Book Notes The Sphinx Notes from Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

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Stories of Edgar Allan Poe The Sphinx

During the cholera epidemic that occurred in New York City presumably during the summer of 1832, the narrator decides to visit a relative living near the Hudson River north of the city for two weeks. There, the two men observe the massive destruction that cholera is causing from afar, as they hear news each day of one of their friends who has died from this terrible illness down in the city. The narrator's host tries to cheer up his friend however, "My host was of a less excitable temperment, and, although greatly depressed in spirits, exerted himself to sustain my own. His richly philosophical intellect was not at any time affected by unrealities. To the substances of terror he was sufficently alive, but of its shadows he had no apprehension" Poe, pg. 96. The host is a very rational person, who does not allow his fears to get the best of him; he is also a calming force in the narrator's life as he is extremely upset because of the epidemic. It is for this reason that he fled from the city in the first place.

One day during this visit, the narrator is busy reading a book near the window revealing a scenic view of the Hudson River. His attention is focused upon the cholera epidemic nevertheless, and when he glances up from th pages of his novel, the man sees a ghastly sight in the distant hills. There, an enormous creature larger than any oceangoing ship is climbing down! Its trunk is about seventy feet long, it has two tusks at its base like an elephant, surrounded by a huge mass of black hair, with a pair of "staffs" forty feet long sticking out on either side parallel to the trunk. The creature also has "two pairs of wings -- each wing nearly one hundred yards in length...and all thickly covered with metal scales; each scale apparently some twelve feet in diameter...but the chief peculiarity of this horrible thing was the representation of a Death's Head, which covered nearly the whole surface of its breast, and which was as accurately traced in glaring white, upon the dark ground of the body, as if it had been there carefully designed by an artist" Poe, pg. 98. The monster opens its jaws and clamps them shut, causing a loud roar as it disappears at the bottom of the hill, and the narrator faints away onto the floor in total shock. He fears that this monster is coming to claim his life, as the cholera epidemic has already stolen so many lives already.

Later that evening, the narrator really wants to tell his relative about the monster, but he decides not to, probably because he is afraid of what his friend will think. However, a few days later the two men are sitting together in the same room from which the narrator saw the monster out of the window, and he decides at long last to reveal what he witnessed. The jovial host listens curiously, laughs, and then says little more; the narrator becomes paranoid, assuming that this relative thinks that he is crazy. Soon after, the narrator witnesses the monster yet again outside of the window, crawling down the hill from afar, bearing the "Death's Head," like a skull, upon its body, describing exactly what he sees. But the host doesn't see anything, and he then lapses into a monologue about how people often "underrate or overvalue the importance of an object," picking up a book from his bookshelf about Natural History. As an example, he adds that although political theorists often write about the power of democracy and how great it would be if every government in the world was democratic, they do not mention how long it would be before this could become a reality. As such, this would be an example of how the importance of democracy may be overvalued, because it has not yet become widespread.

Taking the narrator's seat near the window, and asking the narrator to sit upon the sofa, the host then reads from the book, discussing a type of creature "of the genus Sphinx, of the family Crepuscularia, of the order Lepidoptera, of the class of Insecta -- or insects." He continues on to read a description of this creature as portrayed in this science book, describing exactly the creature that the narrator has witnessed upon the hillside, "The Death's-headed Sphinx has occasioned much terror among the vulgar, at times, by the melancholy kind of cry which it utters, and the insignia of death which it wears upon its corslet." The narrator listens intently as his friend peers more closely to the window in search of the "monster," after closing the book. Noting that it is an amazing creature to look at, he adds that "it is by no means so large or so distant as you imagined it; for the fact is that, as it wriggles its way up this thread, which some spider has wrought along the window-sash, I find it to be about the sixteenth of an inch in its extreme length, and also about the sixteenth of an inch distant from the pupil of my eye" Poe, pg. 100.

In this instance then, the narrator's fear of death has consumed him, and he thought that a tiny insect that was nearby was in fact an enormous monster that was very far away. The narrator has overvalued the importance of this tiny insect. The relative also suggests a sense of disdain that the narrator has made such a mistake, in reading from his book that it is the "vulgar," or "unrefined, crude" people who fear the scary symbol the sphinx has on its body and the hideous shriek that the insect makes. Rather than being considered insane as the narrator had previously feared, he is now taken to be a fool for making such a silly, ridiculous mistake as to be frightened of a tiny insect. This event only reveals further that the narrator is a very paranoid individual; he fled from New York City for fear of getting cholera and dying; he had been afraid to tell his kind host what he thought he saw initially because he thought the man would think that he was crazy; and finally, the object of his fear was really just a tiny insect that he had assumed to be a tremendous monster hundreds of feet long that was descending down from the hillside to take away his life, much like the Grim Reaper. This wise relative remains the only source of comfort and voice of reason throughout this tale, saving the narrator from drowning in a raging sea of his own false fears. This suggests that common sense is not a genetic trait.

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