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1. How does Poe portray the motif of the doppelganger, or character double, in his two tales of 1839, “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
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Poe’s Short Stories!