Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1809. He was the son of two traveling actors but he lost his parents when he was only a child and he was adopted by John Allan, who gave him the name Edgar Allan Poe.
Edgar attended the University of Virginia only for one semester because of the lack of money and then he began his career by writing a collection of poems anonymously, but unfortunately he received no attention.
In 1835 he married secretly his cousin Virginia, who was 13 while Edgar was 26. They had a strange relationship, described more like a brother-sister relationship, but he loved her. She died at the age of 20 of Tuberculosis. After his wife’s death his problems linked to alcoholism and depression worsened.
In 1849, Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore delirious. He was taken to the Washington Medical College, where he died. The actual cause of death remains a mystery.
His most recurring themes deal with death, including the effects of decomposition, the reanimation of the dead bodies and mourning. Besides the theme of death, one of the most important themes is irrationality; he wanted to destroy the barrier of the reason in order to reach the unconscious, an imaginary and frightening world that can’ be controlled with reason. Other typical themes are betrayal, madness, insanity, bitterness and horror.
His negative view of reality comes mainly from the loss of loved people. He believed in a world of dreams, but he had to understand that reality was different.
In 1835 he began to sell his short stories:
First American writer to interpret the short story as an art form
Poe started using this form because a well-constructed short story could be easily read in “one-sitting”.
His works can be divided in two groups:
Tales of reason (detective story): Poe was the forerunner of this genre. One of the most importante is “The murders of the Rue Morgue”(1841). The protagonist is detective Auguste Dupine, a person with a strong passion for mysteries and a great intuition and logical ability. Thanks to this tales, he will inspire Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.
Tales of terror: are influenced by the European gothic tradition and deal with crimes, mysteries and madness. Poe is one of the first writers to attempt an exploration of the deep psychology of characters and to reveal the darker side of the man.
They are written in first person and it’s like reading a direct confession or a long inner monologue. The narration focuses mainly on the frame of mind, state of confusion and actions of the protagonist who is usually a very violent and abusive person who tries to give explanations to what he does. They aren’t set in a specific time or place. Two of the most important tales are “The black cat” (1843) and “The tell-tale heart” ( 1843).
The Tell-Tale Heart
In this tale in particular the narrator, who is also the protagonist, wants to convince the reader of his sanity while describing a murder he committed toward an old man, his innocent victim, without any apparent reason. The story takes place in a dark and confined space which creates a frightening atmosphere and a mood of melancholy and horror.
As typical of Poe, the story presents themes such as madness, murder and horror. But in this specific case there are other three themes which characterize this particular short story:
The Eyes: represent truth, perception and awareness. They are the reason why the narrator kills the old man and are described as clouded, pale and blue eyes and they distress the protagonist to the point of madness. They are compared also to the “vulture's eyes”, since vultures are birds that eat dead things.
The Heart: it can be the heart of the murdered man which can be heard by the narrator beneath the floorboards or the heart of the protagonist, his own emotions. It represents the passion that drives the murderer to kill and then to confess and it is in opposition to the eyes which represent reason;
The House: it is the place in which the narrator hides the old man's corpse and he symbolically tries to hide the guilt of his crime, but the house can't hide this secret for so long and at the end the voice of conscience will rise.
The style of this short story is characterized by the use of a lot of short sentences, mainly exclamations, which contribute to create an atmosphere of anxiety and terror and highlight the state of confusion of the protagonist, which are followed by longer periods which give us precise descriptions of the actions and feelings.
The narration focuses on the senses and in particular hearing, which is responsible of the confession at the end of the story. This technique results extremely important in order to create suspense and impress the reader and thanks to the use of a large variety of words expressing sensory experiences, the reader can identify with the narrator and understand his strange point of view.
The Black Cat
Violence: the narrator offers various episodes of violence. At the beginning these acts hit just the cat but, by the end, the narrator has completely destroyed his family. This theme is also connected to the theme of madness, because the reader doesn’t understand the reason of his actions.
Alcohol: the unnamed narrator affirms he started abusing his wife and his cat when his problem with alcohol got out of control. Alcohol here is the major issue and it is to blame for all the bad things that happened during the story.
Justice and truth: The narrator tries to hide the truth (to wall off his wife's body), but a black cat gives away his secret.
Superstition: The black cat is an omen of bad luck.
Illusion: The reader is never completely sure if alcohol clouds the narrator's perception.
Loyalty: A pet is often seen as a loyal and faithful partner in life. The hallucinations of the narrator related to his black cat brings him into madness and the idea of loyalty is turned upside-down in the story. The narrator's favorite pet becomes his biggest enemy.
The black cat: The animal is more than just the title of the story; it's also an important symbol. Pluto, the back cat and the bad omen, brings his owner into madness. Probably the black cat represents the delirium caused by the alcohol.
Home: Home is supposed to be a place of safety and security, but it becomes a dark and tragic place of madness and murder in this story. The narrator kills his favorite pet (the black cat), and then he kills his own wife, destroying the relationships that should have been the central focus of his healthy and happy home.
The wife: His wife could have saved him, or at least run away. Instead, she becomes another horrible example of innocence lost. She never leaves him (she's loyal, faithful, and kind), and despite this she dies.