In the works of Edgar Allan Poe imagination coexists with a sharp analytical gift. As a romanticist, Poe valued the mysterious feeling. His desire to reveal the secrets eventually made him the creator of the detective genre. In addition to the analytical work of the mind, Poe appreciated the poetic approach to mystery, the ability to see this mystery clearly and visibly by force of imagination. Many critics noted Poe’s attraction to disastrous plots, grim events, ominous atmosphere, general feeling of hopelessness and despair, tragic transformation of human consciousness, terror-stricken and losing control.
The central place in Poe’s works is taken by psychological stories, which are often referred to as horror. Their main theme is the tragic consequences of the collision of human consciousness with inhuman tendencies of civilization. A human soul, terrified by confronting with a world in which there is no room for it, the pain and sickness of the soul and its fear became the subject of artistic and psychological research. Together with mystery and Gothic tradition these features form Poe’s original manner (Fisher 84).
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Poetry and prose, from Poe’s point of view, exist within a single aesthetic system, and the difference between them comes from differences in goals and challenges. The theory of short stories, designed by Poe, can be represented as the sum of requirements, which must be considered by every writer working in this genre. The first requirement concerns the volume or length of the work. A short story should be brief. However, a writer must observe a certain measure. A very short story is unable to create a deep and strong impression, because, according to Poe, without certain length and repetitions of the main idea the soul is rarely touched. The measure of the length of the story is determined by the opportunity to read it immediately and to the end. It is important to note that Poe’s considerations in this repeat all his thoughts about the size of the poem, expressed in “The Poetic Principle,” “The Philosophy of Composition” and other articles about poetry. And the reason for such firm and unequivocal requirement is the unity of impression and effect.
In poetry the unity of effect was intended to create the emotional impact. In prose it was the emotional and intellectual influence. The unity of effect in Poe’s theory is the supreme principle that subordinates all aspects of narration. It must ensure the integrity of perception, no matter what type of short work a writer creates. The unity of effect is a kind of universal, total unity, composed of the small separate unities of plot, style, tone, composition, language, etc., but above all – a single content basis, or the unity of subject. Everything extra, not designed for the effect, has no right to be present in the work. According to Poe, there should be no single word, which, directly or indirectly, is not intended to implement the original plan.
According to Poe, a plot is not just action and intrigue. He understood the overall story as the formal structure of the work, events, characters, objects. He considered that there should be nothing superfluous in the story, and all its elements must be interconnected. Every episode, every event, every word in the story should serve as an implementation of a plan and achieve a unified effect.
An important role was given to style. Edgar Allan Poe, as a theorist of short story genre, insisted on the unity of style. Style is a complicated complex, which includes the general tone of the narrative, the emotional coloration of vocabulary, synthetic structure of the text, and even, to some extent, compositional organization. The unity of style is achieved primarily by limitation of emotional range in all elements of the narrative. That is why the writer considered, for example, a happy ending to be impossible for the story written in a dramatic manner.
All these views, in addition to psychological and mysterious elements, in one degree or another were applied by Poe in his stories “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and his poem “The Raven.” In the first story, Roderick Usher is in fact the main and only Poe’s character, variously repeated in other stories. He is a nervous, painfully perceptive observer, who loves rare books, a recluse, afraid of life; this protagonist is as conditional as a favorite Poe’s female character – an enigmatic, mysterious, wise and beautiful fading (or dead) woman. Poe’s characters are at the mercy of destiny, which defines their deaths. They are will-less; they have no power to protest against life, perceived as a nightmare and evil. Each of them is a victim of some obsession. They are not real people with real feelings and passions, but abstract figures, nearly schemes, which become real only by the exceptional skill of the writer.
Throughout the novel the mysterious gloomy atmosphere of the house is expressed by colors. For instance, the tone of the house’s furniture, the elements of nature at the outside, and the night narrative are dark. The visitor spent three weeks at the house, but all days seem like one dark night; there is no day narrative in the story. From the first pages of story the author pushes the reader to think about the curse of Usher’s family, since Roderick, who suffers from insanity, is its only representative. Fate has doomed the family of Usher. And there is no way to escape from this dark circle. At first glance it seems that the main subject of description in this horrible and psychological story is a painful condition of the human psyche, the mind on the brink of insanity. However, on the other hand, it shows the soul, trembling from fear before the impending and unavoidable horror. The stunning effect of the story lies in the fact that the drama of Usher is internal and it is projected outward. Hopelessness of the house, a crack in the facade, half-dead trees, black and gloomy lake, reflecting gray walls and blind windows, the spirit of corruption in the whole estate and its neighborhood exactly match Roderick’s state of mind. The story is presented as a paraphrase of the decay of personality.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” is another example of an embodiment of Poe’s theory of short stories. The author cuts off all superfluous elements and leaves only details needed to present the essence. From the beginning, every word of the story serves only one purpose – to intense the advancement of the plot. This story develops the themes specific for other Poe’s works. The main theme, which can be also seen in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Raven”, is aggravated perception and madness. Roderick Usher suffered the same disease. It also deals with monomania, involuntary self-exposure, guilt, retribution. The narrator says twice that he suffers from a particular disease, which leads to acute perception. This story is extremely minimalist. The narrative begins at the moment when the events are already in full play. The murderer, who is a narrator, describes his story to some other person. The driving force of the story is not the persistent murderer’s declarations of his innocence, as one would expect, and what is typical for stories with a criminal plot, but the statements that he is sane, that he is not crazy. The killer does not notice that while not denying his guilt he actually admits it. This, in turn, gives rise to doubts in his adequacy, because he tries to prove an unimportant thing at the moment, clearly being wrong in the evaluation of the offense and wrong in setting priorities. The denial of his madness is proved by his systematic, well thought-out and accurate actions. He is trying to find a rational explanation for his irrational behavior. The author focuses on creating a picture of a “perfect crime”, when, apparently, nothing can give a killer away. Even in this detective story the author used his favorite theme of madness and despair.
Edgar Poe’s poem “The Raven” is one of his most famous works, a poem revealing the whole creative manner of the writer. The prototype of this lyrical poem was Virginia Clemm, Edgar Allan Poe’s wife. She died in the prime of life of tuberculosis. Poe tried to survive this loss by writing a series of works devoted to this woman. Among them he created the poem “The Raven.” Even the title of the poem prepares the reader to something horrible and irreversible, because the raven is considered to be a harbinger of trouble. Whole pome is permeated with never-ending pain and sorrow for the departed days.
The overall melancholic tone of the poem is emphasized by the repetition of the same word “nevermore.” It seems to the narrator that everything that happens to him and around him is only a dream, a strange, gloomy dream. The real and true existence is beyond an existing one. “Nevermore” became a poetic word, full of tragic meaning, the word that defined the whole tone of the poem – sad and sublime. The raven is a symbol of grim fate of the poet. At the end of the poem there is another constantly repeating word – “still,” which has a dual meaning. On the one hand, the lyrical hero still has a warm hope somewhere deep in his heart that he will see his beloved again. On the other hand, this word means hopelessness: the hero does not understand how he can live without his wife.
The short stories and the poem described above fully reflect the peculiarities of Poe’s artistic style. First, they reflect his basic principle: the story or poem must be brief. “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven” are relatively short works, with certain simplicity and clarity, behind which the complexity is hidden. These works are read “in one breath,” which was also very important for the author. The second principle is the unity of impression, or effect. The unity of effect in these works has emotional and intellectual impact. Plot and compositional structure in these works is designed in such a way, that no single word, or a single thought, which, directly or indirectly, is not intended to implement the original plan. Every episode, every event, every word in the stories and in the poem are the implementation of the plan and achieve a unified effect. Thus, the works described above are excellent examples of Poe’s style and his theory of story and poem composition.
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