"I Triumph": Poe as Moralist




Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title




Poe’s short stories frequently are divided into neat categories: (1) tales of ratiocination; (2) humorous tales; (3) phantasmagorical and science fiction tales; (4) adventure or fantastic voyage tales; and (5) terror/horror tales. In critical assessments of Poe’s works, though, one never encounters the category of morality tales, a deficiency which this dissertation hopes to remedy. It should be noted that tales which fall under the traditional classifications may be situated in this newest category as well; in point of fact, most of the best-known tales selected for scrutiny in this essay are regularly deemed horror tales, and the horror ultimately rests in the callous and calculated inhumanity displayed on the part of the villains who populate these stories. The murderous fiends who feature in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Cask of Amontillado”(as well as other tales touched upon briefly, e.g. “Hop-Frog” and “The Imp of the Perverse”) – all owe their inspiration to Judeo-Christian Scripture, and all are modelled after its verses dealing with the Devil (especially as given in Genesis 3, Ezekiel 28, Isaiah 14, the Gospels, and the Book of Revelation, passim). Poe consistently points to the identity of what this paper terms “Lucifer-figures,” characters exhibiting the sentiments, traits, and deeds associated with Satan in both Christian literary and religious traditions. These characters are not to be confused with Satan as an actual figure involved in plot machinations or the exchange of dialogue (e.g. John Milton’s Paradise Lost). Instead, these are human, all too human individuals having run drastically and defiantly afoul of the two greatest commandments given in Scripture, characters who exhibit an abject disregard for both God and their fellow man. For Poe, a malady of the soul is engendered by over-inflation of the ego, which crowds out both the divine and mortal “Other,” causing the eventual collapse of the Self into the Self, resulting in madness and the certainty of eternal death: Who but a madman would think he could do away with God and His Law? Satan, who rebelled in his pride, and who is condemned to the oblivion of hellish flame. Poe uses madness (mental imbalance) to signify evil (moral imbalance); importantly, contrary to the contentions of all (yes, all) other Poe criticism, the madness results from the murders, not the other way around. Poe achieves a type of “narrative hieroglyphics” by utilizing subtle textual clues which serve as a semantic cipher: Readers ultimately are reliant upon the King James Version Bible of 1611 as the code-breaking syllabary necessarily utilized to tease out the moral aspects of his tales. The undercurrent of a work, that feature so-prized by Poe, is evidenced here in the subtlety of his moral element. A hieroglyph is a phonetic signifier which functions in the same way as an alphabetical letter, but it also can symbolize a sacred idea. It has, therefore, an apparent purpose but also may have a hidden meaning, the association of which is known only to those initiated in both modes of communication; the “hiero” in hieroglyphics signifies pointing towards the “higher,” the supernal and the divine. Poe’s clues and message are hidden in plain sight, just as are Egyptian hieroglyphs and the parables of Jesus, yet they are discoverable and understood only by readers who have eyes to see, since they have been well versed in both modes. Poe insists on both original plausibility and fairness in engaging his readership, but he also demands of them to practice the clever observations employed by Monsieur Dupin in his detective fiction titled “The Purloined Letter,” in which the object was obvious (in being openly displayed), but the recognition of its location was not: Poe’s object lesson is on obvious display, but it largely remains unrecognized while present before us. The undercurrent which feeds all of his morality tales is that we are called to obey the two greatest commandments handed down in Scripture, recognizing that the Law of the Most High God is love for Him and for one another—not merely performing good deeds (which are the fruits of love), but actually loving as the mandated activity itself (which is the seed which makes those deeds come to fruition); this is the obverse distinction between wickedness (which is internal) and evil (which is externalized acts). For Poe, grotesqueries of character (best embodied in the Medieval-era Roman Catholic notion of the seven deadly sins) are deformities of the soul which result when the wickedness of an individual proceeds without restraint, in having rejected the buffering elements which help keep the mind and soul upright, the two greatest commandments. Lucifer-figures are so consumed with gratification of their own egotistical desires that they crowd out God and Man, thereby twisting their minds and hearts to so great an extent that they collapse like rotted fruit on the ground and eventually succumb to the consequences of that rejection. Poe was a traditional biblical moralist, even though his critics almost universally have failed to recognize the moral content of his tales. The “heresy of the Didactic” which Poe scorned was not bald allegory or overt preachiness (both of which he disdained), but an insistence that poetry must be moral; it was a criticism of form and content, not of intent. Critics who apply this limited principle to all forms of Poe’s writing are guilty of propounding that Poe advocated art for art’s sake, when nothing could be further from the truth. For Poe, beauty is the natural province of the poem, truth is the natural province of criticism, and goodness is the natural province of the tales; taken together, clues in his prose essays reveal that they amount to height (supernal beauty), depth (detailed analysis), and breadth (greatest possibility of variety). This dissertation argues for and hopes to witness the recognition of a novel classification of Poe’s short stories, that of morality tales. The “Introduction” offers a brief and general biography, and touches upon how popular misperceptions of Poe the individual and historical trends or events have impacted critical assessments of his work. It also provides general, sweeping overviews of cultural and ideological phenomena circulating in his lifetime, the controversies and manifestations of which likely compelled him to craft his moral tales, including the contra-biblical and sometimes related aspects of Utopianism, Progressivism, Pantheism, Romanticism, Utilitarianism, Positivism (with attendant Rationalism, Scientism, and Materialism), German Idealism, Higher Criticism, and American Transcendentalism. It points out Poe's heavy debt to the British Neoclassical moral satirists having preceded him, all of whom draw upon Classical notions of perfect moderation and harmony. The paper contends that Poe was a visionary, one whose trajectory thinking led him to speculate the disastrous consequences to ensue for both individuals and human societies willfully departing from the divine mandates of Scripture, as such apostasy paved the road to Auschwitz. In fact, Poe’s moral content only can be construed properly and fully through the lens of the Holocaust, for that historical event embodies the fears he anticipated, and gave substance to them; to argue about the dangers inherent to theory is one thing, but praxis makes manifest the deadly seriousness of its consequences. It is for this reason that arguments plainly stated by Holocaust-era biblical apologist C.S. Lewis are drawn into the essay, for he states explicitly in the social criticism of his age precisely that which Poe is contending implicitly in his tales, which must also be understood to be social criticism of dangerous ideologies of his own day. It is also why the post-Holocaust, biblically-minded literary critic David Hirsch must then be drawn into the discourse of Poe, for Hirsch demonstrates the connection between the barbarism of Nazi Germany and Communism to the academic ideologies and cultural theories which helped to make them possible. Hirsch’s analysis is crucial to understanding the self-wrought catastrophic results against which Poe warned, because it is the role of the humanities, if taught as grounded on the two greatest commandments, to preclude such disasters from being visited upon the individual and the collective of humanity. When one stops to consider that even in the eighteenth century, Friedrich von Schiller is contending that the Arts will save humanity, one should not readily dismiss the role which the humanities have to play, historically, in considerations of the beautiful, the true, the good, and, for Poe, the holy. The Postmodernism against which Hirsch writes, the poison of Subjectivism against which Lewis writes, and the vaunting of ego and human agency celebrated by the Kantianism and Romanticism against which Poe writes—all thee authors offer like criticisms of the lawlessness and barbarism which ensue when every man seeks to do that which is right in his own eyes, the description of the anarchical time given in Scripture. Poe understood the “germ” of this catastrophic trajectory to begin in German metaphysics, and sounds out the cries of alarm against it; the “disintegration of personality” is a result of its embrace, which, left unchecked by biblical mandates and standards, results in the disintegration of all human society, hence the apocalyptic visions in Poe’s works which directly fault the influence of the contra-biblical, anti-biblicism of the German Idealists. All three authors speak to how righteousness is not possible in the absence of recognition of fixed standards of good and evil deriving from the Most High God, Man’s ruin always being the result of Man succumbing to the temptation first recorded in the Edenic encounter with the Serpent, to be as God. The Devil, in fact, is the seminal Postmodernist. The chapter entitled “The Lucifer-Figure” demonstrates that Poe was working within a wellestablished tradition by documenting the archetype of the Lucifer-figure in the novels of his predecessors, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Charles Brockden Brown, as well as in a small number of tales penned by his contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Films directed by his successors—the Cohen brothers, the Wachowskis, and Ridley Scott—are drawn into the discussion, to demonstrate that this tradition of subtle biblical allusions which propound biblical values remains very much alive, if one only looks for it; not surprisingly, all of these films are based on stories written by authors of Jewish heritage and/or ancestry (the Cohens and the Wachowskis), or by those sympathetic to Jews (Philip K. Dick), since it is the ethical tradition handed down to the ancient Israelites, being Judaic first and foremost and then only Christian latterly. It also points out the similar means by which these characters are conveyed, as well as makes the argument that Poe had been no less a traditional biblical moralist than had been the others, especially relevant since Poe consistently is posited as being contrary to Hawthorne in this regard. Poe is squarely posited in the middle of this tradition, thus examples are culled from both his predecessors and successors, in order to demonstrate that his works are perfectly in line with those which explore moral issues and propound biblical values, therefore to deny his moralism would be illogical. The “Review of the Literature” chapter examines critical assessments of Poe from his own lifetime to the present, offering common areas of agreement but also pointing out general misconceptions and particular errors therein. The subsequent five chapters consist of one each devoted to the five tales afore-named, in which documentation of the presence of the Lucifer-figure is given special attention, and at times, even his foil, the Christ-figure. The final chapter, the “Conclusion,” offers a summary of the major points, traits, textual clues, and motives offered in making the contention that Poe’s subtle use of biblical text and Christian tradition consistently point to his being a traditional biblical moralist, albeit via unconventional focus on the villains instead of the victims: We are not meant to have sympathy for the Devil, and Poe’s prophetic message to Mankind is to avoid Satan’s fate by avoiding his conduct and any self-deluded, inflated opinions about his (or our) true nature. The “radical Democracy” against which Poe warned, and which he heavily derided in his apocalyptic tales and mocked in his prose essay from 1848, Eureka, was the Postmodern levelling of the hierarchical distinctions between the biblical tripartite entities of God, Man, and the World, for Poe best typified in the American Transcendentalist camp which bought into the dangerous foreign ideologies of the Germans, the British, and the French. Poe’s moral insistence should be understood primarily as his opposition to German metaphysics, in terms of philosophical and religious posits, which taken together challenged the grounding of ethics, situating them in the Self or the Collective Self, which Poe believed instead correctly derived from the revealed religion of Judeo-Christian Scriptures. This dissertation also speaks to the methodologies by which Poe’s works must be assessed if the moral content is to be teased out of them, specifically addressing the short-comings of Freudian analyses and the woeful “scholarship” evidenced in Postmodern Deconstructionist and ReaderResponsist “interpretations,” which are pseudo-analytical at best. It validates reliance on Cultural Historicism for the context, and Formalism’s approach of New Criticism for the text. Contrary to the claims of Postmodern theorists, Poe’s works do contain inherent morality and intentional meaning, evidenced by the consistent patterning of the works addressed in this paper. By his own clever-albeit-subtle admission, Poe meant for his messaging to be understood. If Poe’s work is to be understood properly, then it must be read through the personality of Poe, through a constant mindfulness of his innate and irrepressible sense of humor and his biblically-derived moral inclination, for those aspects of his personality and psyche are so integrated and ingrained within him (internal factors) that even the ceaseless barrage of disappointments, heartaches, alienations, and frustrations, and the poverty, pettiness, slander, and malice directed against his person having contributed to the “mournful and never ending sorrow” of the circumstances of his life (external factors) could not wholly eradicate those twin sails by which he navigated the rough waters of his life, regardless of the ocean of salted tears they warranted.



Poe, Edgar Allan,--1809-1849, Literature and morals, Short stories, American, Religion and literature