Poe's Stories

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Self, Solitude, and Consciousness Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Rivals and Doppelgangers Theme Icon
The Dead and the Living Theme Icon
The Gothic Style Theme Icon
Self, Solitude, and Consciousness Theme Icon
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Poe's Stories, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Self, Solitude, and Consciousness Theme Icon

While many of Poe's characters are married, and others are often visiting with friends or acquaintances, the overriding sense of Poe’s stories is one of loneliness and solitude. Each story leaves the character alone to face his destiny, fear, pain, or crime by himself. In The Pit and the Pendulum, the narrator is alone in a cell and describing each encounter with mortal terror—he exists in the cell solely with death. In M.S. Found in a Bottle, the narrator writes a diary of his struggle aboard a paranormal vessel. The installments of his adventure seem like the narrator is confiding in us, the reader, and we alone are privy to his impending doom when he knows the ship is entering a whirlpool.

The aspect of loneliness to Poe’s narrators gives us a window into the mentality of the characters, giving a view of precisely how their consciousness changes, how they go from calm to panic, and a host of other psychological phenomena. For example, when the narrator first enters the House of Usher, he experiences a strange sensation in his mind that he cannot quite explain, which grows stronger and stranger as he looks into the water that surrounds the house and sees its inverted image. But even though the solitary, interior-monologue-led narration provides an intimate view of a character’s consciousness, it also accentuates the disconcerting atmosphere of the story when it becomes clear that the narrator is unreliable and can't be trusted. The Fall of the House of Usher shows us that as we delve deep into the interior consciousness of Poe’s characters, their irregularity and even madness becomes apparent, and the themes of self, solitude and consciousness become tinged with menace and suspicion.

Self, Solitude, and Consciousness ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Self, Solitude, and Consciousness appears in each story of Poe's Stories. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Self, Solitude, and Consciousness Quotes in Poe's Stories

Below you will find the important quotes in Poe's Stories related to the theme of Self, Solitude, and Consciousness.
Manuscript Found in a Bottle Quotes

A feeling, for which I have no name, has taken possession of my soul – a sensation which will admit of no analysis, to which the lessons of bygone times are inadequate, and for which I fear futurity itself will offer me no key.

Related Characters: Narrator (M.S. Found in a Bottle) (speaker)
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator of the short story has boarded a mysterious ship. As he spends more time on the ship, he decides to write down everything he experiences there. The narrator can't quite put into words why he chooses to write down his experiences--all he knows is that a strange feeling has taken over his soul. The narrator refuses to think of the past ("bygone days") or look ahead to the future. Instead, he focuses exclusively on the present, and seemingly remains trapped and confused inside his own consciousness.

The narrator's behavior is characteristic of Poe's isolated, introspective narrators, and also of people in crises in general. The narrator doesn't have the luxury of ruminating on the past, nor does he have the time or hopefulness to think of the future. Every ounce of brainpower he has is devoted to survival in the present moment. The narrator's behavior also foreshadows the frightening end of the story, in which he is pulled down into the depths of the ocean. It's precisely because the narrator thinks he's going to die soon that he's written down his experiences--even if he doesn't survive the shipwreck, his notes, preserved in the titular bottle, will.

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The crew glide to and fro like the ghosts of buried centuries; their eyes have an eager and uneasy meaning; and when their fingers fall athwart my path in the wild glare of the battle-lanterns, I feel as I have never felt before, although I have been all my life a dealer in antiquities, and have imbibed the shadows of Allan columns at Balbec, and Tadmor, and Persepolis, until my very soul has become a ruin.

Related Characters: Narrator (M.S. Found in a Bottle) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Eyes
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the narrator of the story meets the crew of his new ship. The crew members are gaunt and intimidating--almost like ghosts. It's also in this passage that we learn that the narrator is a collector of antiques--in other words, the relics of bygone centuries, once owned by people who are now dead. He also describes his own soul as a "ruin," making an important connection between the aging, frightening settings of the Gothic and the psychologies of Poe's characters.

The passage is important because it establishes the macabre mood of the story (and the entire book) by blurring the line between the past and the present. Although the narrator is trying to focus on the here and now, he has a strange sense of being "pulled" into the supernatural; i.e., the world of the dead. Poe will repeat such a dynamic many times in his stories: a lonely, rational narrator will be swallowed up by the sheer bulk of the Gothic world of sinister settings, ghosts, and monsters.

Ligeia Quotes

They were, I must believe, far larger than the ordinary eyes of our own race. They were even fuller than the fullest of the gazelle eyes of the tribe of the valley of Nourjahad. Yet it was only at intervals – in moments of intense excitement – that this peculiarity became more than slightly noticeable in Ligeia.

Related Characters: Narrator (Ligeia) (speaker), Ligeia
Related Symbols: Eyes
Page Number: 113
Explanation and Analysis:

In this story, we're introduced to a narrator who's peculiarly obsessed with his bride, Ligeia. Ligeia's eyes are the very embodiment of the uncanny. Traditionally, the eyes are the most human, recognizable thing about a person--they're the "window to the soul," after all. Ligeia's eyes, however, aren't comforting or humanizing at all. On the contrary, they seem alien and bizarre. Thus, Ligeia's eyes are both familiar and disturbingly unfamiliar--in short, they're uncanny.

Ligeia's eyes are an important symbol in the story, because they suggest a strange combination of attraction and repulsion. Much like the whirlpool in the previous story, Ligeia's eyes are both seductive and terrifying to the narrator; they hypnotize him, even as he fears for his life. The narrator's simultaneous attraction and repulsion mirror that of the reader--we're frightened of reading any further, and yet we can't help but read on.

The night waned; and still, with a bosom full of bitter thoughts of the one only and supremely beloved, I remained gazing upon the body of Rowena.

Related Characters: Narrator (Ligeia) (speaker), Lady Rowena of Tremaine
Page Number: 123
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the narrator of the short story has remarried after the tragic death of his wife, Ligeia. The narrator's new wife, Rowena, has fallen seriously ill. Late at night, the narrator keeps watch over Rowena. As he watches, the narrator can only think of Ligeia--dead, yet still very much alive in his mind.

As we gradually realize, however, Rowena seems to be transforming into Ligeia. Poe creates the illusion that the phenomenon is something supernatural and horrifying, but also that it's the narrator's own obsession with Ligeia that brings her back to life. The real victim here, of course, is Rowena, who seems to be no more than the empty vessel into which the narrator pours his obsession with Ligeia. Rowena is only a replacement for Ligeia--and here, with the narrator clearly hungering for his dead wife's return, Rowena herself seems "melt away."

The Fall of the House of Usher Quotes

I know not how it was – but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.

Related Characters: Narrator (The Fall of the House of Usher) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Architecture
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous passage, the narrator of the story looks upon the House of Usher and immediately feels a sense of gloom and horror. The house has been the site of great misery in recent years, and here, Poe suggests that this misery is palpable--the house itself seems to record and radiate the emotions of the people who lived there.

The passage is a great example of Poe's Gothic style. The Gothic genre, popular in the 19th century, often hinges upon a big, intimidating house full of memories and mystery. The house is practically a character in the story, just as it is in the best Gothic novels. The house is like the "Greek chorus" of the story--both witnessing the events of the plot and elevating them to their emotional peak.

William Wilson Quotes

Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson. The fair page now lying before me need not be sullied with my real appellation. This has been already too much an object for the scorn – for the horror – for the detestation of my race.

Related Characters: William Wilson (speaker)
Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Poe introduces us to William Wilson--a man who's taken on his current, fake name because his real name has become associated with too much scandal and evil. Right away, Poe creates a mood of suspense and excitement--we want to know what, exactly, Wilson did that was so awful. The story also reveals itself to be another "retelling" from memory, as many of the stories in this collection are--and so Wilson is immediately made somewhat unreliable in that he's telling his own story, and may be misremembering or falsifying information.

We should note that William Wilson is the first named narrator in Poe's collection of short stories. And yet the name "William Wilson" is obviously fake--in other words, the fact that we've got the narrator's name doesn't mean that we know anything more about him than we did about the unnamed narrators in the previous stories. And just like the other narrators in the book, William Wilson is an unlikely everyman--even if we can't relate to all of his experiences, we're meant to identify with his point of view, and his horror becomes our own.

A large mirror, – so at first it seemed to me in my confusion – now stood where none had been perceptible before; and, as I stepped up to it in extremity of terror, mine own image, but with features all pale and dabbled in blood, advanced to meet me with a feeble and tottering gait.

Related Characters: William Wilson (speaker)
Page Number: 186
Explanation and Analysis:

In the finale of "William Wilson," Wilson realizes that he's killed himself. Wilson has spent his entire life fighting with a mysterious doppelgänger (double of himself), who undermines everything that Wilson tries to do. At the end of Wilson's life, however, the truth becomes clear: Wilson's doppelgänger isn't another person; it's Wilson himself.

To appreciate the full power of the story, one shouldn't take the ending too literally. One could say for example, that Wilson is schizophrenic, or that he has some other mental disorder that's caused him to hallucinate another person who looks and sounds just like him. But the more powerful and symbolic interpretation of the story is that William Wilson--as his bland, everyman name would suggest--represents the dual nature of all human beings. Like the titular characters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, all people have a good side and a bad side. William Wilson has fought a constant war with his own soul and conscience, and in the end, he's the first and only casualty of that war.

The Tell-Tale Heart Quotes

I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture.

Related Characters: Narrator (The Tell-Tale Heart) (speaker), The Old Man
Related Symbols: Eyes
Page Number: 187
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the narrator of the story tries to explain why he killed an old man. The narrator's explanation is that he didn't like the man's eye--which, according to the narrator, resembles the eye of a vulture.

For Poe, the eye is the ultimate symbol of man's irrationality and unpredictability. The eyes are the window to the soul, and thus for the narrator to be repelled by an eye is for him to be frightened by an inexplicable, irrational fear of another person's soul. Put another way, there is no rational motive for the narrator's act of murder--as he makes very clear, he doesn't kill the old man because he hates him, or to get his gold. As with so many of the bizarre and frightening things in Poe's stories, there is no real reason for them to happen; and yet they happen all the same, making them all the more uncanny.

And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the sense? – now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man's heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.

Related Characters: Narrator (The Tell-Tale Heart) (speaker)
Page Number: 189
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator of the story has now murdered the old man and buried his body underneath the floorboards. As he sits in the old man's room, talking to the police, he begins to hear a strange ticking sound--a sound which he believes to be the beating of the old man's heart.

As we can guess, there is probably no actual heartbeat in the room. One could argue that the narrator, full of repressed guilt for his actions, has projected the sound of the heartbeat, undermining his own carefully planned murder. It's also possible that Poe intends the heartbeat to be a supernatural event--the old man is haunting his murderer from the grave, forcing him to divulge his secret to the police. In either case, though, the narrator's greatest enemy is his own irrational mind and his "over-acute" senses. Try as he might to get away with a crime, the narrator's own fear and anxiety destroy his chances of getting off scot-free.

The Pit and the Pendulum Quotes

I had swooned; but will not say that all of consciousness was lost. What of it there remained I will not attempt to define, or even to describe; yet all was not lost. In the deepest slumber – no! In delirium – no! In a swoon -- no! In death – no! even in the grave all is not lost. Else there is no immortality for man.

Related Characters: Narrator (The Pit and the Pendulum) (speaker)
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

In this story, a man is sentenced to torture by the Spanish Inquisition. As he's sentenced, the man faints, and yet still remains somewhat conscious of his surroundings. As the man puts it, it's impossible to be truly unconscious--whether you're awake, asleep, delirious, or dead, some part of you is always at least somewhat aware of where you are and what's going on.

The passage is a grim bit of foreshadowing, because there will be many times in the story when the narrator wishes he were totally unconscious. But there is no relief for the narrator--his dreams are just as terrifying as his reality. The sense of inescapable horror--of being "buried alive," whether literally or metaphorically--is typical of Poe's style.