– By Edgar Alan Poe Essay, Research Paper
Born in 1809, Edgar Alan Poe is considered by many critics and fans of literature to be one of the greatest writers of all time. He was born into a strict religious environment. His father constantly abused him. His family was considered very dysfunctional, which is part of the reason his stories always have an evil tint to them (Basuray). Almost every one of Poe’s stories tend to have a dark and macabre feel to them. His beliefs on God and morals also had much to do with the way he wrote. He did not attend church or believe his stories should carry some high moral purpose. He believed that the church and morals in stories were just man’s way of trying to interpret what God wanted. He believed that his critics, including members of the church, had no right to tell him how they should live. This did not mean that he did not believe that people should do evil deeds and not get punished. Poe’s belief was that the worst punishment came not from outside the person but from within a person’s own subconscious thoughts (Grantz). Many of Poe’s characters commit unspeakable evil acts, which are then counterbalanced by their own subconscious need to be free of the evil deeds that they have committed.
The first story we will examine is “The Black Cat”. This story first appeared in the United States Saturday Post (The Saturday Evening Post) on August 19, 1843 (Womak). The story opens with the narrator deciding to record the events that led him to murder his wife and the cat as he awaits his execution the next day. The narrator is first described as a gentle, loving man who would never hurt a fly. He has a pet cat that he loves more than anything in the world. After some years, the narrator develops a drinking problem and starts to become irritable and violent, not only to people but also to his pets. Late one night after drinking excessively at the bar, the man returns home. Upon the man’s arrival at the house, Pluto, the cat tries to avoid him most likely because his now violent temper. The man grabs Pluto, which startles the cat who reacts by biting the man’s hand. The man was so enraged by the cat’s reaction that he pulls out his penknife and cuts the cat’s eye out. The gravity of what he has done to his favorite pet weighed on his mind over the next few days. He decides to go ahead and kill the cat because he can not bear to look at the one-eyed monstrosity he had created, so he hung the poor animal. The same night, following the cat’s hanging, while everyone slept the man’s house caught on fire. The whole house burned down except for one wall that had a burn mark on it. The mark on the wall looked exactly like a cat being hung with a noose around its neck. He feels very remorseful over what he has done and misses his cat very much. One night at the bar, he spots a cat that looks exactly like his old cat even down to the missing eye. The only difference between the cats’ is the new one has a white patch of fur where Pluto had none. He takes the animal home with him that night. His wife is quickly enamored of the animal and completely falls in love with the cat. Over time, the missing eye of the new cat starts to drive the man crazy and he wishes to be rid of the animal. He does not want to remember what he did to Pluto nor does he want to remember the image burnt into the wall after the fire, but both of these things keep him from doing anything to the cat. One night the man, no longer able to deal with his own thoughts and feelings, goes down stairs and gets the axe to finally kill the animal. His wife sees what is going on and tries to stop him. This only enrages the man even further, and he drives the axe into his wife’s head. Shortly after the act, he realizes what his has done and decides he must get rid of the body. After much debate and many different ideas he decides to wall her up in the cellar, as the monks of the Middle Ages were recorded to have done to their victims. After he finishes bricking her into the wall, he decides it is time to find the cat. He searches all over the house to find the accursed animal and never does. He decides that the cat must have fled the house when he saw what was happening. A few days later the police come to the house to search for the wife fearing foul play. They searched high and low but found no signs of foul play. They were just on their way out when the man started going on about how well the house was built. In attempt to prove his point, the man hit the wall with his cane and as soon as he did there was a loud, almost childlike scream that would not stop. The police tore down the wall to find the wife’s body and the cat, which had been buried with the body.
The next story to discuss is “The Tell-Tale Heart” written in 1843. This story begins like “The Black Cat” with the main character, the narrator, explaining why he had murdered someone. The narrator goes on to explain that he loved the old man. He had no need for the old man’s money, and the old man had never wronged him in anyway. “He had the eye of a vulture-a pale blue eye, with a film over it.” That eye was what drove him to kill the old man. Every night the narrator would sneak into the man’s room. One night he woke the man. He stood there waiting for the man to go back to sleep. The old man never did; he simply sat there waiting for what would come next. The old man never knew that it was the speaker standing there. Then the lantern opened just a bit, but it shone directly on the eye, the cause of the speaker’s hatred. It was at that moment that the speaker could stand the eye no more and flung the lantern open and jumped into the room giving the man a heart attack and killing him. He decided to cut the body up and he hid it under the boards in the den. A short time later the police arrived after a neighbor had notified them because of hearing the old man scream. The scream was disturbing to the neighbors not only because of the hour but also because the old man was normally so quiet. While sitting talking to the police, the speaker kept hearing the old man’s heartbeat. It finally drove him to scream out what he had done and where he had hidden the body.
Both of these stories give us examples of a man being forced to deal with the evil that lives within him. The speakers in these stories begin as good men. Then, something inside of them cracks, and they become monsters. In the “Black Cat” the man goes as far from the norm as possible by putting an axe into his wife’s head and then hiding the body in the wall. The narrator in the story shows no signs of remorse for his evil act and seems to have no pity for the lives he has destroyed. The same can be said about “The Tell-Tale Heart” the man shows no obvious signs that the ghastly murder bothers him in the least. In the end, justice is served in both of these stories not so much that the police caught them but in the fact that their own mind’s could not tolerate nor deal with the evil deeds they had done. This is common with many of Poe’s characters such as in “The Cask of Amantiago” and “The Imp of the Perverse”. In the end it all comes back to Poe’s belief that man must ultimately answer to himself and his own subconscious for any actions he takes. I think Martha Womack said it best about Poe’s characters propensity for evil when she said, “The capacity for violence and horror lies within each of us, no matter how docile and humane our dispositions might appear.”
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