The Psychological Perspective - Achieving Triangulation

Since Marie Bonaparte, there has been no shortage of material viewing Poe from a psychological perspective. There are, however, few attempts to look at the psychological causes of humor in Poe's work.

One such work, Paul Lewis' article "Poe's Humor: A Psychological Analysis" provides important insight to understanding the nature of the humor and its relationship to the overwhelming horror in some of Poe's work. Lewis claims, appropriately it seems to me, that to see Poe only as an elitist whose jokes could not be grasped by a general audience is to sell him short. He does not deny this elitist side of Poe; but he holds for a "broader, more universal, less intellectual humor that screams out from the center of Poe's work." (Lewis 532).

Lewis' contention is that humor and fear have a special relationship in Poe's tales. Humor, taken to its limits, leads the reader to fear. "Over and over, when humor fails, we are left with images of fear: the raven's shadow, the howling cat, the putrescent corpse, or the fallen house." (535). This change occurs, he contends, in "The Premature Burial," "Hop Frog," "The Black Cat, Ligeia," "Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" and Arthur Gordon Pym.

In "The Black Cat" and "Ligeia," Lewis argues that our first impressions of the narrators are half comic. "We are led gradually away from this humor into an expanding horror of men driven to acts of obscene cruelty." (537). The confrontation between humor and horror occurs differently in "Hop Frog" where cruelty and joking co-mingle. "What happens in this tale is not just that cruel jokers are destroyed by a cruel joke but that joking itself gives way to horror, as the extreme cruelty of the joke destroys its ability to continue functioning as a joke." (536).

The appeal of Lewis' psychological insight is that it rings true. Fear and humor are inextricably linked. We have seen it ourselves in hospitals and funeral parlors, in the grim humor with which people pass the time while a threat of a devastating storm or a flood threatens them. Watching the evening news almost any day will allow informal verification of it.

What he says about Poe, then, is not that we need to examine Poe's psyche but that we need to take more seriously Poe's understanding of how the psyches of his readers would operate.