Edgar Allan Poe and Victorian Morality

Date:  2021-03-11 06:18:12
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The problem of Victorian morality in Edgar Allan Poe's discourse remains largely under-studied in literary critical discourse. Some critics come to the conclusion that most Poes characters do not recognize normative morality (Wing-Chi Ki 36). For instance, analyzing Poes short story The Black Cat Margaret Wing-Chi Ki clearly states that the story's narrator is, if not preaching his philosophy of evil ("I am bad and I love to be bad"), then having fun in redefining the ethical order, that is, the perverse refashioning of himself qua language, and the dissociation of crimes from any sense of right and wrong (Wing-chi Ki). Other scholars argue that instead of fixating on issues of morality, Poe achieves remarkable insights into the irrational defenses of the mind, and into irrationality itself (Shulman 249). On the other hand, Robert Shulman in the same article implies that atrocious treatment of the cat, being a surrogate for the narrator's wife, could be explained by the narrator's desire to keep to the Victorian value of moral restraint i.d. sexual abstinence. According to Shulman, by humanizing the behavior of both cats while speaking about the animals loathsome caresses, getting between the feet or jumping upon the knees (Poe 9) the narrator subconsciously demonstrates his being deeply bothered by his docile and gentle wife's sexual behavior and her interference with his freedom (Shulman 257-258). Considering the lack of clarity in the question of morality in Edgar Allan Poes prose, this paper intends to investigate the way Poe does reveal his sense of Victorian values such as sexual restraint and self-control and can be considered a man of high Christian morality. The methods of both literary and psychological analysis are used to achieve this goal.

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Edgar Allan Poe had to live and create in the controversial time of Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901). The main characteristic of the epoch was its heavily contradictory phenomena of everyday social life. On the one hand, everybody was supposed to live up to enormously high standards of moral conduct and dignity. On the other hand, social negative manifestations of inner inconsistencies like widespread prostitution and engaging children in hard labor were a staple at that time. Poes short story The Black Cat in many reflects those contradictions and depicts psychological torments of a person torn between his inner demons and the imperative to preserve his morality. The narrator and the main character of the story first described as a gentle, pet-loving personality gradually transforms into a personality being more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others (Poe 4) after he gets married and develops a passion for a bottle. As Shulman sagaciously conjured, the reason for this transformation could have been the relationship with his wife. The narrator neither gives any account of him and his wife having children nor provides any other information about his wife except for her being animal-loving and docile. The reader can surmise that the narrator was avoiding having sexual intercourse with his wife and tried to release the subsequent tension through his aggressive behavior towards his numerous pets and wife, which, by the way was not illegal at the time. Being a man of his time with moral obligations impending on him, the narrator tried to mute his natural instincts and suppress the very thought of them. Accepting Shulmans assumption that both cats must have been for the narrator the surrogate for his wife (257), one can suppose it was her who the narrator wanted to kill in the first place. Seeing his wife as the source of constant temptation to cross the line of the socially privileged code of conduct, the narrator subconsciously gravitates to destroying her. The paradox of the narrator's chimerical morality consists in the fact that he would rather commit a deadly crime of murder that surrender to what is generally consider improper behavior.

Another possible viewpoint in discussing Poe's morality could be the suggestion that Poe's respect of animals is greater than that of humans supposedly because the former are not prone to human vices like substance abuse and improper temptations. Whatever pervert this idea might be, the narrator in The Black Cat is obviously more worried about mutilating and killing of his favorite pet than about murdering his own innocent spouse. Thus, on the morning next to taking out the animals eye the narrator experiences, although feeble and equivocal a sentiment half of horror, half of remorse (Poe 5) while the murder of his wife presents him with no other concerns than hiding her body. Having walled the dead body, the narrator feels satisfied that all was right (Poe 12). The most plausible explanation is again the assumption that it was his wife, the source of sin, carnal temptations and the true reason for his partiality to alcohol and subsequent bad temper, who the narrator wanted to kill in the first place without being consciously aware of it. The days following the murder the narrator surprisingly feels the blissful sense of relief and breathes as a free man (Poe 13), although he claims it was because the cat was no longer there. Thus, the reasoning about the anatomy of a dark state of mind present in Poes short story could be further developed by the claim that the power of the dark mind is used by the narrators psyche to suppress his natural instincts because the accepted moral values of the time demand from him to do so and subsequently the narrator looks for ways to let the tension go through wayward displacement of wife-cat roles.

One more viewpoint one might embrace to prove the presence of Victorian morality in Poes discourse is the claim that the behavior of the narrator should seem so horrid and repulsive to the reader that the story itself should serve as a deterrence factor for the wider public thus advocating the principles of respect to human life and general humanity. Poe masterfully shows that even if outer manifestations of a person's life are fairly dignified and proper, genuine evil seed will inevitably germinate unless the person truly works on their personality and moral conduct. The tragedy of the narrator is enhanced by the plot twist in which he is actually given the second chance with the second cat or karmic reincarnation of the first one. The second cat would have died even a more horrible death than the first but for the narrator's animal-loving wife who stood up for the poor beast and paid for it with her life.

Through horror and satire Poe explores and debunks the myth of an ideal Victorian man, embodying valid norms and virtues as described in, for instance, George Moss's book The Image of Man. The book gives a detailed account of what was supposed to be a model male of Victorian epoch. The main attributes of an ideal man are restraint and self-control, complimenting a man's bodily perfection (Mosse 94). The man's body, being a locus of restraint, had to be tamed through harsh discipline and hardening of the will-power (Mosse). In one of his most controversial and assumedly immoral short stories The Black Cat Poe actually demonstrates what can happen to the psyche of a male constantly having to suppress his sexual desires and overcome his emotional weakness. Through the prism of this reading The Black Cat becomes a warning and the herald of new type of morality, different from that forced during the Victorian era. Despite its seemingly pervert content, Poes short story is, in fact, an apologist tale of genuine humanity, the one where a human beings primarily need should be love instead of denial of love. In that understanding The Black Cat contains more humane morality than all of the Victorian moral treatises laid end to end. According to Mosses image of an ideal man, any male should suppress the forbidden desires with self-control and physical exercise (100). That was probably what the narrator in The Black Cat needed along with acceptance of his physical and emotional needs. The result of the narrators denial of those needs was the spirit of perverseness that he called an unfathomable longing to do wrong for the wrongs sake. This longing is not in the least surprising if we assume that this black cat, extraordinary large and beautiful, can symbolically represent the narrators true emotional needs to love and be loved that he had to continuously restrain due to the widespread image of a man as someone who should subdue his sentimentality. No wonder the narrator feels terrible while killing the animal with the tears streaming from the eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at the heart (Poe 6).

Therefore, the whole transformation of the main character can be plausibly explained through this symbolic interpretation of the cat as the narrator's emotional constituent. In the very beginning of the story he recollects that as a child he was known for the humanity and docility of his disposition, his tenderness of heart being so conspicuous that his peers would often make a mock of him (Poe 3). However, this unusual tenderness and over-emotionality contradicted the way the society of the time viewed young boys and men. In Moss's description of the epochs ideal a man had to struggle both with his sentimentality and bodily desires: real men dont cry (4). Consequently, as the narrator gets married and takes a lot of pets into his house, his emotional response might have grown and that must have been unacceptable by Victorian morals. Resorting first to alcohol abuse and then to physical aggression the narrator tries to come to terms with his body and soul receiving mixed messages all the time. The tragedy of the 19th century man is that alcoholism and aggression were probably considered lesser evils than a simple human need to freely express his sentiments and satisfy basic physical needs. Symbolical killing of the cat as an incarnation of his emotional side can be interpreted as the narrator's sacrificial desire to conform to the norms of Victorian morality.

Another interpretation of the cat's murder can be found in purely Christian terms of morality. After the narrator mutilates the pet by cutting his eye, he feels deep remorse and guilt and being naturally a genuinely religious person, he consummates his sin by completing the injury to the poor animal. At first he states that he did so only because of an unfathomable longing to do wrong only for the wrongs sake, but later in the same paragraph the reader finds out the true reason for the horrible act. Feeling sinful and guilty, the narrator desperately and passionately seeks retribution from the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God (Poe 6). However, mercy is not what the narrator wants. His sentiment of guilt is so deep and overwhelming that he wants to be placed with his act of utmost cruelty even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Merciful God (Poe 6). That is the true reason for murdering the beloved pet love and search for proper punishment. The narrator kills the cat to make sure he commits the most horrible sin and cannot avoid proper retribution. His feeling of guilt is so deep and strong that the most adequate way to deal with it is for a genuinely religious person with Christian morality of inflicting no harm to others is seeking for and accepting the deserved punishment. The narrator makes the choice of murder because he knows that the most severe punishment for him will be living with the burden of committing the crime of murder against the creature who truly loved him. Another Christian reference here is the notion of unquenchable fire of God, the one that burns until destroys its object, the lost soul, completely (Date). The fire literally takes place in t...

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