Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most well known American authors throughout history. His best works are recognized as disturbing, upsetting, and above all about death. Poe’s obsession with death is portrayed through almost all of his works, especially, “The Fall of the House Of Usher”, “The Death of the Red Masque”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, “Ligeia”, and “The Black Cat”. His short stories convey the theme of death through symbolism, imagery, and diction.
One of Poe’s longest short stories, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, portrays the element of death very well. He instantly sets a mood through his use of imagery. “During the whole of dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens” (“The Fall of the House of Usher” Poe 1). In the readers’ mind, Poe has created a rainy, cloudy day in fall with dark skies. This is the ultimate setting for a death or dreary day of sadness. Through the next paragraphs it is told that the owner of the Usher house has wrote to the narrator because “of a mental disorder which oppressed him” (Poe, 2). Someone with a mental illness most likely goes crazy and then they are either mentally dead or completely dies, this is setting up the story for death. Poe uses diction to show the pain that Usher is going through. “…his eyes were tortured by even a faint light…”(“The Fall of the House of Usher” Poe, 6). This automatically has you thinking about how sensitive Usher’s body is. He is so feeble and close to death, this makes the story more intriguing. When describing lady Madeline, Poe gives the information of an uncommon disease. “The disease of the Lady Madeline had long baffled the skill of her physicians. A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character, were the unusual diagnosis” (“The Fall of the House of Usher” Poe 7). Poe describes her as an actual waste of a person, she is already dead. “ The mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the pace, and that suspiciously lingered smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death” (“ The Fall of the House of Usher” Poe 13). Red as a color represents blood, and a painful death, this symbolism exemplifies Poe’s obsession with death. At the very end the actual house that belonged to the Ushers’ is gone and the last person of the Usher family dies. “And the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the “House of Usher” (“The Fall of the House of Usher” Poe 19). This symbolism of the house falling and the family dying out is the key to death element of this story. Poe not only has a family die but an object die, which shows how he almost thinks that anything can die.
Although Poe has the main parts of the story die in Usher, someone does not have to die for the subject idea to be about death. In “The Pit and the Pendulum” at the very end the character is actually saved from his fate, but this story still has key elements to death. The opening setting the narrator is already talking about how he is about to die. “The result would be death, and a death of more than customary bitterness, I knew too well the character of my judges to doubt” (“The Pit and the Pendulum” Poe 2). The narrator knows he is going to die and Poe uses of diction to show his realization. Poe also uses imagery to describe the terror of the prison setting. “So potent is the effect of total darkness upon one arousing from lethargy sleep” (“The Pit and the Pendulum” Poe 4)! The speaker wakes up from sleep in total darkness. Poe is also playing on the common fears of individuals, waking up in an unknown setting. This is also the fear of not knowing what is out there, and not knowing if death awaits. Poe again uses imagery to illustrate the setting getting worse and closer to death.
“Looking upward, I surveyed the ceiling of my prison. It was some thirty or forty feet overhead, and constructed much as the side walls…I supposed to be the pictured image of huge pendulum such as we see on antique clocks…I fancied that I saw it in motion. In an instant afterward the fancy was confirmed” (“The Pit and the Pendulum” Poe 5).
This paragraph is showing the narrators slow realization he is under a swinging pendulum, nearing his death. Poe applies diction again to show the movement of time and the pendulum. “Inch by inch—line by line—with a descent only appreciable at intervals that seemed ages—down and still down it came (“The Pit and Pendulum” Poe 5)! “Inch”, “line”, and “down” are both repeated to show the time elapsing and the pendulum slowly coming down. The pendulum in this quote not only symbolizes the time it is taking for it to come down, but death coming closer and closer to where the man waits at the bottom.
Appearing in Poe’s story “The Black Cat” is the theme of death, but in this story it is of murder rather than sickness. “One morning, in cool blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree; --hung it because I knew that it had loved me…even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God” (“The Black Cat” Poe 2). Poe uses this diction to show the craziness and the insanity of the man. This man treats death as something he posses and he can control. Poe also uses diction to indicate death as a symbol of power. The narrator in the story uses death as his power. Poe also uses imagery to symbolize immortality. “My wife had called my attention, more than, once, to the character of the mark of white hair, which I have spoken, and which constituted the sole visible difference between the strange beats and the one I had destroyed” (“The Black Cat” Poe 4). Although this part is not full with detail the white mark represents life and how the first cat almost never died. This could have been because of the strange murder or because the man is going crazy, but the color represents the opposite of death.
In Poe’s stories he also has the death of another loved one take over the narrators life. He uses diction to describe a girl that the teller loves. “The skin rivalling the purest ivory, the commanding extent and repose, the gentle prominence of the regions above the temples: and then the raven-black, the glossy, the luxuriant and naturally-curling tresses, setting forth the full force of the Homeric epithet, ‘hyacinthine’” (“Ligeia” Poe 1-2)! He goes into great detail but knows that she will die. The symbolism of Ligeia’s eyes also represents her dying. “And now those eyes shone less and less frequently upon the pages over which I pored. Ligeia grew ill. The wild eyes blazed with a too…”(“Ligeia” Poe 4). Once Ligeia dies, Poe uses diction to show how devastated the man is about the death. “ She died; and I, crushed into the very dust with sorrow, could no longer endure the lonely desolation of my dwelling in the dim and decaying city by the Rhine… Ligeia had brought me far more, very far more than ordinarily falls to the lot of mortals” (“Ligeia” Poe 6). Poe shows the wreckage caused by just one single death can do to a person. Ligeia also represents anyone or anything that a person cannot get over. “And again I sunk into visions of Ligeia—and again, (what marvel that I shudder while I write,) again there reached my ears a low sob from the region of the ebony bed”(“Ligeia” Poe 10). The man cannot forget his love and the death of her almost kills him, this shows what Poe thought death could do to a person.
Poe not only uses murder to have death be a reoccurring theme in his stories, the plague is the base of “The Masque of the Red Death”. Poe uses imagery to show the gruesomeness of the man that represents death in the story.
“The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat”(“The Masque of the Red Death” Poe 3).
His use of diction in this scene goes into detail of the scariness and how frightened the people were when the man arrives. This strange man is death in the story, so Poe’s description of him makes the story have a tone of death. He uses symbolism of the time and death to show that time will always win over death, and that time always lives on. “And the revel went whirlingly on, until at length there commenced the sounding of midnight upon the clock. And then the music ceased, as I have told; and the evolutions of the waltzers were quieted; and there was an uneasy cessation of all things as before” (“The Masque of the Red Death” Poe 3). Before “death” arrives, time arrives and shows that there is nothing left to do but face death. This shows how Poe thought of death as something that people cannot escape.
Poe’s stories all have the common them of death. He had an obsession with writing of all the possibilities of death from torture in “The Pit and the Pendulum” to the plague in “The Masque of the Red Death”. He had death cause an obsession in another person in “Ligeia”, death was used as power in “The Black Cat”, and death is more than a person dying in “The Fall of the House of Usher”. All of these stories show how occupied Poe was about death and was obsessed with the concept of death.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Black Cat”. 27 June 2005. 11 March 2012 <http://www.poestories.com>
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher”. 27 June 2005. 11 March 2012 <http://www.poestories.com>
Poe, Edgar Allan. “Ligeia”. 27 June 2005. 12 March 2012 <http://www.poestories.com>
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Masque of the Red Death” . 27 June 2005. 12 March 2012 <http://www.poestories.com>
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Pit and the Pendulum”. 27 June 2005. 13 March 2012 <http://www.poestories.com>