Art Reflecting Life Through Edgar Allan Poe
We often hear that art imitates life and one author that demonstrates this point is Edgar Allan Poe. Poe's life created the perfect atmosphere for death, sadness, and terror as he watched the people that were closest to him die. Poe's childhood was also tumultuous in that he was abandoned by both parents and his foster father was not as supportive as he could have been. The result was a man filled with images of death and desolation, finding release through the art of writing. This release was not always pleasant but rather cathartic as the pain of life was allowed a much needed expression. Poe's tales of terror capture an aspect of life that is real, which allow us to relate to them and they touch on horror, which is just enough to make us fear not only the story but out fellow man. It is the connection between the two that make Poe's stories succeed. Jack Sullivan notes that Poe used the "body as a conduit to the soul," (Sullivan 325) which would explain why so many of Poe's characters experience terror and often tragedy. Sullivan goes on to explain, "the mutilation, the decay, the body's subordination to death were, to Poe, the world" (325). "The Masque of the Red Death," "The Tell-tale Heart," and "The Cask of Amontillado" are stores that illustrate the bad aspects of life are reflected in Poe's work, making them perfect tales of terror.
Tony Magstreale maintains that life provides us with all the inspriation we need, whether that inspiration be positive of negative. In his opinion, Poe "understood that untainted by dream or drug, the world we normally inhabit is a decidedly unpoetic one" (Magstreale 261). Poe definitely had unpoetic issues that can be traced back to his childhood. His father left his mother when he was very young and then she abandoned him. His foster father was not extremely supportive and his "psychological presence in Poe's troubled life is perhaps as significant as the psychological void caused by David Poe's early abandonment" (263). In addition, Poe's foster mother and wife died from tuberculosis. Their deaths, Collar notes, were "prolonged and particularly gruesome; their graphic images of death and dying probably would have been enough to animate a lifetime of night mares for anyone. For Poe, they would translate into obsessive components of his work" (263). From an early age, Poe knew pain, separation, fear, loneliness, and even terror. It should come as no surprise then that some of his characters are "troubled and highly motivated by subjective demons" (263). In many ways, art imitates Poe's life and his "Romantic predilection is further evinced by the manner in which his art was shaped by the distressing events of his personal life" (263). Poe was recognized as a writer that "not only created art from the essence of his own personal suffering but also came to define himself through this suffering" (263). There can be no denying that the experience of real life had something to do with the suffering and terror that many of Poe's characters experience. It is experience that guides the paintbrush on Poe's canvas.
One illustration of pain and suffering can be seen in "The Masque of the Red Death." With this tale, Poe emphasizes the fact that death touches everyone regardless of any actions made to elude it. Prospero does everything in his power to escape the grip of death, which allows Poe to build tension and drama in the story. Suspense builds as Prospero builds a "strong and lofty wall" (Poe 614) around his castle and goes through great trouble to fortify it against any infestation. We know that security was within and "Without was the 'Red Death'" (614). Poe knew about the futility of escaping death because he watched his loved ones die and he warns us about this by reminding us that every hour of life is filled with "Time that flies" (615) and within those hours are three thousand and six hundred seconds. What was intended to be a lifesaver became a tomb and we watch as the death demonstrates that is has "illimitable dominion over all" (Poe 617). Poe incorporates the setting as part of his message. The black chamber's clock chimes fall "more solemnly emphatic" (616) on the guest's ears with "brazen lungs," and the sound is "clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical" (615). While the guests were trying to celebrate escaping the Death, the chimes were ominous and when they heard them, they "grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation" (615). The black Chamber is a symbol of death so it is no wonder that the reminder that time is fleeting would ring from its walls. In addition, we a read that light streams "upon the dark hangings through the blood tinted panes was ghastly in extreme" (615). With this image, we see the panes are symbols of the blood that would flow from the living in the castle. Te guests, even though they are told that they are safe, cannot completely escape the notion that death is just around the corner in the next room. Death cannot and will not be cheated and this is one thing that Poe wants to reinforce with this tale. The pain and suffering that those involved must endure illustrate how dreadful it can be.
Pain and suffering can manifest themselves in different ways and Poe is a classic example of how this is true. One story that demonstrates how the body becomes a conduit for the soul is "The Tell-tale Heart." With this story, the narrator is clearly insane and proves it with his actions toward the old man. In this tale, Poe presents fear by illustrating how frightening one man can be while still believing he is sane. The narrator's inner dialogue is contorted and yet stable. With time, he proves that he is anything but stable but it takes us awhile to figure this out. The narrator is, as Jay Parini points out, "troubled and highly motivated by subjective demons" (Magistrale 263). This inner demon represents the weakness of man in that we might all be capable of such atrocities, given the right circumstances. These circumstances include a man haunted by something that may not exist, including an old man's eye. Poe builds drama by placing us in the mind of this crazy man who claims to be sane. To prove he is sane, he tells us how everything has "sharpened my senses -- not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute" (Poe 189). He also tries to tell us that his experience has afflicted him like a disease. As he is killing the man, he notes that his terror must be "extreme! It grew louder, I say louder, every moment!" (191). In addition, as the narrator and when he is dismembering the old man's body in the bathtub he is congratulating himself with a, "ha! ha!" (191). Here madness and terror hold hands in that we see the narrator's insanity as well as imagine the old man's suffering. The body is a channel for what the soul is experiencing in this story of senseless revenge.
Another story that demonstrates a level of internal terror that points to tragedy is "The Cask of Amontillado." Again, Poe utilizes the narrator as an example of a man that appears to be stable in that he can reason and think logically. However, his logic is overshadowed by "various acts of violence and cruelty" (Magstrale 269). observes that this story contains a "quality of horror that is unique to Poe alone. For no writer before Poe was capable…