What makes Poe’s writing Gothic? Essay
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The Gothic genre is an extensive and wide ranging area of literature and as one of its leading writers Edgar Allen Poe uses many Gothic devices and elements in his stories. There are, unfortunately, too many to explore in one essay and therefore I shall concentrate on those elements with which I feel Poe actually enhances and enriches the genre.
The Gothic genre is one of extremities and extravagance, whether it be gruesome horror or suspense filled terror, obsessions and madness or surroundings and scenery, every detail is described and exaggerated with great care.
The damnable acts of felony, sinister darkness and shadows all add tension whilst the lust of the tyrannical males, their madness and rage and the helplessness and isolation of their female victims add emotion and evoke sympathy within the reader.
Irrationality governs most of the events as dark and illogical plots unfold. Walpole’s Castle of Otranto an early example of the genre shows all these features.
These ideals were carried over into other forms. Grotesque and brooding art such as that of Goya flourished, along side Gothic literature, influenced by medieval sources and contemporary authors. Architecture too followed the same course. Walpole’s own house Strawberry hill was a rambling mass of crenulations and towers filled, like his stories with dungeons and secret passages.
However this description is an oversimplification, as the genre continued to evolve and with such a diverse range of authors it has developed many other qualities. Wild bleak landscapes and the use of pathetic fallacy can be seen in books such as Wuthering Heights. Bronte’s novel is filled with dreams sensibility and lofty ideals, as well as having many of the classic darker elements of Walpole and Radcliffe’s original ‘Gothick revival’. Writers such as H. G. Wells and Jules Verne added Science-Fictional elements, and Oscar Wilde began a decadent Gothic sub genre joined by authors such as Bram Stoker.
Instead of gradually dying out Gothicism flourished and grew throughout the Twentieth Century, as new ways of expressing the genre appeared. Directors such as Hitchcock used the new media film to produce such movies as ‘The Birds’ and ‘Psycho’ filled with shocking horror and violence. Books still flourished, such as Susan Hill’s ‘The Woman in Black’. Even today books such as ‘Kingdom Hospital’ and ‘The Secret Window’ by Stephen King come under the wing of the Gothic Genre.
However rather than conforming to classic Gothicism, despite the fact that these themes are all present in his stories, Edgar Allen Poe enhances and expands Gothic literature with fascinations with psychology, the human mind and science and technology. He also has been attributed with the invention and development of the ‘detective story’, writing such short stories as ‘Murder in the Rue Morgue’ and ‘The Purloined Letter’.
The two elements I have chosen to focus upon are features that I feel Poe is interested in and truly enhances within the genre. The first is the exploration of the human mind within Poe’s work, all the more intriguing because it came in a time before the revelations of Sigmund Freud, the father of Psychoanalysis. The second is the use of realism and verisimilitude within Poe’s stories and the way this develops the plot and draws the reader into the narrative. Both are effective interesting devices, skilfully employed and explored by Poe in much of his work.
The first piece that illustrates effectively Poe’s use of these aspects of Gothic is the short story William Wilson, a confessional narrative about the spiralling depths to which a man descends, disguising his true identity under the pseudonym ‘William Wilson’ for fear of disgusting us further so heinous are his crimes.
The story itself is merely a tool for Poe’s exploration of the human psyche and our confessional and perverse, often to the point of being self-destructive side. The story if taken literally tells of two men identical in every sense even to the point of having the same name. They are oddly each others best friend and arch nemesis, throughout their schooling, although after this they become very different people. One, the narrator of the tale becomes a drunkard debtor and gambler who deceives friends and strangers alike at cards in order to make a living. He is however hounded throughout this dubious career by none other than his name sake, foiling his every scheming plan.
This would seem an unusual tale even on the surface, however perhaps it has a more metaphorical meaning. Indeed perhaps this similarity between the two William Wilson’s is due not coincidence, but to the fact that they are two parts of the same person. The story is in fact a study of the human psyche: its basic yet often evil desires, later termed the Id by Sigmund Freud, and the conscience stopping the Id from committing these wrongs (or in Freud’s language the Superego). Indeed the story begins with an epigraph ‘What say of it? What say CONSCIENCE grim, that spectre in my path?’ The second William Wilson is the conscience of the first, embodied and given human form.
The story explores the limits and responses of the superego, showing and exploring how in the most extreme cases it can lead to all the person’s plans and schemes coming undone before their very eyes. After winning a distinct sum of money from a friend, the second Wilson bursts in exclaiming ‘examine the inner lining of his cuff and the several little packages which may be found in his capacious pockets. Instantly his ruse is undone for upon examination in the lining of his sleeve ‘were found all the cards essential for ecarte (the game he was playing)’ and in his pockets ‘facsimiles of those cards used at his sittings’. Finally in its dramatic climax it shows how when driven beyond a certain point the conscience can be physically destroyed if ignored and disobeyed for long enough: ‘and thus getting him at my mercy, I plunged my sword with brute ferocity repeatedly through and through his bosom.’
The story is an insight into the reactions of the mind, a great fascination of Poe and an element of the Gothic which he enhanced and developed. ‘Facts in the case of M. Valdemar’, another short story is interesting in that it shows an example other ways in which Poe enriches the genre.
In a strange tale of Psycho-analysis and hypnosis the narrator endeavours to save a friend condemned to death through illness, by hypnotising him. Eventually his patient falls into a trance from which he cannot be stirred. After seven months untouched, in a dramatic climax he awakens crying he is dead and promptly disintegrates forming a puddle of rotting putrescence on the floor! The story explores a very different side of the human mind, with a more scientific approach than in William Wilson. Poe is expressing his views on the part that mentality has to play in the cause of disease, and perhaps more interestingly how if the mind is preserved the body can live on.
In this sense he is showing us the importance that he feels the human mind has to play in the working of mankind. Without the scientific knowledge that we have today medical views and opinions were more varied and colourful and this belief of Poe’s would not have been uncommon then. His narrator’s patient while he has succumbed to the hypnosis, can remain untouched and unfed for seven months which is a feat no ordinary human can achieve. Briefly Poe also voices opinions on the differences of some human minds to others. In the opening lines he admits that whilst being an accomplished hypnotist his success, up until this point has been limited, showing the incompatibility of some minds to his craft. ‘I was disappointed in the results which his peculiar constitution led me to anticipate.’
It is these subtle yet highly imaginative ideas, not imposed upon us as statements or hypotheses but merely woven into his stories that so enhances this theme within the genre. This technique was emulated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes; a master detective who worked solely by analysis and psychology to deduce the origins of the crimes he worked on.
However these stories are not one dimensional as they also contains elements of the other device I have chosen to discuss, that of Realism. Although, as the reader we can be sure that these stories are fictitious, Poe does his utmost to convince us that they are truth. William Wilson is begun in the style of a confessional narrative; with the desperation that this is his last communiquï¿½ ‘Oh outcast of all outcasts most abandoned! -to the earth art thou not for ever dead?’ This creates a sense not only of a true person behind the story but also of this criminal writing it himself while we read. He also informs us he must conceal his name, so dastardly are his crimes, as though if we must have heard of him under his real name and once recognising him would be too disgusted to carry on reading: ‘My appellation has already been too much an object for the scorn -for the horror -for the detestation of my race.
‘ Similarly, as though to protect their identities, the two doctors in attendance with the hypnotist and his patient, in ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ are not named they are simply called ‘Dr. D- and Dr. F’. This story too begins with an attempt to make us believe. The narrator assumes we have heard something of the tale he is about to tell and that he is just ‘setting the facts straight’. ‘It is now rendered necessary that I give the facts- as far as I comprehend them myself. Cunningly Poe knows that none of us have heard of these events but will assume it is a news item we have missed or not read about and thus believe anyway.
In William Wilson, throughout the story real and famous locations are used to set events. Schools such as Oxford and Eton, Capitals and countries all over the world are mentioned at one point in the story ‘scarcely had I set foot in Paris…or at Rome…at Vienna too -at Berlin -and at Moscow!’ and this gives added realism as we can relate to the story, at least geographically. Also places as remote and exotic as this have the potential to be the location for almost anything however wild.
Even those places which are not given names or countries are described in such detail, details perhaps drawn form personal experience, that we believe they are real. ‘my earliest recollections of school was a rambling Elizabethan house, in a misty looking village of England, where were a vast number of gigantic and gnarled trees…’. Finally the story, after its tension filled murder, goes on to say that that was only the beginning of the evil William Wilson’s infamous career, trying to convey the idea that the character’s life does not end with the story.
Personally I believe it is subtlety that Poe adds to these areas. Whilst his killings and death are explicit and overt his use of realism and psycho-analysis are not similarly thrust upon us. He does not make long and technical lectures upon the parts of the human psyche nor does he begin with protestations and exclamations of truth and reality. However with carefully woven details and remarks he is able to explore and enhance both elements of Gothicism with refinement and nuance, which is far more effective and impressive than his more flamboyant and extrovert moments of writing.