"The Imp of the Perverse" is a short story by American author Edgar Allan Poe. First published in July 1845 in Graham’s Magazine
, and later reprinted in the literary annual May-Flower
the following year, it began as an essay in which Poe described his self-destructive impulses, but evolved into a narrative in which those failings were epitomized in a being called the imp of the perverse. The unnamed narrator, a fictionalized version of Poe himself, described this spirit as the agent that tempts people to do things simply because they feel they shouldn’t do them. Exploring themes of temptation, arrogance, and the fear that we will be consumed by our temptations, "The Imp of the Perverse" is one of Poe’s more obscure titles, and received mixed reviews from critics due to its complex psychological and metaphysical elements. It is considered an early example of transcendentalist writing, and many of the elements involving the subconscious and repression are considered to be forerunners of the work of Sigmund Freud. Although it is not considered a major Poe work, it has been subject to considerable analysis by scholars in the fields of literature and psychology.
"The Imp of the Perverse" opens with the unnamed narrator explaining at length his theory on that eponymous entity. He believes that this imp causes people to commit acts against their best interests. This segment takes the form of a treatise or essay, as the narrator presents the case for the existence of this creature in terms of scientific fact. As the narrative goes on, the narrator tells us that the imp has had countless victims, and that he believes he is one of the people the imp of the perverse has preyed upon. He explains that he has been convicted of murder, and believes the imp was responsible for making him commit the crime that led to his being on death row. He explains that he murdered a man using a candle that emitted a poisonous vapor when burned. He knew that the victim frequently read in bed at night, and used a candle to light the room. His room was poorly ventilated, and he suffocated while leaving no physical evidence of murder behind. As a result, the coroner believed the man’s death was a simple act of God. The narrator states that he benefited greatly from this act of murder because he inherited the victim’s estate, and was sure he would never be caught. He enjoyed the benefit of his murderous act for many years.
As the years go by, the narrator remains above suspicion, as the case is considered long closed. Despite this, he is still occasionally consumed by doubt. He begins to use a ritual to calm himself, where he repeatedly states under his breath “I am safe”. This works for a while, but one day he realizes that the only way he can be found out is if he is foolish enough to openly confess. When he says this to himself, he begins to consider whether or not he is capable of confessing. The more he thinks about it, the more he he is filled with a sense of dread. He runs through the streets in a panic, arousing suspicion, until he is stopped by the police. When the police question him, he feels as if he has been struck by some invisible fiend, and is compelled to reveal his secret, stating his confession loudly and clearly for everyone to hear. He confesses with such force that it seems as if he is afraid of being interrupted. After he has confessed, he is arrested for murder. The confession is all that is needed at trial, and the jury quickly declares a verdict of guilty. He is sentenced to death by hanging, and blames the invisible fiend,the "imp of the perverse", for foiling his perfect crime. He had gotten away with murder - and the only thing that could foil him was his own drive to sabotage himself, exacerbated by the imp of the perverse.
Edgar Allan Poe was an American author, editor, and literary critic. Best known for his poetry and short stories, Poe is considered a central figure of American Romanticism, and is mainly celebrated for his stories of the macabre and horrific. He is considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre, and was noted as the first major American writer to attempt to make a living as an author. Although he struggled financially during his life and many of his works were not appreciated during his lifetime, his legacy is among the most enduring of all American authors. Although he only completed one novel and one play during his lifetime, he wrote dozens of short stories and poems that have been collected and adapted many times. He is considered to be widely influential not only in literature, but also in areas as diverse as physics, cosmology, and cryptography due to the wide subject matter of his works. Multiple landmarks around the United States are preserved in his honor, with the most significant being the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia.