Poe and the Genius of Invention
Edgar Allan Poe introduced the Gothic genre to American literature, but molding the medium in a highly original way that was to become distinctively American (Punter 172). Up to that point the Gothic mode has been applied to novels, as we find in British and continental examples. Poe applied it to the short story, and in the process came up with a number of highly original forms. His tales build up high levels of suspense in a short space, and then allow terror and chaos to explode in the climax. Among the many sub-genres that he has inspired, we consider two, namely the allegorical horror story and the detective tale, and as examples of each, “The Masque of Red Death” and “The Purloined Letter” respectively. Gothic literature aims to confront the dark corners of the human psyche (Cavallaro 12). As it has evolved in England and the continent, it was a corrective to the literary movement known as Romanticism, which emphasizes the spontaneous expression of feeling, as opposed to the cold rationalism of the Enlightenment. Romanticism focused on the bright and upbeat aspects of human emotion, while Gothic took into its purvey the opposite (Hayes 161). For example, it considered the propensities towards hatred and evil, and of the inevitability of decay and death. The protagonists in Poe’s horror stories are usually in denial of their own darker selves, and face horrific consequences as a result. In “The Masque of Red Death” we find an allegory of this very theme. The wealthy noble Prospero believes that he can evade a deadly plague by fortifying himself in a well-equipped vault, but Death catches up with him in person. In contrast to the horror story is the detective genre, where we see a private sleuth making sense of death and evil in the process of solving murder or crime mysteries. In “The Purloined Letter” the criminal villain is apprehended by C. Auguste Dupin simply through his intelligent anticipation of the criminal mind. Both these stories tackle Gothic themes, i.e. they focus the dark side of human nature. But the former story preserves mystery, while the latter aims to understand and control.
The one point of similarity between the two stories is that both take their themes to be death and evil, or the darker side of human nature. In “The Masque of Red Death” this is explicitly so, for the character described as ‘Red Death’ is nothing other than death in person. We know this because after Prospero collapses to his death, the remaining guests see only a costume masque without any body within it. Prospero and his invited guests believed that they could hide their inner terror by wearing masques of gaiety amidst “voluptuous scene[s]”, just as they had hid themselves through fortifications from the plague beyond (Poe, Poetry and Tales, 485). But they are confounded when Death itself appears in a masque. Instead of death we have the evil personification of Minister D. in “The Purloined Letter”, who Dupin apprehends by guessing where he has kept the letter he uses for blackmail. Dupin describes his adversary as a “poet and mathematician” which only serves to emphasize determined nature of his villainy (Poe, Tales, 194).
The major difference between the two stories is regarding the preservation or resolution of mystery. Prospero believed that his wealth was sufficient to guard him against the ravages of the plague. After a few months he finds himself unscathed in his highly fortified recess. But he feels no pity for the multitudes that are dying outside, thinking that “[t]he external world could take care of itself” (Poe, Poetry and Tales, 485). Instead he begins to harbor metaphysical arrogance that he has held back Death itself, and it is cause for gay celebration in his secluded abundance. But Prospero has not triumphed over death, and at the festival Death appears in person as a masked guest. The mystery of death is compounded when we realize further that the tale is an allegory. On the other hand, in his detective tale, though mystery is made the premise, it is solved in the end, and thus evil is overcome. “Simple and odd” is how Dupin summarizes the problem for the benefit of the Prefect of Police, emphasizing the purely intellectual nature of the problem (Poe, Tales, 183). Poe is eager to demonstrate that evil and violence may be averted through the prowess of the mind alone.
A further difference is regarding the presence and absence of symbolism. “The Masque of Red Death” is rich in symbolism, which serves to emphasize the aspect of mystery. Prospero has furnished his castellated abbey, but without knowing it he has only laid his own deathtrap. There are seven rooms in succession, and each is decorated so that it beams only one color. The final room is furnished black, with a scarlet window indicating that Death will meet Prospero here. In fact the masked Death pursues him through all the rooms before Prospero does indeed collapse to his death in the last. The different colors denote the different stages of life, and the symbolic message is that death has always pursued the lord in close proximity, and so his arrogance is misplaced. In contrast to this there is hardly any symbolism in “The Purloined Letter”. The lucid and analytical mind of Dupin makes the intention of the villain plain and clear, which is enough to thwart his designs.
In conclusion, both the stories “The Masque of Red Death” and “The Purloined Letter” have Gothic themes at their centers. However, the former is more conventionally Gothic, and therefore preserves the mystery of evil and death. The latter tale is only derived from the principal Gothic strand, and indeed makes way for a totally new genre, that came to be known by the epithet “detective”. The object of such tales is to overcome the mystery inherent in death and evil, which is by the plain powers of the intellect alone. Here lies the significant difference between the two tales.
Cavallaro, Dani. The Gothic Vision. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005.
Hayes, Kevin J. The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Poetry and Tales. Ed. Patrick Francis Quinn. New York: Library of America, 1984.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Tales. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.
Punter, David. The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions. London: Longman, 1996.