Stories of Edgar Allan Poe Commentary
"The Sphinx" was only published once, in Philadelphia's Arthur's Ladies Magazine during January of 1846. Although Edgar Allan Poe was residing in New York City at this time with his wife Virginia, whose health was quickly deteriorating, it was around this time that The Broadway Journal, a journal of which he was the editor, went out of business. As a result, Poe would be strapped for cash and send stories to other journals with which he had established relationships such as Arthur's Magazine, later to be taken over by Godey's Lady's Book, and also Graham's Magazine, both in Philadelphia where Poe had once lived. The story takes place right outside of New York City, where Poe was living with Virginia at the time. Once again, Poe uses a geography that is all too familiar to his own life experience. Yet the time is set fourteen years into the past in 1832, when a terrible epidemic of cholera had indeed infected the people of New York City. This is a historical fact, and thousands of people died as a result. The relevance to Poe's time is that, in 1846, a new sort of epidemic had infected the populace, principally his very wife, Virginia. The horror that the narrator reflects throughout his tale for his dying friends no doubt reveals Poe's own fears about the imminent death that is soon to claim Virginia's life, which shall be taken a year later on January 30, 1847.
It is historical fact that a cholera epidemic did sweep through New York City and State beginning in June of 1832, a year after Poe had left the Hudson River Valley north of the city where he had been a military cadet at West Point; the disease of course spread more quickly in the city, however, due to the denser population and increased risk for infection. The "Sphinx" is in fact an actual type of insect. The scientific names that are quoted by the host from his book appear to be factual, "Insecta" is a phylogenic class, Lepidoptera is an order of creatures, although Crepuscularia appears to be a descriptive term merely meaning "twilight." However, "Sphinx" denotes a genus of moths that is native to North America; although it does not appear to make a screeching sound or bear a skeletal mark upon its body, this moth called "Sphinx ligustri" was first identified in 1758 by Linnaeus. It has two pairs of wings and has two antennae, much like the creature the narrator sees from the window. Whatever vision Poe had in mind, it was probably inspired by an insect from this family of moths, for it is from this that the tale takes its name, "The Sphinx," although this actual moth is much larger than the "sixteenth of an inch" attributed to this fictional insect. Poe thus blends together fact and fiction.
This arabesque, or surreal, story shows some resemblance to "The Masque of the Red Death," in which Prospero believes that he can escape the Red Death by isolating himself within his castle and getting as far from the disease as he can. In his situation, the Red Death knows no boundaries, entering the palace and infecting Prospero and all of his guests, killing them in a matter of minutes. In "The Sphinx" however, the host does not reflect the same arrogance as Prospero, and instead appears to be a very virtuous fellow. Regardless of his own worries, the host puts his guest first, choosing instead to comfort the narrator as he battles paranoia. Unlike Prospero, who thought that he could flee death by revelry, the host follows the news closely for which friend has died, hoping that cholera does not make it to his home. Rather than isolating himself, this relative had in fact invited the narrator to visit from the city -- a poor decision to make if the narrator was infected with cholera already. Yet the relative shows little concern or worry, choosing instead to give some solace from the narrator's fears. As a result, the narrator's fears consume him, and what he thinks to be Death is merely an insect; this is exactly the opposite of Prospero, who would not recognize the presence of Death until his last moments of life, and the lesson to be learned is simple. Arrogance is punished, while the humble are spared.
The narrator's obsession with death and the paralysis that his fears cause him to endure are themes also seen in "The Premature Burial," during which the narrator there is afraid of being buried alive. When it appears that he, too, overreacts on one occasion and thinks that he is in a coffin when he has merely fallen asleep on a boat, the narrator abruptly casts aside his obsession with death and chooses to live as one who is alive, rather than one who has already died. In "The Sphinx" it is not exactly clear what the narrator shall do next, or if he shall even learn from his mistake in thinking an insect to be a monster of Death. Certainly, his fears are more justified due to the presence of the lethal cholera that abounds without, whereas in 'The Premature Burial" there is not really such a justification, and the narrator's fears are mainly inner demons. It can be assumed that, with the help of this wise relative, the narrator from "The Sphinx" may learn to be more cautious next time before accepting things as they appear to be without any further investigation. Poe also offers professed scientific evidence as fact in this tale when the host reads from a book of Natural History, an indisputable authority, whereas in "The Premature Burial" Poe mentioned many professed real-life examples of being buried of live. Although both the science definition and the examples are from Poe's imagination, the literary effect is the same: to draw the reader deeper into the story by convincing him that Poe is describing events that have actually occurred.
Roderick Usher in "The Fall of the House of Usher" also experienced such a dreaded paralysis of fear that consumed his entire being, much like that of the narrator in "The Sphinx," who also tries to escape from his worries by reading books and spending time with a companion. Certainly, the consistency of this theme suggests that Poe was very much afraid throughout his own life and was especially preoccupied by his fear of being left alone. Poe was abandoned throughout his life by his father, by his dead mother, by John and Fanny Allan, and now he would be abandoned by Virginia when she died. This was his greatest fear and, unlike the characters of "The Sphinx," nobody pointed out that his monstrous worries were minuscule and that his hideous monsters were really just flies to be swatted away. Edgar Allan Poe only had himself and the many characters of his creation; they were his reassurance, and they became the voice of reason that he craved so much.