he name Edgar Allan Poe epitomizes Gothic tales of fantasy, terror, murder, and mystery. Poe, who died 170 years ago in mid-October, made a unique contribution to world literature that for the sake of simplicity can be roughly classified, into two broad categories: horror tales and detective stories.
His horror writings, which often explore the deepest recesses of the human mind, typically play with the idea of the uncanny. As Sigmund Freud would put it more than a half a century later, “the uncanny element is nothing new or strange, but something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only to be repressed.” Freud’s remark is often used by scholars in an attempt to read Poe’s obsession with death in general, and the death of women in particular in psychoanalytic terms — “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world,” Poe once said.
This psychoanalytic reading builds on a variety of traumatic experiences in Poe’s own life, including the death of his 24-year-old mother Eliza (stricken by tuberculosis) when Poe was only three. Poe’s foster mother also died prematurely, as did his wife (and cousin) — 15 years younger than Poe —Virginia. Although the biographical element is undoubtedly relevant in any study of Poe’s narrative, to make it into the only interpretative ingredient is superficial.
But if psychoanalysis is to be used as a tool to interpret Poe’s work, it is perhaps best used not so much to focus on Poe’s alleged trauma but on his avid interest both in natural history and in the labyrinthine nature of the human mind. Poe’s horror tales often feature a first-person, monomaniac narrator on the threshold between anxiety and madness, frequently motivated by the death of a partner after a sudden disease. Poe’s ability to reproduce the ponderings and wonderings of his narrators through tortuous soliloquies to some extent anticipate early 20th-century modernist literature, a genre that was heavily influenced by Freud’s work.
Poe may not have anticipated Freud, but Freud did in fact build theories on the legacy and scientific work of early 19th century authors. It’s a legacy scholars such as Poe were aware of. This fact represents a far more valuable link between Poe and psychoanalysis. It also helps explain his interest in mental illness and trauma.
Poe’s horror plots abound in perdition, resurrection and scenes that are both macabre and realistic. One example among many comes in “Berenice,” in which first-person narrator Egaeus, who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, is fixated on his sick fiancée’s teeth. Berenice, Egaeus’s fiancée (and cousin) is affected by a form of epilepsy that often leaves her in a cataleptic state. Among the most uncanny elements of the story is that Egaeus’s interest in his fiancée is merely scientific. He sees her, and her symptoms, as a topic of scientific analysis, not a component of love — until she dies suddenly. But this is an apparent death, as the reader will soon learn.
In the spine-chilling final scene we discover that Egaeus, during what appears to be a trance, has unburied the (still living) Berenice and removed her teeth, which, to his own surprise, he finds carefully placed in a box on the table beside the dental surgery instruments he used and the muddy and blood clotted garments he wore.
“Berenice” is a perfect example of Poe’s confluent interest in natural history and the mysteries of the human mind, each one building on the cultural milieu of his times. In 19th-century America, “science” was often the realm of curious amateurs who made their living through other pursuits. Many set up private home laboratories in a spare room. The greatest American writers of the the period — Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Poe, of course — shared a vivid interest in natural history.
Precisely because of this, Poe’s obsession with the macabre and sometimes the supernatural may actually have had more to do with his interest in science and rational thinking than it appears at a first glance. This fits in with Poe’s status as the father of the modern detective story, a genre that made rationality an essential part of analytical crime-solving.
Through the literary exploration of anxieties, desires, and, sometimes, mental illness, Poe was doing much more than entertaining his readers and creating a source of income. In a world in which many of the scientific disciplines we know today weren’t clearly defined or hadn’t even been formally established, literature helped provide interesting examples of pioneering scientific explorations by brilliant amateurs. It’s why I can’t live without 19th-century literature.