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Compendium of Horror, Fear, and the Grotesque

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I know that some of you are not terribly interested in literature, so I’ll try to keep it short. The study of literature is similar to the work of an archeologist. You start by looking at the surface and the immediate surroundings, and then you start to dig. As you dig, you begin to uncover objects that reveal something about the history of a tribe or an entire civilization.

With literature you start by looking at what is called the “surface meaning”; what the words and syntax and storyline tell you is happening. We’ve already seen what the surface meaning tells us in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” But there are deeper levels of meaning that offer a richer experience and are not readily apparent until you start digging. When you analyze literature there are a number of "literary techniques" you can look for to see if you can get a better understanding of what the author is trying to convey. Examples of these techniques are metaphor, imagery, irony, and symbolism. For a complete list of these techniques, ask Dr. Bennett!

Let's just look at how Poe employs symbolism in "The Tell-Tale Heart." One of the deeper levels of this story reveals some interesting symbols (just like those objects discovered during an archeological dig). The “pale blue eye” symbolizes something. The sound of the beating heart represents something else. Let's take the old man's eye as an example of Poe's use of symbolism. Hoffman says the old man's eye is a symbol of  the "evil eye" from an older mythology:

The Evil Eye is a belief…in man’s superstitious memory…and it usually signifies the attribution to another of a power wished for by the self….[We can take the old man to represent the main character’s father-figure whose] Eye becomes the all-seeing surveillance of the child by the father, even by The Father. This surveillance is of course the origin of the child’s conscience, the inculcation into his soul of the paternal principles of right and wrong. As such, the old man’s eye becomes a ray to be feared. For if the boy deviate ever so little from the strict paths of rectitude, it will find him out [Daniel Hoffman, Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972), p. 223].

The deeper meaning here is a psychological one. The eye is a symbol Poe uses to show another level of meaning within the story. In this case, Freud’s psychology (the "oedipal complex") can be used to decode that psychological meaning. Metaphor is another literary technique that Poe uses to offer you yet another deep meaning. If, for example you know what Poe's “poetics” is (poetics means his theory of literature), you can understand the story as a metaphor for how a short story is properly constructed. We know that Poe theorized that “unity of effect” is necessary to make a story work. And we know that he theorized that a short story is the correct vehicle to carry out this emotional effect on the reader. So this level of meaning reveals Poe’s poetics in actual practice.

There are countless ways to approach a work of literature and countless ways to explain what you find when you dig deeper than the surface level. I hope I’ve given you a quick and easy way to look at other works of fiction to find meaning or substance beyond the surface storyline. Maybe just think of literature as the ocean. You can sail along the surface and enjoy the sunshine, or you can learn to explore the depths for a rich variety of life or buried treasures. 

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