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Poe's The Imp of the Perverse: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Arielle Windham

Arielle has worked worked with elementary, middle, and secondary students in American and Japan. She has a bachelor's degree in English and a master's in Education.

Procrastinating to murder, Poe's ''The Imp of the Perverse'', explores the human tendency toward self-sabotage. This lesson will summarize and analyze this brief story to help you better understand how the perverse affects the main character's life and yours.

Summary

Exposition

If you were expecting a thrilling story about a sub-demon with a predilection for the NSFW, I hate to disappoint you. Though, if you struggled through the first few paragraphs of The Imp of the Perverse, you probably decided the story won't be much fun. Well, in that case, let me be the bearer of good news. You might need a medical dictionary, a thorough background in philosophy, and a lot of patience to untangle the meaning of the first part of Poe's story, but if you don't completely understand everything, that's alright. It's just an exposition, a literary device that gives background or extra information at the start of a story to help the reader understand and follow along once the action gets going.

A somewhat misleading illustraton of this story
perverse

In this case, The Narrator wants the reader to understand the definition of the word perverse as it pertains to the story. It's not what you would necessarily think, so it's a good thing the character included this exposition, complete with examples, to make sure we are all on the same page before the story begins.

For The Narrator, perverse means doing or thinking something we know we shouldn't. It is a thought or action that goes against our natural instinct for survival and self-preservation. For example, you're standing at the edge of a cliff and suddenly have the urge to jump. It's a crazy thought, but you find yourself inching closer to the edge thinking about the fall. Have you ever had that feeling? Maybe not, but here's one we've all had - procrastination. You know you should do something now, but somehow the time slips away, and it remains undone. For The Narrator, these are both examples of perverseness. It is a form of self-sabotage we are all guilty of to varying degrees.

But while you might be able to overcome the Imp of the Perverse, The Narrator cannot, and that leads us to the action of the story.

Action

Once we're through the exposition, the story gets started. We find out The Narrator (who is not Poe, but an unidentified person) has committed the perfect murder. They have killed a friend with a poisoned candle. The friend lived in a tiny, stuffy apartment and liked to read in bed. The death was ruled ''Death by visitation of God.''

The Author, not The Narrator
author

After the murder, The Narrator inherits the victim's money, destroys all the evidence, and is completely off the hook. ''I had left no shadow or clew by which it would be possible to convict, or even to suspect, me of the crime,'' they say.

Things go well for several years. The Narrator is so excited by how completely they got away with murder that the feeling, ''afforded me more real delight than all the mere worldly advantages accruing from my sin.'' But remember that long exposition? We're about to see why it was included.

You see, no one would ever be able to convict The Narrator unless they confessed. Over time, the feeling of absolute safety starts to haunt The Narrator. One day while muttering the mantra of ''I am safe,'' The Narrator adds, ''if I be not fool enough to make open confession!'' The Imp of the Perverse has shown itself. Now that image in the first section should be a little less misleading.

As you've probably guessed, The Narrator tries to resist, but gives into the perverse and confesses. This lands them in jail, where they are addressing the reader from, and on their way to the gallows according to the last line of the story.

To-day I wear these chains, and am here! To-morrow I shall be fetterless! - but where?
cell

Analysis

So why do people continue to read The Imp of the Perverse? Because, like many classics, it goes a lot deeper than the story on the page. Like a person, The Narrator perhaps, it has layers, and these layers keep us reading.

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