Poe's Short Stories Themes

Themes

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Insanity versus rationality

In many of Poe's short stories, such as "The Tell-Tale Heart," the narrators are madmen and murderers who fail to disguise their lack of rationality with a discussion of their thought processes. However, their stories inevitably reveal gaps in their chains of thought that speak to their descent into immorality and selfishness. In many cases, insanity is interlocked with the narrators' emotional egotism; they are incapable of empathizing with others and think only of their own desire to satisfy their honor or their need to end the disruptions to their lives. On the other side of the equation lie Poe's rational characters, who are capable of consciously setting aside their own emotions in order to logically solve their problems. For example, C. Auguste Dupin's skill lies in being able to empathize with others in order to solve seemingly impossible cases. Where Poe's irrational characters create confusion out of order, Dupin is capable of reversing the process.

Obsession

The majority of Poe's narrators are nervous, oversensitive, and given to excessive worrying or strange fixations. In his works, Poe explores the consequences of such obsessive tendencies. In the case of the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart," the protagonist's declarations of oversensitivity are merely a thin disguise for insanity. In other stories, obsession is driven by fear: in "The Premature Burial," the narrator develops catalepsy and begins to take myriad precautions because of his overwhelming fear of being buried alive. Some characters become obsessed by passion, as in the case of the painter in "The Oval Portrait," who essentially abandons his wife for his art. In many of Poe's stories, the narrators' obsessions lead to death and destruction, but Poe also belies this conclusion in "The Premature Burial," in which the narrator's obsessions come to an abrupt end when his fretting leads him to drastically misinterpret an event in his life.

Man's relationship with death

The fear of death drives the actions of several of Poe's characters. In particular, the narrator of "The Premature Burial" obsesses about the possibility of premature burial, and his fear makes him so paranoid that when he wakes up in the berth of a ship, he mistakes it for a grave and has a terrifying experience for no real reason. At the same time, Poe describes several characters whose response to their fear of death is to avoid it, although the usual result of their avoidance is increased trauma. Prince Prospero and his courtiers in "The Masque of the Red Death" try to shut themselves away and ignore the slaughter caused by the Red Death, but death pays no attention to their barriers and kills them en masse. Similarly, the attempt by the narrator to arrest M. Ernest Valdemar at the point of death in "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" only causes the consumptive patient to die and have his body gruesomely dissolve into a putrid puddle. However, the main character development of the narrator of "MS. Found in a Bottle" is that he learns to accept his impending death and replace his fear with anticipation.

The double self

Most clearly developed in "William Wilson," the idea of a double or split self is present throughout Poe's short stories. Poe approaches the concept of a double self in two ways. In the destructive model of doubled identity appear such characters as William Wilson, Ligeia, and the painter's wife in "The Oval Portrait." In all three cases, the character has a second body, respectively in the forms of the other William Wilson, Rowena Trevanion, and the wife's portrait, and in each story occurs a struggle between the two sides of the character, in which only one side can be the victor. William Wilson is the only one of the three that survives the battle, but his victory comes at the cost of his soul.

The second model of split identity is best characterized by C. Auguste Dupin, who is able to reconcile his two sides successfully. His friend the narrator observes in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" that Dupin reminds him of the old theory of a bi-part soul, where one side is "creative" and the other "resolvent." Whereas the splitting of the self often creates conflict, Dupin combines his creative side and his emotionless, analytical side in order to successfully solve crimes. Furthermore, when faced with opponents such as Minister D., who acts as Dupin's criminal double, Dupin is able to replicate his double's thoughts and find a lawful conclusion rather than an immoral one.

Love and hate

Many of the crimes of Poe's protagonists are particularly detestable because they involve the death of someone whom they formerly loved. The narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" claims that he loved the old man but reveals his madness and evil tendencies through his systematic terrorizing and murder of the old man, which he excuses by citing the old man's evil eye. Similarly, the narrator's affection for Pluto and his wife in "The Black Cat" and William Wilson's natural affinity toward his double turn into loathing and rage as the characters sink into alcoholism and sin. In other cases, as with "The Oval Portrait," the victim dies not from murder but from neglect; the painter loves his wife but is overtaken by his devotion to his painting and thus destroys what he loves for the sake of art. Finally, Poe introduces villain protagonists such as Montresor of "The Cask of Amontillado" who hate their enemies but whose hate becomes even more sinister and implacable because they mask it with signs of affection. Montresor's false solicitousness for Fortunato's health is ultimately revealed as a ploy to lure Fortunato to his death. In all of these cases, love and hate are shown to be closely connected, as one can easily turn into the other without warning.

Curiosity

In "MS. Found in a Bottle," the narrator overcomes his fear of death by invoking the example of the crew of the Discovery and by cultivating his sense of curiosity about the southern regions of the Earth. Similarly, although the narrator of "The Pit and the Pendulum" suffers from frequent fainting spells because of his terror over the Inquisition's plans, he nonetheless chooses to explore his cell and thus avoids becoming totally incapacitated by his distress. In both cases, the ability of the characters to set aside their fear indicates their mental and emotional strength. In "The Gold Bug," Legrand does not face imminent destruction, but is instead driven by curiosity to decipher the clues found on a scrap of parchment, and is ultimately rewarded for his curiosity. In all of these stories, Poe treats curiosity as a sign of the narrator's sanity and intelligence.

The power of human resolve

Ligeia is the foremost example of the power of the will in Poe's short stories, as she agrees with the epigraph's claim that "man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will." In the end, her will is enough to counteract the usual inevitability of death, as seen in such stories as "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar." By contrast, the narrator of "Ligeia" and his second wife Rowena are weak-willed and come to be dominated by Ligeia's memory. Other stories, such as "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "A Descent into the Maelström," have characters who seem to face certain death but overcome despair because of their iron wills. "The Pit and the Pendulum" depicts the struggle between hope and despair in sharp detail, but in the end hope wins, and the narrator shows remarkable presence of mind by luring the rats to chew at his strap, thereby freeing him from the swinging blade of the pendulum.