‘The Imp of the Perverse’ is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), written in 1845. Of all of Poe’s stories, this is one of the strongest tales to prefigure the ideas of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Before we proceed to a summary and analysis of this story, it might be worth reading ‘The Imp of the Perverse’; you can find it here.
‘The Imp of the Perverse’: plot summary
The plot of ‘The Imp of the Perverse’ – if we can even describe the brief ‘events’ of the story as constituting a plot per se – can easily be summarised. The story is narrated by a man who opens is account by commenting upon the perversity of all mankind. He then tells us that he committed murder by lighting a poisoned candle in the room of the man he murdered, so he could inherit the man’s estate. He confides to us that everything went well for several years after that: his crime had not been discovered, and he had, to all intents and purposes, got away with it. Indeed, he becomes convinced he’s invincible and his guilt will never be found out.
However, so emboldened does he become, that he starts to commit acts merely because he knows it is wrong to do so: he becomes gripped by ‘the spirit of the Perverse’. Eventually, he ends up proclaiming his guilt – not because he wishes to release himself of the burden of his guilt but because he wants to publicise the fact that he committed such a perfect crime.
‘The Imp of the Perverse’: analysis
have all wondered from time to time: why do some people, who are human just like you or me, capable of committing acts of appalling evil, the very idea of which repels us? One of the questions we tend to want to ask when we hear about a terrible murder is: what was the murderer’s motivation? Hearing that they knew the victim, that there was history between them, that they were acting in self-defence, and so on – all of these things reassure us because they seem to restore some sense of order and reason to events. They reassure us that people don’t just commit horrific crimes because they want to. Poe’s story, however, shows that this is the very reason why we crave such answers, such reassurance: because we know, deep down, that humans are capable of what Coleridge called ‘motiveless malignity’.
And ‘The Imp of the Perverse’ shows us that we all know this, deep down, because, deep down, we all have that impulse within us. It’s just that most of us don’t act on it.
Here’s what Poe’s narrator tells us:
Induction, a posteriori, would have brought phrenology to admit, as an innate and primitive principle of human action, a paradoxical something, which we may call perverseness, for want of a more characteristic term. In the sense I intend, it is, in fact, a mobile without motive, a motive not motivirt [Poe’s mistaken German rendering of the word ‘motiviert’, meaning ‘motivated’]. Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say, that through its promptings we act, for the reason that we should not. In theory, no reason can be more unreasonable, but, in fact, there is none more strong. With certain minds, under certain conditions, it becomes absolutely irresistible.
The idea that ‘we act, for the reason that we should not’ prefigures the idea of negative psychology, but Poe’s story as a whole can be said to foreshadow Sigmund Freud’s description of the role of the id in the unconscious mind. The id does things purely because it wants to, and does not think about whether they are morally right or wrong. If it feels good, id thinks you should do it. Except, of course, that the id doesn’t think at all, at least not in any meaningful sense.
The phrase quoted earlier, ‘motiveless malignity’, is from Coleridge’s description of the character of Iago in Othello. Iago is one of the quintessentially evil characters in all of literature: he provides three or four separate motivations (what Coleridge calls ‘rationalisations’) for sowing the seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind about his wife’s fidelity, and thus provides no motive, since he is clearly driven by something separate from a rational cause. This, in essence, is the same thing that the narrator of ‘The Imp of the Perverse’ identifies in the above quotation.