Poes Short Story and Perversity Essay

This essay has a total of 3424 words and 14 pages.

Poes Short Story and Perversity



Short Story
Perversity
Edgar Allan Poe is perhaps the best-known American Romantic who worked in the Gothic mode.
His stories explore the darker side of the Romantic imagination, dealing with the
grotesque, the supernatural, and the horrifying. He defined the form of the American short
story.

As one might expect, Poe himself eschewed conventional morality, which he believed stems
from man's attempts to dictate the purposes of God. Poe saw God more as process than
purpose. He believed that moralists derive their beliefs, and thus, the resultant
behavioral patterns, from a priori knowledge. In Eureka, we find that Poe shunned such
artifices of mind, systems which, he professed, have no basis in reality. Yet Poe employed
in his writing the diction of the moral tome, which causes confusion for readers immersed
in this tradition. Daniel Hoffman reiterates Allan Tate's position that, aside from his
atavistic employment of moral terminology, Poe writes as though "Christianity had never
been invented." (Hoffman 171)

Poe did offer to posterity one tale with a moral. Written in 1841 at the dawn of Poe's
most creative period, Poe delivers to his readers a satirical spoof, a literary Bronx
cheer to writers of moralistic fiction, and to critics who expressed disapprobation at
finding no discernible moral in his works. The tale "Never Bet the Devil Your Head: A Tale
with a Moral" presents Poe's "way of staying execution" (Poe 487) for his transgressions
against the didactics. The story's main character is Toby Dammit, who from infanthood, had
been flogged left-handed, which since the world revolves right to left, causes evil
propensities to be driven home rather than driven out. The narrator relates that by the
age of seven months, Toby was chasing down and kissing the female babies, that by eight
months he had flatly refused to sign the Temperance Pledge, and that by the end of his
first year, he'd taken to "wearing moustaches, but had contracted a propensity for cursing
and swearing, and for backing his assertions with bets." (Poe 488)

As Toby reaches manhood, the narrator finally accepts that his young friend is
incorrigible. By this time, Toby utters scarcely a sentence without oaths, his favorite of
which is to bet the devil his head that he can accomplish whatever challenge lies before
him.

One day as the narrator accompanies Toby Dammit on a route which requires the crossing of
a covered bridge, Toby bets the devil his head that he can leap over a bridge stile,
pigeon winging as he performs the feat. Unexpectedly a "little lame old gentleman of
venerable aspect" (Poe 491) interrupts with an emphatic "ahem" to take Toby up on his bet.
The elderly gentleman wears a "a full suit of black, but his shirt was perfectly clean and
the collar turned very neatly down over a white cravat." Oddly, his eyes are "carefully
rolled up into the top of his head," and he wears a black silk apron. (491)

After he takes charge of Toby, allowing him a running start, the elderly interloper takes
his position just behind the stile. The narrator awaits the gentleman's
"One--two--three--and--away," when Toby initiates his running leap. To all appearances,
the young reprobate is destined to clear the stile easily, pigeon-winging as he flies,
when abruptly his progress is arrested, and the luckless Toby falls flat on his back on
his side of the stile. The elderly gentleman is indistinctly seen wrapping a bulky object
in his apron, and taking his leave of them. When the narrator throws open an adjacent
window, he sees that Toby has been deprived of his head by a sharp, heretofore unnoticed
cross-support located directly above the stile. Stated so that the targets of Poe's
ridicule cannot miss it, the moral of his tale is the title of the story. Yet the moral of
the tale is not its theme. Poe purposes ridicule of those who presume to judge him, and of
their small-mindedness. This ridicule is his theme.

His rendering of this riotous spoof illustrates that Poe believed he had more important
things to do than pass moral judgment in his tales. Poe instead opted to depict what
occurred to him as the natural order of man's behavior, rather than to engage in baseless
speculation concerning what God intended for the individual. Appropriately, Poe asks, "if
we cannot comprehend God in his visible works, how then in his inconceivable thoughts,
that call the works into being! If we cannot understand him in his objective creatures,
how then in his substantive moods and phases of creation"? (Poe 280-81) Instead, Poe's
work penetrated to the truths which govern the universe. How petty the moralists of his
day must have seemed to him!

Best known for his poems and short fiction, Edgar Allan Poe deserves more credit than any
other writer for the transformation of the short story from anecdote to art. He virtually
created the detective story and perfected the psychological thriller. He also produced
some of the most influential literary criticism of his time--important theoretical
statements on poetry and the short story--and has had a worldwide influence on literature.

Poe did not find it sufficient that he essay his theory of perversity in one story only.
Perhaps his most lucid portrayal of perversity resides in his masterfully told tale "The
Black Cat."

That work's narrator owns a black cat named Pluto, which he dearly loves. However, the
cat's owner takes to drinking, and one day, in a tantrum, he is seized by perverse
impulses beyond his control. He captures the unfortunate creature, and with his pen knife,
removes one of its eyes. This is but the beginning of the narrator's sorrows. He
recognizes that it

was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself--to offer violence to own
nature--to do wrong for the wrong's sake only--that urged me to continue and finally to
consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute. One morning, in cold
blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree;--hung it with
tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart;--hung it because
I knew it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no offence;--hung it because I
knew that in doing so I was committing a sin--a deadly sin that would jeopardize my
immortal soul as to place it--if such a thing were possible--even beyond the reach of the
infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God. (Poe, "The Black Cat" 225)

Again, Poe employs language which can send a traditional moralist howling about the wages
of sin. But catch the subjunctive, "if such a thing were possible." Poe makes it clear,
even in this extreme set of circumstances, that he does not believe it possible to be
beyond the reach of God. In Eureka we saw why. In that work, Poe portrayed God as manifest
in the works of his own creation. We saw him further declare that all things of the
universe contain "the germ of their inevitable annihilation." Speaking through his
narrators," Poe illustrates perversity as the "germ" of annihilation as it resides in the
human psyche. But, for now, let us return to the story and witness perversity wreak its
havoc.

The night of the day he hanged Pluto, a fire swept through the narrator's house. He, his
wife, and the servant escaped, but the conflagration completely destroyed the house; yet
one wall had not fallen in. Upon visiting the ruin, the narrator witnessed in the standing
wall, "as if graven in bas relief upon the white surface, the figure of a gigantic
cat...There was a rope about the animal's neck." (Poe 66) The image of the cat detailed in
what had been a freshly plastered wall profoundly affected the fancies of the narrator. As
if to atone for his actions, the narrator begins a search to adopt a similar cat, which he
finally locates "in a den of more than infamy...reposing on the head of one of the immense
hogsheads of Gin, or of Rum." (66)

The new cat is completely black except for an indefinite white splotch on its chest. It
follows him home. At first he likes the cat, for it is quite affectionate. But his
attitude changes; tension builds anew. The tension grows to hatred, caused in part by the
narrator's discovery that, like Pluto, the new cat has been deprived of an eye.

The narrator, only because of his terrors about his first cat, restrains himself from
doing the new cat harm. But to his horror, the white patch of fur on his new cat's chest
gradually assumes the shape of the gallows. The narrator begins to fancy the cat as the
tormentor of his heart, its hot breath in his face. Perversely, the narrator succumbs
entirely to evil thoughts, "hatred of all things and of all mankind." (Poe 68)

Finally, one day as the narrator and his wife descend the steps into their cellar, the cat
causes the narrator to lose his footing. In turn, the narrator flies into a rage and tries
to axe the cat. The wife, trying to save the life of the cat, catches hold of the axe.
Then entirely out of his mind, the narrator plants the axe in her skull. To avoid
detection in his crime, he bricks his wife into a cellar wall. But the luckless narrator
accidentally bricks the cat into the wall as well. After searching for the dreaded cat,
the narrator concludes that the beast has "in terror, fled the premises forever." However,
the fourth day, the police arrive to thoroughly examine the house. They leave no "nook or
corner unexplored." (Poe 60) Even upon their third or fourth visit to the cellar, the
narrator remains sublimely calm. Finally satisfied, and preparing to quit the search, the
police are interrupted in their ascension of the stairs by the triumphant voice of the
narrator.

"Gentleman," I said at last..., I delight to have allayed your suspicions. I wish you all
health, and a little more courtesy. Bye the bye, gentleman, this--this is a very well
constructed house." [In the rabid desire to say something easily, I scarcely knew what I
uttered at all.]--"I may say an excellently constructed house. The walls--are you going,
gentlemen?--these walls are solidly put together;" and here, through the mere phrenzy of
bravado, I rapped heavily, with a cane which I held in my hand, upon that very portion of
the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom.

No sooner had the reverberations of the striking of the cane died away, than there issued
forth the howl, "a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph..., such as might
have arisen...from the throats of the damned in their agony and of the demons that exult
in the damnation." The cat had completed its conquest, revealing the location of the
corpse and consigning the wretch to the gallows.

The final horror of the narrator, his crowning act of perversity, is reminiscent of the
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