The Life of Edgar Allan Poe and a Depiction of His Sad Life in His Literature The Raven and The Black Cat
Edgar Allan Poe lived quite a difficult life, and this shows through his bodies of work. His poems and short stories were based on his life. Themes such as death, suffering, loneliness, love, and guilt are found throughout his work. He used his writings as a type of therapy, which was both good and bad. His mental state was rather poor, and it is definitely reflected within his writings, especially in three of his most popular writings. One of his writings was, “The Raven.” It expressed Poe’s feelings of loneliness and love, which he experienced a lot in his life due to the deaths of people he loved. It did not stop there, in fact it continued until he died. Another one of his writings was, “The Black Cat” which expressed guilt and an inability to overcome what one has done.
Poe’s troubles began before he was born. His mother had contracted tuberculosis while she was pregnant with him, and she never fully recovered her health. Then, Poe’s father David abandoned the family when Poe was only nine months old. This left his wife, Elizabeth with three children in the 1800s, and it extremely affected all of them. The Poes’ encountered poverty and their health issues continued. Elizabeth’s health only worsened when she had to support herself and her three young children.
Elizabeth battled tuberculosis for a number of years before passing away in December of 1811. This affected Poe extremely, he even spent the entire night with his dead mother, which scarred his psyche from a very young age. According to Poe, tuberculosis was his family’s disease and it did continue to haunt him throughout his life. Poe would witness tuberculosis claim the lives of many women important to him. Following his mother’s death, Poe and his siblings were split up into foster care with different families. After dealing with abandonment issues as the result of his father’s departure, the loss of his mother to illness, and being split from his siblings, Poe’s mental state was already destroyed. Poe’s suffering, however, was not over.
Poe was lucky to be placed with a very nice family – John and Frances Allan – but unfortunately, Frances was prone to suffer from tuberculosis just like his mother did. John, however, was nothing like David. John wanted the best for Poe and tried to give him the money he needed to allow him to follow his dreams. However, when John paid for Poe to go to school, it ended up being a poor situation, leaving Poe to turn to gambling and drinking which led even further to debt.
In the 1800s, debts, especially large debts, often resulted in jail time. A person with debts had very few options but one was joining the army. The fear of not being able to pay off his debts caused Poe to join the army in 1827. Poe regretted enlisting in the army almost immediately because his first volume of poetry was published shortly thereafter. Inspired by being published, Poe turned to John for help getting discharged so that he could pursue his career in writing. John was able to help Poe with his discharge, but it changed their relationship. From then on Poe and John argued about finances until John remarried and Poe was completely cut off. Although John and Poe were able to reconcile somewhat, when John died, he left nothing in his Will to Poe.
Left on his own, Poe was lucky to find a job as an editor. However, Poe could not escape his problems with drinking and his editor’s job was at risk. Eventually, a problem with counterfeit banknotes caused Poe to lose his editor position which, in turn, caused Poe to suffer from depression. Poe’s private life also contributed to his drinking problem and depression. In 1836, Poe married his fourteen year old cousin Virginia Clemm. Their marriage was plagued with illness. Both Poe and Virginia were continuously ill, which triggered Poe to drink more heavily especially the more Virginia got sick. This made him neglect his work, and when Virginia passed away in 1847, Poe’s poems became more and more dark. Virginia’s death affected him so much so, that he was quoted saying “I shall hardly last a year longer, alone!”” (Giammarco 4).
One of Poe’s most famous poems is “The Raven”. In this poem there are themes of madness, loneliness, and love. “The Raven” takes place late in the middle of a cold December night. Awoken by a tapping sound on his window, the narrator is forced to confront himself. Alone in the dark, he speaks directly to the darkness in an effort to understand what is happening to him and why. He stands there waiting for an answer but “the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token, And the only word there was spoken was the whispered word, ‘Lenore?’ This I whispered, and echo murmured back the word, ‘Lenore!’ – Merely this and nothing more” (Poe 27-30). Lenore is the narrator’s recently deceased wife. The correlation to the love Poe lost with the death of his wife is obvious but the deeper meaning is the cruel loss of love Poe felt when his mother died and the utter loneliness he feels due to that loss.
The reader is then introduced to the raven. The poem states that the raven entered and “Perched, and sat, and nothing more” (Poe 42). The only word spoken by the raven is, “Nevermore” (Poe 48). Even when the narrator mutters to himself, the raven’s response is “Nevermore” (Poe 60). Although the raven only speaks one word, it brings out the narrator’s true feelings and his inner turmoil over the love he has lost.
The themes of self-torture, loneliness and love run throughout the poem. Clearly, the narrator is Poe himself and the darkness is a reflection of his own life and mind. Shanna Dhahir wrote an enlightening article about The Raven and how it connects to Poe. Dhahir states the most meaningful connection perfectly, “The story that Poe remained with his mother’s corpse for a whole night in December 1811 has often been cited as a childhood trauma which have contributed to the emotional collapse…” (Dhahir 4). The Raven is set during the month of December; the month when his mother died. The confusion of the narrator and his search for an answer from anything, even darkness and a raven is believed to be based on what was going on inside Poe’s mind when his mother died. Poe was so young and he sat alone with her dead body for an entire night that it, of course, left a deep scar on his psyche.
Poe’s decision to have the narrator’s wife die, rather than the narrator’s mother, is also important. Poe is expressing that the feelings one experiences after losing a loved one are raw and unyielding. It does not matter if you are a child or an adult with a greater capacity to “understand” death. The pain and loneliness transcend rational thought and wound the very core of our existence. This is why Poe places his feelings caused by the loss of the two of the most important women in his life, even though there were years apart, into one poem. Dhahir explains, “The sorrow which the man in “The Raven” undergoes following the death of his beloved Lenore also has its parallel in Poe’s personal life, namely his grief over the loss of his young wife, Virginia, who like his mother, died of consumption, or what is now known as tuberculosis” (Dhahir 5).
Finally, the invasive, unrelenting and unresponsive nature of the raven speaks to Poe’s thoughts on death. Death comes uninvited into our lives, disturbs our peace, and haunts our every thought. Making matters worse, the feelings caused by death can leave a person feeling isolated and confused. The Raven reveals what is perhaps Poe’s greatest fear; being alone, truly alone and without love. This is a primal fear that I believe we all share even if we do not admit it.
One of Poe’s most famous short stories, “The Black Cat” centers on guilt. The story begins with the narrator explaining that he is scheduled to die the next day but refusing to why or the background for his statements. The narrator discusses his cat; his rather large, beautiful, solid black cat. The cat is called Pluto. The narrator and the cat are best friends the cat follows him everywhere. However, the narrator is an alcoholic who gets very angry at everyone. His anger and rage starts grow out of control and he starts to mistreat his wife and their other animals. The narrator, however, spares Pluto from his tantrums. But addiction to alcohol and uncontrolled anger are like a spark and a dry forest; a deadly combination.
One night the narrator comes home extremely drunk and believes that Pluto (a cat) is ignoring him. Annoyed, the narrator grabs Pluto and, in self-defense, Pluto bites him. The narrator becomes enraged and cuts out one of Pluto’s eyes. After a night of rest, the narrator is sober and is horrified by what he did to Pluto but not enough to make him stop drinking. THe narrator rationalizes his actions and blames Pluto for making the narrator act. The close bond between Pluto and the narrator is broken and forever changed. Now, Pluto avoids the man all the time.
Irrationally, the narrator refuses to recognize the consequences of his own actions and, instead of being remorseful, he gets irritated by Pluto’s behavior. Again seized by anger, the narrator punishes Pluto by hanging the cat’s food from a tree. That same night the house burns down. Although the narrator’s family survives, he thinks that Pluto died in the fire. This is when Poe introduces the reader to guilt.
A month after the fire, the narrator sees a cat that is so similar to Pluto, but this one has a white patch on his chest. This cat then follows him home and the narrator wants to like the cat but his feelings of guilt for Pluto give him pause. Eventually, the guilt causes the narrator to hate the “new” cat. But the similarities, down to the missing eye, makes the narrator fear the cat. The cat is a direct reminder of his crime against Pluto to him. Anger again gets the better of the narrator and he attempts to kill the cat with an axe. Unfortunately the wife tries to get in the middle of it and the man ends up killing his wife. He then hides the body behind a wall in the basement.
After this happens the cat goes missing for three days but the man does not lose sleep over the cat missing. However on the fourth day of the cat missing the police show up asking questions about the disappearance of his wife. As they are investigating the house the man sells himself out by checking on the wall he rebuilt after hiding his dead wife behind it. He ends up tapping on the wall and it sounds hollow giving himself away right to the police.
This story is really deep when one thinks about it. This story focuses on the fact that the narrator is a drunk. When one is drunk they are a different person, which some believe reflect upon Poe’s own life. The story shows that drunk actions are really the true thoughts of a sober person. Robert Shulman wrote an article on Poe and the powers of the mind. Robert brings a up a very smart point to what Poe expresses through the story. He states, “Poe also dramatizes his insights into the unconscious tendency of the mind to protect itself by rigidly suppressing threatening inner forces” (Shulman 155). Expressing the fact that although the mind might come up with thoughts that are completely gruesome our body tries to deny that type of mindset.
One’s mind even tries to convince itself that even when one does a horrible action is reasoned for. This leaves one uneasy and struggling with the act that one has done. When one drinks the subconscious really comes to life. After letting out the thoughts of the subconscious it does not allow one to forget what they have done and the guilt grows so much that one ends up telling what one did. This story seems to reflect Poe’s view of himself that when he drinks he acts out, and that it has destroyed his own psyche more than it already was. The guilt eats up one’s inside until it becomes too much that the truth has to come out.
When looking at Edgar Allan Poe’s works, one thing is constant. It is dark. It is meant scare the reader because it puts that person into the mind of someone demented and damaged. Considering everything that Poe went through – whether it be the loss of his mother or his own experiences with alcohol or depression – it is very reasonable to believe that he has inserted himself into these characters. Through each word he’s written, and every deranged plot point he has created, he gave his readers a piece of his own private life. This is true with a lot of artists. They express themselves through their work. Their work is the artistic embodiment of themselves as human beings. Through “The Raven” and “The Black Cat” and so many other works Poe published, his following is able to see what type of person he was, and it is a sad and depressing picture, indeed.