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This essay is about how Poe uses the description of environments in his narratives. I shall explain this usage with close reference to several short stories by Poe. A full listing of the stories used appears in the List of Works Consulted at the end of this essay. It is important to note that in all of the stories, the narration is in the first-person. This has deep-reaching effects on how particular environments are described. This will also be commented upon.
The first excerpt comes from a story entitled ?MS Found In a Bottle?:
Our vessel was a beautiful ship of about four hundred tons, copper-fastened, and built at Bombay of Malabar teak. She was freighted with cotton-wool and oil, from the Lachadive islands. We had also on board coir, jaggeree, ghee, cocoa-nuts, and a few cases of opium. The stowage was clumsily done, and the vessel consequently crank.
Poe describes his environments in great detail ? thus giving the reader a clear representation of where the scene is taking place. The above description is short and concise compared to a usual Poe description. Here he has described the ship as beautiful ? this is an opinion and not a description, and Poe often gives opinions in his descriptions. His description consists of the weight of the ship, what it is made of, where it was built, of what it was built, and the cargo it was carrying. A further minute detail is that the ship was lopsided because the cargo wasn?t stowed properly. This is the sort of meticulous detail that Poe generally uses. It is unusual in his works to find a detailed description this short however.
This next excerpt is from the same story, and is more typical of Poe?s descriptive style ? particularly the length of the description:
I have made many observations lately upon the structure of the vessel. Although well armed, she is not, I think, a ship of war. Her rigging, build, and general equipment, all negative a supposition of this kind. What she is not, I can easily perceive –what she is I fear it is impossible to say. I know not how it is, but in scrutinizing her strange model and singular cast of spars, her huge size and overgrown suits of canvas, her severely simple bow and antiquated stern, there will occasionally flash across my mind a sensation of familiar things, and there is always mixed up with such indistinct shadows of recollection, an unaccountable memory of old foreign chronicles and ages long ago. I have been looking at the timbers of the ship. She is built of a material to which I am a stranger. There is a peculiar character about the wood which strikes me as rendering it unfit for the purpose to which it has been applied. I mean its extreme porousness, considered independently by the !
worm-eaten condition which is a consequence of navigation in these seas, and apart from the rottenness attendant upon age. It will appear perhaps an observation somewhat over-curious, but this wood would have every, characteristic of Spanish oak, if Spanish oak were distended by any unnatural means.
The introductory sentence to this paragraph forewarns the reader that Poe is about to make a lengthy description, as he proceeds to do. He offers more speculation than actual description here, but he does to eliminate what is unlikely about the true features of the ship and his rambling resembles the thought processes of the ?average? person.
Poe meanders a lot. By this I mean that there is no clear logical progression to his description. In his meandering, there is a sense that the reader is not actually meant to follow the meaning, and that it is only for the narrator?s benefit that it has been written at all. This is consistent with the story, as the narrator commented earlier in the story that he was going to record his observations in case he did not survive. He mentioned specifically that it would be a journal, but this paragraph does not read as a journal. I reads more as notes taken down with the intent to organise and elaborate later. This could quite possibly be the effect Poe was looking for when he wrote the story.
If one looks closely at this description, the narrator is not actually saying much at all. He says that he really can?t say what type of ship it is, and that the wood it was made of was old and worm-eaten and porous. He then speculates on whether the ship is made of Spanish oak or not. It takes him a half-page long paragraph to do this, when he could have used a paragraph the size of the previous one. Long meandering paragraphs are Poe?s style, and he nearly always uses them.
The next excerpt is from ?The Oblong Box?, and is another atypical description:
Now, my state-room opened into the main cabin, or dining-room, as did those of all the single men on board. Wyatt’s three rooms were in the after-cabin, which was separated from the main one by a slight sliding door, never locked even at night. As we were almost constantly on a wind, and the breeze was not a little stiff, the ship heeled to leeward very considerably; and whenever her starboard side was to leeward, the sliding door between the cabins slid open, and so remained, nobody taking the trouble to get up and shut it. But my berth was in such a position, that when my own state-room door was open, as well as the sliding door in question (and my own door was always open on account of the heat,) I could see into the after-cabin quite distinctly, and just at that portion of it, too, where were situated the state-rooms of Mr. Wyatt.
This is a concise description where Poe gets straight to the point. It is something like a floor plan, with directions but no distance markers. He offers no opinions in this paragraph, which is unusual ? opinions being almost essential to Poe?s descriptions. Poe appears to find it difficult to describe a scene without offering an opinion as to why it might appear as it does. He does, however, have the narrator comment on the reason why his ?door was always open?. He does so in brackets, though, so as not to appear to detract from the descriptive nature of the paragraph.
Poe?s attention to detail in this paragraph is minute as per usual. Poe puts a lot of irrelevant information into his descriptions. For instance, in the paragraph above, the phrase ?never locked even at night?. Never locked means just that: never locked. There was no need to qualify whether the door was locked at night or not, because if was never locked, then obviously it wouldn?t be locked at night. Of course it could be argued that the implication here is that a reader might think that it was obvious to lock a door at night. This in my opinion is a false argument. Without the mention that the door was not locked at night, a reader would not be likely to think that it should be, because the thought would not come to mind without the suggestion.
The next excerpt is from ?The Cask of Amontillado?:
At the most remote end of the crypt there appeared another less spacious. Its walls had been lined with human remains, piled to the vault overhead, in the fashion of the great catacombs of Paris. Three sides of this interior crypt were still ornamented in this manner. From the fourth side the bones had been thrown down, and lay promiscuously upon the earth, forming at one point a mound of some size. Within the wall thus exposed by the displacing of the bones, we perceived a still interior crypt or recess, in depth about four feet, in width three, in height six or seven. It seemed to have been constructed for no especial use within itself, but formed merely the interval between two of the colossal supports of the roof of the catacombs, and was backed by one of their circumscribing walls of solid granite.
This description is deliberately graphic so as to set the right ?mood? for the reader. The reader knows that something terrible is going to happen, and therefore has an expectation The language with which he accomplishes this includes the words ?human remains?, ?vault?, ?crypt?, ?bones?, ?catacombs? etc. These are all words associated with death and dying, and therefore the description takes on a dark, foreboding tone.
Although this story is written in the first-person, it could not be deduced from this paragraph. The narration here shows the narrator describing the scene as if from a great distance, using perhaps the clinical detachment that doctors develop to distance themselves from horrifying injuries to their patients. There are no personal pronouns used at all thus there is no link from the scene to the narrator. Considering the horrific nature of what he is about to do to his friend, then it is another plot device that Poe uses to set the tone for the reader.
Poe uses the first-person point of view to write the majority of his stories, and all of the stories from which excerpts have been taken were written in this way. This changes the way a reader would look at the descriptions, because they would be coming from someone who is actually in the events, rather than someone who is telling something remote from them.
There are many advantages to using the first-person in stories, and these are especially evident when the narrator is required to describe a scene. The first of which I shall speak is allowance for opinion.
When humans speak from their own point of view, they undoubtably will give an opinion of some sort, whether it is noticable or not. This is easy to find in three of the four descriptions above. The first three descriptions make use of giving opinion, whereas because of the detached nature of the fourth description, opinion is not a viable tool.
In a first-person narrative, opinion could be as simple as a choice of adjective, or as complex as why the narrator thinks something is the way it is. For example, in the first paragraph, opinion is used twice – once covertly and once quite openly. The covert opinion is the description of the ship as being ?beautiful?, and the open opinion is that the ?stowage was clumsily done?. Both these opinions serve purposes within the description. The covert opinion indicates to the reader that the narrator can appreciate beauty, and that he knows enough about ships to be able to tell when one is beautful. The open opinion also shows that the narrator knows about ships, as he can tell that the reason why the ship was lopsided was that the ?stowage was clumsily done?.
The second advantage of using a first-person narrative in a description is conjecture. First-person narratives are very open in their styles, in that they allow for a lot of things that normally wouldn?t be permissable in a third-person narrative. A first-person narrator is able to make deductions about the world around them, and Poe has used this to his advantage, especially in the second paragraph. The narrator here has ?made many observations . . . upon the structure of the ship?, and has eliminated unlikely possiblilties and favoured more likely ones. He has used conjecture and deduction throughout the paragraph in order to give the reader a clear picture of just how much he does know about the ship. This is an effective technique, and gives a sense of realism and therefore credibility to the narrator, which helps the story to become a lot more readable.
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate what this essay has discussed. This essay has been about how Poe uses the description of environments in his narratives. I have explained this usage with close reference to several short stories by Poe. The effects of the first-person narrative on description have also been discussed in detail, particularly the use of opinion and conjecture.
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