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Michael J. Cummings...© 2008
Editor's Note: In “The Imp of the Perverse,” an unnamed narrator in a prison cell addresses an unnamed listener (or listeners).
.......In 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.
.......What 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.
.......Theoretically, 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.
.......Sometimes, 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.
.......Now 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."
.......In 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.”
.......The 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.
.......“For 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.”
.......Then, 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 God.”
.......After 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.
......."At 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."
.......When 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 a murder.
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.
Listener(s): 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 his murder.
The Murder Victim: Unnamed person whose property passed to the narrator.
Pedestrians: People who witness the narrator's confession.
Type 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.
Narration and Style
.......An 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.”
.......The 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.
The Imp in All of Us
.......Like 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. Definitions of Terms in the Story
.......In 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 acts.
.......Poe 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, and/or testing.
A priori: Term used in philosophy to describe knowledge obtained through reasoning without observation,
experimentation, and/or testing; knowledge already evident to the intellect.
Chanticleer: Rooster, which crows at dawn. In modern terminology, a chanticleer is an alarm clock.
Clew: Variant spelling of clue.
Kabbala (or Cabala, Kabala): Collection of 13th Century Jewish teachings that interpret hidden meanings in Hebrew scripture; Jewish mysticism.
Metaphysics: Branch 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.
Principia: Fundamentals or first principles. The singular is principium.
Phrenology: 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.
Spurzheimites: Followers 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.
Supererogation: Doing 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.