Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
And much of Madness, and more of Sin,
And Horror the soul of the plot.
-- Edgar Allan Poe, "The Conqueror worm"
Edgar Allan Poe’s stories are tales of madness and, quite often, murder. In many of them, the protagonist’s insanity is evident in his perceptions and thoughts, which tend toward the hallucinatory. In listening in on their musings, as it were, readers understand that their notions are irrational. A famous case in point: “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which begins with the admission that there is nothing wrong with the character of the man whom the narrator-protagonist would kill; his victim’s error is not in his ways, but in a physical--indeed, a facial--feature: the injured party’s offense, such as it is, is in the eye of the mad beholder:
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain, but, once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture--a pale blue eye with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me my blood ran cold, and so by degrees, very gradually, I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye for ever.
Likewise, in “The Cask of Amontillado,” the narrator-protagonist informs the reader that he is about to avenge himself for an “insult” that he, the protagonist, claims he has recently suffered at the hands of his intended victim, Fortunato. The protagonist paints himself as a longsuffering man, but as one for whom patience in the face of longstanding, ongoing abuse has finally reached its end: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.”
As readers, we observe that the avenger never specifically identifies any of the “thousand injuries” he has suffered at the hands of Fortunato, possibly because he cannot do so, since these slights and injuries, in fact, never happened except in his own mind. Likewise, we see that he has plotted his revenge upon the unfortunate Fortunato, presumably for some time, and according to a principle:
AT LENGTH I would be avenged; this was a point definitively settled--but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.The avenger has a powerful intellect, but his use of reason is perverted by his madness. He is careful to ensure that his vengeance goes undetected and, therefore, unpunished, as, he says, a proper act of vengeance must; a sane man would not suppose that vengeance be perpetuated according to a code or standard.
As readers, we also notice that the protagonist does not confront his intended victim with his allegation that Fortunato has in some way “ventured upon insult.” He does not give his acquaintance the opportunity, as it were, to defend himself or explain his actions. Like a husband who murders, rather than divorces, his wife, the protagonist, rather than confront his longstanding acquaintance or break off his friendship with him, decides to murder him and, indeed, takes pains to pretend that all remains well between them: “It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile NOW was at the thought of his immolation.”
No doubt, the protagonist’s pretense is designed to keep the unsuspecting Fortunato unsuspecting and to permit the avenger to carry out his vengeance with “impunity,” but it also shows the apparently rational man to be utterly irrational and the supposedly injured protagonist to be injurious, indeed. Again, the fault does not appear to lie in the character or behavior of the victim, but in the thought processes, or reasoning, of the mad protagonist.
Other of Poe’s stories, such as “The Black Cat,” are constructed on the basis of the same premise: an unreliable (because mad) narrator tells a story about his own past criminal conduct and, in the process, exposes his madness.
Poe’s method is still used by writers today, who depict similar madmen (and women) whose telling of their stories depict them as insane and whose madness is itself the source of the twisted perceptions or understandings that give rise to the acts of violence and murder that they commit. (Charlotte Gilman Perkins’ “The Yellow Wallpaper” and H. G. Wells’ “The Red Room” are masterful examples of more recent stories that depend upon their protagonist’s hallucinatory or mistaken perceptions and understandings.)
Such an approach suggests that, to an insane person, anything can be considered wrong, perverse, or threatening because the horror is not in the things themselves, or the world, but in themselves. It has been truly said that one’s perceptions are, to the one who experiences them, realities, even if they are mistaken or, indeed, entirely the products of their own psychoses.
For example, why does that light flicker so, in the dead of the night? What must it be thinking? What is it trying to communicate, so fervently ands insistently, and why?