Pit and the Pendulum
An Evening With Poe
Of Edgar Allan Poe
And Enlightening Look
By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2007
quotation, see Themes: Fate of the Individual Identity After Death.
the narrator meets a woman named Morella, his soul burns “with fires it
had never known before." However, they are not the fires of carnal desire
but of an indefinable yearning–perhaps for intellectual secrets that this
woman of enormous learning and intelligence possesses.
The action takes place in 18th or 19th Century Europe at the residence of the narrator and his wife, Morella. They are probably of aristocratic ancestry, since they maintain an ancestral burial vault. Morella was educated at Pressburg (spelled with one s in the story), a university city on the Danube River that was associated with witchcraft and the occult. Once the capital of Hungary, the city today is the capital of Slovakia. In the 20th Century, its name was changed to Bratislava.
person who tells the story of Morella, the woman he married. Like the narrators
of other Poe stories, the narrator of Morella exhibits symptoms
of mental instability. Therefore, the reader cannot be certain that his
account is reliable.
Type of Work and Publication Date
“Morella" is a short story in the Gothic horror genre. It was first published in April 1835 in the Southern Literary Messenger.
The story is told by an unnamed narrator in first-person point of view. The fantastic nature of story–as well as passages in it in which the narrator describes himself as distraught–indicate that he might be mentally unbalanced and, therefore, an unreliable witness.
Fate of Individual Identity After Death
Morella instructs the narrator about mystical philosophy, she apparently
touches on the subject of whether individual (or personal) identity survives
death or becomes part of a universal identity. Of this subject, the narrator
says that "the notion of that identity which at death is or is not lost
for ever, was to me, at all times, a consideration of intense interest."
The possibility of the loss of personal identity frightens the narrator;
he does not want his individuality, his personality, to be absorbed into
some super soul in which all identities merge. The quotation preceding
the opening paragraph of the story introduces the idea of a single, universal
identity. The quotation, or epigraph, is from Plato's work, Symposium.
Poe's translation of it from the Greek reads, "Itself–alone by itself–eternally
one and single." References in the fourth paragraph of the story to Johann
Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854)
again focus on this idea. They
The reference in the
fourth paragraph of the story . Fichte proposed that all things are part
of a single, universal ego, a concept that is pantheistic. also centered
his philosophy, in part, on a type of pantheism.
Souls never die, but always on quitting one abode pass to another. I myself can remember that in the time of the Trojan war I was Euphorbus, the son of Panthus, and fell by the spear of Menelaus. Lately being in the temple of Juno, at Argos, I recognized my shield hung up there among the trophies. All things change, nothing perishes. The soul passes hither and thither, occupying now this body, now that, passing from the body of a beast into that of a man, and thence to a beast’s again. As wax is stamped with certain figures, then melted, then stamped anew with others, yet is always the same wax, so the soul, being always the same, yet wears, at different times, different forms.The ideas of Pythagoras, Fichte, and Schelling, as well as the quotation from Plato, indicate that Morella's soul lives on after death in the body of her daughter as part of a universal ego.
As in many other Poe stories, horror is a central theme. The narrator introduces this theme in the third paragraph of the story when he describes the effect that Morella's readings have on him: "And then, hour after hour, would I linger by her side, and dwell upon the music of her voice, until at length its melody was tainted with terror, and there fell a shadow upon my soul, and I grew pale, and shuddered inwardly at those too unearthly tones. And thus, joy suddenly faded into horror. . . ."
The narrator treats Morella as an object that he uses to satisfy his curiosity about her remarkable intellect and erudition. After they marry, she freely shares with him her knowledge of a variety of subjects and introduces him to the secrets of arcane philosophies. Although the narrator says he finds her abstruse ideas terrifying and horrible, he also says that he finds one concept he and his wife examine–whether personal identity "is or is not lost for ever" at death–intensely interesting. In time, however, Morella and the sound of her voice repel him. “I could no longer bear the touch of her wan fingers," the narrator says, "nor the low tone of her musical language, nor the lustre of her melancholy eyes." Eventually, the narrator rejects Morella and yearns for her death even though she "pined away daily" for his love.
It may be that the reason for the narrator's rejection of Morella is his realization that she is far more intelligent than he is. Rather than acknowledging his own shortcomings, he projects them onto Morella, then completely rejects her and even yearns for her death.
Deeply hurt by the narrator's rejection of her, Morella decides to use her powers to gain revenge against the narrator.
On his own, the narrator fails to grasp the meaning of the texts Morella provides, so she undertakes to tutor him in the finer points of mystical philosophy. However, in time, Morella and her tomes cast a shadow across his soul; what he hears from her lips horrifies him. Earlier, Morella and her ideas were beautiful, like the valley of Hinnom outside ancient Jersualem. But in time she and her ideas became utterly repulsive, just as Hinnom (Paragraph 3) did when its residents began burning children as sacrifices to Moloch, an Ammonite god. The sacrificial fires became associated with hellfire in Jewish and Christian theology, and the term Ge-Hinnom (meaning valley of Hinnom) evolved into Ge-Henna, or simply Gehenna, which became a synonym for hell. Thus, for the narrator, living with Morella and listening to her recitations became hell on earth. He could not even bear the touch of her hand.
The Conception of the Daughter
Although the narrator never loved Morella, he did have sexual relations with her. Morella speaks of their intimacy when she is dying, saying, "But within me is a pledge of that affection–ah, how little!–which thou didst feel for me." Within me refers to the child that she is about to bear.
After the narrator annuls all affection for Morella, he observes, “Yet was she woman." In other words, in spite of her preoccupation with the incorporeal, she still needs physical expressions of love and affection. When the narrator refuses to fulfill her needs, she begins to pine away, her health declining day by day. Deeply wounded by the narrator’s rejection of her, Morella decides to gain revenge. Calling upon her knowledge of metempsychosis, she passes her soul into the body of her daughter, whom she gives birth to at the moment she dies. According to the narrator, the child grows into a replica of her mother. The memory of Morella remains alive in the daughter, and the narrator knows no peace. He leads a tortured existence.
The narrator decides to have his child baptized to drive from her the spirit of Morella–and to drive Morella from his own tortured mind. The narrator explains that “the ceremony of baptism presented to my mind, in its unnerved and agitated condition, a present deliverance from the terrors of my destiny." At the baptismal font, the clergyman asks what the child is to be called. A demon then seizes control of the narrator–or so the narrator suggests–causing him against his will to whisper the child's name into the ear of the clergyman: Morella. The child hears the whisper, falls onto the family’s vault, and says, “I am here." The reader may wonder why a burial vault is near a baptismal font–the former suggesting a cemetery and the latter suggesting a church. One explanation is this: In earlier times, it was customary to entomb bodies in churches, chapels, and monasteries. Thus, the church may have housed the “ancestral vault" of which the narrator speaks.
The narrator entombs his daughter in the same vault where Morella was interred. However, when laying his daughter to rest, he finds “no traces" of Morella. What happened? Here is one possibility: After the narrator's daughter dies, the soul of Morella becomes free to emigrate and returns to its original body. Meanwhile, during funeral rites for the daughter, Morella leaves the tomb as a vampire or zombie in order to bedevil the narrator later. Another possibility is that the narrator, a demented man from the very beginning, imagined or fabricated the whole Morella story.
The narrator of "Morella" refers twice to the musical quality of Morella's voice and once to the musical quality of his daughter's voice:
Paragraph 3: "And then, hour after hour, would I linger by her (Morella's) side, and dwell upon the music of her voice. . . ."The references appear to be allusions to the Sirens in Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey. The Sirens are sea nymphs who sing a song so alluring that it attracts to their island all passing sailors who hear it–and then the sailors sit, transfixed by the song and the mystical knowledge that it imparts, until they die. As Odysseus and his crew near the island in their ship, Odysseus–ever curious–wants to hear the song and learn the secrets it tells. However, realizing that its irresistible music will cause him and his men to abandon ship and meet the same deadly fate of other sailors who heard it, he plugs the ears of his men with wax, so that they are unable to hear, after ordering them to tie him to a mast. Thus, as they pass the island, Odysseus himself hears the song but cannot go ashore, though he wants to, because he cannot break free of his bonds. Like the Sirens, Morella also "sings" a song of mystical knowledge.
Cypress and Hemlock:
In the last paragraph of the story, the narrator says that "the hemlock
and the cypress overshadowed me night and day." In 399 BC, the citizens
of Athens wrongfully sentenced the philosopher Socrates
to death for offenses against the state. After spending a month in prison,
he was forced to drink poison made from the hemlock plant. Drinking a hemlock
concoction was the method of capital punishment in ancient Athens. This
mode of execution was like modern "lethal injection" except that the condemned
prisoner drank death rather than receiving it through a vein. Over the
centuries, writers incorrectly reported that Socrates committed suicide,
and hemlock became associated with self-inflicted death. In "Morella,"
the narrator's reference to hemlock indicates that he contemplated suicide.
As for the cypress, it is a tree that has been long associated with sadness
The climax of the first part of the story occurs when Morella dies. The climax of the second part of the story occurs when the narrator lays the body of his daughter to rest in the ancestral tomb and discovers that the body of Morella is missing.
Edgar Allan Poe was born
on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was
taken into the home of a childless couple–John Allan, a successful businessman
in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe’s godfather.
At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools
there. After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied
at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S.
Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school. After
beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his
young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined
the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while,
he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his
poem “The Raven" in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international
fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented
the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an
outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never
really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several
people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble
paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing
cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.