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Edgar Allan Poe and the Orangutan Obsession

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Edgar Allan Poe’s unusually common usage of orangutans in his short stories is no secret. In The Murders of the Rue Morgue, the orangutan turns out to be the murderer who deprived Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter of their lives. Its actions are depicted as extremely –and perhaps uncomfortably- human like. Its shrieks using a ‘shrill voice [like] that of a man’, however its language is obviously not recognized.[1] When assuming the murder’s occurrence in chronological order, it is suggested that the daughter’s body was ‘firmly wedged in the chimney’, while her mother’s was ‘hurled through the window headlong’, as if the brute realized its actions are less than worthy and desired to hide away the bodies of the deceased women.[2] Therefore, the orang-utan seems to bears uncanny similarities to our species in that it can communicate albeit not effectively, and it can kind of distinguish between right and wrong. Also in Hop Frog, the figure of the orang-utan features as a masquerade disguise for the king and his seven ministers. They are ‘saturated with tar’ and covered with ‘flax’ in order to accurately represent these beasts.[3] The orang-utan emerges as an undesirable and scary creature. However, seeing that the eight important men remain unidentified, disguised as they were, the orangutan figure does not seem to differ that much from that of the human being.

In another of Poe’s short stories, Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, the reader does not encounter human beings dressed up as orangutans with absolute certainty. Nevertheless, the manner by which the sane asylum workers were treated and how they were all ‘tarred, then- carefully feathered’ by the insane patients, is reminiscent of Hop Frog, where the fool outwitted the wiser men and degrading them to the figure of the orangutan.[4] In fact, the narrator is reminded of ‘Chimpanzees, Ourang-Outangs, or big black baboons of the Cape of Good Hope’.[5] While the keepers are not specifically attired as orangutans, they are still masquerading as a cross between several species of the ape family. The reader may notice a pattern between the human being who is going through a crisis where his intelligence and morality is questioned, and his sudden metamorphosis into an orangutan. This has taken place too often in Poe’s stories to be taken simply as part of the plot without much significance. In what way might the deprived human being be linked with the orangutan? What is the meaning behind this analogy?

In his essay ‘Handling the Perceptual Politics of Identity in Great Expectations’, University professor Peter J. Capuano points out how the Victorians were deeply preoccupied with ‘the material features of the body’ and what message is evoked through the shape of their bodily characteristics.[6] In Great Expectations, Dickens exaggerates this Victorian anxiety by including characters like Pip who compare his status in life with that of Estella by studying his hands. According to Capuano, this sudden interest in the body stems from human beings’ loss of their ‘privileged status’ of superiority over animals, when Charles Darwin’s theory suggests that in fact human beings are derived from the ape family.[7] This revelation brought with it an identity crisis, a deflation to the human ego, and unsurprisingly a curiosity regarding the way how apes ‘looked and behaved’ just like humans.[8] Needless to say, the Victorians dreaded to face a life where human beings are no longer at the top of the biological spectrum, and they would not have anything to do with these creatures and avoided any associations with them. They strove to re-assert their power over all the other animals, and instead used terms related to apes, gorillas, orangutans and so on in order to insult races whom they regarded as lesser.[9]

So how is this discovery linked with Poe and his treatment of human beings as orangutans? In a letter addressed to George W. Eveleth, a Maine medical student, Poe states that it is the heart which makes one human, and without which man would become a ‘brute or a god’.[10] Therefore, Poe seems to be of the belief that if one does not live up to humanity’s moral standards, one is living on par with apes; a declaration which would not be very pleasing to his contemporary audience. Yet, his numerous instances where the human is reduced to an orangutan suggest that Poe is deliberately placing his readers in distress, in order to show them how close to brutes they really are. Why is Poe so intent on making this sentiment felt? What is his main motif behind his accusation of lacking humanity among his generation?

The most likely theory behind this reasoning stems directly from Poe’s life. Through his letters, one becomes acquainted with the hardships he endured after his adoptive father John Allan disowns him and refuses to contact him. From the letters Poe wrote to Allan, one will realize how the latter deprived Poe of the money necessary to further his studies which led him to fall into terrible vices like gambling. Poe was robbed of the love a child should get from his father. He lived in poverty and was always in want of money. He witnessed the death of his beloved wife Virginia. He endured several feuds with several other writers and critics and towards the end of his life had to experience the bitterness of unrequited love. Could it be that he is trying to reassert his dignity by comparing such people with brutes? Perhaps this comparison with orangutans has been inspired from the Victorians’ desire to be as unlike orangutans and apes in general as possible, and therefore Poe took this opportunity to voice his opinion regarding humanity. Despite being poor, unloved and even thought to be insane, Poe worked hard to get his own back by demonstrating through his writing how akin to orangutans human beings actually are. This theory seems to be viable because in both The Murders in the Rue Morgue and Hop Frog as well as in The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, the orangutan doubles as the human being whose behavior is less than human. In The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the orangutan is a murderer who physically deprives others of their lives just as Poe is deprived of his life through insufficient finances and neglect. In Hop Frog and The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, the orangutans are the ones who have made fun of those deemed to be lesser and perhaps stupid, just as how Poe was often not taken seriously due to rumors of his insanity and of his insobriety.

Poe possibly manipulated the Victorian’s insecurity regarding their very existence and included it within his tales in order to mock and magnify people’s faults. He perhaps sought to transfer the ire and shame mercilessly instigated by other people, onto the very same individuals who were not so fond of him. The distress is further enhanced through the nature of his short stories itself as he deals with delicate subjects such as death, murder and horror, in order to add to his ‘enemies’ vulnerability and simultaneously build up a screen of bravery and power for himself. Poe managed to fight back and regain some authority through this analogy which not only has probably satisfied his anger and indignation towards humanity but it also added a depth and mystery to his infamous stories. The orangutan will forever remain associated with human beings’ flaws and their failure in society. It is a warning against one’s unacceptable instinctual behaviour and an encouragement to think before ‘acting like orangutans’.

List of Works Cited

Capuano, Peter J., ‘Handling the Perceptual Politics of Identity in Great Expectations’, Dickens Quarterly 27, 3, (Sep 2010), pp. 185-254

Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, George W. Eveleth to Edgar Allan Poe — January 19, 1847 <https://www.eapoe.org/misc/letters/t4701190.htm> [accessed 21 July 2017]

Poe, Edgar Allan, ‘Hop Frog’, in The Portable Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), pp. 215-224

Poe, Edgar Allan, ‘The Murders of the Rue Morgue’, in The Portable Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), pp. 238-270

Poe, Edgar Allan, ‘The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether’, in The Portable Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), pp. 359-376

Notes

[1] Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Murders of the Rue Morgue’, in The Portable Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), pp. 238-270, p. 249.

[2] Poe, ‘The Murders of the Rue Morgue’, p. 250-270.

[3] Edgar Allan Poe, ‘Hop Frog’, in The Portable Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), pp. 215-224, p.220.

[4] Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether’, in The Portable Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), pp. 359-376, p. 375.

[5] Poe, ‘The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether’, p. 375.

[6] Peter J. Capuano, ‘Handling the Perceptual Politics of Identity in Great Expectations’, Dickens Quarterly 27, 3, (Sep 2010), pp. 185-254, p. 186.

[7] Capuano, p. 188.

[8] Capuano, p. 189.

[9] Capuano, p. 190-191.

[10] Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, George W. Eveleth to Edgar Allan Poe — January 19, 1847 <https://www.eapoe.org/misc/letters/t4701190.htm> [accessed 21 July 2017].

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