Poe's Stories

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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.
The Dead and the Living Theme Icon

In each story, it is the threat of death that pulls the plot along and that creates the suspense that Poe's stories are famous for. In The Pit and the Pendulum, the expectation of death, first by hanging, then with the pendulum, then into the pit, forces the narrator to confront his own mortality time and time again. In The Masque of the Red Death, death is personified and hangs over the story as a charismatic figure. This obsession with death can lend a menacing, almost masochistic tone to the stories’ voices, and a feeling of unavoidable motion in the plot, as if the characters are in a downward spiral towards their ends.

But at times, the difference between life and death is not clear-cut, and this haziness between life and death only adds to the menace of the stories. Sometimes Poe’s characters come back from death or are in a constant state of ghostliness or unreality. In Ligeia, for example, death is not the end at all, and the line between death and life and ghostly purgatory keeps changing and dissolving, allowing Ligeia and Rowena to slip in and out of mortality. In M.S. Found in a Bottle, the whole crew of the ship that the narrator finds himself seems unable to die or really live. Nearly all of his stories explore the way death haunts or impacts the living, and the porousness between death and life, life and death, in these stories makes that haunting feel real to the reader.

The Dead and the Living ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Poe's Stories related to the theme of The Dead and the Living.
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.

All in the immediate vicinity of the ship is the blackness of eternal night, and a chaos of foamless water; but, about a league on either side of us, may be seen, indistinctly and at intervals, stupendous ramparts of ice, towering away into the desolate sky, and looking like the walls of the universe.

Related Characters: Narrator (M.S. Found in a Bottle) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Architecture
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Poe gives us a flavor of his hidden impulses and desires--in other words, what he personally finds frightening. In the story, the narrator is aboard a ship that's slowly being sucked into a whirlpool. And yet all around the ship are huge columns of ice.

It's important to notice the claustrophobia of this scene. Even though the narrator is sailing on the ocean--i.e., a completely open place--he has the strong sense of being boxed in by these massive walls of ice. Confronted by the horror of compression and enclosure, death--or being sucked down by the whirlpool--is almost a relief. (In real life, Poe was terrified of being buried alive, and wrote dozens of stories on the topic. This story is an early sign of Poe's claustrophobia.)

The description of the icy walls is also a good example of the kind of Gothic "architecture" that haunts Poe's stories. Even when nothing directly supernatural or horrifying is happening, the setting itself usually suggests something sinister or beyond human comprehension. These icy columns are reminiscent of the Romantic idea of the "sublime" (an experience, usually in nature, of terror and awe at the vastness of existence), and were perhaps inspirational for the setting of Mary Shelley's classic work of horror and the Romantic: Frankenstein

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."

William Wilson Quotes

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 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.

Looking upwards I surveyed the ceiling of my prison. […] In one of its panels a very singular figure riveted my whole attention. It was the painted figure of Time as he is commonly represented, save that, in lieu of a scythe, he held what, at a casual glance, I supposed to be the pictured image of a huge pendulum, such as we see on antique clocks.

Related Characters: Narrator (The Pit and the Pendulum) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Architecture
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the narrator becomes aware of his torture. In a dungeon, there is a painting of the figure of Time, carrying a large pendulum that resembles a scythe (a symbol of how Time must "reap" the human race via death). Although the narrator doesn't realize it right away, the painting of Time--and the very real, very sharp pendulum that he's carrying--will be the narrator's next form of torture. The pendulum is a symbol of the inevitability of death--just as time brings all human beings closer and closer to death, the pendulum threatens to kill the narrator, who is trapped in his Gothic torture-chamber, with increasingly terrifying force.

The Black Cat Quotes

I took from my waistcoat-pocket a pen-knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket! I blush, I burn, I shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity.

Related Characters: Narrator (The Black Cat) (speaker), The Black Cat (speaker)
Related Symbols: Eyes
Page Number: 194
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the narrator of the story tortures his own cat by gouging out one of its eyes with his knife. What's interesting to notice in this passage is that the narrator seems both remorseful and remorseless as he describes how he tortured his pet. On one hand, the narrator describes the cat as a "poor beast," and claims that he shudders as he writes about his own actions. On the other hand, the narrator seems to have hurt his cat without any real remorse at the time-it's only later that he begins to regret his actions.

In short, the narrator is a deeply divided person--simultaneously good and evil, attracted and repelled by crime. In Poe's stories, the narrators' greatest enemies are themselves--they're trapped by their own divided natures, and can't commit a crime without later being wracked by their own self-hatred.