Sunday, July 1, 2012
"The Imp of the Perverse" Published 1845
"The Imp of the Perverse" is a short story that begins as an essay written by 19th century American author and critic Edgar Allan Poe. It discusses the narrator's self-destructive impulses, embodied as the Imp of the Perverse. The narrator describes this spirit as the agent that tempts a person to do things "merely because we feel we should not."
The narrator explains at length his theory on "The Imp of the Perverse," which he believes causes people to commit morally questionable acts. This essay-like discussion is presented objectively, though the narrator admits that he is "one of the many uncounted victims of the Imp of the Perverse." He then explains how his act of murder was the result of this.
The narrator murders a man using a candle that emits a poisonous vapor. The victim enjoyed reading in bed at night and, using the candle for illumination, dies in his poorly-ventilated room. No evidence is left behind, causing the coroner to believe the man's death is an act of God. The narrator inherits the man's estate and, knowing he can never be caught, enjoys the benefits of his murderous act for many years.
He remains unsuspected, though he occasionally reassures himself by repeating under his breath, "I am safe." One day, he notes he will remain safe only if he is not foolish enough to openly confess. In saying so, however, he begins to question if he is capable of confessing. He fearfully runs through the streets, arousing suspicion. When finally stopped, he feels struck by some "invisible fiend." He reveals his secret with "distinct enunciation," though in such a hurry as if afraid of being interrupted. He is quickly tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hangman.
"The Imp of the Perverse" begins as an essay rather than as a work of fiction, a format which Poe previously used in "The Premature Burial." It is, therefore, less about plot and more about theory. As Poe describes this theory:
"We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss—we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink away from the danger. Unaccountably we remain... it is but a thought, although a fearful one, and one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height... for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it."
The work theorizes that all people have self-destructive tendencies, including the narrator, and that this "perversity" is also the narrator's attempt to avoid moral responsibility for his actions. The narrator's ultimate confession as a murderer is not inspired by any feelings of guilt but, instead, from a desire to publicize his actions despite knowing that he should not.
Poe's theory of the Imp of the Perverse may also be an early notion of the subconscious and repression which would not be fully theorized until Sigmund Freud.
Many of Poe's characters display a failure to resist the Imp of the Perverse—including the murderer in "The Black Cat" and the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart." The opposite of this impulse is seen in Poe's character C. Auguste Dupin who exhibits reason and deep analysis. One of the earliest examples, which predates "The Imp of the Perverse," was in Poe's novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. In one scene, the title character is overcome by an overwhelming desire to let himself fall off a steep cliff.
Additionally, scholars and critics suggest that Poe had his own "imp of the perverse." Poe biographer Jeffrey Meyers suggested that Poe wrote it to justify his own actions of self-torment and self-destruction. James M. Hutchisson says that the work reflects Poe's jealousy and sense of betrayal which lead to his public feud with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and New England; the so-called "Longfellow War" was occurring at the same time Poe wrote "The Imp of the Perverse." Three months after the story was published, Poe lashed out against Boston's literary circle by trying to hoax them by reading his obscure poem "Al Aaraaf" at a lecture. Biographer Daniel Stashower suggests Poe's purposeful attempt to provoke his audience and alienate himself further was inspired by his Imp of the Perverse.
"The Imp of the Perverse" was first published in the July 1845 issue of Graham's Magazine. A slightly revised version appeared in the Boston-based gift book May-Flower for 1846.
Poe reported in the Broadway Journal in December 1845 that the Nassau Monthly at Princeton College harshly criticized "The Imp of the Perverse." Calling it a "humbug," the reviewer noted that the author's line of reasoning about this philosophical idea was difficult to follow. "He chases from the wilderness of phrenology into that of transcendentalism, then into that of metaphysics generally; then through many weary pages into the open field of inductive philosophy, where he at last corners the poor thing, and then most unmercifully pokes it to death with a long stick."
1.^ Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001: 114. ISBN 0-8160-4161-X
2.^ Peeples, Scott. Edgar Allan Poe Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998: 147. ISBN 0-8057-4572-6
3.^ Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. New York: Cooper Square Press, 1992: 58. ISBN 0815410387
4.^ Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001: 113. ISBN 0-8160-4161-X
5.^ Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1998: 12. ISBN 0807123218
6.^ Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005: 202. ISBN 1-57806-721-9
7.^ Peeples, Scott. Edgar Allan Poe Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998: 57. ISBN 0-8057-4572-6
8.^ Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005: 201. ISBN 1-57806-721-9
9.^ Stashower, Daniel. The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder. New York: Dutton, 2006: 274. ISBN 0-525-94981-X
10.^ Thomas, Dwight and David K. Jackson. The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1809–1849. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1987: 571. ISBN 0-7838-1401-1
11.^ Thomas, Dwight and David K. Jackson. The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1809–1849. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1987: 602–603. ISBN 0-7838-1401-1