Edgar in the Details

Poe as Identified with His Characters

Many of Edgar Allan Poe's characters are almost repetitively similar to each other in certain aspects - the men are clinical in behavior but given to inappropriate displays of passion, and the women are sickly, mysterious, and even if unpleasant, faithful. Charles Baudelaire, in his work on Poe, goes one step further in detailing the similarities between characters, claiming that not only are all of the characters much like each other, but that Poe himself is much like all of his characters. With this move, Baudelaire shifts Poe's fiction onto another level: instead of following a narrative about different individuals, we are reading the story of Poe's internal life. If Poe is indeed, as Baudelaire claims, identifiable with all of his characters, then what emerges is a singularly schizophrenic personality at odds with itself. The perspective changes radically from the self-congratulatory tone of the Auguste Dupin stories to the self-loathing narrators of "William Wilson" and "The Black Cat," with many tales lying at varying points between the extremes. The final portrait that such a reading gives us is more than a little disorienting.

There is, of course, some room for question over whether Baudelaire is correct: if Poe's stories do in fact incorporate personalities totally incompatible with his own, then a psychological reading of them is inappropriate. In at least the Auguste Dupin fictions, however, such a parallel is wholly believable. The first tale in the series, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," is, like the others, a story in which the narrator is almost nonexistent next to the private detective Dupin. Poe introduces us to Dupin in the following passage: "This young gentleman was of an excellent, indeed of an illustrious family, but, by a variety of untoward events, had been reduced to such poverty that the energy of his character succumbed beneath it. . . . Books, indeed, were his sole luxuries" ("Murders" 143). This initial description of Dupin fits Poe himself quite well. Disinherited by his parents, Poe had fallen from the more genteel levels of Southern aristocracy to a poor existence in which he was barely able to support himself and his wife. He was also, like Dupin, a man acutely aware of his own intelligence and an incurable puzzler who was "fond of enigmas, of conundrums, hieroglyphics; exhibiting in each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension praeternatural" ("Murders" 141). In a story where Poe himself is ostensibly the narrator, he is also, apparently, the narrator's best friend.

The effect of this on the presentation of the story is almost comical. Poe, in the voice of the narrator, asks us to share his total admiration of Dupin, a character who embodies the virtues of the kind of analytical mind Poe describes at some length at the opening of the story: "the truly imaginative [are] never otherwise than analytic" ("Murders" 143). But if Poe is both the narrator and the detective, then what emerges is an apparently narcissistic narrative, one created solely so that Poe can admire his own ingenuity in creating a highly complex problem and then solving it - and so that we can admire it as well. Poe, through the narrator, Dupin, and even the bumbling, bitter Prefect of Police, creates his own musual admiration society. Why would Baudelaire, whose opinion of Poe nears hero-worship, want to make obvious such an egocentric tendency on Poe's part?

Possibly it is because Poe also swings so far in the opposite direction in his self-perception, a sort of Poe as the pendulum. The blatancy of the smug superiority of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is such that it hardly needs Baudelaire's exposition. Self-congratulation almost seems to be a necessary by-product of any mystery story which asks us to appreciate the genius of a detective the author has created. But, if Poe is indeed identifiable with every one of his characters, then he is not only the self-important intellectual we can clearly see in this story - he is also the raving lunatic of "The Tell-Tale Heart," the abusive alcoholic of "The Black Cat," the self-loathing murderer "William Wilson," and the ridiculous dreamer of "Some Words with a Mummy." It also means, interestingly enough, that he engages in a kind of anti-intellectual discourse in "The Oval Portrait," that seems to be at odds with the tone of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."

"The Oval Portrait" is oddly different than most of Poe's stories in its narrative structure. It begins as a story told by a man seeking shelter in an apparently abandoned house, and then concerns itself with a manuscript that he discovers there, detailing the story of an amazingly lifelike portrait which hangs in his bedroom. The narrator, like the characters in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," is recognizably a persona of Poe. It is intimated that the narrator desperately needs a place to shelter because he has been in a duel; he is at any rate in a "desperately wounded condition" ("Oval" 290). For Poe, a member of the Southern aristocracy, this is a familiar concept. Also, like Poe, he is fascinated by the sight of beautiful women, which brings the title's oval portrait to our attention, and he is fascinated by stories of beautiful, dying women, which is the reason our attention is brought to our attention at all. As interesting as the unexplained story behind the narrator's wounds may be, "The Oval Portrait" is unquestionably about what Poe self-admittedly considers to be the most poetic subject possible, the death of a beautiful woman.

It is Poe's relationship to the other two characters in the story that must give us pause. If Poe is identifiable with both of them, there is a radical shift in the approach to the "truly creative" mind that is so approved of by the narrator of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." Poe becomes, in this story, a young, newly married painter who is "passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art" ("Oval" 291). The intellectual description seems reminiscent of Dupin, but the skill of the painter becomes not something to be admired, but feared. It is so relentlessly perfect in its recognition and detailing of reality that it steals all vitality from the model it copies - when the painter finishes painting his wife, she has died, her life having disappeared into the canvas. This seems to be a portrait of Poe as neglectful husgand, a writer who often left the bedside of his chronically ill wife to pursue his analytic career and interests. Dupin is admirable and untouchable only as long as he has no one to be responsible for, only as long as he does not, like the painter, fall in love. It is only his utter disinterest in other people that keeps some of his actions from being cruel or tragic, as when he withholds a sought-after piece of blackmail from the Prefect of Police in "The Purloined Letter." In "The Oval Portrait," we have a different sort of Dupin, who does have emotion beyond curiousity, and who accidentally becomes a murderer as he withdraws more and more from "her whom he depicted so surpassingly well" and grows "wild with the ardor of his work" ("Oval" 292).

Even more strikingly, Poe must be identifiable not only with the young husband, but also the young wife, "hating only the Art which was her rival; dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover" ("Oval" 291). He is the husband, too caught up in fascination with his own intellect and skill to fully attend to his personal relations, but he is also the wife, aware of the dark and frightening power of the work and, though obedient to it, punished by its demands. Both personas are necessary for the stories we have seen here. Only the obsessed, detached husband could have written "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," forgetting that there is more to life than analysis. But only the suffering wife could feel the ominous demands of the work, and could have felt the horror of it keenly enough to write of the unintentional murder of "The Oval Portrait."

Baudelaire's declaration of Poe's relationship of self-identity with all of his characters accomplishes several things. One is that, by suggesting that Poe is part of his weaker as well as his stronger characters, it keeps him from seeming to be only the brilliant, egotistical and largely unlikable Dupin who he so obviously identifies with. Another is that it explains how such seemingly inconsistent stories, almost flatly contradictory, can both be truly felt writings of the author. By insisting on Poe's relationship with even secondary characters, gradations of attitude and depths of personality become apparent that are different to determine otherwise. Whether the triumph of Dupin and the death of the portrait-sitter represents a final conclusion to Poe's internal conflict is intriguing; in any case, it seems that a psychological reading is appropriate.

Works Cited

(Note: Any and all links in this section lead to web-published versions of these texts, which have different citations than the ones listed here.)

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue,"The Complete Tales & Poems of Edgar Allan Poe New York: Vintage Books, 1975.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete Tales & Poems of Edgar Allan Poe New York: Vintage Books, 1975.

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