The Role of Madness in the Work of Edgar Allan Poe
(The following is based on notes I took at a session at the Steampunk World’s Fair by the same name and put on by the Edgar Allen Poe Museum)
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) and his acolytes had a big presence at the Steampunk Worlds Fair. This isn’t altogether surprising, given that Poe lived his life on the East Coast of the US. At the Fair you could visit a mini Poe museum and attend a few lectures on one of America’s most well-known (not to mention creepiest) writers. The one that caught my eye centered on the representations of madness in Poe’s fiction, and the historical context for his viewpoints and treatment of the mentally ill.
Poe experts point to 1824 as a vital year for young Edgar’s formation. At the tender age of 15, he found and lost his first love. The object of his affection was the mother of a friend, Richard Stanyard, and she unfortunately had some kind of mental breakdown and died that year. She was both an object of romantic love and a surrogate mother, Poe’s own mother having died when he was only two years old. With this sort of foundation, it isn’t surprising that much of Poe’s fiction centers on both the deaths of young women and his character’s descent into madness.
It’s important to remember that at this time, the study of mental illness was a new field. The first hospital that was designated specifically for the treatment of “mad” people was founded in 1780. Within a few decades, several different institutions were founded and offered a variety of treatments ranging from the simple rest cure to electroshock therapy and lobotomy. Exposes on the harsh conditions soon followed, and like so many others Poe got a glimpse at torture chamber-like restraints employed to keep “patients” quiet and cooperative.
During the early to mid-1800s, mentalists had classified a few different types of madness, many of which correspond with conditions recognized by today’s physicians. The practice of phrenology was also common, and involved the detailed study of the bumps on a person’s skull to determine their personality traits. As a newspaper man and curious individual, Poe was clearly up on the scientific trends of his time and included details in some of his best-known works that physicians of his day would have recognized.
For instance, monomania, a condition characterized with an obsession over a single object or person, appears as a central theme in a short story called Berenice published in 1835. The main character, Egeaus, is a man prone to fits of deep concentration. Even when his fiancée begins wasting away from some unnamed disease, he has trouble tearing himself away from counting shadows and other forms of obsession. Every part of her deteriorates, except for her perfect, pearly teeth, which becomes his newest focus. The story takes an even darker turn after she dies and he pulls all of her teeth to save as a keepsake. Too bad she wasn’t really dead at the time…
Poe also explored madness in The System of Dr. Tarr and Mr. Feathers. The narrator arrives at an asylum in order to study a new “system” of taking care of the mentally ill. He arrives too late in the day to meet any patients, but is invited to stay for dinner with the doctors and attendants. During the meal, his colleagues reveal stranger and stranger behavior, including acting like a chicken and suffering from the acute awareness that she was in fact a tea pot and not a lady at all. Meanwhile, the patients howl and carry on, and the medical personal shake their heads over the poor, mad souls. Eventually, the narrator finds out that the inmates had taken over the asylum and put the doctors in the cells, but the very idea of what it means to be crazy is called into question by the power of context.
Poe’s references to modern science were not limited to the plots of his stories, but found their way into character descriptions as well. In his infamous work, The House of Usher, Poe uses both a lengthy description and illustrations of the main character. Phrenology told people of that day it was possible to know that someone was generous or degenerate just by looking at their skulls and the shape of their eyes, and Poe incorporated these theories into his portrayal of the title character.
As the study of madness progressed, insanity became a plea that could be offered in court. Poe was especially interested in the notion of “temporary insanity” and the line between the sick and the well. As a reporter, he covered the murder trial in 1840 for a man named James Wood who killed his daughter. Though the plea of insanity was put forward and the accused was found not guilty due to insanity, Poe clearly questions the verdict. In his coverage, he notes that the accused had a very calm, serene nature, and that the person who sold him the gun reported the same serenity while on the witness stand. This hardly sounded like the portrait of a manic man, and yet his crimes were so heinous the jury seemed to find it easier to believe he was insane rather than capable of such a terrible crime without some other force at work.
Two of Poe’s most beloved stories are The Black Cat and The Telltale Heart. Both of these tales revolve around a murderer who believes they have gotten away with their crimes until some sort of reminder or madness of their own drives them to reveal themselves. In both of these stories, Poe skirts the question of whether the narrators have always been mad, were driven mad and have now recovered, or descended into madness and never return.
During Poe’s day, many people speculated about his own sanity. He never passed judgment on the seemingly gruesome protagonists in his stories, which led many to question whether he had the same morality as they did. Instead, he reported the “facts” of his tales with beauty and an atmospheric weight and asked the reader to decide for themselves. Poe’s only concerns were beauty in all forms and the ability to illicit some sort of reaction from his readers. He was perfectly satisfied with their fear, disgust, and awe, he had no need of their approval or their love.