Thursday, March 15, 2012

Poe's Obsession with Death

Throughout his short stories, Edgar Allan Poe gravitates towards the theme of death. In each story, Poe emphasizes different ways death has effects on people and their behaviors and subsequent actions towards death. In the stories, The Black Cat, Berenice, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, The Masque of Red Death, and The Fall of the House of Usher, Poe illustrates society’s reactions to death and touches on the fears people have in dealing with the difficult concept of death.

The in story The Black Cat, Poe uses guilt along with death to emphasize the feelings people have after killing another being. As the main character’s irritability and instability is heightened through abuse of alcohol, he began to hate everything in his mundane and ordinary life. In the end after killing a pet cat, which later ended in him killing his wife, he began to feel immense guilt.  “I rapped heavily, with a cane which I held in my hand, upon that very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom” (Poe, “The Black Cat”). The previous quote shows how the guilt of killing someone can cause force people to turn themselves in as in this story. When the police had come to look for the reported missing cat, the killer felt responsible to turn himself in, albeit appearing subconsciously, for the murder of his wife. This leads to him purposefully hitting the wall where the cat and his beloved wife were buried. Poe’s take on death in this story is playing on the reasons why people feel the need to kill others and the feelings they have after a murderous event. Poe uses death and guilt to show people how it is very difficult is must be to deal with the culpability people feel after killing someone else. This also shows how they may feel remorseful or at the very least great unease once the person is gone, and they will never get to see them again.

Throughout the story Berenice, Poe shows how people are afraid to completely lose someone who has passed away and moves into the heaven or hell. In the story, the character unearthed the tomb of his cousin to obtain her teeth. He had had an intense and weird obsession with them before her death, but after she died he was compelled  to get them because he didn’t want to lose all of her. “Yes its memory was replete with horror—horror more horrible from being vague, and terror more terrible from ambiguity” (Poe, “Berenice”). Losing people that are close to you can be very devastating and life altering. During this short piece Poe uses death and the teeth to show for the longing of having that person alive again or at the very least some part of that person’s very being.. In the story the character is afraid to completely lose his lover so he went and retrieved her teeth as a way to have something tangilbe to remember her by due to her death. The teeth were an object he had a fixation with before she had passed, so it  seemed very fitting  that this is what the piece de’resistaence when he dugout her tomb and went in search for a special rememberance.

Poe relates death to time in the story The Facts in the Case of M.Valdemar. In this story though the characters try to elongate the time it takes for a person to be actually dead, the outcome is no different than if the person had died months before. “no person had as yet been mesmerized in articulo mortis. It remained to be seen, first, whether, in such condition, there existed in the pation any susceptibility to the magnetic influence; secondly, whether, if any existed, it was impaired or increased by the condition; thirdly, to what extent or for how long a period, the encroachments of Death might be arrested by the process (Poe, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar). This story relates hypnotism, time, and death all together. The story ties in the ideas of many scientists of the time who were working very diligently to find a way to stop death. This story also plays with death and time, and the ideas of how death is not as strong as time. In the story though they can keep a man alive through hypnotism, the end result is death. Time in the end over takes death, and no one can last longer than time. This idea puzzled many people in the late 1800’s, and Poe used this in his advantage to create a sense of panic in the reader. This relationship between time and death occur multiple times in different stories Poe has written.

            The Masque of Red Death also relates to this story because it also directly relates to time, and how even death cannot out last time. “…gasped in unutterable horror at finding the grave-cerements and corpse-like mask which they handled with so violent a rudeness, untenanted by any tangible form (Poe, The Masque of Red Death). Throughout the years, scientists have tried to create ways to cheat death, and escape its vicious cycle. This story contradicts scientists’ hopes and plays along the lines of death in all its power even having to submit to time. The story


In the story The Fall of the House of Usher, Poe directly writes about the fears of the people of that time period. Being buried alive was a common fear for many in society during the time period this story was written.  The disease which had thus entombed the lady in the maturity of youth, had left, as usual in all maladies of a strictly cataleptical character, the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher” 13). Poe successfully captured the audience, and created a fear within the reader by playing off what frightens them outside of the story and on a daily basis.

Despite the fact that the story plots could have taken a more positive turn Poe chose to continue the path of death. In The Fall of the House of Usher the sister could have escaped her tomb, and not of ended up dying, but Poe wrote the story to end in death. The fact that the outcome of many of his stories ended with death contributes to his obsession of death, and manipulating death. Poe’s obsession with death also contributed to the outcome of his stories. Without this obsession Poe’s stories would not be as well written, with as much fear, and suspension. The obsession with death fueled his writing and made his plots so twisted and gothic.

Many of his characters in stories are faced with illness and insanity. Disease, leading to sickness and death was another common fear in the world at this time and even today.. Poe used the unknown treatment and cause of some diseases to create anxiety and terror in the reader. These also allowed for different ways for him to create diverse plots within stories. In the end many of these unknown diseases caused character to pass away. Insanity was another common attribute  Poe used to personify his unique characters. The insane, and mentally instable,  people in his stories commonly were the one who killed the people at the conclusion of the novella, or the character’s who’s emotions were affected by the passing of certain characters.

            Poe’s use of death and the way he twists the idea of death in his stories successfully creates suspense and fear in his works. Throughout his pieces he uses death frequently and often to create many different moods and intense feelings in the story. The main theme of death is worked into many of his stories, each with a unique plot, and a alternating use of the idea of death. The reoccurring theme of demise in his literature lends one to the idea of Poe having an obsession with the topic of death. The numerous deaths, and ways Poe uses this theme to create fear in his reader also adds to his fixation on deceased people and the reactions of those close to the people who have died.  If Poe did not have this obsession with death his literary works would be not be as strong, because he used this fascination to help him develop creative, and enthralling plots that keeps the reader disgusted, as well as intrigued by the story.


Poe, Edgar A. "Berenice." N.p., 1835. Web. 15 Mar. 2012. <>.

Poe, Edgar A. "The Black Cat." N.p., 1845. Web. 13 Mar. 2012. <>.

Poe, Edgar A. "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar." N.p., 1845. Web. 15 Mar. 2012. <>.

Poe, Edgar A. "The Fall of the House of Usher." N.p., 1839. Web. 15 Mar. 2012. <>.

Poe, Edgar A. "The Masque of Red Death." N.p., 1850. Web. 15 Mar. 2012. <>.

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