Perversity in Human Imagination
Edgar Allan Poe is most well-known for his Gothic short stories and poetry. Two of his works that really illustrate the Gothic perspective in literature are “The Imp of the Perverse” and “The Importance of the Single Effect of a Prose Tale”. In these works, Poe explains the perversity of human nature and argues that it is best demonstrated through short stories. Readers may believe that Poe’s criteria for the gothic imagination is set in stone because Poe discusses his ideas through short stories, however, authors have played with these concepts and have showcased their interpretation of Poe and the Gothic imagination in several different ways. Nathaniel Hawthorne is perhaps the one Gothic writer who understands and applies Poe’s concepts to his work best, as Poe praises Hawthorne. In the short stories, “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Birthmark, Hawthorne effectively illustrates the perversity of human nature and imagination through the character’s actions and personalities. Another writer who effectively demonstrates Poe’s theory of imagination is Raymond Carver. In his short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, Carver also portrays the perversity of human nature through the character’s personalities. This darkness and perversity can also be seen in Birdman, which is a movie about a play, that re-tells Carver’s story. Each author has their own unique twist that provides readers with different insights on the ways that human beings can be “inherently evil”.
Poe argues in “ The Importance of the Single Effect in a Prose Tale” that a short story is the most accurate way to portray emotion. A short story is meant to be read in one sitting in order to get the full effect of the story and be able to absorb the atmosphere of the story. Short stories have a “certain unique” effect that poems do not have. This is because a poem may be “too brief” and produce a “vivid, but never an intense or enduring impression” (Poe p. 1). A poem essentially captures the feelings and emotions that the author is trying to convey, however, those feelings do not resonate within the reader. A short story is long enough to create those everlasting impressions in readers, but also short enough not to bore the reader. These stories contain better rhythm than poems, therefore they are accurately able to express the truth.
In the short story, “The Imp of the Perverse”, Poe expresses the truth of human nature. That is, that humans are naturally perverse, most of the time for no reason. Perverseness is essentially the willfulness to counter what is desire, to want something not because it is good, but because it’s not. All human beings have their own “spirit of the Perverse” (Poe p. 3). Within every man, woman, child, etc., there is perversity. Poe argues that “there lives no man who at some period has not been tormented by an earnest desire to tantalize a listener by circumlocution.” (Poe p. 3). In this story, Poe also tells how he himself has been cursed by perversity. He has murdered someone, and got away with it, until he confesses to it. Obviously murder is perverse in itself, but the fact that he confessed to it after getting away with it is even more eerie. He explains how confessing was a relief to his conscious, and that he is finally free.
Nathaniel Hawthorne does an excellent job at taking both of these proponents from Poe, and applying them to his own work. In his short story, “Young Goodman Brown”, Hawthorne effectively shows the perversity of human nature. This story is substantially an analogy to the Christian faith. The young man, is married to his wife Faith, and leaves her to go on a “journey” late at night through the woods. Goodman Brown sets off on his trip and encounters an old man with a serpent staff. He also runs into a “very pious and exemplary dame” (Hawthorne p. 3). Both of these people that he encounters are again seen when he goes to a “communion” in the middle of the forest that night. This communion was set in the midst of blazing pine trees. At this congregation, the old man that Goodman ran into in the forest is the leader, and he is preaching about evil, and telling all of the “converts” that “evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness.” (Hawthorne p. 8). Relating this story to the Christian faith, Goodman Brown is young, meaning he is innocent. He is married to Faith, the Christian faith. He is tempted by the devil to leave his “Faith”. That’s the journey, him leaving his Christian faith to become inherently evil. The old man with the serpent staff is the devil, tells the man that “Faith” kept him back a while, and that’s why he was late for their meeting. At first, Goodman was skeptical of joining the devil, he kept calling out, “where is Faith?”, “my Faith is gone!” (Hawthorne p. 8). It is important to recognize that here, Goodman Brown is being exposed to perversity. His actions are making him perverse, because he is being drawn to this evil and deserting his Christian faith. The end of this story also shows the perversity and inherent evil within humans through Goodman Brown’s personality. Goodman Brown comes back from his “journey” and is a very bitter man. He scowled and muttered at every family prayer, and his loving relationship with his wife has failed. When he died, there was no verse carved on his tombstone, just gloom (Hawthorne p. 9). Hawthorne used Goodman Brown’s actions and personality to communicate the ugly truth in the world, that there is naturally more evil and wickedness, than pure goodness within humans.
In the short story, “The Birthmark”, Hawthorne again demonstrates the perversity of humans. This story is about a scientist, who loves science very, very much. In fact, it was not unusual for “his love of science to compete with the love of a woman” (Hawthorne p. 1). One day, this man, Aylmer, meets a perfect woman, Georgiana, and falls in love with her. But shortly after they had gotten married, he becomes troubled with the birthmark that is on her face. He tells her that “Nature made you so perfectly that this small defect shocks me as being a sign of earthly imperfection” (Hawthorne p. 1). This immediately shows that Aylmer is unappreciative of his wife, because he does not accept her for her and all of her “imperfections”. It is natural for humans to do this, because humans try so hard to be perfect. Georgiana becomes very upset at this because every one of her past lovers had embraced the birthmark on her face, it has even been called a “charm” (Hawthorne p. 1). Aylmer becomes so engrossed with this mark on her face, and the removal of it. Aylmer recognized the birthmark to be “a sign of his wife’s eventual sadness, sickness and death” (Hawthorne p. 2). This thought in itself is perverse because he is looking at the birthmark as something negative and evil. It is natural for humans to think negatively of something so harmless, humans tend to overthink and convince themselves of the worst case scenario. Aylmer begins to hate her because of the mark. The mark was Aylmer’s newest infatuation, “with the morning light, Aylmer opened his eyes upon his wife’s face and recognized the sign of imperfection. When they sat together in the evening near the fire, he would look at the mark” (Hawthorne p. 2). Aylmer’s personality is becoming more and more inherently evil. Again, he is being unappreciative and is obsessed with wanting the best of the best. Aylmer’s obsession uneased his Georgiana. She “soon began to fear his look. His expression would make her face go pale” (Hawthorne p. 2). As a result of Aylmer’s negativity, Georgiana became perverse as well. She began to hate herself and wants the birthmark to be removed just as bad as her husband did because she wants to please him. She fails to see her own perfection due to her husband’s perverseness. Thus, making her just as perverse. In the end, Aylmer concocts a potion for Georgiana to drink in order to get rid of the birthmark. Little be known, the potion removes the birthmark, however Georgiana dies. The birthmark “had been her link to life” (Hawthorne p. 3). This story is to teach a lesson of accepting someone for who they are. Hawthorne’s last sentence states, “In trying to improve his lovely wife, he had failed to realize she had been perfect all along” (Hawthorne p. 3). This story demonstrates how perverse humans are when it comes to their desires. Their desires entrap their imagination and often take over their sense of rationalization skills. Humans naturally want better and better and more and more, even if they already have the best and the most.
Raymond Carver is another author who adequately portrays the concepts of Poe’s theory in his work. In his short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” Carver uses his characters personalities to reveal the darker, more perverse side in human nature. The story is about two couples, Mel and Terri, and Nick and Laura. The friends are drinking and having dinner together, and somehow the conversation gets on the topic of love. Love is an inconspicuous thing that has many grey areas. These areas make it easy for miscommunication and misinterpretation to occur within a relationship. These aspects in themselves are quite negative and perverse, however, they can also lead to even more negativity and perversity. For example, Terri began discussing her love between her and her ex-husband, Ed. She had told everyone that “the man she lived with before she lived with Mel loved her so much he tried to kill her” (Carver p.1). Terri hadn’t given any explanation as to why or what happened, but this statement is perverse in itself. In Poe’s “The Imp of the Perverse”, Poe discusses how he is perverse because he had killed someone. Killing someone is probably the most perverse thing one can do. Terri then goes on to discuss how Ed “beat me up one night. He dragged me around the living room by my ankles He kept saying ‘I love you, I love you, you bitch.’ He went on dragging me around the living room. My head kept knocking on things..what do you do with love like that?” (Carver p.1). Then Terri went on to explain that even though her ex-husband acted crazy, he still loved her. Her new husband, Mel, disagreed with that statement and said that is not love, love is not killing someone. However, neither one of them are really correct. Everyone interprets love differently. Some people are more perverse than others, like Terri’s ex, Ed. Naturally, since Ed was a genuinely more perverse guy, the way he expresses his love is more perverse. Another example of perversity shown through the characters personalities in Carver’s story is when Mel is discussing his ex-wife, Marjorie. He gets drunk and wants to call his kids, but Terri stops him because Marjorie might answer the phone. She tells Nick and Laura that “there isn’t a day goes by that Mel doesn’t say he wishes she’d get married again. Or else die” (Carver p. 10). This again goes back to the killing aspect of perversity. How can death be wished upon someone who once meant so much? This perfectly demonstrates the perversity that lives inside Mel. Instead of wanting what is best for his ex, he instead wishes the worst upon her, simply for the fact that things did not work out, or perhaps she broke his heart. Mel also discusses how Marjorie is allergic to bees, stating that “..I’m praying she’ll get herself stung to death by a swarm of fucking bees” (Carver p. 10). All of these negative and essentially evil statements about his ex-wife just show that Mel can also be categorized as a more perverse person. Unlike Ed, he did not act upon his perversity, but he did think badly, and most of the time it was for reasons unknown. The perversity demonstrated through Carver’s story is really universal and a unique twist on Poe’s original criteria because most people experience love within their lifetime.
Finally, the movie Birdman, is an excellent example of human darkness and perversity. It is different in that it is a movie and not a short story. The movie does a phenomenal job at a glimpse into the perverse minds of humans as it provides visual and audio, rather than a close reading, in which readers may miss some things. Birdman is a movie re-telling Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, as a Broadway production. The main character, Riggan Thomson, is a star who starred in three Birdman movies. Well Birdman no longer exists and Riggan is fighting with himself because he has always wanted to be an actor, and he feels that acting in a Broadway production could be really beneficial. Riggan’s personality is perhaps the most perverse of them all in the movie. That is because his Birdman persona keeps showing up to tell Riggan all of the things he is doing wrong. Birdman constantly tells Riggan that he is nothing and he is a failure, and he is washed up. However, Birdman is essentially just a figment of Riggan’s imagination, therefore everything Birdman is saying is really just Riggan’s own thoughts, he is just too afraid to admit these things to himself. Another example of perversity that exists within this movie is violence and graphic language. Humans tend to use graphic language when they are mad, and could potentially get violent. Humans need a way to release their anger and naturally the perversity in them wants to resort to calling people names and inflicting physical harm upon others, or even upon themselves as Riggan does in the end when he shoots himself in the nose. Something else interesting about Riggan’s character is his battle within himself to not be perverse. In his dressing room, he had a sign that said “ A thing is a thing, not what is said of it”. This could mean that Riggan is aware of his negative thoughts and that his Birdman persona that is trying to bring him down, and he wants to overcome it. Yet, the dark side of him is continuously taking over and he does not know why. This movie does exceptionally well in showcasing the dark side of human nature, as it is very relatable. A lot of the things that are said, and the interactions between people, probably happen on a day to day basis in this world.
Both of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories show the concept of Poe’s ideas expressed in “The Imp of the Perverse” and “The Importance of the Single Effect of a Prose Tale”. The characters in both “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Birthmark” truly show the actual perverseness of human nature. Through the close reading of both of Hawthorne’s short stories, it can be concluded that Poe’s arguments are logical. Poe’s ideas are emphasized even more when Raymond Carver’s characters reveal their perversity in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Carver’s story also meets Poe’s criteria in that it is a short story. The re-telling of Carver’s story in Birdman, helps bring to light the true dark nature of humans in ways that text cannot. The fact that it provides visual and audio as well a look into realistic situations, highlights how human beings really. It is very interesting to see how different authors and directors play with their interpretations of the concepts of Poe’s theory and make them come to light in their own unique and perverse way. The Gothic perspective on literature is one that delves into the deeper realms of humans and needs to be embraced for that.