This story depends for its effectiveness on the vagueness of the line which distinguished story from article in the periodicals of Poe's day. Format gave readers no clue. The story is in a way a hoax: it pretends to be a "normal article, then turns into a story. The reader has no way of knowing that this witty and philosophical "essay" is a work of fiction until he is well into it-- indeed, only in the last nine paragraphs do we discover that the narrator is a "character" and that we are to have a "plot." One has to reread the opening to see that the narrator's argument is specious. Science, he says, very reasonably, should cease trying to locate characteristics man should have, and start instead by observing characteristics which he does have. The narrator first point is perfectly good: phrenology can be seen as a branch of metaphysics, and metaphysicians have erred through moralistic assumptions. The trouble is that there is no such thing as the "perverseness" of which he speaks. He is not perverse; he is criminally insane.
His examples of perversity before he begins to tell his own story show a crescendo of intensity, culminating in a passage on suicidal desire which is a miniature horror story in itself; they serve to transfer readers from the "essay" to the "story." And the narrator continues to think that his confession was perverse, not the murder itself. "The Imp of the Perverse" turns out to be conscience.
A note of explanation:During the period in which Poe's tale appeared, it was becoming clear that most phrenologists were quacks. But phrenology had been founded as a serious science. The idea behind it was that it seemed reasonable to assume that different portions of the human mind ("organs") served different functions and that, once one knew their locations, their relative development ought to be reflected in the shape of the head. Careful studies were done of the crania of men noted for various characteristics. The skulls of notable leaders, geniuses, madmen, and even criminals were often exhumed for measurement and examination, and attempts were made to apply clinically what had been learned.
|Graham's Magazine, July 1845|
|The May Flower for 1846 (actually printed in 1845)|