Poe's Short Stories

Poe's Short Stories Study Guide

Published mainly in the 1830s and 1840s, the stories of Edgar Allan Poe have come to represent the height of 19th-century tales of the macabre. One of the American Romantics, Poe showed an interest in the power of emotions and often sought to explore the psyches of those who are guilty, as in "The Tell-Tale Heart," frightened, as in "The Pit and the Pendulum," or otherwise mentally damaged. Poe is also widely regarded as the master of Gothic fiction, combining aspects of horror and romance in stories such as "Ligeia," and he was an important contributor to the mystery genre with his stories about the supremely rational detective C. Auguste Dupin (such as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter").

In each of his stories, Poe sought to create what he described as a unity of effect, where every aspect of the story contributed to its overall tone. Having published a number of volumes of poetry prior to attempting his first short stories, he was already used to establishing the mood of a work with a relative economy of words. In addition, over the next two decades, he gained extensive experience as an editor and literary critic, and he formed an aesthetic theory based on this idea of unity. In his short stories, Poe's literary theory led him to create relatively short tales which admitted no extraneous details that could not substantiate the atmospheres of foreboding or horror for which he became so famous. "The Cask of Amontillado" is particularly famous for its short length and concise structure.

Most of Poe's short stories were written as he moved from editorial position to editorial position, never quite gaining a satisfactory level of stability in his life, which may have influenced his writing. In particular, he spent much of his adult life addicted to opium and to alcohol, giving him an especially intimate understanding of the mentalities of some of his psychotic protagonists. Although he died at a young age under somewhat mysterious circumstances that probably involved alcohol, he succeeded in bringing the Gothic tale, a genre formerly regarded as somewhat outdated and European, to American Romantic fiction.