The Death of a Beautiful Woman

The Death of a Beautiful Woman October 9, 2013

“The death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”–Edgar Allen Poe–

I have always been a fan of the gloomy Mr. Poe.  I remember the first time I purchased his Complete Works and spent a summer reading through it.  I was infatuated in the aesthetics of his vocabulary, how we painted the world dark with words, and how the confidence of his prose contrasted with his emotional instability.  I was also interested in how he viewed religion and religious belief.  I often pondered the connection he makes between murder and God in two of the last lines in The Cask of Amontillado: “”For the love of God, Montresor!” “Yes,” I said, “for the love of God!”

Not only have I been a fan of his writing, but I have also enjoyed how his ideas have been used.  When I stumbled upon the show “The Following” (starring Kevin Bacon), I had found what I didn’t know I was looking for.  The Following is about an enthusiastic literature Professor named Joe Caroll who starts a cult (a “Following”) based on the ideas of Poe.  His murderous group of followers, which often resembles Manson’s “Family,” sets about killing their abusers and foes.  They challenge traditional notions of good and evil, sexual norms, social mores, and find a macabre intensity in the beauty of death.


And yes, Joe Carroll is a strong, confident, and intense male figure.  Women love him.  He is who Poe wished he could have been.  Caroll’s followers are also like Poe when it comes to their families.  Poe’s father (who was an actor) abandoned his family a year after his birth; his mother (who was an actress) died of consumption a year later.  This show makes the antagonist, and his followers, reflections of Poe’s life.  The strange part, for me, is the role that women play in all of this.

Not to get too Freudian, but Poe was always looking for someone to play the role of his mother.  As Poe says in his “Sonnet to My Mother”: “Because the angels in the Heaven above, Devoutly singing unto one another, Can find, amid their burning terms of love, None so devotional as that of “mother.”  Poe’s wife (and first cousin) Virginia, whom he writes about in “Eleanora,” died of tuberculosis at the age of 24.  After Poe’s fame for his poem “The Raven,” he met many different women who he found “attractive.”  They include a widowed author (Mrs. Osgood), an author and poet (Mrs. Ellet), and a critic and poet (Sarah Whitman).  Simply put: Poe made his rounds amongst the New England and New York literati.

There is a strange irony in all of this: Although Poe was quite fond of women, romantically and platonically, he could not escape the horrors of the death of his mother and wife.  He longed for them and the security they brought him.  However, his loving sentiments turned to an unhealthy fetishism, and the bottle he promised his wife he would never pick up again, assumed the throne.  It is not necessarily the fact that Poe is not equally obsessed with men that gets to me (I have Oscar Wilde for that), it is that women become these doll-like objects of beauty to pine over.  And frighteningly enough, their death is even more poetic.

Gabriel von Max's "Der Anatom"
Gabriel von Max’s “Der Anatom”

Elisabeth Bronfen, in her important work Over Her Dead Body (1992), says succinctly what I wish to convey with this post: “The pictorial representations of dead women became so prevalent in Eighteenth and Nineteenth century European culture that by the middle of the latter century this topos was already dangerously hovering on the periphery of cliche…Like the purloined letter on Poe’s story [Annabel Lee], representations of feminine death work on the principle of being so excessively obvious that they escape observation.”  Bronfen points out the fact that obsession with feminine death lead to an internalizing of a certain psychological image of dead women.  And the fact that this kind of feminine death is romanticized, quixotic, and sexual is interesting when contrasted with the heroic, tragic, Shakespearean deaths of men.

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