Which story does Poe scholar Thomas Ollive Mabbott deem as one of Poe’s “great stories, although not one of the most popular?” There may be many obscure stories coming to mind; however, this particular story falls under the category of Horror and may give us insight into the development of the psychological thriller sub-genre, as well as allow us to further study the psychology of Poe’s mind, if even briefly.
In July of 1845, Poe’s horrific tale, “The Imp of the Perverse,” was published in Graham’s Magazine. According to American critic Benjamin De Casseres, “We’ve all got that ‘imp’ in us…What or who is this Imp of the Perverse? Poe doesn’t tell us for he cannot…Why should Nature, which does everything to cause us to fight for self-survival, put a voice-or an imp-in our soul that deliberately advises us to destroy ourselves?…You-and I-know that imp” (Mabbott 1217).
If we draw context from Poe’s story, the imp represents a lingering conscious of doubt and guilt, which ultimately brings the narrator to his psychological demise. The imp also represents contradiction, which Mabbott compares with an inscription in Poe’s early album of verses for “Elizabeth,” stating, “he wrote of his ‘innate love of contradiction'” (1217). Not only was this an early primary source representing this contradiction and the rearing of Poe’s own imp’s head; but there are examples in “The Black Cat” that represent the psychological stress the narrator carries, showing how he contradicts his actions and ultimately indirectly leads the police to the spot of his own crime. This is also comparable to “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which also consequently ends with the narrator revealing his crimes.
According to Christopher Benfey in his article, “Poe and the Unreadable: ‘The Black Cat’ and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, “‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ ‘The Black Cat,’ and ‘The Imp’ all record a confession-a perverse confession since the crimes would otherwise have been undetected…These killers need to confess to the perverse act of having confessed. The fear of the criminals is not the fear of being caught, it is the fear of being cut off, of being misunderstood” (Silverman 37). This is further exemplified by a passage in “Imp”: “Had I not been thus prolix, you might either have misunderstood me altogether, or, with the rabble, have fancied me mad.”
According to Benfey, “Poe’s fascination with the idea of a crime without a clear motive has proved to be one of his richest bequests to later writers,” including Fyodor Dostoevsky with his novel, Crime and Punishment. Benfey concludes his article with a prominent statement, “Poe’s narratives can be read as cautionary tales…These fears are always with us-the fear of love and the fear of isolation. Taken to extremes, they both lead to disaster…To declare oneself safe-as the imp of the perverse tempts us to do-is to be lost” (43).
Perhaps when Poe was writing this “cautionary tale,” he was cautioning not only the reader, but also himself. Drawing perspective from his life in 1845, his career was starting to look up with the success of his poem, “The Raven”; he was attending prominent literary salons; he was described by James Russell Lowell as being “…at once the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works who has written in America”; and Poe joined the editorial staff of Charles Briggs’ The Broadway Journal (The Poe Log, Thomas, Jackson, 490, 505). This half of the year did not lack hardships for Poe, however, with harsh critics and satirists cracking down on and mocking “The Raven,” Poe’s direct involvement with the infamous Poe/Longfellow/”Outis” scandal; and, without doubt, Virginia’s unsteady health affected Poe psychologically. Although Poe may not have had an “imp” on his shoulder or a “voice” in his head, to our knowledge, the contradicting thoughts he may have had, such as seeing his arguably greatest work be both praised and slandered, as well as seeing the rise and fall of his wife’s health, may have thrown Edgar psychologically off-balance; thus presenting to the public examples of the contradictions he referred to even a decade or so prior with “Elizabeth.”
Over all, what is unique about “The Imp of the Perverse” is the seeming lack of acknowledgment of the story, despite being published just three years after “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The themes of guilt and contradiction appearing in the story were undoubtedly carried over from “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” thus showing the evolvement of Poe’s psychological approach between the inner voice and conscious breaking down a wrongful character, consuming the character with contradiction, and ultimately driving the character to unwillingly reveal their torturous actions to a higher authority. Based on evaluating Poe’s psychological approach in “Imp”, we may thus be able to evaluate Poe’s mind, as we discussed earlier regarding his personal life. These significant evaluations of the story and linking it to Poe, as well as the fact that the literary devices Poe used in his story influenced later writers, again, such as Dostoevsky, makes “The Imp of the Perverse” a significant short story in the Poe canon.