Edgar Allan Poe

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Edgar Allan Poe

By Ralph Maltese

When students hear they are going to read Edgar Allan Poe they become excited because his reputation as a horror story writer is well known.  Some students have learned about his alcohol and drug use (famously described by Arthur Griswald, Poe’s “friend” and publisher).  Then the students read Poe and the shine is off.  His phraseology and digressions, especially in his tales of ratiocination, while interesting to mature readers, is offputting to many students.

Students expect gore and the gothic elements of Poe’s work, and they often do not expect a theme, but we cannot blame them for that.  The intellectual questions that Poe raises in his work is often glossed over by “serious” critics.  That is a shame because we can use Poe’s short stories and poetry to engage students in high order thinking and in addressing some rather intriguing questions.

I introduce my Poe units by narrating a short biography, including the facts about his education, especially at West Point when he demonstrated his sense of humor by parading on the grounds on Sword and Glove Day by wearing a sword and gloves and nothing else.  There are other psychological elements to share including his repeated quest for a mother image, his marriage to his thirteen year old cousin, Virginia, his finances, etc.

I then explain Poe’s Philosophy of Composition by focusing on two points:

1) A work must be read in one sitting (hence short stories) because one of Poe’s purposes was to create an “emotional effect” and if one had to put a book down and return to it later, the emotional effect was lost….like watching a scary movie only to be interrupted by a commercial.

2) Every word must contribute to the emotional effect.  The students might argue this point when they read what they consider to be Poe’s digressions, but I point out the names Poe uses.  For example, the name of the cat in “The Black Cat.” (Pluto—god of the underworld).

Then I discuss Poe’s Poetic Principle.  “The best poetry is that poetry about the death of a beautiful woman.”

This is more than a sordid Poe at work here.  Poe was ahead of his time in many ways.  The theory that “destruction yields creation” applies to Poe’s Poetic Principle. The Big Bang Theory in cosmology (from the initial explosion is created the universe)is an example.  In the death(or potential death) of a beautiful woman is created a certain beauty of effect.  We see this in movies all the time.  In silent films the heroine tied to the railroad tracks by the villain, the western hero rescuing the damsel in distress, Superman saving Lois.  This is a nice topic for a project or at least a discussion with students.

I also share with my students Poe’s fear of being buried alive.  (“Cask of Amontillado,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” etc.)  I digress by explaining some of the elaborate systems people created to prevent their premature burial.  Students usually chime in with situations in books or movies when the scenario of a bell hooked up to a grave is rung.

Poe’s short stories fall into two categories:  Gothic and Tales of Ratiocination (yes, I know that scholars break them down into finer categories, arabesque for example, but we are talking high school here.”

Gothic tales are those that go bump in the night.  Skeletons in closets, dungeons and ghosts.  These are the stories that students associate with Poe.  Tales of Ratiocination are the detective stories.  Poe’s super sleuth is Monsieur Dupin, detective extraordinary.  One unit I created asked students in groups to compare Dupin with the more well known (but not necessarily better) Sherlock Holmes, Columbo (from television), detectives.  “The Purloined Letter” is a good example of Poe’s Tale of Ratiocination.  In this story, Dupin gives an explanation of how he discovered who the culprit is and where the stolen letter might be.  Poe’s sleuth argues that police never consider the intelligence of the suspect.  After I read the passage detailing Dupin’s logic, I show the film clip from Princess Bride in which Vizzini gets into an intellectual chess match with Westley.  “I know that you know that I know….in which cup I placed the poison.”  Then I ask students to compare Dupin’s explanation with Vizzini’s.  Poe’s detective stories are exercises in deductive reasoning which becomes another thematic focus.

“The Black Cat” is a fine example of Poe’s Philosophy of Composition and the Gothic Tale.  It is short, and every word contributes to the emotional effect.  I try to get my students to understand the subtext—just because the narrator tells the story in first person, it does mean that we have to believe him.  For example, he explains in typical Poe fashion, early in the story the reason for his “perversity.”  “I took to drink.”  But Poe does not want us to see that reason as the main reason for the narrator’s motivation.  A much better clue, tied into the theme, is “the desire of the soul to vex itself…to do wrong for the sake of doing wrong only.”  We discuss if students ever do wrong just because it is wrong.  There are students (and adults) who are dysfunctional in the decision making process.  Given the choice between a decision yielding a positive result for the decision maker and a negative result, people who are dysfunctional in this regard choose the negative result.  We know what we are doing is ultimately destructive and we do it anyway.

The narrator in the story continually explains away “supernatural” happenings as natural events.  His house burns down and an imprint of the hanged cat appears on the wall.  The narrator explains this appearance in scientific terms, but does Poe want us to think the supernatural is afoot or does he want us to believe that the weird and unexplainable is all in our minds?  Poe once said that “what is real for the average person is unreal for me, and what is real for me is unreal for others.”  He also said, “I dwell in the land of real dreams.”  One way to interpret this is that Poe’s life was so filled with awful experiences that it seemed the tragic and otherworldly was his norm.  How many students feel the same way?  Of course, in “The Black Cat” there is the premature burial (of the cat), and the narrator dismisses the horrific murder of his wife almost nonchalantly leading us to believe that he is mad, despite his protests to the contrary.  Is he mad, or are mysterious forces to blame for his (and his wife’s) demise?

“The Fall of the House of Usher” is much more difficult for students to grasp on their own.  I ask them to focus, using a Venn diagram, on the difference between Roderick and his sister Madeline.   Then I let them in on the Cartesian theory of the breakdown between mind and body, between the intellect and the emotions(symbolized by the crack in the face of the castle).  Roderick tries to suppress his emotional side (by prematurely burying his twin sister), and, of course, fails.  The reuniting of both is too much for Roderick, and the narrator hightails it out of the castle just in time.  We discuss if modern medicine fails to address the mind when hooking people up to machinery in the hospital.  We also discuss how student emotion sometimes (all the time!)interferes with serious study.

One of my major goals with Edgar Allan Poe is to have students appreciate Poe’s literary attempt to discuss major issues:  the interaction of reason and emotion, the nature of beauty, the conflict between reality and perception, etc.  I was often successful by asking students to approach the reading of Poe as a detective.  “The narrator is saying this, but what is Poe saying?”

Poe’s fear of being buried alive is a nice introduction into students expressing their fears.  Be cautious here, and only approach this topic if you feel comfortable and if there is a climate of trust in the classroom.  You might discover student fears you did not anticipate and perhaps did not want to know.

Last Updated on Saturday, 13 November 2010 18:06



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