Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"To Make Venus Vanish": Misogyny as Motive in Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue"

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"To Make Venus Vanish": Misogyny as Motive in Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue"

Article excerpt

Despite his otherwise unconventional ways, in his personal life Edgar Allan Poe held the most conventional early nineteenth-century views about the subordinate place of woman in man's world. As Ernest Marchand concludes, "in all matters touching women, sex, marriage, 'morals,' no more conventional-minded man than Poe ever lived" (35). Poe makes explicit his assumptions about women's subservience in his remarks about their proper education:

 
   The business of female education with us, is not to qualify a woman 
   to be head of a literary coterie, nor to figure in the journal of a 
   traveling coxcomb. We prepare her, as a wife, to make the home of a 
   good, and wise, and great man, the happiest place to him on earth. 
   We prepare her, as a mother, to form her son to walk in his 
   father's steps, and in turn, to take his place among the good and 
   wise and great.... Her praise is found in the happiness of her 
   husband, and in the virtues and honors of her son. Her name is too 
   sacred to be profaned by public breath. She is only seen by that 
   dim doubtful light, which, like "the majesty of darkness," so 
   much enhances true dignity. (Complete Works 8:14-15) 

In his writings as critic and journalist, Poe assails powerfully intellectual women who esteem the "head" and ignore his orthodox strictures: according to Burton R. Pollin, Poe routinely mocks the "successful, professional woman," and thus derides Margaret Fuller, for example, as "absurd," a victim of a "fine phrenzy" (49-50). Ashby Bland Crowder observes in "Poe's Criticism of Women Writers" that Poe considered female writers in America "at best a mediocre lot" (111) and quotes his complaint that "'literary women ... are a heartless, unnatural, venomous, dishonorable set, with no guiding principle but inordinate self-esteem'" (118 n26). In his own poetry and fiction, as readers have long noted, Poe often depicts the suppression or annihilation of women who because of overpowering beauty, intellect, or wealth depart from the conventional and threaten man's superior position. As Eliza Richards succinctly puts it, "Poe's male characters enact violent revenge on women because of their enthralling power" (10). Reviling signs of her autonomy, Poe understands woman as essentially subordinate to man, in Margaret Fuller's proto-Sartrean terms, "for man" (19). He reviles the autonomous woman in this world. Of course at times Poe idealizes some women, but he always requires that they lose their lives to serve an interest of man. In "Poe on Women: Recent Perspectives," Michael J. S. Williams helpfully details these interests and calls attention to Joseph Moldenhauer's representative argument that Poe's protagonists typically '"murder their beloved and lovely women ... in order to further their perfection as objets de virtu'" (34). Addressing Poe's own psychological maneuvering, many critics, such as Marie Bonaparte, Elisabeth Bronfen, J. Gerald Kennedy, and Diane Long Hoeveler, convincingly argue that his hostile dramatizations in fact allegorize his efforts to subordinate elements of his psyche associated with woman--all that to him stands over against intellect and reason, above all, emotion, sensuality, the body--and that his psychological and social attitudes, bordering on misogyny, thus reinforce one another. (1)

Recently, however, some have attempted to show Poe as actually enlightened about the plight of woman in the nineteenth century. In Aesthetic Headaches: Women and a Masculine Poetics in Poe, Melville, and Hawthorne, Leland S. Person, Jr., asserts that Poe challenges the premises of "conventional masculinity by demonstrating its weakness or impotence in the presence of strong women" (175). In "Poe's Women: A Feminist Poe?" Joan Dayan, after describing his several idealizations of dead women, asks, "But what are we to do with Poe's bleeding, raped, decapitated, dead, and resurrected women, brutalized, buried, cemented in cellars, and stuffed up chimneys? …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.