Re-constructing Poe’s Houses

I’ve been re-reading Edgar Allan Poe recently, in advance of teaching him this term for the first time on a couple of modules, and have been struck greatly by his idiosyncratic attention to the materiality of houses, in stories such as ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841), ‘The Purloined Letter’ (1845), ‘The Black Cat’ (1843) and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ (1843). Through reading Walter Benjamin and various other theorists and interpreters of urban space (such as Ben Highmore, 2005), I have become accustomed to thinking of Poe as the great documenter of the open streets, and of the crowds and flâneurs that haunt them, but in returning to these exquisite stories I’ve become additionally more and more interested in how they treat the (by definition) limited space of buildings and the rooms they contain. Of course, much has already been said from a psychoanalytic perspective of the fascination of Gothic writers with the unheimlich home, but here I am addressing more specifically the way Poe scrutinises (to the extent of almost trying to pull apart) the physicality of inhabited buildings per se, to demystify them as bricks, mortar and wood or iron support structures, arranged as walls, fireplaces, roofs. Poe’s concern with the material limits of houses, as sites under-written and circumscribed both by the finite physical space they occupy and by the variable quality of materials with which they have been constructed, deserves more attention from literary scholars, partly in order to trace one source of a strain of imaginative engagement with the materiality of domesticity that surfaces in later fiction by writers such as Wilkie Collins and Richard Marsh.

Some extraordinarily productive readings have emerged from the critical deployment of those two famous Dupin stories, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ and ‘The Purloined Letter’, as metaphors for the interpretive quest; for reading as detection (most notably by none other than Jacques Lacan). Although in the end both stories self-reflexively seem to insist that enlightenment is not (if it is anything at all) a matter of anyone going anywhere, the texts spatialize both the concealment of and the hunt for the truth in a very material way. In the earlier story, the biggest conundrum presented by the apparently psychopathic crime Dupin eventually solves is the fact of the body of one of the victims ‘forced’, improbably,’up the narrow aperture’ of a chimney ‘for a considerable distance’. By contrast, the twist of ‘The Purloined Letter’ is, famously, that the letter hasn’t had to have been stuffed into any all-too-unyielding nooks or crannies at all, but is lying on the desk in full view. Nonetheless, although the end of the story seeks to transcend what has gone before, the longer (middle) part of the story relates a very meticulous search of the premises conducted by the police, which serves to make us uncomfortably aware of the physical limits of inhabited spaces:

          “…we examined the rungs of every chair in the hotel, and, indeed, the jointings of every description of furniture, by the aid of a most powerful microscope. Had there been any traces of recent disturbance we should not have failed to detect it instantly. A single grain of gimlet-dust, for example, would have been as obvious as an apple. Any disorder in the gluing — any unusual gap in the joints — would have sufficed to insure detection.”

“I presume you looked to the mirrors, between the boards and the plates, and you probed the beds and the bedclothes, as well as the curtains and carpets.”

“That of course; and when we had absolutely completed every particle of the furniture in this way, then we examined the house itself. We divided its entire surface into compartments, which we numbered, so that none might be missed; then we scrutinized each individual square inch throughout the premises, including the two houses immediately adjoining, with the microscope, as before.”

Two other stories, ‘The Black Cat’ and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, both explore houses as limited enclosures, in which there is only so much space for concealment or containment: like the other stories, they make use of the trope of the hidden thing that for one reason or another will not remain hidden. In each of them, the use of a deranged first-person narrator makes us readers more and more aware of form, leading me to wonder whether Poe’s repeated attention to the idea of the finite materiality of buildings might have had at least something to do with his relation to the textual kind of enclosure writing short stories itself enacts. In any case, just before the grotesque final paragraphs of ‘The Black Cat’, the narrator takes a bunch of policeman round his house, and cannot help himself in talking about the ‘well-constructed[ness]’ of its walls, behind one of which he has deposited the wife he has murdered:

“Gentlemen,” I said at last, as the party ascended the steps, “I delight to have allayed your suspicions. I wish you all health, and a little more courtesy. By the bye, gentlemen, this—this is a very well constructed house.” [In the rabid desire to say something easily, I scarcely knew what I uttered at all.]—”I may say an excellently well constructed house. These walls—are you going, gentlemen?—these walls are solidly put together;” and here, through the mere phrenzy of bravado, I rapped heavily, with a cane which I held in my hand, upon that very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom.

‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ tells a similar tale of bodies (un)successfully concealed, but here emphasises the labours of the murderer who has to confront the house’s materiality in order to try to escape legal comeuppance:

If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs. I then took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye –not even his –could have detected any thing wrong. There was nothing to wash out –no stain of any kind –no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all –ha! ha!

Those details of the planks and the ‘scantlings’ (whatever they are!) are so significant here, rhyming in a truly horrible way with the other object that he disassembles into its parts (the body itself). It would be worth analysing what purpose other than Gothic readerly effect this materialization or demystification of domestic materiality serves in Poe’s work, however, and in particular, to think about how his writing relates to adjacent contemporaneous discourses about limited, inadequate, or ‘jerry-built’ housing, following on from Sharon Marcus’s work in Apartment Stories (1999). But that’s for another day…

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