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The Poetics and Politics of the American Gothic Gender and Slavery in Nineteenth-Century American Literature by Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet Book

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The Poetics and Politics of the American Gothic Gender and Slavery in Nineteenth-Century American Literature by Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet Read Book Online And Download

Overview: Challenging the widely held assumption that gothic literature is mainly about fear, Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet argues that the American Gothic, and gothic literature in general, is also about judgment. Analyzing canonical works by Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Gilman, and James, Monnet persuasively argues that these authors' concerns about slavery.


The Poetics and Politics of the American Gothic Gender and Slavery in Nineteenth-Century American Literature by Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet Book
The Poetics and Politics of the American Gothic Gender and Slavery in Nineteenth-Century American Literature by Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet Book





The Poetics and Politics of the American Gothic Gender and Slavery in Nineteenth-Century American Literature by Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet Book Read Online Chapter One


Unreliable Narrators and“unnatural sensations”: Irony and Conscience in Edgar Allan Poe


Poe’s politics have been the subject of speculation and projection since Baudelaire first praised Poe for what he saw as Poe’s justified contempt for American democracy.1 Anglo-American critics have tended to agree with Baudelaire’s assessment of Poe’s politics, if not with his approval of it. Instead, Poe has generally been taken to task for being a racist and a snob. One of the most famous of these accusations was made by Ernest Marchand in “Poe as Social Critic” (1934), where he argued that, as a self-identified Virginia gentleman, Poe was “hostile” to “democracy, industrialization and reform” (43). Poe’s critical reputation perked up considerably after WWII, thanks to waning interest in politics among literary scholars and a turn to psychological and formal analysis. Poe’s work found even more favor with Lacanians and post-structuralists, who appreciated him precisely because he seemed to have no commitments other than to his art and craftsmanship. The first sentence of “The Man of the Crowd” (1840) was taken as a self-reflective dictum on Poe’s entire work: “It is well said of a certain German book that ‘er lasst sich nicht lesen’—that it does not permit itself to be read.”2 According to this approach, Poe had already anticipated every critical move and incorporated it into his text, thereby proleptically proving Derrida’s claim in Of Grammatology that there is nothing outside the text, that there is no hors-texte (163).

In the 1990s, however, the hors-texte returned to haunt Poe criticism, and with it came a new round of denunciations of Poe’s reactionary politics and racism.3 Toni Morrison re-launched the debate about Poe’s racial politics by arguing in Playing in the Dark (1992) that Poe’s fiction stood at the center of white American self-fashioning around the obscured figure of the African American. In 2001, J. Gerald Kennedy and Liliane Weissberg edited a volume of essays, Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race, devoted entirely to this question. Though aiming to “unsettle traditional understandings of Poe,” most of the essays included in the volume confirmed the longstanding consensus about Poe’s racism, differing mainly in the degree to which they held Poe personally accountable for his “unconscionable opinions and values” (xvi).

Currently, however, a new wave of scholarship has begun to take a closer look at Poe’s writings in their cultural context. For example, Terence Whalen’s influential monograph, Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses (1999), suggests that Poe was neither an abolitionist nor a pro-slavery Southerner but a political centrist who adopted an editorial position of what Whalen calls “average racism” in order to not alienate readers who felt strongly about abolition one way or another. Along similar lines, Lesley Ginsberg has argued that “The Black Cat” (1843) is a satire of pro-slavery rhetoric, pushing the sentimentalist argument for the affectionate relationship between master and dependent to its absurd limit by showing how easily sentimentalism can become sadism when there are no checks on a master’s power. Analyzing the figure of the confidence man in “The Devil in the Belfry” (1839) and “The Man That Was Used Up” (1838), Clayton Marsh has recently suggested that Poe regarded the American myth of progress as “an oppressive and culturally pervasive confidence game that masked the horrors of frontier genocide and slavery beneath the speed and allure of industrial technology” (“Stealing Time” 260). In fact, one could say that a new Poe has emerged from the work of scholars such as Whalen, Ginsberg, and Marsh: a historically embedded and politically nuanced Poe, a writer who worried about the human costs of technological progress and the “rush of the age” and who responded to the slavery dispute in a variety of complex ways. This new scholarship neither denigrates nor exalts Poe as before but, instead, evokes a literary persona that reflected the complex and often contradictory political culture of antebellum America.

I intend to flesh out this nuanced and politically responsive Poe by exploring an aspect of his work that has been nearly universally ignored: the ethical. Reading Poe in terms of the gothic facilitates this kind of focus, since certain ethical issues (such as persecution, torture, and abuse of power) are axiomatic to the gothic genre. Poe stages and thematizes the gothic issues of judgment and its limitations in ways that can be read against the backdrop of Southern slavery. Just as Joan Dyan has suggested that slavery is the horizon of meaning for the way human bodies are so easily convertible into things in Poe’s work, I will show how slavery is a potential horizon of meaning for the pervasive concern with conscience (and specifically, its failure) in several of Poe’s stories, including “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839; “Amorous Bondage” 192).


Poe’s Aestheticism


Critics have produced a notorious diversity of interpretations about the meaning of Poe’s stories. In contrast to these startling disparities, Poe’s lack of ethical and moral commitments has generally enjoyed a serene critical consensus. In 1961, Vincent Buranelli declared empically that “Poe does not touch morality,” thus summing up a commonplace of twentieth-century Poe criticism (Edgar Allan Poe 72). Poe himself was partly responsible for creating this impression, notably with essays such as “The Rationale of Verse” (1848) and “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846), where he famously defines beauty in the following manner:


When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect—they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul—not of intellect, or of heart—upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating “the beautiful.” (Essays and Reviews, henceforth abbreviated as ER, 16)

Poe insists here that art should be concerned with “effect” (rather than meaning, by implication) and with an “elevation of the soul” rather than “intellect” or “heart.” In other words, art should not be concerned with truth or morality but with a specifically aesthetic effect that Poe locates in the idea of “soul” and which corresponds roughly to Kant’s autonomous sphere of aesthetic judgment. In spite of Poe’s occasional jabs at Kant (or “cant,” as he liked to pun), Poe’s tripartite model of the mind is directly inspired by the German philosopher’s division of the human subject into “pure reason” (the intellect), “practical reason” (morality or “the heart”), and judgment (the affective part that responds to art, beauty, and the sublime). Like Kant’s, Poe’s aestheticism is designed to clear a theoretical and cultural space for art to function free from accountability to truth, didacticism, morality, or social uplift. Also like Kant’s, Poe’s model of Pure Intellect, Moral Sense, and Taste assumes that the latter holds a privileged position with regard to the others, especially the Moral Sense. In “The Poetic Principle” (1850), Poe observes that there is merely a “faint” difference between Taste and the Moral Sense: the Moral Sense shows the “good” as a duty (“Conscience teaches the obligation”) while Taste contents herself with “displaying [its] charms” (ER 76). Firmly grounded in the Common Sense School as well as German Romanticism, Poe argues in this essay that “Vice” is recognizable by its “deformity” and “disproportion,” suggesting that the aesthetic was a means to recognize and appreciate the ethical.

Poe’s aestheticism was in fact far less radical and divorced from ethics than it came to be seen by twentieth-century critics, though it may have seemed quite radical in its original antebellum context. In fact, that was its whole point. Antebellum literary culture tended to reflect the middle-class values of sentimentalism and didacticism, and Poe’s position was clearly meant to define him as an oppositional figure. Aestheticism allowed him to defend the writer’s and editor’s right to pursue artistic freedom and merit, but it also gave him a recognizable public persona, something like a brand. Poe’s public identity was that of a literary provocateur, nicknamed “the Tomahawk” for his iconoclastic and merciless reviews. Adopting an amoral and even anti-moralist aesthetic philosophy was a canny self-marketing strategy, since being controversial was a distinct advantage in a literary culture ruled by commercial principles.4

Poe’s aestheticism, broadly defined as a concern with the technical aspects of literary effect, was also related to his status as literary professional. As a writer who depended on literary and journalistic production for his livelihood, Poe was deeply committed to promoting an understanding of writing as a vocation requiring specific skills and talents worthy of remuneration and protection by copyright laws. To this end, it was important to stress the writer’s technical qualifications and strategies in order to debunk the Romantic myth of writer as inspired genius (who, by implication, does not need to be paid for his literary effusions).

If aestheticism was a logical stance for Poe to adopt vis à vis the literary culture in which he found himself, it is also understandable that he exaggerated this position for the rhetorical purpose of making it clearer and more distinctive. As a result of his exaggerated and even hyperbolic arguments about the importance of the technical dimension of writing, however, critics have failed to appreciate the ethical sensibility that also informs his writing.

Poe’s insistence on the aesthetic over all other considerations has also created among readers the nagging suspicion that he is never entirely serious and so therefore is not to be taken seriously. “The Philosophy of Composition” in particular, with its straight-faced assertion that poetry is no more than a matter of mathematics and stagecraft, has made readers wonder if Poe’s work is not all a joke. After all, if Poe is being serious in this essay, then we would have to accept that “The Raven” and perhaps his other poems and tales are all clever market-oriented gimmicks. That said, if Poe is not being entirely serious in “The Philosophy of Composition,” then when is he? Poe creates a kind of literary version of the Liar’s Paradox with the “Philosophy of Composition.” As a result, critical reactions to Poe, especially by humanist critics prizing sincerity and literary seriousness, are suffused from the very start by accusations of hoaxing and charlatanism.


Unreliable Narrators


Poe’s complicated irony continues to confuse readers who want to pin down his texts. Although many studies have examined what Jonathan Elmer calls Poe’s “tonal instability,” critics whose primary concern is not his use of irony tend to ignore it entirely in order to facilitate the reading they need (Reading at the Social Limit 175). To take an example that speaks directly to my concern with Poe’s politics, “Mellonta Tauta” (1849) has often been read as a lightly veiled statement of Poe’s own anti-democratic views. Even the supposedly neutral introduction to Romancing the Shadow (ed. Kennedy and Weissberg) asserts that the story “betrays [Poe’s] contempt for the mob and the gospel of progress” (xiii). “Mellonta Tauta” is narrated by a woman whose notes from a balloon voyage in the year 2848 are presented by Poe as a found manuscript. Pundita, as her satirical name suggests, is a clear example of what Wayne Booth has called an “unreliable narrator.”5 While this is a term that has fallen into disuse since post-structuralism elevated the unreliability of literature and language to a general principle, it is nevertheless useful to keep this device in our critical toolbox when reading Poe. Unreliable narrators invite readers’ active participation in deciphering a narrative because they themselves misunderstand what they describe, overlook important connections, or fail to see their own or others’ motivations.

Poe uses unreliable narrators in virtually all of his stories, and their function is always to describe but fail to recognize important elements of the story, obliging the reader to make the connections the narrator misses. In “Mellonta Tauta,” the narrator describes a former nation called “Amricca” that the reader immediately recognizes as mid-nineteenth-century America. The narrator heaps scorn on this benighted country, especially its democracy and universal franchise. These passages are frequently quoted, as by Daniel Hoffman in 1972 or Maurice Lee in 2003, as proof of Poe’s “combatively conservative” opinion that democracy was a “stupid institution.”6 Yet, using them in this way makes no more sense than quoting the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” to prove that Poe was a murderer. Like the mad narrator of that story, Pundita reveals her unreliability early in the narrative through her emphatic assertion that “War and Pestilence” are a “positive advantage to the mass” and by writing approvingly of the fact that a man thrown overboard from the balloon is not rescued because in her “enlightened age” the needs of the collectivity are put before any individual’s (PT 874). No critic would suggest that Poe believed war was a positive good or that individuals should be sacrificed for the mass, so it is startling how eager critics are to believe that Pundita’s other fascistic pronouncements reflect Poe’s own views.

This type of misreading is avoidable if one understands the rhetorical importance of unreliable narrators to Poe’s textual effects. Almost every story is told by a narrator whose point of view is flawed in some way and requires the reader to complete the hermeneutic circle by making important connections for him or herself. An obvious example is “The Tell-Tale Heart,” where the narrator betrays his insanity quite quickly. At the other end of the spectrum, the narrator of “Berenice,” though eccentric, gives the reader no serious cause to doubt the reliability of his narrative until the end, when it is revealed that Berenice’s teeth are in his possession. Again, as in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” his failure is the result not of deliberate deception but of temporary madness or somnambulism: he seems to not have been conscious of his acts at the time. Yet, even this ending is narrated “unreliably” by never using the word “teeth.” Instead, the narrator describes “thirty-two small, white, and ivory-looking substances” falling to the floor (PT 233). This absurdly indirect description (after all, who could recognize that there are thirty-two of anything in a single glance?), like all unreliable narration, requires the reader to produce the final meaning herself by recognizing them as teeth. This involves the reader more directly in the surprise ending and presumably creates a more powerful effect, as she must make the gruesome connections in her own mind rather than being told by the text.

While the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” betrays his unreliability near the beginning, and the narrator of “Berenice” reveals his only at the end, most of Poe’s unreliable narrators betray their blind or biased perspective only gradually during the course of their narration. An example of this incremental estrangement is the early mock-gothic story “Metzengerstein” (1832). A conventional summary would describe it as revolving around a typically gothic rivalry between two aristocratic houses, haunted tapestries, an enigmatic and possibly haunted horse and ending with the violent death of the main protagonist. However, this description would completely miss the point of how the story works for a reader, namely, by a carefully choreographed estrangement from the narrator’s perceptions, which requires him to make sense of the story through inference. The reader’s active role is prepared for, as if often the case in Poe’s fiction, in the opening paragraphs. In this passage, the narrator describes what he identifies as a Hungarian superstition: the idea that human souls enter the bodies of animals under certain circumstances. The narrator naturally disavows this belief, but its presence at the opening of the story performs the rhetorical function of cueing the reader to the possibility that “metempsychosis” will play a part in the story that follows.

The story then begins with a description of the two rivals, old Berlifitzing and the young Metzengerstein, who has just inherited his parents’ vast fortune and embarked on several days of debauchery to celebrate. This revelry includes not only “unheard-of atrocities” towards his servants but also setting afire his neighbor’s prized stables, which leads to old Berlifitzing’s death in the fire. Although the first paragraph already put the narrator’s omniscient neutrality into question, he only really betrays his unreliability in the passage where the reader learns, along with the young Metzengerstein, that the horse-loving Berlifitzing has died at exactly the same moment that a mysterious black horse appears on his property. Metzengerstein receives this news with an exaggeratedly strange reaction: “I—n—d—e—e—d! ejaculated the Baron, as if slowly and deliberately impressed with the truth of some exciting idea” (PT 139). The narrator does not explain what the “exciting idea” is, but the reader has been given the tools in the opening paragraphs to make the appropriate inference. The next paragraphs are intensely ironic and deeply flattering to the reader, since they review the various hypotheses put forward by Metzengerstein’s entourage to account for his increasingly eccentric attachment to the wild horse, while the reader “knows” all along that Metzengerstein rides the horse constantly because he knows it possesses the soul of his enemy Berlifitzing. The reader also knows from the narrator’s passing references to the rider’s pitiable appearance that the horse’s spirit is somehow the stronger of the two, with the horse torturing the rider rather than the other way around.

The most intensely ironic moment of the narrative occurs shortly before the end of the story, when the narrator mentions that


Among all the retinue of the Baron, however, none were found to doubt the ardor of that extraordinary affection which existed on the part of the young nobleman for the fiery qualities of his horse; at least, none but an insignificant and misshapen little page, whose deformities were in everybody’s way, and whose opinions were of the least possible importance. He (if his ideas are worth mentioning at all) had the effrontery to assert that his master never vaulted into the saddle without an unaccountable and almost imperceptible shudder. (PT 141)

This passage effects an important change in the relationship of the reader to the narrator of the story. Until now, the reader was not obliged to pay much attention to the narrator, except for reading through the narrator’s descriptions to get the implied meaning of the horse’s identity. This passage, however, gives the reader a companion in his/her suspicions, the “insignificant and misshapen little page.” Not only does the reader suddenly find herself forced to identify with this unlikely person by virtue of the fact that he is the only one in the story who understands the truth about the Baron’s relationship to the horse but also she (the reader) discovers that the narrator is biased against this character. Although the narrator never acknowledges either the reader’s inference that the horse with the “earnest and human-looking eye” possesses Berlifitzing’s soul or that the page is correct in doubting the Baron’s love for the horse, the climax of the story, where the horse and rider plunge into a fire, corroborates it and, in fact, makes no sense without these inferences.

What is gothic about this story, then, is not so much the presence of conventions such as feuding houses and magic tapestries but the irony of the reading experience structured on a conflict between a majority opinion and a disenfranchised one (potentially shared by the reader). One thing that gives “Metzengerstein” the ethical resonance that I claim is crucial to the gothic is the fact that class tension and oppression are the tacit thematic references of the story. The main protagonist is a cruel master, whose first days upon the inheritance of his estate are spent in tyrannical dissolution: “flagrant treacheries—unheard-of atrocities—gave his trembling vassals quickly to understand that no servile submission on their part—no punctilios of conscience on his own—were thenceforth to prove any security against the remorseless fangs of a petty Caligula” (PT 136). In short, Metzengerstein is a moral monster, a man with absolute power and “no punctilios of conscience” to rein in his cruelty (PT 136).

Yet what the story stages is the subtle and implicit triumph of the subaltern’s point of view. Although some critics have read “Metzengerstein” in terms of the slavery debate, their failure to pay attention to the reading experience choreographed by the story has led to the same kinds of misreadings as of “Mellonta Tauta.” For instance, Maurice Lee has recently argued that “‘Metzengerstein’ takes a racist, anti-abolitionist stand at least insofar as Poe dwells on black savagery and the dangers of masterless chattel” (“Absolute Poe” 756). Lee assumes that the black horse represents black slaves, but the fact that the horse possesses a white aristocrat’s soul undermines the logic of this reading. The more direct analogy to Southern slavery should be made through the fact that Metzengerstein is a master to his feudal serfs or slaves. In this light, the story is about the ability of subalterns to see and understand the dynamics of power in a way that official or complicit perspectives (such as that produced by the unreliable narrator) do not. Where the narrator sees nothing amiss, the “misshapen little page” sees domination and distress. Most importantly, the reader is made to see this too, otherwise the ending (with the horse finally plunging with the rider into a fire) would make no sense. Thus, even if the story is a tongue-in-cheek parody of the gothic, its ironic tone does not alter the essential gothic structure of identification with the subaltern, which is why this tale has been able to function so well as gothic camp: it enacts perfectly the conventions it sends up.


Conscience: That Specter in My Path


Narrators can be unreliable in many different ways, but Poe’s narrators tend to be unreliable in one particular way: like Metzengerstein, they often have no conscience. The most famous example is “The Tell-Tale Heart,” where the first thing we notice about the narrator is the fact that he insists upon the soundness of his method without any awareness of the fact that a listener will think him mad not because he is unmethodical but because he is a murderer. In fact, all of Poe’s sociopathic narrators are recognizable by their obsession with the technical soundness of their acts. What makes this concern with method so darkly humorous is that it often involves criminal acts, and the narrators’ micro-attention to their technical details serves to distract from their immorality. For instance, the narrator of “The Business Man” prides himself on his “system and regularity” as well as his “integrity, economy, and rigorous business habits,” while in fact he turns out to be a con-man (PT 373). He begins by describing seemingly legitimate business ventures and gradually shifts into an account of the petty scams of a small-time grifter: delivering fake letters to collect the postage, playing an organ grinder so annoyingly that people pay him to go away, and finally raising cats to sell their tails to the authorities (who believe they are paying for proof of exterminated strays). What links the businessman of this story to the narrator of “Mellonta Tauta” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” is his total lack of moral self-consciousness. The fact that breeding cats to cut off their tails not only defeats the purpose of the reward offered by city officials but also is cruel simply does not register on this narrator’s moral radar. In fact, the whole point of this story, like “Diddling,” “Loss of Breath,” “William Wilson,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Imp of the Perverse,” to mention just some of the most famous, is that the narrator has no moral radar at all.

Yet, the ethical sensibility of the story (or the implied author) is not itself sociopathic and indifferent to moral issues, even if the narrator is. On the contrary, the lack of conscience on the part of the narrator powerfully solicits the reader’s own moral sensibilities and generates an ethical position for him. The narrator’s lack of conscience projects this moral perspective onto the reader through the process of making sense of the text’s irony. Paradoxically, the result is that the reader of Poe’s stories is solicited into an acutely ethical subject-position of seeing through the narrator’s moral blindness and having to compensate for it.

Although sympathy, and more recently, compassion, has received a great deal of critical attention by scholars of nineteenth-century America, conscience has received much less.7 Yet this concept—of an innate mental faculty relating to one’s judgment of the moral meaning of one’s own actions—was a matter of intense concern in antebellum culture. One of the few critical examinations of conscience in antebellum America, Richard Brodhead’s “Sparing the Rod: Discipline and Fiction in Antebellum America” (1988), suggested that the 1830s and 1840s saw corporal punishment giving way to more internalized forms of discipline (which Brodhead calls “disciplinary intimacy”). Brodhead notes in particular the curious status that conscience seemed to have in antebellum representations of self-discipline, namely as something that is uncannily “another than themselves, and yet themselves.”8 This uncanniness, of course, is the whole point of stories such as “William Wilson” or “The Imp of the Perverse,” where conscience appears to the narrator as a totally alienated and externalized agent.

One of the first major American tracts on moral philosophy, Elements of Moral Science (1835), by Francis Wayland, President of Brown University, devotes no fewer than five chapters to “Conscience, or the Moral Sense,” beginning with “Is there a Conscience?” suggesting that the notion of a separate faculty responsible for moral judgment was not self-evident and universally accepted. After arguing that there is a distinct mental faculty concerned with moral judgment, Wayland describes its specific function as the active role of “repelling vice” and contesting a subject’s “lower propensities,” but he also figures it as helpless to do anything but advise (49). Wayland repeatedly stresses the importance of “hearkening” and “obeying” the “impulses” of conscience, but he makes it clear that it is not the conscience that decides but the person who possesses it. Wayland’s language gives to conscience an independent existence and agency, conceptualizing it as an entity separate from the decision-making subject. Furthermore, one’s conscience can be strengthened or atrophied, like a muscle, by use or disuse. Thus, not only can individuals weaken and destroy their conscience by failing to obey it but also entire communities can collectively deaden and lose their moral sense by repeated acts of cruelty or violence. Citing gladiatorial Rome and revolutionary France as examples of societies which became sadistic or inured to suffering after tolerating spectacles of violence, Wayland argues that failure to heed conscience on a collective level produces a collective loss of moral sensibility.

Wayland’s arguments are instructive for reading Poe and situating him in a larger cultural discourse about conscience. For example, Wayland’s notion of conscience as easily corrupted and destroyed informs not only Poe’s work but also Harriet Beecher Stowe’s. One of Stowe’s main points in Uncle Tom’s Cabin is that slave-owners’ moral natures are hardened and injured by constant exposure to cruelty and suffering. She also shows how a man can stifle his conscience on purpose and end up becoming a monster, which is the case of the slave-trader Haley. For example, when Haley has been unsettled by a conversation about the Last Judgment, he reacts by taking out his pocket book and going over his accounts. The narrator observes that “many gentlemen besides Mr. Haley have found [going over their accounts] a specific for an uneasy conscience” (109). In this conflict between conscience and cupidity, conscience is described by the sarcastic narrator as an illness that is cured by the “specific” of financial considerations. In ironically casting the stings of conscience as an illness, Stowe echoes Poe’s own ironic characterization of the conscience as a dysfunction or obstacle complicating the lives of his criminal narrators (as I will demonstrate below). Both writers are concerned with how conscience can be smothered or ignored, and the long-term consequences of such moral self-mutilation.9

Indirectly addressing the issue of an atrophied conscience, Clayton Marsh has recently suggested that Poe’s tales constitute a warning about the dangers of instrumental rationalism and its human cost in a capitalist economy. Focusing on “The Devil in the Belfry” and “The Man That Was Used Up,” Marsh teases out the complex game of abuse and denial staged by these stories and relates it to mid-century discourses on time and progress. One of the conclusions to emerge from Marsh’s essay is that Poe worried about the effects of free-market capitalism on the ability of conscience to resist ever-new opportunities to do wrong in increasingly technologically advanced ways. This reading presents an important counter-view to the simplistic notion that Poe was skeptical about progress because he was politically conservative or reactionary. Instead, Marsh argues that Poe was worried about the human cost of the technological development that was being uncritically hailed as progress and was worried specifically about the ability of conscience to contend with the powerfully accelerated forces of self-interest in the new economy.

Although Poe repeatedly satirized the market economy of the 1830s and 40s as a con-man’s game (trying to make money without actually producing any goods or services), Poe’s stories are not all focused on business practices as directly as “The Businessman” and “Diddling.”10 If the new political economy was the backdrop for Poe’s concern with failures of conscience, this concern took the form of a more subtle rhetorical strategy in the construction of his tales. Nevertheless, a lack of conscience is the generative matrix of the most powerful rhetorical effects of Poe’s best-known stories. For example, the ironic force of “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846) depends entirely on the narrator’s lack of moral sense. Not only does the unreliable first-person narration invite the reader to discover the cruel story through the narrator’s pitiless perspective but also the text turns the narrator’s lack of conscience into a dark joke at the end of the story. When the narrator says that “his heart grew sick” when Fortunado stopped calling, the obvious expectation created by this phrase is that the narrator’s conscience is bothering him upon the realization that Fortunato has fainted or died (PT 854). This expectation is abruptly and comically undercut by the narrator’s far more mundane reason: “My heart grew sick—on account of the dampness of the catacombs” (PT 854). The dash serves to attract attention to the rhetorically important substitution being made to account for the narrator’s discomfort: not his conscience, but the cold! In fact, the narrator has no conscience and expresses no remorse for his murder, not even years later when he narrates it, which is why this text is by far one of Poe’s most uncanny. In it, he succeeds in creating an absolute sociopath who otherwise seems perfectly calm and sane.11

In the satirical “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherezade” (1845), not only does the murderous king lack a conscience, but furthermore, what he (and the narrator) calls his conscience is the opposite of what it is supposed to be. Instead of prompting him to do good, it prompts him to be methodical in his murders. He is initially described as a sound sleeper on account of his “capital conscience” after his habitual executions of his wives (PT, 788). Then, on the thousand and second night, wearying of Scheherezade’s long story, he announces that his “conscience” is “getting to be troublesome again,” by which he means that it is recalling him to his “duty” to murder her, which he promptly does (PT, 804). The joke here is that conscience calls the king to “duty” but the content of that duty has been emptied of all moral sense. It is pure method. The narrator is unreliable, as in the other tales, because he does not comment on the king’s cruelty, thereby requiring the reader to discern on his own what is missing or wrong with the narrative.

An important subset of these stories about conscience and its pathologies is the series of tales about a conscience that has been banished and returns as an externalized force that is perceived as perverse and destructive by the protagonist, who would prefer to pursue his immoral course unimpeded: “William Wilson” (1839), “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842), and “The Imp of the Perverse” (1845). Critics have often taken the expository part of “The Imp of the Perverse” at face value, crediting Poe with the insightful diagnosis of an overlooked psychological mechanism, namely, the desire to torment others or oneself. Yet taking this expository section seriously means reading it out of its rhetorical context as the self-serving introduction to yet another murderer’s confession. Like the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” he is concerned primarily with the method of his murder and is anxious to prove his sanity on the grounds of its cleverness. The fact that his lack of compunction to kill in the first place may itself prove his madness does not occur to him. However, unlike the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator of “The Imp of the Perverse” does not reveal the fact that he is a murderer at the beginning of the tale. Instead, he does so only after laying out the principles of his “theory” of the “Imp of the Perverse,” a personification of the perverse desire to undermine oneself, which he blames for his downfall. When his murder is successful and he inherits the fortune of his victim, he is completely safe and above suspicion. It is at this point that the narrator becomes subject to “fits of perversity” (Poe’s facetious description of the narrator’s conscience), which incite him to confess his murder. That he suppresses his conscience deliberately is betrayed by the narrator’s recognition that “to think, in [his] situation, was to be lost” (PT 831). This line reveals that in spite of his “absolute security” after his unsuspected crime, the narrator struggles with his conscience, figured in another line as a “haunting and harassing thought” (830). It is this “thought” which must be suppressed because it would lead to the narrator’s “loss.”

The story’s humor comes from the fact that the once more sociopathic narrator cannot recognize his conscience for what it is. It seems like a “fit of perversity” which now confronts him like “the very ghost of him whom I had murdered” and “beckon[s]” him to his “death” (831). Banished from its normal place inside the mind, the conscience returns externalized and personified as “some invisible fiend” who speaks to him in a “rough voice” and catches him with an even “rougher grasp” in order to make the “imprisoned secret burst forth from [his] soul” (PT 831). The joke of the story is that, for a murderer, it is devilishly inconvenient, even perverse, to have a conscience.

The tale that lies at the matrix of this thematic series is “William Wilson” (1839). The chronology of the story has not always been clearly understood. The narrator begins the story by telling us that he is nearing the end of a lifetime of criminality, and he proposes to tell us how he came to be so bad. In effect, the story is of how the narrator suppresses, rejects, flees, and finally kills his conscience. The event that he sets out to describe, which caused him to “drop virtue bodily as a mantle” and pass from “comparatively trivial wickedness” to “enormities” of crime, is the moment when he finally succeeds in murdering his conscience, which is narrated as the climax of the story (PT 337).12

The bulk of the narrative chronicles the narrator’s struggles to master and avoid his conscience without ever invoking this word after the initial epigraph: “What say of it? What say CONSCIENCE grim,/That spectre in my path?” (PT 337). As in “The Imp of the Perverse,” Poe invokes the fairly common device of figuring conscience as a ghost, since ghosts generally function like a conscience, “haunting and harassing” people with memories of past crimes. To illustrate how weak his conscience is from the start, the narrator describes his childhood as a history of petty tyranny over his schoolmates. A kind of child-Caligula, the narrator describes himself as having a “supreme and unqualified despotism” over the other boys, requiring their absolute “submission” to his will (PT 341). The only boy to rebel from the narrator’s reign is William Wilson, the mysterious double who appears at the school one day and whose “true superiority” the narrator cannot help but acknowledge (342). Slowly, details about William Wilson make it clear that this mysterious double, unnoticed by anyone except the narrator, is his exteriorized and unrecognized conscience. In contrast to the narrator’s conscience in “The Imp of the Perverse,” which has a “rough voice,” William Wilson’s conscience cannot speak above a “very low whisper,” thus making it much easier to ignore (Poe’s italics; 343). Details accumulate to confirm the reading suggested by the epigraph: his voice is exactly the same as the narrator’s, though his “moral sense” is “far keener,” and he “interferes” constantly with the narrator through “advice not openly given, but hinted or insinuated” (345).13

The topos of conscience as a perversely self-destructive impulse is also illustrated in “William Wilson.” When the narrator has cheated his classmate Glendinning out of a small fortune, everyone in the room, including himself, feels an “embarrassed gloom” at the distress of the naïve victim, and it is at this precise moment that William Wilson denounces the narrator’s dishonesty. Just as in “The Imp of the Perverse,” the narrator’s conscience gives him away precisely because no one suspects his crime, and the fact that he feels “relief” at Wilson’s interruption makes it clear that it is his own pained conscience that is at work. The comic aspect of this situation is that Wilson, like the murderer-narrator of “The Imp,” narrates this public confession as an exposure coming from someone else because he cannot recognize his own conscience when he hears it.

The dramatic climax of “William Wilson” comes at the moment when the narrator finally liquidates his conscience completely. Some critics have interpreted the last words of the double “henceforth art thou also dead!” to mean that William Wilson has killed himself, but this is clearly not possible, since the narrator begins the tale with a reference to his “later years of unspeakable misery, and unpardonable crime” (PT 337). What the story narrates is the build-up to the instant when his virtue “dropped bodily like a mantle,” meaning the moment he kills his conscience once and for all. The image of virtue dropping “like a mantle” (made in the opening paragraph) is a proleptic reference to his murder of William Wilson at the end, since Wilson is consistently associated in the story with the mantle he wears when he denounces the narrator at the university.

“William Wilson” has rarely been discussed in terms of this fairly obvious reading because it seems at first glance too simple and theoretically uninteresting. However, placing the story back in the context of the entire series of Poe tales that treat conscience as an alienated entity allows us to see how preoccupied Poe was with an issue that also worried moral philosophers and social reformers of the time. An interesting companion piece to “William Wilson” is “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842), which culminates in the murder of an externalized personification of a character’s conscience. The Prince Prospero shuts himself inside his castle while a deadly epidemic devastates his country, and he deliberately devotes himself to unthinking entertainment for nearly six months before the “Red Death” finally penetrates his castle. The psychological mechanism illustrated here is “denial,” which, as I explained in the introduction, is a form of self-protection through the refusal to acknowledge something that one knows. Just as in “The Imp of the Perverse” the narrator writes that “to think, in [his] situation, was to be lost,” so the Prince Prospero has barricaded himself inside his castle with a host of distractions because “it was folly to grieve, or to think” (my emphasis; PT 831, 485). The shrouded apparition at the end of the story is not only a figure for the disease raging outside but also a personification of the Prince’s exiled conscience, which is why it does not enter the castle but simply appears within it one day. It would be a mistake to see the story as an allegory. If anything, the masked and shrouded figure is a complex symbol for death in general, the Red Death in particular, and the prince’s stifled conscience all at once. Reading the figure as the Prince’s personified conscience explains why it is empty (“untenanted by any tangible form”) once the Prince has been stabbed—apparently by himself. The ending of “The Masque of the Red Death” resembles the erroneous readings of the ending of “William Wilson” as a suicide, only in this case it is true: in the act of stabbing the mysterious “mummer,” the Prince kills himself.


Masters and Slaves and the Ghost of Nat Turner


A pattern that emerges from this series of stories about characters with no conscience is that they are frequently kings, princes, barons, or masters of some kind. They are characters whose power is absolute and who have been corrupted absolutely. Having no outside check on their cruelty or vice, they have also smothered the only internal check that might have offered resistance. The fact that this cycle of tales revolves so often around a dynamic of domination and feudal tyranny suggests that slavery is at least as much a likely backdrop to the issues being worked through as urban capitalism. In spite of Poe’s public dislike for abolitionists, these stories suggest that he was well aware of the injustice of slavery and was concerned, like Harriet Beecher Stowe, by the insensitivity it bred in slave-owners.

One of his last published stories, “Hop-Frog,” not only involves an unreliable narrator and conscience-less king but also explicitly raises the issue of master-slave relations. Hop-Frog is a Fool for a king whose defining characteristic is sadism disguised as joviality. This sadism is suggested from the start by the fact that Hop-Frog’s “value was trebled” for the king by being “a dwarf and a cripple,” which allowed the king to “laugh at” him as well as with him (Poe’s emphasis; PT 899). The first scene of the story shows the king torturing Hop-Frog and a slave girl by forcing them to drink wine and striking them, while the unreliability of the narrator is earmarked early in the text by the reference to “our king,” which indicates that the narrator identifies himself as a royal subject and explains, as it were, why he reports but fails to recognize the king’s sadism as such (PT 899). Since the narrator does not acknowledge the king’s obvious cruelty, himself mirroring the king’s lack of moral sensibility, the reader is forced to read between the lines in order to understand Hop-Frog’s intentions. At a key moment in the story, for example, Hop-Frog says: “I cannot tell what was the association of idea … but just after your majesty had struck the girl and thrown the wine in her face—just after your majesty had done this … there came into my mind a capital diversion” (Poe’s italics; PT, 258). The irony of this sentence is deployed on the most obvious level, namely, the explicit denial of awareness of a connection (“I cannot tell what was the association”) between the king’s violence and the obvious revenge of “tarring and furring” the king and his ministers proposed by the dwarf. The king’s failure to perceive the sinister possibilities in Hop-Frog’s plan is linked directly to his inability to see his treatment of his slaves as cruel, whereas the reader is invited to see both the king’s cruelty and his imminent comeuppance.

Thus, as in “Metzengerstein,” the reader is not only obliged to identify with a slave’s point of view but also is even solicited to supply the motives that the narrator and king fail to imagine, namely, the slave’s natural desire for revenge and freedom. Paul Gilmore goes so far as to call Hop-Frog “a fully individuated and complex subject” and argue that Poe identifies with him as he stages an allegorical revenge fantasy against the literary marketplace that would reduce him to a commodity (The Genuine Article 112). Joan Dyan also reads the story as a revenge, and more specifically as Poe’s “revenge for the national sin of slavery” (“Amorous Bondage” 197). Nevertheless, while Gilmore agrees that the reader is made to identify with Hop-Frog, neither reading fully accounts for the way in which the final lynching scene, when the king and his advisers are chained and roasted, complicates that identification in a typically gothic way. When the sympathetic Hop-Frog reduces the king and his ministers to a “fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass,” the result is a moral aporia, since the reader can no longer identify with him and is left even more critical of Hop-Frog than of the king. Finally, Hop-Frog’s own lack of conscience and compassion may be read as evidence that cruelty breeds more of the same, implying that the system which produces tyrants and victims also produces the conditions of a pitiless payback.


Sounds of Agony Mistaken for Mirth


This brings me finally to “The Fall of the House of Usher,” where the devices I have discussed—the unreliable narrator and a lack of conscience—converge once more. Debates about the narrator’s reliability have raged throughout the twentieth century, and no reading of “Usher” is possible without weighing in on this issue.14 As I argued earlier, most if not all of Poe’s narrators are unreliable, and this one is no exception. His main function in the story is to fail to understand what he reports. Evidence of his unreliability is present from the first sentence: e.g., his exaggeratedly emotional reaction to the house and landscape and his references to drug-induced states. These details cue the reader against taking the narrator’s account at face value, and they help account for the central motor of irony and drama in the story: the narrator’s failure to recognize the sounds of Madeline’s struggle with her coffin lid and crypt after being locked in an underground tomb by her brother Roderick.

Roderick Usher’s lack of response to the sounds of his sister’s struggles, revealed by the ending, is the main hermeneutic gap created by the unreliable narrator, who reports Roderick appearing to listen to inaudible sounds but fails to make the obvious inference about Madeleine’s revival. The information that the reader needs to keep in mind, like the opening paragraph of “Metzengerstein,” in order to understand Usher’s inaction, is the fact that Usher is terrified of any event that might cause a shock to his system. “I shudder at the thought of any, even the most trivial, incident, which may operate upon this intolerable agitation of the soul,” he has told the narrator (PT 323). Presumably the realization that he has locked his sister into her tomb alive would be such a shock. The importance of this information is formally highlighted in the text by the fact that this is the first of only two long speeches made by Usher in the entire story. Usher’s second long speech is the dramatic climax itself, where he reveals that he has in fact “heard her footstep on the stair” and that he has heard her stirring in her coffin since “many, many days” (PT 334). These two long speeches by Usher are important because they offer first the explanation for and then the confirmation of the implied events of the story: Madeline’s protracted struggle after being buried alive.

The first part of “The Fall of the House of Usher” consists of elaborate narrative preparations for the dramatic climax. For instance, in the paragraph before Usher describes his terror of being “agitated” by even the slightest incident, the narrator has mentioned that Usher has a preternatural sense of hearing, one of the “host of unnatural sensations” that characterizes Usher’s hyper-acute senses” (PT 322). This information is necessary, above all, to account for the fact that Usher hears Madeline’s efforts (while the narrator does not) even before she opens the squeaky vault door itself. Thus, soon after Madeline’s death and entombment in the underground chamber, when Usher’s manner begins to appear agitated and nervous, when he seems to be “listening to some imaginary sound” and to be “laboring with some oppressive secret,” the reader is forcibly solicited by the text to guess what that secret is (PT 330). As mentioned before, Usher’s strange behavior constitutes a hermeneutic gap or “blank” (in Wolfgang Iser’s terms) that the reader is required to fill with a plausible explanation. It is important that the narrator not fill in that blank himself. Indeed, the story would be wholly without suspense if the narrator guessed immediately that Madeline was alive. It would then be a story of her rescue or of her deliberate murder. The fact that the story reveals her plight to the reader while the two protagonists fail to notice, or pretend to not hear it, is what gives the story its peculiar and unsettling power.

The long last section of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in which the narrator describes hearing “low and indefinite sounds” that continue to grow louder and more alarming as he reads the “Mad Trist” to Usher in order to distract him, is the dramatic center of the story. Its rhetorical power depends on the fact that the reader is necessarily aware that Madeline has been buried alive and that the narrator and the brother seem (or pretend) to not recognize this fact. The effect is a curious combination of ill ease with regard to Madeline’s torture and approach and a kind of sadistic irony regarding the two men’s apparent (or feigned, in Usher’s case) unawareness. This scene, in which the narrator reads a chivalric romance to distract Usher, is drawn out as long as possible in order to amplify its uncanny effects: an angry Madeline laboriously draws closer while the two men read and listen to the sounds of her approach in a state of obvious denial. The irony of the situation generates a peculiarly ethical position for the reader, who is aware of the suffering that the main characters do not recognize or deliberately ignore.

In addition to its formal coherence, this reading of “The Fall of the House of Usher” is the only one that will account for what Poe describes in a 1845 review article as the story’s main effect (what he calls its “thesis”): “the revulsion of feeling consequent upon discovering that for a long period of time we have been mistaking sounds of agony, for those of mirth or indifference” (ER 871). Literally, this refers to the sounds of Madeline’s struggle to escape her tomb, sounds which Usher has ignored and the narrator has mistaken for the sounds in “Mad Trist.” Structurally, it recalls the masquerades and other festivities used to mask the sounds of suffering, as in “The Masque of the Red Death” or “Hop-Frog.” The effect he describes here is complex, assuming both a process in time (“sounds we have been mistaking” followed by a “consequent” feeling of revulsion) and an ethical framework (the revulsion being essentially an ethical response). The word “mirth” in this passage is a bit misleading. The sounds that the narrator confuses with Madeline’s struggle are the sounds of Sir Lancelot’s battle with the dragon. These “battle sounds” can be called “mirth” only in the sense that chivalric romances, like all light literature, are a form of amusement. The fact that the narrator chooses to read a chivalric romance would have a special resonance in the context of the South, which tended to imagine its cultural roots in the Celtic and Scottish chivalric traditions. The term “indifference” is more challenging. Even if indifference does not have a clearly defined sound, the idea of “indifference” to agony brings us squarely back to the issue of conscience and its absence that I have argued is axiomatic to much of Poe’s work.

It is here that I would like to propose that “Usher” can be read against the backdrop of slavery and, in particular, the fear of slave revolt. As Lesley Ginsberg notes in her article on “The Black Cat,” the Southern response to Nat Turner’s 1931 rebellion was stupefaction, in particular with regard to his motives. According to the press, a slave revolt made no sense, and Nat Turner must have been a lunatic. For example, the Richmond Enquirer wrote that Turner acted “without any cause or provocation, that could be assigned” (quoted in Ginsberg, 100). Thomas Gray, the man who extracted Turner’s confession, expresses sympathy with readers’ frustration at seeing the “insurgent slaves … destroyed, or apprehended, tried, and executed … without revealing anything at all satisfactory, as to the motives which governed them” (quoted in Ginsberg, 101). This inability, whether genuine or feigned, to understand Turner’s rebellion was linked to Southern insistence that slavery was essentially a harmless institution and that slaves did not hate their servitude and their masters (although the fact that torture, mutilation, and death were the immediate results of any kind of revolt was the open secret of the South’s inability to understand Turner’s daring). In other words, the official Southern position on the suffering of slaves was that it did not exist.

Poe’s views on slavery have been the subject of intense debate.15 For many years, the main argument for Poe’s purportedly pro-slavery views was a review article called the “Drayton-Paulding” review, which depicted slavery as a benevolent and civilizing institution. In Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses (1999), Terence Whalen painstakingly demonstrates that Beverly Tucker, a Southern ideologue and writer, was the author of this sentimental defense of Southern slavery. Whalen also points out that the range of positions on slavery varied widely, even within the South, and that it is inaccurate to characterize antebellum thinking on the subject simply in terms of abolitionists and slavery supporters. As I mentioned earlier, Whalen argues that it is likely that Poe entertained a common centrist view that combined a certain “average racism” with a conviction that there was no future in slavery (111). This position implied being against the expansion of slave-holding territory on the principle that slavery should be gradually (though not suddenly or violently) abolished. This not only would have been a common-enough view among educated Southerners but also one that would have allowed Poe to offend neither Southern nor Northern sensibilities in his book reviews.

I would further add that, irrespective of his limited and ambiguous remarks in his editorial reviews, Poe’s fiction requires us to make a distinction between his treatment of race and his treatment of slavery, which pull in decidedly different directions. While Poe’s depictions of African Americans tend to render them physically comic and grotesque (Hop-Frog, Pompey in “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” Jupiter in “The Gold-Bug,” Pompey in “The Man That Was Used Up”), his representation of their moral character and relationship to their white master often lends them dignity and even a certain power. For example, the manumitted Jupiter supervises his white employer in “The Gold-Bug,” while the unflappable Pompey reconstructs his pretentious and abusive master’s body in “The Man That Was Used Up” (1839). Similarly, the silent Pompey in “How to Write a Blackwood Article” is far more dignified than the prattling Psyche Zenobia, and even the deformed Hop-Frog surpasses the stupid and sadistic king in human complexity in that eponymous story.

More to the point, however, Poe’s depiction of slavery is considerably more tinged by abolitionist assumptions than his depiction of blacks. After all, understanding the natural desire of the slave not only to revolt but also to punish violently his master is the main point of “Hop-Frog.” This desire is also thematized indirectly in the comic “Four Beasts in One” (1833), where the wild animals that have been domesticated to be “valets-de-chambre” stage a mutiny and eat their masters (PT 187). Similarly, in “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” the offended Pompey refuses to save Psyche Zenobia from being decapitated after she has insulted him and pulled out his hair. Thus, while Poe’s physical descriptions of African Americans are unarguably racist, his depiction of slavery is always fraught with violence and the potential for insurrection. In no plausible way can it be argued that Poe regarded slavery as the benevolent institution of Southern pro-slavery propaganda like the “Drayton-Paulding” review.

Half a century ago, Harry Levin suggested that “The Fall of the House of Usher” could be read sociologically in terms of the plantation system of the South. Specifically, he saw the South’s “feudal pride and foreboding of doom” mirrored in the story and saw Usher as “the hypersensitive end-product of civilization itself, driven underground by the pressure of fear” (The Power of Blackness 160–161). While Levin’s reading acknowledges the sense of threat informing the tale, I propose that reading the narrative against the backdrop of slavery and slave insurrection gives the story a more precise resonance.16 This is not to argue that the text is meant as an allegory. Instead, the issue of slavery should be regarded as a kind of cultural framework for understanding the specific emotional charge of the story’s principal tensions and tropes. For example, the subterranean room where Madeleine is placed as a precaution against grave-robbing physicians had once been a dungeon and has subsequently been used as a storeroom for gunpowder or “some other highly combustible substance” (329). This otherwise excessively detailed history of the room links its past function as a site of feudal imprisonment to the idea of combustibility, an association that would have resonated suggestively with the fear of insurrection in the post-Turner South.17 Moreover, as Teresa Goddu points out, slavery was often described as a “dungeon, hell, or pit” in antebellum discourse (“Poe, Sensationalism, and Slavery” 105). The fact that Madeline’s body becomes a valuable object upon her death and a potential target of theft also has a richer resonance when read in the context of slavery, which is based on the convertibility of human bodies into commodities. The floors of the House of Usher are repeatedly described as black or “ebon,” a detail that evokes with a figurative sleight of hand the black labor which supported the precarious structure of Southern aristocracy (PT 320). Perhaps not accidentally, then, the door panels that open to reveal Madeline’s bloody body are also described as “ebony jaws” (PT 335).

Moreover, Usher’s belief in the sentience of the physical matter of his mansion and tarn takes on a distinctly more ironic significance when read in light of a culture whose laws defined some human beings as things. If we consider that African Americans were bought and sold like chattel on the premise that they had no more feeling or sense than a smart dog (a premise that Uncle Tom’s Cabin labors mightily to refute), the debate about Usher’s belief in the sentience of his physical environment assumes an eerie suggestiveness. The narrator dismisses Usher’s suspicions, but the end of the story corroborates Usher’s impression that the atmosphere around the house is unnaturally bright and possibly alive (PT 331). The narrator himself admits in the last section that there is indeed something to see when he tells Usher that he “must not … behold this” (331). The final image of the house tarn devouring the house with a “long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters” reinforces the figural evocation of a mob or invisible insurrectionary mass.

However, the most important element of “The Fall of the House of Usher” which invites reading it in terms of slavery is the fact that it dramatizes a revenge for imprisonment and physical torture. (Even a reading as un-political as Marie Bonaparte’s identifies revenge as the main drama of the story, though she reads it psychoanalytically in terms of an Oedipal family drama.) Much of the power of the latter part of the story draws its emotional charge from the fact that Madeline’s struggle with her coffin and crypt is ignored for days. Forget the alleged ethereality of Poe’s women: Madeline claws her way out of a sealed coffin, opens a massive metal door, and climbs up from the “great depth” where the vault lies all the way to the narrator’s room. What finally motivates Usher’s great terror is not the fear that he has made a mistake but fear of the revenge that Madeline will naturally exact for his inaction: “Is she not hurrying to upbraid me?” (PT 335). When Madeline appears at the door, she is covered with blood and “evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame” (335). Her body is intensely physical here: reeling, moaning, bloody, and falling “heavily” on her brother, she manages to crush Usher and bear him “to the floor a corpse” (335).

Again, this is not an allegory of slavery so much as an analogy: Usher’s fear and denial of his sister’s suffering stands in an analogous relationship to the conflicted attitude of slave owners toward the suffering of their slaves. And more specifically, Madeline’s legitimate claim of wrong gives her approach all the dreadful power of the Last Judgment, or … a bad conscience. In fact, Madeline’s appearance at the door, a “lofty and enshrouded figure,” accompanied by a gust of wind, strongly recalls the descriptions of the appearance of a character’s conscience in the stories I discussed before. William Wilson’s conscience appears also with a gust of wind that extinguishes every candle in the room where Wilson has been gambling, and he is described as a figure “closely muffled in a cloak” (PT 352). Similarly, the apparition at the end of “The Masque of the Red Death” is described as a “figure … tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave” (PT 489). Like Madeline’s, his “vesture was dabbled in blood” (489). None of these figures can be described strictly speaking as an allegory for conscience, but each has the rhetorical and performative function of the re-appearance of a character’s long-repressed and smothered moral sense.

It is curious that an early film version of “The Fall of the House of Usher” has picked up on these dynamics of revenge, conscience, and justice better than many literary critics, who focused for decades on allegories of consciousness and subtle Freudian exhumations. Jean Epstein’s 1928 silent film, La chute de la maison Usher, makes Usher’s implicit cowardice and egotism explicit by grafting elements from “The Oval Portrait” onto the story. Usher kills Madeline slowly but perceptibly in the process of painting her portrait. We see Madeline getting weaker every time Usher applies his brush to the canvas. It is not clear whether he realizes this or not, but in any case he is so absorbed and enamored of his portrait that he does not care. The unreliability of the narrator is translated visually by making him a bumbling old fool who nearly deaf, which presumably helps explain why he does not hear Madeline’s struggles (though Usher is shown to be listening to them).

To conclude, reading Poe in terms of the gothic genre allows us to bring into focus an important element in his fiction that has received scant attention: its concern with ethical problems. Ethics, the philosophical study of justice, should not be confused with moral values, which are historically and culturally contingent. Since much antebellum literature was concerned with morality and Christian values, Poe, a perennial outsider and “camp intellectual” (to use Andrew Ross’s term for a certain kind of resistant public intellectual), naturally sought to situate himself as a-moral and anti-didactic. It would be naïve, however, to confound a resistance to moral didacticism with an absence of ethical concern. A commitment to art did not imply an indifference to justice. Even Wilde, the camp enemy of Victorian moralism, had a deeply ethical sensibility apparent in works such as “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (1891).

I have tried to show how the issues of conscience and denial are central to Poe’s fiction—and that the precise form of irony that he stages in relation to these issues is often that of moral blindness. In light of the readings I have offered in this chapter, the following passage from a late piece called “Fifty Suggestions” (1849) should not seem as anomalous as it otherwise might:


Poets see injustice—never where it does not exist—but very often where the unpoetical see no injustice whatsoever. Thus the poetical irritability has no reference to “temper” in the vulgar sense, but merely to a more than usual clear-sightedness in respect to Wrong:—this clear-sightedness being nothing more than a corollary from the vivid perception of Right—of justice—of proportion … (ER 1300)

At the very least, this passage suggests how simplistic it is to assign Poe an anachronistic aestheticism, an unqualified advocacy of “art for art’s sake.” This late expression of Poe’s thoughts on the poet’s natural sense of “justice” and “proportion” suggests a much more complex attitude toward the ethical dimension of art. Instead of a literary con-man or postmodernist avant la lettre, Poe imagined himself as a natural aristocrat: blending taste (proportion) and ethical judgment (justice) in a sensibility that sees more than ordinary people and is more sensitive to injustice. What is fascinating is how Poe tries to teach his readers to have the same vivid perception and clear-sightedness by inviting them to read through and against his morally myopic narrators.

Finally, Poe’s image of the visionary poet anticipates Hawthorne’s famous figure of the visionary seer in The House of the Seven Gables. In that most gothic of tropes, Hawthorne describes a stately mansion whose prepossessing appearance belies a dark secret, a “corpse, half-decayed, and still decaying,” which may have been hidden in a closet or under the marble floor (230). Though invisible to the owner’s many guests, the corpse may still be discerned by someone with the power to see through surfaces: “Now and then, perchance, comes in a seer, before whose sadly gifted eye the whole structure melts into thin air, leaving only the hidden nook, the bolted closet, with the cobwebs festooned over its forgotten door, or the deadly hole under the pavement, and the decaying corpse within” (230). In this powerful image, Hawthorne transforms Poe’s “more than usual clear-sightedness” into a “sadly gifted eye,” suggesting that moral clear-sightedness is as much a burden as a gift. In the next chapter, we will see how intensely ambivalent is Hawthorne’s own gothic exploration of moral judgment.



1 Baudelaire’s most explicit remarks on Poe’s politics are made in “Edgar Poe, His Life and Works” (1852), where he writes that “Poe … maintained that the great misfortune of his country was the lack of aristocracy of birth, since among a people without an aristocracy a cult of the Beautiful could only become corrupt, diminish and disappear—who charged fellow citizens, in their costly and pretentious luxury, with all the symptoms of bad taste of upstarts—who considered Progress, the great modern idea, as the fatuous dream of simpletons” (quoted from Baudelaire as Literary Critic, eds. Lois Boe Hyslop and Francis B. Hylsop [University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1964], pp. 92–94).


2 Poetry and Tales, ed. G.R. Thompson (New York: The Library of America, 1984), p. 388, henceforth abbreviated as PT. The notion that Poe is fundamentally illegible continues to be popular among poststructuralist and psychoanalytic critics, though there is a tendency to project content onto Poe’s blanks. See, for example, Richard Godden’s “Poe and the Poetics of Opacity: Or, Another Way of Looking at that Black Bird,” ELH 67.4 (2000): 993–1009, which suggests that the real meaning of the “opaque” surface of “The Raven” is the repressed trauma of race.


3 Examples of recent work that casts Poe as a racist sympathizer with slavery include Joan Dyan, “Amorous Bondage: Poe, Ladies, and Slaves,” and Louis Renza, “‘Ut Pictura Poe’: Poetic Politics in ‘The Island of the Fay’ and ‘Morning on the Wissahiccon,’” both in The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Shawn Rosenheim and Stephen Rachman (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995); Betsy Erkkila, “The Poetics of Whiteness: Poe and the Racial Imaginary,” and John Carlos Rowe, “Edgar Allan Poe’s Imperial Fantasy and the American Frontier,” both in Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race, ed. J. Gerald Kennedy and Liliane Weissberg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); and Maurice S. Lee’s “Absolute Poe: His System of Transcendental Racism,” American Literature 75.4 (2003): 751–781.


4 Recent work that explores Poe’s relationship to the antebellum literary marketplace includes Sandra M. Tomc, “Poe and His Circle” in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Kevin J. Hayes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Paul Gilmore, The Genuine Article: Race, Mass Culture, and American Literary Manhood (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2001); Terence Whalen, Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); and Meredith L. McGill, “Poe, Literary Nationalism, and Authorial Identity,” The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Rosenheim and Rachman.


5 See Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), especially Chapter VIII: “Telling as Showing: Dramatized Narrators, Reliable and Unreliable.” Poe’s ambient misogyny is evident here, as the very notion of a female authority or expert (a “pundita” being a female version of a pundit) is assumed to be comic.


6 Daniel Hoffman, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), p. 190, and Lee, “Absolute Poe,” p. 757.


7 See, for example, Lauren Berlant, Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), and Susan M. Ryan, The Grammar of Good Intentions: Race and the Antebellum Culture of Benevolence (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003).


8 A quotation from Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s Kindergarten Guide (Boston, 1863), quoted in Brodhead’s “Sparing the Rod,” p. 79.


9 In fact, Wayland himself argued that although domestic slavery is unjust because it is a “violation of the personal liberty” of the slave, it is nevertheless entirely up to the personal conscience of the master whether or not to manumit his slave, The Elements of Moral Science, ed. Joseph Blau (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963), p. 188. Wayland nevertheless became a “bête noir of Southern apologists” and was viciously attacked throughout the 1840s and 50s (Joseph Blau, “Introduction” xiv). It is relevant for my larger argument in this chapter that the author of a widely read treatise on conscience (and one which clearly influenced Poe) not only condemned slavery explicitly but also became an important symbol of the moral argument against slavery.


10 For a discussion of Poe’s attitude towards the market economy and its resemblance to swindling, see Terence Whalen’s “Poe’s ‘Diddling’ and the Depression: Notes on the Sources of Swindling,” Studies in American Fiction 23 (1995): 195–201.


11 It is astounding how eager critics have been to take Montresor at his word and ignore his unreliability and even madness. For instance, David Leverenz, in his wonderful article on Poe’s conflicted class consciousness, “Poe and Gentry Virginia” (1995), makes Montresor’s actions seem understandable, almost excusable: “Montresor’s revenge against Fortunato avenges the outsider status of old money, displaced by men who wear urban motley and deal in international finance” (The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Rosenheim and Rachman p. 231). Yet, Montresor’s deliberate torture of Fortunato bespeaks a far deeper disorder than the “bewilderment” of old money before the new. When Fortunato begins to scream, Montresor answers with screams of his own: “I replied to the yells of him who clamored. I re-echoed—I aided—I surpassed them in volume and in strength. I did this, and the clamorer grew still” (853). Fortunato stops screaming for help because he realizes that the man who has walled him in is a lunatic impervious to his pleas. If the scene were shown on film, the cruel insanity of Montresor’s mimicking of Fortunato’s screams would be hair-raisingly obvious, while readers seem to be easily taken in by Montresor’s self-confident and serene narrative voice (serene precisely because untroubled by pangs of guilt or conscience).


12 Peter K. Garrett dismisses this reading as incoherent since the narrator reproaches himself in the story, thus undermining the conclusion that he has killed his conscience in the final scene. If he really had no more conscience, Garret objects, why is the narrator so “guilt-ridden”? Gothic Reflections: Narrative Force in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 73. This objection would be valid if the story were meant to be realistic, but this kind of reading forgets the fact that Poe is more interested in literary than psychological effects. The narrator’s guilt prompts his narrative-confession at the end of his life, but the point of the story is the textual device of the externalized conscience, not a psychological study. Like “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” or “The Man That Was Used Up,” “William Wilson” is based on an elaborate verbal joke.


13 In a review of Longfellow’s poetry, Poe discusses the way in which a poem might be written about a subject that is not specified in the body of the poem but is mentioned in a preface or what Poe calls a “prefix.” In such a case, Poe writes, “the reader must revert, in mind at least, to the prefix, for the necessary explanation” (Essays and Reviews, ed. G.R. Thompson [New York: Library of America, 1984], p. 691). Poe objects to this device if it is impossible to guess the true subject from the body of the poem because it destroys the unity of effect that he considers paramount. However, in “William Wilson,” it is possible to guess that the double is the narrator’s conscience from the story itself, and so the epigraph does not distract from the narrative but allows the “unity of effect” to be present from the very beginning, since the reader “knows” that conscience is being figured as a “specter” in the narrator’s path.


14 The bibliography on this subject is immense, so I will just mention the following essays: proponents of the claim that the narrator is unreliable include Darrel Abel’s “A Key to the House of Usher,” Twentieth Century Interpretations of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Thomas Woodson (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969), and G.R Thompson’s “Poe and the Paradox of Terror: Structures of Heightened Consciousness in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” Ruined Eden of the Present: Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe, ed. G.R. Thompson and Virgil L. Lokke (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1981). In contrast, Patrick Quinn argues that “Poe wanted his readers to give credence to, indeed to identify with, the visitor to Usher’s house” in “‘Usher’ Again: Trust the Teller” (Thompson and Lokke, Ruined Eden of the Present 153). Harriet Hustis usefully explores some of these debates in “‘Reading Encrypted But Persistent’: The Gothic of Reading and Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” Studies in American Fiction 27.1 (March 22, 1999): 3–20.


15 The most important discussions of Poe’s views on race (often focusing on The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym), include Rowe’s “Poe, Antebellum Slavery, and Modern Criticism,” Dana Nelson’s The Word in Black and White: Reading “Race” in American Literature, 1638–1867 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), Sam Worley’s “The Narrative of Arthur Gordom Pym and the Ideology of Slavery,” ESQ 40:3 (1994): 219–250, Joan Dayan’s “Amorous Bondage,” Teresa A Goddu’s Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation (1998), Jared Gardner’s Master Plots: Race and the Founding of an American Literature, 1787–1845 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), and Terence Whalen’s Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).


16 Stephen Dougherty has also recently read the tale as a “nightmarish prophecy of the cultural and political defeat of American slave society,” only with a Foucaultian focus on “modern, bourgeois identity” and miscegenation, “Foucault in the House of Usher: Some Historical Permutations in Poe’s Gothic,” Papers on Language & Literature 37.1 (2001), p. 19.


17 At least one Northern newspaper took Turner’s revolt as the beginning of the end for the South, writing dramatically that “the first drops of blood, which are but the prelude to a deluge from the gathering clouds, have fallen” (The Liberator, Boston, 3 September 1831). The writer warns that the entire country will be the scene of bloodshed and righteous vengeance if slaves are not immediately freed, and that more revolts like Turner’s will naturally follow: “Woe to this guilty land, unless she speedily repents of her evil doings! The blood of millions of her sons cried aloud for redress! IMMEDIATE EMANCIPATION can alone save her from the vengeance of Heaven” (reprinted in Henry Irving Tragle, The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material [Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1971], p. 64).


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