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Poe’s Short Stories

Edgar Allan Poe

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1. How does Poe portray the motif of the doppelganger, or character double, in his two tales of 18 39, “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “William Wilson”?

Though Poe examines the doppelganger in both “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “William Wilson,” he emphasizes different aspects of its character in the two stories. For example, in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe presents the possibility of a complete split between mind and body in the twin siblings of Roderick and Madeline. The siblings are an external representation of the philosophical relationship between mind and body, but become overly identified with their respective halves of the equation. Insofar as sickness plagues both siblings, Poe suggests that a complete split between mind and body is ultimately impossible.

In “William Wilson,” Poe is less interested in the external agents of mind and body than in their internalized effects. The narrator’s alter ego, in fact, embodies a figment of the narrator’s own paranoid imagination. The narrator creates a physical doppelganger out of his own mental pathology. When the narrator attempts to resolve this rivalry with the plunge of a sword, Poe demonstrates, as in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the bodily effects of mental disease. However, the narrator’s attempt to murder his foe is actually an act of suicide, as his hated competitor represents a part of his own being. If Roderick and Madeline represent the external components of the mind-body split, then “William Wilson” condenses these two components into one body haunted by a split personality.

2. In “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat,” what is the relationship between the confessions of Poe’s guilty narrators and their claims to sanity and reliability?

Although they are guilty, Poe’s narrators in these tales experience an irresistible urge to confess to their crimes. While each explains the circumstances of his hideous actions, he also attempts to defend his sanity. Each provides a rational explanation of his mental fixations and portrays his criminal activity as excusable within the logic of his confessions. These two narrators use the form of the confession to explain away the content of their actions, but Poe uses this intimate connection between form and content to undermine their reliability as narrators.

In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” for example, the narrator masters the form of the confession in order to defend against charges of insanity. He believes that a precise description of his murder of the old man will establish his reliability as a sane narrator. In other words, he trusts in the intimate connection between form and content, but he never understands that the murderous content of his confession can make the clearness of his form irrelevant. He is unable to perceive that by admitting his irrational fixation on a vulture-eye, he reveals his own mental pathology.

Similarly, in “The Black Cat,” the narrator defends the reliability of his narrative but cannot fully explain his transition to cruelty. On the one hand, he offers the external substance of alcohol as a rational explanation for his mood swings and his hanging of Pluto. On the other hand, though, he then uncritically accepts the appearance of the second cat with its changing fur in the shape of the gallows. The narrator unwittingly portrays his own insanity by demonstrating his inability to escape the hauntings of the second cat. Poe suggests that the second cat is, in part, the projection of the narrator’s guilty conscience, and the story ultimately undermines any faith in the narrator’s descriptions of the reincarnated cat. Though he employs the form of the confession to explain his actions, the narrator fails to see that these actions illustrate his deranged mentality.

3. How does Poe use setting as a Gothic element in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Masque of the Red Death”?

Poe elicits terror in these stories by enclosing his characters within confined settings that take on Gothic characteristics. For example, the title “The Pit and the Pendulum” indicates the degree to which Poe invests the setting of the story with the capacity for terror. The setting, a prison cell, becomes a metaphor for the authoritarian power of the Inquisition. We never see any human representatives of the Inquisition. Rather, the physical features of the setting—the pit, the pendulum, and the rats—become substitutes for the cruelty and the violence of the Inquisition’s human leaders. In this way, Poe imbues the physical setting with the human capacity for evil.

In “The Cask of Amontillado,” setting becomes an instrument of revenge and murder. While the human perpetrators of the Inquisition remain elusive in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Montresor functions here as the criminal mastermind who orchestrates the transformation of his family’s crypts into a crime scene. Though the crypts already invoke imagery of death even before Fortunato’s demise, Montresor modifies their function. He uses them to kill, rather than merely to contain the bodies of those already dead. Montresor transforms a hallowed family space of memory and tribute into a weapon of revenge. His murder of Fortunato contains, in this way, an element of irony, as the crypts unwittingly make Fortunato a symbolic member of Montresor’s family and past.

“The Masque of the Red Death” uses the palace setting as part of its allegorical statement about the inevitability of death. Whereas Prince Prospero believes he can use the walls of his palace to fend off the spread of the Red Death, the story reveals that death knows no boundaries. The lavish setting of the palace on the night of the masquerade also contrasts with the impoverished living conditions of the surrounding peasants, who are the first to suffer from the plague. The interior layout of the palace, which promotes the progression of guests from east to west, is an allegory for the life cycle of a day. With the westernmost room, which features the color black and contains a massive clock, Poe suggests that all the guests must end up in this room of death, which ticks away the hours of life.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. How does Poe use black and white color imagery in “MS. Found in a Bottle” and “Ligeia”? How might this use of black and white imagery relate to tensions about slavery in the mid-nineteenth century?

2. How does Poe portray family in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Cask of Amontillado”?

3. How does Dupin demonstrate his mathematical mind in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter”? How does Dupin’s analytical mind compare to the scientific imagination of the narrator from “MS. Found in a Bottle”?

4. Why does Poe have Dupin attempt to solve such drastically different crimes in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter”?

5. What is the role of history in “The Pit and the Pendulum”? How does the specificity of the tale’s historical placement contribute to its aura of terror?

6. Is the narrator of “William Wilson” insane? Compare and contrast him with the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

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