Poe Study Guides
Michael J. Cummings...©
Note: In “The Imp of the Perverse,” an unnamed narrator in a prison
cell addresses an unnamed listener (or listeners).
explaining human behavior and its causes, researchers in various fields
have failed to note that one type of behavior has no reasonable cause,
the narrator asserts. Furthermore, they have failed to realize that this
type of behavior is normal and even necessary.
is the force behind this behavior? It is an “innate and primitive principle
. . . a paradoxical something, which we may call perverseness, for want
of a more characteristic term,” the narrator says. This perverseness causes
us to act even though we have no moral or logical reason to act.
it makes no sense to act without a good reason. However, at certain times
and under certain conditions, “it becomes absolutely irresistible” to act
without a worthwhile reason. Often it is the wrongness of an action, or
an undesired result it could cause, that impels us to carry out the action.
For example, in a conversation, a person may wish to please his listener
by being brief and to the point. But when perverseness takes hold of him,
he rambles on to annoy or anger the listener.
when a person has an urgent task to perform–one that he well knows he must
take care of immediately–he puts off the task because of a perverse impulse.
The following day, the task becomes even more urgent. However, the desire
to put it off, now even stronger, results in further delay. Finally, the
deadline arrives and passes. The person may feel free and liberated. His
energy revives and he goes on with his life.
consider this situation. We stand at the edge of a cliff. As we look down,
the narrator says, “we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink
from the danger. Unaccountably we remain. By and by, a delightfully horrifying
thought occurs to us: How would we feel during “the sweeping precipitancy
of a fall from such a height . . . And because our reason violently deters
us from the brink, therefore do we the most impetuously approach it . .
. If there be no friendly arm to check us, or if we fail in a sudden effort
to prostrate ourselves backward from the abyss, we plunge, and are destroyed."
these instances, the narrator explains, “the spirit of the perverse” gains
control. We carry out an act simply because we know we should not. We might
think that this spirit springs from the devil himself were it not for the
fact that sometimes it operates in “furtherance of good.”
narrator points out to his listener that he is telling him about the power
of perverseness to answer his question about why the narrator is shackled
in a cell as a condemned prisoner. The fact is, the narrator says, he is
a victim of the Imp of the Perverse.
weeks, for months, I pondered upon the means of the murder," the narrator
says. "I rejected a thousand schemes, because their accomplishment involved
a chance of detection.”
he says, he hit upon an idea after reading about a French woman, Madame
Pilau, who became severely ill after inhaling the smoke from a candle that
had been accidentally poisoned. What he did was to make his own candle,
poisoned, and substitute it for the one on the candle stand next to the
bed of his intended victim. The next morning, the man was found dead, and
the coroner concluded that it was a case of “Death by the visitation of
inheriting the man’s estate, the narrator says, he did not worry about
being caught, for he had carefully disposed of the candle. No other clues
existed to link him to the crime. Then one day the words “I am safe” kept
coming back to him in his mind, like the words of a haunting song. Sometime
later, while walking on a street, he found himself saying, “I am safe–I
am safe–yes–if I be not fool enough to make open confession.” His utterance
unnerved him, for he recognized it as a fit of perversity. He had suffered
such fits in the past, and never once was he able to resist them.
first, I made an effort to shake off this nightmare of the soul," the narrator
says. "I walked vigorously–faster–still faster–at length I ran. I felt
a maddening desire to shriek aloud."
pedestrians saw him running like a madman, he says, they pursued him. And
then, unable to contain the impulse inside him, he released his “long imprisoned
secret.” He said enough to send himself "to the hangman and to hell."
The action takes place in
the 1830s or 1840s in a prison cell in which the inmate, condemned to death,
tells the story of the strange impulse that impelled him to confess to
The Narrator: An apparently
demented man who appears intelligent and well educated. He inherits an
estate after murdering its owner, then ends up on death row in a prison
after a perverse impulse causes him to confess the murder.
Unnamed person(s) listening to the narrator's story.
Madame Pilau: Woman
who died after inhaling the smoke from an accidentally poisoned candle.
After reading about her, the narrator used a poisoned candle to commit
The Murder Victim:
Unnamed person whose property passed to the narrator.
who witness the narrator's confession.
of Work and Year of Publication
“The Imp of the Perverse”
is a short story in the horror genre. It was published in Graham’s Magazine
in July 1845.
unidentified narrator tells the story in first-person point of view to
an unidentified listener or several listeners. Because of his apparently
disturbed state of mind, the narrator is unreliable. His story unfolds
in the style of an essay, but this style changes to that of a short story
when the narrator begins to address his listener, saying, “I have said
thus much, that in some measure I may answer your question, that I may
explain to you why I am here, that I may assign to you something that shall
have at least the faint aspect of a cause for my wearing these fetters,
and for my tenanting this cell of the condemned.”
part of the story written in essay style contains technical
terms from philosophy, logic, and religious mysticism. But Poe is not
attempting to show off his knowledge of abstruse subjects. Rather, he is
exhibiting a tendency of the narrator–driven by his “imp of the perverse”–to
elaborate annoyingly on a topic under discussion. The narrator himself
later says that everyone at some time experiences an “earnest desire to
tantalize a listener by circumlocution.” Although the speaker may
realize that he risks angering his listener, he nevertheless uses wordy,
roundabout language simply because the imp inside him incites him to such
action. The impulse to ramble “increases to a wish, the wish to a desire,
the desire to an uncontrollable longing, and the longing (to the deep regret
and mortification of the speaker, and in defiance of all consequences)
is indulged.” After the narrator gives other examples of perverse activity,
he tells his listener, “Had I not been thus prolix (wordy), you might either
have misunderstood me altogether, or, with the rabble, have fancied me
mad. As it is, you will easily perceive that I am one of the many uncounted
victims of the Imp of the Perverse.”
There is an impulse–or an
imp–in human beings that impels them on occasion to act irrationally, without
apparent motive. This strange whim or caprice may be irresistible and may
cause a person to carry out an annoying or embarrassing act–or even an
act that can result in death.
The climax occurs when the
narrator says he could not resist the impulse to confess his crime in front
of pedestrians on a street.
Imp in All of Us
the narrators of other Poe stories–including "The Black Cat," "The Tell-Tale
Heart," and "The Cask of Amontillado"–the narrator of "The Imp of the Perverse"
is obviously mentally disturbed. However, the reader realizes that there
appears to be more than a modicum of truth in what he is saying. Consider,
for example, that many of us carry out “perverse” acts that defy logic
and reason–acts such as stepping on the cracks in sidewalks, concentrating
on the heartbeat so intensely–without really wanting to–that it goes out
of rhythm, or taking a roller-coaster that we know will frighten us half
to death. There is a little mind game that further demonstrates the presence
of an imp of the perverse in us. For the next thirty seconds, look up from
this page and try not to think of an elephant. Chances are you did not
succeed; the imp in you placed an elephant in your thoughts even though
you attempted to think of something else.
of Terms in the Story
some people, thoughts of an undesired act–such as stuttering, blushing,
falling, or losing bowel control in a public place–become obsessions. So
intense are these obsessions that they, perversely, cause the undesired
was ahead of his time in calling attention to such thoughts, which are
symptoms of a mental condition that modern psychologists call obsessive-compulsive
disorder. Fortunately, medicines and therapies are available to repress
or eliminate obsessional thoughts.
A posteriori: Term
used in philosophy to describe knowledge obtained after observation, experimentation,
A priori: Term used
in philosophy to describe knowledge obtained through reasoning without
observation, experimentation, and/or testing; knowledge already evident
to the intellect.
which crows at dawn. In modern terminology, a chanticleer is an alarm clock.
Clew: Variant spelling
Kabbala (or Cabala, Kabala):
Collection of 13th Century Jewish teachings that interpret hidden meanings
in Hebrew scripture; Jewish mysticism.
of philosophy that attempts to explain the nature, origin, meaning, and
properties of whatever exists.
Prima mobile: Root
cause of action; that which is primarily responsible for causing an action.
or first principles. The singular is principium.
System developed by Franz-Joseph Gall (1758-1828) asserting that a personality
trait depended in the intensity of its manifestation on the size of the
brain section governing the trait. Gall believed that he could estimate
the strength of a personality trait by measuring the portion of the skull
that covers the brain section controlling the trait.
Prolix: wordy; verbose.
Revelation: The will
of God as revealed to humankind through prophecy or another means; the
final book of the New Testament.
of Johann Kaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832), who worked with Franz-Joseph Gall.
(See phrenology, above). It was Spurzheim who
first called Gall’s system phrenology.
more than is expected; going beyond the call of duty.
Swoon: fainting spell.
Edgar Allan Poe was born
on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was
taken into the home of a childless couple–John Allan, a successful businessman
in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe’s godfather.
At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools
there. After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied
at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S.
Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school. After
beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his
young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined
the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while,
he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his
poem “The Raven” in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international
fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented
the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an
outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never
really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several
people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble
paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing
cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.