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.
Read about the related theme of the duality of human nature in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
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.