THE STORIES OF EDGAR ALLAN POE
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An analysis of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe shows that they fall naturally into two great divisions, the detective stories and the tales of horror. The latter further subdivide themselves into two classes, using different methods to produce a somewhat similar effect: those of realistic, and those of supernatural horror. Indeed, with but a few exceptions, the works of this man all lead us into grewsome scenes and fancies. Most of them, however, are unusually well done; and, after all, who shall tell an artist what to paint?
"The plot's the thing" in the detective tales. How to build up a conclusion from a few shadowy clues and suggestions; how so to juggle co-related facts and events that the reader is completely mystified and cannot trace the connection they have with one another, and with the central action of the story; how finally, to clear his vision by restoring things to their proper relationships, so that the conclusion is perfectly obvious to the reader, and sets him wondering why he could not see it for himself—these are the problems for a writer of stories of ratiocination.
The plan of presenting such stories, the one used most generally with the best success, is to give the main, big event, then the groping, in mystery, for an explanation, and last, the explanation itself. Poe is no exception to this general rule. When he adheres to this order he writes a capital detective story. There are four tales that may be considered under this head, The Gold Bug, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Purloined Letter, and The Mystery of Marie Roget. Of these, the Murders and The Purloined Letter, both of which are presented in the event-mystery-explanation order, are the most successful.
The palm should go to The Purloined Letter, as this is a battle of wits entirely, and is not at all dependent upon the outre, sensational nature of its main event for its compelling interest, as is the Murders. The idea is simple: Can a stolen letter be so completely concealed that all the police in Paris cannot find it? Yes; by hanging it up in front of their noses.
The Gold Bug varies the order of narration. The recluse Legrand puzzles us by his peculiar actions but by them he unearths a buried treasure-chest; he then sits down to explain. This gives the mystery first, then the event, then the explanation; but the event is in itself an explanation of Legrand's conduct. His story, then, is secondary; and, though mildly entertaining as a study in cryptographs, it fails to hold the interest to the end.
Marie Roget is only by courtesy included as a tale. It is an attempt to apply the system of reasoning by elimination to the solution of an actual crime, and necessarily involves so much explanation that it would lack interest for any but contemporary readers.
In all these stories, we find that the plot is practically everything. Character-study and character-development are certainly not Poe's strong points. There is little, if any, of either in the detective stories. All we are able to find out about his hero-detective, Dupin, is that he had a keen mind. The setting, too, is relatively unimportant. Where any attention at all is given to it, as in the passages that describe the murder-chamber in The Murders in the Rue Morgue, it is solely to heighten interest in the plot: How could such a ghastly deed be done?
On the other hand, in the horror stories, both realistic and supernatural, setting for its own sake takes the prominent place. The plot, however, is important also, and never falls to the degree of subservience to the setting, that the setting does, in the tales of ratiocination, to the plot.
In the first group, where the effect is dependent on the very circumstantial relation of grippingly realistic, awful happenings, there are several notable stories: The Pit and the Pendulum, A Descent into the Maelstrom, and The Cask of Amontillado.
The Pit and the Pendulum is a very concrete presentation of the sufferings of a victim of the Spanish Inquisition. Thrown into a dark vault, he barely escapes falling into a great pit in the center of the floor, only to be drugged and tied under an immense knife-edged pendulum, which, when he awakes, gradually descends nearer and nearer to him at each oscillation. By a trick, he evades death from this, to be again dismayed; for the walls of the chamber, being of metal, have been heated, and now begin to contract, forcing him toward the pit. The opportune overthrow of the Inquisition effects his release at the last instant.
In A Descent into the Maelstrom, Poe gives us, from the lips of an old salt—who survived, almost miraculously, when his fishing-ship was sucked down and destroyed—the story of what it means to be caught in that great Norse whirlpool. Describing the awful phenomenon in action, and the man's terror at his peril, gives the author an opportunity for some vivid word-painting.
The Cask of Amontillado is a gem of realism. An Italian nobleman thinks up a way to be avenged for an insult. He maintains the most cordial relations with his enemy. On a carnival night, when no one would be likely to recognize them in the crowd of masques, he meets the man, and brings him to his house. All unsuspecting is the enemy; there is a cask of wine to be judged; who can do it so well as he? In fact, when a hint of doubt of his ability is suggested, the fool almost forcibly insists upon being taken to the house. Still making excuses and apparently reluctant to the last, the nobleman leads the judge of wines to the catacombs he uses as cellars. Once there, he overpowers him and chains him to the wall in a small niche, or recess, and then most calmly proceeds to close up the niche with masonry.
When we come to consider these three stories from the standpoints of plot, characterization, and setting, we find, in the first, The Pit and the Pendulum, that the plot has the defect of ending too abruptly. The rescue is effected by an exterior force no hint of which has been given in the story; there is no reason to have expected the French to capture Toledo at just the critical moment of the persecution of this man. Poe does better in this respect in the Maelstrom. Here the fisherman, hopeless and terrified at his position, ready to succumb, of himself hits upon the idea of how his escape may be brought about. Then he proceeds to act on his idea, and finally does get away.
In these two, as in the detective stories, characterization is unimportant. This may not altogether be a defect, if we think of Poe's object in the stories as being to reproduce for the reader, in a degree, the sensation of going through the experiences related. For, if it might have been a good man, a bad man, a pessimist, a humorist, or you, or I, who went through these things, it is quite easy for us to put ourselves in the hero's place.
The setting, as I have said, is the chief thing to note. Very suggestive are the impressions that we receive from the idea of awful, relentless persecution connoted by the very name Inquisition, from the swishing back and forth of that deadly pendulum, from the glowing walls, and, in the Maelstrom, from the utter riot of that wild, whirling scene of Nature at war.
The third of these tales, The Cask of Amontillado, is one wherein there is less antithesis in importance between plot and setting. The plot is excellent, working up carefully to the climax, with enough suggestion of the end, to avoid the abruptness of the ending of The Pit. The setting could hardly be made more effective: the dim catacombs; the terrible calm of the man as he walls up his victim; the last despairing cry, "For the love of God, Montressor"; the final clank of the chains. There is some attempt at character presentation also, the nobleman being the very embodiment of implacable, vengeful hatred.
The other stories of horror, that deal with things beyond our ken, the eerie, ghostly risings from the tomb, are by far the most impressive works that Poe has left us. These are Legeia and The Fall of the House of Usher. The striking thing about both of these is that they are not so much stories, as pictures; vivid, shocking pictures. This is but another way of giving the credit for their effectiveness to setting, rather than to any other factor in their construction.
Legeia is based upon the idea that the will can prevail even over death. Greatly beloved of her husband, desiring above all to live, Legeia, a woman of almost superhuman psychic strength, falls sick and dies. The husband marries the Lady Rowena, the direct opposite of Legeia; but she fails to divert his mind from dreaming of his lost love. The melancholy nature of her surroundings overcomes Rowena, and she also dies. Having brought us to this point somewhat prepared for gloomy, shuddery things, Poe is now ready to present his picture. At the death-bed of Rowena the husband sits moodily watching her, and half dreaming. Her corpse shows a faint flush of life which disappears and returns several times, until finally the form rises; and, when the distracted man rushes to its side, he sees before him—not Rowena, but Legeia, again alive.
The Fall of the House of Usher is a tale of premature burial. Roderick Usher and his sister, the Lady Madeline, are the sole survivors of a long-decaying family. In the man, this condition is apparent in a grotesquely imaginative mind, in the sister as a mysterious malady, the manifestations of which are at times cataleptic. Sensing the approach of his sister's death, and desiring a companion during the ordeal, Usher asks the narrator to stay with him. The sister dies; and the two men put her, temporarily, in a vault within the building. All this leads up to the presentation of the scene of her escape from the tomb and her appearance before the two terrified men who have been silently struggling with the idea that they might have put her in too soon.
In these stories, we have again simplicity in plot-structure. The struggle is to force on the observer—hence, the reader—the realization of a supernatural phenomenon in spite of his rational knowledge of things. Beyond the mere necessity of telling what leads up to the tragic scene, in each case, the plot is of little importance to the effect of the picture. Poe seeks for aid in thrilling us, rather from the awful conception of that gloomy death-chamber of Rowena, with its black bed, its hideous light, and its weird swaying tapestries; in the House of Usher, from the wild storm, the noises indicating Madeline's escape, and the nervous suspense of the mad Roderick.
Looking back, we find that we have two great groups of stories, differing a good deal in purpose and in structure. The detective stories, we may say, are to amuse and interest, as one would expect in a game. To accomplish this, the plot has been given the greater attention. In the horror stories, however, emotional effect is all Poe aims to get. To obtain this, Poe has developed very extensively the possibilities of dismal, uncanny, unearthly settings. In the stories of realistic horror, he has tempered the wind somewhat by extricating his heroes, in the Pit and the Maelstrom. In the last group, however, the supernatural tales, he has let himself go to the last notch to give us sheer unrelieved, melancholy, horror. There can be little doubt that in both objects he succeeded: that he made the detective stories, by good plot-work, interesting intellectually, and the horror stories, by appropriate settings, above all, emotionally effective.
With these materials—in the one case, plot, in the other, atmosphere—and in neither very much of character-study or characterdevelopment, Poe built his stories. He brought to this in addition, a rich style of easy elegance that was never at a loss for just the right expression to aid and to accentuate the particular effect desired.
H. W. R.
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