Edgar Allan Poe
Though an innumerable amount of interpretations of any given text might be drawn from a variety of perspectives, a structuralist analysis of two of Poe’s works help place their symbols within a theme related to myth and heroism.
Peter Barry attempts to define structuralism succinctly by narrowing it down as “the belief that things cannot be understood in isolation—they have to be seen in the context of the larger structures they are part of”; he goes on to add that “meaning is always an attribute of things, in the literal sense that meanings are ATTRIBUTED to the things by the human mind, not contained within them” (39). One might attempt to further narrow this idea (ironically) by quoting the famous line, “Everything is relative,” which is to say, all reality is contingent upon the perceiver. The context in which that reality is being perceived becomes the point of interest, so that, in regard to literature, “there is a constant movement away from the interpretation of the individual literary work and a parallel drive towards understanding the larger, abstract structures which contain them” (Barry, 40). The question becomes not what, but how.
It is interesting, then, to further define the crux of this theory in search of what conclusion a modern structuralist reading of a pre-structuralist author, namely Edgar Allan Poe, might yield. Structuralism itself is defined as “modern” but through its own origins “following the widely discussed applications of structural analysis to mythology by the anthropologist Claude Lèvi-Strauss” can be attributed to relatively recent intellectual movements, which then reflect back on the writings of Poe, perhaps evidencing inspiration for the theory in the first place (Baldick, 245-6). Or, in short, Poe plus structuralism equals present-day myth, or superheroism.
Now of course the way we publicize myth today (in the shape of comic book heroes and video game characters) was not the context of Poe’s writings, but INTERPRETING those writings via structuralism produces a textual layout of mythical “codes and conventions” (Baldick, 246) that fit exactly the codes and conventions underpinning superheroism today. We therefore find a TYPE of superheroism in its earliest form. Consider for example the narrator’s beginning statement in “The Tell-Tale Heart”:
True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and
am; but why WILL you say that I am mad? The disease had
sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above
all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in
the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell.
How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how
healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story. (404)
Typically the reader will find this passage ironic, noting that the narrator is in fact mad and that his insanity is all the more evidenced by his refusal to admit...