The Reader Erect: Edgar Allan Poe's "The Premature Burial"

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

This essay examines the function of metanarrative as well as the ways in which the binary systems of truth and fiction, indeed, life and death, are deconstructed through Poe's narrative of structure and lexical choices. The author seeks to illustrate the "unsettling partnership" formed between speaker and reader and the dual personae of the reader as both observer and participant. "The premature burial" also acts as a reference point for a discourse among several of Poe's other works as well as Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece "The Minister's black veil". Ultimately, this essay will leave the reader with a better understanding of the various mechanisms at work in "Burial", and a sense of the literary, and literal, impact of Poe's work upon the human psyche.

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At the beginning of Poe's "The cask of Amontillado", the smooth-talking Montresor steps out of the narrative and verbally grabs the reader by the throat: "You, who so well know the nature of my soul" (Stem 1977: 309). Poe's critics have long been aware that Montresor's sidebar establishes an unsettling partnership between him and the reader: apparently we too possess, and are possessed by, a vengeful shadow-self that lurks just beneath the smooth surface of our civilized consciousness(es). Charles Baudelaire, Poe's greatest foreign aficionado, turned Montresor's disquieting line to his own uses in the famous poem entitled "To the Reader", from Flowers of evil: "Hypocrite reader, You! My twin, my brother" (1987: 5). In Baudelaire's case, the speaker accuses the unsuspecting reader of sharing his own predilection for ennui or boredom, that existential conqueror worm that dwells in the heart of modern life.

In "The fall of the House of Usher", Poe's shifty narrator, himself a victim of ennui, implicates the reader through the act of interrupting his own narrative. Like us, the narrator is reading a book. Like the narrator, we are obliged to pause in media res:

   At the termination of this sentence, and for a moment, paused; for
   it appeared to me (although I at once concluded that my excited
   fancy had deceived me)--it appeared to me that, from some very
   remote portion of the mansion, there came, indistinctly, to my ears,
   what might have been, in its exact similarity of character, the echo
   (but a stifled and dull one certainly) of the very crackling and
   ripping sound which Sir Launcelot had so particularly described.
   (Stern 1977: 264)

Even as the narrator pauses to listen to the actual echo of a sound produced in the imaginary tale he happens to be reading, so we are obliged to pause lexically, i.e. parenthetically, between the doubled lines "it appeared to me". The "author" of this narrative within a narrative is the apocryphal Sir Launcelot Canning. Launcelot Canning is, of course, Edgar Allan Poe, (1) who replicates this doubling, or mirroring, in the sudden and startling rapprochement between the narrator of "The fall of the House of Usher" and the reader.

These rapprochements continue to the very last line of "Usher": "... the deep and dank tam at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the 'House of Usher'" (Stern 1977: 268). If, as Poe's commentators have long noted, the anthropomorphized house with its eye-like windows is Roderick Usher, then the "fragments" of the doomed house are also the fragments of Usher's own speech: "Long--long--long--many minutes, many hours, many days, have I heard it--yet I dared not--oh, pity me, miserable wretch that I am!--I dared not--I dared not speak!" (Stern 1977: 266). Moreover, as Joseph N. Riddel was the first to point out, (2) the fact that the story's final reference to the "House of Usher" is set in quotation marks also emphasizes the story's notorious self-reflexivity. In the case of "Usher", that most writerly of all Poe's short stories, the sullen and silent tam also closes over the fragments of the House, both lexical and literal. …