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Death and Betrayal: The Story Of Poe’s Life

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) was born to traveling actors in Boston. He was hit hard with death at a young age as his mother and father both died within two days when Poe was only two years old. The wealthy John Allan and his wife became the legal guardians of young Edgar. When Edgar was fourteen, he met the first woman in his life, Jane Stith Stanard, the inspiration to his poem “To Helen”(1831). However, Mrs. Stanard passed away only a year after Poe first met her. In 1825 Poe became engaged with Elmira Royster. While he was away from her, he would write her many letters; however, Elmira’s parents intercepted the letters. Edgar wondered why she never replied, and when he went back to see her, he found out that she married someone else. This left Poe in a very depressed state. Poe’s relationship with the Allans was never secure, and this became evident when John Allan refused to pay Edgar’s debts at the University of Virginia. Edgar was then kicked out of school. In the next couple of years Poe has to fight through the death of his foster mother and his brother. Then in 1833 he moved in with his Aunt Maria Clemm. John Allan died a year later. He then married his cousin Virginia three years later. Virginia then died in 1842 (Anderson 9-64). Poe was introduced to death and betrayal throughout his young life leaving him in a very depressed state, and these traits are present throughout his short stories and poems.

Edgar Allan Poe’s life had a lot to do with his madness in his writings. This is present in Poe’s short story “The Black Cat”(1843). “On the night of the day on which this most cruel deed was done, I was aroused from sleep by the cry of fire. The curtains of my bed were in flames. The whole house was blazing..” “The destruction was complete. My entire worldly wealth was swallowed up, and I resigned myself thenceforward to despair” (The Black Cat 225). This excerpt from “The Black Cat” typified Poe’s life. His life was a total destruction. While Poe was an adult, he said that the fire that destroyed the Richmond Theater and killed seventy-two people also took the lives of his parents (Anderson 11-12). However, this is not true as his mother died of tuberculosis and his father abandoned his family and his death is unknown. Poe is thought to have said this primarily because this elucidation brings forth a “dramatic light” (Anderson 12) on his younger years (Anderson 12). The fire also symbolizes “complete moral disintegration” (Gargano 91). The only thing left after the fire was the wall with the “portraiture” (Gargano 91) of Pluto. The only thing that survived the conflagration would bedevil him by his “ineradicable sin against his own nature” (Gargano 91). In Edgar Allan Poe’s life everything that made him happy would be destroyed mostly from death.

As an adult Poe is thought to have been impotent. The hanging of the cat in “The Black Cat” is used to symbolize the impotence of Poe (Hoffman 86).

The hanging of the black cat comes next. Princess Bonaparte considers the hung cat to be not in fact the victim of the impenitent narrator, but the penis of the impotent author. The cat is so emphatically a wife-substitute, though , that I find it difficult to think it at the same time a penis-substitute. I prefer to think that hanging can represent female impotence as well as male, and that Poe’s mad narrator is displacing onto the surrogate for his wife, whose passion, whose clutching bites and embraces menace him, the impotence which he himself cannot escape (Hoffman 86).

From Poe’s childhood we can determine the effect of his foster father’s inability to produce a baby on his sex life (Canby 144). “If Mr. Krutch’s theory of sexual impotence with a consequent singularity in his relations with women, still awaits more knowledge of Poe’s youth, it is sufficiently substantiated in his later life and work to serve as a handle for criticism” (Canby 144).

The two cats in “The Black Cat” are very closely related. “It was a black cat – a very large one – fully as large as Pluto, and closely resembling him in every respect but one” (The Black Cat 226). The happiness of the narrator is being blocked by the two cats. He believes that the two cats are assessing and blaming him (Knapp 146). In Poe’s life there were many things that prevented him from having happiness. His foster parents did not show him the love and affection that a young boy needs. Poe was miserable from the moment he became a part of their family. Also, Poe’s first fianc? left him for someone else. The Allan’s and his first fiance represent the two cats in the story.

Poe was introduced to death and betrayal throughout his young life leaving him in a very depressed state, and these traits are present throughout his short stories and poems. Most of the mystery of Poe is gone; however, some is still left (Canby 144).

We know, in fact almost too much about Poe – or rather, too many Poes – for a clear picture of the man and an easy comprehension of his work. There is no mystery left in him except the mystery of art, and yet it is as a man of mystery that he is constantly presented. Contradictory, extraordinary, perverse, he certainly is, but not mysterious except in so far as the sources of beauty are always mysterious. Few writers have left more abundant evidence of the workings of their minds. Few writers have had the nature of their minds, with the impact of circumstances upon them, so elaborately analyzed and explained (Canby 144).

Circumstances throughout Poe’s life are illustrated throughout the short story “The Black Cat”. His impotence is symbolized by the hanging of the first cat. The fire that burned down the narrators house represents the fire at the Richmond Theater. Finally, Poe was a miserable man that led a tough life and left him in eternal grievance as shown by the melancholy in his writings.

Anderson, Madelyn Klein. Edgar Allan Poe, A Mystery. United States of

America: Justin Books, Ltd., 1993.

Canby, Henry Seidel. “Edgar Allan Poe.” In Nineteenth Century Literature

Criticism, Vol. 55. Ed. Denise Kasinec and Mary L. Onorato. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1997.

Gargano, James W. ““The Black Cat”: Perverseness Reconsidered.” In Twentieth

Century Interpretations of Poe’s Tales. Ed. William L. Howarth. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971.

Hoffman, Daniel. “The Marriage Group.” In Modern Critical Views, Edgar

Allan Poe. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985.

Knapp, Bettina L. Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.,


Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Black Cat.” In Complete Tales & Poems Of Edgar Allan

Poe. New York: Vintage Books, 1975.

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