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Sigmund Freud’s Theories Applied To Edgar Allan Poe’s Life And Works

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The objective of this work is to analyze the presence of characteristic elements of Poe’s narrative which are related to his own life in order to explain them though Sigmund Freud’s theories about narcissism and psychoanalysis. The method employed to achieve this goal is a comparative analysis of some of the most representative stories and poems of the writer that will be carried out to find in them characteristics applicable to Freud’s theories.

The well known American author Edgar Allan Poe led a life full of tragedy because he lost his parents when he was just a child, had a traumatic relationship with his adoptive father, was expelled from the university due to his love for gambling and drinking and enlisted in the army. He married his cousin when she was only 14 years old and she had a disease that made their marriage a torment. When she finally died, he aggravated his tendency to alcoholism and drug use and died in 1847. The reason for his death remains a mystery.

Due to those terrible facts in his life, Poe’s works have a remarkable tone which is different from the rest of the writers of his time. This characteristic tone of the American author can be analyzed through the theories of Sigmund Freud, creator of the psychoanalysis, which consists on the investigation and treatment of emotional problems from the point of view of childhood, in addition to other variables. Before carrying out the analysis and association with Freud, it is important to know some of Poe’s works and what are the factors that distinguish him from other authors of his time.

In the story titled ​The Tell-Tale Heart​ , the speaker starts the story telling the reader that he is sane saying ‘Can you not see that I have full control of my mind? Is it not clear that I am not mad? ’(Poe 64) and he constantly wants to prove his sanity: ‘Listen! Listen, and I will tell you how it happened. You will see, you will hear how healthy my mind is.’(Poe 64). In the story, the speaker tells how he killed and old man just because of his ‘vulture eye’, as the speaker describes it, made him feel furious. He also explains how he hid the body of the dead man and he tells ‘So I am mad, you say? You should have seen how careful I was to put the body where no one could find it.’(Poe 66) to justify that he is not mad. During the story it is possible to perceive that the narrator is a great narcissist and it gets more clear when he lets the police enter the house with the completely security that he is not going to be catch and he says: ‘I took them through the whole house, telling them to search it all, to search well. I led them finally into the old man’s bedroom. As if playing a game with them I asked them to sit down and talk for a while. ’(Poe 67). Those words are a sign of self-obsession and pride. The most remarkable aspect of this story is the constant insistence that the speaker has for talking about himself. Firstly he insists on his sanity, he explains the murder, the reason, which is, basically, because something was bothering him and obviously when at the end of the story the police enters the house and the narrator confess the murder is because he is tormented by what he has done even if at the beginning he is in complete calmness and needs to externalize his culpability to feel better.

Poe in this work wants to focus attention on the self of the narrator and does so in such a way that the very motive of the murder is an eye, a word that sounds completely the same as ‘I’. This insistence on the ego of the narrator would be explained later by Freud theories In​​ the Black Cat​ , the speaker is a man who on the eve of his death tells us a wild story that happened in his life and he also wants to make clear that he is sane. The story is about he himself, a man who loves animals and that gets married very young, due to his alcohol addiction gets violent and one night being drunk he cuts out one of his cat’s eyes. The narrator tells the story in an atrocious way ‘I took a small knife out of my coat and opened it. Then I took the poor animal by the neck and with one quick movement I cut out one of its fear-filled eyes! ’(Poe 35). Tormented by the act, he decides to kill the cat and after doing that, some strange things start to happen. One night, while drunk, he finds a black cat resembling the cat he killed and he takes it to his house. The cat is very loved in the house but his fur remains the gallows with which the other cat was killed and the narrator gets furious about it. One day, the speaker attacks his cat but his wife trying to defend the cat, ends being hurt and dies. The speaker immures her body and the cat disappears. A few days later the police enter the house to investigate and the proud narrator says ‘the walls of this building, are very strongly built; it is a fine old house.’(Poe 37). By the time this is said a long loud cry emanates from behind the wall and the police tears down the wall and there is the corpse of the woman and the cat sat upon the head. In this story appears again a person ensuring his sanity and telling his own story, a murder, a proud murderer and something that torments the protagonist, in this case the black cat.

The poem ​​Annabel Lee​ ​is about a man describing his love for a young girl. They fell in love when they were very young and their love was so strong than even angels were jealous about it and killed the girl. Even if she is dead he loves her and he believes that their souls are still together. All along the poem a kind of narcissism is found throughout the voice of the speaker. Even if he is talking about his love for Annabel Lee, he centres the reader’s attention in his love and the whole poem revolves around his feelings for her and his words show that he speaks about himself. In the verses five and six the poem says: ‘And this maiden she lived with no other thought/ Than to love and be loved by me.’(Poe, 27) showing his self-obsession. In the verse seven he starts with ‘I’ (‘I was a child and she was a child’)(Poe, 27) instead of starting with ‘she’and at the end of the poem he says ‘ my darling — my darling — my life and my bride’(Poe 28), making the reader understand that she was his.

The theme of the poem is a recurring theme in Poe’s works, the death of a young woman. In this poem the topics are death, and the ‘I’ of the author. After talking about these three works of Poe, it is possible to identify that the three have as main themes the death, a torment and the pride and narcissism of the storyteller. But beyond this, each story reflects something related to the author. Firstly, in​​ the Tell-Tale Heart​ ​ , the sound of the world ‘eye’ sounds equally as ‘I’. In​ ​the Black Cat​ ​ there is a young couple (Poe got married with his cousin who was very young) and also the death of her (she died because of a long illness and this was a fact that made Poe’s life go from bad to worse). There is also the presence of alcohol which was very relevant in Poe’s life as he started to drink very young, and again, the eye of the cat which reminds the word ‘I’. Finally, ​​Annabel Lee’​s main theme is the death of a young girl. It makes the reader think about two women in Poe’s life: his mother and his wife. His mother died when he was a child and this turned out to be a trauma in his life. Also his wife’s disease was a torment in his life and when she died he sank into alcoholism and drug use.

After having identified all the common themes in Poe’s works and having related them to the facts that marked his life in a relevant way, a connection can be made between the author’s writing style and the theories by Freud. Sigmund Freud wrote about the sublimation of traumas in the art. In his essays included in the book called ​Psicoanálisis del arte​, he talks about childhood traumas and its influence in the work of the artist. He says therefore that childhood is essential for the future and that the traumas that marked the childhood will be reflected in the future (in the case of the artist, in his work). ​‘In the first three or four years of life impressions are fixed and modes of reactions are formed towards the outer world which can never be robbed of their importance by any later experiences.’ (Freud, Chapter II) The childhood and the relationship with parents during it, determines the future and if any problem would have happened in the past, this problem would appear reflected consciously or unconsciously in the creation of the artist. ‘A kindly nature has bestowed upon the artist the capacity to express in artistic productions his most secret psychic feelings hidden even to himself, which powerfully affect outsiders who are strangers to the artist without their being able to state whence this emotivity comes.’ (Freud, Chapter IV)

Apart from that, Freud says in his book ​On Narcissism​, that ‘sublimation is a process that concerns object-libido and consists in the instinct’s directing itself towards an aim other than, and remote from, that of sexual satisfaction; in this process the accent falls upon deflection from sexuality’(94). This means that there is a deviation from sexuality and satisfaction is given through an indirect non-sexual goal. Sublimation is essential for the individual as a defense mechanism and gives him the possibility of staying healthy. The artist has the ability to externalize traumas through sublimation and this can be therapeutic. If feelings are not externalized, then repression occurs. Repression departs from the ‘ego’ and it consists on desires consciously processed by the individual but before being externalized they are already disapproved by another. For this reason, externalizing the repressed is considered therapeutic and the artists do it through their work so they are accepted. It could be said that artistic activity is beneficial and thus the artist can live more pleasantly in reality, diminishing the psychic effects of the traumatic. According to Andrzej Werbart, creativity involves making sense of what happened, approaching it with the aim of appropriating and becoming its author rather than a victim (4).

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An example that Freud exposes in his essay ​On Narcissism​ is this one written by H.Heine who explains that through creation he was healed (85): Illness was the special ground

Of my creative inclination;

I might recover by creation,

creation made me one more sound.

If the work of an artist is analyzed knowing his life, a psychoanalysis can be made detecting what is hidden in the work of the author and therefore his trauma. According to Freud, it is the hidden and traumatic aspects of an artist that move us when we enjoy a work meaning then acceptance. This leads us to another approach made by Freud.

In his essay about the narcissism, Freud explains that when men have to make an object choice they depart from a primary narcissism in which they can choose themselves or the woman who nurses him. Loving someone lowers self regard and being loved by the other makes self regard raise. The narcissism of a person deploys attraction over the person who has abandoned its own narcissism and they need object-love from others. Child’s original narcissism moves to the sexual object or ‘an impoverishment of the ego as regards libido in favour of the love-object’(Freud, 88)

The development of the ego, according to Freud, consists in the loss of it and in the latter attempt to recover it. Loss occurs through the displacement of the libido to the ideal of the ego imposed from the outside; satisfaction is obtained by fulfilling this ideal. In Freud’s works, social acceptance is a key element. It is one of the things that will satisfy the artist because he is loved by the rest which makes him recover his primary narcissism.

Applying Freud’s theories and knowing Poe’s life, it can be seen perfectly that he suffers a trauma in his childhood (the loss of his mother) and also he sees his ego affected when thewoman he loves (his wife) dies. Poe is, according to the theories previously exposed, humiliated and the only way to receive the attention he needs (or according to Freud, love) is through his works, something that pleases his narcissism. It is the writing that allows Poe to externalize his feelings and traumas and thus alleviate the pain that imply the real life. Also, in addition to the topics he deals with in his works, Poe emphasizes the word ‘I’ and even useswords that remind us of it. The type of narrator he uses also gives us a clue that apart from being a person who has suffered trauma during his childhood, he is a person who, due to the events of his life, needs attention towards his person, which makes him being a narcissistic person, who puts his own feelings and interests ahead of everything.

After having interpreted some of the theories of Freud, Edgar Allan Poe could be considered a narcissistic person who suffers certain traumas in his childhood and who, through the sublimation of trauma in his writing, finally recovers the ego he lost in the past thanks also to the acceptance of the readers.


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