Term Paper: E.A. Poe the Themes of Death

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¶ … E.A. Poe

The Themes of Death and Horror in the Literary works of Edgar Allan Poe: A comparative analysis of "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Bells," and "The Haunted Palace"

Nineteenth century American literature has flourished with the introduction of the horror and mystery genres in literary works, particularly in prose form. Edgar Allan Poe, well-known American poet and writer, has been acclaimed as the greatest and most effective short story writer of the horror and mystery genre.

His mastery of the horror and mystery genre allowed Poe to create literary works that have, interestingly, symbolically represented the fears of humanity -- tales and poems of horror that depict death, nightmares, and ultimately, the descent towards insanity, an outright escape from the realities of the world. Indeed, the correlation between death and horror is embedded in almost every tale and poem Poe creates for his audience. Ultimately, horror is presented as a precursor to death, a progression from the self-realization about the truth of the nature of one's self towards seeking refuge in death in order to escape this "truth."

The themes of death and horror are explicitly expressed in Poe's story, "The Cask of Amontillado." Similarly, artistic expression of the same themes is illustrated in his poems, "The Bells" and "The Haunted Palace." In this paper, the author posits that in these literary works, the themes of death and horror are contained; however, what makes these works distinct from Poe's other works is that it represents two symbols of "truths" about human nature. That is, the theme of horror is illustrated by the protagonist's or Voice's (in the case of the poems) descent towards insanity, while the theme of death is best represented by the commitment of murder or simply a depiction of the individual's effort to conceal or escape his insanity through death. Thus, the theme of horror and death in Poe's literary works are translated to become symbolic representations of concealment of and downfall towards insanity, respectively.

In the "Cask," the themes of both horror and death are present. The story provides a detailed narrative from Montresor, whose madness causes him to kill Fortunato, when the latter gave an insult that the protagonist easily took offense against.

Horror is represented by the character of Montresor, who, at the story's beginning, has already shown signs of insanity (unlike that of the madman in "The Tell-take Heart"). The readers witness the workings of Montresor's mind when he declared, "I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong." Initially, Montresor's thoughts against Fortunato may have been construed as a plan for revenge; however, as the story progresses, readers learn that he intend to kill his enemy at a very grotesque manner: entombing Fortunato alive at his underground cellar.

The horror of Fortunato's death in the hands of Montresor is a manifestation that what lies beneath the latter's cultured manner lies the ravings of an insane man, an individual whose concealment has become so effective he was able to commit murder without the least suspicion. Indeed, in the "Cask," Poe was able to project horror through insanity, primarily because "...Poe's tales produce contradictory tensions: the desire to watch and participate in unspeakable acts vs. The wish to be free from monstrous drives. Poe was the first writer to press the relationship between monster or criminal and the reader to the point where it became simultaneously unbearable and pleasurable" (Frank, 1997:2). Montresor's insanity becomes apparent while he commits the act of the murder of Fortunato: "... I busied myself among the pile of bones of which I have before spoken... With these materials and with the aid of the trowel, I began vigorously to wall up the entrance of the niche." Whalen (1999) categorizes this passage from the "Cask" as a "maddening acceleration toward something new and liberating -- or toward the abyss" (747). This means that, while Montresor finds liberation from his struggle against insanity by committing murder, he is also driving himself towards tragic end by succumbing to insanity.

Death as a form of escape or concealment of Montresor's insanity in the "Cask" is depicted in the act of entombing Fortunato alive in the protagonist's underground cellar. Death, in this context, assumes a new meaning, wherein Forunato's being buried alive is analogous to Montresor's insanity: just as darkness and the hardness of the stone is closing in on Fortunato, his murder also marks the "closing in" or eventual dominance of insanity to Montresor's whole being (Thomson, 2002:339). Moreover, his attempt to bury Fortunato is Montresor's way of coping with his insanity, for it is only by burying his enemy that the evidence of his insanity will also be forever buried and remain unknown to the people.

Montresor's character is illustrative of Poe's tendency to create protagonists in his tales, who have "...irrational propensities toward violent behavior" (Magistrale, 2001:76). From the analysis of the "Cask," the themes of horror and death take place in Montresor's acts of committing murder and entombing Fortunato alive, respectively. As will be discussed in the texts that follow, Poe's poetry brings into lucidity similar themes of horror and death. Though more implicit than the "Cask," the poems "Bells" and "Haunted Palace" illustrate, respectively, the themes of death and horror. Analysis of both poems shows that progression towards insanity or death results from the Voice's narration of solitude, loneliness, and discontentment in the world (or more specifically, the reality of the individual).

In the poem, "The Bells," Poe comes up with his own analogy between the rhythmic chimes of bells and positive or negative feelings of the Voice towards life: the silver, golden, brazen, and iron bells. The first two categories, silver and golden bells, represents the joy and happiness that bell chimes bring to people; however, the last two bells, which are made of brazen and iron, becomes the focal point of the poem, for these are the "bells" that the Voice points out to be symbols of horror and death in life.

It is important to look at Poe's principle of poetry in order to further understand how the themes of death and horror predominate in his works. In his discourse entitled, "The Poetic Principles," Poe (1845) explains his concept of poetry, which brings into light his focus on depicting, artistically, the horrific, mysterious, and grotesque:

The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient...It has been assumed, tacitly and avowedly, directly and indirectly, that the ultimate object of all Poetry is Truth. Every poem, it is said, should inculcate a moral; and by this moral is the poetical merit of the work to be adjudged.... more supremely noble, than this very poem - this poem per se - this poem which is a poem and nothing more - this poem written solely for the poem's sake.

This passage shows that Poe's poetry was created not solely for artistic expression, but also for expressing his stand concerning social issues that he believes plagues human society, more specifically, the individual. In "Bells," readers can see the sudden shift of illustrating the positive about human life towards a more negative perception: this marks the progression towards insanity and later, death, which is to become the central theme of the poem.

The third stanza, which introduces Poe's concept of the "Brazen bells," shows feelings of terror and despair, a restlessness in the Voice manifested by the lines, "What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!" "How they clang, and clash, and roar!" And "In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!" The urgent expression of these lines in the poem, further emphasized with an exclamation mark, is illustrative of the unstable state of mind of the Voice. Once again, readers are reminded of a similar restlessness in Montresor in the "Cask," where an insult leaves him raging with anger until he was able to avenge himself against Fortunato. Brazen bells, in this context, are symbols of the horror of life, and this horror may be construed as the individual being driven to insanity, overwhelmed by the "loud" and "out of tune" clanging of the brazen bells.

While the brazen bells represent the restlessness of the mind of an insane individual, the iron bells represent something more mysterious and inescapable -- death. Stanza four of "Bells" illustrates Iron bells as bells of death, what with its persistent and monotonous "groaning" and "moaning." These bells become more horrific than the Brazen bells, because the fear of the unknown emerges, mainly because the Iron bells create almost quiet, yet lingering sound that represent the unknown. Creating the atmosphere of uncertainty, the unknown becomes a mystery that creates greater emotional instability within the individual than the Brazen bells: "In the silence of the night, How… [END OF PREVIEW]

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