Dark Laughter; Humour in The Works of Edgar Allan Poe

7 Feb


 I. Self Parody, Bad Taste, Blank Pages

Between 1948 and 1950, a radio series entitled ‘THE NBC UNIVERSITY THEATRE OF THE AIR’ set out to adapt ‘THE WORLD’S GREAT NOVELS’ for a mass audience. Hemingway made the cut, as did Dickens and Steinbeck, Huxley, Joyce and Greene among others. And Edgar Allan Poe found a place in the line-up, although not on the merits of his only feature-length novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. It was a few of the shining stars of Poe’s perennially popular short fiction that made it to air. On the third of June,1949, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ ‘The Purloined Letter’ and ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ were broadcast along with ‘Lionizing,’ the one seemingly leftfield selection. The name Poe is of course synonymous with the eerie (also the horrible, the dark, the bleak, the simply terrifying) and has been since he published his first collection of fiction Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in 1840; yet for one who had never read or heard of Poe, to listen to these adaptations of his stories, they would certainly not be under any such impression. The NBC theatre’s version of The Fall of the House of Usher in particular, supposedly one of the author’s more bloodcurdling narratives, is laugh out loud. Roderick Usher, Poe’s doomed hero, creepily incarcerated in his own melancholia, becomes an outrageous burlesque parody of himself – ridiculously mournful and dejected, almost to the point of absurdity. The narrator, naiveté cranked up to the full, becomes the archetypal straight-man, while Usher’s rather too deathly sister Madeline wafts in and out of the broadcast, either whispering demonically or emphatically howling. Throughout all of this, intriguingly, the story seems to retain much of its original mythopoeic power. I suggest that the success of this adaptation is a reflection of the humorous strain implicit in Poe’s original text, a conjecture which I will return to later on in this paper.

One doesn’t have to look very far to trace the comedic trend in Poe’s work more generally. Of the twenty-five pieces in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, at least eleven are wholly comic in intent; these range from social satires such as ‘The Man Who was Used Up’ and ‘Bon Bon’, to farcical pieces like ‘King Pest’, and an attempt at a hoax ‘The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaal’ in which the author describes, with apparent scientific veracity, a journey to the moon in a hot air balloon. Poe himself objected to being pigeonholed, taxed by critics for ‘what they have pleased to term ‘Germanism and gloom. The charge is in bad taste, and the grounds of it have not been sufficiently considered’ (63). I intend to argue, with recourse to a number of Poe’s texts, both overtly comic and ostensibly gloomy and ‘Germanic’, that Poe used humour to critique the fashions and intellectual mores of his society. This goes against a long tradition of critics placing Poe somehow completely outside of society. Freudian critics, often the worst offenders in this regard, have sought to read his texts as a selection of medical case-notes. Marie Bonaparte sees in his writing ample evidence that he was a ‘sadonecrophile’; Joseph Wood Krutch offers a similar diagnosis when he asserts that ‘Poe’s texts are nothing other than an accurate transcription of a severe neurosis’ (Bloom 132). These sort of interpretations are spurious for a number of reasons. Firstly, they make totalising assumptions on a factually inaccurate basis; Poe’s corpus certainly did not consist entirely of stories about premature burial, metempsychosis, mutilation and vampirism as these critics seem to believe. Furthermore, these themes are often problematised in the tales that are not necessarily explicitly about them, as I intend to illustrate. Secondly, as Stephen Rachman suggests, ‘when critics assert the isolation of Poe’s art from social pressures they are often doing little more than reiterating Poe’s own aesthetic credo’ (xii). Poe was particularly adroit at manipulating his own image and vexing the categories by which we know literature, the world, and the difference between them. Thus for some critics, notably Lacan, the status of the Poe is no longer that of the sick patient but, if anything, that of the analyst ( Felman 137).

But was he funny? The phrase ‘Poe’s humour’ is thought by a number of critics to be ‘a contradiction in terms’ (Zimmerman 63). One of the in-jokes of Poe Scholarship, summed up by J. Marshall Trieber, goes that ‘a study of Poe’s humour might consist of twenty blank pages’ (32). Yet others are more accommodating towards the idea of Poe as a humourist; James H. Justus, for example, writes that

in the last decade scholars have unearthed a writer of such duplicity that the dominant image of Poe as the exploiter of terror and sensation may eventually be replaced by that of the witty self parodist and burlesque comedian (86).

It is not my aim to prove that Poe was, or is, actually funny. As Trieber cogently points out ‘a study of Poe’s humour should be based on Poe’s idea of humour, not the reader’s’ (32). What I do aim to establish is that Poe’s comic works often reveal a startlingly darker vision of the nature of man than his tales of terror.

 II. Satire, Savagery, Scorn

‘If we take a distant view of [Poe’s work] as a whole,’ writes T.S Eliot, ‘we see a mass of unique shape and impressive size to which the eye constantly returns’ (327). Once we get up close and personal, however, we find Poe’s work littered with elements that have caused critics to wince, and turn away. Writing on Poe’s poetry, Aldous Huxley, for instance, accused him outright of vulgarity:

To the most sensitive and high-souled man in the world we should find it hard to forgive, shall we say, the wearing of a diamond ring on every finger. Poe does the equivalent of this in his poetry, we notice the solecism and shudder (86).

I shudder to think what Huxley would have thought of his attempts at comedy. Poe’s wit runs, not to sophistication and refined urbanity, but rather to the extravagant and outrageous. His use of dreadful puns, for example, is well documented. Standing round a burial tomb or a family vault, Poe’s characters have been known to let out a ‘grave’ chuckle (‘The Gold Bug’ 276). In ‘The Philosophy of Furniture,’ riffing on national tastes for décor, Poe could say of the Spanish that ‘they are all curtains – a nation of hangmen’ (Zimmerman 71). His fondness for ludicrous names is also frequently alluded to. ‘Mr. Touch-and-go-Bullet-head’ in ‘X-ing a Paragrab’, ‘Professor Rubadub’ in ‘Hans Pfaal’, the law firm ‘Bogs, Hogs, Logs, Frogs & Co’ in ‘Diddling’ and ‘Brevet-Brigadier General John A.B.C Smith’ in ‘The Man that was Used Up’ are among my favourites. Nevertheless, I have to grudgingly concede with Trieber that these sort of name games are ‘the result of someone trying too hard to be funny (38). However, under the immediate surface of these seemingly crude narratives, as in so much Poe’s work, lurk complex structures of meaning.

To elaborate on this point, I intend to illustrate the mechanisms of social satire operating in ‘The Man who was Used Up – A Tale of the Late Bugaboo and Kickapoo Campaign.’ The joke in this piece revolves around Brevet-Brigadier General John A.B.C Smith, a seemingly perfect individual, who is in actual fact a bizarre fraud, a used up man, constructed entirely from false body parts. The suggestion is that the highly decorated military man, famous for his brave exploits in the eponymous conflict of the tale, was indecorously blown to shreds. Smith is a legless, armless, chestless, shoulderless, eyeless, toothless “bundle” disguised as a handsome hero (Mooney 435).The anonymous narrator of the tale, afflicted with a nervous constitution, is in awe of Smith as they meet at an important public event, so much so that he cannot remember anything about the evening, only that

There was something, as it were, remarkable – yes, remarkable, although this is but a feeble term to express my full meaning – about the entire individuality of the personage in question. … There was air distingué pervading the whole man, which spoke of high breeding, and hinted at high birth. Upon this topic – the topic of Smith’s personal appearance – I have a kind of melancholy satisfaction in being minute (79).

The narrator goes on to farcically describe the perfection of each constituent part of the General’s body. Accordingly Smith’s legs are ‘indeed, the ne plus ultra of good legs,’ and he [the narrator] wishes to God that his ‘young and talented friend Chiponchipino, the sculptor, had but seen the legs of Brevet Brigadier General John A.B.C Smith’ (80). The important word in this passage is ‘appearance’ – the narrator confuses appearance with reality. The clue is of course in the name, John A.B.C Smith: what appellation could be more ordinary than that? By the end of the story, after anxiously inquiring about Smith’s noble deeds and personage to his credulous social circle, the narrator finds Smith in his dressing room, a mere bundle of limbs on the floor, being put together by a servant. All is finally revealed. Poe’s aim in this story is to savagely undermine the specious triumphalism of the ruling elite by revealing its underlying disorder. This theme is evident elsewhere in Poe’s comic fiction, in the King’s obstinate assumption that he cannot be recognised as an orang-utan in ‘Hop-Frog’, for example, or the obtuse Psyche Zenobia’s belief in her own writing ability in ‘How to Write a Blackwood Article.’ Stephen L. Mooney suggests that this type of humour is allied to the vaudeville tradition: ‘it is the wit of the Grand Guignol, The Commedia dell’Arte, and the Johnsonian antimasque of the Royal Court, inventive and fantastic, and charged with shocking jests and metamorphoses’ (434). Comic progression, in this regard, relies on a relatively simple set of rules: disguise, action, error, revelation and result. Action for Mooney, is always based on ‘a fundamental error in the perception of the real’ which leads to ‘the comic revelation of truth as a stripping away of appearances’ (434). The error then in the ‘The Man Who was Used Up’ is on the part of the narrator; he is a gullible participant in what is eventually revealed to be a vacuous and frivolous society led by empty individuals. However, while Mooney’s structure may account for the narrative thrust of Poe’s satiric tales, their semblance of rational order and motivation, it does not figure in their sheer disorder, their ludicrous linguistic games and jarring incongruities. The comic works can be hardly be said to embody ‘that vital requisite in all works of art, Unity’, Poe’s famous dictum as he states it in ‘The Poetic Principle’ (462). They in fact exhibit the opposite. Any attempt to impose on them such unity as can be found elsewhere in Poe – as in say, the poetic solutions of Dupin or the meticulous doubling in ‘William Wilson’ – would detract from their intended effect. Poe’s picture of American society in the comic tales is savage, cynical and uncompromising. Whereas his readers might have believed that the pursuit of happiness is the prime basis of a democratic American society, Poe laughs at such easy optimism. As Justus writes of Poe’s comic tales

The mismatched parts and crude rivets help to shape the jerry-built structures into symbolic artefacts of Poe’s vision, their message reads: there is no harmony in man or society (71)

Along with satire, Poe’s tales also exhibit elements of what Trieber has called ‘the humour of scorn.’ Poe’s humour, argues Trieber, is primarily motivated by personal triumph and revenge over the things and people that would have personally irritated him. We might note that several of his most scathing stories are set in surroundings that he would have been familiar with, Newspaper offices (X-ing a Paragrab), high society gatherings (‘The Man Who was Used Up’), the homes of the literati (‘How to Write a Blackwood Article’). It is a capricious type of humour, based around the idea of ‘grin’, a concept summed up by Poe in ‘Diddling [i.e hoaxing] Considered as One of The Exact Sciences’:

Grin: — Your true diddler winds up all with a grin. But this nobody sees but himself. He grins when his daily work is done — when his allotted labors are accomplished — at night in his own closet, and altogether for his own private entertainment. He goes home. He locks his door. He divests himself of his clothes. He puts out his candle. He gets into bed. He places his head upon the pillow. All this done, and your diddler grins (4).

Such a grin is that of the superior individual who has successfully manipulated and perhaps ridiculed the only-too-predictable people around him. Poe’s fondness for hoaxes – diddles – is undeniable. In 1845 he set about trying to fool the readers of The New York Mirror that a ‘Mr Pennington’ would be attempting a transatlantic crossing in a ‘Steam Balloon,’ by writing a false letter to the paper’s editor. One can imagine Poe grinning as he finished the appalling letter with the sentence ‘I hope that you will excuse this Hurryed Epistle Bad Writing and bad Gramer’ (2 col. 3). Indeed, one critic speculates that Poe “laughed heartily when, incredible as it may seem, at least a portion of the public swallowed the tale as sober fact” (Krutch 159). The pleasure in overcoming an adversary is undoubtedly one of Poe’s favourite topics. In the ‘The Purloined Letter,’ for example, by cannily discovering that the Queen’s letter is hidden in the open, Dupin outwits both the prefect of police and the aristocratic thief Minister D-. The pleasure in this story arises from the unfolding of Dupin’s solution in the face of incredulity and a sense of a triumph of the imagination over plodding police work. Perhaps slightly more sinister is Trieber’s suggestion that Poe intends us to grin with the vengeful Montresor as he seals in his old enemy Fortunato behind a wall in ‘The Cask Of Amontillado’ (33). I mentioned earlier The NBC University Theatre’s adaptation of this particular story; as Montresor laughs maniacally into the credits, the story’s appeal as a piece of wicked schadenfreude becomes quite a convincing possibility. Trieber summarises this aspect of Poe’s humour as ‘the enjoyment we might feel if we heard of a pompous person slipping on a banana — the humour of scorn, wherein our own superiority is tacitly affirmed’ (34). Satire always has a motive, something or someone to expose. In this respect, Poe offers an interesting conundrum. Although it seems that in stories like ‘The Man Who was Used Up’ Poe has a moral vision of the world that he wants the reader to enter into, perhaps there is also ample evidence to suggest that humour in his tales often reveals the opposite; a savage, amoral world in which one must always try to get their own back .

III. Perversity, Romantic Irony, Dread

Critical thought surrounding Poe’s comedy often encourages one to associate the work with farce, silliness, crassness, even lewdness. Early tales such as ‘Lionising,’ for instance, have been excavated for innuendoes. ‘Lionising’ is the story of Robert Jones, a resident of the city of Fum-Fudge who gains acceptance into European high society on account of his miraculously large nose. In ‘Poe’s Lionizing: The Wound And The Bawdry’ John Arnold suggests that this story is not really about the nose, rather that it is about the penis. Brett Zimmerman agrees with this idea and provides several examples of other critics who also agree, largely on the basis of one particular passage; Jones is about to arrive for dinner with the Prince of Wales and guests

“He is coming!” said somebody on the staircase.
“He is coming!” said somebody farther up.
“He is coming!” said somebody farther still.
“He is come!” exclaimed the Duchess.
A marked sensation immediately ensued… (214)

I too agree that this passage is obviously a piece of thinly veiled filth. However, Poe was certainly capable of constructing more literary jokes. I intend to illustrate this by tracing what can be interpreted as a form of detached Romantic Irony in two tales, ‘The Imp of The Perverse’ and ‘The Duc De L’Omelette.’

‘The Imp of the Perverse’ is a short tale, it would have taken up only a page (three columns) of Graham’s Magazine when first published in 1845. It appears to be a murder story, as it involves both a murder and a confession. Yet these two things happen only in the last third of the tale, the equivalent of roughly one column in the original article. The first two columns are a detailed explication of what the narrator terms as a ‘paradoxical’ phenomenon called the ‘perverse’ which contemporary scientific thought refuses to accept as a realistic mental propensity. In this respect, the tale seems remarkably unbalanced in terms of structure. Either that, or it is not really a story about murder at all. The structure, I suggest, reflects various ideas Poe had, strongly reminiscent of the Romantic tradition, concerning the eventual overflow of the rational mind into creativity. ‘It cannot be denied’ says the narrator, criticising the scientific establishment, ‘that phrenology and, in great measure, all metaphysicianism, have been concocted à priori.’ This is why ‘perversity’, according to the narrator, has been overlooked, it can only be empirically ratified, a posteriori

Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say, that through its promptings we act, for the reason that we should not. In theory, no reason can be more unreasonable; but, in fact, there is none more strong. With certain minds, under certain conditions, it becomes absolutely irresistible (324).

The story results in the narrator confessing to a perfectly executed murder (i.e there was no chance of him getting caught) for no other reason than that he need not confess. As the narrator sees it, The Imp of the Perverse, that which makes one act as they should not, is a propensity present in all men, however, more importantly ‘with certain minds, under certain conditions, it becomes absolutely irresistible.’ If we take ‘certain minds’ to signify the creative artist, and ‘certain conditions’ to signify the creative impulse, this distinction suggests, as E R. Kanjo points out, that ‘the tale is as much about the creative mechanism in man as it is about the destructive’ (2). The Imp (surely a pun on impulse) is both a ‘direct instigation of the arch fiend’ and yet it is ‘known to operate in furtherance of good’ (i.e creativity).This is the territory of high Romanticism, the paradoxical symbiosis of the creative and destructive. The tale can be interpreted as a Romantic allegory of the creative act, yet it is suitably ironic, in that the artist, knowingly detached from his creative impulses, creates a story based around their destruction (Kanjo 41). This is epitomised in the third of the examples that the narrator gives of the Imp’s influence on him; he imagines himself standing on the edge of a cliff, having an attack of the perverse, so to speak

But out of this our cloud upon the precipice’s edge, there grows into palpability, a shape … and yet it is but a thought, although a fearful one, and one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height. And this fall — this rushing annihilation — for the very reason that it involves that one most ghastly and loathsome of all the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination — for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it. And because our reason violently deters us from the brink, therefore, do we the most impetuously approach it (325).

This is the turning point in the bi-part structure of ‘The Imp of The Perverse’, which beginning with rational, scientific language eventually unfolds into the dramatic language of a murder plot. The narrator, under the influence of the Imp is desperate to confess his crime at this stage, and thereby undertake the creative act of telling the story of the crime. His anxiety is caused by the knowledge that by taking such a course of action he will simultaneously ruin his life. Paradoxically then, the narrator’s urge to leap into the abyss in this passage reflects his desire to enact the creative process. Ironically, as Kanjo suggests, the ultimate dread – death – becomes at once the ultimate delight – creativity (43). In imagining death the narrator approaches the act of creation, but also, perversely, approaches death. This may not be a particularly funny joke, but ultimately it is a metafictional play on the anxieties of creative inspiration. Poe revised this story meticulously after its first publication in Graham’s which tells us he was certainly interested in its implications. It exhibits ‘the dizzying, self dissolving effect of thought about thought’ which Poe seems to have enjoyed producing immensely (Irwin 11).

‘Keats died of a criticism’ begins ‘Le Duc de L’Omelette,’ another of Poe’s shortest and seemingly most obscure tales. It is a good example a tale motivated by both Poe’s ‘humour of scorn’ and his interest in contemporary literary motifs. It relates the story of the demise of an epicure, his reawakening in Hell and his subsequent return to earthly world after beating the Devil in a game of cards. Scholars have shown that the satirical object of the tale was likely to have been N.P Willis, the editor of The American Monthly Magazine (Levine 9). Willis wrote a monthly column entitled ‘The Editor’s Table’ in which he invited the reader to share in the extravagant pleasures of his office: ‘two dogs, a pet “South American Trulian” (a bird of his own invention, apparently), perfume for the quill of his pen, crimson curtains, all manner of exotic lounges, ottomans and divans, olives, japonica flowers, and a bottle of Rudesheimer’ (9). Willis was publicly lampooned for these affectations, Poe took pleasure in joining in with the jest. Yet as the first line suggests the tale can be interpreted as commentary on certain aspects of Romantic thought.

From the first line Poe sets up a series of symmetries that will inform the meaning of the tale, which centres around one of Poe’s common themes: metempsychosis. A parallel here can be drawn between the ostensibly ‘gloomy and Germanic‘ treatment of this theme in a tale such as ‘Ligiea’. ‘Keats died of criticism’ refers to Shelley’s poem ‘Adonais.’ Poe is focusing on the body/soul duality Shelley establishes in lamenting Keats’ material death, whilst simultaneously celebrating the eternal life of his ‘pure spirit’ (stanza 38). In terms of imagery, ‘The Duc De L’Omlette’ plays a complicated symbolic game using this Neo-Platonic body/soul motif. Yet as David Hirsch suggests ‘in this burlesque… [the soul’s] “transcendence” remains problematic’ (36). The first significant image is the ortolan (a small bird and antiquated delicacy) which is the cause of the Duc’s death. He cannot stomach that it has not been prepared properly, and dies in ‘a paroxysm of disgust’ (11). The ortolan has been imported from afar

A golden cage bore the little winged wanderer, enamored melting, indolent to the Chasusee D’Antin, from its home in far Peru. From its queenly possessor La Bellissima, to the Duc De L’Omelette, six peers of the empire conveyed the happy bird (11).

The image of the bird in the cage, mirrors the soul’s confinement within the body. As Hirsch remind us, the image of the immortal soul as bird was typically Romantic, exemplified in Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” – “Thou west not born for death, immortal bird” – and Shelley’s “To a Skylark” – “Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! / Bird thou never wert . . .” (37). Yet the fact that the bird arrives in a golden cage raises the question of whether Poe is satirising the Duc’s gaudy epicureanism, or in fact suggesting that the body is  the rightful domain of the soul. The Duc, in his refusal to accept the mistake in the ortolans preparation (it is served ‘sans papier’, without its proper culinary adornment) tacitly admits that he cannot accept the soul without the clothing of the body. This metafictional game continues when the Duc arrives in Hell, as the Devil orders him to strip. The Duc refuses to part with his clothes, the symbolic body surrounding his soul, ‘Strip, indeed! very pretty i’ faith! no, sir, I shall not strip’ (12). The Duc and the Devil eventually decide to play a game of cards to settle whether the epicure will reside in Hell for eternity, or return to his sensuous pleasures on earth. During the card game, again, the clothing of the Kings and Queens is frequently alluded to: ‘The cards are dealt. The trump is turned — it is — it is — the king! No — it was the queen. His Majesty cursed her masculine habiliments’ (15). Finally the Duc wins, his soul and body can remain coupled together as he returns to earth. As well as satirizing the Duc’s (and N.P Willis’) diehard epicureanism, what this tale demonstrates is Poe’s ability to parody themes that he would elsewhere treat with more apparent seriousness It also shows Poe’s erudition. Hirsch suggests that perhaps the most important aspect of The Duc de L’Omelette is that it shows Poe‘s ‘awareness of the visionary tradition in British Romantic poetry and of his willingness to take an anti-visionary stance’ (39). On the basis of small stories like this one, critics can confidently argue for more complex layers of meaning in the tales of terror.

IV. Duplicity, Parody, Ridicule

In ‘Hawthorne’s Plagiary; Poe’s Duplicity’ Robert Regan offers an interesting distinction between irony and duplicity:

The intention of the writer who employs irony is that the reader shall, perhaps after momentary difficulties, decipher his code; the intention of the writer who employs duplicity is that his code baffle as many readers as possible (294).

A good parody relies on a commitment to the exalted visions of a genre and a renegade impulse which mockingly dissolves such visions. We might cite Northanger Abbey as an example of a clever Gothic parody. The difference between Poe and Austen however (that is, if we take Poe’s acclaimed tales of terror to contain elements of parody) is that whereas Austen flags up her parodic games at every turn, Poe’s parodies of the Gothic are ‘duplicitous’ (in Regan’s sense) in that he didn’t want the reader to know what he was a up to. This results in style of writing that appears to be exemplary of the genre, and nothing more. Intriguingly, Poe’s very first attempts at the horror genre, in the unpublished Tales of the Folio Club, were in fact avowedly parodic. Tales of The Folio Club was originally intended as a series of burlesques commentaries on popular fictional genres; ‘Siope – A Fable’ and ‘Metzengerstein’, for instance, aped both the folk horror story, and the typical Germanic/Gothic romance, on the assumption that readers would share the joke. As a result of not finding a publisher for the book, Poe went about publishing each tale separately in a variety of different magazines. Without the extended burlesque vision of the collection, many readers began to interpret Poe’s stories as serious attempts at the horror genre. Subsequently, as Regan suggests ‘he seems to have decided to make the best of being misunderstood, if his audience would not laugh at his clownishness he would laugh at theirs’(295).

I suggest that the similarities between two of Poe’s stories shed light on his interest in parody. Although it was written six years after ‘The Fall of the House Usher’, ‘The System of Dr Tarr and Professor Fether’ seems written in reference to the former tale. Both are set in remote buildings in a desolate rural setting. Both buildings are associated with madness; the House of Usher is the setting for the mental collapse of Roderick Usher, the building in the latter tale is explicitly a madhouse. As B. F Fisher and Daniel Hoffman have both noted the narrator in each story arrives on horseback, before being stricken with feelings of dread and gloom on seeing the ominous buildings (Fisher 49). Indeed, both tales also end similarly, in crashing noise and destruction. The House of Usher collapses in on itself, whilst the System of Dr Tarr and Dr Fether also crashes in on itself, when the incarcerated keepers, tarred and feathered, break out of incarceration to prove that all along the mad have been masquerading as the sane. As the title suggests ‘The System of Dr Tarr and Professor Fether’ is about ridicule. The Parisian narrator (anonymous, as in ‘Usher’) is fascinated with a ‘madhouse’ in the French countryside chiefly because he has heard

that the institution of Monsieur Maillard was managed upon what is vulgarly termed the “system of soothing” – that all punishments were avoided – that even confinement ­ was seldom resorted to – that the patients, while secretly watched, were left much apparent liberty, and that most of them were permitted to roam about the house and grounds, in the ordinary apparel of persons in right mind.

The humour in ‘Tarr and Fether’ arises from not knowing who is sane and who is mad. Poe’s ambivalent claim seems to be that it is impossible to define true sanity when the sane and the mad reverse roles. I suggest we can interpret the narrator in this tale, curious as he is about madness and mystery, as a personification of what Poe perceived as his readership. In this respect, we can see the story as an allegory of the reader entering into the ostensibly unhinged madness of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, and Poe’s other tales of terror, with complete credulity.

Poe plays a multitude of literary and cryptographic games in ‘The Fall of The House of Usher’ that would have escaped the reader merely interested in the frisson of a chilling narrative. The principle motif in the story is the double. The examples are numerous. The physical decay of the House of Usher mirrors the decline of the Usher family; Roderick and Madeline Usher are twins, incestuously in love with one another. Each element in the tale has a mirror image somewhere else. Claudine Herrman and Nicholas Kostis have demonstrated how this system operates on a linguistic level by singling out the words used in the title;

The word House is employed both literally and figuratively. The author stresses this point: “An appellation which seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion.” … Although the name Usher really existed (the Ushers were Poe’s cousins) it was not chosen at random, for it comes from the French hussier which means introduction (36).

Observations like this one open up the complex possibilities of a relatively simple sentence such as ‘the Valet now threw open the door and ushered me into the presence of his master’(93). I suggest that it is the deciphering of this process of duplication that seems to be comically alluded to in the – appropriately – duplicated narrative of ‘The System of Dr Tarr and Professor Fether.’ In an elaborate system of mirrors and doubles Poe challenges the reader to solve him or be held up to ridicule.

V. Conclusions

I have tried to demonstrate in this paper that humour in the works of Edgar Allan Poe is a multifaceted aspect of his corpus and a vital requisite in a comprehensive analysis of his work. As we begin to trace the humour in his work it alerts us to his self awareness as a writer, more or less dispelling the myth of him as tortured genius, or worse, crank. Nightmarish aspects are often subtly underscored with jibes against intellectual fads and the moral failings he perceived in others. A certain fondness for grotesque satire and crude burlesque in Poe may be also a mechanism for shrouding more complex modes of thought. However, that is not to deny that he often exploited schadenfreude simply for the wicked pleasure of it. We can see many of the themes of Poe’s humour expanded in the ostensibly more serious tales. Poe’s delight in mystifying the reader, for example, is elaborated into the invention of a new genre – The Detective Story – through the Dupin tales. Poe’s dubious, ironic view of Neo-platonism and the transcendence of the soul as exemplified in ‘The Duc D L’Omelette’ again becomes a serious theme in ‘Ligiea.’

In ‘The Poetic Principle’ Poe has this to say about what the artist strives for:

He who shall simply sing, with however glowing enthusiasm, or with however vivid a truth of description …has yet failed to prove his divine title. There is still a something in the distance which he has been unable to attain. We have still a thirst unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star (455).

Poe is often accused by critics of avoiding reality in search of an ideal and ultimately specious artistic unity. ‘Aside from his art,’ writes Vernon Parrington, ‘he had no philosophy and no programs and no causes’ (57). What Parrington has failed to note however, is that only someone acutely aware of, indeed haunted by separation and disjunction could make so much of the principle of Unity (Justus 69). Poe’s comic works serve to reveal his sense of the underlying disorder in man and society.


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Felman, Shoshana. ‘On Reading Poetry; Reflections on the Limits and Possibilities of Psychoanalytical Approaches’. Edgar Allan Poe. Ed, Bloom, Harold. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.
Herrmann, Claudine & Kostis Nicholas. ‘”The Fall of the House of Usher” or The Art of Duplication’ Substance. Vol. 9, No. 1, Issue 26 (1980): 36-42
Hirsch, David. ‘”The Duc De L’Omelette” as Anti-Visionary Tale’. Poe Studies. Vol. X no. 2 (December 1977): 36-39
Huxley, Aldous. Vulgarity in Literature : Digressions From a Theme. London : Chatto and Windus, 1930.
Irwin, John. The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Justus, James. ‘Poe’s Comic Vision and South Western Humour’ in Lee, A Robert, ed. Edgar Allan Poe: The Design of Order. Barnes & Noble: London, 1987.
Kanjo, Eugene. “‘The Imp of the Perverse’: Poe’s Dark Comedy of Art and Death”. Poe Newsletter. Vol. II, No. 3 (October 1969): 41-44.
Krutch, Joseph Wood. Edgar Allan Poe: A Study in Genius. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell and Co, 1926.
Levine, Stewart, ed. Edgar Allan Poe Thirty Two Stories. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000.
Mooney, Stephen. ‘The Comic in Poe’s Fiction.’ American Literature 33 (1962):330- 340.
Parrington, Vernon. Main Currents in American Thought. Vol II. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1927.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings. London: Penguin, 2003.
—‘The Duc De L’Omelette.’ Edgar Allan Poe Thirty Two Stories. Ed, Levine, Stewart. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000.
—‘The Imp of The Perverse.’ Edgar Allan Poe Thirty Two Stories. Ed, Levine, Stewart. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000.
—“Lionizing”. Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry and Tales. Patrick F. Quinn, ed. New York: Library of America: 212-217
—“Pennington’s Steam Balloon” (A) The Evening Mirror (New York), February 12, 1845, p. 2, col. 3.
Rachman, Stephen. ‘Beyond The Problem of Poe’. The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe. Eds Rachman, Stephen & Rosenheim Shaun. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1995.
Regan, Robert. ‘Hawthorne’s Plagiary; Poe’s Duplicity’. Nineteenth Century American Fiction. Vol. 25, No. 3 (Dec., 1970): 281-298.
Trieber, J Marshall. ‘The Scornful Grin:A Study of Poesque Humour’. Poe Studies. vol. IV, no. 2 (December 1971): 32-34.
Zimmerman, Brett. Edgar Allan Poe: Rhetoric and Style. Quebec: Mcgill-Queen’s UP, 2005.



One Response to “Dark Laughter; Humour in The Works of Edgar Allan Poe”


  1. The Dissertation | Planet Edinburgh - April 6, 2014

    […] Follow this link if you want to read the dissertation. […]

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