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The quest for control–Short Story

The quest for control–Short Story

Week 3: Poe and Hawthorne (II): ENGL-225-70 9/1/15,

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Week 3: Poe and Hawthorne (II)
Week 3 (Sept. 2-8): Poe and Hawthorne (cont.)
We examine a detective story (a genre that Poe invented) and a science-fiction story (a genre
that Hawthorne helped to invent).
Weekly Readings
Poe, “The Purloined Letter”
Hawthorne, “The Birthmark”
My lecture on ratiocination in Poe and Hawthorne
Weekly Activities
Complete assigned readings and post required discussion responses
Think about what it means to be “logical” or “scientific”
Weekly Objectives
To understand different points of view in the Poe and Hawthorne stories
To examine ways that Poe and Hawthorne glorify or question reasoning and analysis
To evaluate the protagonist in each story
Week 3 Lecture: Poe and Hawthorne–the Quest for Control: ENGL-225-70 9/1/15, 9:07 AM
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Week 3 Lecture: Poe and Hawthorne–the
Quest for Control
Week 3 Lecture: Poe and Hawthorne—The Quest for Control
Below is this week’s lecture, followed by discussion questions and a YouTube video of Vincent Price in
An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe. If you enjoy reading Poe, you might also enjoy Price’s dramatic
monologues of four Poe stories: “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Sphinx,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and
“The Pit and the Pendulum.” (Price does a superb job. Yes, the Price is right.) In “The Cask of
Amontillado” we see Poe’s narrator masterminding events and thereby asserting control, in ways
perhaps ironically akin to Dupin in “The Purloined Letter.” In the other three Price selections,
conversely, we see the narrator helpless and terrified. Poe’s mind was torn by terrible tensions,
providing the dynamic creativity behind his works but at a heavy price. Even in his works emphasizing
logic and control, we sense perhaps a lurking danger, an occasional hint of madness waiting without and
As “The Fall of the House of Usher” suggests, Poe’s stories often dance on the edge of the abyss. To
read such stories is to experience hallucinations, insanity, revenge, supernatural horrors, and revenants.
As scholars note, Poe never actually wrote a ghost story; instead, various characters seem to return from
the grave in the flesh, albeit considerably the worse for wear and tear. Characters get buried alive,
Week 3 Lecture: Poe and Hawthorne–the Quest for Control: ENGL-225-70 9/1/15, 9:07 AM
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the grave in the flesh, albeit considerably the worse for wear and tear. Characters get buried alive,
confronted by supposedly dead loved ones, tortured during the Inquisition, sucked down into enormous
maelstroms, stalked by masked figures of death, possessed by imps of the perverse, hounded by the
incarnation of their own conscience, put into hypnosis at the very point of death, subjected to tooth
extraction while alive in the grave (ask your dentist if he offers such services!), burned alive by
grotesque dwarfs, and other amusements.
Perhaps all those things happen on Thursdays. Arthur Dent, the protagonist in Douglas Adams’s
“trilogy” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, says that he never could get the hang of Thursdays.
Maybe that’s true of Poe’s characters as well. But regardless of the day of the week, to be in a Poe story
is typically to be in for a rough time. In fact, I don’t know how Poe got characters for his stories.
Maybe he shanghaied them off the streets.
Scholars and psychoanalysts have long debated what all this meant for Poe, besides low pay, miserable
living conditions, periodic bouts with alcohol and sundry drugs, a wife dying from tuberculosis, and
other manifestations of the American Dream. There must have been days when Poe wished he were a
plumber, although not Joe the Plumber.
As I suggested in last week’s lecture, Poe developed a bizarre sense of humor (cf. this lecture) to help
him cope. Indeed, sometimes his horror and humor are so commingled that perhaps only DNA tests
might identify which is which. Of course in Poe’s stories the horror usually predominates!
In the introduction to the Viking Portable Library’s Poe edition (1945), Philip Van Doren Stern offers
this summary of Poe: “He did what few American writers had even tried to do before: he tapped the rich
reservoir of the subconscious mind to set free the strange and terrible images which had seldom been
allowed to stalk the printed page until he introduced them into his work.” We think about reader
response, about a story’s effect upon readers—but we might wonder about its effect upon the author,
One cannot always sup with horrors, of course, and that’s why Poe tries to modulate or distance some of
his horror with humor, hoaxes, and satire. In “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” read by my ENGL
520 students last semester, Poe pokes fun at his own Gothic and sensationalistic techniques. Perhaps
satire gave him the sense of transcending his own horrors, both in and out of fiction. Perhaps it made
him feel in control, instead of being at the mercy of his own subconscious mind. Although they’re not
widely read today, Poe published at least two dozen pieces of humor and satire, including “The System
of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” “Some Words with a Mummy,”
and other selections whose very titles hint at the strange humor contained therein.
Poe also liked to perpetrate hoaxes, especially about mysterious balloon flights and distant ocean
voyages, which were popular topics in his day. Indeed, as I hinted last week, even some of his wellknown
horror stories might, at some level, be read as hoaxes or at least as self-parodies. Poe’s writing
often explores the shady region between the conscious and subconscious, reality and illusion, fact and
fantasy. Poe suggests that it is often hard to distinguish what is from what seems.
When Poe could use his literary skill to fool readers, that probably gave him a sense of power, of
Week 3 Lecture: Poe and Hawthorne–the Quest for Control: ENGL-225-70 9/1/15, 9:07 AM
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control. When one of his first-person narrators can fool and control another character, as in “The Cask
of Amontillado,” readers might sense Poe enjoying a sense of power through his narrator.
You’ll recall that Poe was proud of his literary craft, of his ability to make every word in a story or
poem work toward a powerful, unified effect. That literary mastery was another way for him to
counterbalance the irrational, menacing, and horrifying images that arose from his subconscious mind
like revenants from the grave. Ironically, his writing both exposed him to these horrors and helped him
to control them.
Nowhere is that more evident than in his tales of “ratiocination,” or logical reasoning. Poe invented the
detective story, first with “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” followed by “The Mystery of Marie Roget,”
and finally by what is probably the best of his detective fiction, “The Purloined Letter.” (Some readers
might contend that his popular tale “The Gold-Bug” is also a detective story of sorts, since it involves
cracking a mysterious code and using logical reasoning to find a pirate’s treasure.) Arthur Conan Doyle
admitted taking various literary devices for his Sherlock Holmes stories from Poe’s detective tales.
Readers should have no trouble seeing parallels: an amiable, reasonable, but not excessively intelligent
first-person narrator who is the detective’s friend; an eccentric, reclusive detective given to aesthetic and
philosophical contemplation, along with occasional drug reveries (opium for Dupin, cocaine for
Holmes); and the intellectual mastery of any investigative challenge through keen observation and
logical deduction.
But remember that Poe was wrestling with demons from his own subconscious mind, thereby giving his
detective stories perhaps greater ambiguity and psychological complexity than the Sherlock Holmes
stories. Dupin doesn’t just solve puzzles; he is a puzzle himself. When you read “The Purloined
Letter,” consider not only how it exalts logical deduction as a way for the detective to solve a problem
(and so give Poe his sense of control) but also consider what is perhaps odd about the story, slightly off
base, tangential to true logic. Think about Dupin’s relation to his foe, the Minister D—-.
The ambiguities and horrors of the subconscious mind are also present in Hawthorne’s writings, as we
saw in “Young Goodman Brown.” As I noted in last week’s lecture, Hawthorne was, unlike Poe,
grounded in a strong sense of place and past (his Puritan New England ancestry) and was concerned
with moral and psychological questions that finally transcended Puritanism itself. Nevertheless, the
dark forces welling up from the subconscious mind in Hawthorne’s writing seem akin to the forces in
Poe’s stories.
Week 3 Lecture: Poe and Hawthorne–the Quest for Control: ENGL-225-70 9/1/15, 9:07 AM
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Nathaniel Hawthorne
In most of his stories, Hawthorne takes a balanced, reasonable view of these forces, distancing himself
from the isolation, paranoia, and fanaticism they sometimes produce. Like Poe, Hawthorne sometimes
uses humor to maintain control, although Hawthorne’s humor tends to be gentle, sly, and wryly ironic.
(He can be sharply satiric on occasion, however.) Readers might sense that Hawthorne maintains
control not only through his literary craft, every bit as meticulous as Poe’s artistry, but also through his
equable, mature personality. As implied author (i.e., our image of the author as constructed through our
reading of his writings), Hawthorne comes across as less volatile and more balanced and mature than is
Poe in his work.
Nevertheless, like Poe, Hawthorne was a Dark Romantic, in some ways rebelling against the strictures
and perspectives of the Age of Reason. Hawthorne might have sought rational control over the
subconscious and creative forces in his work, but at the same time he was wary of too much reason. In
the classic struggle between head (reason) and heart (emotion), Hawthorne had divided loyalties, and he
sometimes tried to find a way to make head and heart work together.
He was suspicious of too much change, and viewed askance some alleged benefits of science and
technology. My ENGL 520 students read “The Celestial Railroad,” in which Hawthorne satirizes the
notion that technological progress can make spiritual quest easier.
Like Poe, Hawthorne was one of the first practitioners in story form of science fiction. Mary Shelley’s
novel Frankenstein (1818) was probably the first work of science fiction, albeit with a strong Gothic
shade to it. Even if you’ve never read Shelley’s novel, you’ve probably seen a film version of it
somewhere along the line (with Hollywood’s inevitable distortions, of course), and so you have some
sense of the plot, setting, and perspective of Shelley’s masterpiece. The influence upon Hawthorne’s
short story “The Birthmark” seems pronounced.
Hawthorne might also have been influenced by a Poe tale called “The Oval Portrait” (1842). In that
story, an artist tries to capture the very spirit of his beloved and, with dark irony, succeeds in transferring
her life into his portrait of her. She dies just as the picture is finished.
Finally, as an autobiographical note of interest, Hawthorne got married in 1842, at age 38, just a year
before he wrote and published “The Birthmark” in 1843. (Your textbook incorrectly gives the date of
publication as 1846.) A psychologist might offer some interesting readings of the story based on that
little fact!
Like Dr. Frankenstein, Aylmer is in some ways an early example of what we’ve come to call the “mad
scientist.” But just as Poe’s detective story is rather peculiar as a detective story, “The Birthmark” is
rather odd as science fiction. Think about the way Aylmer is presented and what he’s really trying to
accomplish. In some respects, despite his being a scientist of the Age of Reason (“in the latter part of
the last century,”), Aylmer seems to have ties to past periods, such as Puritanism and the Middle Ages.
Why do you think Hawthorne presents him that way? What really motivates Aylmer?
Week 3 Lecture: Poe and Hawthorne–the Quest for Control: ENGL-225-70 9/1/15, 9:07 AM
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Just as Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” is more complex and ambiguous than the typical detective story, so
is Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” more complex and ambiguous than the typical sci-fi or “mad scientist”
Please post responses to two of the following discussion questions and then respond to two of your
fellow students’ posts:
1. How is Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” narrated? Why do you think Poe chose this point of view?
What is revealed and what is concealed?
2. What is Dupin’s method for solving the story’s mystery? In what ways is Dupin like the Minister D–
–? Do you sense anything motivating Dupin beyond his wish to solve the mystery and pocket part of
the reward?
3. Describe Aylmer in Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark.” What motivates him? How are we to regard his
success or failure? Why?
4. What does the birthmark on Georgiana’s cheek symbolize? Or does it symbolize different things to
different viewers? Consider the way that Aylmer, Georgiana, Aminadab, or you, the reader, regard it.
Vincent Price in An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe
Link (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzyYzK94UU4)

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