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Madness and the Fear of Death in Poe

How Poe's characters exhibit madness and the fear of death and how they try to circumvent death

Poe?s madmen are all obsessed with death. Existence within reality eventually becomes impossible. Poe usually places his madmen within a room or other enclosure, but they are rarely ever outside. When we do come across an exterior, nature does its best to repress, confine and enclose the man. The protagonist in Poe?s ?The Assignation? sums up the combination of time and space within Poe?s stories and says, ?I have ? framed for myself ? a bower of dreams. Properties of place, and especially of time, are the bugbears which terrify mankind from the contemplation of the magnificent? (301). The mental state of the character produces the setting and atmosphere, which usually results in the manifestation of that which is feared. The character manipulates his environment and uses tangible buildings and their contents as talismans or charms to outwit death. However, while the madman may try to circumvent death, it is actually the experience of dying that he fears, and despite his best intentions, death comes anyway.
?The Cask of Admontillado? features the madman Montressor who seeks relief from his tormentor, and plans the perfect crime, ?to punish with impunity? (274). Montressor painstakingly formulates the plan to rid himself of Fortunato, his tactless and unsuspecting friend. The fact that the crime is detailed meticulously in ?Cask? is odd considering the narrator?s obsession with planning the perfect crime and his equal obsession with the absence
of detection. Does the anxious tone in the confession-like story indicate that Montressor falls victim to his own perfect crime and awaits execution? In his confession, Montressor explicitly indicates his intimate relationship with Fortunato and tells how he uses that familiarity to mock Fortunato once the entombment begins. Montressor?s intimacy only guarantees his success in ridding himself of his nemesis, and yet it is the same intimacy that affects Montressor adversely at the close of the tale. Montressor creates the bond of predator/prey with Fortunato, and revels in his success, but only to a point. Fortunato?s silence as Montressor lays the penultimate stone of the wall, despite Montressor?s entreaties for a reply, marks the onset of the narrator?s torment. In spite of his demand for a reply, ?there came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick---on account of the dampness of the catacombs? (Poe ?Cask? 279). Montressor identifies with Fortunato, and makes the connection between Fortunato?s silence and his own eventual silence in death. The silence of one man foretells the silence of the other, and even in madness, Montressor seems to acknowledge that while he can silence Fortunato, Death itself will have the last word. Montressor is free from Fortunato?s torment, but Poe?s hints at Montressor?s unstable conscience at the onset of his explanation. Montressor insinuates, ?[y]ou, who so well know the nature of my soul? can only indicate that he has replayed the crime many times since its completion, and that in spite of his glee at his success, he prayer ?In pace requiescat? may be more for himself that for Fortunato.
In ?The Fall of the House of Usher,? Roderick Usher has not left his house in years. He barricades himself in his rooms and insulates himself with layers of books, music, art and the ancient atmosphere of his mansion to prevent the inevitable descent into madness predetermined by his ancestry. Mark Kinkead-Weekes discusses the house as the catalyst to madness, saying ?all the family had lived in the building, and none has lived without it? (57). Usher is hyper-conscious of his own past and the madness of his ancestors and understands the inescapable nature of his demise. He tells the narrator, ??I shall perish,? said he, ?I must perish in this deplorable folly. Thus, thus, and not otherwise, shall I be lost?? (?Usher? 235). Weekes continues that Usher?s ?capacity for sensation has become not only unnatural, but morbid,? and adds that, ?his over-developed senses have made him helplessly vulnerable? (22). It is Usher?s fear of the sensual experience of death that paralyzes him, considering that he suffers ?from a morbid acuteness of the senses? (?Usher? 235). Everything save ?the most insipid food ? garments of certain texture? etc., ?inspire him with horror? (235), and the disastrous consequences he is sure to face simply because ?response to anything, especially fear, is sure to result in his own doom? (Weekes 23). I the ?odors of all flowers were oppressive? (?Usher 235), what chance has Usher to fight against his fear of the stench of the grave?
Additionally, Usher is horrified by his sister?s wasting away and eventual demise, and he fears suffering the same fate since ?sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between them? (?Usher? 240). His preservation of Madeline in the crypt under the house is the ?product of a refusal to confront death? (Kennedy 199), both hers and eventually his own. Usher suffers from ?paralysis due to death anxiety? and it is the paralysis that keeps him teetering between madness and sanity (200). While it is sanity that will save Usher from the terrible fate of his ancestors, it is the final confrontation with the image of Madeline?s corpse that pushes him over the brink into the abyss. It is here that Usher?s madness is beyond question. In spite of his attempts to avoid death and its inevitability, the ?House of Usher? collapses along with its owner, and the ancestral curse is fulfilled.
The fear of an atrocious and agonizing death in ?The Masque of the Red Death? motivate Prince Prospero to take his court away from the city where the plague ?had long devastated the country? (Poe ?Masque? 269). The narrator continues that ?[n]o pestilence had been ever so fatal, or so hideous [?] and the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease were the incidents of half an hour? (269). As in ?Usher,? the main character grapples with the anxiety of an anticipated death, and the agonies that accompany it. The valiant Prince Prospero removes himself and his courtiers to a country abbey and seals the gates so that ?with such precautions [they] might bid defiance to contagion? (?Masque? 269). In ?Masque,? however, the inseparable nature of life and death in the human experience is more obvious that in Poe?s other stories. Prospero?s guests are describes as ?delirious fancies such as the madman fashions,? and his decorations are of such excess that ?there are some who would have thought him mad? (271). Prospero?s anxiety is mirrored by his guests as the entire entourage stops cold at each striking of the clock, and the ?nervousness and folly? of each guest at the physical manifestation of man?s mortality does little to reassure his neighbor (270). Despite Prospero?s best intentions, the ?pestilence is already within the place of sanctuary? (Kennedy 194). It is appropriately at midnight that the uninvited mummer shows himself. Despite its ghastly and horrible appearance, Prospero pursues the intruder in order to unmask it, and the irony presents itself in his pursuit of the very thing he seeks to evade. It is only when all fall victim to the plague that we realize the significance of the welded shut doors of the abbey. In order to ?isolate themselves from contagion? (Kennedy 201), Prospero and his guests instead construct their own tomb. In the shadow of the stopped clock, inside the maze of rooms sealed off from the outside world, the madman again cannot escape death.
Montressor, Usher and Prospero are all enslaved by a morbid emotional and psychological instability, which results in their inability to process their own mortality. In their attempts to outwit death and avoid the existential questions, their self-centeredness and diversionary tactics only heighten their anxiety about death, and increase the speed with which they exit reality. With each step they take, Poe?s characters rapidly remove themselves from rationality and the real world, while their salvation also departs from them at the same pace. Prospero?s desperate effort to avoid the plague only results in Death presenting itself to the madman in a mocking and sardonic form more horrible than the original. Usher?s impotence at preventing the manifestation of his ancestors? curse is compounded by his utter inability to leave the house that drams him and his sister into the very madness he dreads. For Montressor, the perfect crime simply becomes an implacable reminder of his own stunted humanity and eventual demise. Ultimately, Poe?s madmen choose the method and means of their own deaths. Sadly, their every attempt to avoid death results in death anyway, made worse by the terrifying and maddening suspense which precedes it.

Works Cited

Kennedy, J. Gerald. ?Metamorphoses of Shadow.? Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing. Boston: Yale University Press, 1987. 177-214.
Kinkead-Weekes, Mark. ?Reflections On, and In ?The Fall of the House of Usher.?? Edgar Allan Poe: The Design of Order. Ed. A Robert Lee. New Jersey: Barnes & Noble Books, 1987. 17-65.

Poe, Edgar Allan. ?The Assignation.? The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Hervey Allen. New York: Parkway Printing Company, 1938. 293-302.
Poe, Edgar Allan. ?The Cask of Admontillado.? The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Hervey Allen. New York: Parkway Printing Company, 1938. 274-79.

Poe, Edgar Allan. ?The Fall of the House of Usher.? The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Hervey Allen. New York: Parkway Printing Company, 1938. 231-45.

Poe, Edgar Allan. ?The Masque of the Red Death.? The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Hervey Allen. New York: Parkway Printing Company, 1938. 269-73.

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