What makes the work of Poe gothic? Gothic fiction, particularly that written by Edgar Allan Poe has a number of common themes, motifs and structures that make his work easily recognizable and more importantly, fits his stories into the classification of the gothic. Among these elements of the gothic that run throughout the works of Edgar Allan Poe include the pervasive theme of death and decay, which is almost always a staple in Gothic fiction, the theme or presence of madness, insanity or other internal chaos, the supernatural in all of its forms, and haunted or creepy locations. Most stories by Edgar Allan Poe possess most if not all of these gothic qualities.
One of the most prominent themes that haunts the Gothic fiction of Edgar Allan Poe is death and the associated process of decay and this is one of the more prominent themes in Gothic novels or short stories. In nearly every one of his tales, one of the characters has died or is being mourned and this sets the quintessential dark tone found in Poe’s works. For instance, in “Ligea” by Edgar Allan Poe, the love of the narrator’s life has passed away and he must try to get through his life without her. Interestingly, although she is dead her double resurfaces at the end of the surface and the process of decay has obviously been subverted or halted by some supernatural means.
Even with this twist in the end, a frequent structure in stories by Poe, death remains a shadow looming throughout the entire story, especially since it seems that the house and Roderick are also both nearing their separate ends. In terms of death, it is worth pointing out that even the final end is not always what it may appear. Just as Ligea emerges again after death, so too does Roderick’s sister, Madeline, near the end of the story. These plot devices force readers to think about death differently while still leaving them a sense of the supernatural and the grotesque. In general, death and the process of decay are central themes but do not simply exist as background elements and are instead functioning as the hinges of the plotlines in some of the author’s works.
Madness is another element common to the Gothic fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and appears in almost all of his most widely read short stories including the Tell Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado to name a few. For instance, although in “Ligea” the character of Ligea is describes in glowing terms, it is implied that her “passions” are something like madness. This madness is coupled with Rowena’s mental illness which causes her to behave and speak erratically. At one point the narrator relates that, “She spoke…of the sounds—of the slight sounds—and of the unusual motions among the tapestries, to which she had formerly alluded.” By the end of the story when the narrator removes the wrappings to find his deceased lover the reader then must question the sanity of the person telling the tale as well, thus madness adds an element of the unknown that is different from simple supernatural occurences. In “The Fall of the House of Usher” madness is also at the heart of the story since one of the main characters, Roderick, is clearly losing his mind. As the narrator relates, Roderick’s behavior is odd and his looks posses … “a cadaverousness of complexion, an eye large, liquid and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid.” It is clear that the addition of madness to the themes of death and the supernatural all bring forth questions to the reader’s mind about what is occurring.
Another aspect of the Gothic qualities in Poe’s fiction is that there are usually remote or haunted locations in which the action occurs. Generally, these haunted locations intersect with the plot and other themes (such as death or madness) and add to the supernatural tone of the tales. One of the best examples is “The Fall of the House of Usher” in which death, madness, and the location are intertwined. In this story, for example, Roderick’s looks are described and then the appearance of the “sentient” house are explained to posses a …”physique of gray walls and turrets, and all of the dim tarn into which they all looked down” which can be equated to the deteriorating condition of the occupants. In “Ligea” all of the settings are dark and ominous as the narrator moves to an abbey with “gloomy and dreary grandeur. ”Poe’s brand of Gothic fiction differs greatly from that of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”. Although both authors employ elements of the supernatural, the intent is different. Shelley seems to be exploring the dangers of modernity (science being the most prominent of those) while Poe seems more interested in telling a tale for its own sake. Although death, decay, and reanimation are all parts of some of Poe’s stories, they are more because of love and madness in Poe’s stories rather than because of human error, a theme in Frankenstein.
Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Language and Suspense in The Cask of Amontillado by Poe • The Role of Nature in Edgar Allan Poe’s “MS Found in a Bottle” and “A Descent into the Maelstrom” • Elements of Romanticism in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley