Text: S. K. Wertz and Linda L. Wertz, “On Poe’s Use of ‘Mystery’,” from Poe Studies, June 1971, vol. IV, no. 1, 4:7-10


[page 7, column 2:]

On Poe’s Use of “Mystery”

Texas Christian University

University of Oklahoma

Poe’s frequent use of the word “mystery” suggests that the mysterious is a feature which a number of his writings, especially the tales, have in common. But in the context of these stories, what exactly does Poe mean by “mystery”? Does he use it always in the same way; does he use it indiscriminately; does he change its meaning within a given story or from story to story; and how much does it contribute to a given story? We feel that some possible answers are in the offing by 1) examining Poe’s descriptions and discussions of mystery and 2) calling upon the assistance of philosophers who have discussed “mystery” at some length. This will supply a context from which we may draw some general conclusions about the importance of mystery or the mysterious for Poe.

Poe uses the word “mystery” at the beginning of “The Fall of the House of Usher” in his description of the house. He makes the following characterization, upon which much of the effect of the story is dependent. The scene, for the narrator, “. . . . was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth” (1). However, this is not the only meaning of “mystery” in Poe’s writings; in contrast to the above use, which we can label as a “genuine mystery,” Poe uses the term in the sense of a “problem.” For example, in “The Mystery of Marie Roget” we find the following examples: “The simple character of those inductions by which he had disentangled the mystery . . . .” (p. 170); “. . . . owing to the continual absence of all clew to the mystery, the popular excitement greatly increased”; and “No one doubted now that the mystery of this murder would be immediately brought to light” (p. 172). Furthermore, Poe seems to be aware of another meaning of “mystery” which is distinct from the other two —that of a “puzzle.” The best example of a puzzle in his writings is in the story, “The Gold-Bug.” When Legrand is discussing the solution to the cryptogram, he characterizes the cryptogram as an enigma and as a riddle, which are synonyms for puzzle. For instance, the construction and solution of the cryptogram are based primarily on human ingenuity and “. . . . indeed, in all cases of secret writing— the first question regards the language of the cipher . . . .” (p. 63). Pending the question of why we include the senses of problem and puzzle as locutions of “mystery” and before we discuss Poe’s specific meanings, let us first consider a philosophical discussion of these distinctions.

Although we are tempted to turn “genuine” mystery into a problem, it is a temptation to be resisted. A mystery, according to Gabriel Marcel, appears at first to be merely a problem that is difficult to solve. Reflection shows, however, that in a genuine mystery the distinction between subject and object, between what is in one and what is [page 8:] before one, breaks down. Marcel says, “A mystery is something in which I am myself involved, and it can therefore only be thought of as a sphere where the distinction between what is in me and what is before me loses its meaning and its initial validity” (2). In other words, when one is faced with questions where there is no objective standpoint which one can adopt to answer such questions, we have a “genuine” mystery. The subject is involved in, and a part of, that about which he is asking. Thus, a mystery is “a problem which encroaches upon its own data, invading them, as it were, and thereby transcending itself as a simple problem” (3). Marcel quotes with approval a statement by B. J. Jouve: “Mysteries are not truths that lie beyond us; they are truths that comprehend us” (Being and Having, p. 124). A problem, on the other hand, aims at, and is eliminated by, a solution. The recognition of a mystery provides the basis for a more comprehensive understanding of human existence, but does not end in any solution which can be verified by an appropriate technique or observation.

To clarify the matter, E. L. Mascall has added a third concept to problem and mystery, that of puzzle (4). A puzzle is like a problem in that it looks mysterious but is not. The apparent mystery is dispelled in this case, not by acquiring further knowledge, but by clarification of what we already know. He cites the following example. When we face ourselves in a mirror our left and right sides are transposed in the mirror-image, but there is no similar transposition on the other place, of our head and feet. We resolve the mystery, not by acquiring any knowledge of physics or optics which we had not before, but simply by clarifying to ourselves what is involved in our use of the words “above” and “below” and “left” and “right.” “Above” and “below” are used to discriminate parts relative to their position in space, and these relations are not altered in the mirror. If the man is standing on his feet, his head will remain above his feet in the mirror-image. We could describe the relations of the sides of the body in similar terms, if we talked about the “east” and “west” sides. If we did this, we should find no transposition here either. The part of the body which was to the east as the man stood would be to the east also in the mirror-image. Transposition takes place when we use terms “right” and “left,” because these designate the sides in relation to the direction in which the body is facing. Thus, we do not have a mystery, or a problem, but rather, a puzzle.

Returning to “genuine” mystery and the example from “The Fall of the House of Usher,” we find that this classification is appropriate because of the details and context of the passage. First of all, we notice that the narrator attributes mystery to a scene in which the house is the center of attention. The house is an example of what Poe calls a “simple natural object,” and the other naturalistic descriptions he gives in this passage could also serve as examples. These taken together are the combination that forms a “conclusion” to the narrator’s pondering. It is, however, an “unsatisfactory conclusion” because there is a residue that lies beyond the consideration of phenomena in terms of combinations of objects. There is no objective viewpoint from which to answer the question. And this is why the narrator calls it insoluble. There is, nevertheless, an involvement of the narrator and the reader with the house and its environment which suggests this “power.” [column 2:] If the narrator had been satisfied with a naturalistic conclusion, there would have been no awareness of this “power” that he speaks of; and the mystery would fall into the category of a problem or a puzzle. Moreover, in addition to inanimate objects, the object or the power of the mysterious is also attributed to events as in “MS. Found in a Bottle,” to human personalities as in “Ligeia,” and to animals, as in “Metzengerstein.” What is particularly significant about these stories in this context is that Poe’s examples concern man’s curiosity about the unknown. The descriptions of “mystery” that Poe gives in these stories revolve around the state of mind of the narrator (and that of the reader) which causes him to see particular phenomena as a mystery. This seems to indicate that Poe uses mystery as a literary device or technique to capture the involvement of the reader, in addition to that of the subject.

Poe tacitly exhibits an awareness of the distinction between problem and mystery when in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” the narrator describes the analytic ability of Monsieur Dupin: “Let it not be supposed . . . . that I am detailing any mystery . . . .” (p. 144). The use of “mystery” here is that of “genuine” mystery; his description of Monsieur Dupin’s unique talent refers to Dupin’s problem-solving ability—not to anything preternatural (Poe’s term, p. 141) or comprehensive of existence. Later in the same story, the narrator cites from a newspaper: “To this horrible mystery there is not as yet, we believe, the slightest clew” (p. 148). By this use of “mystery” we are to understand that there is a problem which is soluble. The problem is that of finding the murderers. Thus, two different senses of the word “mystery” are operating in this story. The story naturally falls under the heading of a problem because there is an emphasis upon the acquisition of facts or empirical knowledge, as when Dupin goes through newspapers before commencing to find the solution. This illustrates that the inspector is proceeding inductively and that his posture or stance in the story is always such that he knows that there is a solution to this problem. There were murderers; it is merely a question of who they were. If this were a”genuine” mystery, Dupin would not exhibit such confidence and would not direct his attention towards finding the solution. The story would have an entirely different character. It is also explained purely on the basis of natural phenomena; there are no preternatural references of the sort which we find in “Ligeia,” “MS. Found in a Bottle,” and others. Again we see “mystery” used in the sense of a problem in “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” Poe suggests a criterion for distinguishing mystery and problem by his indication of Dupin’s procedure in discussing the unknown. Dupin proceeds by induction: “The simple character of those inductions by which he had disentangled the mystery . . . .” (p. 170). This story indicates Poe’s use of “mystery” as a problem (as is seen in the title of the story), for we know that a solution is found (inductively in this case).

The third type of depiction of curiosity in man’s state of mind is in what we have labelled as puzzle-solving. We have previously mentioned “The Gold-Bug” in this respect. In addition, “Maelzel’s Chess-Player” and “Mystification” may also be placed in this category. As Poe mentioned in the passage quoted earlier from”The Gold-Bug,” the solution to the secret writing in the cryptogram is reached [page 9:] merely in terms of what is given; in this case, the basis lies in language. Or, to put it in terms of Mascall’s example, we resolve the mystery of the cryptogram, not by acquiring any knowledge which we had not before had, but simply by clarifying, in terms of a more familiar language, what is involved in the repetitive use of certain symbols for words or letters. This is the case in the “Narrative of A. Gordon Pym,” where in the afterword, the author deciphers the figures found by Pym and Peters on the wall of the chasm on the island of Tsalal. Likewise, in “Maelzel’s Chess-Player,” the depiction of computer-type knowing intensifies the idea that puzzle-solving does not encompass the use of “knowledge” in the sense of discovering or learning something new. On the contrary, puzzle-solving involves the mere repetition of programmed knowledge and all its possible combinations until the right answer is calculated. In other words, the mechanical aspect of problem-solving, or deduction, is what is emphasized. As Poe himself puts it,”In attempting ourselves an explanation of the Automaton, we will, in the first place, endeavor to show how its operations are effected, and afterward describe, as briefly as possible, the nature of the observations from which we have deduced our result . . . .” (p. 430; 2nd italics ours). One of the things that interests the narrator in this short story is that “There have been many attempts at solving the mystery of the Automaton” (p. 428). It would seem that the narrator is using the term “mystery” in our sense of puzzle. This is clear from statements like “The solution consists in a series of minute explanations . . . . in which the object is to show the possibility of so shifting the partitions of the box . . . .” (p. 429). A third example of Poe’s use of “mystery” to mean puzzle may be found in the story “Mystification.” “To mystify” means to obscure intentionally an issue or to confuse or bewilder someone. This is precisely what the Baron accomplishes with his book on the intricacies of duelling. The evasiveness of the treatise, which Poe calls a “mystery,” is allayed only by a puzzle-solving technique: “He now explained the mystery, showing that the volume, as it appeared prima facie, was written upon the plan of the nonsense verses of Du Bartas; that is to say, the language was ingeniously framed so as to present to the ear all the outward signs of intelligibility, and even of profundity, while in fact not a shadow of meaning existed. The key to the whole was found in leaving out every second and third word alternately, when there appeared a series of ludicrous quizzes upon a single combat as practised in modern times” (p. 360).

By having sketched other meanings of “mystery,” we are now in a better position to understand Poe’s depiction of “genuine” mystery in his short stories. Although the narrator does not use the word “mystery” in the following passage from “MS. Found in a Bottle,” these lines appear to fall within our characterization of the concept:

A feeling, for which I have no name, has taken possession of my soul—a sensation which will admit of no analysis, to which the lessons of bygone time are inadequate, and for which I fear futurity itself will offer me no key. To a mind constituted like my own, the latter consideration is an evil. I shall never—I know that I shall never—be satisfied with regard to the nature of my conceptions. Yet it is not wonderful that these conceptions are indefinite, since they have their origin in sources so utterly novel. A new sense—a new entity is added to my soul. (p. 122; italics ours) [column 2:]

Here again Poe emphasizes that the feeling and sources of genuine mystery are beyond human analysis in the ordinary sense; however, Poe still wants to call them “conceptions.” Moreover, it should be noted that this feeling and its origins, whatever they may be, as Marcel puts it, “provide the basis for a more comprehensive understanding of human existence.” Or as Poe puts it, “a new sense—a new entity is added to my soul.” The type of involvement that Marcel discusses, which involves the collapse of the distinction between what is in one and what is before one, is depicted with immense preternatural confrontations between the narrator and his immediate environment. An example of this type of involvement which is necessary to genuine mystery as depicted by Poe comes in the story “William Wilson” where the narrator is inescapably involved with his tormentor, and where in the end, the tormentor is revealed to be none other than Wilson’s own conscience. Other examples of this type of involvement may be found in “Morella” where Morella is reincarnated in the form of her own child, and in “Ligeia” where that lady is embodied in the corpse of Lady Rowena.

The confrontation of “genuine” mystery is also totally unlike that of being faced with a problem or of having to work a puzzle. This contrast is most vividly seen in Poe’s “MS. Found in a Bottle” where the narrator gives the following mental description:

To conceive the horror of my sensations is, I presume, utterly impossible; yet a curiosity to penetrate the mysteries of these awful regions predominates even over my despair, and will reconcile me to the most hideous aspect of death. It is evident that we are hurrying onward to some exciting knowledge— some never-to-be-imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction. (p. 125; italics ours)

While it may seem strange for Poe to speak of the knowledge of mystery, it is hard to deny that the word “knowledge” applies here. Such a denial would suggest that our apprehension of mystery belongs to the realm of mere feeling or of pure subjectivity. This is not the case. It is of the essence of the mysterious to be approachable by a type of rational thought which Marcel calls “secondary reflection”—reflection that seeks to recover the unity of an experience by asking from within the experience of belief what meaning it has for one (5). Likewise, the above passage makes it clear that the mysterious is a type of rational thought which lies at the fringes of our thinking Man’s capacity for the mysterious, for Poe, lies in what he calls “the faculty of re-solution,” or “the higher powers of reflective thinking” (p. 141). The “faculty of re-solution” may perhaps be a reason why Poe attributes mystery as much to the objects as he does to the subject; that is, to avoid the mere subjective aspect of mysteriousness. In addition, this may be why he speaks of the object of mysteriousness as an “entity” or as a “power,” for it is portrayed fictionally as a re-solution of “simple natural objects” (p. 231) by the inquisitor. This fictional resolution is analogous to Marcel’s conception of “secondary reflection.”

A mystery may be recognized only in so far as one is a self-conscious participant in and not a mere spectator of life. To acknowledge the reality of mystery is possible only when one freely responds in humility to the knowledge that the self is inseparable from the world and from other personalized beings or objects. Poe’s tales illustrate [page 10:] a rather shocking way to create this type of “knowledge.” One is created by and inseparable from the relationships and the environment in which he moves. Only by a bogus act of abstraction can one pretend to wrest himself free from the foundations of his own existence in order to acquire an “objective” of himself. There are no “objectives” in the mysterious. Poe’s tales echo this.

The “genuine” sense of “mystery” then, for Poe, is best depicted as that which involves the subject and the reader in preternatural or abnormal speculations—in astute analyses of the bizarre (p. 141). In all of the stories which we have considered under these three locutions of “mystery,” we find that the plot structure is determined by the concept employed—that of puzzle, problem, or mystery. The concept unites the story, and the unfolding of this concept constitutes the development of the plot; that is, the construction and resolution of a puzzle, the solving of a problem, or the recognition of a mystery. The stories involve the active participation of the reader, and it is this technique of capturing the reader that becomes one of the major components of Poe’s literary style.



(1) The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, with an Introduction by Hervey Allen (New York: Random House, 1938), p. 231. All further references to Poe’s writings are to this edition.

(2) Gabriel Marcel, Being and Having (Westminster: Dacre Press 1949), p. 117. Hereafter, there will be parenthetical references to this edition. Cf. also Michael Foster, Mystery and Philosophy (London: SCM Press, 1957), pp. 11-29.

(3) Gabriel Marcel, The Philosophy of Existence (New York: Philosophical Library, 1949), p. 8.

(4) this account of Mascall is taken from Foster; see esp. pp. 18ff. s Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, 2 vols. (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1962), I, 83.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1971]