Publication Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts in English (MA)

Committee Member

Scaggs, Deborah

Committee Member

Broncano, Manuel

Committee Member

Duffy, Stephen M.


The American Gothic tales of Edgar Allan Poe often follow protagonists that are mentally plagued by their conscience. These protagonists attempt to rid themselves of their conscience through violent actions that bring them a momentary sense of freedom before their immediate downfall. For various literary critics, Poe’s recurrent theme of ridding oneself of a conscience has put into question the need or motivation for such actions. As Poe’s protagonists demonstrate an internal split of the mind, it is evident that there are extreme oppositional forces in the psyche that influence the actions of his characters. The theoretical studies put forth by European thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud show how human nature is fundamentally divided much like the identities of Poe’s characters. On the one hand, Nietzsche’s theory of Greek art in The Birth of Tragedy (1872) explains how the truth about suffering and life is made possible through two oppositional forces: Dionysius and Apollo. On the other hand, Freud’s view, as expounded in his article “The Id and the Ego” (1923), explains how the ego is involved in a constant battle between the instincts of the id and the moral imperatives of the super-ego. Although both thinkers focused on differing areas of study, it is evident that Freud’s super-ego is Apollonian, and the id is Dionysian. In Poe’s tales such as “William Wilson” (1839), “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), and “The Black Cat” (1843), Nietzsche’s and Freud’s theories will be used to analyze the internal and external influences of his characters’ actions and why their desires remain unfulfilled and inevitably doomed. The application of Nietzsche’s and Freud’s theories to Poe’s tales show how each narrator’s perception of his world includes a manifestation of the conscience through an Apollonian illusion which they react to in an overwhelming Dionysian passion of instinctive violence. These illusions are what Poe’s narrators use to mentally justify their impulsive and violent actions as each protagonist’s motivation to rid themselves of their conscience proves to be insufficient because the conscience inevitably returns to exact its due.