chapter  6
18 Pages

Gothic Materialisms

Experimenting with Fire and Water in Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of (Im)mortality
WithLiz Hutter

Throughout the nineteenth century, wrecks of ships ensnared in volatile weather generated an ecogothic spectacle. The elemental milieu of these spectacles—fire and water—precipitated experiences of disequilibrium and disruption in a century marked by progressive developments in maritime enterprises. In Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelström” (1841) and “Metzengerstein” (1832), water and fire function as elemental interfaces whose physical properties allow interaction, experimentation, and transformation in the liminal space between living and dying. Philosophical musing upon the value of preserving human life and material analyses of the (in)organic nature of human existence in the threshold between life and death transform the conventionally “darker” human experiences, such as revenge, ignorance, and panic, into acts of salvation, rescue, and perseverance. Poe’s protagonists risk physical immersion in aqueous and flaming environments to extend human life or to transform their imminent deaths rather than remain passive participants, frightened and awed by fire’s intensity and water’s force.