The Tell-Tale Art: A Psychoanalytic Study of Poe’s Short Stories
Few literary topics seem more conducive to psychological analysis than the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Throughout many of his stories appear the same irregular and fascinating themes: morbidity, powerful yet inexplicable anxiety, reanimation, and “over acuteness of the senses.”[i] Many have endeavored to link the deviancy in Poe’s writing with the abnormality of Poe’s life, and have sought to explain the former in terms of the latter. This examination will proceed from such a work, Marie Bonaparte’s comprehensive psychoanalytic study of Poe,[ii] but with a different aim. Instead of attempting to synthesize Poe’s literature and life, it will focus preponderantly upon his writing—incorporating biographical information only when absolutely necessary—and seek to reveal the deeper relation among the themes of his work; the domain of this essay is the text and subtext of Poe’s work, and only with great caution will it enter the realm of psychobiography. By examining Poe’s distinctive themes primarily as they appear in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Morella,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” I will identify in his works the unconscious as a perpetual and powerful threat to the conscious, and the subtle ways in which he misdirects the reader from the dangerous subtextual strains that run through his writing.
Bonaparte emphasizes the Oedipal qualities of Poe’s short stories. She views the morbid, quasi-animate woman, a surprisingly common figure in his corpus, as a representative of Poe’s mother, who died when Poe was yet an infant: “[his mother’s] diaphanous beauty and the mysterious malady by which she was slowly consumed, were later to be immortalised by her son’s genius in the forms of Berenice, Morella, Madeline, Eleonora, and Ligeia, little though he might suspect whence they came.”[iii] Moreover, Bonaparte divides Poe’s stories into two broad psychological and Oedipal categories—“Tales of the Mother” and “Tales of the Father.”[iv] This analysis will deal similarly with “family romance,” but will reflect Poe’s psyche only mediately through its conclusions regarding his pen.
The Repression of Consanguinity and the Horror of Transference
We shall first examine Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which contains many of the themes central to his writing.[v] The basic plot is as follows: A man is afflicted with “a sense of insufferable gloom” as he approaches the house of an ill childhood friend, Roderick Usher, who had summoned his presence after years without interaction between them. The man scrutinizes the landscape, from the “black and lurid tarn” to the “vacant and eye-like windows,” seeking the source of his vague unease.[vi] He finally enters the House of Usher and finds therein a “wan” and “ghastly” figure whom he reluctantly identifies as the poor remnants of his boyhood companion.[vii] He learns of Roderick’s condition, a “nervous affection” that produces an overbearing “acuteness of the senses” combined with morbidity and an obstinate insistence upon the sentience of the house.[viii] Roderick’s sister, Madeline, whose “gradual wasting away” eludes diagnosis, then passes by, producing in the guest “an utter astonishment not unmingled with dread.”[ix] Madeline soon dies—at least by appearance—and Roderick suggests, with dubious justification, that her corpse should remain temporarily within the house. So Roderick and the guest entomb her, at which point the guest first notices the striking resemblance between the two siblings, who in fact are twins. After the burial, Roderick’s mental and physical atrophy intensifies, and the guest suspects that he is “laboring with some oppressive secret.”[x] Finally, as Roderick and the guest are reading together, Madeline returns terrifyingly from the tomb with “blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame.”[xi] She falls “heavily” upon her brother, thereby leaving him “a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated.”[xii]
The ending of the story is surely remarkable, but its meaning is unclear. Roderick proposes that Madeline returns to “upbraid him for [his] haste,”[xiii] or his failure to certify her death before inhuming her. Her ensanguined robes, however, suggest that Roderick’s transgression may not have been Madeline’s premature burial but rather her sexual violation.[xiv] In this case, the “secret” that oppressed Roderick concerned his incestuous impulses toward if not affair with his sister. But instead of considering Roderick’s sexual misdemeanor a physical deed enacted during the timeframe of the story, I recommend that we treat it as ancient and long-since repressed incestuous impulse whose return parallels the plot.
The first failure of repression is the curious moment when the guest, watching Roderick entomb Madeline, first realizes the uncanny resemblance between them. I say curious because the guest, who so meticulously catalogues even the minutest observations, fails to recognize this blaring truth until now, a failure that indicates how resistant he was to acknowledge it. I shall follow Bonaparte in viewing “the compound of Usher and the narrator” as one personality—namely, Poe—both because of the narrative precedent his other stories establish and the strong physical similarity between Roderick and Poe.[xv] Thus what accompanies the guest’s realization of Roderick’s and Madeline’s physically undeniable consanguinity is a parallel revelation for Roderick.[xvi]
It is after this event that “an observable change [comes] over the features of [Roderick’s] mental disorder.”[xvii] His countenance becomes yet more “ghastly” and his voice devolves into “a tremulous quaver.”[xviii] I propose that what transforms, or mutates, Roderick is not Madeline’s death but his (and the guest’s) recognition of their relatedness, his realization that consanguinity—of people, of love-objects—may not always be manifest. This realization could so distress him it seems only if it revealed his love-objects as consanguine and his fantasies as incestuous. The fact that Roderick then begins “laboring with some oppressive secret” supports this supposition.
Roderick’s recognition of the incestuousness of his sexual desire—the first instance of failed repression—opens the floodgates, so to speak, for his unconscious material. Accordingly I recommend that we consider the story’s fantastic finale—Madeline’s return from death and “final death-agonies”[xix]—not as physical events but as an allegory of Roderick’s psychical drama. Madeline appears with signs of sexual violation and then falls upon Roderick, killing him in a manner that he strangely had “anticipated.”[xx] This is merely the instantiation of his psychically dangerous incest-wish, with inverted temporality and agency: to “fall heavily inward” upon her and leave her sexually violated. The story’s conclusion, manifestly Roderick’s physical death through the Madeline’s return, is latently Roderick’s psychical devastation through the return of his impossible wish for Madeline.
The same general pattern appears, perhaps more lucidly, in Poe’s story “Morella,”[xxi] a summary of whose plot follows: A man, also the narrator, is married to Morella, to whom he never has been erotically attracted. Their relationship is largely tutorial, as Morella, whose intellect is “gigantic,”[xxii] spends most of her time reading and guiding him through abstruse works of German mystical philosophy. Eventually the man withdraws his friendly affection for Morella, who is afflicted with some mysterious and mortal illness. And then he begins to loathe her, to entertain “an earnest and consuming desire for the moment of [her] decease.”[xxiii] While on the brink of death, Morella declares oracularly, “I am dying, yet shall I live,”[xxiv] and delivers a child “which breathed not until the mother breathed no more.”[xxv] The man loves the child, his daughter, intensely, but as she grows “strangely in stature and intelligence,”[xxvi] he sees in her troubling reflections of Morella. As the appearance and manner of the girl and her deceased mother continue to converge, the man grows increasingly agitated. Finally, at her baptism, when he must select her name—for “my child” and “my love” were her only appellations thus far—he, urged by a “demon,” chooses “Morella,” causing his daughter to convulse, pronounce “I am here!” and die prostrate upon the family vault.[xxvii]
Bonaparte claims that Morella is yet another morbid mother-figure, as “like [Poe’s mother], she is wasting with consumption.”[xxviii] Moreover, Morella’s role as the narrator’s teacher certainly recalls maternal guidance. “His dependence on her for instruction in the forbidden, ‘accursed’ lore—doubtless sexual knowledge”[xxix]—is illustrated perfectly in this passage: “And then—then, when poring over forbidden pages, I felt a forbidden spirit enkindling within me—would Morella place her cold hand upon my own.”[xxx] What surfaces here is the narrator’s concern that Morella, his purportedly unviable love-object, is arousing his taboo or “forbidden” sexual feelings;[xxxi] similarly, the assumption that Morella is a maternal figure makes sense of the narrator’s insistence that his union with Morella was detached utterly from Eros. As we have said, his aversion to Morella grows as she becomes more ill with consumption; in other words, as Morella and Poe’s mother converge, as he (meaning Poe and the narrator) becomes no longer able to deny their identity, he is overcome with Oedipal disgust.
Then his daughter arrives, on whom he bestows every token of open affection. Bonaparte cites this as a clear instance of “transference”: “the husband and father of both Morellas transfers his love from one to the other.”[xxxii] But the narrator’s love for his daughter is, unlike his detached respect for Morella, at first fervent and uninhibited; it seems that his daughter is a more viable, or less threatening, love-object than was his wife—but why? I suggest that while his wife was hopelessly conflated with his mother, his daughter, despite his relatedness to her, represents the possibility of a love-object untainted by Oedipal qualities.
Before long, however, his daughter’s “rapid increase in bodily size” and intelligence conjures in him disturbing memories of her mother.[xxxiii] His failure to name her for “two lustra,”[xxxiv] I posit, symbolizes a repression of their consanguinity, a denial of her resemblance to “the entombed Morella.”[xxxv] But this repressive measure proves ineffectual, as the rapid convergence between his daughter and deceased wife provides “food for consuming thought and horror.”[xxxvi] And finally, at his daughter’s baptism—a thinly veiled marriage surrogate—he is no longer able to deny her resemblance to the deceased and identifies her, quite aptly, as “Morella”; repression is abolished.
“Morella” is Poe’s symbolic expression of the horror of transference. It is an illustration of the Freudian notion that love-objects are substitutive, that in each love-object one sees—for Poe, horrifyingly—traces of its predecessors. This chain of erotic precursors leads ultimately back to the mother, the first love-object of the little boy, and for Poe, a figure fraught with morbidity and horror. In fact, one can read “Morella” also as an allegory for psychological processes: the death of maternal Morella as the young boy’s withdrawal of erotic affect from his mother; and the birth of young Morella as the commencement of a new sexual relationship, which is tragically the mere reincarnation of its antecedent.
The Negation of Repression
We mentioned earlier that a “hyper-real meticulousness” pervades Poe’s writing—an “acuteness of the senses” that manifests in a catalogue of “every inward sensation, physical or emotional, with phenomenal, hyper-real acuteness.”[xxxvii] Here is an example, from “The Fall of the House of Usher,” of his descriptively exhaustive prose:
I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveler upon opium—the bitter lapse into everyday life—the hideous dropping off of the veil.[xxxviii]
This rhetorical style, Coviello notes, permits Poe to recount “the most grisly or horrible” comically by preventing the reader from being certain, “when treading on the taut surfaces of Poe’s prose, of the degree to which he is, or is not, putting you on.”[xxxix] But how does Poe’s idiosyncratic writing style cohere with the psychological portrait we have formed thus far? Surprisingly, Poe himself supplies the answer, doubtless unconsciously, in his short story “The Tell-Tale Heart.”[xl]
In that story, the narrator kills an old man—for reasons that we will analyze later—and stores his dismembered corpse beneath the floor of the chamber of the deceased. Police officers soon arrive at the house and inquire about the din heard by neighbors from within the house. The narrator, “in the enthusiasm of [his] confidence,” implores them to “search—search well.”[xli] He even leads them to the old man’s chamber, whose floorboards conceal the damning evidence, and invites them there “to rest from their fatigues.”[xlii] To his horror, however, he hears the heart of the deceased pounding with increasing amplitude from beneath the planks and, when the sound becomes intolerable, then confesses his crime.
I believe this to be an allegory of Poe’s rhetorical style. The narrator welcomes the policemen, offers them practically unrestricted access to his house, and urges them to “search well,” while the incriminating object is hidden beneath the floor. So does Poe offer the reader seemingly unrestricted access to his mind, and invites the reader to canvass his mental landscape, while the incriminating or dangerous thoughts or impulses lie beneath consciousness within the subtext. The beating of the heart that threatens to rise above the floor is like the unconscious subtext that continually threatens to penetrate the text, to become explicit; and just as the discovery of the beating of the heart would inculpate the story’s narrator would the emergence of the unconscious subtext expose the author.
Poe’s hyperconscious rhetoric is fundamentally equivalent to a Freudian negation. It protests, a bit too much, “I’m not repressing anything; there is no reason to seek hidden meaning because I’ve made everything apparent.” Ultimately, however, Poe’s deflective measures fail: the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” confesses his crime, and the astute reader detects the undercurrents seething beneath the “taut surfaces of Poe’s prose.” Perhaps then “The Tell-Tale Heart” is Poe’s symbolic recognition of the inadequacy of his subtly obfuscatory rhetoric, his assent to Freud’s proposition that in humans, “[self]-betrayal oozes out… at every pore.”[xliii]
As we have seen, Poe’s stories focus upon the macabre and the troubling; their manifest intent is to inspire terror. Freud’s hypothesis that “imaginative creation, like day-dreaming, is a continuation of and substitute for the play of childhood”[xliv]—that creative writing is largely wish-fulfilling—seems simply not to apply to Poe. But despite how disturbing his stories are, despite that they seem to be expressions of extreme mental conflict, they also represent attempted resolutions of that conflict through the gratification of largely Oedipal wishes.
Such a wish-fulfillment appears perhaps most transparently in Poe’s story “The Man That Was Used Up.”[xlv] The story’s narrator is introduced to Brevet Brigadier General John A. B. C. Smith, whom he finds “a very remarkable man”[xlvi] with perfectly proportioned “bodily endowments”[xlvii] and unparalleled eloquence. Yet, the narrator detects an “odd air of je ne sais quoi”[xlviii] about the General and endeavors zealously to discover its origin. Each interview he conducts on the subject, however, is frustrated by some annoying contingency. With no remaining alternatives, the narrator visits the General’s residence, wherein he resolves the great mystery: the General had been utterly dismembered while battling the Bugaboos and Kickapoos and now subsists sadly as a “bundle” of prosthetic body parts.[xlix]
This story represents a fairly primitive satisfaction of the Oedipal wish to usurp the powerful father, to reveal the dominant father-figure as a fraud. Bonaparte, focusing specifically upon the tale’s mutilation, considers it a “pure” example of the “father-castration motif” in Poe’s writing.[l] Moreover, by ascribing (or projecting) the violent deed to the Kickapoos and Bugaboos, Poe fulfills the Oedipal fantasy without incurring the concomitant guilt. Bonaparte views “The Tell-Tale Heart” as a similar, though less direct, father-castration tale in which the old man’s terrifying eye surrogates the father’s intimidating penis.[li]
Even in “Morella” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” whose manifest content is so intensely disturbing, lies the veiled satisfaction of Oedipal wishes. As we proposed before, reanimate women, who signify Poe’s moribund mother, return to reprove characters for their incestuous strivings; they embody the return of repressed Oedipal impulses. But while Madeline’s and Morella’s resurrections fill their respective protagonists with horror and Oedipal disgust, they also gratify Poe’s particular form of Oedipal longing: for a dead woman—his mother—to return to life and engage him physically. The final scene in which quasi-animate Madeline climbs atop Roderick is a direct expression of this wish. Furthermore, Roderick’s passivity if not resistance relieves him of the guilt that otherwise would attend the fulfillment of such an incest-wish.
We thus see the logic underlying Poe’s fantastic and seemingly whimsical short stories. They serve simultaneously to gratify incestuous wishes and punish those who harbor them, all the while veiling the most inappropriate or threatening material beneath Poe’s hyperconscious rhetoric.
And while it may seem that I have delivered an imbalanced analysis of Poe’s writing by focusing only upon a few of his stories, I remonstrate, with Bonaparte, that “the monotonous repetition of the same theme” throughout Poe’s oeuvre allows one to understand the broader ideas of his work from relatively few of his writings.[lii] Poe’s works suggest that he was tortured by the image of his morbid mother, his fervent and inadmissible love for whom left him uneasy and often horrified. And perhaps Poe’s work remains capable of inspiring terror precisely because it deals symbolically with those forbidden areas of family romance whose terrain appears to the modern reader vaguely and horribly familiar.
N O T E S
[i] Edgar Allan Poe, Poe: Poetry, Tales, & Selected Essays (New York: Library of America, 1997), p. 557.
[ii] Marie Bonaparte, The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation (New York: Humanities Press, 1971).
[iii] Bonaparte 7.
[iv] Bonaparte vi-vii.
[v] Poe 317.
[vi] Poe 318.
[vii] Poe 321.
[viii] Poe 322.
[ix] Poe 323.
[x] Poe 330.
[xi] Poe 335.
[xii] Poe 335.
[xiii] Poe 335.
[xiv] Peter Coviello, Intimacy in America: Dreams of Affiliation in Antebellum Literature (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), p. 76.
[xv] Bonaparte 237.
[xvi] But why does this recognition occur at that point in the story? Well, it occurs while Roderick is laying Madeline to perpetual rest, placing her in her final bed—an act not without latent sexual meaning; and it happens only after Madeline is (ostensibly) dead. As Bonaparte insists, morbidity and maternity are related intimately in Poe’s writing; thus as a woman dies, she gradually inherits maternal significance. Consequently, laying a dead woman to her ultimate bed for Poe symbolizes an Oedipal fantasy.
[xvii] Poe 330.
[xviii] Poe 330.
[xix] Poe 335.
[xx] Poe 335; The fact that Roderick had anticipated this preternatural form of death reinforces the conception of the story’s conclusion as a psychical narrative; he was able to presage these incredible “events” because they were already within him, merely waiting to penetrate consciousness.
[xxi] Poe 234.
[xxii] Poe 234.
[xxiii] Poe 236.
[xxiv] Poe 236.
[xxv] Poe 237.
[xxvi] Poe 237.
[xxvii] Poe 238.
[xxviii] Bonaparte 220.
[xxix] Bonaparte 222.
[xxx] Poe 234.
[xxxi] It is perhaps not coincidental that transposing the last three letters of “Morella” to the beginning of the word produces “Llamore,” or “L’ amore.” This linguistic distortion might further indicate the repressed eroticism of the narrator’s relationship to Morella.
[xxxii] Bonaparte 221.
[xxxiii] Poe 237.
[xxxiv] Poe 238.
[xxxv] Poe 237.
[xxxvi] Poe 238.
[xxxvii] Coviello 64.
[xxxviii] Poe 317.
[xxxix] Coviello 64.
[xl] Poe 555.
[xli] Poe 558.
[xlii] Poe 559.
[xliii] Sigmund Freud, Collected Papers, trans. James Strachey and Alix Strachey, 1st ed., vol. 3 (New York: Basic Books, 1959) 94, Questia, 2 Apr. 2007
[xliv] Sigmund Freud, “The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming,” On Creativity and the Unconscious: Papers on the Psychology of Art, Literature, Love, Religion (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1958), p. 53.
[xlv] Poe 307.
[xlvi] Poe 309.
[xlvii] Poe 308.
[xlviii] Poe 308.
[xlix] Poe 314.
[l] Bonaparte 501.
[li] Bonaparte 501.
[lii] Bonaparte 223.