Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most illustrious litterateur’s to have graced the art in the United States of America. His short stories and poems were enjoyed by the public during his own life time as they are still relished contemporarily. His two greatest artistic gifts are his perceptiveness of psychological nuances and his ability to illustrate it in lyrical prose. Both these qualities are seen in his numerous critically acclaimed short fiction and poems. This essay attempts to make a close reading of one of his short stories – Eleonora – and attempts to identify in it some of the recurrent themes in Poe’s works and place them in socio-cultural context. It will pay attention to the influences of the Romantic Movement in literature as well as the bearing of popular psychological theories such as The Uncanny presented subsequently by Sigmund Freud.
The short story Eleonora is lyrical testament to the power of romantic love. A story without any plot whatsoever, its aesthetics lies in the portrayal of depths of passion and the glory of love. It is as much a eulogy to love as it is an excuse for breaking off past promises. Yet, there is no contradiction here, as the promises made to the protagonist’s previous lover have eroded in relevance in the narrator’s ‘second epoch of life’ as he calls it. German physician Friedrich Anton Mesmer’s (1734-1815) scientific method of delving into the human psyche is of help in analyzing the story, for it provides a medium with access to the subject’s inner world and secrets that lay beyond human existence. [i] This then novel scientific approach
“became the cutting-edge development in scientific research to approach the mysteries of the spiritual world and the dark side of the human mind. The Romantic poet, therefore, employed the motif of the double as the chance to investigate the passions and illnesses of the human mind and to examine the presence of a supernatural world.” [ii]
The storyline in Eleonora is quite simple. The unnamed narrator (probably Poe himself) recollects two distinct periods or chapters in his life. The first one ends with the premature death of his beloved cousin Eleonora. The second one ends with his marriage to Ermengarde, his heartthrob of late. During the first phase, the narrator recollects all the wonderful moments he spent with his cousin Eleonara, whom he was about to marry if not for her terminally declining health. This morbid stipulation of time only heightens their love for each other. Instead of dousing interest in the relationship, it serves as a catalyst in consolidating the lovers’ bond. At one such heightened moment of heart-felt love, the narrator promises to Eleonora that even after her death he would remain loyal to her. By remaining loyal to the memory of their love, he believes, he will retain his beloved’s spiritual grace from the heavens, where she would watch over him for the rest of his life, till he joins her eventually one day. Thus ends the first phase of his life, with the promise to and death of Eleonora.
In the second phase of the narrator’s life, having been discouraged by the emptiness of life without Eleonora, the narrator decides to seek a livelier atmosphere by participating in worldly affairs. Idealistic and endearing an idea this was, it would be severely tested and defeated in the face of the charms of Ermengarde. The author’s endeavor is to reconcile these apparently contradictory actions on part of the narrator. Poe is able to achieve this goal by stylized application of the best features of Romantic Movement in literature, which was in vogue in the early decades of the 19th century. Although Poe preceded Freud, there is evidence of some of the latter’s theories in Poe’s works, including Eleonora.
One of the theories articulated by Sigmund Freud is that of Cognitive Dissonance. We can witness this at play as the narrator justifies his abandonment of the promises made to the deceased Eleonora in the face of the compelling romantic pull of Ermengarde. It is fair to claim that the cognitive dissonance felt by the narrator is a necessary mental conflict, just as much as his eventual resolution of it is justifiable. His decision to break his promise to Eleonora is justified on the grounds that it has lost its relevance. The promise’s breach is not a measure of the sincerity of intention at the point of making such a compact. But such is human nature that some promises lose their utility beyond a certain time. In the case of the narrator’s life after Eleonora, he has done nothing unethical or immoral in being drawn to natural worldly temptations, especially in the form of the feminine allure. [iii]
Freud’s theory of ‘The Uncanny’ can be brought to bear on the short story. Though Freud’s life and career succeeded and not preceded that of Poe’s, there is a strong foreshadowing of the former’s theories in the latter’s literary works. This can be deduced through derivative logic, where we evidence the influence of German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann in the works of Poe. That Freud acknowledged how ‘the uncanny’ was at play in Hoffmann’s works helps us infer how they were also applied by Poe in his own distinct social and cultural milieu. For example, “Poe was well acquainted with publications by European writers and even accused other American authors of plagiarizing their ideas. Some critics have noted the similarities between “William Wilson” and The Devil’s Elixirs…” [iv]
Poe exposes the manifestation of the uncanny in Eleonora through his depiction of the ecology of the hills of Many Colored Grass. For example, when the narrator’s romantic involvement with his cousin Eleonora was at a peak, the surrounding natural beauty brimmed in its splendour to reflect their relationship: