Engligh Extended Essay on Egdgar Allen Poe

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Student number: 1267005

Dreams: How Are They Used By Edgar Allen Poe in His Short Stories and Poetry To Create Terror and Mirror The Narrator’s Sense of Reality?

Nandini Chandra

Extended Essay

19th November 2009

Word count: 3984

Student number: 1267005


This essay discusses the uses of the concept of dreams by Edgar Allen Poe in his short stories and poems and how they are used to mirror the narrator’s or a character’s perception of reality and create terror. The poems used were Dreams, A Dream, and A Dream Within A Dream. The short stories referred to are both from his famous horror collection and are called The Pit and the Pendulum and The Fall of the House of Usher.   Poe uses a 1st person narration in both his short stories and his poetry, generally without giving an idea who the person is, nor is the narrator omniscient. This creates a blurry, dreamy effect which, in turn, creates the effect of fear. An example of this is the confused narration through The Pit and the Pendulum ends up emphasizing the torture that the prisoners of the Spanish inquisition were put through. His use of diction in poetry is heavily relied on to extend the narrator’s views on dreams themselves. Poe uses imagery, such as portraying the evanescence of dreams through the image of trying to clutch sand. It is shown that Poe uses dreams heavily as a contrast or as a comparison to reality to underline his image of reality. His short stories concentrate heavily on the concept of dreams as delusions, something referred to in his poetry as well, and how the surreal is used to emphasize the underlying point of his stories. Poe heavy handedly uses the personification of non-living objects to create a dream-like scenario. Finally he uses echoes extensively throughout his literature to bring out a sensation of fantasy which has the effect of underlining its message or producing a certain feeling in the reader such as terror.    

Contents Page

  1. Abstract pg. 1
  2. Contents pg. 2
  3. Introduction pg. 3
  4. Body pg. 5
  5. Conclusion pg. 10
  6. Bibliography pg. 11
  7. Appendices pg. 12


Edgar Allen Poe lived and wrote in the early 1800’s. He lived a troubled life, chronically suffering from nightmares and eventually dying unhappily of drink after the death of his wife. He stated in Marginalia that his visionary glimpses “arise in the soul...only... at those mere points in time where the confines of the waking world blend with those of the world of dreams”, meaning that the inspiration for most of his revolutionary literature came from his dreams and subconscious as he fell asleep.

He is considered a leading novelist in early science fiction and terror books, who often used an implicit sense of dreamy surrealism on the part of his narrators or other characters in the book in order to convey the hidden reality behind his stories, emphasizing the points that it explicitly makes. In particular, warped perception and illusion is used to a great extent in The Pit and the Pendulum where the narrator, a captive of the Spanish inquisition, hallucinates and dreams of terrors while blacking out in the middle. This serves to emphasize the torture that he was put through at the inquisition and surprises the reader at the very end where the narration snaps back to reality where the inquisition is destroyed by the French and the captive is evidently rescued from both his physical and psychological torture. The Fall of the House of Usher is another story in which Poe uses surreal dreamlike images to underline the terror of the horror story. The ghost like appearances of Roderick Usher, the seeming living house and the mad sister, along with his initial description of the grounds help create the sense of impending doom as well as the overall sense of horror which is necessary to any thriller. In addition, the unreal glow emanating from the house as well as its collapse along with the last Ushers creates the effect of a living being interconnected with the inhabitants or a joint soul, giving the common phrase “home is where the heart is” a literal meaning.

Poe’s poetry reflects a similarly disturbing view of dreams in poems like A Dream Within a Dream, where it is shown as something unattainable. He also compares life to the title and so shows it as surreal and evanescent, serving to elaborate the point that life itself is in fact evanescent. This same evanescence, in its hopelessness, creates the sense of fear that can be seen throughout Poe’s work.

In A Dream he also equates dreams with nightmares rather than good dreams, linking it again to the nightmarish imagery shown throughout his short stories showing that dreams can essentially build fears and show terrors. In the third stanza the dream is viewed to as religious, which cheered him but the feeling was not real and was banished with the conscious world. So, He compares his dreams which are upsetting to reality so creating a harsh sense of reality. He compares dreams to night breezes which is, again, an image of fleetingness as night winds come and go and do not stay, which can be compared to the swift end to The Fall of The House of Usher. The final stanza of his poem revolves around the idea that dreams bring beauty but it is false, which seems to signify that you have to be mad or crazy in order to believe the joy and life brought in dreams because they do not last and have nothing to do with real life. This little quirk in the poetry is the only thing that contrasts with his severely dark short stories as in both stories the delirium faced by the protagonists is evil and terrifying where in his poetry it is reality which is the more terrifying of the two states of mind. To summarize, Edgar Allen Poe uses dreams in his poetry and short stories in order to create effects of terror. In addition, he uses them to mirror the character or narrator’s perception of reality.

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Main Body

Edgar Allen Poe conveys a fatalistic view of the real world through his narrators, using the motif of dreams, in his poetry. In Dreams he accepts the fact that though they were in themselves pleasant, which can be shown from his exclamation in the first line “Oh! That my young life were a lasting dream!”, but that “cold reality” would never compare to them which made them a dangerous thing as they warp one’s perception of reality. Extensions to this point can be seen throughout his poetry and indeed this poem. That ...

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