Failures to Signify
Recent readings of Edgar Allan Poe’s long-neglected animal characters have commended Poe for questioning the line between humanity and animality. Yet as Sara L. Crosby has pointed out, these approaches to Poe have oversimplified the binary between ecophilia (which, in equating animals to humans, can result in a kind of anthropocentric colonization) and ecophobia (a contempt akin to homophobia). In contrast to these extremes, which appropriate animality as either humanity’s mirror or its foil, Poe’s ecogothic uncanny unsettles the easy and anthropocentric classification of animals as friend or foe. This chapter examines Poe’s animals alongside Jacques Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am, in which an encounter between a man and an animal shows the effects of appropriating animal difference for human use. Not only does the narrator of Poe’s “The Black Cat” (1843) literally domesticate his cat by keeping it as a pet, but he becomes increasingly haunted and terrorized by the animal the more he (mis)uses it as a symbol of his guilt. Similar attempts at domestication appear in “The Raven” (1845), whose narrator goes mad reading the tamed bird’s vocalizations as human speech, and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), in which the “pet” orangutan escapes a partial domestication to kill two women (and in which the detective Dupin counterbalances the bestial culprit with excessive ratiocination). In all of these works, the ecogothic uncanniness of Poe’s animals resists anthropocentric interpretation, showing the folly of humanity’s attempts to tame animal Otherness through either anthropomorphic symbolism or scientific rationality.