[Text: Jay L. Halio, "The Moral Mr. Poe," Poe Newsletter, vol. I, no. 2, October 1968, pp. 23-24.]
The Moral Mr. Poe
Jay L. Halio
Poe's work in fiction is not without its moral basis, and in several stories on the will - "Morella," for example, and "Ligeia" - Poe offers variations upon a theme which cannot be called other than moral.
The first of these, "Morella," is the shorter, a kind of preliminary sketch for "Ligeia." The basic plot is clear: the narrator is drawn into marriage by Morella, a woman whose powerful learning exercises a fascinating attraction upon him. She later dies, but at the moment of her death, her child is born. The father, who had never loved Morella, comes to adore the child, who grows uncommonly fast in wisdom and intelligence as well as bodily size and strikingly resembles her mother. Still without a name after ten years, this prodigy is finally taken by her father to the baptismal fount. There, compelled by some "demon," he pronounces the name Morella and watches in horror while the girl responds, "I am here!" and falls prostrate upon their ancestral vault.
The main point, of course, concerns the curious reincarnation of the mother's identity in the daughter, but far more curious is the generation of the child in the first place. Up until the moment of her birth, we are made to believe that the attractions between father and mother have been purely intellectual, involved in occult erudition, not sex. In the very first paragraph, after the summary announcement of their marriage, the narrator says, "I never spoke of passion, nor thought of love." Their relationship, moreover, is that of teacher and pupil - with the husband as pupil to the vastly learned Morella. Eventually, the "mystery" of his wife's manner begins to repel him; and though his "alienation of regard" causes his wife to pine away, she accepts the situation fatalistically, conscious of some cause behind his attitude totally unknown even to him. As she dies, she utters the cryptic words, "I am dying, yet I shall live," and without prior warning (to the reader, at least) announces the advent of her child.
Morella's offspring may best be understood as the
product of her great force of will and an instrument for moral retribution
against Morella's unloving husband. As she says on her deathbed, his hours
of happiness are over, and his days henceforth will be days of sorrow.
Retribution is complete - and ironic - when, as the child grows apace,
the father realizes that he loves her "with a love more fervent than I
had believed it possible to feel for any denizen of
earth"; and then she dies at the baptismal fount.
Het leven uit een dag
- (accelerated lifespan) A. F . Th. van der Heijden, 1988, Netherlands.
The novel has a fantastical premise. The world in which the novel opens is one where human life passes in a single day. The central character is Benny Wult, a baby at dawn, a toddler going off to school in the morning. Like all the other inhabitants of this world he grows slowly through the day, learning and maturing, expecting eventually to age and die as the day draws to a close.
Benny is told to pay careful attention at school: nothing will be repeated, he is warned. This absence of repetition is one of the most striking features of the world of the novel. It applies to almost all human activity. It is only possible to get drunk once in life, it is only possible to engage in the sexual act once, and a woman can only get pregnant once. (After the first consummation the sexual organs wither away uselessly.)
Benny does his military duty as the day approaches noon, becoming a pilot. Fully grown by this time he meets Gini, and feels the stirrings of passion and love. It leads, eventually, to their having sex (at which time Gini also gets pregnant -- her only chance to become a mother).
In this one-day world of unique, unrepeatable events the people are taught that hell actually is a never-ending place where they are doomed to the endless repetition of days. It is the worst thing they can imagine -- but Benny and Gini are not satisfied with their single act of love-making: they want to repeat it. The only way they can imagine doing this is by getting to this fabled hell. They brutally kill a helpless blind man in order to be punished -- killed and doomed to hell.
They are tried and sentenced to death in the electric chair. Gini gives birth before they are dispatched. The novel then focuses on Benny's trip to the otherworld -- he does indeed land in a world where the sun sets and people continue to live to see the sun rise again the next day, where the aging process is so incremental that it is barely perceptible (unlike the world he comes from, where one literally grows out of one's clothes as one wears them). In other words, he lands in the world as we know it.
Among the surprises is that his victim, the blind man, is also there (not so innocent after all). Gini, however, proves harder to find. Benny has to take on an unusual occupation to survive in this world, which does turn indeed out to be the hell of repetition.
Van der Heijden has spun out a fancy tale here from this premise. Much of it is done very well, as he captures scenes and moods effectively. Ultimately, however, he does not go quite far enough. He is satisfied with the often very clever pieces, making for a decent, haunting fable -- but he could have done more with it.
A good read, with some inspired ideas, though ultimately falling a bit short.