28 pages 56 minutes read

Edgar Allan Poe

The Imp of the Perverse

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1845

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Summary: “The Imp of the Perverse”

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Imp of the Perverse” is an American Gothic tale that, like many of his stories, uses an unreliable first-person narrator and an atmosphere of suspense to explore themes of Irrationality and Perverseness, Self-Punishment, and the Interplay of Creation and Destruction. It was published late in Poe’s writing career, in the June 1845 edition of Graham’s Magazine. The story is unique due to its in-depth analysis of the trait of “perverseness,” personified in the story as an imp that tempts people to impulsively do wrong. Poe explores his theory of the perverse more deeply in this story by opening the tale with an abstract theoretical treatise on why people act against their best interests.

The story’s discursive opening offers fresh insight into the motivations and behavior of some of Poe’s best-known protagonists—for example, the villain-protagonists of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat.” Both stories were published in 1843 and share a structure and plotline similar to those of “The Imp of the Perverse.” In all three stories, an unnamed narrator has carefully concealed a murder they committed but is ultimately driven to confess and be punished for their crime. Each of the narrators demonstrates a quality of “perverseness” and is of questionable “sanity.” All three stories intimately narrate the thoughts and misdeeds of the murderers in an exploration of human obsession and “insanity.”

This guide refers to the version of the story freely available from the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. All text citations refer to paragraph numbers.

Content Warning: The source material and this guide refer to suicidal ideation. This guide also maintains Poe’s use of the terms “madness” and “insanity” to refer to physical and mental torment.

“The Imp of the Perverse” is told from a first-person point of view by an unnamed narrator. It opens with what seems like an essay on a universal human impulse that scientists and philosophers have overlooked. In particular, the narrator mentions moral philosophy and phrenology, a science (now considered a pseudoscience) that taught that a person’s character and abilities could be deduced from the size and shape of the bumps on their skull.

The narrator states that these deductive methodologies are “a priori” systems, meaning they use a preconceived theory to explain human characteristics rather than direct observation and experience. He critiques phrenology’s base assumption that God designed each human characteristic for a specific purpose. The narrator argues that this method overlooks the existence of traits that do not serve a positive purpose. For example, he claims that if phrenologists observed people’s behavior, they would notice the existence of a trait that he calls “perverseness.” He says that perverseness is paradoxical because it is an action without a comprehensible motive, causing people to do things “for the reason that we should not” (3).

The narrator then urges the reader to examine their own soul, asserting that if they do, they will discover this perverseness in themselves. To prove the universality of the trait, he illustrates examples in everyday life. The first is the desire of a speaker to aggravate their listener by being verbose despite fearing the listener’s anger. The narrator describes how the mere thought of causing anger in the listener transforms into an obsession that a person then acts upon.

Next, the narrator uses the example of the urge to procrastinate on a task that must be performed. He says there is no reason to delay except for the feeling of perverseness. He describes the perverse feeling as a “craving for delay” that causes increased anxiety as time passes until a metaphorical clock chimes, releasing the anxiety once it is too late to act (3).

The third theoretical example of perverseness is of a person standing on the edge of a cliff and having the impulse to plunge into the abyss. The narrator reiterates that there is no reason or principle behind these behaviors except “the Spirit of the Perverse” (7). He muses that perverseness might be assumed to be caused by the devil or “Arch-Fiend” except that there are times when perverseness prompts good actions.

Finally, the narrator reveals why he is explaining his theory to the reader. He admits that he is locked in a jail cell for murder and condemned to hang the next day. He suggests that if he had not provided such a lengthy backstory, the reader might have agreed with the public opinion that he is “insane.” He professes to be one of the “uncounted victims of the Imp of the Perverse” (8).

The narrator discusses how he planned his crime, describing his lengthy deliberation over the best method to kill his victim. He finally chose to use a poisoned candle after reading about it in a French memoir. He says that he knew his victim’s habit of reading before bed in a “narrow and ill-ventilated” apartment (9). He boasts about how he switched the wax light with a poisoned one he had made, causing the victim to die overnight. The coroner deemed the death to be of natural causes or “visitation by God” (9). The narrator inherited his victim’s estate and lived undetected for years, delighting in the security that he would not be caught.

Eventually, the narrator’s satisfaction with his own safety morphed into an obsession. His self-satisfied mantra “I am safe” changed to “I am safe—yes—if I be not fool enough to make an open confession!” (11). He explains this as a fit of perversity, stating that the idea confronted him like the ghost of his victim, beckoning him to confess. The narrator describes how he walked and then ran through the crowded streets “like a madman” until people became alarmed and began chasing him (13). Gripped by the terror of the spirit of the perverse, the “Imp,” he felt it strike him from behind, causing him to confess his secrets to the crowd before fainting.

The story concludes with the narrator anxiously pondering what will happen to him when he is hanged the next day. He worries about the destination of his soul after death.