Uncontrollable Urge: The Effect of the Imp of the Perverse on Manifestations of Horror and Terror
In many of his works, Poe often explores fears through a combination of horror and terror. Through intricate storytelling, Poe explores the effects that horror, terror, and impulsivity have on the narrators in "The Imp of the Perverse," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and "The Black Cat."
"The Imp of the Perverse," like "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat," attempts to provide a logical explanation as to why the narrator acted as he did. In this case, the narrator begins by attempting to explain the role that phrenology, a science that attempts to establish and define the correlation between a person's character and the morphology of the skull, has and its unprecedented failure to explain why people can be impulsive ("The History of Morphology"). The narrator instead argues that "[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). That is to say, that instead of observing people, from a psychological perspective, "intellectual or logical" men, scientists in this case, set out to try to "imagine designs," or map out, how certain physical attributes dictated behavior instead of accepting that some people's behaviors were inherent, or, as the narrator argues, as God intended a person to be. It is through this argument that the narrator begins to explore horror, or how evil is perceived and how it cannot be systematically categorized.
The narrator points to the concept of perverseness to explain how certain behaviors are "an innate and primitive principle of human action," which cannot be explained through scientific mapping such as phrenology (281). In this case, perverse can be defined as an irresistible impulse towards self-destruction. After providing an analysis of perversion and its effects, the narrator explains how the perverse has influenced him. It is at this point that the story shifts from being an expository essay on phrenology into the narrator's personal story.
In "The Imp of the Perverse," the narrator attempts to convince the reader that he is "one of the many uncounted victims of the Imp of the Perverse" (283). While the narrator has spent much time explaining that the perverse is a self-destructive instinct, he admits that the murder that he commits was not impulsive, but rather premeditated. He states that "[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). As is a common theme amongst the narrators of all three short stories, the narrator in "The Imp of the Perverse" initially believes that he has gotten away with murder even going as far as declaring "I am safe -- I am safe -- yes -- if I be not fool enough to make an open confession" (284). It is also during this time that the narrator begins to feel terror of the consequences of his actions. Unlike horror, which is psychological, terror can be defined as a physical fear, which in the case of the narrator presents itself as "an icy chill" that crept to his heart (284). However, because the narrator is under the control of the imp of the perverse, he cannot keep his secret hidden. The narrator tries to combat this perversion and declares, "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). It is the uncontrollable impulse of the perverse that forces the narrator to spontaneously confess to the murder that he had committed. Despite the fact that the narrator knows the consequences of revealing what he had done, he can do nothing to stop it. In fact, the narrator's confession appears to be something like an out-of-body experience and he implies that he cannot recall what he said. He claims that "[t]hey 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). In the end, the narrator has no control over what has happened, or what will happen to him.
Likewise, in "The Tell-Tale Heart," the narrator undergoes a similar series of events and consequences. Like the narrator in "The Imp of the Perverse," the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" attempts to convince the reader that he is not insane, but rather is of sound mind. He claims that the disease that he had been inflicted with "had sharpened [his] senses -- not destroyed -- not dulled them" (303). The narrator attempts to construct an argument in which he is not at fault for the murder that he committed, yet admits, "It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night" (303).
Like the victims of all three short stories, the narrator's target is innocent and has done nothing to provoke the narrator to action. The narrator's neighbor, in this case, has stirred up feelings of horror within the narrator. For reasons unknown, the narrator perceives one of his neighbor's eyes to be evil. As much as the narrator wants to destroy the Evil Eye that torments him, he cannot find a way to do so without injuring the old man. The narrator reasons, "it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye" (303). By creating a distinction between the old man and his eye, the narrator is creating a distinction between what is good and what is evil in the old man. The narrator does not have any issues with the old man, but he perceives that there is something evil about him, something that can be destroyed.
The imp of the perverse has infected the narrator; this is evident when the narrator sets out to destroy the old man's Evil Eye. The narrator of this tale also plans out his attack carefully, premeditating the murder and the disposal of the evidence. He does not act impulsively and carefully plans his attack taking eight days to finally carry out his plan. Despite his brief moment of blinding, homicidal fury, the narrator is meticulous in covering his tracks and destroying any evidence that may implicate him in the murder and boasts, "[i]f 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).
Given the painstaking precautions that the narrator underwent to conceal his crime, it is likely that his participation in the old man's disappearance would ever come to light, however, like the narrator in "The Imp of the Perverse," he is overcome by an instinct that will ultimately lead to his demise. The imp of the perverse rears its ugly head when policemen knock at the narrator's door to inquire about the old man's disappearance. The policemen's presence arouses terror in the narrator. Prior to their inquiries, the narrator's conscience was at rest, and he was even able to convince the authorities that he had nothing to do with the old man's disappearance. However, much like the narrator in "The Imp of the Perverse," the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" is soon overcome with terror. Terror manifests itself as the narrator chats with the policemen; the narrator 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). Furthermore, terror begins to affect the way in which the narrator behaves in front of the police, and he impulsively and instinctually begins to compensate for the terror he is undergoing. The narrator contends, "No doubt I now grew very pale; -- but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice" (306). It is during the casual chat with the policemen that the imp of the perverse strikes and the narrator admits to having killed his neighbor.
"The Black Cat" follows a similar structure as "The Imp of the Perverse" and "The Tell-Tale Heart." Much like the previous stories, the narrator commits a murder, which he attempts to conceal. Much like the previous stories, the narrator begins his tale by attempting to argue that he has not been stricken by madness, but rather is intent on setting the record straight. He claims, "My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events" (223). While the narrators in the previous two stories appear to have been inflicted by a sudden bout of madness, and their behaviors were not influenced by outside factors, the narrator in "The Black Cat" admits that he has a problem…