Seeing as it’s almost Halloween… a bit of Edgar Allen Poe!

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GOOD and EVIL – Slavery, Race and C19th America

Pixabay: Edgar Allen Poe
Pixabay: Edgar Allen Poe

Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’ (1843), ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ (1843) and ‘Hop Frog’ (1849) are not just bed-time horror stories. Yes, there is disturbing violence and the promise of potent mystery and hidden meaning, but there is much more to Poe than that. It is the monumental struggle between “good” and “evil”, in all its shapes and forms that I intend to discuss.

Indeed, critics have been trying to solve the Poe “puzzle” for years, yet this is easier said than done because Poe “aimed to puzzle his readers” (Benfey 27). His writing never merely opposes “good” against “evil”, master against slave, human against animal or indeed black against white. Divisions are continually melted and boundaries broken resulting in vast areas of grey where these binaries are concerned. Moreover, while these tales may not be explicitly about the American slavery crisis, they do “show unconscious white subjectivities rising toward a terrible, self-generated blackness” (Lee 766) and I believe they evoke the fear, anxiety, aggression and trauma typical of this period in American history. I will also be illustrating how the desire for perversity or the need to “violate that which is Law” (Poe ‘The Black Cat’ 273), is an important theme within these three tales. Essentially, I believe Poe was trying to show his readers that there is an equally fine line between “good” and “evil” as exists between sense and perversity.

Poe’s mobility within the C19th American literary marketplace was facilitated by his refusal to be confined to one particular genre or specific geographical location. Living in England in his early youth, then in the Deep South and eventually in the Northern part of America, all meant he was able to utilize his experiences into a more rounded and sagacious commentary on American society. Poe has been described as a deeply tormented man, a “sadomasochist…drug addict, manic depressive, sex pervert and egomaniac” (Galloway xxxi), who, similar to Byron, “created through his works a public image of himself as haunted and alienated” (Kenneth 1).

Indeed, it is tempting to be persuaded by his popular image, namely “wine bottle in one hand, opium pipe in the other, lusting after relatives… while muttering racial slurs and dying in the gutter” (Lee 774), and I do believe Poe’s curious character is part of his unswerving appeal.  However, we must resist wholly biographical interpretations of Poe’s work if we are to appreciate the larger implications and issues within his writing and to recognise “the conscious artistry in its composition” (Galloway xxxii). Similar to many of his characters, Poe clearly struggled between notions of “good” and “evil”. His frequent flirtations with large amounts of “the Fiend Intemperance” (Poe ‘The Black Cat’ 272), continual use of violent material in his work and a marriage to his thirteen year old cousin (who was fourteen years his junior), all suggest a somewhat unbalanced character. So surely there is some truth to the representation of Poe as “a man at the mercy of some hidden perversity” (Lee 769). However, I believe the violent subject matter and anxiety depicted in some of his writing signifies larger social issues, namely those surrounding race and slavery.

Of course we must remember that Poe “wrote and published fiction in hopes of financial gain” (Fisher 48), and Goddu argues he “utilized the conventions deployed by pro and anti-slavery proponents alike to sell his own tales” (93). Furthermore, Terence Whalen argues that since Poe was “aspiring to a national reputation and [was] attuned to market forces… [he displayed] an average racism that a range of readers could support” (qtd in Lee 752) or indeed condemn. Moreover, it has been argued that Poe had racist tendencies himself, which would not come as a surprise considering he lived from 1809-1849, a period when issues surrounding slavery and notions of race were extremely turbulent and irresolute. For example, Nat Turner’s revolt in 1831 fuelled the slavery controversy, “unifying proslavery forces and engendering harsher slave codes even while convincing many observers that slavery needed to end” (Lee 754). Anxiety over race and fear of slave rebellion is echoed in ‘Hop-Frog’ through the revengeful dwarf and through the rampaging ourang-outang in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ and the haunting figure of “blackness”, Pluto, who helps reveal the location of the dead body at the very end of ‘The Black Cat’. Yet while “Poe’s lurking racial phobias can be taken as complex dramatizations of a psychology of mastery and racism” (Lee 771), we can never say for sure exactly where he stood on such matters.

He may have condoned as writer or editor the disputed Pualding-Drayton Review, a text that celebrates chattel bondage as a positive thing. It is also possible that Poe undertook the sale of a slave for his aunt, Maria Clemm and “ his African American characters are usually cast as stereotypical comic figures whose actions and speech would make them typical characters in much writing of the time” (Fisher 18). However, he never owned a slave himself and there is much debate over whether or not he was encoding slavery within his work at all and “whether or not we do any kind of justice to the complexity of Poe’s writing by calling it “racist” remains open to question” (Coviello 877).

I do believe that racial anxieties permeate his texts and tales, meaning he was at least contemplating such issues. However, some critics such as Silverman suggest that he “rarely wrote about the contemporary scene (12) and that his fiction offers “no glimpse of the whirlwind social changes wrought in C19th America by the development of steamboats and railways…hot debates over woman’s rights… and the abolition of slavery” (12).

I strongly disagree with this interpretation and, like Fisher, think that his poems and tales are much more expressive of race than many critics have previously acknowledged. However, since around 1995 with the publication of The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe, a shift in Poe studies has taken place, moving “from abstract, ahistorical universals towards [his] syncopated relation to American culture” (Lee 751).  Erkila remarks “He touched so nearly the trauma of race…[which was] at the centre of C19th American culture” (qtd in Coviello 877) and Lee also argues he “ not only participates in his era’s political, economic and mass cultural life but also uses historically available ideas to theorise them” (751). This newer work relating Poe with race has been “salutary and welcome” (Coviello 877) and was partly instigated in 1993, by Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination which deals with the binaries of “whiteness” and “blackness” as a product of social anxiety over race.

The narrator of ‘The Black Cat’ clearly becomes enslaved and a figure of increasing “blackness” through the project of murder and we are witnesses of “the protagonist’s discovery of, and infatuated immersion in evil” (Gargano 88). It  is the perverse desire to purposely go against “good”  in ‘The Black Cat’, along with the delusion over what is “evil” in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and the power reversal and complex presentation of “evil” in ‘Hop-Frog’ that is so fascinating. The narrator of ‘The Black Cat’ states that “perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart – one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of man” (Poe 273). I believe Poe is showing that “the spirit of perverseness” (Poe ‘The Black Cat’ 273) is innate within us all but it is how we choose to confront or understand that perversity that determines our future. Violent murder is undoubtedly an act of perversity, yet the killings that take place across these three tales are portrayed in varying lights.

If any perverseness exists in ‘The Black Cat’, it is the protagonist’s perverseness in being able to dismiss a transparently brutal murder as “a series of mere household events” (Poe 271). Indeed, the narrator’s fatuous denial of a moral order can be seen when he admits he is “beyond the wretchedness of mere humanity…the feeble remnant of the good within me succumbed. Evil thoughts became my sole intimates” (Poe ‘The Black Cat’ 277). He has an absolute desire to destroy all traces of his humanity whilst convincing us he is not mad, thus creating a dramatic irony which is enlightening and disturbing. He murders his cat and wife, not because of any wrongdoing but because he finds the devotion of others repulsive and wants to engross himself in perversity.

He recalls how he was once “noted for the docility and humanity of [his] disposition (Poe ‘The Black Cat’ 271) and the “tenderness of [his] heart” (Poe ‘The Black Cat’ 271). He even states “I was especially fond of animals…was never so happy as when feeding and caressing them… [it was] one of my principal sources of pleasure” (Poe ‘The Black Cat’ 271).  So his eventual disgust with his cat(s) is triggered by the perverse nature he has come to possess, which causes him to detest that which he once cherished. Indeed, “just as the narrator locates his early inordinate kindness in the love of animals, his explanation of perverseness locates an aspect of moral behaviour in the irrational impulse of compulsion” (Cleman 636).

The killing of his black pet is sudden and impulsive, the narrator tells us, “one morning in cool blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree” (Poe ‘The Black Cat’ 273). However, the killing of his wife is even more spontaneous and though he feels “a certain sense of shame” (Poe ‘The Black Cat’ 276) whilst recalling his tale to the reader, admitting that “these events have terrified – have tortured me – have destroyed me” (Poe ‘The Black Cat’ 271), he only feels it sporadically and interestingly less so for his wife than the cat!

Whereas in ‘The Black Cat’ the desire to possess evil surpasses all other emotions, in ‘The Tell Tale Heart’ however, the narrator’s desire to destroy evil is what ultimately drives the very short story, yet his actions are no less brutal. The narrator murders the old man despite casually stating “object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He has never wronged me” (Poe ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ 228). Indeed, both men once possessed some affection for their victims, and so they “exhibit and dramatize the tendency of the human will to thwart itself, to do the wrong thing not because it is morally wrong but because it is self-destructive” (Falk 546), or as Poe famously said, to satisfy “the human thirst for self-torture” (Goodreads “Famous Poe Quotes”). This concept of a crime with no motive informs such works as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Camus’s The Stranger, which explore the idea that “human freedom is most convincingly exhibited in an extreme and gratuitous act, specifically an act or murder with no obvious advantages to the murderer” (Benfey 29).

In ‘The Tell Tale Heart’, the narrator asks the reader to “observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story” (Poe 228). He is recounting the murder in such a way to convince us not of his innocence but of his sanity, ironically making him appear even more deranged and insane. Though he still wants to murder the old man which demonstrates perverseness, his main objective is to kill ‘the Evil Eye’ (Poe ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ 229) which greatly complicates the construction of “good” and “evil”.  However, Poe is punning on the words eye and I, so while the narrator in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ kills the old man because of his “Evil Eye” (Poe 229) and the narrator of ‘The Black Cat’ punishes the supposed “evil” in Pluto by compulsively cutting out one of its eyes, it is only the  I which imagines and is “evil”.

Therefore, the “evil” they see in their victims is merely a reflection of their own perverse corruption and desire.  I think this is reflective of the insanity  and moral corruption of American society at the time, which was rooted in paradoxical beliefs. Claiming to be a nation of equality and yet maintaining slavery makes it appear vastly hypocritical.

Moreover, in ‘Hop Frog’, the king and his ministers’ treatment of Hop-Frog and his companion Tripetta is also reflected back on them in a grand reversal of power. Those in power are shown that they are the real figures of “blackness” and “evil”. Hop-Frog says, “Ah, ha! I begin to see who these people are now!” (Poe 325), they become a “fetid, blackened, hideous and indistinguishable mass” (Poe ‘Hop-Frog’ 326) rather than pure figures of “whiteness” and domination. Hop- Frog, on the other hand, disappears through a skylight at the end symbolising his ascent into light and freedom. This murder scene simultaneously performs the conventions of sensationalism and exposes its horror and perverseness. Indeed, “that sensationalism depends upon slavery for its effects, that it embodies terror in the form of “blackness” and that it appeals to its audiences’ voyeurism” (Lee 744) is the perverse paradox Poe is conveying to the reader.

Poe would have become familiar with the sensationalised discourse of slavery through a variety of sources during his time as an editor of periodicals such as The Southern Literary Messenger and The Broadway Journal. He would have been well aware of its “generic conventions and its audience appeal” (Goddu 95) such as the portrayal of slaves as monsters, fiends and apes. However, his ironic twisting of familiar techniques illustrates his questioning of such literary devices and their larger implications.

Once again incorporating contemporary issues into his tales, ‘The Tell Tale Heart’ was produced in the context of the growing issue of the “insanity defence”. This was being used to prevent punishment for those criminals considered mad and therefore not responsible for their actions. “Before the end of the C18th, the most common test of exculpatory insanity was the loss of reason and the knowledge of good and evil” (Shen 340), therefore I would argue that Poe is satirising and commenting on this defence as an acceptable explanation.

The murderer in ‘The Black Cat’ does know the difference between “good” and “evil” because his perverseness prompts him to commit atrocious acts purely because they are “evil”, therefore ridiculing the “insanity defence”. Moreover, some critics such as Shen argue that the beating heart belongs to the old man “as a tool or symbol of revenge” (337). However, I believe the “beating of his hideous heart” (Poe The Tell Tale Heart’ 233) is in fact the narrator’s increasingly loud heartbeat which he finds unbearable to hear, thus indicating his guilt and acknowledgement of the “evil” in his actions. Indeed, the narrators in ‘The Black Cat’ and ‘The Tell Tale Heart’ are perverse in their desire to murder but more perverse, is their need to convey their sanity, self-expose to the unsuspecting policeman and tell their tales of brutality which would have otherwise gone undetected. It is as though “communication, for these speakers, is itself a kind of salvation” (Benfey 38), that killing is not enough and recognition of their “evil” is not only desired but essential.

These tales also “depict human nature shifting towards bestial behaviour” (Fisher 52) and engage with issues surrounding mastery and the power positions occupied by animals and their owners as well as slaves and their owners. The murderer in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ acts with human precision but resembles a wild animal stalking its prey and the stealth he takes in order to make his final pounce the perfect kill is undeniable. Conversely, the cats’ affection in ‘The Black Cat’ is more humane and “good” than the increasingly brutal and animalistic behaviour of the narrator. Pluto is hanged in a tree which I felt had strong human associations of a black human figure or slave being brutally lynched. Of course, this is reversed in ‘Hop-Frog’ with the animal-like slaughter of the oppressors rather than the victim.

When Pluto is imprinted on the wall after the house fire, “as if graven in bas relief upon the white surface” (Poe ‘The Black Cat’ 274), I saw this as the indentation of slavery onto the “white surface” of C19th America and the inerasable burden it will carry into the future.  It is also interesting that the narrator/owner himself follows the Hegelian logic of the master/slave relationship. He is the cruel master but also interjects something of a slave himself, stating “I alone fed him” (Poe ‘The Black Cat’ 271). Indeed, he becomes in his increasing violence much like the projected fantasy of the rampaging black slave which we see embodied in history and in Poe stories such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. Moreover, the second cat has a mixture of black and white on his fur unlike the entirely black coat of Pluto, thus the divisions between strict colour binaries are not so clear and the suggestion of racial mixture is evident. The amalgamation between blacks and whites was supported by groups such as the Quakers and I saw the survival of the second cat as a triumph partly due to its amalgamation.

In ‘Hop Frog’, the dwarf is depicted in terms of racial stereotypes of “blackness” and is viewed like a monkey in a circus or a slave in a grand household, like such captives he has been “forcibly carried off” (Poe 318) from “some “barbarous region” (Poe 318). He is described as having animalistic features such as sharp teeth, yet is it the king’s desire to control the animalistic figure which is here condemned. I would argue that the ‘3/5th Compromise’ is echoed here which stated that slaves were 3/5 of a person. This Kafkaesque notion of partial and divided physicality is projected onto Hop-Frog himself, we are told he was “a triplicate treasure in one person” (Poe ‘Hop-Frog’ 318), because he is a dwarf, cripple and fat. He had an “inability to walk as other men do… [it was] something between a leap and a wriggle” (Poe ‘Hop-Frog’ 318). Indeed, he is human but also exists as a social entity to entertain and serve those around him and therefore has slave like associations.

Interestingly, Goddu argues that ‘Hop-Frog’ “presents a stinging critique of how the literary marketplace turns the author into a slave to the audience’s voracious appetite for sensationalized horror” (107). She believes that the author occupies a similar role to the jester who is “armed only with convention and audience expectations” (Goddu 107), the author is a slave to the marketplace and its desires. At this stage in Poe’s career, when he had a turbulent relationship with his critics, this interpretation is certainly plausible. It takes the implications of slavery, in all its forms, to a more personal level for Poe.

So is Hop-Frog’s murder “evil” or “good”? I believe that the answer is not literally, black or white. Although he violates that which is Law by committing murder, he is also fighting for his freedom and independence. Therefore, while his actions are just as brutal as those in the other two tales, his motive is not perversity but revenge for unforgivable persecution, thus setting him apart from the other killers. Furthermore, while ‘Hop Frog’ is commenting on the oppressions of slavery and the hazy boundaries between “good” and “evil”, it “offers just as much credence for alcoholism” (Fisher 87). After the king has forced the dwarf to drink, the idea for the elaborate murder is conceived therefore suggesting that alcohol plays a major part in the instigation of violent action.

Furthermore, alcohol is responsible for the increased irritability and violence in the narrator of ‘The Black Cat’, who calls it a “disease” (Poe 272), giving him the “fury of a demon” (Poe 273).  Similarly, in ‘The Tell Tale Heart’ the narrator says “the disease sharpened my senses” (Poe 228) which we can only assume is alcohol. The perversity in each of these men is increased by alcohol therefore suggesting an external “evil” influence complicating matters once again. Alcohol was a problematic issue in Poe’s day, once again demonstrating his desire to channel contemporary issues, which was welcomed by many of his readers.

How successfully or intentionally Poe deals with race and slavery in his stories is still debated, as is the question of his personal position on such matters. However, it is always important to view his tales in light of the fact that we are reading and critiquing his work from a modern culture where racism is considered unacceptable. For a mainstream American writer in the early C19th, approaching such matters was far more problematic. Yet, Poe was channelling anxieties surrounding these issues, sometimes subtly and at other times explicitly, thus contemplating what the legacy of slavery would mean for America in the future. In the three tales I have specifically discussed, he presents us with various struggles found within this framework of “good” and “evil”, black and white, master and slave, owner and pet, murderer and victim. Essentially, the distortion and blurring of these binaries brings turbulent social issues of the time into the consciousness of the reader. Indeed, even though Poe may himself have been a pathological figure, I think the most important thing we take from his writing is that “good” is never far from “evil”, perversity never far from reason, and indeed, slavery never far from freedom.

Works Cited


Benfey, Christopher. “Poe and the Unreadable: ‘The Black Cat’ and ‘The Tell Tale Heart’”.          New Essays on Poe’s Major Tales. Ed. Kenneth Silverman. Cambridge: Cambridge            UP, 1993. 27-44. Print.

Cleman, John. “Irresistible Impulses: Edgar Allen Poe and the Insanity Defence”. American         Literature, Vol 63, No.4. (no place given) Duke University Press, 1991. 623-640.          Jstor. Web. 11/04/12.

Coviello, Peter. “Poe in Love: Pedophilia, Morbidity and the Logic of Slavery”. ELH, Vol 70,      No.3. (no place given) John Hopkins UP, 2003. 875-901. Jstor. Web. 11/04/12/.

Falk, Doris V. “Poe and the Power of Animal Magnetism”. PMLA, Vol 84, No.3. (no place or      published given) 1969. 536-546. Jstor. Web. 11/04/12.

Fisher, Benjamin F. “Contexts”.  The Cambridge Introduction to Edgar Allen Poe.             Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. 12-24. Print.

—“Works”.  The Cambridge Introduction to Edgar Allen Poe. Cambridge: Cambridge UP,            2008. 27-100. Print.

Gargano, James W. “‘The Black Cat’: Perverseness Reconsidered”. C20th Interpretations of          Poe’s Tales. Ed. William L.Howarth. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1971. Print.

Galloway, David. Introduction. The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings. Ed.    David Galloway. London: Penguin Books, 2003. Xvii-lvi. Print.

Goddu, Teresa A. “Poe, Sensationalism and Slavery”. The Cambridge Companion to Edgar         Allen Poe. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 92-112. Print.

Lee, Maurice S. “Absolute Poe: His System of Transcendental Racism” American Literature,        Vol 75, No.4. Duke UP, 2003. 751-781. Project Muse. Web. 11/04/12.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. United States:         Vintage,1993. Print.

Poe, Edgar Allen. “Hop Frog”. The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings. Ed.                 David Galloway. London: Penguin Books, 2003. 317-326. Print.

—“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings. Ed. David Galloway. London: Penguin Books, 2003. 141-177. Print.

— “The Black Cat”. The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings. Ed. David           Galloway. London: Penguin Books, 2003. 271-281. Print.

— “The Tell Tale Heart”. The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings. Ed. David    Galloway. London: Penguin Books, 2003. 228-233. Print.

—“Edgar Allen Poe Quotes” Goodreads. Web. 15/04/12, 16:37.

Rosenheim, Shawn, and Steven Rachman. The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe. London:        John Hopkins UP, 1995. Print.

Shen, Dan.  “Edgar Allen Poe’s Aesthetic Theory, the Insanity Debate, and the Ethically Oriented Dynamics of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’”. C19th Literature, Vol 63, No.3.        California: California UP, 2008. 321-345. Jstor. Web. 11/04/12.

Silverman, Kenneth. Introduction. New Essays on Poe’s Major Tales. Ed. Kenneth           Silverman. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. 1-27. Print.

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