For over one hundred years, critics have widely regarded Edgar Allan Poe as an aesthetician of literature as a whole, which has to a great extent oriented the interpretation of his prose narratives. In this essay I revisit Poe's relevant essays and reveal that Poe's aesthetic conception of the subject matter of poetry is due to poetry's peculiar generic characteristics not shared by prose fiction. Poe makes an unequivocal distinction in prose fiction between structural design and subject matter. While putting the tale's structural design completely on a par with that of poetry, Poe treats the tale's subject matter as different in nature from that of poetry—as “antagonistical” to Beauty and often based on the ethically related, though not ethically confined, “Truth.” In this essay I argue that if some of Poe's tales convey a moral, then that moral tends to be implicit and inseparable from the structural “unity of effect,” and the tale may react or respond to the cultural context in a certain way. In Poe's “The Tell-Tale Heart” we can see a characteristic interaction among a structurally unified dramatic irony, an implicit moral, and the historical “insanity defense” controversy.
Edgar Allan Poe's Aesthetic Theory, the Insanity Debate, and the Ethically Oriented Dynamics of “The Tell-Tale Heart”
Changjiang Professor of English and Director of the Center for European and American Literatures at Peking [Beijing] University. She is on the editorial board of the British journal Language and Literature and the European journal JLS: Journal of Literary Semantics, and she is a consultant editor of The Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory. Apart from her numerous books and essays published in China, she has published over thirty essays in the West, over ten in the following North American journals: Narrative (four essays), Style (four essays), Poetics Today, ARIEL: An International Review of English Literature, Comparative Literature Studies, and JNT: The Journal of Narrative Theory (also The Journal of Narrative Technique).
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Dan Shen; Edgar Allan Poe's Aesthetic Theory, the Insanity Debate, and the Ethically Oriented Dynamics of “The Tell-Tale Heart”. Nineteenth-Century Literature 1 December 2008; 63 (3): 321–345. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncl.2008.63.3.321
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