The Imp of the Perverse | Study Guide

Edgar Allan Poe

Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic
MLA

Bibliography

Course Hero. "The Imp of the Perverse Study Guide." Course Hero. 24 Aug. 2020. Web. 18 Sep. 2021. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Imp-of-the-Perverse/>.

In text

(Course Hero)

APA

Bibliography

Course Hero. (2020, August 24). The Imp of the Perverse Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved September 18, 2021, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Imp-of-the-Perverse/

In text

(Course Hero, 2020)

Chicago

Bibliography

Course Hero. "The Imp of the Perverse Study Guide." August 24, 2020. Accessed September 18, 2021. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Imp-of-the-Perverse/.

Footnote

Course Hero, "The Imp of the Perverse Study Guide," August 24, 2020, accessed September 18, 2021, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Imp-of-the-Perverse/.

The Imp of the Perverse | Plot Summary & Analysis

Share
Share
See Plot Diagram

Summary

"The Imp of the Perverse" is a story told in two parts. The beginning is an almost clinical discussion of the brain and the various impulses or behaviors that originate there. This discussion quickly shifts to the personal implications of some of the lesser-known or recognized impulses. The narrator details his own experiences with a powerful, negative force that led him to commit a terrible crime and that has left him bound in both physical and metaphorical chains.

Physiology and Psychology

The story begins with an overview of the faults and misgivings of the early sciences, specifically phrenology. The narrator explains the need and desire for humans to understand the workings of the brain and body but attribute the design and function to God. In an attempt to make sense of a complex and highly sophisticated system, early scientists believed various behaviors and urges were housed in specific areas of the brain which had direct connections to certain organs. All of this could be seen visibly by examining the "lumps and bumps" of any person's skull. Each person's skull could then be mapped out to help identify strengths and weaknesses. This process unfortunately overlooked one very negative, powerful entity. The narrator names this powerful entity "perverseness." The narrator argues that "perverseness" is left out of the phrenology index because it simply does not fit. The uniqueness of this influence poses a danger to people's safety and security. This threat demands that the "perverseness" be identified and warned against.

The narrator goes on to argue that "perverseness" exists in all people, but it finds some more malleable than others so that "with certain minds, under certain conditions, it becomes absolutely irresistible." This overwhelming power is not always present, but the impulse to do wrong exists in all people. Sometimes the "perverseness" may seem harmless as with a "speaker [who] is aware that he displeases" or a task that is "put off until to-morrow." These impulses and desires cannot be easily explained "except that we feel perverse." The "perverseness" does not stop when self-preservation or control calls for it to cease. Rather, the "perverseness" becomes "an uncontrollable longing, and the longing (to the deep regret and mortification of the speaker, and in defiance of all consequences) is indulged."

The Narrator's Story

The story shifts to the narrator's personal account. The narrator reiterates that this account is the reason for the story. Without this experience the entry may be seen as the ramblings of a madman, but the imp of the perverse has many victims who have not told their stories. In this retelling the narrator murders a man. This murder is thought-out and planned. After he studies his victim, the narrator discovers a plausible and doable means of murder in a book of memoirs by Madame Pilau who suffered a near-fatal illness caused by the burning of a poisoned candle. This inspires the narrator whose victim lives in a small apartment and has a habit of reading in bed. The narrator puts his plan into action. The victim is found in bed the following morning and the cause of death is ruled natural or a "visitation of God."

The narrator inherits the victim's large estate through his death and initially revels in his own success and ingenuity. However, the innocence and carefree nature of this stolen life begins to fade. Soon thoughts of discovery and torment begin to consume him. The thoughts become more persistent, hardly ever giving him a reprieve. He attempts to escape his troubling thoughts and continue a normal life, but this attempt proves to be his undoing. During a walk around town the narrator is overcome with a desire to confess his sins. The desire to escape grows even greater, and the narrator sprints the length of the street. This sight causes a scene, and people on the street notice his actions and soon chase and surround him. At once the narrator is gripped violently by the imp of the perverse. The gripping sensation becomes a slap to the back, and the narrator lets his deep secret slip. He confesses to the murder with clear speech and in full detail. He is immediately arrested and put in chains. He now awaits the hangman's noose.

Analysis

Narration

A notable aspect of this short story is the lack of identification or names. The narrator confesses to a diabolic murder and remains nameless for the entire story. As with all of Poe's work, the "devil is in the details." The narrator's anonymity is a deliberate device to draw the reader in, walk the reader through the narrator's thoughts and ultimately have the reader share in the narrator's personal downfall.

Not only does the story transition from an almost academic discussion of the inner workings of the mind to a personal confession of murder, but the pronouns change as well. In the beginning the narrator uses words to signify the whole or groups of people such as human beings or humankind. He discusses the ideas of phrenology using words like "we" and "us." As the story progresses toward the practical implications of these ideas and the imp itself, the plural pronouns disappear. At this point there is a deeper but definite pull and a shared experience or understanding. This impulse to do wrong, this imp, is no longer an abstract, distant idea but a real and present danger for all people.

Failings of Science

From the story's onset, the narrator argues against society's belief in the supposed unfailing authority of science. Poe's work came after the Enlightenment (1715–89), a time period in which great value was placed on the sciences and intellectual knowledge. Truth and authority were derived from the sciences and aspects of life that could be quantified, rationalized, or tangibly experienced. The narrator argues that this thought process keeps real truth hidden.

The imp of the perverse is a truth that cannot be quantified. The actions and behaviors caused by the imp are not logical and rarely sensible. Because of the lack of reason or logic the scientific world dismisses the idea of the imp and seeks to explain such behaviors as mental illness or disease. This dismissal allows the imp to continue its destruction and "promptings to act without comprehensible object." The narrator demands recognition of the imp and its power when he states, "in theory, no reasons can be more unreasonable, but, in fact, there is none more strong." The imp is able to create devastation and havoc, but it is still not recognized by the world authority because even when such "a radical, a primitive impulse" is identified or experienced science looks the other way. The narrator continues to build an argument for identification and study of the imp and reflects that "in the case of that something which I term perverseness, the desire to be well is not only not aroused, but a strongly antagonistic sentiment exists." The case is strengthened further by the narrator's own lost battle with the imp.

The Imp of the Perverse Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 The narrator identifies flaws of different belief systems.

Rising Action

2 The narrator explains how the imp of the perverse works.

3 The narrator plans and commits murder.

4 The worry and anxiety about being found out builds.

Climax

5 The narrator feels the grip of the imp of the perverse.

Falling Action

6 The narrator confesses to murder.

Resolution

7 The narrator is in jail awaiting the freedom of execution.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about The Imp of the Perverse? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!