An Interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Shadow
The Shadow - A Parable is written from the viewpoint of the protagonist Oinos. In the beginning of the parable, after Oinos’ greetings, he tells the reader that the year had been one of terror and that many signs had taken place including the conjoining of the planet Jupiter with the ring of Saturnus.
Saturn, or Saturnus in Latin, was the Roman god of harvest and agriculture. He was one of the seven Titans, a Titan being the most supreme of beings in essence a “prodigy”. Saturn over threw his father and it was prophesied that one of his children would someday overthrow him. To prevent this he devoured his children one by one but his wife managed to hide one of his son, Jupiter, who fulfilled the prophecy. Jupiter’s epic battle to overthrow his father nearly destroyed the universe. This epic battle of these gods alludes to the book of Revelation where God and Satan will have their last battle and destroy the earth. For mankind this will also be a time of terror, death, and judgment not unlike what Oinos describes to the reader.
Oinos goes on to say that while these events took place he and seven living companions sat in a noble hall in the city Ptolemais where they were preparing to die. But there was one other in the room who was already deceased, Zoilus. In Grecian history Zoilus was a critic and one account states he was killed for his criticisms because they were directed at king Ptolemy Philadelphus. The Zoilus in Poe’s story, even though dead, had his critical eyes upon Oinos and they expressed bitterness.
Oinos said a dead weight hung on them, the room and the goblets. He described the kind of depression and anxiety that is brought on by fear of impending death and judgment. The only thing the heaviness did not affect were seven lamps which provided their only light. The Biblical book of Revelation describes seven lamp stands which represented seven churches and if any of the seven churches did not turn from their sins they would be judged and their lamp would be put out.
The noble hall also contained a round table of ebony. The table was round so all seated would be equal and no one could be the head of the group. Oinos and the seven living guests had not faced their judgment yet so their placement in eternity was not yet determined. They, at this point, were equal in their potential fate just as in their arrangement at the table. The story goes on to say that the light of the seven lamps caused the ebony table to reflect like a mirror. The companions could not tear their eyes away from their reflections. They were peering into their souls, seeing their lives reflected back at them in a mirror of ebony. The Biblical book of James refers to the Bible as a mirror that reflects the readers life, like a mirror, and judges their actions.
The noble hall only contained one entrance, a door of rare workmanship made of brass. In the Bible it states that alters were made of bronze and superior craftsmanship. Alter's were used to judge and atone the Israelite's sins. Oinos also states that the door was fastened from the inside. If a door is fastened from the inside the only way in is to be granted admittance from those already inside the noble hall. This door appears reflected of the gates of Heaven, another place where judgment takes place. The gates into Heaven are the rarest of all doors, there can be no other like them and they can only be opened from the inside.
Oinos last description of the hall is it's black draperies which kept the companions from viewing the outside world. These black draperies are indicative of their impending death which will permanently separate them from the world of the living. It is from these draperies, a symbol of death itself, that the Shadow emerges. The Shadow was the embodiment of departed souls these souls did not get to enter into their final resting place instead they were left to dwell near the Catacombs of Ptolemais and by the plains of Helusion which border the Charonian canal. The Catacombs is where the living put their dead, Helusion was paradise or heaven and the Charonian canal was the passage between the two. In Greek mythology Charon was the ferryman of Hades, taking souls to their finial resting place. He traveled on the River Acheron; the divider of the world of the dead and the world of the living. To cross Acheron there was a fee to be paid and, according to some historians, if the fee was not paid you had to dwell for one hundred years on the shoreline.
Oinos and his companions terror comes to it’s climax when they hear the Shadow speak for the first time. This is when they realize the souls of the Shadow are those of their friends. In the Shadow’s voice they heard "the well-remembered and familiar accents of many thousand departed friends.”
Poe’s “The Shadow” shows the terror many people have of death and judgment and their gripping fear that one day they’ll come to find that the one’s they loved did not make it to paradise and that they will spend eternity forever separated from the one's they loved. Poe's intertwining of multiple mythos and Biblical is very different from his usual work's of mystery or horror making the Shadow one of his lesser known works. The Shadow's symbolism coupled with Poe's renowned ability to draw on the reader's own fear makes the Shadow a must read for every Poe fan.