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The Humanisation of Animals in Edgar Allan Poe’s works

The Humanisation Of Animals In Edgar Allan Poe’s Works

In traditional allegory and children’s fables, humanisation often occurs. Animals can talk, listen, and think, just like people. Through them, people can get some philosophical enlightenment. Human- isation is a very important and ubiquitous technique in literature. But with the development of times and literature, the images of animals in literary works have become more and more complex. The animals in literature are no longer just carriers of some moral or allegorical meanings, but a tool to be used freely by writers.

The humanisation of animal images in Edgar Allan Poe’s works is different from the humanized animals in previous allegories and children’s fables. They may not have human behavior or the ability to think or speak. But as a tool, Poe gave them humanity to show the protagonist’s mental states.

In many of Poe’s works, he has tried to reveal human mental states. He has created a number of works that show the human soul and protagonists who are either indifferent, or paranoid, or cruel, and in these works, there are always animal images, reflecting psychological realities, giving the reader pause for thought. In this chapter, I will describe the psychology of human beings in Poe’s texts The Raven, The Black Cat and Metzengerstein, and analyze how animal images reveal the dark side of human nature.

1.1 People who are eroded by loneliness

The Raven is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s masterpieces. In his works, death is an important theme. The Raven tells the story of the remembrance of a man of his departed wife. Although death provides freedom for the wife, it leaves loneliness and infinite sorrow for the husband.

In The Raven, except for the sadness which was made by death, readers can also feel endless loneliness. The atmosphere is desolate, in the “bleak December”, there was a miserable young man that bemoans the loss of his precious girl—“the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore”. The bereaved, depressed and lonely man, tried to bury himself in books, “Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore”. But the image of Lenore was still in his mind, so he was exhausted and miserable. Suddenly there is a faint knock at the door and the young man whispers, “Tis some visiter”, and then he said, “Only this, and nothing more”.  Someone came, indicating that he wanted someone to come to him so that he could pour out his sorrow and drive the loneliness away. “Only this, and nothing more” means that he did not have any hopes. When he found that the visitor was a raven, he took it as a “man” for him to talk to. The young man wanted to use it to ease his sorrow. The raven replied, “Nevermore”. The young man told the raven that he did not want to forget his beloved and that he wanted her back. The Raven’s answer is always the same: “Nevermore”. Every mechanical answer was a blow to him, a hope that could never come true, a lover that could never be seen, a sweet time that he could never have again. The raven, the bird which symbolizes misfortune, brings a sorrowful atmosphere. Nobody can understand and nobody can comfort the young man, all the young man had is the cruel reality, the deepening despair, loneliness, the tortured heart.

In the poem, the line “Only this, and nothing more” appears several times, which shows that the protagonist raises the hope of dispelling loneliness, again and again, hoping to get a positive answer and comfort from the raven, but ultimately this is in vain. He suffers from loneliness and despair. This silent, ugly raven is the symbolization of human nature, lonely and indifferent; in reality, happy times will never return, human beings will always be lonely.

The raven is a metaphor for loneliness, and the protagonist is preoccupied by loneliness, becomes more and more sad, melancholy, and eventually despairing. This terrible emotion drags him into the abyss of pain and suffering. In fact, the protagonist could not get rid of loneliness; in a kind of irrational human performance, the young man always stays at home, focused on reading. What is more, he has no communication with others. This environment makes him easy to be controlled by his irrational side, the loss of his beloved is a blow for him, leaving him nothing but weakness and an inability to stop feeling lonely and sad.

He also tries to dispel this negative emotion. Hitting the books is his first choice, “Books” represent knowledge and reason, but loneliness still erodes the young man slowly, when the raven, who is representative of the lonely, knocks on the door, the voice alerts him, “Only this, and nothing more” , indicating that he has tried to be calm and rational about the knock, and at last, without hesitation, he opens the door, but there is nothing in the darkness. Facing the night, he looked around, searching for the knocker. But the fact that he did not go looking for the truth reveals the fragility of his mind, and when the young man hears another knock at the door, he opens the shutter,

In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door –
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door –
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe,1845

The raven entered the house, “Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he”. The raven is representative of the irrational which is merciless. It attacked the protagonist. The young man desperately misses his beloved, he is very weak because of the sorrow. It eventually “Perched upon a bust of Pallas”, the goddess of Wisdom. Irrationality beats reason. The raven’s intervention made him even more miserable, and he finally breaks down completely. The lonely protagonist cannot face the blow with reason, lets irrational emotions control him, and eventually lead him to destruction.

In Poe’s works, everyone is afraid of loneliness and tries to escape it, but in the real world, “Other friends have flown before”, there is no one who can read your heart, no one to comfort you and talk to. Loneliness has become a part of the human nature of modern people, people become more distant and more indifferent.

1.2 People who are self-destructive

In The imp of perverse, Poe writes :

Induction, a posteriori, would have brought phrenology to admit, as an innate and primitive principle of human action, a paradoxical something, which we may call perverseness, for want of a more characteristic term.”, “With certain minds, under certain conditions, it becomes absolutely irresistible.” “It is a radical, a primitive impulse-elementary.”

The imp of perverse, Edgar Allan Poe,1845

The conflict between the id and rationality is always there. If a person’s self-contradictory struggle with rationality is basically balanced, he is a normal and mentally healthy person. If not, he is a person who has mental issues. 

Many of Poe’s works feature paranoid characters, such as in  The Black Cat, in which the author portrays a pathologically irrational man, however, he was not born this way. The protagonist was a gentle man from an early age who was especially fond of animals: 


From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition. My tenderness of heart was even so conspicuous as to make me the jest of my companions. I was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by my parents with a great variety of pets. With these I spent most of my time, and never was so happy as when feeding and caressing them

The Black Cat, Edgar Allan Poe, 1843

After he got married, he and his wife kept many small animals, especially a black cat named Pluto. However, as a result of excessive drinking, he changed his temperament, often beat his wife, and abused the animals, except the black cat, which he still loved. But eventually, he gets so drunk that he cuts out one of its eyes; finally, he kills the poor cat. Later, the protagonist discovers another black cat that looks like Pluto and adopts it. However, the protagonist starts to hate it and feels disgusted with him, then he raises an axe to the second black cat, his wife tries to stop him, but the protagonist is crazy, and he kills his wife too.

The black cat in the story has strong symbolic and metaphorical significance. In the West, a “black cat” is very mysterious, people think it is the embodiment of witches, is synonymous with evil. “All black cats are witches in disguise” Poe says, setting an ominous tone. In the story, the change of the protagonist’s attitude towards black cats is the struggle between rationality and irrationality in human nature.

The protagonist’s first black cat is named “Pluto”. Pluto is the Roman god of the dead, a symbol of the underworld. The black cat whose name is Pluto lends a sense of horror and mystery to the story, as well as a symbol of the temptation that leads the protagonist to depravity and crime. The role of the black cat in the story is a symbol of the evil of humans which is actually triggered by the desire to satisfy one’s own needs within oneself. The crazy protagonist “cut one of its eyes from the socket”. The socket of Pluto is like a mirror to show the protagonist’s conscience. The protagonist is driven into a rage by alcoholism, but he shows compassion only for the black cat, which is the self-containment of moral evil in human nature. However, with the increasingly serious alcoholism, psychological strength gradually weakness, and finally one day, the protagonist gouges out an eye of the black cat. This action was the result of the protagonist’s instinct beating his reason. Although it is the black cat’s eyes that have been cut out, it is the protagonist’s morality and conscience that have actually broken apart. As Pluto recovers from his wounds, the socket of his eye fills the protagonist with fear and shows that he still has a conscience:


I had so much of my old heart left, as to be at first grieved by this evident dislike on the part of a creature which had once so loved me. But this feeling soon gave place to irritation. And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account.”

The Black Cat, Edgar Allan Poe, 1843

As we can see, evil desire again overcomes reason.

The second black cat, except for one part, is almost identical with the first one, a constant reminder of the crime of the protagonist, his sense of increasing guilt. There is a splotch of white on the cat’s chest, which resembles a gallows: a strong symbolic meaning. “The image of a hideous — of a ghastly thing — of the GALLOWS ! — oh, mournful and terrible engine of Horror and of Crime — of Agony and of Death !” The splotch of white is the second black cat imposed on the soul of the protagonist. The protagonist cannot bear its suffering, finally choosing to continue to do evil. In the end, the hero is broken, kills his wife, and himself.

Through the two black cats and some special marks on them, Edgar Allan Poe concretizes and visualizes the protagonist’s darkness, fear and inner struggle. Through these symbols, we see the expression of the conflict between human darkness and human morality. In the process of analyzing the protagonist’s mental state, Poe not only shows the evil of the protagonist but also describes the conflict between instinct and reason. In Poe’s works, the protagonists are usually people who are paranoid. They are driven by their desire to commit crimes involuntarily, and in the process, they feel guilty and ashamed. Finally, the conflict and struggle in their minds lead them to destroy.

By analyzing these works, Poe showed the dark and the complex side of human nature, making the reader pay attention to the irrational and the unconscious, to alert people that, if they are controlled by the irrational, this may lead them to destruction. At the same time, Poe criticized the damage caused by slavery.