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Poe and the Imp of the Perverse
The Imp of the Perverse
Edgar Allan Poe is known for exploring the psychological constructs of horror and terror through his short stories. In Poe's "Imp of the Perverse," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and "The Black Cat," the respective narrators of these stories attempt to give a logical explanation for the manner in which they conducted themselves. Through these stories, Poe explores the impact a mental illness has on the narrator's and how each of the narrators attempts to justify their behavior.
In "The Imp of the Perverse," Poe introduces the concept of phrenology, a science that seeks to establish and define the relationship between an individual's character and the skull's morphology and how phrenology has failed to explain impulsive behavior ("The History of Morphology"). It was important for Poe to define the imp of the perverse in the essay part of the short story, as this concept became a prominent theme in subsequent stories. "The Imp of the Perverse" appears to be at first an essay written by Poe that seeks to explain impulsive behavior, however, it is soon revealed the story is told from an unnamed narrator's perspective. In "The Imp of the Perverse," the narrator contends, "[t]he intellectual or logical man, rather than the understanding or observant man, set himself to imagine designs -- to dictate the purposes to God" (Poe 280). The narrator argues that instead of observing people from a scientific and psychological perspective, scientists try to "imagine designs" that demonstrate how physical attributes dictate behavior instead of accepting some behavior is inherent. It is through this argument the narrator starts to explore the concept of horror, which is how evil is perceived, and how horror cannot be systematically categorized. In "The Imp of the Perverse," the narrator argues certain behaviors are "an innate and primitive principle of human action" (281). As such, perverseness is an irresistible, self-destructive impulse.
After he has explained the imp of the perverse, the narrator tries to convince the reader he is "one of the many uncounted victims of the Imp of the Perverse" (283). Despite the fact the narrator defined perverseness as being impulsive, he confesses the murder he committed was premeditated. He explains, "[f]or weeks, for months, I pondered upon the means of murder. I rejected a thousand schemes, because their accomplishment involved a chance of detection" (283). Moreover, the narrator believed he had gotten away with murder and declared, "I am safe -- I am safe -- yes -- if I be not fool enough to make an open confession" (284). It can be argued that perverseness, at least up to this point of the narrator's tale, does not have anything to do with the committal of a crime, but rather the effect one's conscience has on an individual and extends into horror, a psychological concept, and how it is manifested through terror, a physical reaction to terror; in this story, terror manifested itself through the "icy chill" that crept into the narrator's heart and forced him to confess to his crime (284). The imp of the perverse forces the narrator to behave suspiciously and he explains, "At first, I made an effort to shake off this nightmare of the soul. I walked vigorously -- faster -- still faster -- at length I ran. I felt a maddening desire to shriek aloud. Every succeeding wave of thought overwhelmed me with new terror, for alas!" (284). The imp of the perverse renders the narrator unable to stop himself from confessing to the crime, which he cannot remember doing. He claims, "They say that I spoke with a distinct enunciation, but with marked emphasis and passionate hurry, as if in dread of interruption before concluding the brief but pregnant sentences that consigned me to the hangman and to hell" (284). Ultimately, the imp of the perverse destroys the life the narrator has established for himself.
Similarly, in "The Tell-Tale Heart," the story's narrator goes through a similar series of events and must suffer similar consequences. Much like the narrator in "The Imp of the Perverse," the narrator in this tale attempts to convince the reader to believe he was not insane. Although he admits he has been inflicted by disease, he claims the disease "had sharpened [his] senses -- not destroyed -- not dulled them" (303). However, the validity of his claim is almost immediately voided when he inadvertently demonstrates the reader cannot trust him because he cannot explain the motives for his crim. The narrator states, "It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night" (303). The narrator's victim, like the victim's in all three stories, was an innocent person who through no fault of their own caused the narrator to kill him or her. The narrator declares, "it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye" (303). The ability to distinguish between the man and his eye demonstrates the narrator is able to identify what he considers to be horrific about the old man, yet he is unable to cope with it, nor is he able to come to a logical solution to his problem and ends up murdering the old man. Like the narrator in "The Imp of the Perverse," the narrator in this tale premeditates the old man's murder and spends eight days preparing to kill the old man. However, the narrator is quick to defend his behavior. "If you still think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body" (305). The narrator's insistence at denying his madness does not have the effect he intends it to have, but rather emphasizes his madness because he is delusional to the point that he cannot accept responsibility for what he has done. Like the narrator in "The Imp of the Perverse," terror overcomes the narrator in this tale as he talks with the policemen who are looking into the disappearance of his victim. He explains, "I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears: but still they sat and still chatted" (306). The more the narrator interacts with the police, the more he believes his demeanor is changing and the imp of the perverse appears to have a greater impact on him. He continues, "No doubt I now grew very pale; -- but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice" (306). Before he knows it, he has confessed to murdering the old man and has sentenced himself to death.
Following a similar narrative structure to "The Imp of the Perverse" and "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Black Cat" also explores the effect the imp of the perverse has on the narrator and the factors that drove him to commit murder. Like the previous narrators, the narrator in this tale attempts to convince the reader he is not mad and wants to set the record straight, clearing up any misconceptions the reader may have about him. He argues, "My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events" (223). Moreover, the narrator attempts to blame his murderous tendencies on alcohol and attempts to defend himself by stating, "for what disease is like Alcohol!" As though alcohol is the only factor contributing to his behavior (224).
In the story, the narrator blames alcohol for influencing his behavior and causing him to attack Pluto, a black cat and his most beloved pet. Unlike the victim in "The Imp of the Perverse" and "The Tell-Tale Heart," Pluto had not done anything to cause the narrator to want to harm him, but rather was killed because the narrator could not control himself while under the influence of alcohol. The narrator attempts to defend his sober behavior by arguing hanging Pluto was done in the "spirit of PERVERSENESS" (225). On the other hand, the narrator becomes horrified of Pluto's doppelganger, a black cat that appears after Pluto's hanging. This new cat, like Pluto, was missing an eye, and his fur was patterned to look like he had a noose around his neck (227). While this new cat serves to constantly remind the narrator of what he did to the thing he loved most, it can be argued that it is not only a symbol of horror, but is the physical manifestation of the imp of the perverse. As a symbol of horror, the cat causes the narrator admits, "although I longed to destroy it with a blow, I was yet withheld from so doing, partly it at by a memory of my former crime, but chiefly -- let me confess it at once -- by absolute dread of the beast" (227). Over time, the narrator becomes tired of having a constant reminder of his heinous behavior in his presence and begins to contemplate how he…[continue]
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