The Significance of Names in Selected Short Stories by Edgar Allan Poe

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2012 26 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 Poe's general approach to the writing of a literary text

3 The role of names in literary texts

4 Names and character traits in The Fall of the House of Usher
4.1 Roderick and Madeline Usher
4.2 The House of Usher

5 Names and social status in The Cask ofAmontillado
5.1 Montresor
5.2 Fortunato
5.3 Amontillado, Medoc, and De Grâve

6 Political references of characters' names in The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether
6.1 Doctor Tarr andProfessorFether
6.2 Monsieur Maillard

7 The realization of references to real persons in The Mystery of Marie Rogêt

8 Conclusion


Looking at the representation of Edgar Allan Poe in the works of literary scholars reveals an ambivalent positioning. While some celebrate him as one of the most ingenious writers in America, if not in the world, others reject him for the fact that they consider him racist, sexist, elitist and anti-democratic. However, both sides are - in one way or the other - fascinated by Poe and his works, who has thus become one of the most discussed American authors.

This paper will examine a specific part of Poe's manifold bibliography, namely a selection of short stories, and work out how names are used to establish, convey or support a certain attitude or underlying meaning. Yet the objects of investigation are not necessarily solely names of the characters, since Poe has also assigned certain names to, for instance, buildings (in The Fall of the House of Usher) or beverages (in The Cask of Amontillado), which are not less important to the respective stories than the characters' names and are therefore to be taken into consideration as well.

In order to assume a certain theoretical background, this paper will start with a brief description of the general way in which Edgar Allan Poe wrote (and intended to write) literary texts in order to help to estimate which relevance should be assigned to specific details (names). A second theoretical section deals with the overall function of names in literature. What follows is the analytic part of this paper, namely the analysis of the significance of certain names in four of Poe's short stories. The analysis will start with The Fall of the House of Usher as both one of the most famous and one of the most controversially discussed of Poe's tales and deal with the way how names support the story's interpretation. The next section will deal with The Cask of Amontillado, adding special emphasis on the reliability of the narrator, based on the way in which the story is told and names are used. Thirdly, the center of attention will be Poe's The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether and, accordingly, political references which are conveyed by the use of names. Finally, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt is analyzed as an example of a story which was written after real events. Here, it is especially rather the question for the reasons of the renaming than the question for the origin of the respective name (which in this case is not only obvious, but also explained in the story itself.

It will be eventually evaluated in the conclusion whether the analyses have given reason to believe that Edgar Allan Poe has selected the names in his short stories for specific reasons rather than randomly. If there is, accordingly, an intention behind the names, it will also be weighed whether the respective interpretations are distinct in a way that each name allows only one realistic meaning or if there is a variety of possible analyses.

2.Poe's general approach to the writing of a literary text

Although all of his literary works have been written in the period nowadays referred to as 'American Romanticism', it has been widely stated that Edgar Allan Poe has never been a typical Romantic writer in a way that emotionality, though revised, played a crucial role in the writing his literary texts. What William Wordsworth has described as “[...] the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings [...] recollected in tranquillity” (250) becomes, for Poe, a scientific problem. He does not convey emotions, but rather makes them observable from a distant point of view (cf. Gargano 311), thus being not only a Romantic writer, but also meta­Romantic in the sense of his /highly complex use of [the] genre’’ (Thompson 3). D.H. Lawrence therefore describes Poe as “hardly an artist”, but “rather a supreme scientist” and concludes that “[it] would be true to say that Poe had no soul” (228).

Poe himself has confirmed that his works are not designed out of an 'overflow of feelings', but as a result of outlining and planning: “It is my design to render it manifest that no point in its composition is referrible either to accident or intuition - that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem” (Composition, 482). It is the “logical precision” (More 53) and “deliberate craftsmanship” (Gargano 315) rather than spontaneous emotionality that determines what finds its way into Poe's works and what causes “the strategies by which Poe [constructs] metaphorical puzzles out of metaphorical fragments” (Riddel 125).

Another widely discussed topic in the literature concerning Poe's writing is the question of the relationship between the author and the protagonists of his tales, especially the narrators. A common assumption is that Poe and many of his narrators are very much alike or, more precisely, Poe created several protagonists of his stories as images of himself. G.R. Thompson supposes that Poe's theoretical essay The Philosophy of Composition “shows Poe claiming as his own the analytic mind of M. Dupin, the rational French detective-hero” (5). Other authors, like James W. Gargano, however contradict the assumption that “Poe and his narrators are identical literary twins and that he must be held responsible for all their wild or perfervid utterances” (311). In fact, “[these] protagonists [...] [spoke] their own thoughts and [were] the dupes of their own passions” (ibid).1

Somehow or other, it can however be retained at this point that Edgar Allan Poe has rigorously planned his works with thorough precision. It can therefore be hypothesized that also many names which Poe has given his characters and entities are not coincidental in their occurrence, but serve a purpose for the story (and especially for the readers' impression of the respective characters and entities).

3.The role of names in literary texts

Generally speaking, the function of names in literature is closely connected to the function of names in non-fictitious contexts, that is, in real life. Names are, on the one hand, used to make people identifiable unambiguously (at least in a limited environment, since hardly any name is absolutely unique); on the other hand, a certain meaning is conveyed through naming, as many names have a meaning or origin that indicates a particular characteristic, regional origin or life-task attached to the person that a certain name has been given.

However, writers who create characters for their literary works have the advantage of an opportunity which parents lack. While the choice for a name for a newborn, especially if the name is meant to carry a certain meaning, is based on hope since the parents cannot predict whether their child is going to develop in the desired way, authors of literary texts can be more distinct as they can work with 'developed' characters. They do not have the need to assign a name and then wait for several decades to see whether the child turns out to be what the name implies. Writers rather have the chance to sketch a character and then name him in a way that the name confirms (or contradicts) this character's thoughts, attitude or actions. In addition, they can also make the appearance more significant for the reason that they can choose not only the given name, but each and every part of their character's name.

Claire Culleton claims that the playful handling of names in literature as a great phenomenon comes from an Irish tradition (cf. 95). Accordingly, Irish bards wrote and sang about famous people, but changed their names in order not to be held liable for denigration. In this notion, the choice of names in fiction has always been an issue, especially when the text (or song) was meant to convey a deeper meaning:

Rejecting a name, disallowing it, ignoring it, truncating it, replacing it, misspelling it, misprinting it, mispronouncing it, withholding it, disregarding conventionalized forms of it, devaluing it, or refusing to acknowledge particular parts of it (i.e., categorically omitting the personal name or surname) - these are acts that constitute nominal sedition, and, as we shall see, they are full of political import. (Culleton 96)

Kevin McCarthy regards the analysis of names in literary texts as onomastics, that is, rather a linguistic discipline that an element of literary studies (cf. 161). This definition is problematic in two ways: firstly, onomastics is not only the “study of names in literature” (ibid), but the study of origins, distribution and significance of names in general. Secondly, and this is even more important for the purpose of this paper, restricting the study of names only to their onomastic properties disregards crucial elements of it, especially the interplay of two or more characters with respect to their names. Yet, McCarthy is convinced that “In several of Poe's stories then part of the personal identities of the characters seems linked with their names” (167).

4.Names and character traits in The Fall of the House of Usher

Disregarding for a moment the various interpretations that lead to the suspection that Poe's Fall of the House of Usher is a story with only one or two 'factually existing' characters in it, the figures worthwhile to examine are the Usher twins and the narrator. Since the latter is unnamed, he will here only be mentioned when he is essential to the analysis of the other characters. The only other persons in the story are the physician and the servant, who are “not realized as characters [and] less impressive than the burniture’’ (Abel 74) and therefore of no further interest for the upcoming analysis. Yet not only the obvious protagonists play a crucial role for the understanding and analysis; in fact every element in The Fall of the House of Usher “is a metaphorical detour, a delay in the course of a narrative that pushes toward its own tautological conclusion” (Riddel 134). Focusing on names, a second emphasis in the analysis of this story will be put on the 'House of Usher' as “the most conspicuous symbol in the tale” (Abel 75).

4.1 Roderick and Madeline Usher

Several assumptions can be stated related to the question why Edgar Allan Poe chose Usher as the family name for his protagonists. A tourist guide by Michael and Susan Southworth mentions the Usher House in Lewis Wharf in Boston's dockland area as a possible inspiration (cf. 59); Hervey Allen lists people by the name of Usher as having been fellow actors of Poe's parents (cf. Allen 683; John in Poe, Tales2). Such assumptions are however only little more than speculations and can hardly be derived from the text itself.

The Encyclopædia Britannica gives a variety of definitions for the term Usher, which yet eventually all end in the description of a serving profession in a public place or a private mansion, involving the function to watch the respective door in order to keep out the undesirables and to let in the invited and to guide them to their seats or the host (cf. 810). Daniel Hoffman actually uses the according verbs in his analysis of The Fall of the House of Usher : “Which is the House of Usher, the domain of [the narrator's] soul, into which he will be ushered” (301). Defining 'ushering' as 'guiding someone to his or her appropriate place', it can be argued that in the story Roderick serves as an usher as he decides not to bury Madeline's body immediately after her putative death, but prefers to entomb her “in one of the numerous vaults within the main walls of the building” (Poe, Usher, 240). Madeline, on the other hand, would then usher her brother when she eventually jumps at him and hence causes both of their deaths. This interpretation implies also a certain understanding of the term House of Usher, which will be dealt with in section 4.2.

Roderick Usher's given name is of Germanic origin and can be translated as 'famous power' (hroth = 'fame'; riki = 'power') (cf. Das große Vornamenlexikon 288). The German version of the name, Roderich, has also been used for the protagonist in E.T.A. Hoffmann's narrative Das Majorat, in which, like in Poe's Fall of the House of Usher, a house breaks apart (Hoffmann 155). Thompson claims that Poe had been largely inspired by Hoffmann's story (respectively by a summary about it):

The summary of Hoffmann's story [...] is clearly the source for some of the Gothic elements of Poe's 'Metzgenstein' and 'Usher,' and the parallels provide some striking evidence for Poe's careful perusal of Scott's article. The background of the 'Entail' involves an eccentric prince named Roderick, who remained essentially alone in a castle surrounded by ghastly vegetation growing blackly up to the very walls. At the time of the story, part of the castle is in ruins, split by a deep fissure2, rather obviously the source for Roderick Usher's house and its zigzag fissure extending from the roof down into the tarn. (Thompson 111)


1 This discussion, among other issues concerning Edgar Allan Poe and his works, has however given cause to the analysis of “the life and work of a great writer with pathologic trends” (Sigmund Freud in Bonaparte xi) with the help of more recent disciplines (like, as in this quotation and the whole respective book by Marie Bonaparte, the psycho-analyst approach).

2 Introduction / no page number assigned


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University of Wuppertal – Fachbereich Geistes- und Kulturwissenschaften
Short Stories Poe Edgar Allan Poe American Renaissance Romanticism The Fall of the House of Usher The Cask of Amontillado The Mystery of Marie Rogêt The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether Onomastics



Title: The Significance of Names in Selected Short Stories by Edgar Allan Poe