The Importance of Conscience in the Gothic Literature of Poe and Lovecraft

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The Gothic literature develops at the end of the 18th century, with a series of characteristics that clearly differentiate it from other styles. Within the literary subgenre of the novel, it is necessary to separate the terror of folklore and the legends of mystical beings, ghosts or beings from other planets.

The Gothic style is one of the most important and characteristic of the literary genre of all time. Its diverse styles and ways of conceiving fear propose multiple ways to develop the narrations that ponder and consolidate some of the most important and influential authors of the Gothic genre.

The present work intends to make an analysis of two works: The tell tale heart, by Edgar Allan Poe and Polaris by H. P. Lovecraft. The purpose of the analysis is to decipher the representation of conscience in their works, how they affect the protagonists and the role they play in the development of both stories.

Keywords: Gothic literature, novel, influential authors, analysis, “The tell tale heart” by Edgar Allan Poe, “Polaris” by H. P. Lovecraft, conscience.


When talking about gothic or horror narrative some people are unsure whether they are the same or not. One of the authors most important of the gothic gender; Ann Radcliffe makes a distinction between terror and horror. The terror style wakes up our faculties and the horror style makes the opposite, horror paralysis us and erases our creative faculties of inspiration, of this way the reader cannot anticipate what is going to happen. Radcliffe (145-152).

The term 'gothic' is related to the architectural style of the middle ages. In the middle of the eighteenth century had a certain fascination for gothic architecture, for Enlightenment, rationalism before the protestant reform, scientific discoveries, and the adjective 'gothic' designates all these. It is assumed that the first gothic novel is 'The castle of Otranto' which was written in 1764, although the era of splendour of genre would be the eighteenth century and the two first decades of the nineteenth century. However, the genre persisted in the Victorian literature with other topics and worries.

The Gothic genre is very present in America in the works of Edgar Allan Poe. These could be characterised by a taste for the disproportionate, irrationality and the main topics would be the transgression from the religious heterodoxy to the depravity and perversion of morality, especially in the protagonists of his short stories. All these recurrent topics are those that are associated or transformed into ghosts, dreams, prophecies.

This genre is highlighted by usurpation as it is the case of The Castle of Otranto, in which the prince of Otranto usurps the castle of the legitimate prince and from that moment strange happenings take place; some charming acts which make that the designs of the dwellers change drastically, but is it usual to find, in this type of literature, punishment from outside agents or perhaps it is the very protagonist who is unable to forgive himself or herself.


To further understand how punishment and identity operate as Gothic elements, some works by Poe and Lovecraft will be studied. Firstly, The tell-tale heart by Edgar Allan Poe will be examined. This story is about a man who is also the anonymous narrator of the short story. The character defines himself as a very nervous man but not crazy. He tells that mystically his senses, especially his ears developed being able to listen to everything, even the heaven, and the earth. Is it possible to think that there is a natural or mystical way for any sense to be perceived with such an unsuspected limit? It is physically impossible to hear clearly what is happening in heaven or in hell. So, why does the protagonist think about this? The answer can be grasped after his presentation: 'I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture --a pale blue eye, with a film over it.'. (Poe, 3).

There is something as insignificant as a mania, an eye. Whatsoever, that mania could manifest itself maybe against something more essential for life as money, health… In this particular case, it demonizes just that eye of an old man that almost can see nothing. In the work, either the eye or the old man is useless but it unhinges the mind of the protagonist.

Poe, in The Tell-tale heart, shows us two opposing components, two faces of the same coin. One of them cannot see anything and the other one can listen to everything, even what does not exist. This can be understood as an allegory to the importance of the conscience in the human being. It makes sense to think that the awareness is related to a voice that escorts the protagonist to the end of the story, and in real life, that voice comes with us until the end of our lives. How else would our conscience punish us if it is not like that?

In this particular case, it is not his own voice, if not, a host of sounds that triggers the most unhealthy perversion in the hero, carries him to kill the old man. But the hero doesn't do it in any way, if not he mocks to the old man defying him, pointing at his blind eye, whereas he is still sleeping, with a pinch of light from a flashlight: 'I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye'. (Poe, 4) Here his awareness still does not control his body, he just listens to the silence, and as a madman acts without thinking about his acts. Only when he kills the old man, his ears become more powerful and more sensible to the noise.

Little by little, the conscience of the man becomes stronger, just after murdering him. Here, it can be seen as the conscience of the man takes over his mind: 'My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears: but still they sat and still chatted. The ringing became more distinct: --It continued and became more distinct: I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained definiteness --until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears.' (Poe, 8)

In his head, the incessant palpitation disturbs completely his mind, and it will continue until he confesses his acts. His ears will only go back to being what once they were by doing this. Thus, he will recover sanity that one day, he lost. Once again, consciousness manifests and punishes the maniac mistakes of the hero: 'Villains!' I shrieked, 'dissemble no more! I admit the deed! --tear up the planks! here, here! --It is the beating of his hideous heart!'. (Poe, 8)

The works of Edgar Allan Poe imply a more holistic approach to the senses. Throughout his novels, he emphasises the focus on the sense either vision or audition, sometimes both of them as it can see in this analyse. “In presenting atypical sensory function as symptomatic of illness, Poe inherently casts the expansion of the senses in a negative light.” (Schlauraff, 50). Poe gets to manipulate every human sense to make readers feel the fatality of evading the always mighty awareness.

Poe's short stories are full of characters who describe their feelings as extraordinary active and powerful. His trick is to make stories where the hero from the beginning, gives an appearance of madness and obsession that little by little develops those feelings, although the way of getting results can be questionable. Thus, Poe projects inherently the development of those feelings underneath a negative light. So that, the tale not only suggests questions about the validity of the sensorial knowledge, besides, it distinguishes sound like a more powerful source than the sight, it hints what not always our eyes can see everything but, we never can escape from our own awareness, our manias or ethic and morality. That makes us act in one way or another. Like this, every character gets willpower and personality.

The symbolism of the dismembered heart is, clearly, the source of our feelings which can remain with us, though the real trigger of those feelings has already vanished. That feeling that people leave on ourselves is with us for a long time, and that experience makes our heart to beat strongly, sometimes stronger than before.

When that feeling is met by awareness it makes a hard sensation of ecstasy and that makes people get exasperated. For that reason, the heart is still beating, and for that reason, only the hero can hear it clearly, and no matter how much he tries to ignore it, that only gets he upsets even more. He really knows that what he did was utterly bad. He thoroughly wants a punish as he carries with the fault. And not only that, those feelings of remorse are stronger than the protagonist, and he cannot keep them quiet. The heart is a symbol of the deepest most intimate emotions of the individual. And irony as the title of the work says, the tell-tale heart; it means that the tale is told by the heart, and only the heart reveals the truth. The narrator feels so overwhelmed by the combination of pity and culpability that he has the necessity of incriminating himself.

On the other hand, the lack of vision is quite interesting as it means that everything around the old man turns dark. When the protagonist enters the bedroom of the old man, he has to carry a torch. Therefore the responsibility of illuminating everything is of the protagonist, although he can illuminate any other thing, he points at the eye of his old partner. The eye is described as the blue eye of a vulture: 'like the thread of the spider, shot from out the crevice and fell full upon the vulture eye'. (Poe, 5)

That is interesting as vultures are carrion animals that eat the rest of animals in decomposition, with their sharp beak cut the muscles of dead animals remain their bones at the sight, of this way, the protagonist feels naked in front of the eye, like vulnerable. And nobody likes feeling like that: 'all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones; but I could see nothing else of the old man's face or person: for I had directed the ray as if by instinct, precisely upon the damned spot'. (Poe, 5-6)

Thus, it appreciates how upset he is when he faces the eye. It would be easy to think that he have to look at another place, but, as it is his big mania, it is just impossible for him. Every time that our narrator goes to the old man, the darkness stalks him, and consequently, he is also around by the darkness: 'His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness'. (Poe, 4)

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It can be concluded that the old man is seen as his alter ego, in the sense that the old man is the reflection of his weakness. When he looks at the old man, he is actually seeing himself. Unable to do anything, only sitting in the bed, trying to look somebody on the other side of the room, whilst the death is waiting for him. Because of that, he hates him, and because he has the worst face of someone alive. Therefore, he is always penetrating into danger by his own initiative, in order to destroy himself and thus, his own weakness. He does not like his way of being and that is the reason why he is always hurting himself. When he just wants to kill the old man, indeed he just wants to kill himself.

The use of psychological topics is characteristic of the short stories of Poe, and his way of using the asyndeton just for transmitting a major speed in his writings, thus he gets that his characters look like more irrational, nervous and a bit insane. He portrays a reality with transitions, sometimes it is very fast or, on the other hand, it is very slow. The rapid mental changes, in The tell-tale heart, make the protagonist completely disturbed.

In addition to this, the author uses a direct conflict, between the protagonist and the enemy. It means, that the conflict between the two of them can easily be seen. However, When the character talks about the old man, Poe gets that the reader cannot identify what is occurring as that fight between youth and old age, of this way Poe is making that the reader does not know if all performance is just an illusion of a madman or, otherwise, it is just reality, but Poe gets that the hero is more intriguing, and of this way, the reader becomes in a type of companion of the character.

On the other hand, he focuses on the worrying topic about madness. That topic uses to be very recurrent in this kind of short stories, although Poe, in this case, uses a psychological madness, as Brett Zimmerman suggests “his superstition concerning the “Evil Eye”, generated a kind of anxiety or “overwhelming stress which, according to current theories, can led to a full schizophrenic breakdown”. (343)


Gothic novels dealing with other topics or themes such as phantoms, aliens or strangers monsters that invade the earth are also relevant to this particular examination. For example in his short story; Polaris, there are strange beings that stalk the protagonist in his dreams: 'Methought its spirit whispered evil counsel, soothing me to traitorous somnolence with a damnable rhythmical promise which it repeated over and over…'. (Lovecraft, 16)

This tale tells the story of an unknown protagonist, which suffers an odd sickness that makes him lose conscience when he is under pressure. In this case, the big difference between both heroes is their mental disease and the big point of common is the importance of their awareness to find a moral. In the case of The tell-tale story, it demonstrates the paranoid schizophrenia, however, in this other story the hero suffers cataplexy; “Cataplexy is characterized by localized or generalized muscular atony after strong emotions. Sleep paralysis and hypnagogic hallucinations may also appear. The treatment must be accompanied by measures of sleep hygiene” (Salázar and Navarrete, 18-24).

As it can be seen the use of heroes with any type of sickness is a recurrent tool. The protagonist is obsessed with the Pole Star, which to him keeps a secret in form of message: 'the Pole Star leers down from the same place in the black vault, winking hideously like an insane watching eye which strives to convey some strange message'.(Lovecraft, 16). The protagonist is not able to ignore that mania, and the more he looks at it, the more nervous he is. He is obsessed with deciphering the message it holds for him. In this case, it seems that the star is his awareness. As the story unfolds, it looks like only when the sky is cloudy, the protagonist can sleep. Therefore, it could be inferred that the Pole star is something that is ever-present, his consciousness, something repressed within his psychology. It is clear in the counsel that the star gives to him when he is suffering caused by the cataplexy:

'Slumber, watcher, till the spheres

Six and twenty thousand years

Have revolv'd, and I return

To the spot where now I burn.'. (Lovecraft, 16)

Just after of that message, in the story, the character names the Pnacotic manuscripts: 'seeking to connect these strange words with some lore of the skies which I had learnt from the Pnakotic manuscripts.' (Poe, 4). This strange word, Pnakotic, is very similar with; narcotic. It is possible that he is saying that he was taking drugs such as narcotics. Narcotics make people sleepiness and stupor. It is possible that he took drugs for getting rest.

It makes sense, as, at the beginning of the story is alike a bit mental sick person but he is just under the influence of the narcotics: 'when the winds from the north curse and whine, and the red-leaved trees of the swamp mutter things to one another in the small hours of the morning under the horned waning moon.' (Lovecraft, 16)

Finally, the last part of the counsel of the Pole Star or his consciousness is very revealing when it says:

'Stars that soothe and stars that bless

With a sweet forgetfulness:

Only when my round is o'er

Shall the past disturb thy door.'. (Lovecraft, 16)

Here, the ironic message of his awareness is that he is going to keep his health problems. Furthermore, throughout the story the protagonist mentions that his best friend considers him a weak person. It is possible that he is feeling bad, because of that, and he has some type of complex by being refused every time: “To me Alos denied a warrior’s part, for I was feeble and given to strange fainting when subjected to stress and hardships”. (Lovecraft, 16) In this case, it can see that he is talking about himself, he feels that has a disadvantage. It can appreciate when he compares the Pole Star with an eye. Phonetically eye is very similar with the first person of the singular pronoun; I. This suggest that the Pole Star is himself. “ winking hideously like an insane watching eye which strives to convey some strange message”. (Lovecraft,16)

It can fathom that the protagonist has two problems of health in one case he suffers cataplexy when he is under strong situations, and the other one is his problems of self-steem. In addition, it is possible that he is medicating himself to heal his sickness, cataplexy, and that makes him to have weird visions and hallucinations. As far as style is concerned, H.P. Lovecraft also used a distinctive and serious tone, with numerous adjectives, some repetitive throughout the work. The writer himself affirmed that it was necessary to highlight the scenario and that this remained in the mind of the reader.

Another of its facets at the time of writing was the use of archaic English, however this type of words are suppressed in some of the modern English translations, through this resource Lovecraft intended that the stories should appear to be written by the protagonist. Some other resources widely used by him are the exaggerated or horrendous descriptions, which tried to give a more mystical touch to the characters.


As a point in common between Lovecraft and Poe, either in style of developing of the story or the use of gothic elements, there are some important similarities or parallelisms.

Firstly, it encounters an isolated protagonist from society, and in both cases, that situation induces them to have a strange behaviour and obsess about their manias.

Secondly, they both use the same word as the main mania of their heroes, eyes, phonetically eyes is very similar to the first person of the singular pronoun, I, therefore, it seems that they both are talking about themselves, respectively, in their novels.

Thirdly, they both use dramatic tension in the most crucial moments in the stories, especially when the climax of the final of the tale is stronger. This effects in the reader a feeling of ecstasy or epiphany that can be perceived (or not) by the protagonist as well.

After the study of both works, the figure of the awareness is indisputable paper in the development of both short stories and tries to show that both protagonists are managed by them, and finally it makes them more human.

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