“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Edgar Allan Poe Doesn't Like You
Before you read any further, you have to have read "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Black Cat," "The Imp of the Perverse," and "The Cask of Amontillado" to really understand what I'm about to write. If you haven't read them get cracking here.
Now, a lot of the murders that take place in Poe stories seem to have little or no motive. The conventional way to account for this is to conclude the murderers are simply insane, or that their motives are unconscious. But, knowing as we do that psychoanalysis is worthless pseudoscience, and that Poe predated Freud, we might want better answers. The stories above are listed in the order in which they were written, and I suggest there's a progression. In "Tell-Tale," the murder victim is an old man who is killed because of his one staring eye. In "Black Cat," the victims are a one-eyed cat (whose loss of the other eye makes a dual victim) and the murderer's/narrator's wife. The only thing mentioned about the victim in "Imp" is that he was fond of reading by candlelight. And Fortunato in "Amontillado" is a rich drunk guy who gets killed because he treats Montressor contemptuously.
The key to unlocking the true victim of Poe's aggression comes from an examination of these victims' names--or rather, the two of them that Poe's deigns to give names. One of course is Fortunato, which is pretty suggestive in itself. The other belongs to the hapless cat, Pluto. Now, most readers with any knowledge of mythology at all see the name Pluto and think, ah, the god of the underworld. Poe's a creepy guy so in this horror story it only fits that a cat would have a name vaguely associated with Hell. But Pluto--or Dis--has been tied to wealth throughout history. In Dante's Inferno, for instance, Fortuna and Plutus (actually a separate deity but often conflated) are in the fourth circle guarding the avaricious and prodigal. Even the name Pluto translates to "wealth-giver."
The old man in "Tell-Tale" looks at the narrator with only one eye because he's half blind. Poe intended much of his work as satire, but his readers constantly mistook his work for what it was designed to parody. The old man only saw the horror story, and was blind to the joke. The cat, Pluto, is likewise a stand-in for Poe's half blind readership, on whom he depends for his wealth. That's why in trying to kill the cat all the narrator manages to do is kill his wife. (Poe's wife had TB, and he agonized over the shabby, unheated rooms his poverty relegated them to.) Notice in all these stories, the narrator can't help bragging about how brilliantly he planned and executed the murders--only to be found out later by some supernatural means. The dead reader in "Imp" is pretty self-explanatory, and is possibly a reference to the symbolic murder in "Black Cat." And then there's Montressor, who tells his story several years after committing the crime, because he's sure now he won't be caught--no one at that point in Poe's life had broken his coded message, and he had little confidence anyone would.
So when it seems like Poe is going over the top, as silly critics like Harold Bloom take him to task for doing, keep in mind he's doing it deliberately. He's expecting to be taken only half seriously. And if you never picked up on this he'd just as soon bury an ax in your stupid skull and leave you walled up in some cellar, never to be found.