Psychic Civil War in the Tales of Edgar Allan Poe

Before there was Fight Club, Edgar Allan Poe was publishing multiple stories featuring main characters with alter egos. The trope of physically representing different aspects of the mind is by no means new, and certainly did not originate with Poe. However, he definitely seems to express old tropes and genres with a special kind of style. As numerous other Edgar Allan Poe critics have mentioned before, Poe loves to fixate on certain themes within his writings. In several tales, he regales us with allegorical tales of psychic civil war between passion and reason, usually resulting in the elimination of one of these parts of the psyche by the tale’s conclusion (he is just all about murder). This theme of the conflict between passion/inclinations/baser desires and reason/morality/intellect is by no means unique, but certainly a strife that resonates with readers. Beyond wanting to write appealing stories (Poe has been called a hack by some, I say give him a break, the man needed to make a living), this conflict aligns itself with Poe’s conception of poetry and literature. The primary focus of poetry for him is Beauty (elaborated on in “The Poetic Principle”), not passion or instruction and so any character who becomes too focussed on bodily desires, as William Wilson with his lust for the duchess must be eliminated.  It also doesn’t hurt that Poe’s writing is super brutal: if he was alive today he would definitely be in a metal band. I want to look at three of his tales in particular that grapple with the fight between passion and reason: “William Wilson”, “The Black Cat”, and “The Cask of Amontillado”.

Poe’s “William Wilson” is one of the tales that acts out most directly the conflict between passion and reason, or Id and Superego (he is pre-Freud but alludes to similar ideas in his writing) because rather than the narrator merely being conflicted, he has a literal double. Becoming acquainted with his double when he attends school, Wilson’s double is the same age as him and has the exact same name (you can kind of see the twist of them being the same person from the start, M. Night Shyamalan would not be pleased). Like “The Fall of the House of Usher” (among others), the protagonist seeks to eliminate his twin/doppelganger and thus repair his conflicted psyche, although in “William Wilson”, the narrator’s drive to eliminate the other William Wilson is also because the other Wilson actually prevents him from taking certain actions throughout his life. The epigraph of the tale (mis-quoted from Pharronida) speaks of “conscience grim” as a “spectre”[i] in the path of the speaker, alluding to the doppelganger Wilson’s role in holding the narrator back from his lascivious designs. The narrator remarks that the other William ruins all his plans relating to base desires, such as his “revenge at Paris, [his] passionate love at Naples” or his “avarice in Egypt”[ii].  The catalyst for the tale’s climax is when William thwarts the narrator in his attempts to seduce the young wife of Duke Di Broglio at a ball, finally causing the narrator to fly into a murderous rage, killing his double and through that unknowingly killing himself. Giving oneself over to lust or sex quickly brings about death within other Poe tales as well, for example within “Eleonora”, indicating the incompatibility Poe sees in bringing passion into literature. “William Wilson” is one of the most explicit examples of a division of consciousness in Poe, as in a Fight Club-esque twist, the William Wilsons are representations of the same person. Although in the other tales I want to look at, such as “The Black Cat” and “The Cask of Amontillado” there are still the literal and figurative displays of conflict between two figures representative of the same mind, the connection between the characters are much less obvious than in “William Wilson”.

“The Black Cat” is a particularly gruesome tale of a battle between passion and reason. All Poe tales are pretty gruesome but as a cat lover, I was very disturbed the first time I read this one because of the amount of animal violence that takes place. One of the things I find interesting about this piece is typically within literature, animals are associated with base desires (lust, rage, etc.) but within this tale the cat, Pluto, acts as a representative for the unnamed protagonist’s conscience. Thus, the protagonist who falls victim to the “Fiend Intemperance”[iii] (he becomes an alcoholic) in frequent drunken rages seeks to destroy the nobler parts of his psyche through the destruction of Pluto and later Pluto’s doppelganger.

I wanted to digress briefly to explain the significance of the cat’s name. Pluto, apart from being an adorable Disney dog, is the god of the underworld, meaning that Poe associates the cat with death. This allusion is not as dour as may initially appear. Consider how Poe’s work focuses on the exaltation of Reason over Passion, and of reaching a higher plane of knowing (something he believes can be accomplished through poetry, see my entry on Poe and dead women). In Poe’s cosmology, death is the ultimate release and the most desirable state to be in because you are completely unfettered by the material plane, making you most attuned to reason. If something is dying or decaying in Poe (think of The Fall of the House of Usher, which features destruction of both the Usher family and castle), that actually means something good is happening. Linking Pluto the cat with death connects him to a higher plane of knowing. If you’re interested in more discussion of decay in Poe, or really anything Poe related, Richard Wilbur writes some insightful analysis. But getting back to “The Black Cat”, let’s look beyond Pluto’s name and examine some of the features of psychic civil war within the text. 

Apart from the cat’s associations with death and the underworld, he is also “sagacious to an astonishing degree”[iv] Pluto with his intelligence, so unlike the protagonist’s with his impulsive behaviour becomes a victim of the protagonist’s wrath, first having his eye cut out, then being hung in the limb of a tree. These acts of aggression are not enough to quell the wailing of the protagonist, nor the determination of the cat because amazingly a cat almost identical to Pluto approaches him in a bar and continues to become a fixture in the protagonist’s household once again. Pay attention to where the cat comes to the protagonist: his is in “a den of more than infamy”[v], completely drunk and despairing. This seems like an appropriate time for a conscience to come to the rescue; the protagonist seems like he’s becoming close to hitting bottom. The cat is unsuccessful in saving the protagonist from himself as he is unable to prevent the protagonist from burying an axe in his wife’s brain and subsequently concealing the body within the wall of his cellar (this guy is pretty much a sociopath). When the police come investigating the disappearance of his wife, the cat is the one that gives him away, as the protagonist has made the mistake of sealing the cat up with the corpse of his wife. The cat lets out a howl conveniently as the police are looking around downstairs, thus indicating that his conscience would never let him get away with so terrible an act as murdering his wife.

“William Wilson” and “The Black Cat” feature relatively reckless main characters (and in the case of “The Black Cat” completely deranged) who seek to destroy the reasonable, moral parts of their psyche. “The Cask of Amontillado” also has an allegoric theme of psychic civil war, but differs because the main character is a dispassionate plotter who creates the perfect scenario to do away with his friend Fortunato. The foolish Fortunato has many of the same qualities as William Wilson and “The Black Cat” protagonist in that he is driven by feeling and impulse rather than logic and is a heavy drinker. Fortunato, although “in other regards he was a man to be respected and even feared”[vi], he did have a weakness for wine and it is that weakness that the main character uses to lure him into catacombs of the Montressors under the guise of sharing some Amontillado. Adding to Fortunato’s character is that he is costume at the time, looking very much like a Harlequin or court jester, just adding to his role as The Fool. Poe loves to give hints to character’s true natures in their names. The two silly drinkers in “Cask” are Fortunato and Luchesi; both names are associated with luck, chance, etc., emphasising their divorce from reason. If a person relies heavily on fortune, you can assume they are ruled mainly by impulses instead of the higher faculties that Poe loves so much. The main character, Montressor, finally seals Fortunato into the family crypt, where “for the half of a century no moral has disturbed”[vii] him. Montressor seems very careful to indicate to the reader that he feels no emotional or moral discomfort for the murder of his friend; he comments in the final paragraph that his “heart grew sick—on account of the dampness of the catacombs”[viii]. He does not want us to walk away with the impression that he feels any remorse for killing Fortunato and in the allegorical context of the story, this makes perfect sense: if Fortunato represented the impulsive, passionate part of his mind, then his destruction would result in a lack of emotion in Montressor.

These three tales of Poe’s illustrates both a longstanding trope of literature as well as Poe’s perspectives on literary composition. The ultimate goal of prose and poetry is the elevation of the soul through the exploration of Beauty within the work. Poe finds passion to be “absolutely antagonistic”[ix] to the proper execution of a work of art, which explains why so many of his tales and poems feature characters trying to conquer their baser instincts in favour of a higher understanding. Using his tales as vehicles for critical exposition, “William Wilson”, “The Black Cat” and “The Cask of Amontillado” act out the fight between passion and reason that goes on within individuals, and during the composition of a piece of literature. And regardless of your views on Poe’s literary criticism, the tales read merely for entertainment purposes are pretty badass as is, made more badass for me because Poe’s works are like puzzles that he wants you to solve and I don’t know about you, but I always love a good puzzle.

[i] Poe, Edgar Allan. “William Wilson.” The Portable Poe. Ed. J. Gerald Kennedy. New York: Penguin Group, 2006: 168.

[ii] Ibid, 184.

[iii] Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Black Cat.” The Portable Poe. Ed. J. Gerald Kennedy. New York: Penguin Group, 2006: 193.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid, 196.

[vi] Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Cask of Amontillado.” The Portable Poe. Ed. J. Gerald Kennedy. New York: Penguin Group, 2006: 208.

[vii] Ibid, 214.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] [ix] Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Philosophy of Composition.” The Portable Poe. Ed. J. Gerald Kennedy. New York: Penguin Group, 2006: 546.


One thought on “Psychic Civil War in the Tales of Edgar Allan Poe

  1. Pingback: Comparing Rowena’s Rooms in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and Edgar Allan Poe’s Ligeia – Salvage

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