recurs in "Ligeia." It will be remembered that the hero, following the death of his first wife, buys an abbey—the setting of so many Gothic adventures—isolated in one of the wildest portions of England:

The gloomy and dreary grandeur of the building, the almost savage, aspect of the domain, the many melancholy and time-honored memories connected with both, had much in unison with the feelings of utter abandonment which had driven me into that remote and unsocial region of the country.

                               (Works, II, 258)

There, "although the external abbey, with its verdant decay hanging about it, suffered but little alteration," he furnishes the interior, just as La Motte in The Romance of the Forest (1791) or Saint-Aubespine in Saint-Botolph's Priory (1806) establish themselves in abbeys by making the interior comfortable and leaving the exterior ruins intact to preserve their "picturesque beauty." The entire drama of "Ligeia" takes place in a room that he decorates in a "semi-Gothic, semi-Druidical" style which was already old in the history of taste (Works, II, 259). Were it not for the slightly bizarre nature of the decorative elements imagined by the author of "The Philosophy of Furniture," the reader could truly believe himself introduced to a room dreamed up by one or another of the Gothic novelists. At this point we may note that in order to exercise freely Poe's imagination needs an interior space bounded by the tottering walls of a dwelling belonging to the past, a Gothic dwelling. The fears and the anguish of Poe, as those of Radcliffe, are always concretely lodged.

This of course appears best in "The Fall of the House of Usher." Here the architectural element not only plays a basic role in the plot but extends to the attitudes and behavior of the characters. With the first lines of the tale, the narrator, who discovers in the twilight "the bleak walls—the vacant eye-like windows" of the "melancholy" house of Usher, takes his place in the long line of heroes and heroines seized by gloomy presentiments and unreasonable fears at the threshold of the castle. He experiences "an utter depression of the soul," "an iciness … of the heart": "I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit." One recalls the fears of so many Gothic heroines—frail in spite of their intrepidity—whose souls falter the moment they are about to cross the threshold of those nightmarish dwellings, or of Piranesi prisons, or of tombs that give them the impression that they are going to be buried alive: "She viewed [the castle] with horror," the author of The Ruins of Rigonda (1808) had already written, "and as the massy but almost crumbling gates closed behind her, she heaved a sigh, and seemed as it were to have entered her tomb."11 Monsieur Harcourt, in The Romance of the Castle (1800), exclaims to himself as he enters the castle of Llangwellein, "When I entered the portals of this Gothic structure, a dread (surely prophetic), chilled my veins, pressed upon my heart, and scarcely allowed me to breathe."12 One also recalls Ellena who, in The Italian (1797), on entering the convent of San Stephano, is seized with sinister presentiments, or Rosalie, in Sicilian Mysteries (1812), who views the ramparts and the turrets of the fortress where she is led with a feeling of horror: "Its remote situation, its dilapidated state, struck the dreadful suspicion on her heart that she was brought there to suffer."13 A statement of all of the agonies of the threshold which torment the heart of Gothic heroines would be endless; I add only those of Cherubina, who embodies all of the virtues of the perfect "Heroine" so dear to Poe's heart.14 At the moment of crossing the threshold of the solemn castle of Monckton, she also, the intrepid, warlike, virile Cherubina, feels her courage fail:

While she surveyed its roofless walls, overtopt with briony, grass and nettles, and admired the Gothic points of the windows, where mantling ivy had supplied the place of glass, long suffering and murder came to her thoughts.15

The threshold of the castle—as much in Poe as in Radcliffe or the other followers of Walpole—establishes the boundary of a magic space, a sphere of the fantastic. To enter into the house of Usher as into the castle of Otranto or of Udolpho is to plunge into the irrational, to descend to the most primordial strata of the Self where the logic which presides over the elaboration of our conscious thoughts holds no sway: "To enter within a castle," Jean Roudaut has admirably written, "is to become a character in a dream; it is to be given over, completely whole and aware, to forces free of all logical or moral construct; it is to be put in a place where time ceases to be measurable and actions extend as far as desires."16 This explains the sense of total estrangement which Poe's narrator experiences when he finds himself inside the house of Usher. To enter a residence is not only to enter someone else's home, but partly to enter into someone else. The further he penetrates this "mansion of gloom" and the further he familiarizes himself with the high vaulted chambers and the interminable corridors and the damp cellars, the more profoundly he penetrates the mystery which hovers around the personality of Roderick.

The house of Usher is an ancestral castle, Gothic, handed down from father to son through innumerable generations, a castle which strengthens the feeling of blood and is identified in a significant manner with the family. It should not be forgotten that the word house refers at the same time to a family line as well as to a family residence:

The original title of the estate [was merged with] the quaint and equivocal appellation of the "House of Usher"—an appellation which seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion.

                                  (Works, III, 275)

Just as in the title, for instance, of The House of Tynian (1795)—one of the most Gothic of novels that I am familiar with—it is simultaneously a matter of the Tynians and of their castle.

In fact there exist subtle and intangible ties between Roderick Usher and his house. It exerts on him "an influence which some peculiarities in the mere form and substance of his family mansion, had, by dint of long sufferance, he said, obtained over his spirit—an effect which the physique of the gray walls and turrets, and of the dim tarn into which they all looked down, had, at length, brought about upon the morale of his existence" (Works, III, 281). This influence is so heavy, these correspondences between man and his home so profound, that the mysterious and apparently incurable sickness of Roderick can be seen as the symptom of some interior fault, of which the long fissure that marks the façade of the castle is only the visible sign. When the hero, the last descendant of the Ushers, arrives at the final stage of his drama, the castle, now unnecessary, collapses upon him; the flowing and tumultuous waters of the dream close in upon the dreamer.

In this connection it is impossible not to remember the direct ties which link the hero of The Castle of Otranto to his castle. In the first of the Gothic romances, the one that served from 1764 as model and norm for the literature of fantasy, the same secret correspondences can be discovered. Manfred himself is the last scion, or at least he believes he is, of the house of Otranto. The entire drama is played behind the walls of the old residence, where he lures the young woman whom he lusts after, sequesters those who oppose his ambitious projects, and threatens with death the young man who dares dispute his title. The castle of Otranto is a symbol of his will to power, the spatial projection of his destiny into an architectural form. The Prince is also directly connected with the threat which causes the growth of the giant to weigh upon the building that it secretly inhabits. When the Prince is forced to renounce the world and to shut himself in a convent, the castle of Otranto dissolves:

A clap of thunder at that instant shook the castle to its foundations; the earth rocked, and the clank of more than mortal armour was heard behind. Frederic and Jerome thought the last day was at hand. The latter, forcing Theodore along with them, rushed into the court. The moment The-odore appeared, the walls of the castle behind Manfred were thrown down with a mighty force.17

Is it not remarkable that in both the novel of Walpole and in the tale of Poe the decadence of a "house," of a family "gloriously ancient," leads ultimately to the collapse of the ancestral dwelling which had sheltered it?


Every Gothic residence worthy of that epithet not only proudly raises its crenellated towers toward the sky but also enroots itself in "Mother Earth" with deep underground passages, galleries that form an inextricable labyrinth at the most profound depths. It is customary for the heroes who have these incredible adventures to creep through subterranean mazes and to wander in narrow bowels which cross and recross, changing level and always burying themselves more deeply into the dense, solid darkness. The vocation of the Gothic heroes is essentially that of losing their way. To mention only one example, let us accompany Matilda for a moment in her peregrinations. She is one of those intrepid young women who pass an appreciable part of their lives underground.

When she reached the bottom, she found herself in a narrow vaulted way, along which she proceeded for a considerable distance; when by the light of her lamp, she perceived she had got into a spacious cavern, out of which branched a number of narrow passages, made by nature or art out of the solid rock. She entered into one, which, winding round, she found, after walking about an hour, that it had brought her to the same place, from whence she had set out. She then took another, which proved to be that she had first come along, as it brought her to the foot of the staircase she had descended from the great hall. She returned back along the same passage till she again got into the same large cavern.

She now entered one on the opposite side, which, appearing to be something wider than the others, she thought might lead, possibly, to some road out. She proceeded along it, for some time, when she was again bewildered by a number of narrow paths, not knowing which to take. She ventured upon one, however, which led her to another cavern, neither so lofty, or so large, as that she had just passed through. As she was crossing it, to enter an opening on the opposite side, she stumbled over something. On holding her lamp down to it, she perceived that it was the skeleton of a human body. In her horror and surprise, she dropped the lamp from her hand, and was in total darkness, the light being extinguished by the fall.18

Sometimes the narrow passages become so shrunken and obstructed that the characters must advance on hands and knees. Then, to the perplexity caused by the inextricable maze of subterranean tunnels is added the suffocating feeling of having to remain a prisoner of the earth forever; images of the claustrophobic universe of the grave complete the labyrinthine dream and make it more terrible. For instance in Melmoth, when Monçada felt the oneiric shrinkings which suddenly interrupt his subterranean progression, he remembers the story he had read of an explorer who suddenly swelled up in a gallery of the Egyptian pyramids, obstructed the passage, and died miserably, trampled by his companions.19 In its extreme, this obsession with a narrow and constricting place is expressed by the dream of premature burial—no need to recall its obsessive character in Poe—the nightmare in which we picture ourselves alive in the grave. It appears, for example, in The Restless Matron (1799), The Monk (1796), Count Eugenio; or, Fatal Errors (1807) and in many other tales where the young heroine, under the effects of a powerful drug that someone has administered to her, is thought to be dead and is buried.

There is little need to emphasize the essential role, in the tales of Poe, played by images of the labyrinth—or, to speak in the terms of Gaston Bachelard, of the "prison dynamique." Only the most important examples need be cited: the school where William Wilson is pensioned, all filled with complex passages that give the boy the illusion of infinity; the subterranean walk of the narrator of "The Cask of Amontillado" and his victim; the aquatic maze formed by the endless meandering of the stream that Ellison floats on in his approach to the domain of Arnheim; the hold of the ship Pym is shut up in where he attempts to force a way between casks and barrels; or later, on the island of Tsalal, the tortuous road through labyrinths so complex that Poe must draw them.20 Is it necessary to attribute these oneiric ambulations to an analistic exploration of the maternal body? According to Marie Bonaparte, the wells, pits, and cells that the subterranean passages lead to symbolize the maternal cloaca, which blocks or directs "the movement, in the bowels, of the faeces to which the child, in its anal sexual theories, likens itself."21 I do not have the authority to deny or confirm such a hypothesis. All that I can say is that it must similarly explain many episodes from many Gothic novels, wherein the dream of the labyrinth had already, some thirty or forty years earlier than Poe, been popularized through the process of literary composition.

One could make an analogous remark about Marie Bonaparte's interpretation of "The Man of the Crowd." She quite justifiably evokes, in connection with this indefatigable walker who ceaselessly travels the streets of London, the figure of the Wandering Jew, that great "déambulateur mythique" whose origins are lost in the night of time. But in her eyes he embodies nothing less than the formidable Father-figure since he derives from the patriarchal tribes which murdered the divine Son (p. 424). I will not further contest this point. But permit me to add that the character of the Wandering Jew was also, at the time Poe wrote his tale, an obligatory character in a certain category of novels that runs from The Monk through Godwin's Saint-Leon and Shelley's Saint-Irvyne to Maturin's Melmoth. Poe did not invent this figure of homo viator; he drew it from the ancient well of universal literature a short time after the Gothic novel had brought it again into favor with the Anglo-American public. The figure of the Wandering Jew is one of the great images; one of the "images primordiales" that has illustrated the human adventure from the time that men felt like putting it into fable. At the time Poe wrote, it had also become almost a literary cliché.

One could say the same about the appearances of the Devil that spread fear occasionally in Poe's tales. The Devil may also embody the figure of the castrating Father, particularly in "Never Bet the Devil your Head." But however attractive the interpretation psychoanalysis may propose for this tale, it would seem to neglect the traditional nature of this most popular of fantasy characters. Several decades earlier he had already caused the fall of Ambrosio, Victoria, Berenice, Jaqueline d'Olzenburg, Melmoth, and countless other weak beings—young ladies in hoop skirts and gentlemen in lace frills—all cast down into the abyss in expiation of some ambitious bent of the soul.22 The dream of falling is also, in itself, a dream as old as man, by means of which the dreamer enjoys descending into the deepest part of himself and pretends to be prisoner in the most archaic levels of his Self; but it is also a dream that Lewis, Charlotte Dacre, George Walker, Edward Montagu, Shelley, Maturin, and many others whose names have not survived, had just presented again to the tastes of the day, a dream which, thanks to them, formed part of the Anglo-American literary patrimony in Poe's day, a dream which served as a vehicle for anguish and disquietude in a specific and, from certain points of view, inevitable form.


So far we have pointed out, in particular, structural analogies between the tales of Poe and the Gothic tradition: the frequent recourse to a medieval setting in order to circumscribe the action and the sphere of fantasy, the descent into subterranean passages and tombs, and the use of certain of the most redoubtable characters typically haunting the architectural spaces of Walpole's genre. But more specific reminiscences of themes and devices belonging to the most characteristic manner of the Frantic School occur as well in certain of Poe's Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. The "Pit and the Pendulum" is one of these. The narrator, it will be recalled, falls into the hands of the Inquisition and, after a dubious trial, is incarcerated in one of their sinister prisons and subjected to intolerable tortures, moral as well as physical. Doubtless the Fathers of the Inquisition represent, as Marie Bonaparte says, "the infinitely multiplied Father, a sort of royal 'we'" (p. 587). But it is appropriate to remember the role that the Inquisitors and their prison play in The Italian, The Monk, Melmoth, and in countless and often anonymous descendants of the masterpieces of the genre.

The Gothic buildings are only the spatial representation of Catholicism, which at that time still remained for the Anglican conscience the symbol of all abuses and of the most refined mental cruelties. It would be impossible to list the dusty remains of all the minor imitations of Lewis and Radcliffe in which the hero is sometime confined in a filthy cell, from which only a natural event such as earthquake or tidal wave, or some quirk of exterior forces, liberates him. In Sicilian Mysteries (1812), The Ruins of Rigonda (1808), Gonzalo di Baldivia (1817), Cesario Rosalba (1819), and The Abbess (1799), to consider only these titles, the prisons of the Inquisition are not only places of solitary confinement but also torture chambers. After the tribunal scene, which always unfolds, as in "The Pit and the Pendulum," in a vast chamber with walls draped in black, the victim is led through a maze of dim passageways to secret subterranean places where he makes out in the half-light ropes, pulleys, chains, and steel wheels, whose function he is not long in discovering.23 He is stripped, his joints are dislocated, his flesh torn—the blood flows.24 Sometimes he is stretched out under the burning sun while drops of ice water from a caldron fall one by one on his head.25 It is difficult to say if it is more terrible to feel the steel of the tongs probe palpitating flesh or to see the inexorable approach of the honed edge of a pendulum; in any case Poe's "sadism" had many antecedents in the English literature of the beginning of the century.

Furthermore, it will be remembered that in "The Pit and the Pendulum" the walls of the hero's cell are wretchedly painted "in all the hideous and repulsive devices to which the charnel superstition of the monks has given rise. The figures of fiends in aspects of menace, with skeleton forms, and other more really fearful images, overspread and disfigured the walls" (Works, V, 76-77). In the mind of the Inquisitors these horrifying daubs are thought to add even more terrible tortures of the spirit to the physical suffering of the victim. Now Poe did not invent this detail. Is it possible that he found it in some popular work on the horrors of the Inquisition? In any case, it is certain that the device was used by many Gothic novelists eager to spare nothing in order to arouse terror. In W. H. Ireland's The Abbess, for example, the hero is awakened in the night by a horrifying cry and sees frightening forms come to life on the wall of his cell:

Horrid objects struck his sight. He started from his miserable couch; he, for a moment, yielded to the impulse of fear. He approached the wall, on which the most dreadful images that human fancy could invent, were portrayed, to terrify the wretched inhabitants of this earthly cell. One demon of gigantic stature seemed to roll his eyes upon the Comte. Hissing serpents appeared to dart forth their blood-dripping tongues, whose points were armed with points of fire. Ghastly forms were represented in the background, and skeletons in-twined with poisonous adders, and among chapless skulls, from whose eyeless sockets were issuing long wreathing worms, the speckled toad, and the death-dealing scorpion seemed to dwell.26

The same device occurs in Melmoth in the scene where Monçada is aroused from sleep by the glowing flames which suddenly invade his cell:

I awoke one night, and saw my cell in flames; I started up in horror but shrunk back on perceiving myself surrounded by demons, who, clothed in fire, were breathing forth clouds of it around me. Desperate with horror, I rushed against the wall, and found what I touched was cold. My recollection returned, and I comprehended that these were hideous figures scrawled in phosphorus, to terrify me.27

It seems to me that here Poe is incontestably following a precise literary tradition. Although the "pit" and the "pendulum" can have precise significances on a psychoanalytic level, the general atmosphere of the tale, the secret and malevolent presence of the Inquisitors and their frightening designs, put the American writer directly in debt to British fiction of the beginning of the century. "The Pit and the Pendulum" is the most perfect, the most horrifying, and the best written of Gothic tales imitative of The Italian and The Monk.


To complete this account, the frequent use that Poe makes of two motifs especially popular with Gothic novelists must be discussed. Long before the American thought of writing, the motifs of the portrait and of the animated tapestry formed part of the tested techniques of horror in literature. The "oval portrait" to which the artist has in some way transferred the life of the model is not the first of the genre. In The Castle of Otranto Walpole had made use of a picture which depicted a character in such a lively manner that it leaves the frame and signals Manfred to follow it.28 And one cannot avoid thinking of the eyes of the portrait of Melmoth which in Maturin's novel follow the narrator wherever he goes.29 It would be wearisome to provide an exhaustive list of all the portraits in Gothic novels which not only spread panic among credulous servants but seriously sway the equilibrium of the most intrepid hero. To note in Edmund of the Forest (1797), The Castle of Ollada (1794), Netley Abbey (1795), The Spirit of Turretville (1800), The Castle of Caithness (1802), Reginald; or, the House of Mirandola (1799), The Spirit of the Castle (1802), and in many other publications today fallen into well-deserved oblivion, that the instances of this device admit the same basic grounds of creating the effect of terror sought by their authors will suffice for a more exact estimate of Poe's originality, which resides less in the choice of subject than in the manner in which he treats it.

Finally, "Metzengerstein" illustrates, in two ways, the Gothic tradition which we are reviewing. First, the central motif of the tale is that of the animated tapestry. Here again it is not a matter of reducing the literary worth of Poe but, on the contrary, of making his art more obvious, if one recalls in connection with this scene (one of the most astonishing of the story), all the hangings and tapestries which, from the first novels of Charlotte Smith to The Fatal Revenge; or, The House of Montorio by Maturin, suddenly terrify the heroine by seeming to become alive. Of course, in The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey, Clermont, and The Romance of the Castle, as in the majority of the narratives belonging to the subclass where the supernatural is rationally explained, it is a current of air which seems suddenly to give life to the demons, dragons, and monsters depicted on the cloth.30 Let us say that in his preference for the irrational the author of "Metzengerstein" exploited to the limit a device that some Radcliffean romance had provided him the germ for. The idea was attractive to him, for "Ligeia" contains impressive drapery, so arranged in the bizarre nuptial chamber designed by the hero that a shrewdly directed current of air keeps it perpetually moving. As the narrator reports in "Ligeia" :

But in the draping of the apartment lay, alas! the chief phantasy of all. The lofty walls, gigantic in height—even unproportionably so—were hung from summit to foot, in vast folds, with a heavy and massive-looking tapestry—tapestry of a material which was found alike as a carpet on the floor, as a covering for the ottomans and the ebony bed, as a canopy for the bed, and as the gorgeous volutes of the curtains which partially shaded the window. The material was the richest cloth of gold. It was spotted all over, at irregular intervals, with arabesque figures, about a foot in diameter, and wrought upon the cloth in patterns of the most jetty black. But these figures partook of the true character of the arabesque only when regarded from a single point of view. By a contrivance now common, and indeed traceable to a very remote period of antiquity, they were made changeable in aspect. To one entering the room, they bore the appearance of simple monstrosities; but upon a farther advance, this appearance gradually departed; and step by step, as the visitor moved his station in the chamber, he saw himself surrounded by an endless succession of the ghastly forms which belong to the superstition of the Norman, or arise in the guilty slumbers of the monk. The phantasmagoric effect was vastly heightened by the artificial introduction of a strong continual current of wind behind the draperies—giving a hideous and uneasy animation to the whole.

                            (Works, II, 260-261)

One might say that the narrator tries to recreate for his second wife the atmosphere and the setting where former heroines enjoyed being terrified, keeping in mind, however, that this statement makes several Baroque variations upon a Gothic theme.

But to return to "Metzengerstein," the second element which makes it nearly a perfect Gothic story is the obscure prophecy that the entire plot turns upon. Announced from the first page, it is verified at the end: "A lofty name shall have a fearful fall when, as the rider over his horse, the mortality of Metzengerstein shall triumph over the immortality of Berlifitzing" (Works, II, 186). Now if there is one traditional motif of the Gothic novel, it is the prophecy formulated in the first pages that prepares for and justifies subsequent supernatural intervention. The Castle of Otranto itself opens with an ancient oracle proclaiming that "the Castle and Lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it."31 The meaning of these mysterious words is soon understood when one learns during the course of the narrative about the existence of a giant ceaselessly growing and threatening the dissolution of the dwelling that shelters it. Just as Walpole's drama resolves itself when this strange prediction comes true, "Metzengerstein" cannot continue beyond the sphere of fantasy strictly demarcated by the sybilline words with which it opens. Recall that analogous dramatic situations occur in dozens of minor novels, The Cavern of Death (1794), The Traditions (1795), The Haunted Priory (1796), and Mort Castle (1800) being only the most eloquent examples. Robert Evans introduces into his The Dream; or, Noble Cambrians (1801) a long note explaining the role that the prophecy should play in this class of fiction.32

Of course there is an element of extravagance in making Poe an American disciple of Radcliffe, Lewis, and Maturin. The least of his tales obviously contains more art than the most brilliant "Gothic" story, and the interior spaces that he explores are immeasurably more authentically those of the soul. But one must still acknowledge that there are situations and themes in the groundwork of his art and of his oneiric peregrinations which the numerous followers of Walpole had exploited before him. Poe infinitely surpasses the literary devices and recipes for terror which Radcliffe, Lewis, and their imitators had developed thirty years earlier. Poe surpasses them, but he utilizes them. Without abandoning the images of the Gothic castle, the subterranean passages, the labyrinth, and the prisons of the Inquisition, he gives these locations the new dimensions of prisons projected by anguish in dream. A psychoanalysis of Poe is incomplete that rests on the discoveries of Freud rather than on those of Jung and Gaston Bachelard. It should make obvious in Poe's work the great "images primordiales" of the dream of depths, the structures of the vertical imagination which the Gothic novelists had rediscovered at the end of the eighteenth century.33 In this way the correspondences that we have outlined will explain themselves less perhaps by a direct and lucid description than by a return to the same archetypes.


[This essay was first] published as "Edgar Poe et la tradition 'gothique,'" Caliban: Annales de la Faculté des Lettres de Toulouse, 4 (1968), 35-51.

1. John Davis, Travels of Four Years and a Half in the U.S.A. (London, 1803), pp. 186-187.

2. [In his exhaustive study of the English Gothic novel, Lévy traces the phrase "l'école frénétique" to Charles Nodier, and states that it especially well applies "to the multiplying horrors and frenzied episodes" characteristic of the minor novels which descend from the works of Walpole, Radcliffe, and Lewis; Le Roman "Gothique" Anglais: 1764–1824 (Toulouse, 1968), p. 383. Lévy also notes Wordsworth's reference to "frantic novels" in the "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads, p. 646.—Translator.]

3. G. G. Raddin, An Early New York Library of Fiction (New York, 1940).

4. As for example the following, which appeared in The Portfolio: "Horrible description predominates. The authors go out of the walks of nature to find some dreadful incident. Appalling noises must be created. Ghosts must be manufactured by the dozens. A door is good for nothing, in the opinion of a romance writer, unless it creak. The value of a room is much enhanced by a few dismal groans. A chest full of human bones is twice as valuable as a casket of diamonds. Every grove must have its quiet disturbed by the devil, in some shape or other. Not a bit of tapestry but must conceal a corpse; not an oak can grow without sheltering banditti." Cited by F. L. Pattee in the introduction to his edition of Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland; or, the Transformation (New York, 1958), p. xxvii.

5. Edgar Huntly, ed. David Lee Clark (New York, 1928), p. xxiii.

6. The Algerine Captive (New Hampshire, 1797), cited in Prefaces to Three Eighteenth-Century Novels, ed. Claude E. Jones, The Augustan Reprint Society (Los Angeles, 1957), pp. viii-ix.

7. The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison, reprint of the New York 1902 edition (New York, 1965), IV, 245. Hereafter cited as Works.

8. See "The Philosophy of Composition," Works, XIV, 193; "Landor's Cottage," VI, 264.

9. "I assure you I know well the West Tower of L'Abbaye de Grasville, the South Tower of the castle of Mazzini, the East Tower of the castle of Udolpho, the North Tower of the castle of Blanguy, but the Southwest Tower, father, that is new," La Nuit Anglaise (Paris, 1799), I, 116-117 [my translation—Translator].

10. The Mysteries of Udolpho, Everyman edition (London, 1931), II, 204.

11. The Ruins of Rigonda; or, the Homicidal Father (London: Chapple, 1808), II, 128.

12. (London: Minerva Press, 1800), II, 55.

13. The Italian, Ballantyne's Novelist's Library (Edinburgh, 1824), X, 560; Sicilian Mysteries; or, the Fortress Dei Vechii (London: H. Colburn, 1812), II, 56.

14. Poe wrote: "Cherubina! Who has not heard of Cherubina? Who has not heard of that most spiritual, that most ill-treated, that most accomplished of women, of that most consummate, most sublimated, most fantastic, most unappreciated and most inappreciable of heroines? Exquisite and delicate creation of a mind overflowing with fun-frolic, farce, wit, humor, song, sentiment, and sense, what mortal is there so dead to everything graceful and glorious as not to have devoured thy adventures? Who is there so unfortunate as not to have taken thee by the hand? Who so lost as not to have enjoyed thy companionship? Who so much of a log, as not to have laughed until he has wept for very laughter in the perusal of thine incomparable, inimitable and inestimable eccentricities?" The Southern Literary Messenger, 2 (1835), 41.

15. Eaton S. Barrett, The Heroine, ed. M. Sadleir (London, 1927), p. 244.

16. "Les Demeures dans le Roman Noir," Critique, nos. 147-148 (1959), p. 725 [my translation—Translator].

17. The Castle of Otranto, ed. W. S. Lewis, Oxford English Novels (Oxford, 1964), p. 108.

18. Matilda Montfort (London: Spenser, 1809), II, 90-91.

19. Melmoth (London, 1892), II, 34-35.

20. See "William Wilson": "From each room to every other there were sure to be found three or four steps either in ascent or descent. Then the lateral branches were innumerable—inconceivable—and so returning in upon themselves, that our most exact ideas in regard to the whole mansion were not very far different from those with which we pondered upon infinity" (Works, III, 303). See "Amontillado," Works, VI, 169-172; "The Domain of Arnheim," VI, 191; "Pym," III, 30-33, 221-225.

21. The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation, tr. John Rodker (London, 1949), pp. 341-342.

22. Protagonists respectively of The Monk (1796) by Lewis, Zofloya; or the Moor (1806) by Charlotte Dacre, The Three Spaniards (London, 1800) by George Walker, Jaqueline of Olzenburg; or, Final Retribution (London, 1800), and Melmoth the Wanderer (London, 1820) by Maturin.

23. Cf. for example the descriptions in Sicilian Mysteries, V, 148; The Ruins of Rigonda, III, 87; Gonzalo di Baldivia; or, a Widow's Vow by Ann of Swansea (London: Minerva Press, 1817), I, 141; Cesario Rosalba; or, the Oath of Vengeance (London: Minerva Press, 1819), V, 263; etc.

24. Cf. W. H. Ireland, The Abbess (London: Earle & Hemet, 1834), III, 145; Sicilian Mysteries, V, 149; George Brewer, The Witch of Ravensworth (London: J. F. Hughes, 1808), II, 154; The Castle of Villa-Flora (London: Minerva Press, 1819), III, 152; etc.

25. Gonzalo di Baldivia, I, 141-142.

26. The Abbess, II, 196.

27. Melmoth, I, 258.

28. The Castle of Otranto, p. 24.

29. I, 20, 94. Remember that Maturin's novel gave Wilde the idea for The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

30. "The ragged tapestry represented still more horrible figures, all of which waved in lifelike movements as the air (admitted by the door) fanned the loose hanging on which they were represented," The Horrors of Oakendale Castle (New York: J. Harrison, 1799), p. 13. "Nor could she prevent herself from starting as the tapestry, which represented a number of grotesque and frightful figures, agitated by the wind that whistled through the crevices, every now and then swelled from the walls," R. M. Roche, Clermont (London: Minerva Press, 1798), I, 113. The heroine is frightened by "the pallid figures on the tapestry now and then moved by the wind, admitted through various crevices of this dreary chamber. They had really a terrific appearance, and might well be mistaken for the ghosts of the heroes they represented," The Romance of the Castle, II, 71.

31. The Castle of Otranto, pp. 15-16.

32. (London: Minerva Press, 1801), I, 54-55.

33. [For Lévy's application of Jung and of Bachelard (especially Bachelard's concept of "verticalité") to Gothicism in general, see Le Roman "Gothique" Anglais, particularly pp. 601-643—Translator.]

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Moralists have always wondered helplessly why Poe's "morbid" tales need have been written. They need to be written because old things need to die and disintegrate, because the old white psyche has to be gradually broken down before anything else can come to pass.

Man must be stripped even of himself. And it is a painful, sometimes a ghastly process.

Poe had a pretty bitter doom. Doomed to seethe down his soul in a great continuous convulsion of disintegration, and doomed to register the process. And then doomed to be abused for it, when he had performed some of the bitterest tasks of human experience, that can be asked of a man. Necessary tasks, too. For the human soul must suffer its own disintegration, consciously, if ever it is to survive.

But Poe is rather a scientist than an artist. He is reducing his own self as a scientist reduces a salt in a crucible. It is an almost chemical analysis of the soul and consciousness. Whereas in true art there is always the double rhythm of creating and destroying.

This is why Poe calls his things "tales." They are a concatenation of cause and effect.

His best pieces, however, are not tales. They are more. They are ghastly stories of the human soul in its disruptive throes.

Moreover, they are "love" stories.

SOURCE: Lawrence, D. H. "Edgar Allan Poe." In Studies in Classic American Literature. 1923. Reprint edition, pp. 70-88. New York: Albert & Charles Boni, 1930.

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The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym


SOURCE: Fiedler, Leslie. "The Blackness of Darkness: E. A. Poe and the Development of the Gothic." In Love and Death in the American Novel. 1960. Reprint, pp. 370-82. New York: Anchor Books, 1992.

In the following essay, Fiedler offers a biographical interpretation of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.

In his harried career as a journalist, book-reviewer, short-story writer, poet, and critic, Edgar Allan Poe tried twice to write a full-length novel, reworking each time chronicles of American exploration on sea and land. Both The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym (1837–38) and The Journal of Julius Rodman (1840) strike us as improbable books for Poe to have attempted, concerned as they are with the American scene and the great outdoors. The former is based upon accounts of pioneering expeditions to the South Seas, and especially a South Polar expedition projected by an acquaintance of Poe called J. N. Reynolds; while the second borrows heavily from the journals of Lewis and Clark, purporting to describe a trip across the Rockies which had preceded theirs. Both long fictions are, superficially at least, full-fledged "Westerns" from the pen of an author none of whose more notable short stories (except the insufferably commercial "The Gold Bug" ) involve either native problems or a native setting.

There is little doubt that Poe was trying to cash in on contemporary interest in the remote and the unexplored, exploited, on the one hand, by such popular histories as Washington Irving's Astoria or Adventures of Captain Bonneville, and, on the other, by the Indian novels of James Fenimore Cooper. In the course of a review of the latter's Wyandotté, written in 1843, Poe reflects on the Leatherstocking Tales and remarks a little ruefully:

… we mean to suggest that this theme—life in the Wilderness—is one of intrinsic and universal interest, appealing to the heart of man in all phases; a theme, like that of life upon the ocean, so unfailingly omniprevalent in its power of arresting and absorbing attention, that while success or popularity is, with such a subject, expected as a matter of course, a failure might be properly regarded as conclusive evidence of imbecility on the part of the author….

He goes on to add, however, that "the two theses in question," that is, the wilderness and life upon the ocean, are subjects to be avoided by the "man of genius … more interested in fame than popularity," for they belong to the lesser of the "two great classes of fiction," the "popular division" at whose head Cooper stands. Of this category, Poe remarks that "the author is lost or forgotten; or remembered, if at all, with something very nearly akin to contempt." He considers his own fiction in general part of the other great class, which includes the work of "Mr. Brockden Brown, Mr. John Neal, Mr. Simms, Mr. Hawthorne," of whom it can be said that "even when the works perish, the man survives."

Yet in Gordon Pym and Julius Rodman, Poe tried his hand at the two popular themes, attempting, for the first time perhaps, to treat the sort of legendary material which had appeared in Leatherstocking Tales with the scrupulous documentation of Irving's nonfictional accounts. The kind of book at which Poe aimed Melville was to produce with eminent success, beginning less than a decade later with the best-selling Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), and raising the genre to unexpected power in Moby Dick. Poe is considerably less successful, failing completely in the case of the unfinished Julius Rodman to lend fictional life to borrowed documents; and achieving in Gordon Pym a work so hopelessly unpopular (in America at least!), that only within the last very few years has a major attempt to redeem it been undertaken. Poe himself, some time after its appearance, was willing to write off Gordon Pym as a "silly book"; and certainly from the first he had considered it, or pretended to consider it, a shameless bid for popular success—the sort of "Tale in a couple of volumes," which his friend Paulding had assured him would win him the mass audience that had snubbed his collections of short stories.

The whole apparatus which surrounds the anonymous final form of Gordon Pym is apologetic: an involved attempt on Poe's part to convince himself that his primary purpose in publishing the tale was to perpetrate a hoax on the reader. But this is an almost compulsive aspect of Poe's art in general, arising from a dark necessity, which dogged not only him among American writers, of remaining in ignorance about his own deepest aims and drives. Just so Cooper was obligated to believe that he was mocking his wife's literary taste before he could become an author, while Melville eternally persuaded himself that he was on the verge of producing a best-seller, and Twain pretended he was a writer of books for boys.

The apologetic and playful preface to Pym has for us now chiefly biographical interest, illuminating the author but not the work. Whatever Poe's ostensible or concealed motives, he created in his only complete longer fiction not a trivial hoax but the archetypal American story, which would be recast in Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn. Why, then, did Poe's book not achieve either the immediate acclaim accorded the latter or the slowly growing reputation won by the former? All the attributes of the highbrow Western are present in his novel: the rejection of the family and of the world of women, the secret evasion from home and the turning to the open sea. Only a bevy of black squaws and a few female corpses ("scattered about … in the last and most loathesome state of putrefaction") intrude into the world of pure male companionship which Poe imagines; and they provide no competition to the alliance of Pym either with his boyhood friend and Anglo-Saxon compeer, Augustus Barnard, or with his dusky demon, the "hybrid line-manager," Dirk Peters.

Rioting and shipwreck and rescue at sea do not break the rhythm of the flight that bears Pym farther and farther from civilization toward a primitive isolation, symbolized by the uncharted island and the lost valley, the derelict ship, and the small boat adrift at sea. Even Rip Van Winkle's initiatory draught, the alcoholic pledge to escape and forgetfulness, is represented in Pym. Buried in a coffin-like refuge in the black hull of a riot-torn ship, Gordon Pym finds at hand a bottle to console him; and later he and his companions fish up out of the flooded hold a flask of Madeira!

There are totemic beasts to spare in the pages of Poe's Western: a great white bear dramatically slaughtered, as well as legendary and exotic animals, compounded surrealistically out of incongruous familiar forms, and even stranger tabooed birds, who float lifelessly on a tepid and milky sea. And through it all, the outcast wanderer—equally in love with death and distance—seeks some absolute Elsewhere, though more in woe than wonder. Poe's realm of refuge and escape seems finally a place of death rather than one of love: the idyllic American dream turned nightmare as it is dreamed in its author's uneasy sleep. If the West means archetypically some ultimate innocence, there is no West in Poe's book at all—only an illusory hope that draws men toward inevitable disenchantment and betrayal. It is not merely that a gothic horror balances the quest for innocence in Gordon Pym ; such a balance is the standard pattern of all highbrow Westerns: of Moby Dick, in which the sinister figure of Fedallah confronts the beneficent one of Queequeg; and even of Huckleberry Finn, in which the threat of Pap's ignorant spite and the shadow of slavery define by contrast the pure peace of Jackson's Island and the raft. Only in Poe's novel, however, is the dark counterpoint permitted to drown out the cantus firmus of hopeful joy or to mar a final harmonic resolution.

Huckleberry Finn closes on a note of high euphoria, sustained by rescue and redemption and promises of new beginnings, which quite conceal from the ordinary reader the tragic implications of the conclusion; while Moby Dick ends with the promise of adoption, the symbolic salvation of the orphaned Ishmael by the crushing, motherly Rachel. Only at the close of Gordon Pym is the Great Mother identified with total destruction, a death without resurrection, a sterile, white womb from which there is no exit. "And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of snow." The white whale and the Rachel have been fused into a single symbol, the Great Mother as vagina dentata; and though Poe's preface has already assured us that Pym somehow escaped to write his story, we know this for a mere device to explain how such a first-person narrative could have been written at all—a gimmick and a lie. In the tone and feeling of the text, which alone have the right to ask an act of faith, there is every assurance that Pym and Peters died.

The book is finally an anti-Western disguised as the form it utterly travesties; and this fact the great public, which will not in such matters be fooled, perceived—and perceiving, rejected the work. From the beginning, a perceptive reader of Gordon Pym is aware that every current sentimental platitude, every cliché of the fable of the holy marriage of males is being ironically exposed. Man's best friend, the dog, turns into a slavering monster ready to tear his master's throat to appease his hunger and thirst; a presumably loyal crew, led by the kind of standard black cook who plays the grinning and subservient comedian even in Moby Dick, mutinies; a bird flies through the pure blue air to drop "with a sullen splash" at the feet of a half-famished group of sailors "a portion of clotted and liverlike substance," a chunk of decayed human flesh; an approaching ship, hailed as a source of rescue, turns out to be a vessel loaded only with human carrion, from which issues "a smell, a stench, such as the whole world has no name for." Even the friendly bottle, traditional symbol of innocent male companionship, induces not joy but the D.T.'s, "an indescribable state of weakness and horror … a violent ague."

Most disconcerting of the parodies in Pym is that of the theme of resurrection itself, which later carries so much symbolic weight in both Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn. Like Ishmael or Huck, Gordon Pym is presumably slain only to rise again, immersed and entombed only to be reborn—in his case, not once but over and over. Out of the coffin in the hold and out of a swoon that seems death itself, he is brought to life, but only to face mutiny and a new threat of destruction; and he emerges in the disguise of a ghost: his face coated with white chalk and blotched with blood, his clothes stuffed to resemble the bloated stomach of a swollen corpse. The threat of murder once again avoided, he is the victim of shipwreck; and almost dead once more (his life meagerly sustained by drinking the blood of a murdered shipmate), he is rescued by a passing ship, only to fall victim to a last catastrophe which leaves him buried alive just as in the beginning. A "living inhumation," Poe calls the state of life-in-death, to which his long circle brings him back; and he lingers almost sensuously over the details: "The blackness of darkness … the terrific oppression of the lungs, the stifling fumes from the damp earth … the allotted portion of the dead…." But even from this plight, Pym is rescued, this time by his blood-stained, demonic mate, Dirk Peters; and the two together approach the ultimate plunge into a white polar chasm, from which there is no reason to believe either can emerge. Indeed, it is precisely such an end which the pariah poet-sailor has prayed for, has loved in anticipation: "death or captivity among barbarian hordes … a lifetime dragged out in sorrow and tears, upon some grey and desolate rock." The guilt of Pym and of his creator demands of experience not the consolation of love but the delicious punishment of a living death, not the gift of Queequeg but of Fedallah.

Since Pym lusts for Gehenna rather than Eden, the companions he chooses on his quest embody not fertility or patient endurance but impotence and terror. Augustus Barnard, his first specter bridegroom, dies horribly, rots away visibly on a parody before-the-fact of Huck's raft: "His arm was completely black from the wrist to the shoulder, and his feet were like ice…. He was frightfully emaciated; so much so that … he now did not weigh more than forty or fifty [pounds] at the farthest. His eyes were … scarcely perceptible, and the skin of his cheeks hung so loosely as to prevent his masticating any food … without great difficulty." His painful death is not even sacrificial, merely another device to produce a shudder, especially at the point where his entire leg comes off in the hand of the man who is attempting to heave his rotten corpse into the sea!

Augustus' impromptu grave-digger is his successor; for it is Dirk Peters who tosses the first good companion over the side, to the sharks who gather with gnashing teeth. But Peters is, as we have already noticed, a very ogre: such a monster, one of Poe's critics describes him, as children draw to scare themselves, a nightmare out of our racial beginnings. In him, the qualities of Queequeg and Fedallah and Captain Ahab are oddly combined; a savior and a beloved primitive, he is also a murderer, a consumer of human flesh, a demi-devil, a madman. He is, in fact, as Marie Bonaparte suggests, the accursed hero who has destroyed the Father, taking on himself the guilt of the artist who only writes or dreams such horror. He protects the artist-surrogate of the plot with almost maternal tenderness, fights his battles like a big brother; and like a lover, holds him safe and warm when the defeated wanderer seeks his bloody embrace, impotent and whimpering. Yet the sought-for embrace is a rape and a betrayal, a prelude to certain death.

The climax of the relationship of Pym and Peters comes at the moment when the two are trapped on the Island of Tsalal, where all their companions have been killed by an artificial landslide contrived by the bloodthirsty black aborigines. The two survivors are trying to find their way out of a cleft in the earth that has providentially sheltered them; and Pym is suspended in fright on a sheer cliff wall.

For one moment my fingers clutched compulsively upon their hold, while, with the movement, the faintest possible idea of escape wandered, like a shadow, through my mind—in the next my whole soul was pervaded with a longing to fall; a desire, a yearning, a passion utterly uncontrollable. I let go at once my grasp upon the peg, and, turning half round from the precipice, remained tottering for an instant against its naked face. But now there came a spinning of the brain; a shrill-sounding and phantom voice screamed within my ears; a dusky, fiendish and filmy figure stood immediately beneath me; and, sighing, I sank down with a bursting heart, and plunged within its arms.

The "dusky, fiendish … figure" is, of course, Peters, the half-breed; and the studied ambiguity of the passage, in which the language of horror becomes that of eroticism, the dying plunge becomes a climactic embrace, makes it clear that the longing to fall and the desire for the dark spouse are one, a single perverseness. Peters is not made an angelic representative of instinct and nature even at this critical instant; he remains still a fiend, even in the act of becoming a savior. And the reader is left to wonder what so dark and orgasmic a salvation can possibly mean except the exchange of one death for an even more damnable other. Poe presents us not with the standard resolution of the American's ambiguity toward the life of impulse: an opposition of good savage and evil savage, as in Cooper's confrontation of Pawnee and Sioux, or Mark Twain's contrast of benevolent Negro and malevolent Indian. Though the son of an Upsaroka mother preserves Pym from the menace of the black hordes of Too-Wit ("Seizing a club from one of the savages who has fallen, he dashed out the brains of the three who remained …"), Poe is not finally intent on playing the same symbolic game as Twain in reverse. He is rather portraying a world in which the primitive may save or destroy, but remains always brutal and amoral, from any Christian point of view—diabolic.

Poe espouses, that is to say, the view of instinctual life which is the common property of those writers whom he regards as "men of genius," the view of Brockden Brown and Hawthorne; and he quite consciously rejects the sentimentalizing of the savage which he finds in popularizers like Cooper. Poe is quite at home with that distinctively American strain of the gothic, in which the aristocratic villains of the European tale of terror are replaced by skulking primitives, and the natural rather than the sophisticated is felt as a primal threat. Indeed, Poe's aristocratic pretensions make it impossible for him to adopt such an attitude without the equivocations and soul-searching demanded of such liberal gothicists as the young Brockden Brown. His fictional world needs no good Indians because he believes in none; and try as he will, he cannot keep quite distinct the mutinous black cook, whom he calls a "perfect demon," from the "dusky, fiendish" figure of Dirk Peters. Theoretically, the tale of Gordon Pym projects through its Negroes the fear of black rebellion and of the white man's perverse lust for the Negro, while symbolizing in the red man an innocent and admirable yearning for the manly violence of the frontier; but in the working out of the plot, the two are confused. Certainly, Pym has prepared himself for the encounter with Peters by reading the journals of Lewis and Clark in his coffin-refuge in the hold; but Peters refuses to become a harmless embodiment of the West, remaining to the end an ogre, his great, bare teeth displayed like fangs.

It is true that the half-breed line-manager offers protection against the shipboard mutineeers and the vicious natives of Tsalal; but his sheltering embrace is identified with the mortal hug of the grizzly bear, whose skin he wears to cover his bald pate. The figure of the black man blends ambiguously with that of the slave, while that of the red man blurs into that of the wild beast! The West, at any rate, was always for Poe only half real, a literary experience rather than a part of his life; but the South moved him at the deepest personal level. Insofar as Gordon Pym is finally a social document as well as a fantasy, its subject is slavery; and its scene, however disguised, is the section of America which was to destroy itself defending that institution. Poe's novel is surely the first which uses gothicism to express a peculiarly American dilemma identifying the symbolic blackness of terror with the blackness of the Negro and the white guilts he embodies. It is, indeed, to be expected that our first eminent Southern author discover that the proper subject for American gothic is the black man, from whose shadow we have not yet emerged.

Though the movement of Gordon Pym seems to bear us away from America, once Nantucket and New Bedford have been left behind, and to carry us through remoter and remoter seas toward the exotic Antarctic, it ends in a region quite unlike the actual polar regions. Heading toward an expected world of ice and snow, Pym finds instead a place of tepid waters and luxuriant growth; seeking a white world, he discovers, beside and within it, a black one. What has gone wrong? It is necessary for Poe to believe, in that blessed ignorance which frees forbidden fancies, that Pym's fictional voyage is bearing him toward the polar region, just as it was necessary for him to believe the whole story a delicious hoax; but we, as latter-day readers, need not be the victims of either delusion. For all the carefully worked-up details about penguins, biche de mer, galapagos tortoises (bait for the audience which was later to subscribe to the National Geographic), Poe follows the footsteps not of Captain Cook but of his own first voyage in the arms of his mother, undertaken before his memory began, from New England to the South. In his deepest imagination, any flight from the North bears the voyager not toward but away from the snow—not to the South Pole, but to the American South.

Certainly, it grows not colder, but warmer and warmer, as Pym aboard the last ship to rescue him, the Jane Gay, pushes closer and closer to the Pole. "We had now advanced to the southward more than eight degrees farther than any previous navigators. We found … that the temperature of the air, and latterly of the water, became milder." Whatever pseudo-scientific explanations Poe may have believed would sustain this improbable notion of a luke-warm Antarctica, certain symbolic necessities were of more importance; he is being, in fact, carried back to Ole Virginny—as the color of the natives he meets on the Island of Tsalal (latitude 83° 20', longitude 43° 5' W.) clearly indicates. They are brawny, muscular, and jet black, with "thick and woolen hair," "thick and clumsy lips," these "wretches," whom Pym describes, after they have destroyed all the white men but him and Peters, as "the most wicked, hypocritical, vindictive, blood thirsty, and altogether fiendish race of men upon the face of the globe." Poe very carefully does not ever call them Negroes, though he bestows on them those marks which, in a review of two books on abolition, he listed as the special stigmata by which God distinguished the race that were to become slaves. He "blackened the negro's skin and crisped his hair into wool." At any rate, where an informed reader might have expected some kind of Indian, Poe could only imagine plantation hands in masquerade; and he sets them in a world distinguished not only by blackness and warmth, but by a certain disturbing sexuality quite proper to Southern stereotypes of Negro life. That sexuality can only be expressed obliquely by Poe, who was so squeamish about matters of this kind that the much franker Baudelaire was driven to remark, "Dans l'oeuvre d'Edgar Poe, il n'y a jamais d'amour." The phallicism of the island he, therefore, suggests not in human terms but by a reference to the islanders' chief crop, the biche de mer—a kind of sea-cucumber of which, Poe informs us, the authorities say that it "renews the exhausted system of the immoderate voluptuary."

The inhabitants of Tsalal are not, of course, the burlesque Negroes, those black "rascals" or "scamps," named pompously "Jupiter" or "Pompey," who lend a minstrel-show note to Poe's lighter tales. Woolly-pated and bow-legged, these characters play the role of mischievous, cowardly, stupid and faithful dependents, good always for a laugh when they say "soldiers" for "shoulders" or "clause" for "cause." No more are the black savages of Gordon Pym like the ideal colored servants sketched by Poe in his review of Slavery in the United States by J. K. Paulding, the author whose suggestion led to Poe's writing his encoded Southern tale. The "degree of loyal devotion on the part of the slave to which the white man's heart is a stranger," Poe insists, is far "stronger than they would be under like circumstances between individuals of the white race"; and, indeed, such "loyal devotion" ranks high in "the class of feelings 'by which the heart is made better' …" It is precisely such loyalty which the actions of the natives in Poe's novel belie, since it is his hidden doubts on this score which they embody. The dark hordes of Too-Wit project the image of what the Southerner privately fears the Negro may be; just as the idealized body-servant of Poe's review projects the image of what the anti-abolitionist publicly claims he is. But the two images are complementary halves of a single view based on wish and terror: the subdued dependent bent to the sick-bed in love and the resentful victim abiding in patience a day of vengeance. It is the darker half, however, which is true to Poe's memories of his boyhood and youth in the Allan household; while the lighter belongs only to certain patriarchal legends, to which he learned to subscribe during his days on The Southern Literary Messenger. In the single reference to the Negro in his correspondence, Poe complains to his step-father (the date is 1827): "You suffer me to be subjected to the whim & caprice, not only of your white family, but to the complete authority of the blacks."

At the climax of Gordon Pym, Poe dreams himself once more, though a grown man, subject to that nightmare authority; and the book projects his personal resentment and fear, as well as the guilty terror of a whole society in the face of those whom they can never quite believe they have the right to enslave. In Tsalal, blackness is no longer the livery of subjection but a sign of menace; so utterly black, that even the teeth concealed by their pendulous lips are black, the Antarctic sav-ages inhabit a black land in which the vegetation and the animals, water itself are all subdued to the same dismal color. The voyage of Pym has transported him improbably into the black belt, a black belt transformed from the level of sociology to that of myth, in whose midst the reigning Caucasian is overwhelmed by a sense of isolation and peril. Not even the glimmer of white teeth bared in a heartening smile cuts the gloom of this exclusive and excluding dark world, whose ultimate darkness is revealed in that final chasm in which Pym and Peters are trapped after the treacherous destruction of their white shipmates. "We alone had escaped from the tempest of that overwhelming destruction. We were the sole living white men upon the island." At this point, the darkness of "Nigger-town" merges at last into the darkness of the womb which is also a tomb, an intestinal chamber from which there is apparently no way of being born again into a realm of light.

How has Pym arrived here, in this place where whiteness itself is taboo, where even the flicker of a handkerchief, the flash of sunlight on taut sails, a little flour in the bottom of a pan stir terror, and doom the white man who feels at home in a world full of such pale symbols? Pym has sought a polar whiteness and has discovered instead a realm of the domination of black. It was (as Marie Bonaparte and other analytical critics have made clear) his mother whom Poe was pursuing in his disguise as Pym: that lost, pale mother, white with the whiteness of milk and the pallor of disease; and the imaginary voyage is a long regression to childhood. But hostilely guarding the last access to the White Goddess, stands the black killer, Too-Wit. In the ultimate reaches of his boyhood, where he had confidently looked for some image of maternal comfort and security, Poe-Pym finds both the white chasm and cascade and the black womb sealed off by black warriors. Surely, the latter fantasies represent memories of the black mammy and the black milk brother, who has sucked at the same black breast.

Writing from the conscious level of his mind and addressing a public largely Southern, Poe dealt with the effect of these quasimaternal and fraternal bonds sanguinely enough. Those very feelings, he argued, "'by which the heart is made better' … have their rise in the relation between the infant and his nurse. They are cultivated between him and his fostering brother…. They are fostered by the habit of affording protection and favors to the younger offspring of the same nurse…." But the buried mind of Poe does not believe what the rationalizing intelligence propounds; in dreams (and in the fiction which is close to those dreams), the foster-brother arises to destroy and crush, to block the way to the lost, pale mother who preceded the Negro nurse. And even the good foster-brother, whom Poe split off from his dark imago in Peters, he cannot finally feel as benign; for him the black man and the "blackness of darkness" are one. That they remain one in much distinguished American fiction after his time is probably not due to the direct influence of Poe. He rather prophetically anticipates than initiates a long line of American books, in which certain gothic writers exploit the fear and guilt which the comic Negro of popular art attempts to laugh out of existence.


SOURCE: Markley, A. A. "The Godwinian Confessional Narrative and Psychological Terror in Arthur Gordon Pym." The Edgar Allan Poe Review 4, no. 1 (spring 2003): 4-16.

In the following essay, Markley traces how works by William Godwin—and by other Gothic writers who used Godwin's "confessional" style—influenced The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym has enjoyed a surge of critical attention in recent years, much of which has been concerned with charting and analyzing the scores of source materials that Poe wove into the fabric of his complex and unusual novel.1 Many scholars, such as Bruce Weiner, have recognized Pym 's relationship to the widely popular genre of Gothic fiction, noting its particular correlation with the "explained" or "rational" mode of Gothic popularized by Ann Radcliffe, whose suspenseful page-turners ultimately provide a reasonable explanation for every supernatural or oddly coincidental occurrence in the plot.2Pym 's strong debt to Daniel Defoe, particularly to Robinson Crusoe (1719) has also long been acknowledged; clearly Defoe is a critical source of influence not only in terms of subject matter, but in Poe's manner of developing a first person narrative voice.3

It was William Godwin, however, who first married the first person confessional narrative to elements of Gothic suspense in his novels of the 1790s and afterwards. Godwin's literary influence is much forgotten today, despite the wide appeal of his novels during his lifetime and despite the school of followers he inspired with his peculiar blend of terror and confessional narrative—figures such as Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, William Ainsworth, and, perhaps most importantly in terms of his own influence on Poe, Charles Brockden Brown.4 Burton Pollin has acknowledged the relationship between the theme and atmosphere of Poe's works and Godwin's and has cataloged both the nineteenth-century references that likewise acknowledge this connection and the seventeen times in Poe's own writings, largely in his reviews, in which Poe himself praises specific aspects of Godwin's fiction.5

In his review of Godwin's Lives of the Necromancers, for example, Poe writes

The name of the author of Caleb Williams and of St. Leon is … a guarantee for … excellence. There is about all the writing of Godwin one peculiarity which we are not sure that we have ever seen pointed out for observation … an air of mature thought—of deliberate premeditation…. No English writer … with the single exception of Coleridge, has a fuller appreciation of the value of words; and none is more nicely discriminative between closely-approximating meanings.6

In a later review, Poe compares Caleb Williams with Ainsworth's Jack Sheppard (1839): "In both novels the hero escapes repeatedly from prison. In the work of Ainsworth the escapes are merely narrated. In that of Godwin they are discussed. With the latter we become at once absorbed in those details which so manifestly absorb his own soul. We read with the most breathless attention. We close the book with real regret."7

In a final example, in criticizing Charles Dickens' Barnaby Rudge (1841), Poe favors the works of Godwin and his disciple Bulwer-Lytton, calling them "the best constructors of plot in English literature."8

A passionate radical devoted to the idea of social reform in England, Godwin published in 1793 a mammoth work of political philosophy, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, which idealistically looked forward to the dissolution of government in a society founded entirely on sincerity and rational thinking. Realizing, however, that both the cost and the approach of Political Justice precluded its wide dissemination amongst a mass audience of readers, Godwin turned next to the novel as a vehicle for expressing his political views to a wider readership. The result was perhaps the most influential British novel of this period, Things As They Are, or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, published in 1794, and followed by dozens of reprints in England, America, and France in the years to follow.9

In setting out to illustrate the evils of Britain's political and class systems, Godwin developed a new sub-genre of the confessional narrative. One of the novel's most recognizable features lies in Godwin's particular manner of characterizing his first person narrator; in this case a narrator in torment, driven to tell the story of a disastrous life brought about by his own errors in judgment. The narrator, Caleb Williams, is secretary to a wealthy landowner named Falkland, an aristocrat who values his sense of personal honor above all other aspects of his life. By listening to neighborhood gossip and snooping around Falkland's possessions, Caleb gradually begins to piece together a crime in Falkland's past—the murder of a neighbor and the framing of two innocent tenant farmers for the crime. When Falkland discovers that Caleb knows his secret, he sets about ruining the young man's reputation, has him thrown into jail for alleged theft, and, when Caleb escapes, has him dogged from town to town, making sure that no one harbors Caleb or listens to his tale.

The political intention of the novel is clear in its deft illustration of the power that the aristocrat held over the reputation of those of the lower classes, merely by relying on the authority of his class status. But from a literary perspective, the deeper interest in the novel lies in Godwin's creation of Caleb as a narrator. Godwin drew heavily on his predecessors in developing his own brand of first-person narrative. Defoe's narrators, such as the titular heroes of Moll Flanders (1722), Colonel Jack (1722), and Roxana (1724) had shocked readers in the earlier eighteenth century with their frank confessions of lurid lives of crime. Godwin specifically turned to Moll Flanders and Colonel Jack in creating the voice of a character caught in the predicament of having to survive amongst the worst excesses of the British class system as a social outcast. These novels also inspired Godwin to depict the life and point of view of the criminal world from the inside. His particularly memorable depiction of the "gentleman-thief," Captain Raymond, brings home the point that nobility can exist even in those driven to crime. Moreover, the insider's point of view allowed him an opportunity to depict the brutality of contemporary British prisons and the blatant inequities of the judicial system.

Godwin also turned to Samuel Richardson in developing his first person narrator; in his epistolary format in Pamela (1740–41), Clarissa (1747–48), and Sir Charles Grandison (1753–54), Richardson achieved new levels of emotional veracity and psychological depth. Pamela's struggles with the relentless advances and irrational anger of her employer, Mr. B., provided a particular model for the troubled love/hate relationship between servant and master in the case of Caleb and Falkland.

Drawing on such influences and focused by a strong drive towards social reform, Godwin managed to create in Caleb Williams a startlingly realistic personality—a slippery narrator fully in control of his story, and yet one whose confessions and rants of terror and profound remorse evoke strong emotional responses in the reader. Pamela Clemit has pointed out that Godwin's use of first person is central to his political purpose: "the inbuilt unreliability of [the] first-person account throws the burden of interpretation and decision on the reader, soliciting his or her active participation," and thus fostering Godwin's ideal of private judgment in which each individual is obligated "to seek out objective truths in the moral and political realm."10

Godwin continued to write first person confessional novels for the rest of his career. Punctuated by periods in which he experimented with the essay, biography, history, and drama, and alongside a 25-year career as a publisher and author of children's books, Godwin published five more novels, most of which, unlike Caleb Williams, are given a particular historical setting which deeply informs the novels' political bent. The most fantastic of these in Gothic terms, St. Leon (1799), tells the story of a man who struggles with the unexpectedly unpleasant results of having been given the gifts of the elixir of life and the philosopher's stone against the back-drop of the Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century continental Europe. The narrator of Fleetwood (1805) indicates Godwin's new interest in exploring the abnormal psyche in the tale of an aberrantly egocentric man whose inability to trust his wife nearly leads him to destroy her. Delving even deeper into abnormal psychology, Mandeville (1817) explores the descent of a troubled narrator into madness in an England torn apart by Civil War. These latter two novels in which the reader must weigh more and more evidence that his narrator is actually mad may well have influenced Poe's explorations of abnormal psychology in such tales as "The Tell-tale Heart," "The Black Cat" and "William Wilson."

Clearly Poe shared with Godwin a fascination with anatomizing the mind of a character by allowing that character to tell his own tale. His work in this vein was not, however, always in the serious mode; in his "How to Write a Blackwood Article," Poe humorously satirizes the dilemma of the author who attempts to achieve Gothic suspense with the use of a first person narrator. In this tale, Psyche Zenobia's first hand account of her tragic and bizarre decapitation on the town clock makes light of a central paradox of the genre and calls attention to the basic unreliability of the narrator who tells his or her own tale.11

Arthur Gordon Pym calls up the tradition of the Godwinian novel at nearly every turn—beginning with its very title. Critics have noted the similarity between the name of the narrator, "Arthur Gordon Pym" and the author, "Edgar Allan Poe." Similarly, "Caleb Williams" as a name raises questions concerning the relationship between narrator and author: "Williams" of course recalling Godwin's own first name, and "Caleb" alluding to a spy who worked for Moses in the Old Testament—thus Caleb can be interpreted as "William's spy."12 Pym's opening words likewise recall the Godwinian tradition; Godwin's narrators inevitably open their tales by discussing their upbringing and education, usually in order to reveal aspects of their early life and early personal qualities that ultimately led to disaster. This convention has a twofold purpose; in addition to providing important background information for the reader to factor into his or her judgment of the narrator's actions as they unfold, beginning the character's story in such a way can also be seen as a bid for veracity, contributing to a distancing of the narrator from the author of the work.

Poe takes such a bid a step farther in actually having his narrator refer to Poe himself as editor in the Preface, and in closing the novel with the final "Note," presumably by the editor, Poe. Pym's expression of anxiety about his ability to write a viable novel, and about the credibility of his adventures are clearly a further attempt to fool the audience into thinking him to be real. In going to such lengths to establish the veracity of his narrator's existence, Poe seems to have followed the example of another gothic novelist who drew much from Godwin, Scottish author James Hogg. In his 1824 Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Hogg similarly took pains to distance himself from the text by having his narrator refer to "James Hogg" as an editor of the text; indeed "James Hogg" even appears as a character in the narrative towards the end of the tale. Hogg even went so far as to publish a letter in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine announcing particular discoveries relating to the events of the novel prior to the novel's publication, later incorporating this letter into the fabric of his novel as well.

Very much in the spirit of Godwin's narrators, Pym immediately displays a tendency towards what Godwin called "precipitation," or acting hastily and rashly, and without regard for possible consequences. Oddly, Pym's response to his near-death experience in the Ariel at the beginning of Chapter 1, and the sensational tales of mutiny, shipwreck, and cannibalism that he hears from his friend Augustus, lead him only to long the more to go to sea. One may think of Robert Walton, the narrator of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), the most famous of the products of the "Godwinian school," who as an ambitious sea captain experiences only a renewed passion for adventure from reading such sea tales as Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner—the kind of sea tale that would make most readers hope never to set foot on a deck.

In addition to a tendency towards precipitative behavior, Godwinian narrators generally have a healthy regard for their own attributes, despite the remorse they unanimously express for their many past sins. Pym's self-assurance, particularly as he expresses it while attempting to survive on the wreck of the Grampus—"I suffered less than any of us, being much less reduced in frame, and retaining my powers of mind in a surprising degree, while the rest were completely prostrated in intellect, and seemed to be brought to a species of second childhood"13—bears a striking similarity to confident statements made by Godwinian narrators, who often confess to finding themselves physically attractive. Upon drinking his elixir of life and recapturing his youth, for example, Reginald St. Leon remarks, "I knew not how to take away my eyes from the mirror before me."14 Similarly, Casimir Fleetwood, when relating his marriage to a much younger woman, avows, "My person was pleasing, and my demeanour graceful; circumstances which had acquired me in Paris the appellation of the handsome Englishman."15

As a common convention of Gothic fiction, imprisonment, or the fear of imprisonment in running from the law, plays an important role in many of Godwin's novels. Pym's period of imprisonment as a stowaway in the hold of the Grampus and Poe's exploration of the psychological effects of being deprived of light, fresh air, clean water, and adequate nourishment strongly parallels Caleb Williams' vividly depicted incarceration in jail as well as St. Leon's 12-year imprisonment by the Spanish Inquisition. One of Godwin's chief purposes in his political novels was to expose the indecencies of the prison system in contemporary Britain. Carefully researching the state of the prisons of the day, Godwin adds footnotes to the text of Caleb Williams during the episode of Caleb's incarceration in order to make it clear that his details relating to the state of prison cells and buildings and to the care of inmates are entirely factual. In Poe's novel, Pym's period of confinement seems also to function on a deeper level, and one much more psychological in nature—representing perhaps a gestational period, or Pym's passing through a period of death in the coffin-like box to a symbolic rebirth.

Pym's dog "Tiger" plays an interesting role in this episode. Having been twice rescued from death by Tiger in the past, Pym is delighted to find that Augustus has secreted the dog on board. Poe, however, puts a chilling twist on the love between man and beast when the measure of Pym's desperation in the hold can be assessed by Tiger's turning feral from want of food and water. Interestingly, Godwin, too, portrays the intense loyalty dogs to his narrators in at least two novels; in Fleetwood, the narrator's faithful pet follows him all the way from Wales to Oxford when the narrator enrolls in the university. In St. Leon, a dog described much like Pym's "Tiger" suffers for his great love for the narrator. Like Tiger, who in the mutiny of the Grampus saves his master yet again by killing a mutineer, St. Leon's dog performs similar feats of heroism, at one point pulling a drowning boy from a river. In each of these texts, a far-fetched episode demonstrating the pure love of a dog for his master seems to be a useful tool for intensifying the emotional experience of the novel and for making the narrator a more sympathetic personality.

The plot devices of imprisonment and escape allowed Godwin reliable means by which to develop high suspense in his novels. Arthur Gordon Pym is so loaded with suspense and adventure as to seem almost a parody of the Gothic genre. One way in which Godwin characteristically intensifies suspense is by creating situations in which a character's worst fear is realized immediately upon his expressing it. In putting together his theory concerning Falkland's past crime, Caleb repeatedly commits actions while hoping Falkland will not see or hear him. Inevitably, Falkland appears immediately, as if summoned supernaturally to the scene by Caleb's very anxiety. Poe seems almost to be making fun of this kind of heavy-handed device when, despite Augustus's careful plans to disguise Pym and to spirit him onto the Grampus after dark, Pym finds himself nevertheless face to face with his grandfather, the person he least wishes to meet. Pym proceeds to befuddle the poor old man in a humorous deflation of the suspense of the episode.

The element of disguise in this episode likewise parallels a common Godwinian situation. Caleb Williams often experiments with aspects of disguise in his desperate attempts to flee his relentless pursuers. At one point he rubs ash on his face and dresses in the rags of the poor in order to pass as a Jew in metropolitan London; at another point he quickly lays on an Irish brogue to confuse his captors when he is apprehended trying to escape the country. St. Leon similarly affects an array of disguises to elude pursuers throughout his narrative; ultimately his attainment of the elixir of life, which restores him permanently to a state of youth 32 years younger, proves to be the ultimate, fool-proof disguise. The issue of disguise in Godwin is, obviously, closely tied to the narrator's exploration of his own identity and his assertion of self through his narrative. Of course, the situation also allows for rich theoretical readings when one steps back from the narrative and considers the role of the writer in playing with his own sense of self and his role as author in creating a startlingly realistic first-person narrator. David Ketterer, for one, has discussed deception as a theme and a technique in this novel, focusing on the ways in which Pym continually challenges the reliability of our perceptions of reality.16

Certainly the richest episode of disguise in Pym is that in which Pym disguises himself to impersonate the dead body of his shipmate Hartmann Rogers, to terrify the mutineers and to help his friends stage a counter take-over. Pym's detailed description of the corpse and his various attempts to approximate its horrible aspect in his own appearance take the Godwinian narrator's exploration of self to a new and much darker level of confrontation with death and physical corruption. The disarming nature of this passage brings to mind similarly bizarre episodes in which Godwin experiments with this tactic particularly as a means of exploring aspects of the aberrant personality. The best examples are found in Fleetwood. As a young student in school, the narrator Fleetwood participates in a complex scheme by which he and his friends aim to humiliate one of their over-achieving colleagues by creating a life-size puppet to impersonate a schoolmaster. The visually impaired over-achiever is perfectly fooled by the puppet, and the violent harangues of this pseudo-schoolmaster actually drive the boy to suicide in a prank gone horribly wrong. Later in the novel, Fleetwood deals with his rage at the presumed infidelity of his wife by dressing up two wax dummies in their clothing, using the dummies to act out a mock wedding feast, and then tearing the dummies to shreds in a terrifyingly psychotic fit of rage. It is interesting to note that as in Pym, what the author is exploring here is the power of outward appearance as the signifier of identity and ultimately as a means of attacking and even destroying others. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley would explore this idea even further in demonstrating that when appearance is blindly accepted as a valid signifier of character, great violence can be the result.

One of the most intriguing elements of Poe's novel is the relationship between Pym and his friend Augustus, his companion throughout the first half of the novel. The references to the closeness of these young men's relationship, the fact of their sharing a bed and "lying close," strongly prefigure the relationship between Melville's Ishmael and Queequeg of Moby-Dick (1851). While scholars have noted that Augustus' age and the date of his death tie him closely to the figure of Poe's brother Henry,17 the reader may also sense a subtle homoeroticism implicit in the attachment between these two characters. Judith Sutherland has identified aspects of the doppelgänger in their relationship, an old folk motif that offers a complex symbolic means of exploring identity and otherness, two aspects of the same personality, or the dangerously potent attraction and hatred between two characters who mirror each other in powerful ways; Poe's "William Wilson" is certainly one of the finest examples of the use of this motif in modern literature.18 Clearly Poe is doing much more with Augustus than offering a portrait of his dead brother, as the two characters balance each other in intriguing ways. A drunken Augustus nearly leads a sober Pym to his death in the novel's first episode; later Augustus' life amongst the crew of the Grampus neatly balances Pym's pseudo-death in the ship's hold; this balance of active and passive "doubles" may remind the reader of the similar situation in which Victor Frankenstein falls into a nine-month state of near-delirium and confinement in bed while his newly created creature makes his first foray into the world.

But Poe, interestingly, strikes off from the doppelgänger aspects of Pym's relationship with Augustus nearly as soon as he develops it. Pym's reemergence from the ship's hold in the imperson-ation of a corpse, unsettles the balance of the doubles and knocks Augustus from his status as a major player in the novel. Augustus loses his place as Pym's older brother figure and caretaker and gradually becomes more and more ill, until he dies at the novel's exact center. His near immediate decomposition and the falling apart of his body when the others throw it into the sea to be devoured by the circling sharks, symbolize his decomposition as a key player.19 Perhaps the oddest aspect of this scene is Pym's relatively rational response to Augustus' grisly end.

Pym's psychological movement away from his fraternal attachment to and his idolization of Augustus in the novel's earliest chapters charts an important aspect of his growth as a character. By the time of Augustus' death, he has been utterly superseded by the figure of the half-breed Dirk Peters, whose initially appalling physical qualities are gradually mollified in the reader's memory, as his behavior makes him seem more and more to be the most rational and capable actor in the tale. Interestingly, this process of mollification begins for the reader in Peters' humane treatment of Augustus during and after the mutiny on the Grampus; Peters' odd affection for Augustus is acknowledged by his grumbling fellow mutineers. How does one of the most dangerous, frightening, and unattractive characters in the novel become central both to the narrative and to the narrator's own life and mind? Again one might think of Melville's Ishmael and Queequeg. Perhaps the answer lies in such a character's ability to challenge the narrator's preconceptions about otherness and difference.

Godwin's use of subtle elements of homoeroticism is an aspect of many of his novels. Caleb Williams' intense love-hate relationship with his patron and tormenter Falkland and the ways in which these characters "double" each other have been fruitfully explored in this light.20 His psychotic narrators, Fleetwood and Mandeville, each develop an intense hatred for a perceived rival that from a psychoanalytic perspective can only be interpreted as having a sexual basis; each frequently comments on the beauty and attractiveness of his particular nemesis. Both of these situations perfectly illustrate Eve Sedgwick's theory of homosocial desire, in which intense desire between men is channeled into hateful competition; one of the texts with which Sedgwick most persuasively illustrates this aspect of desire is Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.21 Godwin's Cloudesley (1830) is perhaps his most thorough treatment of the power of attraction between men and the inherent dangers therein. In this novel the young hero, Julian, continually expresses a desire for an intense male bond—first directed towards his friend Francesco Perfetti, and later towards the infinitely charming bandit known as St. Elmo—friendships described as having the mix of fraternal love and hero-worship characterized by Pym's early relationship with Augustus.

Another figure in Cloudesley that offers a strong parallel to Dirk Peters is Julian's dark and brooding guardian Borromeo, whose misanthropy is ultimately recuperated by the example of the noble Julian. Borromeo is actually a recasting of an earlier misanthrope, Bethlem Gabor, one of the most memorable figures in St. Leon, whose response to the violent loss of his family drives him to imprison and torment St. Leon because of St. Leon's attempts to contribute to the benefit of his fellow man.22 In both of these cases, a wrathful, dangerous, and physically intimidating character is gradually softened by his contact with the hero of the novel; the evolution of Peters as a character clearly follows the same trajectory. It is important to note the clear relationship of these brooding characters to the Byronic hero, Byron himself having been deeply influenced by Godwin's work.23

Reading Arthur Gordon Pym as a product of the Godwin school places several of the novel's characteristics into sharp focus. Its near-parody of Gothic conventions and relentless suspense not only reveals Poe at his best as a master of this genre, but shows him working out aspects of these conventions that would turn up again and again throughout the body of his later work. More importantly, Poe is undeniably successful here in developing the veracity of a peculiar and challenging first-person narrator, and in exploring that narrator's psyche with incredible complexity in Pym's descriptions of his adventures, in symbolic episodes of death and rebirth, and in his relationships with other characters. In Arthur Gordon Pym, Poe seems to have set himself the goal of employing every convention he could glean from both Gothic fiction and the popular genre of the sea narrative—often abruptly moving away from one and on to another as soon as he has developed it. The sheer number of terrifying incidents and suspenseful episodes packed into this short work indeed suggest not merely an attempt to meet the conventions of any particular genre, but rather an effort to surpass them all.

As Burton Pollin aptly points out, Poe seems to have had little interest in the strain of social criticism running throughout Godwin's fiction, choosing instead to imitate Godwin's development of atmosphere, his unpredictable but carefully modulated plots, and his intensely realistic depictions of peculiar, often aberrant personalities.24 Despite this major difference between Godwin's and Poe's approach, a close reading of Arthur Gordon Pym alongside Godwin's novels makes quite clear the particular aspects of Godwin's style and approach that Poe valued so highly. On the basis of Arthur Gordon Pym alone, Poe must be regarded as a major figure in the "school of Godwin," which managed by the midnineteenth century to take the first-person narrative to a startlingly new level of emotional intensity and psychological realism.


1. See, for example, Burton R. Pollin, ed. The Imaginary Voyages: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall, The Journal of Julius Rodman, vol. 1 of Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (Boston: Twayne, 1981; rpt. NY: Gordian P., 1994), and Pollin's "Poe's Life Reflected through the Sources of Pym," Poe's Pym: Critical Explorations, ed. Richard Kopley (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1992), 95-103. See also Richard Kopley's edition of the novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (NY: Penguin, 1999), and Ronald C. Harvey's discussion of studies of Poe's sources in The Critical History of Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym: "A Dialogue with Unreason" (NY: Garland, 1998), 110-12.

2. Bruce Weiner, "Novels, Tales, and Problems of Form in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym," in Kopley, Critical Explorations, 49-50. See also Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (NY: Stein and Day, 1960; rpt. NY: Dell, 1966), 392-400.

3. Burton Pollin, "Poe and Daniel Defoe: A Significant Relationship." Topic 16 (1976): 3-23.

4. For a discussion of Brockden Brown and Mary Shelley as disciples of Godwin, see Pamela Clemit, The Godwinian Novel: The Rational Fictions of Godwin, Brockden Brown, Mary Shelley (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993).

5. Burton Pollin, "Poe and Godwin," Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19 (1965): 237-53; rpt. in Discoveries in Poe (Notre Dame: U. of Notre Dame P., 1970), 107-27. The majority of these references can be found in Pollin, Godwin Criticism: A Synoptic Bibliography (Toronto: U. of Toronto P., 1967), 554. See also Pollin's "Primitivism in Imogen," Bulletin of the New York Public Library 67 (1963): 186-90, for a discussion of analogies between Godwin's early novel Imogen (1784) and "The Fall of the House of Usher."

6. Southern Literary Messenger VIII (December 1835): 92-4; cited in Pollin, "Poe and Godwin," 240-1.

7. "Review of Guy Fawkes: or the Gunpowder Treason. An Historical Romance," Graham's Magazine X (November 1841): 214-22; cited in Pollin, "Poe and Godwin," 243.

8. "Chapter of Suggestions," Opal XIV (1845): 188-9; rpt. in Burton R. Pollin, ed., Collected Writings of Poe: The Brevities: Pinakidia, Marginalia, Fifty Suggestions, and Other Works, vol. II (NY: Gordian, 1985), 468-70; cited in Pollin, "Poe and Godwin," 250.

9. Godwin himself made revisions to the novel for new editions in 1796, 1797, 1816, and 1831.

10. Clemit, 6.

11. See Jonathan Auerbach's discussion of this tale as a satiric comment on the act of narration in The Romance of Failure: First-Person Fictions of Poe, Hawthorne, and James (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989), 3-8.

12. Burton R. Pollin, "The Significance of Names in the Fiction of William Godwin." Revue des Langues Vivantes 37 (1971): 391.

13. Pollin, ed., Collected Writings, I:130.

14. William Godwin, St. Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century, ed. Pamela Clemit, Collected Novels and Memoirs of William Godwin, vol. IV (London: Pickering and Chatto, 1992), IV:283.

15. William Godwin, Fleetwood, or, The New Man of Feeling, ed. Pamela Clemit, Collected Novels and Memoirs of William Godwin, vol. V (London: Pickering and Chatto, 1992), 189.

16. David Ketterer, The Rationale of Deception in Poe (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1979), as discussed by Harvey, Critical History, 116.

17. See Marie Bonaparte, The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation. Trans. John Rodker. (London: Imago, 1949; rpt. NY: Humanities P., 1971), and Kopley, Arthur Gordon Pym, 224, n. 5., and 231, n. 3.

18. Judith Sutherland, The Problematic Fictions of Poe, James, and Hawthorne. (Columbia: U. of Missouri P., 1984), 33.

19. See J. Gerald Kennedy's thorough discussion of this aspect of the novel in "Pym Pourri: Decomposing the Textual Body," in Kopley, Critical Explorations, 169-71.

20. See Robert J. Corber, "Representing the 'Unspeakable': William Godwin and the Politics of Homophobia," Journal of the History of Sexuality 1 (1990): 85-101; and Alex Gold, Jr., "It's Only Love: The Politics of Passion in Godwin's Caleb Williams," Texas Studies in Language and Literature 19 (1977): 135-60.

21. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "Murder Incorporated: Confessions of a Justified Sinner," in Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (NY: Columbia UP, 1985), 97-117.

22. For a thorough analysis of Godwin's Bethlem Gabor, see Gary Kelly, "History and Fiction: Bethlem Gabor in Godwin's St. Leon," ELN 14 (1976): 117-20.

23. For Godwin's influence on Byron, see William St. Clair, The Godwins and the Shelleys: A Biography of a Family (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989), 339-40.

24. Pollin, "Poe and Godwin," 253.

"The Fall of the House of Usher"


SOURCE: Dougherty, Stephen. "Foucault in the House of Usher: Some Historical Permutations in Poe's Gothic." Papers on Language and Literature 37, no. 1 (winter 2001): 3-24.

In the following essay, Dougherty examines the gothicism of "The Fall of the House of Usher" within the context of the racism and fear of miscegenation in nineteenth-century society.

"[I]n the nineteenth century," writes Reginald Horsman, "the Americans were to share in the discovery that the secret of Saxon success lay not in the institutions but in the blood" (24). This "discovery" was of monumental and devastating importance, and by the middle of the century the sign of blood seemed to be everywhere. Americans and Europeans were entering a new era of blood—of blood spilled as never before in genocides around the globe, of blood seeping inexorably into the sacred and profane imagination of race and the nation, and of blood horrors turned into a staple of mass entertainment.

This era of blood was the era of the bourgeoisie's entrenchment. In Juice of Life Piero Camporesi tells us, "At least up until the eighteenth century, blood was still dubbed the 'father of all the humors.' Life and salvation were closely tied up with its quality and purity" (14). Camporesi implicitly suggests a diminished rather than an augmented concern with blood in the modern world. But, if anything, this concern was heightened by its modified signification in the nineteenth century. After the collapse of the traditional theory of humors with the rise of scientific medicine in the eighteenth century, blood lost some of its old associations, but it gained some important new ones. Blood came to represent not the character of the individual, but the purity of the race or nation. The idea of purity—or impurity—of blood became the vessel of many bourgeois fears about confrontation with indigenous and colonized peoples, national identity, historical destiny, and the dream of progress. The race or nation whose mission—and manifest destiny—was to lead humanity into a better world could hardly dilute the very essence of its identity by "mixing" its blood. The most cherished precept of this era could be summed up in the words that John C. Calhoun spoke on the U. S. Senate floor in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War: "… Ours is a government of the white man…. [I]n the whole history of man … there is no instance whatever of any civilized colored race, of any shade, being found equal …" (my emphasis; qtd. in Fredrickson 136).

Though the proud boast was meant to naturalize white colonialism and imperialism, which were already well into one of their most expansive phases in U. S. history, Calhoun's words belie a profound insecurity regarding the popular imagination of the white American destiny. The great fear was miscegenation, a mixing of bloodlines which, as historians and ethnologists of the era were becoming convinced, was the central factor in the decline of great civilizations. "Whenever in the history of the world the inferior races have been conquered and mixed in with the Caucasian," Josiah Nott appealed to fellow Americans, and to southern compatriots especially, "the latter have sunk into barbarism" (qtd. in Horsman 130). This fear was most routinely projected onto the Other who constituted the enemy internal to the body politic—the African. In 1839, the same year that "The Fall of the House of Usher" was published in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, the revered New England theologian Horace Bushnell predicted that if the slaves were ever freed they would die off by the end of the century. As George Frederickson emphasizes in his valuable reading of the period in The Black Image in the White Mind, Bushnell's prediction represented an early transposition onto the slaves of the brutally callous view that had already made Native American genocide seem acceptable and natural to the whites: "'vices which taint the blood and cut down life' might well 'penetrate the whole stock, and begin to hurry them off, in a process of premature extinction; as we know to be the case with another barbarous people, [the Indians] now fast yielding to the infection of death'" (qtd. in Fredrickson 155). Bushnell imagined this extinction to be a "glorious" possibility for the white man; and indeed Frederickson refers to this vision of black annihilation as Bushnell's "happy theme" (155). But if this theme is a positive one, then Bushnell's happiness was inextricably bound up with an equally potent fear of his own race's extinction, precipitated by a dystopic future of miscegenation in the North—the inevitable result of emancipation.

The fear of miscegenation, or tainted blood, belied deeper fears of disease and death. Insisting that degeneracy sets in when a nation does not secure its "leading ethnical principal," ethnologist J. Aitken Meigs urged that Americans "provide intelligently for the amelioration of that disease … whose deadly influences threaten, sooner or later, like the Lianes of a tropical forest, to suffocate the national tree over which they are silently spreading" (qtd. in Fredrickson 133). In this associative strategy that links together the tropical—embodied in the African—with disease that threatens the life-blood of the nation, the fear of miscegenation is exposed as the dread of a historical destiny gone awry. But even more importantly, it is exposed as the dread of destiny itself—of the inevitable decline and fall of civilizations, and, more viscerally, of the individual death that awaits us all. Whites read in the visage of blacks a figuration of their own mortality. It was not only the fear of death, a white rhetoric of denial, which was likewise an implicit claim to immortality, that they projected onto the Other, however; it was also death itself: "It is a shame that you shall die, that your race shall be exterminated." In Horace Bushnell's curiously telling expression, blacks, like Native Americans, were infected with death. They were the carriers of death whose continued presence within the legitimate white population endangered the bodily integrity and the sacred life-force of the nation. In their own threatened blood, the whites perceived the liquid medium by which they too could become infected with death and cheated of the great destiny promised them in the providential rhetoric of U.S. nationhood.

It is within the matrix of this collective racial/biological nightmare scenario that I will discuss "The Fall of the House of Usher," justly the most famous of all Poe's Gothic horrors. For it is only within the context of this nightmare that one can explain adequately why "Usher" occupies such a seminal place in the nineteenth-century development of the Gothic genre. "If there is one work that announces the true arrival of the Gothic tale, its convincing emergence from cruder beginnings," writes Chris Baldick, "it is … 'The Fall of the House of Usher' " (xviii). With painstaking attention to economy of expression and unity of effect, Baldick suggests, Poe managed to create a story that would become an ur-type for the Gothic up to the present day"—a remarkably crystalized pattern … for the future evolution of Gothic fiction" (xviii). Indeed, the pattern has been revisited and reworked by countless Gothic stylists since Poe. Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Washington Cable, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ambrose Bierce, H. P. Lovecraft, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Angela Carter, Joyce Carol Oates, Isabel Allende, and others would all write fictions that effectively pay homage to Poe's "Usher."


Before Poe the bulk of weird writers had worked largely in the dark; without an understanding of the psychological basis of the horror appeal, and hampered by more or less of conformity to certain empty literary conventions such as the happy ending, virtue rewarded, and in general a hollow moral didacticism, acceptance of popular standards and values, and striving of the author to obtrude his own emotions into the story and take sides with the partisans of the majority's artificial ideas. Poe, on the other hand, perceived the essential impersonality of the real artist; and knew that the function of creative fiction is merely to express and interpret events and sensations as they are, regardless of how they tend or what they prove—good or evil, attractive or repulsive, stimulating or depressing, with the author always acting as a vivid and detached chronicler rather than as a teacher, sympathizer, or vendor of opinion. He saw clearly that all phases of life and thought are equally eligible as subject matter for the artist, and being inclined by temperament to strangeness and gloom, decided to be the interpreter of those powerful feelings and frequent happenings which attend pain rather than pleasure, decay rather than growth, terror rather than tranquility, and which are fundamentally either adverse or indifferent to the tastes and traditional outward sentiments of mankind, and to the health, sanity, and normal expansive welfare of the species.

SOURCE: Lovecraft, H. P. "Edgar Allan Poe." In Supernatural Horror in Literature. 1945. Reprint edition, with a new introduction by E. F. Bleiler, pp. 52-9. New York: Dover, 1973.

Ultimately, however, as Baldick explains, the importance of "Usher" in the history of Gothic has as much to do with its new, or newly amplified, theme as with its technical innovations:

[Poe's] new formula involved not only the stripping down of a cumbersome conventional machinery to its essential elements but an accompanying clarification and highlighting of a theme long familiar to Gothic writing and to the surrounding culture of Romantic sensationalism, although hitherto left hovering in the shadows: that of the decline and extinction of the old family line. Perfectly harmonizing the terminal involution of the Usher family with the final crumbling of its mansion—of "house" as dynasty with house as habitation—Poe ensured that whereas before him the keynote of Gothic fiction had been cruelty, after him it would be decadence.


Baldick's proposal of a gothic trajectory that moves from cruelty to decadence may be schematic—certainly Gothic literature exhibited a mixture of cruelty and decadence from its inception—but it is also provocative. What I am interested in is its resonance with Foucault's model for the transformation of the way in which sovereign power has been wielded since the classical age. With this resonance in mind we may follow Baldick's cue and map the Gothic's generic development onto a broader historical tableau in the following manner. The Gothic of cruelty, the Gothic of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century tales, with titles such as "The Vindictive Monk," "The Maniac's Fate," "The Poisoner of Montremos," and "The Parricide Punished," belong to a residually feudal European world where, as Foucault writes, "[t]he sovereign exercised his right of life only by exercising his right to kill, or by refraining from killing" (History 36). This was a Gothic that reflected a mode of power "exercised mainly as a means of deduction … a subtraction mechanism, a right to appropriate a portion of the wealth … goods and services, labor and blood, levied on the subjects. Power in this instance was essentially a right of seizure: of things, time, bodies, and ultimately life itself" (136). The Gothic of cruelty is obsessed with filiation and patrimonial inheritance, and it is inhabited by powerful, easily enraged, lascivious aristocrats whose perverted desires bring them into mortal conflict with men and women of lesser class origins. In its representation of perverts in power and fair maidens in distress, the Gothic of cruelty is motivated by a potent and revolutionary image of the end of aristocracy and the termination of a whole class structure (brought down by an excess of sexual desire). Of course, this class structure was already in its death throes, or in a state of rigor mortis, even as these texts were being written.

If the Gothic of decadence represents a departure, or a mutation, as Baldick suggests, it is because it belongs to a modern, democratic world where the mechanisms of power are no longer exercised upon the social body from the outside, but are instead internal to it. This is a Gothic that reflects and reproduces the fears of a newly hegemonic bourgeoisie—fears that are no longer about dying at the hands of omnipotent perverts, but about the conditions of life and living, and how these things may become perverted and degenerated through the improper valorization of the body and through the botched management of the body's forces and pleasures. The Gothic that Baldick claims Poe more or less inaugurates is, in other words, a Gothic that focuses on what Foucault calls "the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes …" (139). What Poe can help us to establish is that which is simultaneously gestured towards and occluded in the crucial final chapters of Foucault's History of Sexuality: the component part of this species body is the individual bourgeois body as it is in the process of becoming "whitened" in the first half of the nineteenth century.

It is a great deal to lay at his doorstep, but there is something compelling about interpreting Poe as the first "New World" gothicist—that is, the first writer to give the Gothic a uniquely American, as opposed to Old World, European spin, even as he put the terms of this Americanness in brackets so as to question its legitimacy. But I also mean something both more sweeping and less generic than what this claim usually implies. For Poe might well be the first full-fledged gothicist of the modern political world: the world of democratic nation-states in the ascendant, of nationalist ideological systems in the process of consolidation, and of national peoples becoming population groups. Such an interpretation further situates Poe as the seminal gothicist of this new life-form of which the nation-state is merely the comprehensive political expression: the population group or species body whose organic well-being is regulated by discursive strategies that separate out what properly belongs to the social body and what pathologically threatens its purity, order, and smooth functioning.

The House of Usher

As I will argue, "Usher" is a horror story about the racialized conditions of production of the new species body. Yet what one notices foremost about "Usher" is the emphasis on class and aristocracy. At the beginning of the tale, class affiliation is the primary means of marking division and establishing identity, and the story's focus is on filiation and estate patrimony—the conservation of power and wealth. The narrator's introductory observations invoke a class-bound notion of both family and "race":

I had learned … the very remarkable fact, that the stem of the Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch; in other words, that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain. It was this deficiency, I considered, while running over in thought the perfect keeping of the character of the premises with the accredited character of the people, and while speculating upon the possible influence which the one, in the long lapse of centuries, might have exercised upon the other—it was this deficiency, perhaps, of collateral issue, and the consequent undeviating transmission, from sire to son, of the patrimony with the name, which had, at length, so identified the two as to merge the original title of the estate in the quaint and equivocal appellation of the 'House of Usher' ….


Here, the isolate "Usher race" is merely another name for the ancient and inbred family lineage, defined and delimited by the estate with which it has become so intimately identified. What is transmitted undeviatingly is the patrimony. In this context, the Ushers' "deficiency" is linked to a shortage of new wealth; and their lack of "collateral issue" suggests their failure to enhance the family's fortunes by securing alliances with other aristocratic families.

But as the tale progresses, it becomes clear that the Ushers are deficient in other ways, too. Roderick's sister, Madeline Usher, suffers from a disease that "had long baffled the skill of her physicians. A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character, were the unusual diagnosis" (404). Roderick Usher, too, suffers from a debilitating illness that manifests itself most clearly in a hyper-responsiveness to external stimuli: "… the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could only wear garments of certain texture; the odors of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror" (403). It is telling that Usher refers to his disease—a neurasthenia widely construed in the Victorian era as the sign of an advanced biological and intellectual development1—as the "family evil." For it suggests that the patrimony at issue in "Usher" is really disease itself, and that the deficiency in question is above all a matter of the "bloodline."

Later in the story, Usher will frame an incipient theory of hereditary influence based on his nightmarish obsession with the family evil:

The belief, however, was connected … with the gray stones of the home of his forefathers. Its evidence … [was] in the gradual yet certain condensation of an atmosphere of their own about the waters and the walls. The result was discoverable, he added, in that silent, yet importunate and terrible influence which for centuries had moulded the destinies of his family, and which made him what I now saw him—what he was.


The revelation of Usher's superstition signals an intensified emphasis on the eerie vitality of the house and on its status as an objective correlative for the family history. But this revelation also signals an historical shift in what the family history is a record of. It goes from being a record of transmitted patrimony—the house as estate passed on from sire to son—to being a record of transmitted genetic information. In the passage above, in other words, the house emerges as the very embodiment of Roderick Usher's biological destiny. Extrapolating from "Usher" to the cultural history of the nineteenth century, we can read in this shift the translation of an essentially aristocratic concern with genealogy and inheritance into the bourgeois obsession with biological integrity and the dangers of heredity. Whereas the old nobility prided itself on its "blue blood," the bourgeoisie did something similar but in diametrically opposite terms. Foucault provocatively suggests that bourgeois families "wore and concealed a sort of reversed and somber escutcheon whose defamatory quarters were the diseases or defects of the group of relatives …" (History 124-25). In other words, the bourgeoisie terrorized itself with the spectres of its psycho-sexual perversions, nervous afflictions, shameful cretinism and senile dementia, as well as with imaginings of racial degeneration and the contamination of its blood.

Why would the bourgeoisie choose to terrorize itself in this manner? Given the psychical cost, the expected ends had to be either extremely important or entirely unconscious. As Jacques Donzelot has argued, the proliferation of these anxieties helped to constitute no less than the bourgeois family unit itself by affecting "a tactical constriction of its members" over and against an imagined external threat (45). The racialization of culture in the nineteenth century empowered the bourgeoisie by providing its members with a racial Other against which to constitute their own social identity. At the same time, however, it led to what Daniel Pick incisively describes as a "profound [sense of] political confusion and historical disorientation" (237). In Faces of Degeneration, Pick explores the development of degeneracy theory and its intertwining with historical narratives of the nineteenth century. Objecting to the rigidity and the reductiveness built into many contemporary social histories of degeneracy theory, Pick argues that "[t]he discourse of degeneration … was never simply 'instrumental'; it articulated fears beyond the merely strategic, fears of inundation, the subject overwhelmed at every level of mind and body by internal disorder and external attack" (44). The medical-scientific discourse inaugurated by Benedict Morel gave the world the degenerate, "a given individual whose physiognomic contours could be traced out and distinguished from the healthy" (Pick, 9). But the real danger of degeneracy had more to do with that which could not be seen, because its symptoms were yet illegible. As Pick observes, "degeneration also connoted invisibility and ubiquity—thus suggesting the inadequacy of traditional phrenology and physiognomy; it was a process which could usurp all boundaries of discernible identity, threatening the very overthrow of civilisation and progress" (9).

Poe registers this sense of historical disorientation and the fear of inundation in the apocalyptic finale of "Usher." He also registers it by subverting the purity of being associated with whiteness in what we might call the affirmative racist imagination. As it is for Melville in Moby Dick, whiteness in "Usher" is an ambivalent marker. It connotes civilization as well as its threatened destruction. Usher's finely sculpted features indicate his superior white European ancestry. But his whiteness is tainted with illness and with death. His pigmentation is described as "[a] cadaverousness of complexion" and as having a "ghastly pallor" (401). His purity of race, in other words, belies a condition of decrepitude, leaving the narrator "at once struck with an incoherence—an inconsistency" in the whole manner and bearing of his boyhood friend (402). The physical features of Usher's ancestral House bear the mark of an analogous inconsistency:

Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled webwork from the eaves. Yet all this was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation. No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones.


What is at stake in this peculiar attention to the discrepancy between integral and disintegrative forces bears on the discrepancy the heart of degeneracy theory between appearance and "inner constitution," between what appears to be healthy and vigorous and what is in fact, or is feared to be, blighted with disease and ultimately doomed.

In his Essay on the Inequality of the Races (1853–55), the "father" of modern racism, the Frenchman Count Arthur de Gobineau, writes, "The word degenerate, when applied to a people, means … that this people has no longer the same intrinsic value as it had before, because it has no longer the same blood in its veins, continual adulterations having gradually affected the quality of the blood" (qtd. in Biddis 114). Although Gobineau was the greatest nineteenth-century popularizer of racial degeneracy theory, he was not its first proponent; nor was he the first to situate it in the context of an elaborate vision of human history. For as we have already seen, many antebellum Americans were convinced—before Gobineau—that the true health of a people and the causes of national success and/or failure were to be found not in their system of government, but in a collective "inner constitution" that had become implicitly racialized. In a sense, then, "Usher" stands as a textbook example of the terrifying ambivalence about progress, evolution, and history that supremacist ideologies inevitably generate. Roderick Usher appears to be racially pure; he is cultured, a fabulous musician, and a painter, "the accomplished heir of all the ages," as Harry Levin suggests (161). But he is also "hopeless" and "frail" (404), and as the narrator ironically puts it, "a bounden slave" to a terror lurking in his heart for which neither he nor Usher can find a definite object.

Moon, Veins, Blood

The indefinite object of Usher's terror has been most commonly interpreted as a culturally constant death anxiety—the fear of the universal "inexorability of extinction," as Gillian Brown writes (332). But if we turn our attention towards the interpolated poem, "The Haunted Palace," we find evidence of a more culturally and historically specific source for Usher's terror. In this wild and mournful interlude to the tale, whose "under or mystic current" (406) of meaning so powerfully impresses the narrator, Usher dreams nostalgically about an ancient ruler who sits at a glorious throne. This mythical lord lives only to seek his pleasure, while a "A troop of Echoes whose sweet duty / Was but to sing … / The wit and wisdom of their king" (407) reassure him of his innate superiority and of the legitimacy of his dominion. As numerous critics have suggested,2 the poem is a microcosmic account of Usher's one great story, the decline and fall of his ancient family lineage.

Once, long ago, as Usher nostalgically recounts in his guitar-accompanied dirge, the Haunted Palace was "a fair and stately palace":

    Wanderers in that happy valley
      Through two luminous windows saw
    Spirits moving musically
      To a lute's well-tuned law,
    Round about a throne, where sitting
    In state his glory well befitting,
      The ruler of the realm was seen.

But then the ballad takes a frightful turn:

    … evil things, in robes of sorrow,
      Assailed the monarch's high estate;
    (Ah, let us mourn, for never morrow,
      Shall dawn upon him, desolate!)
    And, round about his home, the glory
      That blushed and bloomed
    Is but a dim-remembered story
      Of the old time entombed.

Harry Levin's claim that "Usher" ought to be situated in a regional context offers us a useful point of departure for interpreting these lines. According to Levin, Poe's tale is a nightmarish prophecy of the cultural and political defeat of American slave society, as well as a prefiguration of its literary aftermath: "Much that seems forced in William Faulkner's work becomes second nature when we think of him as Poe's inheritor," Levin writes, thinking of "Caddy and Quentin, those two doomed siblings of the house of Compson, or of Emily Grierson, that old maid who clings to the corpse of her lover" (161). The narrator's reference to Usher as "the master" (400) gives a certain legitimacy to Levin's claim. So, too, does Usher's fantastic account of the family fall in "The Haunted Palace." For if we interpret "Usher" (pace Levin) as a white colonial nightmare about the impending destruction of the southern slavocracy, then what transpires in "The Haunted Palace" begins to sound like a slave uprising. Certainly the experience of violent slave rebellion was fresh in the minds of Virginians like Poe, and southerners more broadly, throughout the 1830s.3

More significant, however, is the way in which "The Haunted Palace" transforms its nightmare articulation of endangerment. So far, in its overwrought imagery of lordship and rebellion, the poem seems to evoke mainly political insurrection; and in its invocation of class antagonism we may justly trace the contours of a distinctively southern paranoia in Usher's. Initially, then, the poem specifically figures the southern slaveowner's fear of an external assault upon property by an oppressed class—those dressed in "robes of sorrow" who finally rise up in rebellion against their lord and master. It is, after all, the monarch's estate that is assailed in "The Haunted Palace," and thus his sense of lordliness in ownership that is debased.

The social and political threat is profoundly transformed in the poem's final stanza, however, when the racist and more broadly nationalist content of Usher's paranoia makes a startling reappearance:

    And travellers now within that valley,
      Through the red-litten windows, see
    Vast forms that move fantastically
      To a discordant melody;
    While, like a rapid ghastly river,
      Through the pale door,
    A hideous throng rush out forever,
      And laugh—but smile no more.

What is striking about these lines is their resonance with contemporary accounts, especially among northern travellers in the South, of the grotesquery of Negro song and dance. One might compare them to the description of Topsy's performance in Uncle Tom's Cabin:

The black, glassy eyes glittered with a kind of wicked drollery, and the thing struck up, in a clear and shrill voice, an odd Negro melody, to which she kept time with her hands and feet, spinning round, clapping her hands, knocking her knees together, in a wild, fantastic sort of time, and producing the native music of her race … as odd and unearthly as that of a steamwhistle.


In Stowe's novel the menace of the racial Other is safely contained (and to a certain degree, dissolved) within the context of a liberal political project and a pluralistic social ethos. But there are no such humanizing forces at work in Poe's writ-ing; and so the menace of blackness is intensified. In "The Haunted Palace" it ultimately assumes the formlessness of a fluid infection that circulates within the house of the monarch. Although the imagery recalls Stowe's, it also anticipates a story Poe would write three years after "Usher"—"The Masque of the Red Death." The "red-litten windows" look forward to the grotesquely illuminated rooms of Prince Prospero's imperial suite and to the "scarlet stains" that disfigure the doomed victims in that story (670). Likewise, the "Vast forms that move fantastically / To a discordant melody" evoke the victims of the Red Death, the dancing knights and ladies who, along with Prince Prospero, vainly "bid defiance to contagion" (671). In its anticipation of Poe's more elaborate treatment of the fear of blood contagion in "The Masque of the Red Death," this stanza effects a biologization of the perceived endangerment; it marks a qualitative shift in the terms of its representation from a matter of class struggle for property, prestige, and power to a matter of bodily integrity, and conversely, the onslaught of infection and disease.

What I am suggesting is that the collective fantasy of impending doom embodied in "The Haunted Palace," and by extension, in "Usher," is transposed from being strictly classist fantasy to being racist and nationalist fantasy. Consequently, it transcends the regional specificity that Levin attaches to it. In the new racist consciousness of the antebellum era, as we have seen, the enslaved African became an infectious agent threatening the sacred life-force of the nation; and blood served as the fluid medium for—and the bodily sign of—contamination. Interrogating fantasies of contamination in an early modern European context, Piero Camporesi writes, "It seems clear that the notion of fertility is intertwined with the sense of contamination … that the metaphors of generation and life belong to the impure fleshliness of copula, and to semen, the excrement of blood" (114). Camporesi suggests, in other words, that what is involved in the fantasy of blood contamination is a fear of ungoverned male desire and an unregulated apportionment of sperm. Such a fear ineluctably manifested itself in the nineteenth century as, on one side of the race equation, the fear of excessive, limitless reproduction of the "inferior races," and on the other side, that of the failed reproduction of the "superior race"—the extinction of a white family, the collapse of a white nation.

It is appropriate, then, that the specter of blood presides over the final scene of "Usher." Here the narrator describes his desperate escape from the ill-fated house:

… from that mansion, I fled aghast. The storm was still abroad in all its wrath as I found myself crossing the old causeway. Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued; for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely-discernible fissure, of which I have before spoken…. While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened—there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind—the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight….


Blood, in Poe's tale, is as much an avatar of death as it is an avatar of life, the (failed) transmission of the pure racial stock from one generation of Ushers to the next. With this powerfully imagistic finale, "The Fall of the House of Usher" stands revealed as what Camporesi calls an "antique lunar and bloody mytholog[y]" (37). Poe mixes "moon, veins, [and] blood" in a narrative that is about fertility and contagion, and the endangered reproduction of the white race. In this light, Usher's nightmare vision in "The Haunted Palace" is intimately connected to his dark fascination with "the old African Satyrs and Ægipans" in the pages of Pomponius Mela, over which, as the narrator tells us, his companion "would sit dreaming for hours" (409). In the guise of the satyr, the African in "Usher" is explicitly associated with biological/sexual danger. He appears, in the instructively conspicuous phrase of Frantz Fanon, as "the biological-sexual-sensual-genital-nigger" who "represents the sexual instinct (in its raw state) … the incarnation of a genital potency beyond all morality and prohibitions" (Fanon 202, 177).4 Thus the dangerously vital African satyr emerges on the border of the tale as the antinomy of the sick and exhausted Usher.

Eerie Mansion

In the background of our reading of "Usher" lies the famous (or infamous) Foucauldian shift from the classical to the modern world. If the trajectory of the reading gives the impression of an unproblematical endorsement of the notion of the shift as a clean semantic break, via the changing force of racial discourse from lineage to typology, then at this point I want to muddy the waters. Poe, I have suggested, is a gothicist whose horror is steeped in certain modern political realities of the nineteenth century, foremost of which is the rise of a biologized, statist, or nationalist, racism. By way of example, we have charted the often subtle manifestations of biologized racism in "Usher." However, we cannot say that a story like "Usher" signals anything like the consolidation of a new order where race simply supplants class. For the obvious fact is that we have had to rescue the racial element in "Usher" out of the matrix of a fantasy whose manifest obsession is classist because Usher's incipient dreams of blood contamination are embedded in a story about fallen aristocracy. Yet this is precisely why "Usher" is so instructive: it contains within it the aristocratic etymology of modern racism. Poe's Gothic in "Usher" does not signal the consolidation of a new world; rather, it traverses in its unfolding narration one of the main discursive axes upon which the temporal shift from the classical to the modern world occurs—the class-race axis. What it reveals, then, is not so much a radical change in the meaning of race from that of the nobility's to that of the bourgeoisie's, but rather, as Ann Laura Stoler writes apropos of Foucault's preoccupations at one point in his thinking on race,5 "the processes of recuperation [of racial discourse], of the distillation of earlier discursive imprints, remodeled in new forms" (68).

In emphasizing this point too forcefully, however, we can fall prey to the opposite danger: the conclusion that "The Fall of the House of Usher" is in essence merely an upper-class fantasy—an interpretation that would certainly be in keeping with the conventional notion of Poe as a writer wholly out of step with his democratic time and place. Benedict Anderson, for instance, argues that

The dreams of racism actually have their origin in ideologies of class,… above all in claims to divinity among rulers and to "blue" or "white" blood and "breeding" among aristocracies. No surprise then that the putative sire of modern racism should be, not some petty-bourgeois nationalist, but Joseph Arthur, Comte de Gobineau.


For Anderson, as for Foucault, modern racism has an aristocratic pedigree. But unlike Foucault, Anderson sees modern racism as continuous with the old race discourse of the nobility; it represents the legitimization of upper-class domination according to the new criteria of skin color. Accord-ing to Anderson, the "official nationalism" for which racism was pressed into service in the nineteenth century was an upper-class political project. Stoler observes that, for Anderson, "[t]hese two racisms become one and the same, welded by a nineteenth-century 'conception of empire'…. By his account 'late colonial empires even served to shore up domestic aristocratic bastions, since they appeared to confirm on a global, modern stage antique conceptions of power and privilege'" (Stoler 30). The problem with such a theory, like the problem with reading "Usher" as purely classist fantasy, is that it reduces racism to a mere effect of an historically prior class discourse.

Foucault argues to the contrary that nationalism and racism were inextricably related bourgeois political projects. Since we have been taking our historical bearings from Foucault all along it is only natural to assume that this hypothesis is, in fact, valid. It is, after all, the coterminous rise of the bourgeoisie and nationalist ideology that we began this essay by tracking. If for Foucault it is the lingering traces of "earlier discursive imprints" upon nineteenth-century racism that really matter, it also true in his thinking that, as Stoler notes, the "racisms of the nobility and the bourgeoisie are distinct …" (30). There is, in other words, a process of historical rescription at work by which elements in an earlier discourse resurface and take on altered meaning as they are aligned with new elements, for the purpose of legitimizing new power structures.

What, finally, is the effect of Poe's exposure of this process of rescription in "Usher"? What is achieved is the Gothic threat of a destabalized reality, the first sign of which is the narrator's sense of strangeness as he enters the grand and dilapidated House:

A servant in waiting took my horse, and I entered the Gothic archway of the hall. A valet, of stealthy step, thence conducted me, in silence, through many dark and intricate passages in my progress to the studio of his master…. While the objects around me—while the carvings of the ceilings, the sombre tapestry of the walls, the ebon blackness of the floors, and the phantasmagoric armorial trophies which rattled as I strode, were but matters to which, or such as which, I had been accustomed from my infancy—while I hesitated not to acknowledge how familiar was all this—I still wondered to find how unfamiliar were the fancies which ordinary images were stirring up.


The House is not quite as Usher's boyhood friend had remembered it. For the narrator, the strangeness is that of returning as an adult to old childhood haunts. In the context of my reading, however, this experience of the uncanny has broader resonances. It is especially telling that the "armorial trophies," the insignia of Usher's pedigree, have become "phantasmagoric." The trappings of nobility had become unmoored in the modern world from the signifying constellation in which they were formerly enmeshed, and their new strangeness in "Usher" is the consequence of their being in an acute state of flux. The old aristocratic world-system had dissolved—that is to say, the signs that constituted it remained behind—and the shape of the world that followed it would depend in part on how these signs were redeployed.

The shape of this new world greatly depended on how the meaning of race was reconstituted in the nineteenth century. If the House is indeed the embodiment of the dynasty, or the ancient "Usher race," what we witness in Poe's story is the eerie biologization of the House precisely insofar as the concept of race was biologized. The ancient edifice teems with fungi; it is overspread with "a pestilent and mystic vapor" (400); "ebon blackness" goes from being a decorative marker of wealth (as in the rich ebony flooring in the passage above) to a marker of biological danger. It is due to this process of biologization, moreover, that we may just as intimately identify the House with the last scion of the race—the morbidly diseased figure of Roderick Usher. Based on this identification, the "dark and intricate passages" of the House through which the narrator is silently conducted at the beginning of the tale assume something of the quality (especially after the "Haunted Palace" interlude) of what Foucault refers to in The Order of Things as the "profound, interior, and essential space" (231) of the human organism—and human identity—as it is bio-racially redefined in the modern era.

With its "vacant and eye-like windows" (398), the House of Usher offers a glimpse into the deep and impenetrable mystery of this newly conceived identity. But what Poe's tale underscores in its Gothicism is that the loathsome blackness Usher fears is just as much a "phantasmagoric conception" (405) as the radiant vision of whiteness he paints on canvas and which the narrator describes as being suffused with "a ghastly and inappropriate splendor" (406).

Ultimately, the paranoid delirium of modern, bourgeois identity is Poe's great subject. Of this delirium, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari remark that it

has something like two poles, racist and racial…. And between the two, ever so many subtle, uncertain shiftings where the unconscious itself oscillates between its reactionary charge and its revolutionary potential. Even Schreber finds himself to be the Great Mongol when he breaks through the Aryan segregation. Whence the ambiguity in the texts of great authors, when they develop the theme of races, as rich in ambiguity as destiny itself.


If "Usher" is one such richly ambiguous text it is because it bodies forth in such a concentrated fashion the mutation of race thinking at a pivotal point in its history. Yet it also articulates incisively how white supremacist ideology could redound upon its manipulators. Just as the psychotic Doctor Schreber finds that he is the Great Mongol in his delirium, so, too, does Usher discover a secret affinity between himself and the old African Satyr he sits dreaming about. He finds himself at the precise ideological locus that the latter reputedly occupied: biologically exhausted, infected with death.


1. See Athena Vrettos's Somatic Fictions: Imagining Illness in Victorian Culture (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995) 147-51.

2. See, for example, Daniel Hoffman's Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972), and Richard Wilbur's "The House of Poe" (Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Robert Regan. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967. 98-120).

3. One of the most detailed accounts of the history of American slave insurrections in the nineteenth century, from the "Gabriel plot" of 1800 to Nat Turner's rebellion and beyond, is in Winthrop Jordan's White Over Black: American Attitudes Towards the Negro, 1550–1812. (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1968).

4. The African in "Usher" possesses a paradoxical ontology. He is conjured as the slave dressed in robes of sorrow who rises up against his master, and as the Satyr, the black phallus over which Usher sits dreaming for hours; on the other hand, these figures fail to materialize as such. The African Satyr and the marauding slave enter the story's frame merely as traces, diseased projections of Usher's unconscious. Though the story obsessively circulates around them, we catch only fleeting, veiled glimpses of them.

The status of the African body is further complicated by its redundant and asymmetrical relation with Usher's consumptive and incestuous twin sister. Although Madeline figures sensationally in the story's closing moments as the vengeful undead, returning all bloodied from her premature entombment in the house's subterranean depths to clasp her brother in one final embrace, her place in the tale is shadowy, mysterious, and fleeting. She appears but once, as if spoken into presence by Usher at the very moment he first reveals her existence and her diseased condition to the narrator in a fit of despair, only to vanish once again:

"Her decease," he said, with a bitterness which I can never forget, "would leave him (him the hopeless and the frail) the last of the ancient race of the Ushers." While he spoke, the lady Madeline … passed slowly through a remote portion of the apartment, and, without having noticed my presence, disappeared. I regarded her with an utter astonishment not unmingled with dread—and yet found it impossible to account for such feelings. A sensation of stupor oppressed me, as my eyes followed her retreating steps … I learned that the glimpse I had obtained of her person would thus probably be the last I should obtain—that the lady, at least while living, would be seen by me no more.


Like the African, Madeline, too, signifies both excessively, and not at all. Passively consumed by disease in life, confined and controlled by her "medical men" (409), speaking no words, seen in the tableau above but not seeing, her subjectivity is acknowledged and refused all in the same moment. Only in death does she return to Usher, figuring dread as loathsome, feminine excess.

5. Stoler investigates Foucault's 1976 College de France lecture series in considerable detail in the third chapter of Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 1983.

Baldick, Chris. Introduction. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. Ed. Chris Baldick. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993. xi-xxiii.

Biddis, Michael D. Father of Racist Ideology: The Social and Political Thought of Count Gobineau. New York: Weybright and Talley, 1970.

Brown, Gillian. "The Poetics of Extinction." The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Shawn Rosenheim and Stephen Rachman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. 330-344.

Camporesi, Piero. Juice of Life: The Symbolic and Magic Significance of Blood. Trans. Robert R. Barr. New York: Continuum, 1995.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley et al. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.

Donzelot, Jacques. The Policing of Families. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.

Fanon, Franz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove, 1967.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Vol. 1. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1980. 3 vols. 1980–1986.

――――――. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage, 1973.

Fredrickson, George M. The Black Image In The White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny 1817–1914. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP, 1971.

Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981.

Levin, Harry. The Power of Blackness. New York: Knopf, 1958.

Pick, Daniel. Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c. 1848–c. 1918. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Masque of the Red Death." Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Vol. 2. Ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbot. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978. 3 vols. 1969–1978.

Stoler, Ann Laura. Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. New York: Bantam, 1981.



Dameron, J. Lasley, and Irby B. Cauthen Jr. Edgar Allan Poe: A Bibliography of Criticism, 1827–1967. A John Cook Wyllie Memorial Publication. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1974, 386 p.

Annotated guide to critical and biographical writings on Poe published prior to 1968.


Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. 1941. Reprint edition. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, 804 p.

Definitive biography of Poe, originally published in 1941.


Baudelaire, Charles. Baudelaire on Poe: Critical Papers, edited and translated by Lois Hyslop and Francis E. Hyslop, Jr. State College, Pa.: Bald Eagle Press, 1952, 175 p.

Incorporates biographical and critical studies by Baudelaire written at various times, including those in Edgar Poe: His Life and Works (1852 and 1856).

Bonaparte, Marie. The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-analytic Interpretation, translated by John Rodker. London: Imago, 1949, 749 p.

Story-by-story analysis of psychosexual symbolism and motifs in Poe's tales.

Brennan, Matthew C. "Poe's Gothic Sublimity: Prose Style, Painting, and Mental Boundaries in 'The Fall of the House of Usher.'" Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 11, nos. 3-4 (August 1990): 353-59.

Proposes that Poe used an ambiguous prose style in "The Fall of the House of Usher" to convey the psychotic condition of Roderick Usher's mind. Brennan also draws a parallel between the abstract-expressionism of Roderick's painting and actual nineteenth century art.

Brill, Robert Densmore. "Edgar Allan Poe's Prescription for a Good Night's Sleep: 'The Premature Burial.'" The Atlantic Literary Review 3, no. 1 (January-March 2002): 126-47.

Closely examines "The Premature Burial."

Budick, E. Miller. "Poe's Gothic Idea: The Cosmic Geniture of Horror." Essays in Literature 3 (1976): 73-85.

Asserts that "Gothicism in Poe is the natural human response to the implications of idealism."

Butler, David W. "Usher's Hypochondriasis: Mental Alienation and Romantic Idealism in Poe's Gothic Tales." American Literature 48, no. 1 (March 1976): 1-12.

Traces the appearance of characters with the mental disorder hypochondriasis in several of Poe's tales and discusses its suitability in a Gothic setting.

Elbert, Monika. "Poe's Gothic Mother and the Incubation of Language." Poe Studies: Dark Romanticism: History, Theory, Interpretation 26, nos. 1-2 (June-December 1993): 22-33.

Examines the effect of the death of Poe's mother on his writing.

Engel, Leonard W. "Claustrophobia, the Gothic Enclosure and Poe." Clues: A Journal of Detection 10, no. 2 (fallwinter 1989): 107-17.

Discusses Poe's use of the Gothic in stories such as "MS. Found in a Bottle" and "The Premature Burial," which depict eventual escape from enclosure.

Fisher, Benjamin F. "Poe's 'Metzengerstein': Not a Hoax." American Literature 42, no. 4 (January 1971): 487-94.

Treats the short story "Metzengerstein" as an early example of Poe's Gothic fiction.

Frank, Frederick S. "The Gothic at Absolute Zero: Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym." Extrapolation 21 (1980): 21-30.

Analyzes Poe's use of Gothic motifs in the context of a sea-story adventure.

Garrison, Joseph M., Jr. "The Function of Terror in the Work of Edgar Allan Poe." American Quarterly 18, no. 2, part 1 (summer 1966): 136-50.

Attempts to reconcile the mixture of beauty and terror in Poe's work.

Ginsberg, Lesley. "Slavery and the Gothic Horror of Poe's 'The Black Cat.'" In American Gothic: New Inventions in a National Narrative, edited and with an introduction by Robert K. Martin, pp. 99-128. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998.

Studies Poe's treatment of slavery in "The Black Cat."

Griffith, Clark. "Poe's 'Ligeia' and the English Romantics." University of Toronto Quarterly 24, no. 1 (October 1954): 8-25.

Maintains that "Ligeia" is primarily a satire of Gothic fiction.

Haggerty, George E. "Poe's Gothic Gloom." In Gothic Fiction/Gothic Form, pp. 81-106. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989: 8-25.

Focusing on "The Fall of the House of Usher," examines Poe's fascination with the mechanics of Gothic literature.

Heller, Terry. "Poe's 'Ligeia' and the Pleasures of Terror." Gothic 2, no. 2 (1980): 39-49.

Examines the means by which Poe's tale evokes horror on the part of the reader and argues that the enjoyment of such a reaction is a legitimate literary end.

Holland-Toll, Linda J. "'Ligeia': The Facts in the Case." Studies in Weird Fiction 21 (summer 1997): 2-10.

Argues against reading Poe's tale from a rational point of view in which each event corresponds to a natural explanation.

Hustis, Harriet. "'Reading Encrypted but Persistent': The Gothic of Reading and Poe's 'The Fall of the House of Usher.'" Studies in American Fiction 27, no. 1 (spring 1999): 3-20.

Provides a brief history of an ongoing debate over Poe's classification as a writer within American and French traditions, and notes that "Poe's 'The Fall of the House of Usher' calls attention to the narrative space it occupies as Gothic text in order to question those parameters and the means by which critics arrive at such dimensions."

Lenz, William E. "Poe's Arthur Gordon Pym and the Narrative Techniques of Antarctic Gothic." CEA Critic 53, no. 3 (spring-summer 1991): 30-8.

Assesses Poe's use of sea narrative and Gothic fiction, and suggests that it was Poe who discovered the Antarctic as a locale particularly suited to Gothic works.

Mainville, Stephen. "Language and the Void: Gothic Landscapes in the Frontiers of Edgar Allan Poe." Genre 14, no. 3 (fall 1981): 347-62.

Examines Poe's handling of language in Pym and the unfinished Journal of Julius Rodman, and focuses on his creation of Gothic landscapes.

Mooney, Stephen L. "Poe's Gothic Wasteland." Sewanee Review 70 (1962): 261-83.

Discusses Poe's use of "ironic images of man in the nineteenth-century age of anxiety."

Nadal, Marita. "Beyond the Gothic Sublime: Poe's Pym or the Journey of Equivocal (E)motions." Mississippi Quarterly 53, no. 3 (summer 2000): 373-88.

Investigates Poe's use of horror, terror, and the sublime in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.

Ringe, Donald A. "Edgar Allan Poe." In American Gothic: Imagination and Reason in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, pp. 128-51. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1982.

Provides an overview of Gothic themes in Poe's work.

Rowe, Stephen. "Poe's Use of Ritual Magic in His Tales of Metempsychosis." The Edgar Allan Poe Review 4, no. 2 (fall 2003): 41-52.

Investigates references to metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, in Poe's work.

Shelden, Pamela J. "'True Originality': Poe's Manipulation of the Gothic Tradition." American Transcendental Quarterly, no. 29 (winter 1976): 75-80.

Discusses how Poe "combines" Gothic conventions "to represent the terror which wells from psychic reality."

Stein, William Bysshe. "The Twin Motif in 'The Fall of the House of Usher.'" Modern Language Notes 75, no. 2 (February 1960): 109-11.

Examines structural details in "The Fall of the House of Usher."

Swann, Charles. "Poe and Maturin—A Possible Debt." Notes and Queries 37, no. 235 (December 1990): 424-25.

Notes similarities between the title character's description of the island of Tsalal in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and a passage in Charles Robert Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer.

Thompson, G. R. "'Proper Evidences of Madness': American Gothic and the Interpretation of 'Ligeia.'" ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 66 (1972): 30-49.

Assesses "Ligeia" in the context of its Gothic predecessors.

――――――. Poe's Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973, 254 p.

Contends that in both his Gothic and his comic stories Poe employed a conscious irony derived from writers of the German Romantic movement.

――――――. "Locke, Kant, and Gothic Fiction: A Further Word on the Indeterminism of Poe's 'Usher.'" Studies in Short Fiction 26, no. 4 (fall 1989): 547-60.

Analyzes "The Fall of the House of Usher" as a work of Gothic fiction.

Timmerman, John H. "House of Mirrors: Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Fall of the House of Usher.'" Papers on Language and Literature 39, no. 3 (summer 2003): 227-44.

Evaluates the historical context and influence of Poe's cosmology in "The Fall of the House of Usher."

Tombleson, Gary E. "Poe's 'The Fall of the House of Usher' as Archetypal Gothic: Literary and Architectural Analogs of Cosmic Unity." Nineteenth-Century Contexts 12, no. 2 (1988): 83-106.

Argues that the architectural references in "The Fall of the House of Usher" render the story archetypically Gothic.

Voller, Jack G. "The Power of Terror: Burke and Kant in the House of Usher." Poe Studies 21, no. 3 (December 1988): 27-35.

Contends that "The Fall of the House of Usher" represents a rejection of the theories of the sublime offered by Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, and instead focuses on terrors and emotions that could not be easily explained within the context of the optimistic aesthetic proposed by Burke and Kant.

Voloshin, Beverly R. "Explanation in 'The Fall of the House of Usher.'" Studies in Short Fiction 23, no. 4 (fall 1986): 419-28.

Assesses "The Fall of the House of Usher" as a unique variation of the Gothic genre of short fiction that blends natural, preternatural, and supernatural elements to create an unusually haunting effect.

Woodberry, George E. Edgar Allan Poe. 1885. Reprint edition. New York: AMS Press, 168, 354 p.

One of the first full-length studies of Poe's life and career.


Additional coverage of Poe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers; American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 1; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 2; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 14; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 5, 11; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1640–1865; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 3, 59, 73, 74, 248, 254; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Poets; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Poetry; Exploring Short Stories; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 1; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Mystery and Suspense Writers; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 1, 16, 55, 78, 94, 97, 117; Poetry Criticism, Vols. 1, 54; Poetry for Students, Vols. 1, 3, 9; Poets: American and British; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, Vol. 4; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4; Science Fiction Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 2, 4, 7, 8, 16; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 1, 22, 34, 35, 54; Something about the Author, Vol. 23; Supernatural Fiction Writers; Twayne's United States Authors; World Literature Criticism; World Poets; and Writers for Young Adults.