Essay: Poe’s representation of ‘the life within’ by Shaswato Sarcar


In this literary essay, Shaswato Sarcar explores Edgar Allan Poe’s works highlighting how Poe flourished because of his unprecedented approach and narrative technique, which was one of a kind.

Even though Edgar Allan Poe was considered as one of the most popular figures in the genre of ‘Romanticism’, he did introduce the audience of that age to a completely distinct style and genre of his own. He was known around the world and still is, because of his signature genre of ‘psychological horror’. Though the Victorian era was flooded with horror story writers, still Poe flourished because of his unprecedented approach and narrative technique. His narrative style was one of a kind. He made sure that his readers were as much moved by his storytelling as by the context.

Poe was a pioneer of Macabre.

Poe was a pioneer of Macabre. He completely transformed the genre of the horror story with his masterful tales of psychological depth and insight not envisioned in the genre before his time and scarcely seen in it since.

Poe brings to mind images of murderers and madmen, premature burials, and mysterious women who return from the dead. His works have been in print since 1827 and include such literary classics as “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Raven,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “ The Black Cat” and many more.

The bizarre characters in Poe’s stories have captured the public imagination. They were often seen as morbid, mysterious figures lurking in the shadows of moonlit cemeteries or crumbling castles.

Poe was one of the earliest writers of short fiction, even though; those short stories were larger in volume than traditional ones. His readers were keenly stuck to the theme of his story because his horror stories mainly delved into the dark corners of the heart and mind. Poe has been known to bring out the negative side of a particular character, through his power of narration. His readers are continuously reminded of the existence of the ‘two lives’, within and without. ‘The life within’ which normal people tend to keep hidden deep inside their consciousness, was brought out and exploited by Poe in his stories. Two of the most popular stories, which brilliantly bring out this characteristic of Poe, are, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and “The Black Cat’.

Poe’s short stories are generally characterized by obsessive narrators, who in most scenarios are unaware of their true, sub-conscious selves. These characters have a tendency to constantly create a battle between their two beings. One which the world of characters around them are aware of, and one which they keep hidden deep within them.

The stories of Poe primarily involve the journey of the character, of him coming face to face with his true dark self. A journey that has been masterfully portrayed in his two short stories.

These characters are constantly exerting force towards revealing their true self to the other characters, which is apparent in Poe’s two masterpieces, mentioned before. They also try to make the readers feel that they are not insane and are not responsible for their apparent madness. They blame external supernatural forces to have transformed them into what they are at the present.

‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ was written in 1843. It was a period when the readers were already aware of the expertise of Poe in that particular genre, and yet this relatively short story of Poe shocked his readers. This story begins with the monologue of an unnamed narrator. Like many of his other famous stories, this one, as well, largely depends upon the narrative style. The way he narrates the incidents gives the readers an idea of his troubled state of mind. It is the tale of a man, who speaks out about a murder which he has already performed of an old man. He even described how he severed his limbs and head to hide the man’s identity and solidify his security. Throughout the entire story, he continuously mentions, rather, emphasizes the fact that he is not insane and he says it in a way as if it justifies his heinous crime.

The way he narrates the incidents gives the readers an idea of his troubled state of mind. It is the tale of a man, who speaks out about a murder which he has already performed of an old man.

The subtle use of punctuation in the story is evidence of the narrator’s nervousness. He narrated how he hid the dismembered body of the victim, and he follows it with the same justification. Towards the end of the story, the readers are introduced to two new characters- the two police officers, who have come to search his house based on a complaint made by a neighbour. That moment is perhaps the only instance when he genuinely attempts to defend himself. He says that the sound which the neighbour heard was his own, which he made in his sleep. This period of a few moments is a perfect example of the sane self of the narrator hidden deep inside his insanity. The officers search but fail to find anything suspicious.

Poe’s game with the horror genre is apparent in the section when the narrator mentions that the eye of the person he has murdered has been bothering him for a long time. He described the eye as resembling that of a vulture. The eye has been haunting him. He also talks about his secret visit to the victim’s house for seven nights and finally murdering him on the eighth, when he finally opens his eyes. The justification of the narrator, about the victim’s eye being responsible for his death, makes it apparent, at least for the readers, that the narrator is delving deep into insanity.

The narrator would not have been caught if it was not for the guilt of his deceased mind. He says that he can hear a sound from inside the wall as if the body is moving. He feels that the sound is gradually increasing, reminding him of his savage crime, and ultimately he gives in to his guilt and confesses to the officers.

The second story in consideration is ‘The Black Cat’. It was published seven months after ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ on August 19, 1843. It still is considered one of the most popular works of Edgar Allen Poe. It was translated in many languages and also has acted as an inspiration for several films over the years. Two adaptations were ‘Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key’ by Sergio Martino and  ‘The Black Cat’ by “Zombie” director, Lucio Fulci. This story is deliberately eerie, with a fixed aim of jumbling the minds of the readers. The iconic similarity between these two short stories of Poe is the proclamation of the narrator of his sanity. The story begins with a prisoner narrating the story of his crime on the eve of his death sentence. He speaks about the happy life that he had with his wife, until a black cat came to his house as a pet, who was named Pluto, and he started to lose his mind. He talks about a particular night when he came back home drunk and gouged his cat’s eye out and several days later he hangs that one-eyed cat. He justifies himself by saying that even though he was not supposed to, he performed the deed because he knew it was bad and he wanted to do it for the same reason, providing himself with sort of a psychological alibi. That very night his house burned down. His wife and a servant survive, but all his money gets burnt off. They shift to a new house. After which one day he finds another cat that looked exactly like Pluto, except for a white spot which the latter did not have.

His wife was immensely pleased to see the cat and he was of the idea that all the tragedies have passed. However, soon, the cat got weirdly attached to him. The cat went along with him wherever he did and also lay on his chest when he slept. With time a white spot also starts to show on the body of the cat, exactly at the same spot where Pluto had, and gradually it starts to look like “the Gallows”. He attempts to murder this cat too, but this time his wife comes in the way, struck down and in his momentary insanity he buried the body inside a wall of his new house, but by mistake, he buries the living cat as well, which at the end becomes the reason of him getting caught.

The similarities in the setting of these stories are evident- a murder, hiding the body in the wall, and repetitive proclamation of sanity by the narrators. In ‘The Black Cat’, the narrator straight up blames the cat for his crime. These stories even today rings a bell in the head of the readers that the existence of a separate and secret self is inevitable.    

These stories of Edgar Allan Poe, include his obsession plagued by his unconsciousness to discover his true self.

His depiction of characters shows their unconscious obsession to unmask themselves, revealing a self that does not adhere to societal expectations. Through “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” he tried repeatedly to convince readers that he is sane; here the narrators blame forces beyond their control as driving them to engage in the actions they do, even murder, yet James Gargano in ‘The Question of Poe’s Narrators‘ states that, “Poe assuredly knows what the narrator never suspects and what, by the controlled conditions of the tale, he is not meant to suspect—that the narrator is a victim of his own self-torturing obsessions”. Gargano’s idea of Poe’s narrators was “self-tortured”.

In these stories, Poe shows how his obsessions are at first misdirected; the characters become obsessed with seemingly unrelated objects, like a cat or an “evil eye.” These objects serve as clues to the reader, and eventually to the narrator, of the narrator’s unconscious, though the majority of the narration is devoted to the narrator’s desperate attempts to flee or fight against these clues. Once the narrator faces the invented culprit of his obsessions, the truth about the inner self of the narrator, and the reality of the situation is illuminated.

Ironically, Poe being sympathized with his narrator’s condition allows his action, to escape the unconscious obsession, to be the event that brings the truth to the forefront of perception. Once the character discovers his unconscious self, he is forced to finally confront the truth of who he is and what he may have done. Poe was not only the creator or a narrator of death but the seeker of the perplexity of the outer and inner self of a human being.

Edgar Allan Poe’s esteem in world literature is for his ingenious and intense short stories, poems, and critical theories. Poe being regarded, the architect of the modern short story was also the principal forerunner of the “art for art’s sake” movement in 19th-century European literature. Poe’s poetry and short stories greatly influenced the French Symbolists of the late 19th century, who claimed him as a literary precursor. Baudelaire spent nearly fourteen years translating Poe into French.


Bio-note

Shaswato Sarcar is an MA in English Language and Literature under Calcutta university. He completed Internship from “The Hindu” Newspaper and “Creative writing” course from British Council. Currently he is employed as Content Writer in Capital Numbers Pvt. ltd. His two stories were published in Scottish Church College Magazine. He completed a Research Paper in the topic ‘Evolution of Gender Stereo types in Disney Princess Movies’.

3 comments

  • Writing style is excellent and engaging, well read, detailed critical review. The title is very eye-catching and significant. The topic “Self within” is very interesting.

  • Writing style is excellent. Detailed , well-researched review. Title is eye-catching and significant to the piece. The topic covered “self within” is very interesting and engaging and the piece did complete justice with it. I should give the writing 5 stars

  • Writing style is excellent. Detailed well-researched review. The title is eye-catching and significant. The topic “Self Within” is very interesting and engaging. The writing kept me engaged till the end. I would give it 5 stars

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