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September 29, 2012 / Vandita

Masquerading Criminals and the Gothic Panoptic Democracy: Poe’s Tales and the Unravelling of American Trauma

Heroes cleaved from the vestiges of gentility – smouldering with the derridum of the nameless, forsaken abused – stripped off the right to be human people the pages of Edgar Allan Poe’s fiction. Brought up by slaves, disinherited by his foster father, Poe tunnelled into the world of desperadoes – social outcasts, the marginalized natives and the African slaves – to dramatize their story of struggle for freedom in the face of brutal unletting violence. Tale after tale that Poe penned chronicled the pain and the anguish of the mass of humanity in America in the eighteenth and the nineteenth century whose crime was the crime of being non-White. He spoke for those for whom social, cultural or political redress was impossible and Gothic became his chosen genre. Gothic’s weave of supernatural terror and crime enabled its writer to explore, probe and analyse explosive and subversive issues without the fear of censure.

The Cask of Amontillado is a spine chilling tale of murder in which the murderer’s motive remains vague. On a nameless carnival day, the anti-hero of this story, Montressor beguiles and coaxes his friend, Fortunato, an anonymous nobleman into a catacomb to taste and assess a wine, Amontillado. Once in the catacomb that is reached after a protracted journey into the earth’s recess, Montressor shoves his friend into a cellar, throws a burning flambeaux behind him and walls him within. Montressor claims that he does not repent his inglorious crime. In this eerie tale of vendetta those of us who understand the dynamics of language can see that Poe indicts the cultural panoply that has an exclusive self-centric vision. Poe’s America was a state that was built on arrogation of the natural rights of American natives and he dehumanisation of the enslaved Africans. Montressor enacts the probable reprisal of the disenfranchised – a reprisal that was now gradually surfacing. The murderer in this story is aptly named Montressor, a name that brings to mind Montressor Place in Howick, an eastern suburb of Auckland in New Zealand. This place is “perhaps Auckland’s most historically conscious place.” The British established military posts in this area – called Fencibles under the pretext that they would provide the native Maori protection against other tribes such as the Ngapuhi and Waikato. With characteristic colonial ingenuity the British signed a treaty with the Maoris in 1835 (the Treaty of Waitangi) which under the false pretext of granting land rights and British protection to the Maoris divested the Maoris of their land. The name Fortunato is a throwback to ‘Fortunatus’, “a hero of a popular European tale” who receives from Fortune a purse which can never be emptied and who is enabled to indulge his every whim. Seemingly, Maoris were getting a fair deal. In reality, the British gained full control of New Zealand by the 1870s, effectively squashing the Maori revolution for many years. By the 1890s, fewer than 45,000 Maori survived. The Cask of Amontillado craftily fences with the sneaky White cultural hegemonic arrogation. The walling, masquerading and the burning torch are indices to further crimes that had become the cultural norm in Poe’s America that was branded as an ‘Era of Good Feelings.’ In 1805, America had become embroiled in a political diplomatic war with Britain and France who had imposed several restrictions on the American overseas trade. America retaliated by imposing an embargo on all American exports. To enforce the embargo it became imperative to suppress civil liberties. The worst hit was the black-slave population in the West Indies who suffered mass starvation. The Jeffersonians were indifferent towards the occurrence since they considered it as an apt punitive measure against the slaves who had earlier successfully revolted in San Domingo. Montressor’s plot replicates Jefferson’s government’s successful imposition of the export embargo. After extended brilliant strategic manoeuvres, Montressor beguiles Fortunato to the nether point where the latter is fettered to and walled into a cold, damp niche. In an exact corollary, Jefferson, after having repeatedly mouthed statements in favour of fraternity, brotherhood and equality, did not shy from stabbing the Negro slave population on the sly. The crime-fantasy in the “Cask of Amontillado” serves the purpose of exposing “that which has been repressed, and… inexpressible… the bourgeois negative rationality.”

Carnival is the tale’s backdrop. Montressor murders his friend during the carnival when Fortunato is dressed as a motley fool and out celebrating. Why the carnival season? In 1840, the first Carnival ever was celebrated in Brazil. Brazil’s capital, Rio de Janeiro, remained a Portugal’s colonial capital until 1808 whereby a number of inhabitants were rendered homeless to accommodate the royals. There was a large influx of African slaves to Rio de Janeiro: in 1819, there were 145,000 slaves; by 1840, the number reached 220,000. South American slave-hunting expeditions, called bandeiras, were captained by the Portuguese. From 1580–1670 the Bandeirantes focused on slave hunting. One of their favourite practices was to encircle the huts of the natives and ask them to surrender to slavery. If there was resistance the huts were torched. Escape was impossible. It was a constricting straitjacket between servitude and death. Many critics believe that the name, ‘Montressor’ is a play on the word monster and the French, mon tresor that translates to a humungous “my treasure.” It hardly needs a genius to figure out that Fortunato first tastes ‘De Grave’: like the native Americans who were the natural rightful inheritors of America, they had their first taste of defeat at the hands of those who paid lip service to ideals of equality, brotherhood and liberty all the while burying them in the very earth which was their land of nativity.

Imp of the Perverse and Tell-Tale Heart read like companion pieces. They are like haunting musical pieces that reverberate with nuances. Imp of the Perverse has been consistently read, analysed and critiqued as a dramatization of madness, with the intent to make readers understand the complex mental gymnastics of a psychopathic murderer. This kind of critical reading does not credit the brilliant social dynamics camouflaged by the tale. Our first cue to the socio-cultural intent of this tale is the murderer’s use of the theological term, ‘supererogation’ to categorize and describe his homicidal act. By dubbing his seemingly wilful murder as supererogation, the murderer claims his act to be amoral, and coloured by extreme religiosity – a call beyond the call of duty – which makes him a criminal since his act is the rarest of the rare. Interestingly, like most of the narrators of his tales, Poe keeps the narrator in this tale nameless. But he does call him an imp. Imps are short, mischievous, barely tolerable creatures of the fairy world – a world apparently innocent, pure and paradisal. Poe’s America was being paraded as the New World full of potential and promise – a virtual fairyland. However, this paradise was compromised by slavery. The physical stature of the imps is an instant throwback to Article 1, Section 2, of the antebellum constitution, drafted in 1780, which included the nefarious Three-Fifths Compromise, where slave states counted their slaves as “3/5 of a person.”

If an African slave revolted, he was a hero among his men but a criminal to his White masters. The narrator of this tale is erudite, rational and analytical. He tells us that his master’s quarters were ill-ventilated which suggests that the master was the White man’s proxy – a former slave, now a free man with special prerogatives. To kill one of your brethren is perverse, and the narrator apparently commits the unnatural act of fratricide. Poe cues us to the narrator’s social status: the narrator tells us that the idea for his fool-proof murder came to him while reading the memoirs of Pilau, a French lady who was accidently murdered by a poisoned candle. Pilau means “hump” in native American dialect, and “stench, filthy and dirty” in Hawaii. The narrator felt a subconscious connect with Pilau since it brought to mind his own impoverished filthy tenements. Diasporic African communities in exile created a new form of worship, voodoo, which included rituals and beliefs from their ancestral religion and Christianity. Candles and dolls are used to cast spells in voodoo; Madam Pilau’s death by candle fumes must have struck a chord in the narrator. He tells us, “I substituted, in his bed-room candle-stand, a wax-light of my own making.” Lonely, without friends, in an alien land, this murderer confesses his heinous crime in all probability to get sympathy. However the tale ends on a cautionary note, “To-day I wear these chains, and am here! To-morrow I shall be fetterless! — but where?” which makes an appeal to all those who condone violence to be prepared for consequences that may be unsavoury. This line also reverberates with the anxiety that coursed through the enslaved Americans who were still trying to define their freedom – it was extremely poignant that most of them had not seen their homeland and many of them were illegitimate offspring of their White lords. Very aptly, the narrator is called an imp since in Old English it means grafted; he is quintessentially an imp of the perverse for he hails form a generation of bondsmen who were perverting, i.e. changing, the tide of enslavement to freedom.

“What happens to a dream deferred…” is the shaping metaphor of The Tell-Tale Heart, a tale which has once again an anonymous narrator who murders and later confesses. However, unlike the almost sensual non-bloody murder in Imp of the Perverse, the murder here is extremely gory and cruel. In the earlier tale we are informed only about the victim’s dwelling area and know nothing about his person, in this tale we are told that the victim was an old man. The relationship between the murderer and the victim is not defined though we infer a sense on inter dependency between the two. Whenever the narrator-murderer enters the old man’s room, there is shifting play of light and shadows with a focus on the blue colour of the victim’s eye. Only one eye is described which suggests some kind of blindness or obdurateness, even something sinister. It is probable that the murderer is the old man’s guard or manservant, or the old man is the former’s captive. The narrator tells us that he had kept a vigil on the old man for seven days and murdered him on the eighth. There is something definitely diabolical in this. Sabbath is the day of rest following which all debts are considered forgiven so that work starts afresh. To murder someone deliberately on this day violates the spirit of Christianity. It is stark that the murderer and the victim come from different races and religions. The old man seems to be a European while his murderer appears to be a non-White. The latter is constantly irked by the blue colour of his victim’s eye which he calls alternatively the “vulture eye” and “the evil eye.” This helps us identify the murderer as someone from Africa – someone who was indoctrinated against a stranger’s evil eye. Whenever he comes into the old man’s room, it is midnight and the room is unlit and his own shadow describes him against the backdrop of an eerie moonlit night. Intriguingly, the intruder carries a covered lantern. We are told that it takes this person an excruciating half an hour just to get his head inside the room, and tremendous effort to enter the room without making a noise. Once inside, he opens the lantern just so, so that merely a shaft of thin light falls upon the old man who sleeps undisturbed for seven consecutive nights. But on the eighth night, the narrator’s finger slips on the lantern’s tin cover. The noise frightens the old man into waking. The narrator tells us that he could empathise with the old man’s fear and angst: “just as I have” felt “night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall.” Apparently, there is a suggestion of a panoptic prison which the narrator must have been guarding. It is implicit that this must have been an imposition not a choice since there is a pronounced antipathy between the narrator and the old man. Poe invites us into the dark psychological recess of a privileged outcast. To betray the trust of your own and to be used by the outsider who never accepts you is a racking experience. Under the White man’s scrutiny, in a double bind, the narrator lives in mortal dread and guilt. An entire social order is indicted and undermined by the crime that is committed on the day after Sabbath. Poe insinuates that recourse to religion or proselyting or mouthing high ideals of brotherhood and liberty cannot fool the dispossessed. Violation of a man’s natural rights will have a brutal backlash. Freedom consequent to a life of indentured, inhumane labour will not bring forgiveness but extreme rebellion. Across America free men of colour were leading secret and open revolts against servitude.

On the eighth night once the old man quietens, the narrator waits for an inordinately long time after which he lets a thin shaft of light fall directly on the old man’s face. He is terrified when he sees that the old man was awake. The light falls on his blue eye, the “evil eye” which provokes him uncontrollably. He yells and leaps at the old man who shrieks out in terror. The narrator tells us that he kills the old man mercilessly by pulling “the heavy bed over him.” The extent of his rage is unimaginable for what he does next is sheer barbaric. He mutilates the corpse and buries it. With brilliance, the camera eye does a subtle shift. The narrator is undone by his bloody act.

An eye for an eye can never be justified. To right a wrong, one ought not to commit a crime for then the redresser becomes the abettor and the perpetrator. His guilt so unsettles him that the narrator feels he can hear the old man’s heartbeats as though the ticking of a clock muffled in cotton. The analogy is complex. Africans were brought to work in cotton plantations where they could not escape the White man’s vigil. Everything African was demeaned and the only probable redemption was accepting the White man’s religion, and a decent education. The old man’s “vulture eyes” epitomise the White overweening ambition that trampled the rights of natural citizenship. Not only the enslaved African diaspora but the native Indians all had to bear the brunt of this aggressive colonisation. ‘Right of discovery’ was declared sacrosanct over and above the ‘right to ownership’ which resulted in dispossessing American Indians of their rightful land. The American constitutionalists, lawmakers and the law enforcers connived in making legal restitution impossible. Once the renegades were tracked down, they were forced to confess. Punishments ranged from flogging to being packed to undisclosed destinations from where none returned. As such, under police scrutiny, the murderer confesses. The pathos of the tale lies in the axiomatic irony that when crimes are punished, the innocent are scathed: the narrator tells us at the tale’s inception, “I loved the old man. He had never wronged me… I think it was his eye… He had the eye of a vulture – a pale blue eye.”

Deferred dreams and thwarted rights frustrate us and the divide between justice and crime dims. Hop-Frog is an acrid tale of soured dreams that find vent in violent retaliation. Inhumane treatment creates regicides who revolt through the most unnatural acts imaginable. A freak of nature, dubbed Hop Frog by the king and his courtiers, Hop Frog’s retaliation mirrors the depth of his angst and bitterness. Hop Frog was a pint sized hunchback who could barely walk. We are told that he had been brought as war booty from a vanquished foreign land to entertain a depraved court. What saw him through this ordeal was another fellow dwarf and his own extraordinary courage and the ability to expertly manoeuvre his crippled body. Despite his physical handicap, Hop Frog was endowed with superhuman agility which provided much merriment to the court and also their chastisement. Hop Frog’s fellow companion was Trippetta, an extraordinarily beautiful dwarf. Hop Frog’s endurance reaches a breaking point when the courtiers humiliate her. Hop Frog had zero tolerance to alcohol which the courtiers force down his throat. Trippetta tries to intervene on her friend’s behalf which annoys the courtiers who fling alcohol into her face and humiliate her. Hop Frog is enraged and vows vengeance. The king needed help to plan a masquerade. Hop Frog comes up with a master plan to entertain the guests by providing a unique disguise to the corpulent king and his seven courtiers. He gets the eight of them costumed as chained Ourang-Outangs to scare the guests into thinking that the animals had escaped from a zoo. He coats the eight of them with tar and flax. On the eventful night he sets the ballroom on fire and escapes with Trippetta, after declaring, “I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester – and this is my last jest.”” We are told that two “effected their escape to their own country: for neither was seen again.” Through this tale we are once again pitted into a world where crime and self-obsession is the norm. Poe paints for us the social holocaust consequent to othering. Cultures variant to ones own should be respected. Treating the stranger as an alien or a monstrosity results in misunderstandings and cultural conflagration. This is a rare tale in which the murderer escapes persecution and finds a haven. Perhaps, this is because the narrator does not act in a fit of passion: his vendetta is planned out in detail; it is also perhaps because the wronged person has a friend and confidante. Poe warns us through Hop-Frog that rebellions could only be quelled by disallowing intimate ties among the disaffected. Humans form intimacies naturally, and sooner or later the shared network foments trouble for the persecutors. Every culture has its peculiarities. Poe suggests that we should accept differences and not treat them contemptuously.

Disclaimer: This paper was first presented at an Internation Conference, ‘Body of Evidence’ at St. Stephens College (Univ. of Delhi), Feb. 2012

This paper researched Internet sources and library material at American Library, Delhi, CCS University, Meerut (U.P.), Harper College and Streamwoods, Chicago



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