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Edgar Allan Poe is a well-known American writer who lived from 1809 to 1849, dying at the young age of 40.  His death is surrounded by unusual circumstances.  He was found lying in the street one October evening, delirious and wearing someone else’s clothes.  He was taken to a hospital, where he cried “Reynolds!” through the night, a person no one has ever identified.  The next morning, he died.  He was buried, and then reburied sometime later in a ‘better’ spot because of his popularity.  His grave is still visited today, and is a very popular tourist site ( may seem strange to begin an essay about an author by discussing his death, but Poe was obsessed with death and frequently used it as a theme in his works.  This is likely due to the fact that he was orphaned as a child, and was insecure for the rest of his life.  He had an extreme fascination with death, with death in life, and with other strange happenings (VanSpanckeren).Once he was an adult, Poe’s situation didn’t improve much.  He married his cousin and spent some time with her in New York, where he made little money.  Most of his adult life was spent with no recognition and in poverty, a depressing and likely frustrating circumstance.  In addition, he also struggled with alcohol and drugs (Scharf).  These circumstances were likely prime fodder for his depressing tales.One of Poe’s most well-known is story is “The Tell-Tale Heart,” in which the main character kills someone and buries him beneath the floorboards of his house.  The theme of death is immediately apparent in this story – a murder is committed to start it off.  What is far more interesting, though, is that Poe’s character is slowly driven insane by listening to the heart of the dead man beating incessantly beneath the floorboards.  He sits quietly at night, listening to the heart, knowing that by beating, it is announcing to all what he has done.  This story shows a fascination with death, with life after death, and with dealing with death in general.“The Tell-Tale Heart” is not the only one of Poe’s works that deals with death.  In fact, nearly all of his most famous stories and poems deal with death in some way or another.  “The Raven,” his most famous poem, is also riddled with a death theme.  The narrator is sitting quietly in a chair, near midnight, mourning his “lost Lenore” (who, presumably, is dead).  The first premise of this poem is sadness due to death and loss.  Then, as he is sitting, a raven comes.  A raven is a black bird which eats flesh, and therefore symbolizes death.  The poem centers around this raven, who has potentially come to remind him of Lenore’s death, or to mock his sadness over it, or simply to be a symbol that death is a part of life that one cannot escape.  The poem is also filled with repetition, including the haunting line “nevermore” (VanSpanckeren).Beyond the obvious themes of death in Poe’s work, there are more subtle hints.  For example, in another section of “The Raven,” Poe says:Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful DisasterFollowed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden boreOf “never—never more!”This short excerpt (from a very long poem) shows many more themes of death.  “Disaster” is likely a mention of death, as the disaster that has recently befallen the narrator is the death of his Lenore.  “Unhappy master” could be death, who has come and claimed Lenore.  The “unhappy master” as death could be that no matter how one tries to escape, death will always catch up.  That is, it ‘masters’ everyone eventually.  The use of the words “dirges,” “melancholy” and “burden” are also very negative and death related.  A dirge is usually a very slow, solemn song that is played at a funeral.  Melancholy is sad, and a burden is something terrible to bear (  All of these words portray the narrator’s feelings, which are dark and filled with death, as death seems to be coming at him from all angles.These themes are, according to many sources, predominantly due to the deaths of all the important women in Poe’s life.  According to Scharf, “His natural mother died when Poe was only two and his stepmother, France Allan, died in 1829 when Poe was twenty, but the most influential experience of death for Poe was that of his wife, Virginia in 1847.  Virginia contracted tuberculosis in 1842, which was followed by five years of ‘physical exhaustion and nervous collapse’ for Poe (Scharf).”  This could explain Poe’s preoccupation with Lenore in “The Raven,” which was written in 1845, during his wife’s struggle with tuberculosis, which he likely knew she would die from.You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. AT LENGTH I would be avenged; this was a point definitively settled — but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.  The Cask of Amontillado, Edgar Allan Poe.In The Cask of Amontillado, one of Poe’s short stories, death is a prominent theme.  The main character wishes to exact revenge upon Fortunato.  The narrator never says what Fortunato has done to wrong him; only that he has.  The narrator coldly and clearly leads Fortunato into his own wine cellars to show him a rare bottle of wine, an Amontillado.  The narrator is perfectly calm and rational as he does this.  He offers, graciously, to turn back several times due to Fortunato’s poor health – Fortunato refuses, because he is so interested in the wine.  Once in the basement, he calmly chains his friend to the wall and builds a brick wall to seal a portion of the cellar off, effectively burying his friend alive.  He plans this death, and is not greedy or excited by it – he carries out his entire plan with incredible detachment.  The final line of the story describes how the wall still remains, years later.  There is almost a note of pride in having carried off this death so carefully and calmly.It is this attitude that makes Poe’s stories so vividly terrifying at times.  Horror was not uncommon in the nineteenth century, but no one was as fascinated as Poe with the exact process of death, and the emotions that went along with it (Scharf).  The matter-of-fact way that Poe’s characters handle death at times (particularly in this example) is what makes the story so scary.  Death is bad enough, but cold-blooded death is something else entirely.Poe wrote many other stories that focused around death.  In “The House of Usher,” two male friends are in the house, and one’s sister is dead and has been placed in a temporary tomb.  It turns out that she has been buried alive, and she comes back and dies and kills the men.  Here, Poe’s fascination is with the idea of death that is not really death, and what happens when death lives on.  To him, it apparently produces more death.Poe’s fascination with death manifested itself in a myriad of ways through his writing.  He was known as the primary horror and macabre writer of his day, and is remembered and thought of that way even today.   BibliographyEdgar Allan Poe (2006).  Wikipedia, the Online Encyclopedia.  Accessed November 1, 2006.  Website: (2006).  Accessed November 1, 2006.  Website:, Edgar Allan (1846). The Cask of Amontillado.  Accessed November 1, 2006.  Website:, Douglas (2000).  Edgar Allan Poe: Biographical Contexts For “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  Accessed November 1, 2006. Website:

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