Text: Richard A. Fusco, “Chapter II,” Poe and the Perfectablility of Man (1982), pp. 38-55 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 38:]


Poe’s Argument against Utopia


Poe’s reaction to perfectibility theory reflects predilections deeper than just an intellectual stance. Because of his psychic drive toward self-alienation, he mistrusted on an instinctual level all forms of society. This bias manifested itself variously, from his well-documented dislike of politicians to the abundance of misanthropes scattered through his fiction. For example, the narrator in “The Man of the Crowd” dismisses with almost a sneer the mania of his subject, suggesting a moral in keeping with the tale’s motto by La Bruyère: “Ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir être seul.”(1) Consequently, Poe could not agree with philosophers such as Condorcet because they dealt with civilization, whereas he would rather ignore society and instead analyze the relationship between man and universe.

One aspect of Poe’s social reticence evident in his [page 39:] writings is a counter-utopian element. He pursues similar themes in three short stories: “The Devil in the Belfry,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” All three works present an enclosed society, seemingly- utopian in character, but each is doomed by some inherent fallacy. As Hawthorne tried to do in The Blithedale Romance, Poe may have intended to comment on the social experiments of his day. Undoubtedly Poe opposed such communities. In his 1845 response to the review of The “Raven” and Other Poems in The Harbinger, Poe labeled the editors, who were associated with Brook Farm, as “respectable Crazy-ites.” He dismissed the reviewer’s comments as “all leather and prunella,” hoping “that, in future, ‘The Snook Farm Phalanx’ will never have any opinion of us at all.”(3) Although his quarrel concerned literary matters, Poe’s tone indicates that his dissatisfaction had a more fundamental basis — so deep-rooted that he could never agree with any conclusion drawn from such an experimental culture.

Here, though, one critical difficulty arises: Poe’s perfectionists probably would have disapproved of utopian communities. For example, Priestley believed that rapid [page 40:] change would achieve little lasting affect.(4) Also, perfectibility theory predicts large-scale social improvements. For proof the perfectionists analyzed the rise and fall of major civilizations throughout history; projects of the size of a Brook Farm or Fruitlands would be beneath their notice. Condorcet envisioned that the political advances in revolutionary France would affect the world.(5) On the other hand, nineteenth-century utopian communities for the most part retreated from the main current of American history. Thus, to perfectionist theory these communities would represent only isolated, insignificant variations that ultimately failed to promote the general condition of the human race.

Nonetheless, Poe’s treatment of utopias in his fiction has partial origins in his views on perfectibility. In one sense, the societies in “The Devil in the Belfry,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” demonstrate at least one aspect of perfection in microcosm. Using both comic and Gothic motifs, Poe traces an ironic downfall in each case — a degeneration based upon the principle he elaborated in Eureka: “In the Original Unity of the First Thing lies the Secondary Cause of All Things, with [page 41:] the Germ of their Inevitable Annihilation.”(6) As the beauty of the universe must end in-nothingness, so societies — regardless of how perfect in conception — must eventually fail: moreover, the cause of their destruction will be internally spawned. Thus, in exposing the imperfections of small-scale cultures, Poe demonstrates the pitfalls for larger civilizations Likewise, since utopians pretend to goals similar to those of the perfectionists, Poe’s fictional treatment of one has implications for the other. In essence, then, perfectibility theory flounders because all things, including perfection, cannot be sustained. Even if the “rapt day-dreams of De Staël” become reality, they would be short-lived and, consequently, meaningless. For Poe, civilization always returns to some previous wretched point-in the cycle of history.

“The Devil in the Belfry”

In his comic tale “The Devil in the Belfry” Poe attacks utopia’s delicate balance. The community of Vondervotteimittis incorporates various social infrastructures that make it appear ideal. Its demography has a mathematical regularity. In a “perfectly circular valley,” sixty dwellings are equally interspaced along a quarter-mile circumference that defines the town’s border. Each home lies sixty yards from the center of [page 42:] the circle. The repetition of the number sixty implies minutes and seconds, suggesting that one important symbol in the story will be time. Vondervotteimittis itself seems laid out according to an algebraic formula in which time is a key variable. Poe supports this theme by placing “a circular path, a sun-dial, and twenty-four cabbages” — obviously alluding to the number of hours in a day — in each domestic garden.(7)

Poe follows the clock-like precision of the town’s layout with other uniformities. For example “[t]he buildings themselves are so precisely alike, that one in no manner be distinguished from the other.”(8) Constructed of red bricks with black ends, the outside walls resemble “chess-boards] upon a great scale.” Poe continues the geometric pattern inside each dwelling with square-tiled floors. All objects — indoors and out — seem positioned to fulfill some role in perpetuating the town’s limited perspectives and purpose.(9)

Perhaps proposing in jest a relationship between [page 43:] physical stature and moral character, Poe inflates the girth of the town’s citizens: in each home all are corpulent, from the head of the house to the tabby cat. In fact, the higher a villager’s social status, the facter he will become. Above the average citizen are the members of the “Town-Council [who] are all very little, round, oily, intelligent men, with big saucer eyes and fat double chins.”(10) The most exalted official of the town is the belfry-man, whose “stomach [is] very far bigger — than those of any other old gentlemen in the village; and as to his chin, it is not only double, but triple. “(11)

The belfry-man’s function is to tend the great clock located atop the council building in the center of the village. The clock’s seven faces indicate the seven days of the week.12 In the memory of the oldest inhabitant of the town, the clock has never malfunctioned, nor has anything changed in vondervotteimittis. This stagnation owes itself to the town philosophy, articulated in the council’s three resolutions:

“That it is wrong to alter the good old course of things:” [sic]

“That there is nothing tolerable out of Vondervotteimittis:” [page 44:]

and —

“That we will stick by our clocks and our cabbages.”(13)

The narrator of the tale claims that the Dutch borough was once “the finest place in the world.” It has all the earmarks of the ideal: it is isolated from the terrors of the rest of civilization; it has physical and social structures that are intricately balanced, and its citizens are content with their condition. The philosophy of intransigence dooms the town, however. Anything from the outside world — that is, anything new — must disrupt the social machinery. Consequently, when a devilish-looking man invades the town from the east, attacks the clock keeper and causes the perfect clock to strike thirteen at noon, public harmony irrevocably shatters.(14)

Critical interpretation of the tale reveals several facets of Poe’s quarrel with the perfectionists. Whereas Condorcet believed that no limitations existed for the perfectibility of man, Poe saw boundaries in such perfection, characterizing them as anti-intellectual, artistically confining and morally stagnant. He based this assessment on the notion that social perfection entails a fixed social order. Poe regarded this balance as being so precarious that no growth can be permitted, for any new idea would tilt the scales of [page 45:] public harmony. No society can exist free from outside influences, however. Even if the perfectionists achieved their ideals on a planetary scale, Poe would still argue that external forces could upset civilization. In “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion,” for example, a cosmological cataclysm intervenes into the affairs of men, as a comet destroys the earth. Thus, in describing Vondervotteimittis, Poe projects his conception of the logical consequence of human progress theory: by exposing the town’s internal flaw, he demonstrates allegorically the fallacies contained in perfectionist assumptions.

“The Masque of the Red Death”

Prospero’s world in “The Masque of the Red Death” bears striking similarities to Vondervotteimittis. Both cultures pursue voluntary isolation from the outside world. Both have an omnipresent enemy. To defend against this antagonist, each constructs a philosophy in which alienation becomes a virtue. As a physical and intellectual defense mechanism, though, alienation fails, for its practical foundation is unsubstantial. In adopting such a tenuous belief, then, the two societies in effect promote their own dissolution, especially in light of the stealth and inexorableness of their chosen enemies. [page 46:]

Prospero’s enemy is death.(15) His foe assumes death’s most extreme form, a plague that claims its victims with the rapidity of wildfire. Characterized by intense pain, nausea and epidermal bleeding, the “Red Death” has already claimed half the kingdom’s population as the tale opens. In confining himself and a thousand followers “to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys,” Prospero flees on a literal level from horrible death, but on a symbolic one he tries to escape all death, suggesting a desire to live forever. Interestingly, in his writings on human progress, Condorcet courts the same notions in his discussion on the advances of medicine:

Organic perfectibility or deterioration among the various strains in the vegetable and animal kingdom can be regarded as one of the general laws of nature. This law also applies to the human race. No one can doubt that, as preventive medicine improves and food and housing become healthier, as a way of life is established that develops our physical powers by exercise without ruining them by excess, as the two most virulent causes of deterioration, misery and excessive wealth, are eliminated, the average length of human life will be increased and a better health and a stronger physical constitution will be ensured. The improvement of medical practice, which will become more [page 47:] efficacious with the progress of reason and of the social order, will mean the end of infectious and hereditary diseases and illnesses brought on by climate, food or working conditions. It is reasonable to hope that all other diseases may likewise disappear as their distant causes are discovered. . . .

So, in the example under consideration, we are bound to believe that the average length of human life will forever increase unless this is prevented by physical revolutions; we do not even know what the limit is which it can never exceed. We cannot tell even whether the general laws of nature have determined such a limit or not.(17) [page 47:]

Although he did not target the French philosopher’s views specifically in the tale, the similarity between Poe’s reaction to perfectibility and the moral of “Masque” demonstrates the remarkable consistency of his intellectual stance with his artistry.

Unlike Vondervotteimittis’s geological barricade, Prospero protects himself with man-made structures: high walls, iron gates and welded entrances. He adopts a philosophy, though, that resemble’s the town council’s resolution:

. . . With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the “Red Death.”(18)

The resemblance between the societies in “Masque” and [page 48:] “Belfry” continues in Poe’s use of time symbolism. Both cultures are mesmerized by the chiming of a clock.(19) The inhabitants of Prospero’s palance fall hourly into catatonic trances: “And the revel went whirlingly on, until at length there commensed the sounding of midnight upon the clock. And then the music ceased, as I have told; and the evolutions of the waltzers were quieted; and there was an uneasy cessation of all things as before.”(20)

Although Vondervotteimittis’s great clock had seven faces to ensure that no villager could escape its influence, the chimes of Prospero’s clock pervade seven rooms. The significance of the number seven becomes apparent in Poe’s imaginative panorama of the abbatial floor plan. Critics have maintained that each chamber represents a chronological life-stage.(21) The seventh compartment is decorated in red and black — obviously symbolic of death. Although the other chambers are well-occupied, few people stray into the last room — in fact, on the fatal day of the masquerade, the cell is uninhabited, as if man was not meant to enter voluntarily. [page 49:] When the grisly apparition of the Red Death materializes, Prospero pursues it from the .first room through to the sixth. On the threshold of the last, death claims the prince. Symbolically, therefore, the universe limits man’s development as a species to the sixth stage of life. Correspondingly, Poe mentions that Prospero schedules the masquerade “five or six months after his seclusion,” indicating that the self-imprisoned society could not last a seventh month.(22)

As Poe uses them, the numbers six and seven suggest biblical associations. The week symbolically represented by time elements in “Belfry” becomes in “Masque” the biblical week of creation. Traditional interpretation of Genesis ascribes denotations of perfection to seven. Because he was created on the sixth day, man perpetually lies one step short of that perfection. For Prospero, then, his human limitations dictate that his corporeal existence cannot enter death’s room. Implicitly, Poe suggests that man’s only chance for perfectibility is in death.

Prospero fears death, however. He creates a superficial utopia to stave it off, yet his bizarre imagination designs the stimulus to his destruction — the macabre chamber in which the Red Death conquers. In his attempt to lock death outside his world, Prospero only accentuates its effects, for the inhabitants [page 50:] take painful note of each hour’s passing.(23) In the enclosed utopia a horrible death becomes more horrible. Whereas the external world has resolved itself to the presence of the Red Death, Prospero’s society believes that the disease no longer poses a threat; so when the final cataclysm befalls, three more psychological effects augment the already grisly list of symptoms: surprise, panic and astonishment. Also, in the barricaded castle the malady infects all, an attrition rate twice that experienced by the external world. By its own design, therefore, Prospero’s carefully architected universe collapses ironically from within.

“The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”

“The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” touches upon the connection between social progress and cultural order. The first of two utopian societies described by Poe in the tale can be observed in the principles behind the “soothing system” as elaborated by Monsieur Maillard, who stresses the liberty pelmitted the psychiatric patients under such treatment methods.24 The ideal humanity that underlies the soothing system inspires admiration in the dim-witted narrator, so much [page 51:] so that he feels compelled to visit the institution when in the vicinity. Upon arriving, he discovers that the most progressive program of dealing with the insane in the country has been dismantled; later he learns that the beneficiaries of the system — the inmates — had taken advantage of the permissive atmosphere by revolting against their benefactors.(25)

Given that he chose to locate the asylum in France, Poe may have intended to analyze by allegory why the ancien regime failed. Many historians in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries suggest that one cause for the French Revolution was the monarchy’s attempt to promote public welfare: with each small success, popular expectations of the government rose — eventually so fast that Louis XVI could not keep up with demands, thereby instigating the revolution in 1789.(26) In “Tarr and Fether” these reforms in pre-revolutionary France become the soothing system. In context of Poe’s political conservatism, the soothing system must fail — as did the ancien regime — because it grants too much freedom to the “mob.”(27) Without adequate authority society falls [page 52:] victim to the unscrupulous. Thus, for Poe altruism by authority only results in social disorder.

Poe continues the French Revolution allegory with Monsieur Maillard’s mad reign of the Maison de Santé. The lunacy of Maillard’s anarchic society burlesques Robespiere’s Reign of Terror. Even the guillotine has a fictional equivalent in the tarring and feathering of the keepers. At the dinner table each inmate pursues to the full his or her peculiar individuality, resulting in a chaotic social structure. Consequently, when their keepers free themselves and counter-revolt, the patients have no defense other than to flee. Their escape is mental, however, for each retreats to some form of schizophrenia such as crowing or spinning.

Resembling many aspects of the weakly constructed communities in “Masque”(28) and “Belfry,” the society in “Tarr and Fether” is utopian in the eyes of its members. As Maillard explains: “Fact — it all came to pass by means of a stupid fellow — a lunatic — who, by some means, had taken it into his head that he had invented a better system of government than ever heard of before — of lunatic government, I mean.”(29) As [page 53:] prosperity begot obesity in Vondervotteimittis, Maillard too is portly, suggesting that overindulgence figures in his social status; both he and the keeper of the belfry are the fattest members of their communities, reflecting their leadership. Until the narrator arrives, the inmates have had no dealings with outsiders, parelleling the villager’s xenophobia in “Belfry” and Prospero’s precautions against the Red Death. This isolation is supported by food and wine stores, recalling Prospero’s provisions for his abbey. Eventually, though, the “Tarr and Fether” inmates must exhaust their supplies. Because their seclusion cannot endure, their mad utopia of self-gratification is fore-doomed. The patients themselves secure their own overthrow. Although he knows that exposure involves risks, Maillard invites the narrator to enter. At the dinner table all the inmates commit Freudian slips that threaten to expose their identities. Ultimately, Maillard parades the details of the takeover before the narrator, who is too dense to surmise the truth. Because all the patients attend the party, moreover, they allow the unguarded keepers to effect an escape and thereby to resecure the institution. The yells of the attendants-both during and after their captivity — frighten the madmen into temporary mental withdrawals, a response similar to that caused by the tolling clocks in Vondervotteimittis and Prospero’s [page 54:] castle.(30) The narrator of “Tarr and Fether” describes the scene:

. . . when the point was very effectively and suddenly accomplished by a series of loud screams, or yells, from some portion of the main body of the château.

My nerves were very much affected, indeed, by these yells; but the rest of the company I really pitied. I never saw any set of reasonable people so thoroughly frightened in my life. They all grew pale as so many corpses, and shrinking within their seats, sat quivering and gibbering with terror, and listening for a repetition of the sound. It came again — louder and seemingly nearer-and then a third time very loud, and then a fourth time with a vigor evidently diminished. At this apparent dying away of the noise, the spirits of the company were immediately regained, and all was life and anecdote as before. . .(31)

Each shout represents another knell against Maillard’s doomed society. For Poe its fall demonstrates the inevitable hazards of excessive liberty.


The common themes among the works analyzed above provide ample evidence of Poe’s quarrel with utopian experiments. Considering the possibility that “Tarr and Fether” comically allegorizes French revolutionary culture, critical interpretation of the counter-utopian motif has simultaneous implications for Poe’s view of perfectibility theory, because the five [page 55:] philosophers upon which he based his definition either anticipate, celebrate or react to the overthrow of unpopular regimes in America and France.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 38:]

1.  Collected Works, 2:506. Mabbott translates the sentence: “That great evil, to be unable to be alone.” See ibid., 2:516n.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 39:]

2.  Poe noted, interestingly, that the author of Utopia, Sir Thomas More, died laughing; see ibid., 2:158.

3.  Complete Works, 13:32.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 40:]

4.  See p. 14 of this text.

5.  See p. 16 of this text.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 41:]

6.  Edgar Allan Poe, Eureka: A Prose Poem. (New York: Putnam; 1848), p. 8; [Poe’s italics].

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 42:]

7.  For a discussion of the importance of time in “Belfry,” see Jean-Paul Weber, “Edgar Poe or the Theme of the Clock,” in Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert Regan (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967), pp. 79-83.

8.  Collected Works, 2:367.

9.  Ibid.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 43:]

10.  Collected Works, 2:369

11.  Ibid., 2:370.

12.  Mabbott suggests this parallel; see ibid., 2:364.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 44:]

13.  Collected Works, 2:369.

14.  Ibid., 2:370-74.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 46:]

15.  David Ketterer claims that Prospero’s wish is “to slip away from life without dying . . .”; see The Rationale of Deception in Poe (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1979), p. 201. Joseph Patrick Roppolo argues that Prospero tries to escape life, of which death and disease are a part.; see “Meaning and ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’” Tulane Studies in English 13 (1963):64-65.

16.  Collected Works, 2:670.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 47:]

17.  Condorcet: Selected Writings, pp. 279-80.

18.  Collected Works, 2:671.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 48:]

19.  Ketterer theorizes that the clock’s toll “remind[s] the revelers of the ‘external’ reality of time, which they are struggling to overcome.” See The Rationale of Deception, p. 201.

20.  Collected Works, 2:674.

21.  Roppolo, “Meaning and ‘The Red Death,’” pp. 62, 65.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 49:]

22.  Collected Works, 2:671-72, 674-76.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 50:]

23.  Roppolo agrees with such a reading; see “Meaning and ‘The Red Death,’” p. 67.

24.  In fact, this freedom to pursue individuality comes near to Priestley’s arguments on liberty’s relationship to perfectibility; see p. 14 of this text.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 51:]

25.  Collected Works, 3:1002-05, 1021.

26.  Recent political scientists have labeled this alienation process-as relative deprivation; for a discussion, see Ted. Robert Gurr, Why Men Rebel (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1970), pp. 22-58.

27.  Poe’s antipathy to mobs has been discussed above; see p. 25 of this text (fn 44).

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 48:]

28.  Benjamin Franklin Fisher. IV concludes that “Tarr and Fether” repeats in comic tones elements-from “Masque” in “Poe’s ‘Tarr and Fether’: Hoaxing in the Blackwood Mode,” Topic 31 (Fall 19-77):36-38.

29.  Collected Works, 3:1018. The “stupid fellow” Maillard refers to is himself.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 54:]

30.  Fisher, “Poe’s ‘Tarr and Fether,’ ” pp. 37-38.

31.  Collected Works, 3:1014.



[S:0 - PPM82, 1982] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Poe and the Perfectability of Man (R. A. Fusco) (Chapter II)