Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tales of Terror” as Tragic Drama
The literary compositions of Edgar Allan Poe, especially his short stories of terror based on supernatural or psychological manifestations, continue to be highly praised by a select group of readers who relish the dark, nightmarish worlds of human existence with their roots firmly established in the ancient past. Edgar Poe’s uncanny ability to transcend reality and inject the reader into the domains of the macabre and the weird is the most compelling reason for his enduring popularity, not only in America but throughout the world. In his “tales of terror,” such as “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Black Cat,” “The Premature Burial” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” a strange, unnerving familiarity with the characters and situations can be sensed which allows the reader to subconsciously relate to the macabre experiences and thoughts of the main protagonists. This ability to pass beyond the veils of reality and suspend the reader’s disbelief is most closely related to Poe’s application of tragic drama in his prose writings.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined tragic drama as “a power capable of raising pity and fear, or terror. . . to purge the mind of these passions. . . to temper and reduce them. . . by reading or seeing those passions imitated,” i.e. tragedy gnaws at one’s emotions, thus bringing about a release, or purgation, when the tragic figure is triumphant or victorious over his oppressors or the object of his frustrations. Since Aristotle’s time, literary purists have devised exclusive definitions of what constitutes tragic drama, yet Poe’s interpretation of tragedy stems from his inner self where primordial emotions rise from the deepest recesses of the human soul which he described as “the reproduction of what the senses perceive in nature through a veil. . . the naked senses sometimes sees too little–but then they always see too much” (Foye 51).
If the essence of Poe’s tales of the macabre and the uncanny resided in his inner soul, then a portrait of this essence can be understood via the following scenario: an individual perceives he is trapped in a hostile environment beyond his control which produces great apprehension despite the lack of specific causes for his dread. On occasion, he suffers from real threats in his daily life and confronts these threats with ingenuity and courage, at times even overcoming his fears by retaliating against an innocent victim, either violently or through mental torture. Afterwards, he feels remorse for his actions and is emotionally moved to atone for his guilt through confession or by exposing himself to official punishment or self-inflicted agony. This invariably indicates a form of moral inadequacy in the afflicted individual, for “within the limits of his human nature, he is incapable of dealing with certain tasks and situations” (Lesky 7).
In a number of Poe’s “tales of terror,” the protagonist migrates through one or more segments of the above scenario. In “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1842), the protagonist, while under the clutches of the Spanish Inquisition, is presented as the suffering victim; in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat” (1843), the protagonist becomes the aggressor who attacks an innocent victim, feels remorse for his act and then absolves his guilt by confession or exposure to punishment. In “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), the Montresor both suffers and retaliates against seen or imagined threats. In all of these tales, the fears or hostilities of the protagonists are brought to a diminished or final climax resulting from a tragic flaw which “dooms him. . . to catastrophe because of his own shortcomings” (Grebanier 227).
But in reality, many of us are frequently at the mercy of some unexplained anxiety brought about by certain circumstances which are difficult, if not impossible, to deal with in a logical manner. As seen with a quick reading of any of the tales mentioned, the origin of the protagonist’s terrors are described graphically, as in a maleficent pit, the beating of a dead man’s heart, an ominous yet domesticated creature or even the most dreaded of all, premature burial. These terrors, however, are usually withstood by the protagonists despite the expected downfall or fatal outcome of the situations. The need to wait in helpless abandonment, as is often the case in reality, is thus eliminated.
In “The Pit and the Pendulum,” the unknown protagonist, upon being given “the sentence, the dread sentence of death” by the Inquisition, is imprisoned in a dark, foreboding dungeon with no apparent exit. His initial fear that he has been buried alive soon dissipates upon discovering he is trapped in a prison. After discerning the size of this dungeon, he accidentally falls and finds himself lying at the brink of a bottomless pit. He then falls asleep and awakens sometime later to discover, while strapped to a framework, that a pendulum of glistening steel is suspended above him, hissing back and forth as it descends within inches of his body. For him, death seems inevitable until the pendulum suddenly ceases its movement and withdraws into the darkness. His situation then becomes more ominous as the walls of “burning iron” close in on him, causing the dungeon to squeeze into a lozenge2E As his foothold shrinks to nothing, a hand reaches out and rescues him from the hands of his enemies.
Poe’s most celebrated protagonist, Roderick Usher in “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), not only suffers as a victim of “the grim phantasm, Fear,” but also inflicts his madness, a “morbid acuteness of the senses,” upon his sister Madeline who is slowly dying from the result of some unidentified “family evil.” The unknown narrator in this tale attempts to comfort Usher by suggesting his fears are unfounded, but Usher is convinced that death is imminent, whereby Madeline abruptly dies (“the lady Madeline was no more”). Usher proceeds to inter Madeline in the family crypt and soon imagines he hasaccidentally buried her alive. His fears of premature burial are soon realized, for he begins to hear odd movements in the house. Madeline then appears in Roderick’s chamber, where she falls dead into his arms as “a corpse, and a victim to the terrors anticipated.” The narrator quickly flees from the house as the “deep and dark tarn” swallows up “the fragments of the House of Usher.”
In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” perhaps the most famous of Poe’s “tales of terror,” the protagonist is beset by fears with no discernible foundation; his paranoia is unfounded, yet he suffers under these false delusions. As a result, he proceeds to vent these fears upon an innocent “old man. . . who had never wronged me. . . never given me insult.” He then realizes his fears are directly related to the “Evil Eye” of the old man (“One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture–a pale, blue eye, with a film over it”) which prompts him to “take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.” The victim is then murdered in his sleep and his dismembered body ends up beneath the floor of his bedroom. But the protagonist succumbs to his guilt and confesses his crime to the local police–“I admit the deed!–tear up the planks!–here, here!–it is the beating of his hideous heart!”
A similar plot is played out in “The Black Cat” in which the protagonist is haunted by maddening, hostile feelings with no recognizable cause. His wife is congenial and happy and she shares his love for animals, especially for their pet cat Pluto. The unnamed narrator begins drinking to excess, “for what disease is like Alcohol!,” and his disposition radically deteriorates. He mistreats his wife and their numerous pets, including Pluto, for after arriving home late one night from the local tavern, he seizes Pluto and cuts out one of its eyes with a knife. He then wanders outside and hangs Pluto from the limb of tree. His home quite unexpectedly catches fire and burns to the ground; shortly after, he obtains another cat much like Pluto with the exception of a white patch on its belly. He becomes fond of the new cat but soon begins to despise it due to the white patch taking on “the image of a hideous–of a ghastly thing–of the Gallows!” He subsequently attempts to kill the new cat with an axe, but when his wife interferes, he turns on her and buries the axe in her brain, whereupon she falls “dead upon the spot without a groan.” He then walls up her body in the cellar in an attempt to conceal his ghastly crime. Four days pass and he is happy and at peace and sleeps well “even with the burden of murder upon my soul.” The local police become suspicious of his wife’s disappearance and commence to search the premises. Ending up in the cellar, they suddenly hear the screams of an unknown entity; the protagonist, upon hearing the screams and knowing they are real, admits his guilt as the police tear down the wall–and the black cat, howling its revenge, sits atop the head of the victim (“I had walled the monster up within the tomb!”).
As previously pointed out, certain literary critics subscribe to the idea that tragic drama must involve a hero, such as in Sophocles’ Oedipus or Antigone, Aeschylus’ Orestes or particular dramatic plays by Shakespeare. In these works, the hero usually creates havoc and misery for all the other characters, a major trait of true tragic drama. The literary purists, for example, argue that a victim cannot be a tragic hero, for the majority of heroes or heroines fall prey to their fatal flaws, whether physically or psychologically manifested. For instance, Oedipus, who kills his father King Laius and marries his mother Jocasta and later blinds himself, and Antigone, Oedipus’ daughter, who commits suicide after being imprisoned by King Creon, are not heroic figures due to their failure to overcome their fatal flaws.
Yet as Albin Lesky maintains , the tragic hero “appears against the somber background of inevitable death, a death which will tear him away from his joys and plunge him into nothingness. . . into a mouldering world of shadows” (2). In light of this, the “old man” in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the murdered wife in “The Black Cat,” the wine-maddened Fortunato in “The Cask of Amontillado” and the tortured narrator in “The Pit and the Pendulum” are all tragic heroes, due to their untimely deaths at the hands of their deranged opponents. But as readers of these “tales of terror,” we come to appreciate the fact that “tragedy shows us pain and gives us pleasure. . . The greater the suffering depicted, the more terrible the events, the more intense our pleasure” (Hamilton 229).
Foye, Raymond. The Unknown Poe: An Anthology of Fugitive Writings by Edgar Allan Poe. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1980.
Gargano, James W. “The Cask of Amontillado: A Masquerade of Motive and Identity.” Studies in Short Fiction. Vol. IV (1967): 119-26.
Grebanier, Bernard. The Enjoyment of Literature. NY: Crown Publishers, 1975.
Hamilton, Edith. The Greek Way. NY: Norton & Co., 1942. (Ch. 11 “The Idea of Tragedy”).
Lesky, Albin. Greek Tragedy. Trans. H.A. Frankfort. 3rd. ed. NY: Harper & Row, 1979.
The Complete Poems of John Milton. Vol. 4. NY: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909. (Milton’s Introduction to Samson Agonistes).
The Unabridged Edgar Allan Poe. Philadelphia: Running Press, 1983.
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