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POE'S HUMOR: A PSYCHOLOGICAL

ANALYSIS

by PAUL LEWIS

From this epoch the lover no longer jests- no longer sees


anything even of the fantastic in the Raven's demeanor. He
speaks of him as a "grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and omi-
nous bird of yore," and feels the "fiery eyes" burning into his
"bosom's core."
-"The Philosophy of Composition"

"Hal Hal Hal-he! he! he!-a very good joke, indeed-an


excellent jest. We will have many a rich laugh about it at the
palazzo-he! he! he!"
"The Amontillado!" I said.
-"The Cask of Amontillado"

I have seen a great deal of Poe, and it was his excessive, and
at times morbid sensibility which forced him into his "frol-
ics" .. .
-note written by F. W Thomas,
March 1843
As the pendulum descends in Edgar Allan Poe's classic tale, the narra-
tor moves through a number of extreme mental states. During his "long,
long hours of horror;' 1 he strains at his ropes, wearies heaven with his
prayers, and then lies "smiling" or "half-smiling," "alternately laughing
or howling" at "the glittering death" (V, 81). Another Poe narrator, during
a less-than-restful week in the house of Usher, is entertained by his
demented host, sometimes with musical performances, sometimes with
tours through the art gallery, and once with a poem about the collapse of
reason in the struggle with fear. In the poem, "evil things in robes of
sorrow" invade "monarch Thought's dominion" (III, 284-85), overthrow
wit and wisdom, and plunge the realm into madness. In both of these
famous tales, and in most of Poe's Gothic and mock-Gothic work, the
collapse of humor is visceral and direct, essential to the affective experi-
ences of both readers and characters.
In recent years, critics have focused not on this dramatic use of humor
but on Poe's wit, on his satire and irony, on a Poe whose humor requires an
1 "The Pit and the Pendulum," in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A.
Harrison, (New York: AMS Press, 1965), V, 79. All references to Poe's short fiction, henceforth
cited in the text by volume and page, are to this edition .
531
532 STUDIES IN SHORT FICTION

elaborate set of footnotes to be appreciated . While this approach has


unearthed a number of overlooked references and "in" jokes, calling
attention to Poe's divided or elitist sense of his audience, it has done this
at the expense of downplaying the broader, more universal, less
intellectual humor that screams out from the center of Poe's work . For
one to appreciate how this humor operates, it is useful to move beyond
purely literary concerns toward an analysis rooted in ongoing work in the
psychology of humor.
Early critics of Poe can be divided between those who, like Henry
James and T. S. Eliot, failed to see irony and self-satire in Poe's work and
those who, like H. P. Lovecraft, acknowledged but deplored these
impulses. It was, perhaps, a perceived lack of affective complexity that led
Eliot to treat Poe as a juvenile author, to say that Poe's intellect was that
of "a highly gifted person before puberty:' 2 while Lovecraft celebrated Poe
as the "deity and fountain-head of all modern diabolic fiction'' 3 but
regretted this deity's "blundering ventures in stilted and labored
pseudo-humor" (54).
Much of the most interesting work that has been done on Poe over the
past twenty years has focused on comedic strains in his tales and poems.
One line of argument in this ongoing analysis attempts to distinguish
between Poe's serious and comic works. Working from Bergsonian notions,
Stephen L. Mooney suggests criteria that might establish the comic nat-
ure of a given Poe work.• Edward H. Davidson sees an evolution away from
comedy in Poe's career.5 By contrasting tales with similar themes but
different tones (for instance, "A Predicament" versus "The Pit and the
Pendulum:' or "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" versus "Thou Art the
Man"), David Galloway argues that Poe subjected "even the formulas of
his own serious fiction ...to the corrective force of parody." 6 According to
Galloway, Poe works from "a pre-existent pattern borrowed from contem-
porary periodicals": in the comic tales, he exaggerates "superficial ele-
ments of the narrative"; in the serious tales, he concentrates "on the
interior, psychological implications of plot" (12).
A sense that Poe is rarely either simply horrific of simply amusing has
led many critics away from a rigid distinction between Poe's comic and
non-comic works. The Naiad Voice, a collection of essays on Poe's satiric

2 T.S. Eliot, "From Poe to Valery;• in Critics on Poe, ed. David B. Kesterson (Coral

Gables: Univ. of Miami Press, 1948), p. 47.


a H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature (New York: Dover, 1973), p. 56;
further reference is cited in the text .
• "Comic Intent in Poe's Tales;• Modern Language Notes, 76 (1961), 432-34, and "The
Comic in Poe's Fiction ;• American Literature, 33 (1962), 433-41.
s Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1957), p. 138.
s The Other Poe: Comedies and Satires (New York: Penguin, 1983), p. 7; further reference
is cited in the text .
POE'S HUMOR: A PSYCHOLOGICAL ANALYSIS
533

hoaxing, documents the development of this line of argument.7 In an early


essay on "Ligeia;' Clark Griffith sees this classic horror tale as an "allego-
rizedjest"8 in which German Romanticism triumphs over English Roman-
ticism. In this way, James M. Cox argues that "the burlesque element
makes its presence felt at the heart of Poe's tales of terror;' 9 and Robert
Regan asks why Poe, "the purest of the 'pure' poets, often presented him-
self in impish, odd, and diabolically 'impure' roles." 10
Until now, attempts to answer this question have focused on literary
sources and conscious intentions. Regan's answer to his question about
Poe's affective impurity has to do with levels of reader response, with the
view that Poe aims at different kinds of readers, at the many who will see
only the horrific elements and the few perceptive readers who will see the
humor below the surface of the "subtler tales" (85). Regan sees Poe as a
"masterful, hostile" (86) humorist, content to triumph over a largely unin-
formed and insensitive audience.
G. R. Thompson's work adds weight and substance to this view by
placing what he sees as Poe's elitist satire in the context of German
Romantic irony. Eschewing "pseudo-Freudian" analyses 11 of Poe's sense of
humor, Thompson sees Poe as a deliberate literary hoaxer who wrote for a
sub-set or coterie of readers (103). "It is hard," Thompson writes in Poe's
Fiction, "to see comedy entering into Poe's writings by way of 'hysteria;
... for humor, mockery, and irony were rationally planned elements in
much of the best-known writing of the time." 12 According to Thompson,
"Poe's technique is one of deceptive tripleness: his tales are supernatural
on one level, psychological on another, satiric and ironic on another" (77).
The humor in Poe's horror tales, in this view, is "careful" (14). In his essay
"Perspectives on Poe;' Thompson notes the horrific themes expressed
through Poe's self-mockery- "the terrors of an ultimately incomprehensi-
ble, disconnected, absurd ... universe" (105)-but Thompson maintains
that this terror is mediated by an irony that demonstrates intellectual
control.
About Poe's control of his materials in the Gothic tales, there can be
little argument. James W. Gargano's classic essay "The Question of Poe's
Narrators" 13 demonstrated what would, except for Poe's extraordinary
reputation, have been obvious: that we must not confuse Poe the artist
with his doomed, psychopathic characters. Still, we cannot help noticing
that the themes Poe explored (madness •.death, pain, isolation, and duplic-
1 The Naiad Voice: Essays on Poe's Satiric Hoaxing, ed. Dennis W. Eddings (Port Wash-
ington, NY: Associated Faculty Press, 1983).
s "Poe's 'Ligeia' and the English Romantics; ' in The Naiad Voice, p. 9.
e "Edgar Poe: Style as Pose;' in The Naiad Voice, p. 46.
10 "Hawthorne's 'Plagiary'; Poe's Duplicity;' in The Naiad Voice, p. 73; further reference
is cited in the text.
11 "Perspectives on Poe;• in The Naiad Voice,p. 98; further references are cited in the text.
12 Poe's Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Thies (Madison : Univ. of Wisconsin Press,
1973); p . 164; further reference is cited in the text.
13 See College English, 25 (1963), 177-81.
534 STUDIES IN SHORT FICTION
ity) recur obsessively. Nor can we fail to note that his use of humor in both
the Gothic and mock-Gothic tales follows a single pattern so consistently
as to suggest a person behind the artist, a person whose sense of humor
came into existence long before his literary tastes formed. 'lb advance our
understanding of Poe's humor, we need a middle ground between the old
psychoanalytic reading of Poe as driven hysteric and the more recent view
of Poe as detached, intellectual artist.
For the outline of such a middle position, we can turn to Daniel Hof-
fman and Gary Lindberg. Like Thompson, Hoffman sees an essential
similarity between Poe's Gothic and satiric pieces, but Hoffman under-
stands this similarity not as a triumph of irony and uncertainty but as a
triumph of fear. In this way, Hoffman appreciates Poe's ability to use sick
comedy and parodic jest in the service of terror, merging Thompson's levels
back into Poe's unified effect: "When I re-read 'A Predicament;" Hoffman
writes, "I wondered why so buffoonish a satire, so grotesque a caricature,
should have the power to haunt my mind for years, the power to transform
itself into the serious thing of which Poe's tale was a parody." 14 In general,
Hoffman insists, "the sensibilities of Hoaxiepoe vibrate to the same ter-
rors as do the tales of Horror-Haunted Edgar" (155). In his study The
Confidence Man in American Literature, Lindberg offers a similar view of
reader response to Poe:
Poe's characters hasten to assure themselves that it's only a gas-
eous exhalation or a fan behind the curtains, that the fiction is
hackneyed, that it is only a masquerade, only a formula, only a
joke-that, in whatever way, the phenomenon is bounded, improb-
able, isolated from actual significance. And in assuring themsel-
ves, they also assure the reader that there is little reason to believe
what they say....Into the paltriest contrivance or the most ludi-
crous fantasy enters an imp of consummation to perfect the inmost
idea, to execute the merely suggested .15
While the reading experience Hoffman and Lindberg describe
requires elaboration and explanation, it strikes me as an accurate account
of what Poe is about in his dark use of humor: the collapse of strained
joking, the vibration of hoax into horror. The difference between such
apparently parodic tales as "The Premature Burial;' "A Predicament;'
and "Thou Art the Man" and such Gothic tales as "The Fall of the House
of Usher;' "The Black Cat;' and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is
one of degree not kind-not, as Thompson argues, because satiric irony
rules throughout, but because in both groups of tales humor fails to tri-
umph over fear. In the Gothic tales, humor collapses, and we are left with

14 Daniel Hoffman , Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972), p. 10;
further reference is cited in the text .
15 Gary Lindberg, The Confidence Man in American Literature (New York: Oxford Univ.
Press, 1982), pp. 50-51; further reference is cited in the text .
POE'S HUMOR- A PSYCHOLOGICAL ANALYSIS 535
the shriek, the fall, the embrace of menace. In the parodic tales, we laugh
almost to the end, only to find that we were too quick to be amused, that
jack-in-the-box is really corpse in a coffin, that even "bugaboo tales" can
reflect our most legitimate fears.
Humor and fear do not simply coexist in Poe's tales or terror; repeat-
edly in these tales, we are brought up against the limits of humor. In some
works, we are briefly amused by characters or situations, only to find our
humor fade or shift into fear. In other works, we follow the decline of
characters who learn through painful experience that a monstrous world
cannot be laughed away. Over and over, when humor fails, we are left with
images of fear: the raven's shadow, the howling cat, the putrescent corpse,
or the fallen house. This is why, as Poe points out in "The Philosophy of
Composition;' the student in "The Raven" stops joking about the bird;
why Fortunato's humor gambit fails; why, in the end, there is nothing
amusing about the way the narrator is "ushered" into the presence of the
maddening Roderick; why humor yields to terror in such otherwise
diverse works as "The Premature Burial;' "Hop-Frog;• "The Black Cat;'
"Ligeia,' "Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar;' and Pym. Because this
humor relates directly to the affective and intellectual experience of the
tale-that is, because it supports both the supernatural and the psycho-
logical elements of the narrative-we can approach it more clearly in
terms of psychological accounts of fearful humor than through literary
analyses of allusion and irony. Specifically, we can approach the sense of
humor behind these works in two ways: first, by seeing just how humor is
repeatedly overwhelmed and, second, by comparing Poe not with other
Romantic authors but with other humor creators.
Critics who would draw a clear distinction between Poe as satirist and
Poe as terror writer and critics who see humorous irony as the highest
level of reader response to Poe's Gothic tales need to focus on the final
paragraphs of "Hop-Frog" and "The Premature Burial," two tales that
deal explicitly with the subject of fearful humor. In "Hop-Frog;' Poe's fairy-
tale meditation on humor and pain, one cruel joke only seems to deserve
another. When the king and his seven ministers, fat jokers all, abuse their
dwarf, he carries on; but when the king strikes Trippetta, Hop-Frog's
friend, we see behind the dwarfs feigned laughter his "large, powerful,
and very repulsive teeth" (VI, 222). Immediately the dwarf plans his comic
but cruel revenge, a trick that will allow him first to tar, feather, and chain
his enemies and then to murder them.
Insofar as humor serves as a temporary and ineffective release from
fear, the shared experience of these victims and of the other members of
the court who stand around and watch is a model of the rhetorical impact
of Poe's dramatic humor. The idea is for the king and ministers to burst
into a masquerade party dressed as chained "ourang-outangs" and "occas-
sion" fright "among the ladies" (VI, 223). And they succeed in this, as
several of the onlookers swoon in fright and others rush toward the locked
536 STUDIES IN SHORT FICTION
doors. This fear, however, gives way to amusement when the beasts are
suddenly drawn close together by the chain. At this point, both the "apes"
and the crowd "set up a loud shout of laughter" (VI, 226). But this laugh-
ter is short-lived; it ends when Hop-Frog hoists the "dismayed and strug-
gling ourang-outangs" (VI, 227) thirty feet above the "astonished" crowd.
When the dwarf sets his victims ablaze, the again "horror-stricken" multi-
tude below shrieks in powerless fear and then watches in stunned silence
as the king and his ministers are rapidly consumed, reduced to a "fetid,
blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass" (VI, 228).
What happens in this tale is not just that cruel jokers are destroyed by
a cruel joke but that joking itself gives way to horror, as the extreme
cruelty of the joke destroys its ability to continue functioning as a joke. 16
When Hop-Frog's "last jest" turns out to be an act of "fiery revenge" (VI,
228)- an expression less of humor than of "maniacal rage" (VI, 227)-the
onlookers are forced to see that what they are witnessing is too savage, too
monstrous, not to appall.
This collapsing humor creeps into the final paragraph of "The Prema-
ture Burial;' one of Poe's many not quite mock-Gothic tales. The narrator
of this tale has moved toward sanity through a self-inflicted form of aver-
sive therapy: he has cured himself of "catalepsy" (V, 246) and obsession
with live burial by mistakenly assuming that he has been prematurely
buried. Apparently cured of his neurotic terrors, the narrator jokes about
his old delusion, his past interest in medical cases and graveyards, his now
forsaken delight in "bugaboo tales" (V, 273) about life-in-death experi-
ences. And this narrator's comic scorn of both his old obsession and the
foolish literature that supported it seems perfectly valid until we arrive at
the concluding sentences of the tale:
There are moments when, even to the sober eye of Reason, the
world of our sad Humanity may assume the semblance of a Hell-
but imagination of man is no Carathis, to explore with the impu-
nity its every cavern. Alas! the grim legion of sepulchral terros
cannot be regarded as altogether fanciful- but, like the Demons in
whose company Afrasiab made his voyage down the Oxus, they
must sleep, or they will devour us-they must be suffered to slum-
ber, or we perish. (V, 273)
Because this passage is very close to Ernest Becker's view ofthe universal
impulse to keep ideas about mortality out of consciousness, it reveals the
finally anticomedic twist in Poe's work: for, although live burial may be a
foolish thing to fret over, dead burial is hardly a cause of celebration. And,
although Poe here urges us to allow our demons to slumber, much of his

'"In ..Poe's 'Hop-Frog' and the Retreat from Comedy," Studies in Short Fi ction, 10 (1973),
288-90, Bruce K. Martin notes the movement of this tale away from comedy.
POE'S HUMOR- A PSYCHOLOGICAL ANALYSIS 537
work is devoted to rousing them, often with the too loud sounds of failing
laughter. 17
In "The Black Cat" and "Ligeia:' two of Poe's most horrific tales, ur
first impressions of the narrators are half comic. But in both cases, we are
led gradually away from this humor into an expanding horror of men
driven to acts of obscene cruelty. What is briefly amusing about the
"Ligeia" narrator at the outset is his determination to analyse his own
mental failings. Although he cherishes the memory of his first wife to the
point of frenzied obsession, he cannot actually remember much about her:
"I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely where, I
first became acquainted with the lady Ligeia" (II, 248). In addition to this,
the grief-moistened widower believes that he "first and most frequently
met her ... in some large, old, decaying city near the Rhine" ai, 248)-
which particular city, he cannot say. Nor can he recall her family name,
presumably because he and Ligeia never sat around addressing Christ-
mas packages back to the in-laws.
Even more comic are the narrator's inflated, romance-reeking descrip-
tions of what he calls "the person of Ligeia" (II, 249; Poe's italics). She did
not tread upon the planet; her "footfalls" were too "elastic" for that. She
moved about "as a shadow." She had a "faultless forehead" (II, 250), "ivory
skin:' a "delicate" nose with harmoniously curved nostrils:' and hair that
can be described only with a heap of modifiers: "and then the raven-black,
the glossy, the luxuriant and naturally curling tresses, setting forth the
full force of the Homeric epithet 'hyacinthine'!" (II,250). And our narrator
saves himselffor the two full paragraphs that he will devote to his account
ofLigeia's eyes-which he calls her "large and luminous orbs" (II, 252)-
including assertions that the "hue of the orbs was the most brilliant of
black" and that "far over them, hung jetty lashes of great length" (II, 251).
While we are blinking back our laughter, we are struck by the narra-
tor's lack of humor about himself. He may be amusing at this point in the
tale, but he is never in on the joke. As this point works its way home, we
are drawn into his world-view in which the loss of Ligeia justifies marry-
ing a woman he does not love in order to prove perversely through the
abuse of this second wife that he remains loyal to Ligeia. The rest of the
tale is the narrator's expanding nightmare, in which Ligeia returns from
the dead, murders her rival, Rowena, and re-animates the corpse with her
own spirit and form. What is striking is that the very details that were
comic in the opening pages of the tale are transformed into images of
walking fear: when her hair streams forth from the "ghastly cerements
that had confined it:' it is "blacker than the wings of midnight," and in
full shrieking terror, the narrator stares into the "black, and the wild
eyes-of my lost love, of the lady, ofthe Lady Ligeia" (II, 268).
11 Galloway argues that "The Premature Burial" "begins as a tale of terror [but] ends as a
comedy of errors" (The Other Poe, p. 15), but this describes only two-thirds of the affective
process, failing to take the concluding paragraph, the last non-laugh, into account.
538 STUDIES IN SHORT FICTION

Like "Ligeia;' "The Black Cat" is a classic Gothic tale in its move-
ment toward overwhelming fear and in the decline of humor that helps
this along. 18 The pre-execution confession of this narrator, as everyone has
observed, is duplicitous in its conscious priorities. The narrator believes
that his downfall has arisen from his relationship with animals, particu-
larly with a large, demonic cat. Poe, however, repeatedly draws us back to
the primacy of narrator's human interactions, particularly with his long-
suffering and abused wife. Through the misleading narrative, we catch
glimpses of this marriage-glimpses that seem less and less grimly comic
and more and more just grim, culminating with the final image of the
wife's decaying corpse behind the narrator's torn-down masonry. The nar-
rative itself, we come to realize, has been a wall constructed by the narra-
tor to conceal its true subject: the murder of his wife.
The narrator sees "little but Horror" in his story, although he admits
that is may seem an exaggerated "baroque" (V, 143) to us. His horror may
be our humor, he admits, and this in itself is sufficient to distance us from
the narrator. We begin to be aware of his self-hatred and paranoia when he
tells us of his scorn for the "paltry friendship" of"mere Man" (V, 144) and
of his preference for animals, a preference that made him the "jest of his
companions" (V, 143). When the wife is first mentioned, we are told two
things: first, that she and the narrator had a similar affection for pets, and
second, that, in reference to their cat Pluto, she "made frequent allusions
to the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in
disguise" (V, 144). Poe underlines this second point ironically by having
the narrator deny its significance: "I mention the matter at all for no
better reason than that it happens, just now, to be remembered" (V, 144).
But this point is crucial, if also comic, because it shows us the wife through
his eyes as identified from the start with the cat as a supernatural force.
Apparently uncomplaining in the face of the narrator's abuse, his
bouts of alcoholism and pet torture, the wife finds subtle ways to strike
back. When the second Pluto starts to haunt the narrator, it becomes
"immediately a great favorite with my wife" (V, 149). And when the large
white blotch starts to resemble a gallows, it is the wife who "more than
once" calls the narrator's attention to the development. Since we never
hear her exact dialogue, we can only imagine what she says: "Oh, dear,
can you pass the tea-and, oh my, what is that cute little gallows doing on
kitty's head?" This sort of thing from "the most uncomplaining" of wives,
"the most patients of sufferers" (V, 152). But the narrator's association of
wife with cat is quickly brought to its violent climax. What he comes to
hate most about the beast is the way it haunts him in mock affection, even
breathing Oike his wife, no doubt) into his face at night while he sleeps.
When the wife interferes with the narrator's attempt to kill the second

18 On the role of humor in Gothic fiction, see Paul Lewis, "Mysterious Laughter: Humor
and Fear in Gothic Fiction;' Genre, 16 (1981), 309-327 .
POE'S HUMOR: A PSYCHOLOGICAL ANALYSIS 539
cat, he buries "the axe in her brain" (V, 152) instead and then, with no
remorse, walls up her bloodied corpse: "having carefully deposited the
body against the wall, I propped it in that position" with "little trouble"
(V, 153). But the wife/cat is allowed a final contribution to the tale when its
cry behind the wall condemns the narrator to death: "a cry, at first muf-
fled and broken, like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into
one long, loud, and. continuous scream, utterly anomalous and inhuman-
a howl-a wailing shriek half of horror and half of triumph" (V, 155). .
While the closing image joining wife with cat remains incongruous, the
incongruity has been stripped of its humor potential through its horrific
detail: "The corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore, stood
erect before the eyes of the spectators. Upon its head, with red extended
mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had
seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to
the hangml:!-n" (V, 155).
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Poe's long sea tale, incorporates
failing humor into its motif of fearful exploration. Repeatedly in the
course of Pym's quest for knowledge, creatures, people, and things that
had seemed familiar or amusing change or reveal themselves to be savage,
monstrous, and dangerous. This is the case from the outset, as the opening
episode aboard the Ariel reveals. In this sailboat Pym and his friend
Augustus Barnard "were in the habit of going on some of the maddest
freaks in the world,"' 9 and on a stormy night in late October when both
lads have been drinking, they set out in boyish glee for a romp. Augustus
starts up in bed and swears that he "will not go to sleep for any Arthur
Gordon Pym in Christendom, when there is so glorious a breeze" (48).
And, feeling "excitement and pleasure;' Pym replies that he too is "tired
of lying in bed like a dog, and quite as ready for any fun and frolic as any
Augustus Barnard in Nantucket" (48). However, the novella shifts away
from joviality once the lads are at sea and Augustus, "beastly drunk;'
passes out. Then Pym, the inferior sailor, is left to manage the boat and to
endure the "extremity of terror" (50).
Both Pym and Augustus survive the prank, but the episode defines the
way the tale will develop, or rather the affective cycle it will repeat. Pym
rides the pattern up when he steals on board the Grampus and surveys the
box below deck which Augustus has prepared for the stowaway's comfort.
When Augustus opens the box, Pym is "excessively amused" (62) by the
assembled provisions, but within a few days, Pym is back at the fear end of
the pattern after he falls into a deep sleep and Augustus fails to appear as
promised. His dreams are filled with demons, serpents, and skeletal trees,
and his waking moments with the real menace of being abandoned with-
out food and drink. The "excessively amusing" box now looms as a poten-
tial coffin.
19 The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, ed Harold Beaver (London: Pen-
guin, 1976), p. 47. All references to Pym, henceforth cited in the text, are to this edition.
540 STUDIES IN SHORT FICTION

Pym's encounters with other people typically move from amusement


to terror. The first account of Dirk Peters, the half-breed sailor who eventu-
ally befriends Pym, vibrates between humor and fear, descending into the
latter: "'lb pass this man with a casual glance, one might imagine him to
be convulsed with laughter- but a second look would induce a shuddering
acknowledgement, that if such an expression were indicative of merri-
ment, the merriment must be that of a demon" (85). Although Peters
eventually becomes a trusted companion, the reading of his face that
moves from the perception of a smile to the perception of a fiendish expres-
sion is repeated often enough in the faces of other smiling demons to
suggest that this progression is central to Pym's experience. A famous
example is the apparently grinning man on the deck of a Dutch ship that
steers unsteadily toward the foundering Grampus. With great if short-
lived joy, Pym's desperate party observes a seaman near the bowsprit,
"nodding to us in a cheerful although rather odd way, and smiling con-
stantly, so as to display a set of the most brilliant white teeth" (131). As
the two ships approach each other, it becomes clear that, so far from being
able to rescue them, the Dutch ship is a floating morgue, its deck littered
with corpses in "the last and most loathsome sate of putrefaction'' (132).
And on closer examination, the smiling sailor turns out to be only another
corpse whose very flesh is being pecked off by a seagull.
The pattern of Pym is clear: Pym's scientific zeal, his yearning for
mystery, is dangerous, and this danger is underlined by failing or false
humor. When Pym is rescued yet again and taken aboard the South Sea
explorer and trader Jane Guy, he kids its captain out of any fears and
persuades him to sail ever further south. On the island of Tsalal, the Jane
Guy crew is savagely murdered by natives who, until the moment of their
ferocious attack, had always strutted and joked like minstrel -show
darkies: "Upon getting alongside the chief evinced symptoms of extreme
surprise and delight, clapping hands, slapping his thighs and breasts, and
laughing obstreperiously. His followers ...joined in the merriment" (190).
And the Jane Guy crew is "much amused" by these antics until they are
forced to see the subtle "barbarity" of these people (205).
A good deal of thought has been devoted to analyzing and psychoana-
lyzing the mysteriously shrouded, white figure that looms at the South
Pole before the approaching canoe of Pym and Peters- a figure associated
both with death (through the cataract it inhabits and the death of the
captive native Nu-Nu) and with redemption (through its divine size and
color and its human shape). It is typical of Poe criticism that analysis of
this figure runs the full gamut from supreme evil to divine, maternal
grace. But, like similar attempts to pin down Poe's other vague monsters,
this effort is fundamentally misguided. 20 Poe leaves this figure undefined,
20 In" 'Dust Within The Rock': The Phantasm of Meaning in The Narrative of Arthur
Gordon Pym;' Studies in the Novel, 14 (1982), 137-51, Paul Rosenzweig argues against efforts to
establish a single "clarifying meaning" (p. 137)for the conclusion of Pym.
POE'S HUMOR· A PSYCHOLOGICAL ANALYSIS
541

or ascribes to it contradictory attributes, in an effort to create a tension


between the impulse to imagine threats and then to deny or evade them
through reason or humor. This figure may be transported to the end of the
earth; it may be large and white; but its emotional aura is that of Ligeia,
or of the raven, or of the black cat: a projection of the tension created by
the impulse to see horror in apparently innocuous, even amusing places.
In the end, Poe's Gothic tales are not funny because their endings focus
on the primary themes of the Gothic: mortality, evil, and pain. It is all well
and good to kid around for a while, Poe implies, but such humor will
neither amuse nor delay the conqueror worm. In "Facts in the Case of M.
Valdemar;' this turning away from humor is a rising theme. Throughout,
we are encouraged to laugh at the incredible story of an attempt to mes-
merize a dying man. The manipulative opening reference to an "extraordi-
nary case" and the aura of pseudo-science lead us to expect a hoax. When
Valdemar actually is suspended between life and death for seven months,
we can only be amused by the narrator's confession that his story may be
difficult to believe. This humor is supported by the ridiculous things the
mesmerized Valdemar says-things like "Yes; asleep now. Do not wake
me!-let me die so!" (VI, 161) and "No pain-1 am dying;' or still more
absurdly, "Yes;-no;-1 have been sleeping-and now-now-1 am dead"
(VI, 163). 'lb paraphrase 'Ibm Lehrer, "if you're dead, Valdemar, the least
you can do is shut up:'
Throughout the tale, this humor rests uneasily side-by-side with vivid
descriptions of Valdemar's body, both Valdemar and the humor decaying
together. At the outset we are told that Valdemar's lungs are ossified and
useless and that his lower body is "a mass of purulent tubercles" (VI, 167).
Once in the trance Valdemar becomes a living cadaver: his "upper lip ...
writhed itself away from the teeth ... while the lower jaw fell with an
audible jerk, leaving the mouth widely extended, and disclosing in full
view the swollen and blackened tongue" (VI, 162). When the narrator
attempts to awaken Valdemar, the latter's eyes roll, "accompanied by the
profuse out-flowing of a yellowish ichor (from beneath the lids) of a pun-
gent and highly offensive odor" (VI, 165). And the tale ends with the final
dissolution: "his whole frame at once ... sunk-crumbled-absolutely
rotted beneath my hands . Upon the bed, before the whole company, there
lay a nearly liquid mass ofloathsome-of detestable putridity" (VI, 166).
Bringing this putrescence before a whole company of readers is the
work of the Gothic. As Ernest Becker has shown, we would like to repress
these facts in the case of humanity, in part by laughing at fear.21 But such

21 The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973). See especially Becker's discussion of
full and part humans, which reads in part: "What would the average man do with a full
consciousness of absurdity? He has fashioned his character for the precise purpose of putting
it between himself and the facts of life; it is his special tour-de-forW! that allows him to ignore
incongruities, to nourish himself on impossibilities, to thrive on plindness . He accomplishes
thereby a peculiarly human victory :the ability to be smug about terror. ...As Ortega so well
542 STUDIES IN SHORT FICTION

humor must in the tale of horror give way to walking nightmares. Like the
child in Poe's "The Sleeper" who throws stones against an old tomb,
"thrilling" to think that the echo s she hears are the groans of the dead,
or like the speaker in "Ulalume" who wanders unaware back to the grave
of his lost love, readers of the Gothic are led through often hokey cata-
combs into the pits of their least acknowledged but ultimately most well-
founded fears. We may still be able to hear laughter-our own and that of
desperate characters-receding into the night, but we have been forced to
realize that such amusement is doomed, a fading protest against the
darkness closing in.
Poe critics sometimes confuse the presence of humor in a work like
"Ligeia" or "The Premature Burial" with a lack of seriousness, assuming
that it must undermine fear.22 But psychologists going back at least as far
as Freud have emphasized the proximity of humor to fear. The classic
Gothic tale or novel achieves its horror by insisting that its mysteries-
whether they turn out to have been natural or supernatural in origin-are
truly dangerous, emblematic of our liability to disease, pain, dissolution,
and death. Along the way, as mysteries arise, we may be encouraged to
laugh at them , but in the horror tale, this laughter often fails. Whether
humor is used deliberately by threatened characters or is located in the
narrative tone or point of view, its failure serves (like Horatio's skeptical
banter in the first act of Hamlet: "Tush, tush, 'twill not appear ") to
intensify the terror it cannot turn into a joke.
In the literature of humor research, this kind of serious, even desper-
ate, joking is sometimes called gallows humor, and the very limitation or
failure exploited in the horror tale is built into this concept as well.
According to Freud, gallows humor is a process in which "the ego [of a
suffering person] refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality. . . .
It insists that it cannot be compelled to suffer, that . . . traumas are no
more than occasions for it to gain pleasure." 23 So conceived, gallows humor
is one of the methods employed to evade pain, and Freud points out that
the other methods include intoxication , self-absorption, and ecstasy (163).
The problem with gallows humor is that, since it works by denying or
evading reality, it can do nothing to alter the reality it evades. As with
intoxication , when you sober up from the evasion, when your laugh with-
ers to a smile and the smile fades from your face, the gallows still looms.

put it ..., man uses his ideas for the defense of his existence, to frighten away reality. This is
a serious game, the defense of one's existence -how take it away and leave them joyous?" (p.
59).
22 See, for example, Regan's essay "Hawthorne's 'Plagiary '; Poe's Duplicity;' in The Naiad
Voice: "It has been widely assumed that Poe gave up his Folio Club antics at an early date,
but I can find no evidence to support such an assumption. The radical question about Poe's
writings , therefore, is this : when (if ever) was he being serious?" (p. 73).
23 Sigmund Freud , "Humour;' in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychologi cal
Work s of Sigmund Freud , trans. and ed.James Strachey (London :Hogarth Press, 1961), XXI,
162; further reference is cited in the text.
POE'S HUMOR- A PSYCHOLOGICAL ANALYSIS
543

This sobering up out of humor and into fear, as in the case of Fortunato, is
the essential Poe experience.
By integrating Freud's concept of humor with more recent research on
incongruity theory, Mary K. Rothbart's safety-arousal model has a direct
bearing on Poe's humor. 24 According to Rothbart, both humor and fear
originate in the perception of an incongruity, the observer's response
varying in relation to such factors as the intensity of the stimulus, the
presence of danger, and the possibility of resolving (coming to some under-
standing of) the incongruity. Rothbart's model illustrates something Poe
intuitively understood: that it is difficult to differentiate "fear stimuli
from humor stimuli" (40). As Rothbart notes, "the close relation of fear
and laughter may be observed in a young child on a swing. When the
swing is pulled back, the child's eyes are wide open in an expression of
apprehension or fear. As the trajectory of the swing proceeds forward and
then back again, the child may be seen to be laughing heartily. Adult
laughter to the shock of a roller-coaster or a carnival house-of-horrors are
similar phenomena" (40).
Gothic fiction is, clearly, yet another source of both humor and fear. As
I have shown elsewhere, 25 the defeat of humor by fear can be central to
Gothic works in which threatening mysteries resist efforts to be dismissed
or minimized. Gothicists from Horace Walpole to Alfred Hitchcock have
employed a narrative pattern in which the failure of humor helps terror
grow. But the master of this pattern is Poe, a writer whose creative ener-
gies are directly rooted in a sense of monstrous incongruity.
But why should Poe have been interested in perfecting this Gothic use
of failing humor? According to Lindberg, Poe's tonal shifts from absurd to
serious, from joke to horror, a,re part of his aesthetic project as a "New
World technician": an artist freed from the conventions and forms of the
past, exploring the "reader's capacity to believe" (66). But Lindberg also
notes that Poe's response to his "situation as a New World artist" was
"quirky and extreme" (67), and this points to the value of describing the
odd sense of humor that informs Poe's work. The sources of such a descrip-
tion lie beyond Poe's work in his life, a life that can be brought into new
focus by contrasting it with the lives of the professional humor creators
studied by Seymour and Rhoda L. Fisher.
The Fishers interviewed forty comedians and reviewed the biogra-
phies or autobiographies of another forty in an effort to understand "the
origins, the motivatiot;ls, and personalities of those who make humor."25
According to the Fishers, a sense of fearful incongruity is present in the

24 "Incongruity, Problem-Solving, and Laughter;• in Humour and Laughter: Theory,


Research, and Applications (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1976), pp . 37-54; further refer-
ences are cited in the text.
25 "Mysterious Laughter;' (see not 18, above).
2s Seymour Fisher and Rhoda L. Fisher, Pretend the World Is Funny and Forever: A
Psychological Analysis of Comedians, Clowns, and Actors (Hillsdale, NJ : Lawrence Erlbaum
Associates, 1981), p. xi; further references are cited in the text.
544 STUDIES IN SHORT FICTION

psyches of many humor creators, people driven to be funny, to see humor


in all human experiences .The typical comedian is forced at an early age to
take on adult responsibilities. In some cases, this is the result of poverty or
broken homes; in most cases, it is the result of having at least one non-
nurturant parent, usually the mother. The future comic grows up in an
atmosphere in which the two most fundamental roles (his own as a child
and his parents as parents) are undermined. Because many professional
comedians are forced to confront the untrustworthiness or instability of
life at an early age, they develop a skepticism about pious truths and
social norms. Many of these comics express the view that nothing is as it
appears to be, that concealment, disguise, and deception are universal.
The Fishers suggest that the comedian "keeps conjuring up images of
inconstancy" or comic incongruity in an attempt "to demonstrate, in his
playful manipulation of them, that they are not 'too much' for him" (212).
The comic's lack offaith may explain an unusual pattern of response to
the inkblot test the Fishers administered to their subjects. In their evalua-
tion of Rorschach images, the comics frequently identified a frightening
figure (a bat, wolfman, demon, or monster) and then moved to soften or
domesticate the horror, as in the following examples:
"Bat. It's a mouse with wings. People make up fairy tales about
it. Make it evil. They don't understand. They carry disease but I
don't fear that .... If you look at one [up close] it's a cute mouse
with big teeth."
"Ugliest tree I've ever seen. Terrible ... . Could be a happy tree
....Wants to be seen. Yelling 'I am beautiful.' "(41)
"Tiger. Loveable tiger:'
"Monster.... He's nice. Like Puff the Magic Dragon. Cute
little feet."
"Two devils. Funny devils. Not to be taken seriously. Grim
demeanor. Silly." (42)
In their use of what the Fishers call the "nice monster pattern:' the
comics are quick to see menace or danger and just as quick to avoid taking
it seriously, to turn it into a joke. In this pattern of response, the psyche of
the comic is revealed: an instinctive sense of the unreliability, the duplic-
ity, the danger of the world constantly held in check by humor.
It is possible to see this affective and intellectual pattern as the psy-
chological underpinning of all comedy, all works that refuse to allow
monstrous incongruities (hostile parents, oppressive laws, unjust actions)
to triumph over sympathetic or "nice" characters (children, lovers, citi-
zens). But what is central to my argument here is that the comics studied
by the Fishers are adept at doing the very thing that both the readers and
the characters of Poe's Gothic tales repeatedly attempt but ultimately fail
to achieve: to turn monsters into "funny devils:' Although Poe was capa-
POE'S HUMOR: A PSYCHOLOGICAL ANALYSIS
545

ble of creating humorous works devoid of menace (e.g., "Lionizing") and


works that follow the nice-monster pattern (e.g., "The Sphynx"), most of
his Gothic and mock-Gothic works move through and then beyond this
typically comedic pattern by moving from fear to humor and then back
into fear.
In light of the Fishers' study, given what we know about Poe's child-
hood, Poe's fascin tion with failing humor should be no surprise. Repeat-
edly, Poe's roles as child, son, and heir were threatened: first, in the loss of
his biological parents David and Elizabeth Arnold Poe; then, in the ambi-
guity of his foster-adoptive relationship with the Allans; and finally, in the
loss or alienation of the Allans. Psychoanalytic criticism has surely dem-
onstrated Poe's neurotic fixation on lost maternal love and nurturance in
his redundant production of dying women: the Morellas, Lenores, and
Ligeias who inspire love and fear. A similar ambivalence is apparent in
Poe's relation to John Allan, as the correspondence shows.27 In a single
letter to Allan dated December 22, 1828, Poe writes, "If it is your wish to
forget that I have been your son I am too proud to remind you of it again;'
only to implore a little letter: "Write me, my father." In October and
November, 1829, Poe writes to a friend, John Neal, "I have no father-nor
mother" but begins a letter to Allan with a "Dear Pa." And, looking back
on his childhood around the time he left West Point, Poe writes to Allan:
"it was my crime to have no one on Earth who cared for me" (Jan. 3, 1829).
This sense of insecurity and ambivalence is apparent six years later when
Poe, in a brief autobiographical sketch for Grislwold, falsely states that he
had been adopted by the Allans.
Poe, obviously, did not become a standup comic, or even the writer of
much straightforward comedy, but along the way he acquired a sensitivity
to the incongruous nature of life and a sense that humor is a powerful, if
ultimately ineffective, force in opposition to an arbitrary and capricious
world. Much of his creative energy is focused on the exploration of an
abortive version of the nice-monster pattern, on the interrelatedness of
humor and fear. It is as though Poe's works exist in a dark corner of the
comic's psyche-the well of monsters, the fount offears-where nothing is
as it appears, where no one can be trusted, where duplicity reigns. Like
the comics studied by the Fishers, Poe felt that humor was an appropriate
response to universal duplicity and danger. But Poe was more downcast,
more defeated, less able to cope than these comics. "There's a little lie in
everything;' one of the comics in the Fishers' study says (74), and he might
have gone on to say, "Please, somebody, take my world" -and then just
laughed. But for Poe, life was "uncongenial, and unsatisfactory;' 28 the
knowledge of human nature a source of "Despair."29 The comedians stud-
27 All letters cited are from The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ostrom (New York :

Gordian Press, 1966).


2s Letter to Virginia Poe, June 10, 1846.
29 "Marginalia:• in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A . Harrison (New
York: AMS Press, 1965), XVI, 162; further references are cited in the text.
546 STUDIES IN SHORT FICTION

ied by the Fishers delight in exploding all accepted ideas and values; for
Poe, the failure of all philosophic systems is finally not funny but "mourn-
ful" (164).
For Thompson and others who focus on cleverness, Poe's humor is
·grounded in an elitist irony that overthrows or undermines the mere
terror that credulous, naive, or unamused readers never escape. Poe, in
this view, is a detached artist, manipulating reader responses, always in
control of his materials. In its most extreme formulation, this view can be
seen as an apology for Poe's popularity, an account rooted in the notion
that the common response to Poe is wrongheaded. What should be clear,
however, is that there are different kinds of humor in these tales. It may
well be that the perception of witty but obscure allusions and subtle puns
works to undermine a unified sense of deepening terror. But it should also
be clear that the pattern of collapsing humor at the surface of these
narratives supports the common reader's response to Poe as a writer of
tales of deepening terror.
Two of Poe's critical judgments, both in the "Marginalia;' seem partic-
ularly relevant to the current view of Poe as a satiric ironist. "The serious
...compositions of Dickens have been lost;' Poe wrote, "in the blaze of his
comic reputation" (10). As we have seen, in the emphasis on humorous
irony, satire, and hoax, Poe's serious use of failing humor in many of his
tales and poems has been obscured. Poe also shows an understanding of
the kind of critical process that has led to this confusion when he observes
that "'Ib see distinctly the machinery-the wheels nd pinions-of any
work of Art is, unquestionably, of itself, a pleasure, but one which we are
able to enjoy only just in proportion as we do not enjoy the legitimate
effects designed by the artist ... " (170). The overly subtle view of Poe as
Gothic ironist is based on just this tendency, a criticism so eviscerated as to
miss the collapse of humor in the face of fear, the plunge into a madness
that leaves us able to "laugh but smile no more:' We need to see the
desperation in Poe's humor, the wide-eyed horror of a little boy whose
abandonment and alienation are a perfect, if finally unamusing, meta-
phor for the human condition.30

ao This essay extends and develops an argument about Poe that appears in my study
Comic Effects: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Humor in Literature (Albany, NY: State Univ.
of New York Press, 1989).
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