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The Imp in us All

“The Imp is taken to be a self destructive force present in all of us but with important difference in each person according to the power of will and morality”. (Edwards 162) Those important differences both connect and individualize the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Imp of the Perverse, The Tell Tale Heart, and William Wilson all demonstrate Poe’s fascination and exploration with inner conflict and torturer. These short stories deal with the same issue but present it in different ways by making the characters vary when describing their will and their morality. Hawthorne punctuates this fact through his famous character Reverend Dimmesdale from the Scarlet Letter. He demonstrates that even a man made with extremely high moral fabric can be tortured with inner conflict and agony. All of the characters possess some hidden secret that has taken root in their soul either consciously, or subconsciously, and grows until it can not be contained within the human person. It has to find a way out, and it is that desire that drives the characters to apparent insanity. The main characters from The Imp of the Perverse, The Tell Tale Heart, and William Wilson along with Reverend Dimmesdale all struggled with varying degrees of inner conflict after committing their own personal sin.

The one character that displays the least amount of morality is from, The Imp of the Perverse. His inner struggle deals with revealing his secret on the basis that we are urged to do things that are either unsafe to ourselves or wrong for our best interest. The narrator describes this impulse in an extremely confident manner by appealing to logic,

I am not more certain that I breathe, than that the assurance of the wrong or error of any action is often the one unconquerable force which impels us, and alone impels us to it’s prosecution. Nor will this overwhelming tendency to do wrong for the wrong’s sake, admit of analysis, or resolution into ulterior elements. It is a radical, a primitive impulse-elementary. (Poe-163)

Doing wrong for wrong’s sake is both a motive and excuse in this tale. The narrator commits his sin by following this sort of logic but he is eventually betrayed by it. The perverse impulse to always do the wrong thing is the disease in which this character is plagued. He is not a moral man; he is both selfish, and greedy, and acts only to bring himself pleasure or peace of mind. His lack of morality prevented him from even thinking about the murder he had committed for years. He enjoyed the fact that he had gotten away with the crime and received many things from the murdered mans estate. “For a very long period of time I was accustomed to revel in this sentiment. It afforded me real delight than all the mere worldly advantages accruing from my sin”. (Poe-166) However as with all of the characters that will be investigated the voice of the conscience started to make itself heard. Quietly at first it began to make him question his safety, “I would perpetually catch myself pondering upon my security, and repeating, in a low under-tone, the phrase, ‘I am safe.’” (Poe-166) The inner struggle that began with that thought will torment the character until the truth is revealed. The years of living with the secret allowed it to gain strength, and voice, until it emerged, “The long-imprisoned secret burst forth from my soul”. (Poe-167) Betrayed by his own logic of thought the man relates the story form his prison cell. The climax is common to both Poe and Hawthorne. When the inner struggle concludes the man is not the apparent winner. However the struggle is worse then any punishment that they might receive.

The second character of Poe’s is the narrator from The Tell-Tale Heart. The story is similar to The Imp of Perverse in many ways. The main characters both murder an innocent older man in their sleep and seemingly get away with. They both want to tell their story and they both are driven close to insanity until they are forced to tell the truth. Stephen Peithman states, “Typically, Poe’s narrator is mad yet lucid-and not merely in order to tell the tale. It is this insistent lucidity that tips off the reader to his insanity”.(Kesterson-78) With the stories being so similar it is imperative for Poe to create subtle differences that make the two tales able to stand on their own. The inner struggle of this second character develops much more quickly in this story. His whole torment happens within one day of the actual murder. This would lead the reader to believe that this man is one of weaker will and with more morality then the previously mentioned character. In fact the man hears the beating of the heart before he actually kills the old man, “the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant. The old man’s terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment!-do you mark me well”.(Poe-137) The beating of the heart continues after the murder and it is then that Poe investigates another aspect of inner struggle. By making the police come to scene the man is forced into immediate confrontation. Even though he is sure that there was no trace of the sin committed, his mental torture was so agonizing, and apparent, he found it impossible to maintain his secret any longer. Poe uses the quick turn of event to show how insane the actual character was and to show that he was long in need of help. However it is the man’s personal struggle that makes him confess to his sin and take responsibility for his action and his insanity. Poe uses minor differences to create a completely different story and a completely different character.

The Imp of the Perverse, and The Tell-Tale Heart demonstrate what the conscience can do in a relatively short period of time when left alone to deal with the actions done in the physical world. They highlight the point that when an action is complete it does not mean that it is over. Poe uses the complexity of the human mind and occurrences from the everyday world to create two tales that posses characters that share the role of both protagonist and antagonist. Sarah Whitman claims that,

Poe anticipates much of what concerned the psychological movement later in the century and has continued to our own day. He writes, of course, before Freud, Jung, or Adler, and thus his vocabulary is not the same. He uses age-old symbols and myths to frame his tales. (Whitman- 78)

He maintains an early understanding of the power of the mind and the subconscious, which made the stories, interesting to the public and timeless. With this in mind it is easy to see how Poe created yet another story that deals with human psychology but is presented completely different then we have previously seen. Poe illustrates what can happen when the inner struggle is a long-term battle of self-denial in his story William Wilson.

The final Short story of Poe’s to examine is William Wilson. William Wilson offers the reader a different sort of story while maintaining the same themes. Poe makes William start off in the same confession like tone like all the previous narrators. His depressed, and melancholy tone helps the reader to picture another solitary man that is trapped in a prison that is guarded by his own personal demons. Everett Edward explains,

The story’s moral is similar to one of Hawthorne’s. Wilson has cut himself off from humanity by his pride; he has committed the Unpardonable Sin. The psychological interpretation is of a man sinking into paranoia. A supernatural interpretation would not work. If we interpret William Wilson in terms of a man at war with his own conscience, then the Hawthorne comparison is an apt one, for in destroying the possibility of that conscience ever governing his life, Wilson cuts himself off from God’s grace. (Edwards 190)

William Wilson is more complex than the other tales; it deals with a split personality that is fighting with itself to gain dominance. The narrator refuses to agree with anything this second half tries to impose on him. Poe shows the struggle the average person can go through when coming to terms with himself. It is precisely this struggle that Poe exploits and uses as the main point of the conflict. Another thing that Poe illustrate is the length of time and effort that goes into avoid and deterring the second honest self. The narrator changes schools and even his living quarters just to avoid this struggle that is going on with himself. The reader along with the narrator soon learns that this is not a struggle that can be run away from. Poe uses the faceless stranger to exemplify the fact that this is once again an inner battle has to be settled within the mind, in order to bring the person as a whole, back to peace. The life style that the narrator chooses to live does not agree with the better half. The sin of gambling, cheating, and lying are all issues that rip and tear away at William’s mind until the faceless William appears to betray his cheating ways and interrupt his dishonesty, “Gentle men he said, . . . Please to examine, at you leisure, the inner lining of the cuff of his left sleeve, and the several little packages which may be found in the somewhat capacious pockets of his embroidered morning wrapper.”(Poe-91) In reality William has moments of moral rightness that he blames on the other William. It is this higher morality and stronger will that allows this struggle to continue for the number of years that it does. William does not want to realize what his true self is capable of, and that true self is tired of standing by while William continues to sin. As Edwards said, William never allows that conscience to ever govern his life, “You have conquered, and I yield. Yet, henceforward art thou also dead-dead to the world, to heaven and to hope! In me didst thou exist-and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou has murdered thyself.” (Poe-95)

Poe uses different strategies in order to give each story a distinctive personality. He experiments with different scenarios, times scales, and character traits, but keeps the theme constant. The limited characters, and lonely settings, show how the individuals only had themselves as enemies. The Imp of Perverse, The Tell Tale Heart, and William Wilson all present different characters that are dealing with the same inner issues, but the prime example of inner struggle is supplied by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Scarlet Letter differs from the other stories because it is a novel. It supplies the reader with more evidence because it is simply longer. Hawthorne allows the reader to get an excellent look into Dimmesdale’s tragic struggle during the seven years he kept his sin a secret from the community. Hawthorne also gives the reader the opportunity to compare and contrast the difference between one who is fighting with a struggle that has to remain internal and secret, and one who is forced to confront her sin on a daily basis. Hawthorne lets the reader decide which scenario would be the better to find themselves in. He also steers emotions form one position to the other in order to make his final point more effective. As like Poe, Hawthorne strives to illustrate what happens to a man that is left to struggle with a sin alone with his conscience.

Reverend Dimmesdale is a very interesting character because he is supposed to be a holy man. His honor as a preacher prevented him from speaking up at the proper time. His life and reputation was in danger and he choose to take his sin and deal with it on a personal internal level. It is this choice that slowly starts to drain the life from Dimmesdale. He can not live with the guilt, and the sin, so he inflicts his own punishment upon himself.

His inward trouble drove him to practices more in accordance with the old, corrupted faith of Rome, than with the better light of the church in which he had been born and bred. In Mr. Dimmesdale’s closet, under lock and key, there was a bloody scourge. Often times, this Protestant and Puritan divine had plied it on his own shoulders; laughing bitterly at himself and while, and smiting so much the more pitilessly because of that bitter laugh. It was his custom, too, as it has been that of many other pious Puritans, to fast,-not, however, like them, in order to purify the body and render it the fitter medium of celestial illumination, but rigorously, and until his knees trembled beneath him, as an act of penance. (Hawthorne- 79)

Dimmesdale uses physical pain to temporally escape from the mental anguish that he experiences on a daily basis. The constant defamation of his body never gives him more than and instant of relief, therefore he continually has to develop new ways to punish himself for the sin that he can not come to terms with. As Hester’s suffering begins to end Dimmesdale’s progress and he begins to realize that it is the act of hiding his sin that is causing his extreme pain. When asked by Chillingworth if Hester is less miserable because of the letter on her chest he responds, “There was a look of pain in her face, which I would gladly have been spared the sight. But still, methinks, it must needs be better for the sufferer to be free to show his pain, as this poor woman Hester is, than to cover it all up in his heart”. (Hawthorne-74) Dimmesdale can feel the damage he is causing by holding on to his sin. If he could let it out the way Hester had to, his suffering would stop. Hawthorne wants Dimmesdale to be face with this choice. He wants the reader to see that it is his choice to make, and he can easily admit to what he has done. Consequences would follow but the suffering would stop. Dimmesdale is finally forced just like all the other characters to tell the truth. He makes several attempts and fails but finally when the end of his life is near his conscience forces him to finally tell the truth, “For an instant, the gaze of the horror-stricken multitude was concentrated on the ghastly miracle; while the minister stood, with a flush of triumph in his face, as one who, in a crisis of acutest pain, had won a victory”. (Hawthorne 140)

The main characters from The Imp of the Perverse, The Tell Tale Heart, and William Wilson along with Reverend Dimmesdale all struggle with varying degrees of inner conflict after committing their own personal sin. Poe and Hawthorne display that inner struggled in the different characters by fluctuating who they are as people. They created characters with varying wills and moral objectives therefore creating different struggles that each had to deal with in their own personal way. The attitudes, beliefs, and background mold them into separate identities. The four works of art are similar in many ways when examining the inner phenomenon of these main characters; they all maintain a secret sin, which they have chosen to keep to themselves, a period of inner struggle, and finally a break down, followed by the truth. The different types of characters coming from different backgrounds, time periods, and social situations prove that both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe Knew that there is some “Imp” in us all.


Becker, John; Hawthorne’s Historical Allegory; Kennikat Press, Port washington,

NY, 1971.

Crowley, Donald; Hawthorne The Critical Heritage; Barnes & Noble, Inc.

New York, 1970.

Edwards, Everett; Edgar Allen Poe Seer and Craftsman; Princeton University

Press, 1972.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel; The Scarlet Letter; Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc

New York, Burlingame, 1961.

Kesteron, David; Critics On Poe; University of Miami Press, Coral Gables

Florida, 1979

Poe, Edgar Allan; The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Ed. Stephan

Peithman, Doubleday & Company, Garden City New York, 1981.

Whitman, Sarah; Edgar Poe and his Critics, Haskell House Publisher,

New York, 1972.

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