Edgar Poe is famous for his gothic stories exploring the darkest fears and desires of the human soul. The article is aimed at analyzing the ways death appears in these stories and the role it plays in them, along with analyzing how the concept of death is intertwined with the concept of time.
Keywords: Edgar Poe, short stories, the concept of death, the concept of time.
Эдгар Аллан По — признанный мастер готической прозы, в чьих произведениях неоднократно возникает образ смерти. Цель статьи — проанализировать, какую роль играет образ смерти в наиболее известных рассказах Эдгара По, а также выявить связь между образом смерти и образом времени в его произведениях.
Ключевые слова: Эдгар По, рассказы, образ смерти, образ времени.
Among the recurring themes in Edgar Allan Poe’s stories the theme of death is the most prominent one. Death appears in multiple forms and is observed at multiple angles, but almost always plays a significant part in the story.
Some stories feature death as a character in itself. “The Masque of the Red Death” ends with the Death himself appearing at a ball and putting an end to festive celebrations during the plague known as the red death. Time, the death’s eternal companion, is what reminds the human beings about the frailty of their existence. ( But now there were twelve strokes to be sounded by the bell of the clock; and thus, it happened, perhaps, that more of thought crept, with more of time, into the meditations of the thoughtful among those who reveled ). During the chiming of the clock in “The Masque of the Red Death” all merriment fades away just to start again once the ominous sound is no longer heard. In life people often chose to ignore the inevitable prospect of their own death but ignoring it will never stop the Death from appearing with the last stroke of midnight. No matter how delusional people can be thinking themselves immortal, in the end the omnipresent Death inevitably proves them wrong.
The fear of death is explored in many of Edgar Poe’s stories. The fear of death seems to be a basic concept shared by all human beings without exception, and this fear is often manifested as the fear of being buried alive. This fear is in the center of story called «The Premature Burial”. ( To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality ). The main character is haunted by the idea of being buried alive by a horrible mistake, recalling multiple occasions of such thing happening to other people in those times. Among these peculiar and terrifying cases is the story of a husband, who enters his family vault just to discover a skeleton of her wife outside her coffin, the unbelievable story of a man digging up his beloved’s grave in despair just to find out that she is still alive, and the story of medical attendants accidentally reviving a person while running an experiment on his presumably dead body. In multiple stories untimely burial is significant for the plot. In one of Edgar Poe’s most famous short stories, «The Fall of the House of Usher”, the woman is entombed alive after her brother mistakenly proclaims her dead. In «Berenice” the main character is so obsessed with the idea of possessing his late cousin’s teeth that he digs up her grave but fail to notice that his cousin is still alive and breathing. The fact that the death happens to be untimely adds to the gravity of the terrifying notion of the fleeting nature of all human lives.
Death of the loved one may as well affect the hero of the story. That is the case of one of the most famous poems of Edgar Poe — The Raven. The Raven symbolizes the loss of Lenore, the main character’s beloved, and the profound grief he is not able to avoid after her death. The words pronounced by the Raven convince the character that the love of his life can never be brought back, and all what is left to him are his memories of Lenore and his deep sorrow.
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” 
In «The Raven” the author tells a heartbreaking tale of how the memory of those long gone keeps pursuing the living, yet again pointing out the finality of death and the impossibility of reaching out to the loved ones that have left us.
There are, however, stories in which the protagonist miraculously escapes the seemingly inevitable prospect of death. A story called «The Pit and the Pendulum” takes place in times of the Spanish Inquisition and features a character sentenced to death in a dungeon filled with terrifying execution devices, including a sharp pendulum slowly descending from the ceiling. The relentless swinging of the pendulum is yet again a metaphor of time bringing human beings closer to their death. ( It was the painted figure of Time as he is commonly represented, save that, in lieu of a scythe, he held what, at a casual glance, I supposed to be the pictured image of a huge pendulum such as we see on antique clocks ). Still, even though the character manages to escape death, it remains in the center of the story, the threat of death driving the character to do unimaginable things beyond human ability.
Finally, someone’s death can serve as a catalyst for the plot of the story. That is the case in such stories as «The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and «The Mystery of Marie Roget”. In «The Murders in the Rue Morgue” the mysterious murder of two women strangled to death in their own room is investigated. In «The Mystery of Marie Roget” the detective must solve a difficult case after a body of a young woman is found in the river. Edgar Poe is known to establish the genre of detective stories traditionally centering around the process of investigating a murder. In those stories he introduces a typical detective character — Auguste Dupin. This is the template of detective stories that will later be used by Arthur Conan Doyle in his famous set of stories about a brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes.
The appearance of death in Edgar Poe’s stories usually falls into one of the mentioned categories: death as a character, the fear of death in the center of the story, death of a loved one, escaping death or someone’s death serving as a catalyst for the plot. Time is understood as something that goes hand in hand with death, is bound with it inextricably and, in fact, presents an unavoidable path towards the death itself. The unchanging relevance of these ideas is the reason Edgar Poe’s works are widely read and highly appreciated centuries after they were published.
- Complete Stories and Poems by Edgar Allan Poe. Kindle Edition by Douglas Editions (2009)