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Modern Psychology and the Significance of the Other in Poe’s Short Fiction

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According to the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, ‘man is an enigma to himself’.[1] In his seminal work The Undiscovered Self, Jung notes how man’s world revolves around what he believes himself to be, what he thinks is right and what he believes he is not, what he thinks is wrong. The latter are the differences between one individual and another, or perhaps one society and another. These differences include cultural, behavioural and situational discrepancies which sometimes urge one person to look down upon those who practice these differences as if they are the norm. People who are different, are often shunned by society and regarded as deviant to what is normally accepted. They become the Other, or the ‘shadow’, these derogatory terms suggesting negativity. However, Jung points out how this ‘inferior part of the psyche’ belonging to the other can be explored through an introspection of oneself, ‘by exploring our own souls’.[2] Therefore, Jung seemingly suggests that one is the same as the Other he looks down upon. One dislikes the Other, because one sees in the shadow certain traits belonging to oneself, which should preferably remain secret. The Other is a nemesis one must identify with in order to learn about oneself. So, what is thought to be a pair of opposites turns out to be one whole. In Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, the reader encounters several examples of this kind for instance in stories such as William Wilson, The Purloined Letter and The Murders in the Rue Morgue among others. By taking into consideration Jung’s description about what he considers the Other to be, this essay will attempt to find out what Poe aimed to establish by including the Other in his short stories. It will also find out what the significance of the Other is for Poe.

Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who also wrote several studies on Poe’s short stories, speaks of the Other in Poe as a form of the unconscious. He suggests that the Other is the opposite of what is real and therefore is part of the symbolic.[3] Lacan suggests that the real and the symbolic, upon being combined together, may stand for ‘the laws of combinational analysis and strategy’, thus suggesting that Jung’s notion of combining one with the other in order to learn more about oneself, is a sensible idea.[4] In fact, in Poe’s short stories, the reader almost always encounters examples where the protagonist ends up stuck in a rut due to not leaving one’s comfort zone, or for sticking to just one perspective or ideal. In Poe’s detective stories, the reader will notice a recurring pattern where for the French police in The Murders of the Rue Morgue and the Prefect in The Purloined Letter for instance, fail to solve the case yet Dupin does so. The difference between the amateur detective and the official investigators is simple. While both the Police and the Prefect base their investigations solely on observations which involve ridiculous measures such as ‘examin[ing] the moss between the bricks’ and probing every book with the ‘jealous scrutiny of the microscope’, Dupin placed himself in the criminal’s perspective and imagined how the latter would act.[5] In The Purloined Letter, Dupin pictures the crime scene as he imagines Minister d would have seen it. He would have hidden the letter in the least concealed of all places so that the Police would not think of searching that particular location. This is a conclusion which is reached not through observation but through inference, thought and creativity. This is how Dupin combines analysis with imagination, and so uncovering the solution. Dupin brings up the example of the shrewd schoolboy who wins every single game of ‘even and odd’ by having a basic ‘principle of guessing’ as well as observing his opponent’s movements.[6] Similarly, in The Murders of the Rue Morgue, Dupin successfully figures out what his friend the narrator is thinking by connecting his own observations on the latter’s outward behaviour while guessing what his environment may lead him to think about.[7]

In The Murders of the Rue Morgue, the idea of attributing the wrongdoing to what is other than ourselves is seen through how the witnesses interpreted the ‘shrill voice’ thought to belong to the murderer – they all associated it with a language they were not acquainted with prior to the incident.[8] The witnesses instinctively decided that no one who speaks the same tongue as them is capable of such monstrosities. In a way, they were correct, but the end result is more horrific. The murderer, is an orangutan. This orangutan represents the family of apes, from which the human species is thought to be a descendent of. Therefore, the orangutan shows how all humanity in general is susceptible to murder, violence and other misdeeds. The orangutan performed an action thought only capable of a human being, but at the same time, the action is so atrocious that people would normally call the action as beastly. This shows how there is a similarity between the beast and the human being – a pair which made up of us as a species and our Other.

This unification of two different entities also appears in William Wilson, where the main character is constantly followed around by this man who is exactly identical to himself except or the fact that he speaks in a ‘singular, low, hissing utterance’, and whispers his syllables.[9] This whisper suggests that the second, elusive William Wilson is a secret entity, possibly standing for the actual William Wilson’s subconscious or perhaps his conscience, as he always seems to turn up when Wilson commits some wrongdoings. Wilson chooses not to ally himself with the other Wilson who seems to be the mirror of his soul. In fact, towards the end, it was a ‘large mirror’ which disclosed to Wilson the Other’s identity as himself, and in killing the antagonist, he is killing himself.[10] This revelation enforces the idea that the Other is none but ourselves and that what is different and wrong in others may be found even in one’s own life if one looks hard enough.

This essay has by no means exhausted the idea of The Other in Poe’s short stories, however it has brought to light several points. These include the idea that each and every individual is at once himself and his own Other. One may be the Other of another person. In order for the world to function, every pair of “opposites” must unite in order to live and function in the fullest way possible. As seen in The Purloined Letter, The Murders of the Rue Morgue, and William Wilson, those who choose to stick to themselves, to the norms, or to what they can understand solely through their five senses without applying their imagination to it, end up stuck. In order to gain experience and succeed in life, one must keep one’s mind open to possibilities and combine different ideologies, opinions and so on for a more fruitful experience. The Other in Poe, is the subconscious, the conscience, and the link between one society and the other as human beings. Just as Jung points out how deviants are sent out of society because they threaten a norm, and because their differences are recognised by those who forsake them as traits of their own personalities, Poe shows how the One and the Other are never to be separated.

List of Works Cited

Jung, Carl, The Undiscovered Self (London: Routledge, 2005)

Muller, John P. and William J. Richardson, ‘Lacan’s Seminar on “The Purloined Letter”: Overview’, in The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida, and Psychoanalytic Reading, ed. by John P. Muller and William J. Richardson, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1988), pp. 55-76

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

Poe, Edgar Allan, ‘The Purloined Letter’, in The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, ed. by J.Gerald Kennedy (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), pp. 327-344

Poe, Edgar Allan, ‘William Wilson’, in The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, ed. by J.Gerald Kennedy (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), pp. 168-186

[1] Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self (London: Routledge, 2005), p.31.

[2] Jung, p. 75.

[3] John P. Muller and William J. Richardson, ‘Lacan’s Seminar on “The Purloined Letter”: Overview’, in The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida, and Psychoanalytic Reading, ed. by John P. Muller and William J. Richardson (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1988), pp. 55-76, p.75.

[4] Muller and Richardson, p. 75.

[5] Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Purloined Letter’, in The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, ed. by J.Gerald Kennedy (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), pp. 327-344, p.333.

[6] Poe, ‘The Purloined Letter’, p. 336.

[7] Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Murders of the Rue Morgue’, in The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, ed. by J.Gerald Kennedy (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), pp. 238-270, p.243-244.

[8] Poe, ‘The Murders of the Rue Morgue’, p. 248.

[9] Edgar Allan Poe, ‘William Wilson’, in The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, ed. by J.Gerald Kennedy (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), pp. 168-186 p.179.

[10] Poe, ‘William Wilson’, p. 186.

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