The Imp of the Perverse | Study Guide

Edgar Allan Poe

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The Imp of the Perverse | Themes

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Many of Poe's short stories deal with contrasting themes meant to explore the tension between opposing forces. Poe created dark situations that allow dynamic and intensely developed characters to work through the push and pull of human nature, and "The Imp of the Perverse" is no different in its attempt to explore these differences as it pits science against human nature's darker recesses.

Psychology versus Phrenology

The theme of psychology recurs throughout this story. The narrator begins by analyzing the missteps of highly regarded scientific theories such as phrenology and moralism. Both of these movements sought to explain human behavior and provide reason or structure for people's actions. Phrenology was a scientific theory started in the early 17th century. It gained mainstream traction well into the 20th century before ultimately being disproved. The theory of phrenology centered on the idea that the shape and geography of an individual's skull directly corresponded to their behaviors and mental abilities. It was then possible, so it was believed, to identify individuals who suffered from deficiencies or incompetencies. Moralism was a competing theory in the 19th century. Those who subscribed to moralism believed in a very rigid code of social morality. This moral code was usually overemphasized and dismissed any idea or evidence that conflicted with the established code. Both phrenology and moralism, as the narrator notes, are unable to recognize or explain the imp of the perverse phenomenon.

While many may have believed that phrenology explained human behavior, it completely disregarded the perverseness that the narrator and many others fall victim to. The narrator believes the imp exists as "a radical, primitive, irreducible sentiment." The imp is inescapable and must be explained by the prevailing scientists and philosophers of the time. The narrator takes this idea a step further by questioning the trust and belief people put in phrenology and other theories. Early in the discourse the narrator notes that "the phrenologists have failed to make room for a propensity" such as the imp, and it "has been equally overlooked by all the moralists who preceded them." The disregard for the imp is a decades-long mistake that the narrator hopes to rectify. If people blindly follow these thought patterns, then fewer people will recognize or understand the power of the imp of the perverse.

Hysteria

While not quite as overt as in some of Poe's other stories, the theme of hysteria is evident in "The Imp of the Perverse." After criticizing the scientific community of the time, the narrator tries to establish his competence. First, he attempts to illustrate his mental capacities by describing the shared experience of the imp. To show just how wide-reaching the imp's power is, the narrator explains procrastination. He comments that "we have a task before us which must be speedily performed, we know that it will be ruinous to make delay." Procrastination is the imp at work as it preys on an unsuspecting mind to put off valuable, important work. The use of the pronoun "we" is significant. The narrator does not describe a singular event but one that is experienced by many people. This appeal to a greater connection, even a negative connection, is an attempt to give credibility to the argument at hand. The imp of the perverse is real, powerful, and universal.

The narrator seems to maintain a level of mastery in his early discussion, but the transition to his personal experiences begins to show a weakness of mind. Even in the transition the narrator fears his tale will be misinterpreted: "had I not been thus prolix, you might either have misunderstood me altogether, or, with the rabble, have fancied me mad." Unfortunately, the narrator descends further and further into a fit of confusion while he details his encounter with "the imp of the perverse." After years of living a luxurious life the narrator begins to break under the pressure of the imp and mutters "I am safe—I am safe—yes" to himself over and over again. At times the narrator notes the inevitability of succumbing to the madness as the imp seems to physically restrain the narrator with "a rougher grasp" around his shoulders. Then "the long imprisoned secret burst forth."

Temptation and Impulse

At the start of the story the narrator outlines the impulses humans feel such as hunger, self-defense, and perverseness. In some cases those impulses can be pushed aside, but in others they are too great. The narrator takes this idea a step further when he describes two instances in which he was overcome by these impulses or temptations. The first instance was the planning and execution of a murder. Murder is almost universally considered to be wrong and an act that should not be committed. Even with that understanding the narrator plans and commits a murder. This murder is successful, and, having left no evidence behind, the narrator is free to live his life free from worry or detection. The desire and temptation to confess, however, begins to grow.

It is this desire, the imp, that leads to the narrator's public confession and ultimate downfall. The narrator begins sprinting down a crowded street in the hope of outrunning the desire to confess. The temptation becomes overwhelming, almost like the "ghost of him whom I had murdered—and beckoned me on to death." The narrator attempts to outrun this growing temptation but it encroaches "with a distinct enunciation, but with marked emphasis and passionate hurry." At this point the imp wins and leaves the narrator to suffer the consequences of his actions. The narrator is bound in chains and awaits his final punishment the next day.

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