Edgar Allan Poe’s deliciously creepy short stories contain characters whose lives are turned upside-down at the hand of Poe’s imagination. Theses wild thoughts are structured in such a way that the characters are completely unaware of their fates, allowing Poe to manipulate and shock even the audience. Each of the characters is different, but in the same way, each is lead to believe in their success, only to be met instead by failure and doom. This arrangement is particularly evident among the narrators of the Tell-Tale Heart and the Black Cat, and also serves purpose in the Fall of the House of Usher.
Poe allows each character to complete their mission – the elimination of another person or animal – allowing them a few moments to taste success, followed by misery, despair, catastrophe and fatality. Ultimately, almost every fate is an “overthrow” of the “spirit of perverseness” – usually known as Death. This Death is what the narrator of the Black Cat is immediately facing – writing to us that “To-morrow [he] dies”. His story, believed to be a depiction of “mere household events”, is one that truly saddens the soul.
From “infancy” this man was tame, being “especially fond of animals” and “noted for the docility and humanity” of his heart. It was unthinkable that such a man could become so intemperate and violent. Nevertheless, this “disease” – the “Alcohol” – gave the narrator the “fury of a demon”, allowing him to maltreat his beloved pets and even offer “personal violence” to his dear wife.
A combination of superstitious beliefs and the “Fiend Intemperance” is what then enticed the narrator to persecute and murder his “favourite [feline] pet and playmate”, Pluto. For months” after the event, all was calm, until one drunken night, the narrator meets Pluto again. This triggers such great fear within the narrator that he attempts all in his power to be rid of the cat – to the extent that he buries an axe into his wife’s brain. Following the concealment of this murder, the narrator is unable to find the wretched cat, much to his relief for he could now “once again” breathe “as a freeman”. Here, after all the horrifying events that have unfolded, Poe allows the narrator and the audience to believe that this is the end of the story.
All is quiet and “all was right”. Even when the police arrive, the narrator’s “heart beat calmly”. His deed was done and dusted, and he had nothing to fear. However, in a sudden twist, the narrator’s predicted fate of “supreme” happiness disappears. That very same “black cat” howls and shrieks, revealing his wife’s “decayed and clotted” corpse behind the walled-up tomb. The narrator is caught and thrown in prison where he writes this story as he awaits his death sentence. His fate is embarrassment and Death – so different to the happiness, freedom security he had hoped!
In the same way, the erratic narrator of the Tell-Tale Heart experiences a total turn of fate. He too murders his beloved – the old man who had “never wronged” or insulted him, for the sake of eliminating the “Evil Eye” that made his blood run cold. All he wanted was peace from this “vulture eye” that distressed his soul. The narrator believed that if he would “take the life of the old man” he would “rid himself of the eye forever”, and so, in cunningly mad manner he brutally murders the old man. Once “stone dead”, the old man’s “eye would trouble [him] no more” and the narrator is at peace.
He conceals the body and no longer feels fear, even when “officers of the police” arrive at the scene. The narrator believes his future lies in rest without the “vulture eye”, but he does not consider the possibility of exposure. Poe positions the narrator who already suffers mental instability and monomania in such a way that he is oblivious to his subconscious and to the consequences of murder. Thus the Tell-Tale Heart – his own beating heart – his guilty conscience reveals the corpse and prepares the narrator for his fated stay in prison, awaiting a death sentence.
Death is such a common fate among Poe’s characters. However, not all characters are fated to the depths of the grave. The narrator of the Fall of the House of Usher is the only one left standing amongst all inhabitants and the House of Usher itself. However, the events that he witnesses within the Usher household are that which he never expected – he was only there to “alleviate the melancholy of [his] friend”! Instead, the narrator witnesses the tearing down of man by MS and “acute bodily illness”, the ghastly effects of “constitutional and family” incest and assists in a murder plot.
He is exposed to the frightening “phantasmagoric conceptions” of Roderick Usher, such that they “infected” him and had “dominion over” him. Then, the narrator becomes a spectator to the ‘resurrection’ of the Lady Madeline from the grave and watches in disbelief as she and his “boon companion” fall heavily to the floor in “violent and now final death-agonies”. These experiences are none like one would have thought to be when comforting a friend in need! It is no wonder that the narrator “fled aghast” only to watch as the House of Usher was swallowed in the “deep and dark tarn” at his feet.
This profound and dismal image had such a great effect on the poor man that he even managed to write in such great detail every affair that took place. All this time he only wanted to comfort his poor friend, but Poe obviously had other plans for him. Just as Poe had other plans for Roderick and Madeline Usher. Being twins and involved in “evil” incest illustrates narcissism, or self-love. Each one would be making love to their own image, like a mirror, but of the opposite sex. This “oppressive secret” is what distressed Roderick and is the likely cause for his illnesses and mental instability.
He hated having sex with his sister and wanted to be independent of her, thus his decision to eradicate her. He believed that Madeline’s “decease would leave him the last of the ancient race of Ushers” – perfect for his dream of individuality and independence. However, Poe’s imagination sought to over-rule Roderick’s dreams and after everything – the painting and reading, the solace, the entombment and the stillness, an “impetuous fury” of an electrical storm disturbs his peace.
The storm – Madeline’s wrath – brings about the most Gothic and malevolent death to Roderick Usher. In a violent embrace, the twins fall to the floor a pitiful lump of humanity, leaving no “last of the ancient race” of the Ushers, and no house either. Roderick had never thought that his sister would be able to escape the “immense” security of the under-ground vault to bring him anything – especially death! Again, this illustrates to the audience how the securities and hopes of Poe’s characters are flawed and ineffective, as it is Poe who determines their fates.
Since Poe is the ultimate fate-decider in his short stories, we, as the audience, are able to see how none of the characters hard work – frivolous planning, security, cunning strategy or little hopes of peace – can stop what Poe has coming for them. The best part of Poe’s delicious Gothic stories is the fact that the characters and the audience are most unaware of the destiny that prevails. We can only keep guessing and praying, as do the characters, that the obstacles faced had “fled the premises forever” and our “happiness” could be “supreme! ” But of course, this is never the case. A gruesome fate awaits us all.