23 pages 46 minutes read

Edgar Allan Poe

The Conqueror Worm

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1843

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The Inevitability of Death

Whether it is read as a serious and unsettling allegory for the absurdity of expecting life to mean something, or read as an ironic play, literally, on such pseudo-philosophizing, “The Conqueror Worm” ends up at the same thematic argument: death is forever waiting. Every organic life form ends with the gnawing and gnashing of insatiable worms. Whether the reader finds the image of the gaping maw of a monstrous red worm surreal or silly, whether in the end the reader cringes or smirks, the poem cannot escape the reality of death as an omnivorous creature whose appetite is insatiable and whose interests are catholic and terribly non-particular. The worms eat everything.

In the end, in literally the last line, the poet/speaker declares that the worm, the image of hungry death, is the hero of humanity’s spectacle-play. Given that the line provides no adverb to indicate the emotional direction for the theme, the reader is left to decide how to understand the poem’s theme about the inevitability of death. Keeping in mind that the poem is the creation of a young man, barely in his thirties, the theme lends itself to contradictory readings: yes, death is terrifying; yes, death is inescapable; and yes, death is monstrous in its absoluteness.