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An examination of Edgar Allan Poe’s literary works reveals a preoccupation with the state of the human heart, the exploration of the deepest and darkest recesses of the human mind as well as dark themes such as depravity, violence, and death. This paper seeks to explore Edgar’s preoccupation with the theme of death. On one hand, the author presents the view that death is an assailant from which people have a constant need to flee from. On the other hand, Edgar grants humanity a certain control over death and the ability to control it and its occurrence. It delves into the perception of death that society holds. To explore this theme, two texts from his repertoire of short stories have been used; The Masque of the Red Death and The Black Cat.
Edgar’s exploration of the theme of death in the short story The Masque of the Red Death reveals a society that is at the mercy of death. The major pestilence that sweeps throughout the land wipes out almost half of the kingdom’s population. The writer paints a literary picture of horror, some deaths and an unrelenting pestilence that kills in thirty minutes from its onset. The people in the kingdom seem to be completely helpless against the scourge. Their only recourse remains to wait for death in fear (Poe 4).
The writer seeks to present a vivid picture of the sordid fear that the sense of impending doom has instilled in the people. People are so afraid of the being infected with the strange disease that when one of them contracts it, they are immediately shunned by the rest of the society. The narrator, in his description of the shunning of the diseases victims, explains that ‘The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men’.
Seeking to further develop the fear of death in this particular society, Edgar paints a literary picture of a supreme and wealthy prince of the land being so scared of contracting the disease that he builds a castle for himself and some of the wealthy nobles, which is supposed to act as some form of safety fortress from the terror outside (Hoffman 3).
The narrator describes the careful measures taken by the prince to ensure the tightest security is observed. No one who gets in goes out, and vice versa. All this is done out of the crippling fear the prince and his nobles have for the certain death that lies outside the protective fortress.
Edgar, having established the prince’s efforts to protect himself and his nobles against the pestilence physically by locking themselves in the large fortress, further sought to develop the theme. He reveals a further mental oppression of the prince and his nobles. Even though they are inside a fortress and presumably safe from danger, they still need to dull their fears by indulging in numerous pleasures so as to avoid thinking about possible death. The narrator says that ‘The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure’ (Poe 7). This presents the picture of people who dared neither grieve nor think about the possibility of death. Instead, they chose to numb themselves with pleasures such as wine, music and sexual pleasures.
In a stark contrast, Edgar presents humanity as being more empowered concerning death. Edgar’s main character, the nameless man in the short story The Black Cat seems to have been ‘given’ more power to make choices (Howard 16). Even though the nameless man in the story seems to have a drinking problem and repeatedly shows a serious lack of temperance, the narrator is still able to maintain a degree of control over his mental faculties, albeit he chooses to make the wrong decisions. None of the harm that he inflicts on his animals or the murder of his wife are accidental. The reader sees him making a choice to do the things he does. Although his actions really paint a grim picture about the depth of depravity to which a human mind can sink, it also invites the reader into a world in which the individual has a considerable degree of control over his decisions; over his ability to preserve or destroy life. The individual has the power to make decisions that can ultimately lead to his death or otherwise. The narrator takes the reader through his reasoning processes. Throughout this literary journey, the reader gets the distinct feeling that the cat’s life is in the hand of the nameless narrator.
The stark difference in the main characters in the two stories and the different ways in which they deal with death further brings out the difference in the treatment of the death theme in the two stories. While the great prince is deathly scared to even think about death in The Masque of the Red Death, the nameless narrator in The Black Cat is completely at peace and manages to sleep soundly the night he brutal murders his wife. His only preoccupation is the missing cat on that night. The somewhat casual description of his thought train as he tries to figure out what to do with his wife’s corpse, gives the impression that death to him is not alarming. The reader does not get the feeling that the narrator is shaken by the fact that he has just murdered his wife. Without taking a moment to take the ordeal in, he immediately begins to think of how to dispose his wife’s body. He says;
“This hideous murder accomplished, I set myself forthwith, and with entire deliberation, to the task of concealing the body. I knew that I could not remove it from the house, either by day or by night, without the risk of being observed by the neighbours. Many projects entered my mind. At one period I thought of cutting the corpse into minute fragments, and destroying them by fire. At another, I resolved to dig a grave for it in the floor of the cellar. Again, I deliberated about casting it in the well in the yard --about packing it in a box, as if merchandize, with the usual arrangements, and so getting a porter to take it from the house” (Poe 9).
The narrator seems to posses a certain confidence even in the face of death. Although he tells the story as he waits to be hanged, he does not sound extremely terrified from the thought. He sounds relatively calm.
Although both stories end with a promise of doom for both the prince and the nameless narrator, there is a distinct sense of defeat and helplessness in the face of the inevitability of death for prince that is not present at the demise of the nameless husband in The Black Cat. The narrator faces his impending death with a form of satisfied resignation and acceptance as opposed to the indescribable dread described in The Masque of the Red Death.