Virginia Lucas Poetry Scrapbook

Edgar Allan Poe: Friend of Fear and Master of Madness

Concerning the cyclical health and decay of his wife Virginia, the great nineteenth-century writer Edgar Allan Poe wrote the following in a letter to his friend Mr. George W. Eveleth: “Each time I felt all the agonies of her death — and at each accession of the disorder I loved her more dearly…. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity” (The Letters 356). Despite the sober reality of the circumstances under which the passage was written, the language is so poetic that it can suggest much more when taken out of context. For example, the passage could describe the contradicting complexities of the human mind, or it could be a distrustful declaration of personal mental imbalance. Regardless, it proves that even in his casual letter writing, the legendary Edgar Allan Poe wrote with the language of a true artist and Gothic writer. It also suggests his ongoing concern with the condition and definition of insanity.

Poe was not only an important contributor to the literary genre of Gothic fiction but also an admirer of nineteenth-century scientific concepts and psychological theories concerning the emotion of fear and the state of madness. Poe’s strict attention to these systematic studies greatly influenced his writing style and subject matter.  That being said, the narrators of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” “The Raven,” and “A Dream within a Dream” think and act in ways that correspond to particular scientific and psychological studies of human fear. Namely, the narrators’ thoughts and actions resemble the scientifically-studied strange tendencies of the frightened physical body, as well as the psychologically-studied subconscious habit of forceful self-preservation against internal destruction spurred by fear. Using this information, Edgar Allan Poe shaped his Gothic fiction into the most dastardly of forms.

No genre of literature could demonstrate the effects and influence of fear better than Gothic fiction. Oddly enough, John Mullan makes the claim in his article “The Origins of the Gothic” that Gothic fiction “began as a sophisticated joke.” Mullan is referring to the context in which Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto was written. Published in 1764, Walpole’s novel originally included the word “gothic” in the title because Walpole thought it sounded barbaric and suggested the dark atmosphere of the Middle Ages (Mullan). Walpole made it appear that the tale was an antique account of real supernatural events that had transpired hundreds of years ago (Mullan). Ultimately, Walpole confessed that none of this was true, but the initial reaction of fright among readers made the book iconic and earned it a place as the first work of Gothic fiction. Gothic fiction emerged during a transitional period between Neoclassism—a Western movement that “embodied a group of attitudes toward art and human existence — ideals of order, logic, restraint, [and] accuracy […] which would enable the practitioners of various arts to imitate or reproduce the structures and themes of Greek or Roman originals”—and Romanticism—a group of attitudes concerned with intellect, emotion, and beauty (“Neoclassicism”). It was a period of mixed thoughts and ideas: there was an emphasis on traditionalism and rationality as well as a contrasting emphasis on liberalism and fantasy.

As a writer and editor for numerous periodicals, Poe had the opportunity to see and understand just how popular this genre of fiction was among his contemporaries. In his book Grim Phantasms: Fear in Poe’s Short Fiction, Michael L. Burduck writes that the average nineteenth-century reader “devoured fiction featuring murder, torture, disease, and death” (Burduck 14). Why were these readers attracted to such grim and grotesque themes? The answer may rest in the seemingly paradoxical relationship between pleasure and pain. In certain situations, pain and fear can arouse feelings of delight and pleasure within an individual’s body and mind. A prime example of this paradoxical sensation would be the joy and “runner’s high” an individual feels after finishing a marathon.  Thus, one could propose that some nineteenth-century readers wanted to read Gothic fiction because they found pleasure in the discomfort it aroused. Knowing that readers were intrigued by this phenomenon, Poe could deliver some of the most thrilling and spine-chilling tales of the age. He could not, however, have done this without a firm understanding of fear constructed on nineteenth-century scientific and psychological platforms.

Before plunging into the scientific and psychological constructs of fear, the emotion must first be understood on a fundamental level. Burduck defines fear as “an innate emotion rooted deep in the mind. Along with love, hate, anger, and joy, fear resides in the depths of our being and often plays a crucial role in determining our beliefs and actions” (Burduck 6).  In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, scientific and psychological theories on the relationship between fear and health were being elaborated. The majority of people who studied the phenomenon agreed that fear is an emotion that affects the human body both directly via physical surroundings and indirectly via the mind (Burduck 32). For example, the rapid approach of a three hundred pound grizzly bear (physical environment) could evoke just as much faintness (effect from fear) in an individual as the thought of contracting bad luck from a broken mirror (imagined psychological event). From a literary viewpoint, a rational fear evoked by the physical environment is illustrated in Poe’s “A Dream within a Dream,” where time’s real and uncontrollable passage stimulates the fear of Death: “grains of the golden sand—/ How few! yet how they creep / Through my fingers to the deep” (Complete Stories and Poems 768). In contrast, an irrational fear spurred by the imagination is illustrated in “The Raven,” when the narrator “link[s] / Fancy unto fancy” (Complete Stories and Poems 755) and comes to the unproven conclusion that the bird is an evil prophet of the afterlife whose chant of “Nevermore” is the truthful reply to his miserable questions. Whether physical or mental, fear is innate and thereby inescapable.

The scientifically examined tendencies of the human body to act abnormally and aggressively in response to the emotion of fear are real in both the non-literary and literary sense of things. The discoveries made by nineteenth-century physicians and psychologists testify to the reality of fear’s effects. In his article “Life After Death: Apoplexy, Medical Ethics and the Female Undead,” Andrew Mangham asserts that “the nineteenth century may have been awash with disease, death and primitive medical practice, but, in the period’s scientific literature, doctors perceived themselves to be meeting such pressures with inventive and groundbreaking discoveries” (286).  Armand Trousseau, a nineteenth-century Professor of Medicine at the Hotel-Dieu, defined the medical condition called “apoplexy” as “‘an affection in which [...] an individual falls, and is struck down suddenly, like an ox felled by the butcher’” (quoted in Mangham 284). Trousseau believed the condition was caused by an affection of the sensorium commune, which is the part of the brain responsible for sending signals to the rest of the body (Mangham 284). Whether this affection of the sensorium commune was linked to the faculty of fear remained open to question, but it was certainly a possibility. It seems unlikely that Poe would have been heavily influenced by the work of Trousseau, since Trousseau performed much of his work near the end of Poe’s life. However, the scientific studies made by Trousseau, accompanied by the recorded instances of Poe’s characters falling ill to diseases that resemble the symptoms of apoplexy, suggest that this was no foreign or spontaneous idea at the time. 

Another prominent physician who investigated and published on the psychological science of fear was Benjamin Rush. Almost anyone who was literate in the early nineteenth century was aware of Rush and his academic influence. While he did endorse traditional eighteenth-century remedies such as bloodletting and purging to combat illness, he was no stranger to progressive ideas. In fact, Rush published new and innovative ideas about medicine and health in his 1812 book Medical Inquires and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind.  The popular text ultimately paved the way for the medical field of psychiatry (Burduck 31). Rush was particularly focused on the operation of madness and its origins. He believed that causes of madness were due to elements such as heritage, climate, and an overactive imagination (Burduck 33). According to Burduck, Rush blamed madness in part on the dangers of imbalanced emotions: “Love, grief, anger, and fear prove especially susceptible. When one of these emotions exerts an unusually strong dominance in the mind madness results” (Burduck 34). In his book, Rush also referred to bad blood as a cause of madness, which may suggest why he supported the practice of bloodletting: “the cause of madness is seated primarily in the blood-vessels of the brain,” he wrote (Rush 17).

John Conolly, a contemporary of Rush, also wrote about fear and specifically highlighted the grip that fear can hold on the mind: “Regard a man who is wholly under the influence of fear. His mind is taken up with the strong impression made by the object feared.  He has no attention for other objects” (Conolly 226). Preying upon both the body and mind, fear, Conolly suggests, can overwhelm the individual and paralyze him or her to the point of dangerous and unreasonable activity. A good example of this is presented by the narrator of Poe’s “The Black Cat.” The narrator fears the second black cat, and this fear has lodged itself so deeply in the narrator’s brain that by the end of the tale he has forsaken his physical environment: “Beneath the pressure of torments such as these, the feeble remnant of the good within me succumbed. Evil thoughts became my sole intimates—the darkest and most evil of thoughts. The moodiness of my usual temper increased to hatred of all things and of all mankind” (Complete Stories and Poems 68). The brutal scene of the narrator burying an axe in his wife’s head attests to the narrator’s irresponsible activity and mental paralysis, which is evoked by the unbreakable grip of fear spurred by the supernatural cat.
Given Trousseau, Rush, and Conolly’s suggestions on the scientific origins and operations of fear and madness, it is worth further demonstrating how Poe’s works illustrate these concepts. In “The Raven,” the narrator’s fear of an imminently doomed fate is conveyed through the suggested volume of his cries: “‘Prophet!’ said I, ‘thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—’” (Complete Stories and Poems 756).  Repetitive use of exclamation points indicates shouting, and em-dashes imply pauses due to accelerated breath. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the steadily increasing beat of the old man’s heart irks the narrator to the point of aggressive pacing and raving: “I foamed—I raved—I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased” (Complete Stories and Poems 124). Again, the em-dashes imply pauses due to accelerated breath, and such stylistic language is just a sample of Poe’s understanding of fear that corresponds to the ideas suggested by his scientific contemporaries.
The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” refers to how the “horror” inside of him is mocked by the police officers. In Gothic fiction, slightly different meanings exist for the words “terror” and “horror,” both of which are forms of fear. While terror implies the anticipation of fear operating through an external source, horror implies the realization of fear operating from within.  The narrator of “The Black Cat” is plagued with sleep deprivation as he grows more and more fearful of the supernatural second cat:

Alas! Neither by day nor by night knew I the blessing of Rest any more! During the former the creature left me no moment alone; and, in the latter, I started, hourly, from dreams of unutterable fear, to find the hot breath of the thing upon my face, and its vast weight […] incumbent eternally upon my heart! (Complete Stories and Poems 67-8)

The cat operates as an external and seemingly omnipresent force that terrorizes the narrator to the point of unrest. In “A Dream within a Dream,” the narrator’s physical pain is evident in the language corresponding to the knowledge of the unstoppable passage of time: “While I weep—while I weep! / O God! can I not grasp / Them with a tighter clasp? / O God!” (Complete Stories and Poems 768). The narrator is horrified by the internal realization that Time is an unwavering force that can neither be delayed nor hindered. As in “The Raven,” the narrator’s fear is stressed by the grammatical use of exclamation points.
Perhaps more crucial than the unusual and aggressive effects of fear on the body are the manipulation and forceful effects of fear on the mind. The German Romantic tradition of short fiction assumed that literature could be a method of illustrating ordinary and unordinary experiences (May 93).  Poe appreciated the unordinary experience, and he was interested “in all human experiences that challenged or undermined the easy assumption that everyday reality was the only reality worth attending to” (May 93). Poe was convinced that dreams were the vehicles of unordinary human experience: “One of the most common of such ‘alternate’ experiences, of course, one that is accessible to every human being, is the experience of dream” (May 93). He valued the simple trick of confusing the experience of reality with the experience of fantasy in a dream. More importantly, he would “suggest the supernatural by pushing the natural to extremes” (May 93), which gave these experiences nightmarish qualities. A good example of this is presented in “A Dream within a Dream.” The narrator’s disinterest in an unalterable past and his inability to distinguish fantasy from reality in the first stanza contradicts his sudden awareness of the ambiguity between realms and his harsh feelings of denial in the second stanza.
Although the ideas were way before his time, Poe seems to have intuitively understood the insights of twentieth-century psychology, including the relationship between conscious reality and subconscious dreams. David R. Saliba illustrates this relationship in his book A Psychology of Fear, beginning with the study of “the ego.” In psychology, the ego represents the conscious part of the mind. The ego protects itself from the disruption caused by uncomfortable experiences by using subconscious “defense mechanisms” that temporarily distort reality. The goal of the ego is self-preservation: to preserve the individual’s body and mind from harm. Unfortunately, fear can be such a powerful emotion that the subconscious defense mechanisms can overcompensate, and in the ego’s wild attempt to preserve itself and stay conscious, a large grey area can form in the mind between fantasy and reality. Subsequent thoughts and actions are consequently liable to be irrationally based. An individual’s control of the balance between conscious and subconscious—between reality and fantasy—is jeopardized: “In whatever form a victim of irrational fear perceives his control loss, his response will always be one of self-preservation” (Saliba 41).
Ironically, in the attempt to preserve one’s mind and shelter it from madness, individuals may perform extremely unethical acts and unknowingly go mad. The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” illustrates this when he rids himself of the old man through an unknowing contraction of madness in an effort to persevere. When dealing with the discomfort created by the old man’s veiled eye, the narrator’s only consideration is murder. The act of concealing the man’s remains in the floorboards is logical in the sense that it provides an excellent cover-up and avoids suspicion. From the narrator’s perspective, the actions are practical and essential to his attempt to evade destruction and obtain peace of mind; however, from an outsider’s perspective, these actions are the signs of fear distorting the constructs of fantasy and reality and thereby plunging the individual into an undetectable state of madness. After the narrator kills the old man and buries him beneath the floorboards, the narrator begins to hear a sound “as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton” (Complete Stories and Poems 124). Initially he is calm, but the sound grows louder and louder. Amidst the frantic failed attempts to cancel out the noise and keep a composed appearance, it is the desperate need for self-preservation that finally makes him crack: “But any thing was better than this agony! Any thing was more tolerable than this derision! […] I felt that I must scream or die!” (Complete Stories and Poems 124).

A nightmare is a prime example of fear overwhelming the subconscious state of the mind. Observable only during sleep, the common characteristics of nightmares include feelings of impending doom, total helplessness at the hands of inevitable violence, and an atmosphere of overbearing pressure. Saliba recounts that “because the ego’s defenses are low during a nightmare, it finds that in order to survive the terror of torment it must resume complete consciousness” (Saliba 44). However, as previously mentioned, there is a disorientation between reality and fantasy moments after this return to consciousness occurs, which can thereby increase an individual’s level of fear. This return to consciousness is the default option for the ego’s survival, both for the fictional character and the living reader: “Poe’s best art is an attempt to bring the nightmare out of the sleeper’s mind and extend it into the waking hours for the conscious and rational mind to experience” (Saliba 52).  In his book Poe and the Powers of the Mind, Robert Shulman explains that “Poe has real insight into that basically irrational strategy by which the mind attempts to preserve itself from its own forces of madness, disease, and disintegration by rigidly isolating itself and by assuming that the threat is external when in fact it is internal” (248). This is evident in “The Tell-Tale Heart” when the old man emits the “groan of mortal terror” upon hearing the narrator’s intrusion:

His fears had been ever since growing upon him. He had been trying to fancy them causeless, but could not. He had been saying to himself—“It is nothing but the wind in the chimney—it is only a mouse crossing the floor,” or “it is merely a cricket which has made a single chirp.” Yes, he has been trying to comfort himself with these suppositions; but he had found all in vain. All in vain; because Death, in approaching him, had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim. (Complete Stories and Poems 122)

The old man’s ego frantically attempts to distort reality and attribute disintegration to external forces, but in realizing that his fear is not imagined, he is horrified. The narrators of both “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat” also do this. They each confess to their murders, but they attempt to prove their innocence and sanity by blaming external forces for their homicidal actions. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the external force was the return of the old man’s heartbeat; in “The Black Cat” it was the “Fiend Intemperance” (Complete Stories and Poems 68) and the second cat’s unwarranted fondness. As Christopher Benfey shares in his essay “Poe and the Unreadable: ‘The Black Cat’ and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’” it would appear that “the fear of the criminals is not the fear of being caught, it is the fear of being cut off, of being misunderstood” (Benfey, 37).  Because humans are social creatures by nature, the mind’s task to preserve itself is rooted in this innate function. To be misunderstood is to be isolated, and to be isolated is frightening to Poe’s narrators. This is why at the start of the tale, the narrator of “The Black Cat” states that the events he is about to disclose are not spurred by madness or a previous mishap of distorted reality: “For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad am I not—and very surely do I not dream” (Complete Stories and Poems 63).

In conclusion, it seems plausible that Edgar Allan Poe created his collection of horror stories and poems by basing his understanding of fear in the scientific and psychological studies of the nineteenth century. With the then “groundbreaking” discoveries of brain functionality and its corresponding influence on the human body, scientists and psychologists alike suggested how emotions could physically impair bodily functions and thereby violate socially acceptable behavior. They also suggested how manipulating and misleading the subconscious mind could render reality ambiguous and thereby evoke fear and madness. The subconscious mind’s innate efforts at preservation would prove to be less a blessing than a curse. Poe’s Gothic fiction could be written for the masses who were greedy for such dark writing. Truly, Edgar Allan Poe was a literary genius, and anyone who could befriend fear or master madness in such a way as he did may exist nevermore. 

Works Cited