Gothic Archetypes and Literary Devices in Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven and The Tell Tale Heart
Edgar Allan Poe has been credited for creating the modern Gothic genre which can most specifically be seen in the poem “The Raven,” and his short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” By his own admission, Poe defines his utilization of language, parallels, and themes in an attempt to craft great poetry through careful technique that will have the ability to reach his readership on a transcendent level. With that said, a close look will be taken into his works to define his development of Gothic archetypes, including the theme of madness and the irrationality of despair, through his use of language, settings, symbols, and character in “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” .
In his own words, Poe defines what he calls “The Poetic Principle” in which he says that “a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul” (Poe 1). For Poe, the length of the poem will determine the lasting effect it has on the reader, and he makes it clear that the content of the poem has a certain task that it must achieve in order for it to be considered a poem of worth. Moreover, Poe is astutely concerned with the overall technique of a poem, so much so that he spent a good majority of his professional life re-writing and criticizing the works of others. In many ways, Poe was so obsessive over the details of the technique of poetry, that he went to great lengths to define how one could achieve the most precise masterpiece possible. For Poe, it was that “every piece had to fit, as in a jigsaw puzzle; if it did not, the writer had wasted words and lost some of his potential effect” (Hough xix). In many ways, Poe could be considered an obnoxious know-it-all, deconstructing the works of other authors and poets to make his own look better, and to illuminate a better usage of technique. This was essential, and in his own obsessive-compulsive way, Poe was frustrated with the works of others because they were being wasted on his potential audience. This is an important distinction in understanding the works of Poe, because one can draw a parallel between his own insecurities and the insecurities of the characters within his works. One can speculate as to why Poe reacted in the ways that he did in regards to other’s works, but it can be, at least psychologically, traced to his own compulsivity in following proper technique and composition.
Moreover, in his essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe states that in his poem, “The Raven,” it was his intention “that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem” (Thompson 14-15). In this, Poe has defined that he had precisely planned the theoretical layout of “The Raven” to flow and climax like that of a math problem. His creative stance to parallel the analytical side of his reader’s brain in an attempt to form a poem that no one else has ever been able to achieve. In this way, he was able to craft a poem that would conform to his strict constraints designated by close attention to the craft of poetry and still achieve what he intended. Looking at Edgar Allan Poe in this manner is useful for a reader of his works to understand where the poet has drawn his influences from and what apprehension he might have been under should his work not be widely received. It is a unique look at the poet, and illuminates how he utilized language and the various techniques garnered from his predecessors to refine his craft with the intent of having an impact on his readers. For Poe, ultimately, this was the most important aspect to crafting great poetry, and if anything, he wanted to achieve the same impact on his readers that his predecessors achieved on his own soul.
With that said, a close look will be taken into “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” to define how Poe utilized the language he had so carefully crafted through conscientious study of technique to impact his readership and to refine his introduction of Gothic archetypes. A careful review will be taken into the language of both poetry and prose, followed by Poe’s utilization of settings, symbols, and character to define how these elements coalesce into a refinement of Poe’s craft and ultimate usage of Gothic archetypes within his works.
Starting with “The Raven,” Poe’s choice to parallel the ideals of beauty and melancholy works well with “the atmosphere and the essence of the poem” (Thompson 17). In looking at the composition of “The Raven,” it seems that Poe intended to have the meshing of two complete opposites, of something beautiful and something dark, to highlight the tension within the poem on a more transcendent level for his reader. In eighteen stanzas, “The Raven” takes the reader on a melancholic journey into the speaker of the poem’s growing depression at the loss of his love, Lenore. Pure, unadulterated sadness seeps just like his tears from the speaker’s desperate words as he weeps for resolution from his sadness, which, ultimately, he does not receive. It is, at once, a beautiful tale, yet so full of sorrow that a reader of the poem is left experiencing the same melancholic depression that the speaker has been lamenting. And this, Poe’s parallel between beauty and melancholy, highlights his greater archetypal theme of Gothic poetry and prose. To see something as, at once, beautiful and sad, to find life and joy and sadness and despair in the same symbolic moment is to utilize the foundation of Gothic archetypes in his works—of which, Poe may have been one of the first authors to do so with alacrity and intention.
On the other hand, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” is one of the few short stories in Gothic literature that is a purely “uninterrupted speech of the protagonist” (Mabbott 789). Poe has taken this moment to write about a commonly-known superstition: the Evil Eye, giving his reader a background of their own with which they can interpret the meaning of his story. Interestingly, Poe “carefully leaves unanswered the question of how much [of the narrator’s monologue] is hallucination” (789). In this, the reader is left to interpret of their own accord, what the tale of the Evil Eye means to them, and at the same time, how its incorporation within “The Tell-Tale Heart” progresses the story. A reader is given these options, and essentially left to their own devices to understand Poe’s darker themes.
There are at least two variations to the scenario in “The Tell-Tale Heart;” that the narrator was insane before he received the Evil Eye, or that he became insane once he held the Evil Eye in his possession. For Poe to have left such a theory available to the reader’s own resources, suggests that he was willing, as he wasn’t in his poetry, to let the reader interpret for themselves the meaning of the archetypal symbols. In this, Poe leaves much open for interpretation, and almost serves as its own plot device—letting the reader of the story in on the story itself. They have become another narrator, figuratively, just as the Gothic elements of the story have become another resource for interpretation of the story.
For example, in both “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Poe is using elements of setting, symbols, and character to set the story up for his readers in a way that they are never entirely immersed within the story itself. They are kept at a distance from the action—as the action in both tales happened previously, and they are kept from literally knowing what actually happened because both the speaker of “The Raven” and the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” don’t have any reason to go into great detail, since they already know what has occurred and aren’t actually telling their tales of woe to anyone other than themselves (and a kindly Raven, as is the case with the poem). Both the speaker of the poem and the narrator of the story are wracked with despair that is so intense that they have almost reached a transcendent level of insanity, a level not otherwise seen in the normal world. A level that the reader of the works has to come to terms with and interpret in their own time, relating it as best they can with their own experiences. It is in this moment, when the reader understands the pure, absolute agony of both the speaker and the narrator that Poe’s Gothic archetypes come to the surface and add a bit of clarity to the themes within the stories.
Both the speaker and the narrator are harkening to outside forces to save them from their current states of torture, and both seek absolution from resources that are simply not available. Most importantly, both the speaker of the poem and the narrator of the story are unreliable because of their tragic states of mind. They cannot be trusted. In this way, the reader of the poem or story must make their own assumptions on what actually transpired within the tales to lead the speaker and the narrator to their current states of woe. This is the moment that the Gothic archetypes make their stance. Poe is utilizing language as a functioning symbol within both “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” to interact with the reader on a level outside the reality of both the poem and the story.
Moreover, the Gothic archetypes are themselves a device within both the poem and the story to illuminate the thematic structure of the works for the reader, and to give them a resource from which to interpret the tales on a deeper level. Subjectively, a reader of Poe’s works can define that Poe was responsible for the utilization of Gothic stereotypes within his works to incorporate his themes. In other words, “the Gothic [archetype] has always played a spoiler’s role” (Frank xxi). In Poe’s writings, this became an essential feature for the understanding of his works. The Gothic archetype within the works, in a way, becomes the reader’s own knowledge of how the myth of the Evil Eye operates, or, how the raven can converse with the speaker of the poem without tipping the line into the supernatural. The superstition and the talking animal, then, are the Gothic element present within the story and allows the reader of the tales their own opportunities for discussion on how the speaker and the narrator have reached their current level of pure madness.
Further, the Gothic elements serve to highlight Poe’s themes revolving around madness and the mystery of understanding the unreliable narrator. Every element within Poe’s tales are part of his greater arching plot design, they are there by purpose and provide the greater function of shoving the narrator and the speaker into a state of transcendent madness that ultimately removes them from their current reality. Essentially, every element delivers a unique and individualized meaning. It is not there by chance; Poe has seen to that through his obsessive utilization of language and technique. Even so, a reader can watch the story progress “beyond a crude, otherworldly sense of evil to a psychological understanding of it” (Frank xxi-xxii). Poe’s “The Raven” is an acute example of how melancholic repetition can add to the psychological aspect of the story within the poem. And “The Tell-Tale Heart,” though not as obviously repetitive, does have a repetitive device within the prose to raise the level of alertness (for both the reader and the narrator) and to add to the narrator’s pervasive and growing madness. It is because of the narrator’s pure unreliability that the reader of the tale is left with an eeriness that could not have been achieved otherwise.
One can interpret the beating of the heart in “The Tell-Tale Heart” as, obviously, the beating of the heart of the man who the narrator murdered; or, a reader can interpret the incessant beating as the guilt of the narrator’s own heart as he takes the decent into madness with every uttered breath. Clearly he would have been better off, had he not murdered the man hidden in his floorboards, and while the narrator finds reasons to insist on his own sanity, the reader’s level of skepticism is raised by every inflection. With every line that the narrator utters, the reader is driven further and further into the same madness that the narrator has achieved. The reader can take him for his word, believing he has been cursed and that the beating heart hidden within his floorboards is his recompense for his actions. At the same time, however, the reader is left with the eerie understanding that something is not right within the narrator, and perhaps his words should not be taken with true seriousness.
On the other hand, one can interpret the melancholic repetition of the raven’s “nevermore” as serving to illuminate the same function as the beating of the heart in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The speaker of the poem is taking the same decent into madness as the narrator of the story has, though his path has been different, his emotional digression is the same. He too is dealing with the regrets and despair associated with the death of someone, and though the means are clearly different (the speaker of the poem did not kill Lenore, for example), the ends are entirely the same. Both the speaker and the narrator have transcended their realities and now believe that the world has taken shape to harm them. They cannot find solace; they can only find a darker form of their current despair. Most importantly, both the speaker and the narrator give the reader of the tales an eerie understanding that cannot be found within the lines of the poem or the story.
Moreover, this eeriness is essential to Poe’s technique and functions as a literary Gothic archetype within his works. It’s an outside force, acting as another form of interpretation for the reader. Ultimately, the story and the poem are plotted with limited details, full of ambiguity and leave room for reader interpretation as to how the main characters interacted before the events of the story itself are told by the narrator or speaker. Poe’s utilization of unreliable characters to narrate the stories also serves as a window “to their spectral or demonic revenants [and] is rooted in the theme of confrontation with the double” (Frank 323). Most of “The Tell-Tale Heart” deals with the narrator’s confrontation with his actions and the effect it has had on his overall psyche. He is confronted by the guilt of his deed, while at the same time, confronted by the beating heart of what he believes to be his victim. He is torn between reality and insanity, between real events and the supernatural, and is unable to accept either as plausible. All the while, the reader is left to do the interpreting for him, to decide whether or not his decent into madness was caused by attaining the Evil Eye, or if he was already at a certain level of crazy before-hand. Either rendition still leaves the narrator of the tale in absolute insanity, unable to cope with his actions, but both renditions serve to highlight the Gothic archetype so cleverly crafted by Poe.
Essentially, Poe used these Gothic archetypes to further the themes within his works. Moreover, “the broadness of a classificatory system that associates Gothic and evil” (Napier 29) includes the archetypes that Poe incorporates within his works. So attuned was he as to the utilization of language and plot, that the Gothic element helped, almost as a secondary narrator, to define the tone and mood for the reader of his works. As seen in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the Gothic archetype, the superstition of the Evil Eye, highlights the true story and the decent of madness that the unreliable narrator achieves. At the same time, the speaker of “The Raven” is torn between understanding the feelings of despair he has over his lost love and attempting to gain solace from the one creature left to help aid in his comfort. The raven, then, serves as the same literary device as the Evil Eye, in that both highlight the tipping point for the speaker and the narrator. It is unclear as to whether the speaker of the poem was literally insane before he took to the raven’s words for comfort, just as it is unclear as to whether the narrator of the story was crazy before he acquired the Evil Eye.
It is also Poe’s attention to the detail of his craft that marks him as the founder of the Gothic element within both literature and poetry. In his obsessive way, Poe used parallels that are not otherwise made to associate—that of beauty and melancholy—to immerse his readers into a world that defies traditional story telling. In other words, that Poe’s use of Gothic archetypes serves as an additional narrator for the reader of his works, and helps to highlight his themes of descending into madness and the irrationality of despair. In “The Raven,” it is the uncomforting words of a raven to a grieving man that keeps the reader at a wary stance. For “The Tell-Tale Heart,” it is the narrator’s own inner monologue that keeps the reading from fully believing his sanity. In this way, Poe’s use of Gothic archetypes drives the foundations of his stories to enhance their themes and purposes. Ultimately, that Poe wanted to touch his readers on a transcendent level, to touch their very souls with his words, if possible. And by utilization of specific narrative techniques and Gothic elements, he is able to achieve this end. Just as he had planned by his careful dedication to his technique and craft, Poe is able to achieve literary and poetic masterpieces that resound within his readership, offering differing analyses and conclusions as to the actual meaning of his Gothic archetypes.
Overall, Edgar Allan Poe has been credited for creating the modern Gothic genre which is clearly illustrated in his works, the poem “The Raven,” and his short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” After taking a close look into his own essays on language and technique, and defining how Poe utilized the Gothic archetype within his works it can be said that Poe was a revolutionary within his field. He may have been a know-it-all, obsessed with how people would view his works, but, in the end, he was an author and poet who paid close attention to the technique of his craft—so much so that he can be seen as the definitive Gothic writer of American literature. Ultimately, as seen through his utilization of techniques like Gothic archetypes and specific uses of language, Poe achieves his means: to lay down transcendent words that will linger within the soul of his audience in ways that other authors are incapable.
Frank, Frederick S., Douglass H. Thomson, and Jack G. Voller, eds. Gothic Writers: A Critical and Bibliographical Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002. Print.
Hough, Robert L, ed. Literary Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1965. Print.
Napier, Elizabeth. The Failure of Gothic: Problems of Disjunction in an Eighteenth-Century Literary Form. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Raven.” The Works of Edgar Allan Poe: Tales. Vol. IV. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1933. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe: Tales and Sketches, 1843-1849. Ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1978. Print.
Thompson, G. R. Notes. Poe: Essays and Reviews. By Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Viking Press, 1984. Print.