Poe’s Short Stories
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Love and Hate
Poe explores the similarity of love and hate in many stories, especially “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “William Wilson.” Poe portrays the psychological complexity of these two supposedly opposite emotions, emphasizing the ways they enigmatically blend into each other. Poe’s psychological insight anticipates the theories of Sigmund Freud, the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis and one of the twentieth century’s most influential thinkers. Poe, like Freud, interpreted love and hate as universal emotions, thereby severed from the specific conditions of time and space.
The Gothic terror is the result of the narrator’s simultaneous love for himself and hatred of his rival. The double shows that love and hate are inseparable and suggests that they may simply be two forms of the most intense form of human emotion. The narrator loves himself, but when feelings of self-hatred arise in him, he projects that hatred onto an imaginary copy of himself. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator confesses a love for an old man whom he then violently murders and dismembers. The narrator reveals his madness by attempting to separate the person of the old man, whom he loves, from the old man’s supposedly evil eye, which triggers the narrator’s hatred. This delusional separation enables the narrator to remain unaware of the paradox of claiming to have loved his victim.
Self vs. Alter Ego
In many of Poe’s Gothic tales, characters wage internal conflicts by creating imaginary alter egos or assuming alternate and opposite personalities. In “William Wilson,” the divided self takes the form of the narrator’s imagined double, who tracks him throughout Europe. The rival threatens the narrator’s sense of a coherent identity because he demonstrates that it is impossible for him to escape his unwanted characteristics. The narrator uses the alter ego to separate himself from his insanity. He projects his inner turmoil onto his alter ego and is able to forget that the trouble resides within him. The alter ego becomes a rival of the self because its resemblance to the self is unmistakable. Suicide results from the delusion that the alter ego is something real that can be eliminated in order to leave the self in peace. In “The Black Cat” the narrator transforms from a gentle animal lover into an evil cat-killer. The horror of “The Black Cat” derives from this sudden transformation and the cruel act—the narrator’s killing of his cat Pluto—which accompanies it. Pluto’s reincarnation as the second cat haunts the narrator’s guilty conscience. Although the narrator wants to forget his murder of Pluto, gallows appear in the color of his fur. The fur symbolizes the suppressed guilt that drives him insane and causes him to murder his wife.
The Power of the Dead over the Living
Poe often gives memory the power to keep the dead alive. Poe distorts this otherwise commonplace literary theme by bringing the dead literally back to life, employing memory as the trigger that reawakens the dead, who are usually women. In “Ligeia,” the narrator cannot escape memories of his first wife, Ligeia, while his second wife, the lady Rowena, begins to suffer from a mysterious sickness. While the narrator’s memories belong only to his own mind, Poe allows these memories to exert force in the physical world. Ligeia dies, but her husband’s memory makes him see her in the architecture of the bedroom he shares with his new wife. In this sense, Gothic terror becomes a love story. The loving memory of a grieving husband revives a dead wife. “Ligeia” breaks down the barrier between life and death, but not just to scare the reader. Instead, the memory of the dead shows the power of love to resist even the permanence of death.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
At masquerades Poe’s characters abandon social conventions and leave themselves vulnerable to crime. In “The Cask of Amontillado,” for -example, Montresor uses the carnival’s masquerade to fool Fortunato into his own demise. The masquerade carries the traditional meanings of joy and social liberation. Reality is suspended, and people can temporarily assume another identity. Montresor exploits these sentiments to do Fortunato real harm. In “William Wilson,” the masquerade is where the narrator receives his double’s final insult. The masquerade is enchanting because guests wear a variety of exotic and grotesque costumes, but the narrator and his double don the same Spanish outfit. The double Wilson haunts the narrator by denying him the thrill of unique transformation. In a crowd full of guests in costumes, the narrator feels comfortably anonymous enough to attempt to murder his double. Lastly, in “The Masque of the Red Death,” the ultimate victory of the plague over the selfish retreat of Prince Prospero and his guests occurs during the palace’s lavish masquerade ball. The mysterious guest’s gruesome costume, which shows the bloody effects of the Red Death, mocks the larger horror of Prospero’s party in the midst of his suffering peasants. The pretense of costume allows the guest to enter the ball, and bring the guests their death in person.
In Poe’s murder stories, homicide requires animalistic element. Animals kill, they die, and animal imagery provokes and informs crimes committed between men. Animals signal the absence of human reason and morality, but sometimes humans prove less rational than their beastly counterparts. The joke behind “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is that the Ourang-Outang did it. The savage irrationality of the crime baffles the police, who cannot conceive of a motiveless crime or fathom the brute force involved. Dupin uses his superior analytical abilities to determine that the crime couldn’t have been committed by a human. In “The Black Cat,” the murder of Pluto results from the narrator’s loss of reason and plunge into “perverseness,” reason’s inhuman antithesis. The story’s second cat behaves cunningly, leading the narrator into a more serious crime in the murder of his wife, and then betraying him to the police. The role reversal—irrational humans vs. rational animals—indicates that Poe considers murder a fundamentally animalistic, and therefore inhuman, act. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the murderer dehumanize his victims by likening him to animal. The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” claims to hate and murder the old man’s “vulture eye,” which he describes as “pale blue with a film over it.” He attempts to justify his actions by implicitly comparing himself to a helpless creature threatened by a hideous scavenger. In the “Cask of Amontillado,” Montresor does the reverse, readying himself to commit the crime by equating himself with an animal. In killing Fortunato, he cites his family arms, a serpent with its fangs in the heel of a foot stepping on it, and motto, which is translated “no one harms me with impunity.” Fortunato, whose insult has spurred Montresor to revenge, becomes the man whose foot harms the snake Montresor and is punished with a lethal bite.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
In “MS. Found in a Bottle,” the whirlpool symbolizes insanity. When the whirlpool transports the narrator from the peaceful South Seas to the surreal waters of the South Pole, it also symbolically transports him out of the space of scientific rationality to that of the imaginative fancy of the German moralists. The whirlpool destroys the boat and removes the narrator from a realistic realm, the second whirlpool kills him.
In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator fixates on the idea that an old man is looking at him with the Evil Eye and transmitting a curse on him. At the same time that the narrator obsesses over the eye, he wants to separate the old man from the Evil Eye in order to spare the old man from his violent reaction to the eye. The narrator reveals his inability to recognize that the “eye” is the “I,” or identity, of the old man. The eyes symbolize the essence of human identity, which cannot be separated from the body. The eye cannot be killed without causing the man to die. Similarly, in “Ligeia,” the narrator is unable to see behind Ligeia’s dark and mysterious eyes. Because the eyes symbolize her Gothic identity, they conceal Ligeia’s mysterious knowledge, a knowledge that both guides and haunts the narrator.
In “The Cask of Amontillado,” Poe uses Fortunato’s name symbolically, as an ironic device. Though his name means “the fortunate one” in Italian, Fortunato meets an unfortunate fate as the victim of Montresor’s revenge. Fortunato adds to the irony of his name by wearing the costume of a court jester. While Fortunato plays in jest, Montresor sets out to fool him, with murderous results.
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