Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Selections from Edgar Allan Poe

"The Fall of the House of Usher"
"The Fall of the House of Usher" was first published in Burton's Gentleman Magazine in September 1839. The poem included within the story, "The Haunted Palace" had been published separately in April of 1839 in the Baltimore Museum Magazine. Burton's was a literary magazine that also featured sporting notes. Poe took on some editorial duties at Burton's. Subsequently, the magazine was sold to George Rex Graham, and it merged with Atkinson's Casket to become Graham's Magazine.   

The narrator arrives on horseback to the House of Usher, because his boyhood friend Roderick Usher has called him to help him out with a "mental disorder" having to do with an acuter sensibility than usual. The narrator describes how the mansion inspired a sense of terror in him. Once lodged at Roderick's house, the narrator learns of Lady Madeline, Roderick's sister, who has a cataleptic disease which physicians have been unable to cure. The narrator doesn't see any more of the sister than her silhouette, but hears her walking around the house sometimes. Roderick is excessively nervous, and in an attempt to soothe his nerves, the narrator paints and reads with him. "The Haunted Palace" is a poem which Roderick accompanies with guitar playing, focusing on themes of madness. One of Roderick's theories has to do with the sentience of "vegetable" and even inorganic things; this notion is applied to the house itself as seemingly having a kind of sentience.

One night, Roderick tells the narrator that Lady Madeline had died. That night, a storm hits the area. Roderick says that his sister will be temporarily entombed in the family vault below for a fortnight in order to avoid body-snatchers. As the narrator beholds the corpse of Madeline, he realizes that the two look very alike: Roderick admits that they had been twins. After several days, Roderick seems to get more and more nervous. The narrator too, begins to feel more nervous. The story continues through the week, its rising intensity paralleling the rising anxieties of the house's inhabitants. The narrator reads from the "Mad Trist" of Sir Launcelot Canning (a medieval work) in order to try to manage his and his friend's anxieties. Oddly, as the narrator reads about Ethelred breaking open a door, they hear a "cracking and ripping sound." When the narrator reads about a dragon's shriek, they hear a shriek in the house. Finally, when Ethelred defeats the dragon and reaches for the shield which falls to the floor with a ringing, they hear a metallic clanging. Roderick then tells the narrator that he has known for some time that he has entombed his sister before her death, and that she is now outside the door. As Madeline enters, Roderick yells out, "Madman!" as if in reference to the narrator. The bloodied Madeline makes for her brother, tackles him to the floor, and the two of them die in that moment. The narrator runs away from the house, and when he looks back, he sees the House of Usher split apart and sink into the nearby lake.

Poe's famous essay on The Philosophy of Composition (1846) puts forth his idea of a "unity of effect" in fiction which is best accomplished by the format of a short story, which may hold together the reader's emotion and attention in one sitting. "The Fall of the House of Usher" has often been cited as an exemplar of Poe's principle of "unity of effect." Poe had elucidated his principle of "unity of effect" as early as 1842, in a review of Hawthorne's Twice Told Tales. Poe's favoring the form of the short story comes much earlier than the growing recognition of the short story as a particularly "American" form in the final decades of the nineteenth century.

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue"
"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" was published in Graham's Magazine in 1841, the resulting publicatino from the Burtons and Atkinson's merger. Graham's aimed for a wider audience of both men and women than its predecessors. Poe became the editor of Graham's in February of 1841, publishing many harsh critical reviews for which he became famous.  

The story begins with the narrator's discussion of analytic abilities, which he distinguishes from calculative abilities. In short, there is more of an imaginative element in analytic capability, and "it is in matters beyond the limits of mere rule that the skill of the analyst is evinced." In playing a game, the analyst looks beyond the rules internal to the game and considers things external to the game--the psychology of his opponent, for instance. The narrator then tells a story of a case solved by the independent detective, C. Auguste Dupin. The narrator made the acquaintance of Dupin while in Paris. The two men shared lodgings, and on a walk one day, the narrator relates how Dupin's analytic capacities enabled him to figure out an unexpressed train of thoughts which the narrator had experienced. On this same walk, they find a notice of an unsolved murder. Two women, Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter had been brutally murdered in their homes. Fearful screams had been heard in the early morning, and when a group of people arrived at their house, the screams ceased and two people were heard to be talking. Various testimonies are given in this notice from different parties; they all seem to agree that one of the people talking after the screams ceased was a Frenchman but the accounts differed as far as characterizing the nationality and the gender of the second person.

Dupin begins his analysis by pointing out this strange discrepancy--particularly, that each of the different witnesses of different nationalities each thought the second person was a nationality other than his own. Dupin and the narrator then go to check out the crime scene for themselves. On their return, Dupin is able to make out the entire case. First, he goes through the possibilities of how the two people would have made their exits, establishing that they could have gone out a window that latched itself from the inside. Next, he deduces that the murderer must have been rather agile to have gone in and out of the window. Then, he notes how the murderer didn't actually steal any of the gold in plain sight at the crime scene, thereby establishing "something excessively outre" and moving towards the notion that the murderer might not be human. Finally, he describes the kinds of marks on the bodies, further concluding that they could not have been made by a human. In the end, he establishes that the murderer is an Ourang-Outang from Borneo. Dupin proceeds to write a fake advertisement saying the Ourang-Outang had been caught, luring the owner (whom Dupin figures out is a French sailor on a Maltese ship) to his home. The owner shows up, and confesses that the Ourang-Outang was the murderer. The creature had belonged to a friend previously, and he was planning to sell him, keeping him in his Paris apartment for the time. The creature escaped in the night, and jumped through the window into Madame L'Espanaye's house, murdering the two women and stuffing the daughter up the chimney when he saw that his master was clearly displeased and had the power to whip him. The wrongfully imprisoned man is thus released, and the case is closed.

"The Mystery of Marie Roget"
"The Mystery of Marie Roget" was published in three installments in Snowdens' Ladies Companion: November 1842, December 1842, and February 1843. The story was based on the real life crime of one Mary Rogers's murder: known as the "Beautiful Cigar Girl," her murder attracted national attention for months after an unsuccessful inquest. Poe claimed to be writing his fictionalized murder mystery in order to solve the real-life case. The narrator of "Marie Roget" refers to the story as a kind of sequel to "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."

The narrator begins with observations on the nature of "coincidences," saying that he will offer details on a case which will evince "a series of scarcely intelligible coincidences" with the (real-life) murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers. The story is a kind of sequel to "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" because it showcases once again the analytic capabilities of Dupin. In this case, a beautiful young woman named Marie Roget had taken up work at a perfume shop. She disappeared once, returning after a week and telling everyone that she had been visiting with country relations. Five months later, she disappeared again, and on the fourth day of this disappearance, her body was turned up in the Seine River. As in the real-life case, the newspapers built a sensation around the mystery of her murder; the police call on Dupin for help. Dupin's investigations go beyond just looking at official police reports--his main object of studies are the various newspaper reports. Most of "Marie Roget" is Dupin's close-reading of the different newspaper accounts, and his playing them off each other to get at the truth.

Dupin first discounts L'Etoile's attempt to throw suspicion on a man named Beauvais and to establish the seeming apathy of the family in relation to Marie's disappearance and death. Next, he discounts the "general impression" fostered by Le Commerciel that Marie had been assaulted by a gang of men. When new information of a potential scene of the crime comes up (two boys find in the woods a makeshift stone stool and ripped garments including a handkerchief labelled "Marie Roget" at the scene), Dupin is able to figure out that this was probably a scene got up later. He also points out that one Madame Deluc's account of a "gang of miscreants" who had been at her inn a little bit before she heard screams nearby had a contradiction which suggested that it was not a gang but an individual who murdered Marie. Having discounted the various suggestions given by major newspapers, Dupin moves towards settling the truth. He first settles that the body is in fact Marie Roget's. Then, he suggests the need to look at "collateral" events that might seem irrelevant to investigators confined to the regular "rules" of investigation. One of the major collateral events which Dupin brings in is the testimony that Marie had been consorting with a naval officer during her first disappearance. Dupin establishes that the naval officer murdered Marie, that he dumped her body into the water from a boat, and that they need only to trace to whereabouts of the boat to discover where the murderer had gone. The narrative closes here without the full resolution of the case revealed; the point has simply been to give yet another example of Dupin's analytic capabilities in action. The final remarks go back to the notion of coincidences and probabilities, reminding the reader that though there are many coincidences between the case of Mary Rogers and Marie Roget, there can be no suggestion that the results of the latter will have bearing on the former. After all, rolling two sixes doesn't mean the third roll is more or less likely to be a six.

CRITICAL APPROACH/ANALYSIS (for both "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Mystery of Marie Roget")
Both of these stories show Dupin doing much of his work much as a literary critic would, comparing testimonies in "Murders" and newspaper clippings in "Mystery." The stories call attention to the textuality of major public events, revealing the major ways in which understanding of what has happened is constructed by a web of testimonies and accounts from the press. In order to get at the "truth," the detective figure must navigate his way through this web of textuality, and then construct an alternative account of the truth.

This calling of attention to textuality in Poe's fiction has important implications for "real life." Although in "Mystery" the narrator cautions against drawing conclusions from coincidences, Poe knows that the reader can't really help but to note parallels. One such parallel that must occur to the reader (but which by the narrator's logic, can't actually be drawn) is that the unreliability of textuality in the fiction increases the chances of the unreliability of textuality in real life. But, there are other possible relationships made available by fiction other than X increases the chance of Y. In fiction, X might allegorize Y, or X might simply suggest the possibility of Y. Perhaps these relationships help get the reader out of Poe's trap.

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