"Terrible it is to be alone with the judge and avenger of one's own law." -- Nietzsche
My previous essay focused on Roderick Usher, a Poe character who literally dreams his life away in a once-resplendant, moldering house. His twin sister Madeline represents the waning, but stubbornly enduring physical reality that Roderick wishes to transcend. Madeline also represents the last vestige of the intact, though fissured, and haunted palace of Usher--the House, the race of Ushers, and the mind of Roderick. While she lives, Roderick's visionary mind must jangle its discordant improvisations. Likewise, Roderick and Madeline depend upon one another as does soul depend upon body; they form a double relationship, a volatile unity devised by Poe to portray his own dichotomous psychic tendencies, as well as to confess his obsession with the perverse. Several similar double relationships from Poe's tales will be explored in this study which purposes to reveal Poe's doppelganger as yet another tryst of the perverse.
William Wilson--Part I: The Fractured Will
Poe's expansive imagination is manifest in a decidedly modern story called "William Wilson." First published in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in 1839, it presents another of Poe's excitable characters, William Wilson, who narrates the tale. We learn that the narrator's appellation is actually a pseudonym, for the narrator elects not to burden his family by revealing his true identity, which "has been already too much an object of scorn--for the horror--for the detestation of my race." In addition, the narrator reveals that he dwells in alienation, "outcast of all outcasts most abandoned!" William Wilson laments that a "dense, dim, and limitless" cloud hangs between himself and heaven (Poe 156).
The narrator further recounts his rapid descent into "unspeakable misery and unpardonable crime," a sudden dropping, as of a mantle, of all virtue, and with a solitary "stride of a giant," entrance into the realm of the incorrigible. Also, early in the tale we learn Poe's rationale in choosing the pseudonym, for the narrator is, as Daniel Hoffman suggests, William, the "son of his own Will" (209). William Wilson explains, "my voice was a household law; and at an age when few children have abandoned their leading-strings, I was left to the guidance of my own will, and became, in all but name, the master of my own actions." In addition, we learn that the narrator adjudges himself weak-minded, "addicted to the wildest caprices, and a prey to the most ungovernable passions" (Poe 157).
The reader also learns early on that the narrator will soon perish, and that "the shadow [Death] which foreruns him has thrown a softening influence over" his spirit. (Poe 156)We learn from the epigram atop the story that Poe intends for "William Wilson" to portray conscience. Yet Poe manufactures within his tale a decidedly humanistic context--no religious proselytizing, no sermonizing--just conscience stripped bare. For a reader of Poe, contemplation of conscience and of evil beyond inculcated religious context can be problematic since religious code commonly resides at the core of one's belief structure. Nonetheless, in the stark voice of "'CONSCIENCE grim,'" the narrator begins his account.
William (as I shall call him for now) first encounters his double (I shall call him Wilson) at Dr. Bransby's Academy. William and Wilson own the same name, happen to have been born on the same day, are of equal height and of strikingly similar features. They also enter the Academy on the same day. Two affectations of Wilson's character plague William, preying on his soul. First is a singular peculiarity of his double's speech, for Wilson cannot speak above a whisper. Secondly, Wilson counterfeits all of William's pranks. No other student seems to notice Wilson's imperious judgment of William, nor the resultant crescendo of William's hatred for Wilson.
Near the end of his fifth year, William designs to carry through with a cruel prank on the sleeping Wilson, which would "make him feel the whole extent of malice" that he harbored him. However, as he drew back the draperies, which surrounded the bed, William was
William Wilson--Part II: Conscience Grim
After several months, the narrator enrolls at Eton, where he plunges to "the vortex of thoughtless folly" (164). Three years of "miserable profligacy" pass. One night during an all-night revel of debauchery and card playing, a servant informs William that a person wishes audience with him. The first tinges of dawn provide inadequate light for immediate recognition of his nemesis. But he sees the identical habiliments, the similar height and contour of person; then the form approaches, whispers in his ear "William Wilson," and takes his leave. Afterward, the narrator learns little about Wilson's whereabouts, only that his nemesis had left Bransby's Academy the afternoon of the same day that he himself had flown.
Finally, William succeeds in his efforts to enroll at Oxford, but continues his hedonistic habits. With the generous support of his parents, he continues his extravagances, attesting that he "out-Heroded Herod," increasing his impressive allowance by cheating his gullible mates at cards.
One day, Glendinning, a student of prodigious wealth, enrolls at Oxford. William humors him at cards, allowing him to win considerable sums before he engages the "gambler's usual art" (Poe 165-66). An evening was planned in which, late in the night, Glendinning would become the narrator's "sole antagonist." Earlier in the evening, Glendinning had been induced to drink heavily. Soon he incurs heavy losses as William practices the art of the cheat. Oddly, Glendinning displays an unexpected, nervous agitation; but after a deep draught of port, wagers a bet of double or nothing, which William welcomes in cool anticipation. Glendinning's odd behavior becomes more exaggerated, expressing itself in his change of pallor from florid to frightful. Soon William realizes that the wager had been sufficient to effect Glendinning's financial ruin.
Then as welcome interruption to "the many burning glances of scorn or reproach" from those who had remained to watch the spectacle, an intruder throws open the double doors, and a rush of air extinguishes every candle in the room. In the darkness stood a figure who began
William Wilson--Part III: The Demise of Conscience
Once again, Wilson has appeared to counterfeit the exploits of William. At the very moment when William should have been counting his winnings, Wilson enters dramatically to reveal William's character. Glendinning offers William his coat, which he accepts, though he already carries his coat on his arm. Turns out the coat was Wilson's-- identical in every particular to his own. In horror, William flees Oxford to reside on the Continent, but Wilson hounds him as he makes his way first to Paris, then Rome, Vienna, Berlin, and Moscow. But the narrator notes that in no case did he ever encounter Wilson, "except to frustrate those schemes, or to disturb those actions, which, if fully carried out, might have resulted in bitter mischief" (Poe 168). Further, William realizes that since his flight from Bransby's, he has never seen his tormentor's face.
But it is in Rome when the tale's fateful final episode ensues at a masquerade party of Duke Di Broglio. An intoxicated William begins to make his way across the room to the costumed figure of the beautiful wife of the Duke, when he feels a hand upon his shoulder. Turning, William encounters Wilson, garbed in a costume identical in every particular to his own, since as the reader has by now guessed, the two comprise one fissured personality. He then drags Wilson, unresisting, to an adjoining antechamber where he put his nemesis on his guard, then stabs him repeatedly. But as William turns to a large mirror of the antechamber, he finds Wilson there, dabbled with blood, approaching his own reflection "with a feeble and tottering gait."
William Wilson--Part IV: A Critical Analysis
Yet William Wilson must still live in some form to have narrated the story. If his mortal heart does still beat, it beats in the chest of one who has killed his conscience, one who might as well be dead, but one who survives in the tomb of his own flesh. The theme of the living dead was frequented by Poe, exemplified by both Roderick and Madeline in "The Fall of the House of Usher," by the narrators of "The Premature Burial" and "The Cask of Amontillado," and by the desperate, maniacal figure in "The Man of the Crowd." In Poe we find that time itself seems distendable. It should not amaze us that Poe reaches into the gloaming with the narrative voice. In addition, readers should not be surprised that an author who posits words into the mouths of astral spirits such as Monos and Una, who sends narrators into maelstromic time-tunnels, who contemplates time as a pendulous, universal quaver, that an author such as Edgar Poe, in other words, should leave the reader wondering from whence the narrative voice issues.
More central to the theme of this story is the device of the doppelganger. The similarities between William and Wilson--the same date of nativity, same height, similar features, similar gait, identical garb--indicate that they reside in the same body, that they are one person, a double entity corresponding to Poe's expanded, and therefore "unnatural" universe. Poe employs the device of the double to expose the conscience, a psychological judging half who, in censuring the pranks of William, brings to fruition the dissolutionary agent of perversity.
Because the conscience is an agent of perversity, "William Wilson" is much more than a moral tale. It pales Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which the moral imperative wins over the bestial. In fact, Poe's story does not involve good and evil, but rather, evil and self-judgment. Because the will of a Poe character is not subject to ordinary morality, his primal conscience looses itself on the character's intemperance, not for performing societal evil, but rather, for violating his own spiritual vitality. Crime in Poe can always be distilled to this: An act that violates the spirit is committed; the spirit of the violator creates a judgmentive spectre which betrays the initiator of the act. The character William Wilson rages against this spectre, and in his madness, externalizes it. In this story, Poe illustrates the consequences for the man who chooses incorrigibility--frustration, horror, madness, and finally, the annihilation of conscience, which constitutes spiritual death.
Perversity in man occurs in two stages: first, the impulse to perform an act; then, a judgment of the psyche and recognition by the conscience that the committed act would be damaging to the spirit or to the organism. Only when this particular cause and effect of mind has been recognized can the singular thrill of committing the act be experienced--only accompanied by the cognizance that indulging in the event would be self-destructive. Only when the narrator of "The Imp of the Perverse" intones "I am safe--I am safe--yes--if I be not fool enough to make open confession!" (Poe 275) could the exhilaration of succumbing to his daemonic double be fully achieved. Poe's protagonists possess this daemon, this judging conscience. Though they have become crazed by the irresistibility of their own perverse desires, they return to the rational to attempt explanation of the horror that has destroyed their lives.
In his prologues to "The Imp of the Perverse" and "The Black Cat," Poe describes perverseness as the elemental seed of annihilation that resides within the psyche. In "William Wilson," Poe demonstrates that if perverse impulses are continuously unchecked, they can portend psychological collapse. William Wilson's assertion that he was master of his own will at a young age brings to my mind the tribulations of many of my students, especially those who seem "masters of their own lives," deprived of the discipline of responsible adults. They love their freedom, but have never been taught the responsibilities which should attend it. Like William Wilson, they often get into a lot of trouble. The worst become incorrigible. They externalize conscience, blaming "the others," since all of their troubles are someone else's fault. The visage of that spectre in their path they never see, though, ironically, the countenance is their own.
Another spectral face which some critics are loath to recognize is Poe's own in his writing. But what is a reader to do when Poe ascribes to William Wilson his own birth date, albeit moving the date forward four years to make himself appear younger; when Dr. Bransby's boarding school where William Wilson received part of his education is an actual academy which Poe himself attended for five years; when gambling, William Wilson's most detestable vice at Oxford, was Poe's own worst habit at the University of Virginia. Thus, one must acknowledge that the line that separates Poe and his characters is at most, intermittent, and that the fissure that ran through the minds of his characters represents the writer's own doppelganger. When he causes his character William Wilson to turn to the mirror in the antechamber, whom does Poe see, do you suppose?
"The Cask of Amontillado": Critical Interpretations
Among Poe's most intriguing tales is "The Cask of Amontillado," first published in Godey's Lady's Book in November of 1847. A surface reading of that story reveals only a simple description by Montresor (the narrator) of how he kills another man who was called, ironically, Fortunato. Montresor exploits Fortunato's vanity concerning the connoiseurship of wine; specifically, Montresor pretends to want a wine cask of Amontillado verified as genuine. Montresor chooses a time when Fortunato is drunk to dupe him into going down the spiral stairs into the catacombs, which serve as a sort of family burial grounds for the race of Montresors. But rather than a mere cask of wine, Fortunato finds his death; for Montresor bricks him into a niche of the catacombs which has remained undisturbed for the fifty years since the murder was performed. How simple!
How simple, indeed--at least until we examine a group of irreconcilable paradoxes in the story. To begin with, the names Montresor and Fortunato are synonymous (Hofffman 223). Secondly, we find that the motive for the crime was some unnamed insult. Motives for killing someone should be important enough to detail. Why does Poe have Montresor gloss over the motives? One view is that Montresor relates the details of the murder not to justify his actions, but as a form of confession. But if this be confession, where is the regret? Again, Poe leaves his readers mystified concerning the time and location for issuance of the narrative voice. If Montresor still lives, he must be a very old man. If so, the phantasms of his deed may have horrified him all of his life. Then why does he not seem horrified? If this be confession, then why does he seem not penitent?
Perhaps Montresor is coerced to confess his crime by the Imp of the Perverse, like the narrator of Poe's tale "The Imp of the Perverse," who lives for a time in apparent peace with his conscience, only to spill all the beans when his perverse spectre grabs hold of his will. One of the beauties of "The Cask of Amontillado" is that it will bear many interpretations. I do not lay claim to the definitive analysis of this tale. Instead I shall present diverse theories that support my general thesis: that Montresor and Fortunato represent a doppelganger illustrative of perversity.
Consider this explanation which springs from Poe's choosing synonymous names for the story's two characters. Montresor has become so alienated from his physical reality that he must murder that side of himself. The fact that Fortunato easily succumbs to the pleasures of the flesh would seem to reinforce the view that Montresor and Fortunato constitute another of Poe's divided personalities; they are actually but one person divided against himself. In addition, we have Montresor, the judging side of the personality, emblematic of the Imp of the Perverse. So far, so good. Montresor preys upon Fortunato's tendency to drink, as well as upon his vanity. Fortunato, representative of the flesh, dons the fool's cap and is led by Montresor to a pitiful death. He walls Fortunato [the fool in himself] into a niche in the catacombs; the voice that speaks to us comes from beyond the grave. Yet still it must confess--only to suicide!
The suicide thesis would preclude that Poe has purposefully encoded the story. This encoding would suggest that he has deliberately diddled his readers, or that he wants the story to serve as litmus for the intuition, or both. So, are there more clues to support the suicide thesis? We have Montresor's coat of arms, a foot crushing "a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel." What symbol could better suggest the action that Montresor has taken. The foolish side of his nature plants its fangs in his heel; thus he must destroy it, lest it destroy him. Very similar is Montresor's situation to that of William Wilson--except that the narrators are reversed. William, who narrates that tale, resembles Fortunato. Both are tempted by the follies of the flesh. Wilson, on the other hand, is a dead ringer for Montresor, the ever-judging agent of the perverse.
But what of the serpent? Do not its fangs, too, represent perversity? According to Daniel Hoffman, "each side of the split ego has its own Imp of the Perverse" (213). Further, "What makes Wilson fail but the betrayal of his impulse to do evil by his equally uncontrollable impulse to judge himself?" Applying Hoffman's hypothesis to "The Cask...," one can speculate that no matter which side of Montresor's nature acts, the other will counter perversely to spoil the action of that side. Thus, both the fangs of the serpent and the crushing action of the foot suggest self-immolation. Did someone say this story is simple?
In his study The Measure of Poe, Louis Broussard claims that Montresor represents the voice of Death, that Death is the actual narrator of the story. Broussard buttresses his assertion by pointing out that most of the story's action takes place in a burial vault which is strewn with skeletal remains. "Man's fate is death, not life, not the Amontillado he seeks with such joyful eagerness. Life is a jest, man's hope is as illusory as the wind, his real nature surmounted with cap and bells, his role no more real than that of a jester in carnival time" (97-98). This interpretation seems attractive when compared to the previous one because of its simplicity, though at first blush it seems a bit light on the doppelganger. But perhaps not. After all, the common denominator of a living human is Death. If Poe intended for the narrator to personify Death, Montresor would indeed serve a spectral purpose. Broussard's postulates also make much sense, when considered coincident with Poe's cosmic theory. The seed of annihilation secreted within every particle of the universe leads all matter and spirit to oblivion in the unity of the primary particle. For humans, what can this constitute but Death? Broussard's view also allows for a valid interpretation of the coat of arms. The foot is Death; thus the serpent's bite cannot save the serpent's life, just as in "Ligeia," man's feeble will cannot save him from "the conqueror worm." His interpretation also accounts for the synonymous names, both of which mean "fate," and makes good use of the image of the fool. Many of our actions seem quite foolish when one considers that all humans meet the same fate.
Hoffman opts for one of Freudian psychoanalyst Marie Bonapart's theses in his interpretation of "Amontillado":
Interesting assertions! They even fit Poe's biographical profile: the love of the mother closely associated with the images of death, Poe's interment of his own vitality, Poe's need to avenge the abuses of John Allan. In fact, Kenneth Silverman calls "The Cask of Amontillado" a "meditation on the art and passion of revenge" (316). Silverman believes that it is no accident that the Montresor family motto "Nemo me impune lacessit" is Scotland's national motto, and that as one of her son's, "'Scotch' John Allan, much resembled Fortunato in being a man 'rich, respected, admired, beloved,' interested in wines, and a member of the Masons" (316-317). Poe likely had Allan in mind when formulating the vengeance motif for the tale. Placing the cap and bells on Fortunato may have tickled Poe at the root.
Foreshadowings of Nietzsche's Superman:
Perhaps "The Cask of Amontillado" anticipates Nietzsche's explorations of the concept of the Superman--that some people because of their inherent superiority, are justified in "taking out" those of lesser capability. Montresor's taunting reflects his belief that Fortunato is his lesser, and that he is, therefore, justified in killing him. Poe did make in his Marginalia a lengthy note regarding those of strikingly superior intellect. He writes,
Yes, indeed, Poe did consider the issue of the Superman, and drew conclusions which seem to carry an underlying pain that he himself endured. Perhaps his belief in such gifted/accursed individuals helped him characterize the madmen who narrate some of his stories. Yet trying to force his stories to fit this imprint simply does not do Poe justice. In "The Cask of Amontillado" many elements from the plot of the story have obviously been designed for other purposes than mere portrayal of a superman figure. In fact, the next story finds Poe examining a man of the crowd, a man lost among the many.
The Enigmatic Man of the Crowd
The narrator of "The Man of the Crowd" describes the various types of people who pass in front of the London club in which he sits. A rehabilitating invalid, he watches through a large window, describing insightfully the manners and idiosyncrasies of the assorted people of the street. The narrator's analytic mind proves itself quite capable in describing behaviorally the actions of all segments of society, or, at least all segments except for the one to which the peculiar Man of the Crowd belongs. He alone arrests, and then captivates, the attention of the narrator. So interested is the narrator in this old man that he follows him about the streets for a night. However, at the close of the piece, we find that the narrator has been able only to observe the old man; he does not speak to him but does look him once in the face. The narrator concludes his description of the old man by saying that he is like a book that cannot be read.
In "The Man of the Crowd," the reader feels the tension created by the singularity and mystery of the old man. In contrast to the narrators of his other stories, the old man does not narrate. His secrets cannot be told; his "terror is of a man's own thoughts." (Quinn 310) What crime the old man has committed we cannot know, except for his open confession which he has not rendered. He cannot bear to be alone because his "ghostly confessors" pursue him unceasingly. His clothes, though dirty, are quite fine, indicating that he might be a fallen gentleman, another of Poe's sinking heroes, a man who has become maddened by the ghastly spectres in his path.
One can only speculate about the character of the narrator himself. Could he have been of similar psychic constitution to have deduced that a horrible conscience plagued the old man? He seems strangely able to empathize with the old man, for he too is a man of the crowd. Perhaps the narrator perceives a part of himself in the old man, a certain madness in his own heart--another double relationship, one can be sure. The old man pursues the crowd; the narrator pursues the old man who pursues the crowd. "The Man of the Crowd" seems much more modern, even existential, than Poe's other works, perhaps because it is subtler. The crimes that he has committed against his spirit, his perverse enormities, remain unspoken; yet their portent seems every bit as powerful as in Poe's other stories.
Finally, did Edgar Poe think himself guilty of his heinous crimes to have written all of these variations upon the theme of perversity? I think so. I am not saying that his crimes were crimes in the ordinary sense of the word, but rather, crimes against the spirit, crimes purely in Poe's terms. In "William Wilson" and "The Cask of Amontillado," Poe creates characters that exhibit both the follies of the flesh and a spiritual repugnance for those follies. The resulting duality fractures the characters into William and Wilson, Montresor and Fortunato, just as Poe himself was fractured by his own intemperance and self-deprecation. On the other hand, "The Man of the Crowd" portrays a crazed, broken character who seems to flee his undivulged crimes. Perhaps as the Man of the Crowd agonizes on his deathbed, he, too, like William Wilson and Montresor, will throw down to his "ghostly confessors" the crimes he has committed against his soul.
In reading Poe and in writing about him, I sometimes fancy that, like the recovering invalid in Poe's tale, I pursue a haunted man in strangely populated, desolate and meandering streets of the poet's own imagination. Along the way I find interwoven strands of Poe's life--his several deaths, his vengeance, his exhilaration, his deliverance. I also ponder Poe's homage to those geniuses who rose above the ordinary plain of intelligence, then died in Bedlam, in prison, or on the gallows. Then, once again, I return to the primary source, Poe's own stories, realizing that to his readers, Poe confesses himself.
Broussard, Louis. The Measure of Poe. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.
Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1966.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Marginalia. Charlottesville, Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 1981.
Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar Allan Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1991.