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Edgar Allen Poe and Lewis Carroll: Unhealthy and Healthy Relationships With Women
Edgar Allan Poe and Lewis Carroll are two writers where their relationships with women, and especially with young children have been questioned. The main issue with Poe is his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin Virginia. For Carroll, the issue is the strong relationships he had with young girls. For both writers, suggestions have been made that their relationships with young women are perverse. To consider these claims it is necessary to look at the types of relationships each writer had with young women and the reasoning for these relationships. A consideration of this will show that Edgar Allan Poe does have unhealthy relationships with women, while Lewis Carroll has healthy relationships with women.
Edgar Allan Poe has a history of choosing inappropriate relationships. This began when Poe was attending private school, when he fell in love with a friend's mother. Poe described this love in To Helen, a poem he wrote in 1831:
Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean barks of yore,
On desperate seas long want to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face.
The poem shows Poe's longing for Helen, while also suggesting that he knows their will never be a relationship. It seems more like he admires her beauty and loves her, but sees her as someone unreachable to him. His first relationship with someone younger began in 1824, when he fell for Elmira Royston, the 15-year-old daughter of a neighbor. Poe became secretly engaged to Elmira, but the letters he wrote to her from college were intercepted by her father. When Poe finished university in 1826, he returned home to find that Elmira was engaged to someone else. Both these relationships suggest that Poe has some issues in regards to women. The main thing that the two relationships above share in common is that they are both inappropriate. Poe falling in love with an older woman, Helen, suggests that his interest is not necessarily always to the young. More importantly, he falls in love with an older woman when he is young, and then a younger woman when he is older. Looked at this way, it seems that Poe has some desire to choose partners that are inappropriate and unacceptable by society's standards. This tendency to not be the same as everyone else is also a major part of Poe's character. Poe expresses this in his poem "Alone":
From childhood's hour I have not been As others were - I have not seen
As others saw - I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken
My Sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I lov'd, I lov'd alone.
These words by Poe suggest that something about his character has a strong tendency to reject the norm, and to choose actions that will keep him separated from others. His actions in choosing younger women seems like something done to ensure that he does love alone, with these actions difficult to be accepted by society's standards.
This leads to a consideration of Poe's most inappropriate relationship, which is his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia. Poe went to live with his Aunt Maria Poe Clemm and his cousin Virginia in 1831. At this time, Virginia was seven years old. In 1849 Poe wrote the poem "To My Mother," where he refers to his aunt Maria Clemm as more mother to him than his birth mother. While the poem initially seems like Poe's way of expressing his love for Maria Clemm, his reasons for loving her actually take a disturbing turn:
My mother - my own mother, who died early,
Was but the mother of myself; but you
Are mother to the one I loved so dearly,
And thus are dearer than the mother I knew
By that infinity with which my wife
Was dearer to my soul than its soul-life.
In this poem, Poe is clearly saying that he loves Maria Clemm as his mother more than his real mother because she is the mother of the woman he loves. In turn, this seems like Poe accepts that he is related to Virginia and sees nothing wrong with that. It is initially disturbing to think that Poe wanted to marry his 13-year-old cousin. However, there is also the possibility that Poe really loved her and that his decision to marry her was a struggle for him. Looking at this poem makes it seem that Poe is actually attracted to the fact that she is related to him. This is a strong suggestion that Poe has significant issues related to women and an unhealthy view of relationships.
These unhealthy views of relationships can be partly understood by considering Poe's childhood. Poe was born to Edgar Poe and Elizabeth Arnold in 1809. In 1810 when Poe was just one-year-old, Edgar Poe ran out on the family. When Poe was three, his mother died, leaving him an orphan. At this point, Poe was fostered by John Allan. The first impact these events had is that Poe never had a real mother figure. This may explain why he fell for his friend's mother while at university, with his desire for an older mother a way of Poe trying to obtain a mother figure in his life. Poe being orphaned by the age of three and growing up in a family that was not his own may also be why he does not seem to have a clear understanding of family, or the role one should play in a family. It is interesting to note that in marrying Virginia and considering her as a sister or cousin, Poe does not seem to see anything wrong with this. The poem "To My Mother" described above does not suggest that Poe feels any shame in his actions. This can be understood by considering how Poe was raised in a family that were not really his biological family. This can explain why Poe never made the distinction between a woman who is family and a woman who is not. For Poe, Virginia may have just been to him a woman he loved, with him having no understanding that relationships within families are inappropriate. It is also interesting to note that when Poe went to live with Maria Clemm and his daughter, he did so because his adopted father John Allan had rejected him. John Allan represented the only real family Poe had. With his rejection from his father figure, it can be understood that Poe may have had a strong longing for family. This then explains why Poe wanted so much to be part of the Clemm family. In the poem "To My Mother" described earlier, Poe describes how much he loves Maria Clemm and Virginia. This poem begins with the following four lines:
Because I feel that, in the heavens above,
The angels, whispering to one another,
Can find, among their burning terms of love,
None so devotional as that of "Mother,"
These lines focus on how Poe sees a mother as the most devoted of all people. Interesting, devotion seems to be what Poe has been lacking throughout his life. His own parents were not devoted to him. Then his father figure rejected him, showing he was not devoted to him either. The suggestion is that this left Poe desperately seeking the kind of devotion that family offers. His actions in marrying Virginia can then be understood as occurring because he saw this as a way of becoming part of the Clemm family, and finally having a real family to be part of. Overall then, Poe's unhealthy relationships with women can be seen as a product of his troubled childhood.
Finally, it is also worth noting that there is a perverseness common to Poe's work. Poe's best known and most powerful works were his short stories. One text describes Poe's work saying, "his macabre, highly Gothic horror stories are studies in pathological obsession with a strong element of sadism." Another writer describes Poe's ability as a horror writer as being "a remarkable investigation of abnormal psychological states and obsessional behaviour." These horror stories often have suggestions of Poe's own abnormal psychological states, including his approach to women and relationships. In his short story "The Black Cat," Poe writes "perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart...have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such?" This statement can be considered as representing Poe's own feeling on being perverse. The mention of violating Law also has strong links to Poe's violation of the normal standards of society, which he rejected when he married his cousin. Poe's short stories also tend to feature psychologically disturbed male characters, with their feelings of anger often directed at female characters. This is suggestive of the issues…[continue]
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