The Influence of Edgar Allan Poe’s Predecessors on His Work
It is, arguably, a fallacy to use the word ‘influence’ when considering how Poe developed the Gothic genre in his own literature in light of his predecessors. The overtones of ‘derivation’ in the word risk unfairly discrediting the influence that Poe himself had on the genre. It should not be forgotten that Poe is widely credited as being one of the earliest authors to consolidate the American Gothic into a more potent and tangible form. In considering the influence of his predecessors, it is therefore most conducive to examine how Poe built upon, and indeed improved, the legacy of European and American Gothic literature that went before him.
At the risk of drawing arbitrary comparisons, the stylistic traits of Gothic fiction that Poe inherits are almost instantly obvious in both his works and those of his predecessors. In her book The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, Eve Sedgwick lists several “certain characteristic preoccupations” of Gothic fiction, amongst which she includes “doubles … unnatural echoes or silences, unintelligible writings, and the unspeakable … nocturnal landscapes” and the “story within a story”, all of which can be traced through Gothic heritage to Poe. Gothic landscapes are an instant example. The frequent pathetic fallacy in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, such as the “dreary night of November” when Victor Frankenstein’s creation is given life, the backdrop of castles and monasteries in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and The Monk, and the “gnarled, and fantastic” tulip tree by which the main horrific action in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow takes place are all the natural ancestors of the memorable opening passage of The Fall of the House of Usher “the bleak walls … the vacant eye-like windows … a few rank sedges” and the subsequent storm that surrounds the story’s climax.
The employment of layered narration in Gothic novels is also a clear inheritance. Poe’s preferred use of the first person narrator, even as a stylistic trait, can be seen to be taken directly from such novels as Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, narrated by Clara, and Frankenstein, which at one point reaches a most complex layer of narration when Shelley is telling the story of Walton recording the story of Frankenstein recalling the story told by his creation. The narration of the main theme through a life story in the manner of these novels is used by Poe in stories such as William Wilson (itself a variant on the Gothic theme of the double). Irving was likewise fond of using layers of narration through the device of the discovered manuscript another Gothic trademark for example, in the stories of his alter ego Diedrich Knickerbocker, collected and edited by his ‘other’ alter ego Geoffrey Crayon in The Sketch Book. The ‘discovered manuscript’ device is of course employed by Poe in M.S. Found in a Bottle, the fragmented diary format of which can be seen echoed in another Gothic novel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
M.S. Found in a Bottle is also an excellent example of the other Gothic trait quoted from Sedgwick above, namely “the unspeakable”. Whilst the narrator’s story, and the voyage of the Discovery, are inexorably drawn towards “some exciting knowledge some never-to-be-imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction”, the broken and interrupted format of the narration likewise creates a sense of omission to the piece, that curious details, despite the meticulous recording of the narrator, are being perforce excluded due to the bizarre situation in which he is trapped. The pervasion of “the unspeakable” in Gothic fiction can be traced as far back as the European novels. Frankenstein’s refusal to impart the secret of life that he discovered, because it will inevitably lead to “destruction and infallible misery”, is an early example. More outstanding is Walpole’s dramatic and schematic use of the technique in The Castle of Otranto. Passim, he narrates that “words cannot paint the horror” of the tale he records. Isabella “cannot speak” of Manfred’s evil plan of divorce and marriage, whilst Manfred himself eventually “cannot utter” the terrible crimes that he has committed as he tries to repent to Hippolita. As well as dramatically increasing the atmosphere of profane horror about the events unfolding, Walpole uses it to prevent vital plot points from being revealed and thus prolonging the tension. An excellent example is Isabella’s rescue by the mysterious figure who transpires to be Theodore, where they are constantly interrupted from discovering the other’s identity by each other and the action around them.
On a closer level, we might examine specific instances of direct influence. In his introduction to The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings, David Galloway points out that we may “trace the growth of the detective story” in Poe’s work, to which he cites Arthur Conan Doyle as owing a debt of gratitude. This growth nominally refers to the investigations of Poe’s logician C. Dupin in such stories as The Murders in the Rue Morgue. The tone of this particular tale is arguably inspired, at least in part, by such passages in Gothic fiction as the account that Frankenstein gives of the murder of his friend, Henry Clarvel. The evidence is presented to the reader in the formal tones of a police report. The corpse is revealed as a handsome young man, about five and twenty years of age. He had apparently been strangled, for there was no sign of any violence except the black mark of fingers on his neck.
There are distinct echoes of this tone and subject matter in the newspaper report that Poe offers of the Rue Morgue tragedy:
The body was quite warm … Upon the face were many severe scratches, and, upon the throat, dark bruises, and deep indentations of finger nails, as if the deceased had been throttled to death.
Even more striking is the inclusion of evidence in each story, in the form of reports taken down from witnesses. In Frankenstein these include “Daniel Nugent … a woman … another woman” and “several other men” whilst in The Murders in the Rue Morgue the witnesses have been broadened to a spectrum across different races and professions. In each text a new paragraph is laid out for each witness’s statement. We should also remember that the original murder of William by the creature in Frankenstein had an element of ‘detective story’ to it, as the reader’s suspicions are lead on and it is only in the creature’s narration that he admits himself the murderer and the mystery of the picture in Justine’s possession is explained. Although this is to a large extent speculation, and it must be acknowledged that Poe develops the idea into a much more curious and tense mystery, there is nonetheless a distinct influence in style and plot organisation from the former story to the latter.
It is particularly this point of development of ideas that must be emphasised, however, in regarding Poe’s works in the light of his predecessors. This is especially true in considering the influence of the early Gothic conventions of Frankenstein. In many respects this novel quite naturally demonstrates vestiges of the Romantic tradition, in that it is concerned with the power of the imagination and the exploration of the self. Frankenstein himself describes passim how it was his “imagination” that sealed his destiny and made the awful events of the novel possible. Upon discovering the secret of life, he comments “my imagination was too much exalted by my first success to permit me to doubt of my ability to give life to an animal as complex … as man”. It is that same imagination that conjures up the terrors should he succeed in making a partner for his creation, resolving him to abandon the work and thus seal the doom of his loved ones. Throughout these events, but particularly in his early life, Shelley is at pains to examine the moments such as the emotive speech on his first day at Ingolstadt that drive Frankenstein on, laying bare the character’s psychology.
Yet in these vestiges of Romance we can see the Gothic conventions emerging, and it is upon these that Poe draws in a tale markedly parallel to Frankenstein William Wilson. Frankenstein is a classic paranoid hero in the Gothic tradition, and his paranoia over the actions of his creation is of course fuelled by his imaginative ramblings. A similar, even more irrational hatred is inspired in Wilson (whose undisclosed true name is another testimony to the Gothic “unspeakable”) towards his namesake, whose “affectionateness” he attributes to “a consummate self-conceit assuming the vulgar airs of patronage and protection” and devotes considerable energy to humiliating, hurting, and finally murdering his double. Frankenstein and his creation, who are “bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us”, become two parts of the same entity creator and created that Sedgwick calls a “mirrored monstrosity”, where all the most evil elements of Frankenstein and indeed mankind are displaced into his creation.
The “mirrored monstrosity” germinating in Frankenstein is brought to fruition by Poe in William Wilson but with a darker, more complicated twist; the narrator himself transpires to be the evil incarnation of Wilson, whilst his eternal opponent is his conscience, thwarting his indulgences in luxury and deceit. Moreover it is realised in the classic Gothic convention of the doppelganger, as the antagonist is finally revealed “even in the most absolute identity” to be the narrator’s inexplicable twin (and it is notable that, in doing so, Wilson ambiguously thinks he is looking into a mirror). Even the narrator’s chosen pseudonym, “William Wilson”, contains the syllable ‘Wil’ reflected in each half of the name.
Sedgwick also speaks of the conventional Gothic tableau of two men Frankenstein and his creation locked in pursuit at the beginning and end of the novel, but here again Poe excels in creating a spectacular tableau. The climax of the story after the exciting pursuit and sword fight sees the slain Wilson becoming the narrator’s own mirror image, bloodied and proclaiming “how utterly thou hast murdered thyself”. In doing so, Poe not only creates a more melodramatic image but also explores his own Gothic preoccupation of the Imp of the Perverse particularly with the ambiguity of the mirror image, the whole story may be construed as a psychological delusion in which William Wilson is struggling against, and eventually defeats, himself. The power of the imagination within one being is given an even greater and more lethal strength. Poe thus consolidates his issues, similar to those raised in Frankenstein, in a more palpably provocative and extreme manner, engaging more of what would become the Gothic mode.
Similar examples of Poe’s development of Gothic fiction from his predecessors may be found in comparison between himself and Washington Irving. In his introduction to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories (a reprint of The Sketch Book), William Hedges points out that Irving is “generally credited with inventing the short story as a distinct genre”. Here Poe clearly owes a debt of gratitude for his constant preference of the ‘tale’ over the longer novel in his works, yet Poe may still be seen to be the superior Gothic writer. Undoubtedly, Poe gleaned Gothic stylistic traits from Irving’s work among others. The haunting echo of Rip Van Winkle’s own voice to emphasise his acute solitude resembles Poe’s own use of the technique in The Raven, whilst the cancerous effect of ill-fortune and guilt upon Roderick Usher is reminiscent of the anxiety of Geoffrey Crayon’s friend Leslie in The Wife.
Nevertheless, Poe’s work is considerably more horrific than Irving’s. In her Coherence of Gothic Conventions, Sedgwick makes a poignant definition of Gothic fiction as being that which has an “aesthetic based on pleasurable fear”, and Irving’s stories frequently fail to live up to this watermark. In The Mutability of Literature, for example, the discovery of a talking book is initially greeted with nothing more terrible than “utter astonishment”, and within lines Irving and the reader feel comfortable enough to patronise this bizarre event by referring to the book as “an exceedingly fluent conversable little tome”. To be fair, Irving’s preoccupation in this tale is clearly the rapidity with which literature becomes obsolete rather than scaring his reader.
Yet even in his more ‘frightening’ tales Irving is not as spectacular as Poe. The conclusion of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, for example, does not finish with the potentially terrifying attack of the Hessian upon Ichabod Crane, but rather with a slow winding down of the tension and an addendum by the ‘author’ Knickerbocker that the story may not be true. Poe is far more adept at creating horror in his narrative, and in fairness to Irving this is only a relevant criticism in the field of Gothic fiction. Comparing, for example, the two author’s treatment of the same subject in The Wife and The Fall of the House of Usher, Irving depicts his paranoid hero in the more restrained vein of “sickly and vapid attempts at cheerfulness”, whilst Poe takes great pains over the deathly apparition of Roderick Usher:
Surely, man had never before so terribly altered … as Roderick Usher! … A cadaverousness of complexion; a large eye, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid, but of a surpassingly beautiful curve …
Equally, Irving’s story breaks the Gothic mould by allowing his hero and heroine to recover in complete happiness, as opposed to Poe’s melodramatic storm, the raising of the dead and the destruction of a family and house. In fairness to Irving the intent of his story is to consider how wonderful it is for a woman to be “the comforter and supporter of her husband under misfortune”, and he certainly redeems himself in The Broken Heart, yet this only proves how Poe develops and improves upon his influences to create more powerful Gothic fiction.
Poe’s treatment of the paranoid hero is likewise a generally more empathic and horrifically effective portrayal than in his predecessors. The classic example is of course The Tell-Tale Heart, which benefits over more reserved portrayals of paranoids, such as Dudley in Ormond and Manfred in The Castle of Otranto, through Poe’s use of the first person narrative. The narrator’s madness is shown from his very first, bizarrely non-sequitur exclamation of “True!”, followed by his paranoid raving at the reader that he is “very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say I’m mad?” His attempts to assert his own rationality with the reader are thoroughly undermined, as his madness escalates, by his broken and delirious narrative: It grew louder louder louder! … Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! no, no! They heard! they suspected! they knew! … and now again! hark! louder! louder! louder!
With an excess of brief, one-word exclamations, fragmented comments and hyphenated text, Poe communicates the paranoia and guilt consuming his Gothic hero far more effectively than a third person narrative ever could.
It is evident that Poe has been influenced by the legacy of Gothic literature that was available to him. In subject matter and form, stylistic traits and even occasional uses of precise tone and motifs, Poe illustrates that his predecessors have had a profound effect on him. What is equally evident, however, is that Poe made the mode of Gothic fiction his own and, in considering his influences, it becomes more apparent how Poe was a critically creative impetus in shaping the American Gothic as we perceive it.
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