Poe's Short Stories

Poe's Short Stories Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How does Poe's use of unreliable first-person narrators affect our reception of his stories (refer to at least 2-3 stories)?

    In general, Poe uses first-person viewpoints in stories such as "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and "Ligeia" because the subjectivity inherent in a first-person account emphasizes human fallibility while adding a layer of confusion and darkness to the narration. The narrators of the first two novels are murderers, although only the second one is insane, and the vagueness of their reasons for murder make their descent into sin appear much more chilling. In the case of "Ligeia," the husband's habit of smoking opium during his second marriage means that we cannot determine the extent of the supernatural in his story and leads us to suspect that he might have murdered Rowena without being fully aware of the act. Thus, the result is that the unreliable narrators engender doubt and add a sinister element to the stories' moods.

  2. 2

    Compare and contrast "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart." How do the similarities and differences in their narration shape our understanding of the meaning of insanity?

    "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart" have a similar construction in that they both begin with an unnamed narrator who insists upon his sanity and end with a revealed murder. However, despite their similarities, the two stories have slightly different interpretations of the onset of insanity. In "The Tell-Tale Heart," the origin of the narrator's insanity is not provided, and he gives no indication that he understands anything that is occurring outside of his own thoughts, but the narrator of "The Black Cat" shows signs that he understands his transformation but is utterly helpless to stop it. In Poe's view, insanity may be a natural outcropping of the extremes of human nature, and because it is intrinsic to humans, men may set upon the path to madness without warning or ability to return to sanity.

  3. 3

    What effect does the fear of death have on Poe's characters (refer to at least 2-3 stories)?

    The fear of death often drives Poe's characters to two extremes: a paranoiac obsession with death or a futile attempt to avoid death. He writes about the former response in "The Premature Burial" as the frightened narrator begins to plan his entire life around the possibility of premature burial until a false alarm inside a ship's berth embarrasses him out of his obsession. The latter response is displayed in stories such as "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" and "The Masque of the Red Death," in which characters attempt through various means to halt the advance of death, only to discover that their efforts are useless and compound the destruction. Neither response is depicted as healthy, whereas the effort of the narrator of "MS. Found in a Bottle" to overcome his fear with curiosity is portrayed relatively positively.

  4. 4

    Poe often uses the idea of the double self in his writings. Using at least 2-3 of his stories, discuss how split and doubled personalities shape the identities of his characters.

    In Poe's stories, the splitting or duplication of characters' selves is generally shown to be self-destructive, forcing a competition between the two halves. For example, William Wilson is only able to transform his double self into a single self by destroying the other half, and in the process corrupting his soul. Similarly, Ligeia defeats Rowena and the portrait of the painter's wife in "The Oval Portrait" defeats the original wife, and for both the cost is death. Dupin, on the other hand, is successful precisely because he can reconcile his two halves, that of creativity and that of analysis, into a useful whole that allows him to read his opponents and rationally solve cases.

  5. 5

    How does Poe establish an atmosphere of fear or horror in his short stories (use at least 2-3 sources)?

    Poe often spoke of the aesthetic ideal of creating a unified idea in each of his stories, and as a result, in tales such as "The Pit and the Pendulum," his main purpose is to add to the intended effect of terror in every sentence, including nothing that does not contribute either to the development of the plot or to the reinforcement of the impression of fear. In other stories, such as "The Tell-Tale Heart," he uses repetition in the last paragraphs of the story to reflect the crescendo of the beating heart and to build the tension of desperation and fear before he finally reveals the location of the old man's corpse. He also often omits explanatory details and chooses to keep the setting remote and ethereal, as in "Ligeia," in which the aspect of the unknown contributes to the Gothic atmosphere.

  6. 6

    Using 2-3 sources, analyze Poe's use of humor in his short stories.

    Poe's use of humor ranges from the use of lightly comical puns, as in Jupiter's dialogue in "The Gold Bug," to the black humor of Montresor's dialogue with Fortunato in "The Cask of Amontillado." For the most part, Poe uses humor to produce one of two effects. In the first case, he uses humor to establish a hierarchy of intelligence, as when Legrand pulls the legs of Jupiter and the narrator in "The Gold Bug" and C. Auguste Dupin similarly makes several jokes at the expect of the Prefect of Parisian police in "The Purloined Letter," thus exposing his mental superiority. "The Cask of Amontillado" also uses this type of humor in Montresor's subtle hinting at Fortunato's upcoming murder, but it also serves Poe's second purpose and creates a sense of irony around death. This also occurs in "The Premature Burial," when the narrator is abruptly shaken out of his fear of death by four men who reduce his traumatic experiences to the "yowling" of a cat.

  7. 7

    How does Poe develop the idea of the rational, analytical being in such characters as C. Auguste Dupin and William Legrand?

    In "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," the narrator begins with a treatise on Dupin's method of ratiocination, where a skilled analyst is compared to a checkers player in that he wins by analyzing all possible outcomes and by reading the thoughts of his opponent. Dupin successfully uses his method to solve cases that confound the police because, as in the case of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," they are too emotionally bothered by the cruelty of the crime and confounded by the lack of motive, or because, as in "The Purloined Letter," they cannot view the cases from the minds of anyone other than themselves. Poe further develops the idea of a superior rational mind in "The Gold-Bug," where Legrand displays curiosity and determination rather than the superstition of Jupiter or the lack of imagination of the narrator in his discovery of Captain Kidd's treasure.

  8. 8

    Compare and contrast Poe's use of the frame structure in two to three of his stories.

    In Poe's writing, the outside frame of a frame story often has at least one of two purposes, that of manipulating the mood prior to the commencement of the main story, or that of posing the problem and resolution before giving way to what is known in detective fiction as the reveal, during which the most intelligent character explains to the others how he solved the problem. "The Oval Portrait" is an example of the former, in that the narrator's story of how he found the painting has little plot of its own and mainly serves to craft a Gothic atmosphere prior to his quoting of the guide book's story of the subject of the portrait. Examples of the latter purpose can be found in the stories featuring Dupin and in "The Gold Bug," as Legrand explains how he came to suspect the presence of a buried treasure. "A Descent into the Maelström" has elements of both, in that the outside frame establishes the awesome nature of the Maelström, while the central character also uses the inner frame to reveal a story that features his intelligence and bravery.

  9. 9

    In "Ligeia" and "The Oval Portrait," what does Poe imply about the connection between feminine beauty and death?

    The Gothic and Romantic ideal of female beauty was that of a pale and striking but ethereal figure, a description that often coincided with the effects of tuberculosis or other extended sicknesses. As a result, Gothic writers of the era such as Poe tended to depict beauty as the result of deathly illness, a connection that can be seen in both "Ligeia" and "The Oval Portrait." In "Ligeia," the title character's pale features and tall, slender build are the epitome of the Romantic ideal, and upon her death, the narrator becomes obsessed with her perfection, which Rowena is unable to achieve until she herself dies and turns into Ligeia. Meanwhile, in "The Oval Portrait," the beautiful painter's wife becomes increasingly pale and therefore approaches the Romantic ideal until her death, at which point her beauty leaves her and is immortalized in her husband's painting.

  10. 10

    Discuss the use of character foils in 2-3 of the short stories.

    Those stories which highlight the abilities of one exceptional central character often make use of foils to emphasize his superiority. In "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and particularly "The Purloined Letter," the lack of imagination of the Prefect of police - and by extension the entire police force - is juxtaposed with Dupin's reliance on creativity and leaps of intuition. Both these stories and "The Gold Bug" also have the narrator serve as the intermediary character, who is not as brilliant as Dupin or Legrand but is still respectively more intelligent than the Prefect and Jupiter. The narrator is often admiring of his friend's skills but insightful enough to convey the ideas of the friend to the reader through his first person account. "A Descent into the Maelström" also features the presence of a deferential narrator, as well as the main character's older brother, whose fear and inability to think clearly contrast with the actions of his middle brother.