I highly recommend reading Poe’s short work, before enjoying my analysis of it.
The Imp of the Perverse first appeared in Graham’s Magazine (Philadelphia), Vol. XXVII July, 1845. Although no original manuscript has been found, there had been several published revisions between 1845 and 1850. The later works were thought to have undergone such substantive alteration that they were no longer akin to Poe’s principal writing. The Imp was written as a work of prose, or written language which does not adhere to specific metrical, or rhythmic organization. For all of its turbulent intensity, this exacting profile of human nature remains one of Poe’s lesser known works.
Edgar Allan Poe’s tale is written as a narrative in the first person. By employing this type of narration, Poe creates an immediately intimate relationship between the reader and the narrator, eliminating any perception of withdraw from the narrative, to the effect that even the most casual reader becomes bridled to its progression. And, although written as a work of prose, Poe has taken much care in structuring an impetuous rhythm which becomes essential in conducting his reader through emotional and rational contrasts. The opening text reads quite academically, and its framework, if somewhat challenging, remains markedly rational. Indeed, the first three paragraphs represent more the qualities of a psychological treatise than a work of literary fiction. The sentences within this opening essay are, at times, inflated to the very brink of cumbrousness. Yet, rather than muddle, they propel the reader along at a comfortable pace, and their placid spread seems well-founded in logic. The narrator’s reasonable demeanor to this point, as well as his linguistic sophistication, serve to establish rationality, which will soon come into some question. The fourth paragraph signals an abrupt cleavage from the scholarly voice of prior. Thus begins an illustration of the perverseness to which the reader has just been extensively enlightened.
Three examples, of escalating force and intensity, are represented with an urgency and anxiety that is nothing short of unnerving. Poe’s sentences remain somewhat long-winded at times throughout all three examples. Nonetheless, his verboseness assumes a much different role in this latter portion of the tale. The protracted run of each sentence drives the narrator, along with his reader, evermore rapidly toward the next. Additionally, Poe punctuates these embellished sentences with concise and assertive phrases, successively bursting forward to amplify the reader’s concern. The momentous thrust of the prose builds as each example of the Imp reaches its climax, at which point the reader is plunged into the proceeding edification with a startlingly sudden and compacted finale. Only during the development of the next illustration is the reader given respite from the ardent emotionalism; even so, the relief is fleeting.
Following the third example of the Imp, the narrator volunteers, with notable contrast to the previous rapid prolixity, a comparatively terse summary of the murder that he committed for the benefit of a large inheritance. In this instance, the unusual brevity and languor detracts the reader’s attention from what one would otherwise assume to be the evidence of his perverseness, the murder. However, in light of the calculated and rational fashion with which he describes his processes – and the temperate, collected, manner of the narrative – one must conclude that the Imp could not have had a hand in the narrator’s transgression. Thus far, perverseness has been espoused with irrationality, and, when detailing its authority over man, Poe has authored his prose with a frenzied velocity, a pace clearly not present in the recounting of his narrator’s crime. However, the relative unhurriedness is all but enduring, and the haste soon returns as the Imp overpowers the narrator’s logic. The narrative parallels the accelerating stride of the prose. The narrator’s voice becomes charged and angst ridden as he loses hold of himself and struggles against the pressure to confess. The same tectonic structure of prose that was given to the illustrative dissertations now begins to undulate once again. Compressed and pulsating phrases create rapid forward progression, and a certain unctuousness returns to these final exhausting sentences. The scale of The Imp of the Perverse, in its entirety, conforms to Poe’s cannon that a literary creation should take no more than one half to two hours of a reader’s time. Yet, the substance of this work is composed with imposing structure, one befitting of a much more extended tale. This deliberate contradiction furthers the paradoxical nature of the material within its pages. Moreover, Poe creates urgency and instability by intentionally cramping his relatively long-winded prose within such a confined vessel. The result is an anxious and claustrophobic narrative, one that delivers all of the Romantic emotion typical of Edgar Allan Poe with bewildering pace and exhaustingly dramatic oscillation.
Against the light of Edgar Allen Poe’s most celebrated works – classics such as The Raven, and The Telltale Heart – The Imp of the Perverse seems perceptibly less bizarre and fantastic. In large part, The Imp more closely resembles a psychological and moral treatise than a tale of the supernatural. Poe’s tale takes form as the anonymously voiced narrative of a presumably rational, and markedly erudite, murder. The reader, however, is not granted knowledge of the narrator’s moral indiscretions until the work draws near its close. Rather, what constitutes the heft of The Imp of the Perverse, is an essay concerning the human characteristic for which it is titled. The narrator begins by highlighting the shortcomings of the current medical, scientific, and religious worlds in explaining that which in human behavior is known as perverseness. The principles of phrenology are discussed and disputed at some length before delving into three examples that pose vividly convincing illustrations of perverseness. In the paragraphs leading to these evidentiary cases, Poe has furnished his narrator an academic, if not pedantic, tone–one that teeters on the brink of ostentatious, yet remains in check by periodic allusion to his own lack of understanding of the “propensity” to which he speaks.
The first, and most innocent, of the Imp’s influences refers to an act of circumlocution. The narrator alludes to the tantalizing desire for impressing a listener with unnecessary and convoluted linguistics, such that contempt is evoked for the speaker’s embroideries. Certainly, this seems an appropriate nod to the prolixity of the narrator’s previous dissertation. Next, and yet more dramatically potent, perverseness is reflected in the desire to procrastinate. Poe employs a vocabulary and rhythm that projects all of the frantic tension of time rapidly waning in the approach of an impending deadline. The immediacy with which the task must be accomplished only provokes abhorrence for the difficulty of its completion. Only after passage of the final second does this loathsome tendency subside, yet it is too late. Finally, in Poe’s most arresting, and panicked depiction, the reader is held precariously at cliff’s edge contemplating the prying urge to experience that which would surely end in demise. Within a torrent of emotional and rational conflict, the narrator describes that carnal hunger to test ones mortality and the soundness of mind that fuels such contradictory curiosities. The reader is suspended by a fine thread of cognizance, and only just persuaded to recede. Once fully satisfied that he has enunciated this human inclination in full, the narrator then offers justification for the introductory essay and acquaints the reader to his current condition, restrained and imprisoned. With a remorseless calm, the narrator recounts the process by which he ingeniously poisoned his victim with a nocuous candle. Having successfully avoided detection, he enjoys a rather extended period of delight, not only in the inheritance that he had acquired, but in his assuredly steadfast freedom. Yet, his inner revelry eventually leads to the summons of perverseness, and he is briefly nudged by the thought of confessing his crime. The notion mounts to a state of hysteria. Soon, running through the streets of a crowded square, Poe’s narrator succumbs to his emotions. He bellows his tormented secret to the public and is arrested forthwith. Apparently sentenced to execution, the narrator leaves the reader with a final sentiment of profundity, referring to the question of dualism and lie after death. The turbulence of this tale illuminates the balance of morality, logic, and emotion, and the competition between all of these innately human properties. At times they work in harmony to produce behavior that is justified, both from within and among the surrounding world. Yet, more often than not, they are at odds, even antagonistic to one another’s influence.
The Imp of the Perverse is asking a few particularly difficult and introspective questions of its reader, and perhaps its author as well. Is morality a force independent of intellect and reason? Can moral behavior be explained by an adherence to religious doctrine? Is human nature inherently sordid, or is it that humans are amoral beings whose self-contradiction leads to the defiance of installed beliefs? The Imp of the Perverse is an amoral character in Poe’s tale. Its intent is neither beneficent nor wholly unrighteous; it is merely an innate reaction to one’s logic. If logic would suggest that one push, perverseness compels one to pull. Thus, perverseness is the diametric counterpart to rationality. Poe describes a “mobile without motive, a motive not motiviert.” Yet, throughout The Imp, perverseness is, indeed, emboldened by the very logic that it contradicts. Therefore, perverseness becomes dependent on one’s reasoning. Moreover, emotional intensity surmounts in positive correlation with perverseness. Increased emotion, in turn, invokes one’s rationality in an effort to quell impulsivity. As the cycle follows, more reasoning only leads to stronger pressure from perverseness, and one surrenders logic to its antithetical counterpart. Yet perverseness, in and of itself, is not necessarily maleficent. For instance, the narrator’s decidedly immoral behavior is calculated, preconceived, and logical, free from emotionalism or irrational volatility, unmarked by perverseness. However, a single impulse – a whim of self-doubt – affords an environment wherein perverseness can thrive. His logic would mandate that he continue to imprison his secret, but perverseness would not have it. It was not morality – doing right for right’s sake – that brought him to confess the murder; instead, it was a propensity to defy his own well founded reasoning. Poe also discredits religion’s role in man’s predilections for moral or immoral behavior. In such that one cannot truly determine God’s presence in the physical world, it stands that God cannot be accredited for the qualities and tendencies of that which is immaterial either. All of this points to the incomprehensibly intricate processes of human behavior, and that there are certain individuals whom – for better or for worse – have an ingrained compulsion toward non-conformity. The Imp of the Perverse extols the logical and emotional paradoxes of human nature. Poe exhibits, through an exceedingly sheer veil, the characteristics of his person and, indeed, of so many others, that propel one to act against better judgment. Perverseness may lead one to undermine morality, to harm one another, and to betray oneself. Yet, this very same proclivity may account for the achievements of those who stray from a prescribed course to chase an ambition, it can sponsor justice, it can right past wrongs. Perverseness is a dynamic, loosely harnessed vigor, the spark of successes and the assault of failures, the very intricacy of the human existence.
That The Imp of the Perverse is a hallmark of Romantic American literature is incontrovertible. It offers but a grain of restraint, submerged within the depths of a sea of passion. All of the excitement and fury of the burgeoning era runs, unobstructed, through the veins of Edgar Allan Poe’s writing, and Poe himself was the personification of the Gothic Romantic. He was born a Bostonian in 1809 to parents whose lives were the theater. His mother, an accomplished actress, died of probable pneumonia in 1811. Poe’s father, David Jr., held a sporadic and mediocre career on the stage, and his alcoholism, irritability, and impulsivity ultimately led to the desert of his family shortly after the birth of his youngest child. He is rumored to have passed away in 1810. Thus, at the age of three, Edgar Allan Poe had lost both of his parents and was being raised by an affluent couple in Richmond, Virginia. The ripple of melancholy would never dissipate from his life.
Poe seemed to have inherited a few of his less than distinguishing traits from his biological father, and his literature is often thematic of his manner. The Imp’s dramatic contests between intellect and irrationality are vivid reflections of Poe’s inherent capriciousness. His struggles with alcoholism stand testament. Poe’s drinking was said to have been in effort of self-medication. In his own words, “My sensitive temperament could not stand an excitement which was an every-day matter to my companions” (Bloom p.18). Likewise, these temperaments – to which he here refers and later identifies as “melancholy” and “nerves” – clearly manifest as the tumultuous, wavering rhythm of The Imp of the Perverse. It is possible that Poe’s own psychological difficulties bolstered his interests in the blossoming medical sciences of the 19th century. During this time, the practice of phrenology – a form of psychoanalysis premised upon reading the contours of ones skull – had attained notable credibility. For a time, Poe had accepted some facets of the practice; however, his moral philosophies would later gave rise to skepticism. Poe’s ultimate judgment of phrenology as unsound is evidenced by his exclusion of its reference from the tales, The Black Cat, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Most notably, however, is the extended criticism of phrenology in The Imp of the Perverse. Poe believed that phrenology fell short of disentangling morality and intellect. For Poe, morality stemmed from an entirely separate proclivity, independent of reason.
Thus, despite an individual’s moral identity (a posteriori), irrationality could lead them to moral decay. Likewise, even a person of well-founded reason (a priori) could become wrought by depravity. Lastly, as a man whose virtues were borne within his labors, Poe exalts his stubborn unconformity – one that is so distinctively Irish – throughout the breadth of his literature, The Imp of the Perverse notwithstanding. It is the drive to pursue one’s spirit, to listen to one’s emotion despite what predetermined path might be most logical, to cast aside convention in favor of conviction. That essentially Irish penchant denotes, by no minor coincidence, the term perverseness.
(The following is my personal, emotional, and intellectual, response to The Imp of the Perverse)
Unwarranted obsession, self-induced overreaching anxiety, invasive antagonistic irrationality, all are inclinations that lie within my known repertoire of psychological capacities. These qualities are, at times, the scourge of my existence; yet, in the same breath they become the fuel that drives my successes. At any given moment, I may be actively wrestling an intrinsic and unnerving angst, meanwhile embracing the maddened intensity for its power to compel my motivation. The Imp of the Perverse is a keyhole, proffering a glimpse into my own antithetic battles between reason and the passionate absurdity which ever vies for its turn at the reigns. Poe’s tale substantiates within me these inexorable tendencies.
As I am barreled through the prose, its throbbing, descriptive irrationality incites the very devices that propagate what I would label my own obsessive compulsive anxieties. Yet, despite the inescapable vexation that accompanies this compulsive angst in actuality, a veneer of fictitiousness tempers what would otherwise be quite an unpleasant experience. To the contrary, I am left with an air of justification. That any turmoil I have felt has been only vicarious, becomes an almost comforting reminder of the commonality of perverseness. Perhaps the only propensity with which I do not relate is that of procrastination. However, I do possess a decidedly irrational dread of procrastinating, such that the image rendered by the narrator becomes an inverse reflection of my own and serves to ignite distress as if I had committed some unthinkable act of deferment.
The most notably relevant of the Imp’s influence on my own psychology is its provocation at the very instant of a merely fleeting thought. So many of my own anxieties are aroused by the most random and insignificant notions, conceptions that materialize with no apparent purpose other than to instigate a trivial worry. The unrest builds, its vigor strengthened by my own attempts to quash it, often in vain. I have no significant superstitions, nor am I a markedly spiritual man, but I find it interestingly coincidental that I should have chosen this particular tale from all of Poe’s works. I know that many of Poe’s tales speak to similar notions of irrationality bordering insanity, yet The Imp of the Perverse seems an unusually tailored fit. The assault of every stampeding line, the furious climaxes within the Imp’s illustrations, and the jolting plunge of their ultimate indulgence, all found disturbing parallels to my own behavior. Perhaps these feelings are universally rooted somewhere in us all. Nonetheless, my own experiences with The Imp of the Perverse lay as close to the surface of my being as they do its narrator’s and, indeed, its author’s. Lastly, I must admit that the circuitous narrative, and somewhat antiquated vocabulary, presented a challenge in formulating a sincere response to the preliminary readings. Not until I was relatively familiar with the rhythm of the prose was I able to concentrate on how the tale affected me. However, once this familiarity had been attained, my impressions became quite conspicuous.
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Poe, Edgar Allan, 1809-1849. “The Imp of the Perverse.” Complete Tales and Poems. New York: Vintage Books, 1975. Book
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The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore – The Life and Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, 1997. Web. 5 Nov. 2014, from http://www.eapoe.org/
Quinn, Arthur Hobson, 1875-1960. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. Book.