Text: Thomas Ollive Mabbott (E. A. Poe), “The Imp of the Perverse,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. III: Tales and Sketches (1978), pp. 1217-1227 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 1217, continued:]


This is one of Poe’s great stories, although not one of the most popular. Benjamin De Casseres (1873-1945), a fine American critic, too little remembered now, said that Poe’s profundity is

best illustrated in his little Imp of the Perverse . . . We’ve all got that “imp” in us. It makes us do things we ought not to do. It whispers to us to lean as far over a cliff as we can. It literally forces us to wound a friend with an insult. It shouts in our mental ear “Do it! do it!” when we have resolved not to do it. What or who is this Imp of the Perverse? Poe doesn’t tell us for he cannot. It is one of the insoluble mysteries of the soul . . . Why should Nature, which does everything to cause us to fight for self-survival, put a voice — or an imp — in our soul that deliberately advises us to destroy oursevles? . . . You — and I — know that imp.*

Poe knew that imp himself. In his early album verses for “Elizabeth” he wrote of his “innate love of contradiction,” and anyone familiar with Poe’s life will recall instances of impulsive actions that brought him into needless difficulties. He had already recognized this compelling perverseness in his powerful tale “The Black Cat.” Poe’s dark views were not understood by some of his contemporaries. [page 1218:]

Poe’s title and the main theme — and even a connection with phrenology — clearly have their inspiration in a passage in the twenty-second chapter of Lady Georgiana Fullerton’s novel Ellen Middleton (1844). There Ellen, who feels herself responsible, through accident rather than intention, for the death of her young cousin, is in a room with persons who knew her secret and taunt her.

“The organ of destructiveness must be strong in you,” observed Mr. Escourt . . . Again an icy chill ran through me . . . I felt that I was making an odious speech, I saw in [my husband] Edward’s face an expression almost of disgust. I felt that I was sinking every moment in his opinion; perhaps losing ground in his affections . . . A spirit of reckless defiance took possession of me, — and I completely lost my head. A torrent of words burst from my lips, of which I hardly knew the meaning . . . like Samson . . . I was dragging down . . . the ruin which had so long hung over my head.

Poe’s “Marginalia” number 52 gave high praise to Ellen Middleton in the Democratic Review, December 1844, p. 582. There he remarked that the author’s style “has, now and then, an odd Gallicism — such as ‘she lost her head,’ meaning she grew crazy.” This observation makes it certain that he knew the cited paragraph in the novel.

The means of the murder executed by Poe’s protagonist after the rejection of “a thousand schemes” was probably suggested by an article in the New Monthly Magazine, December 1839. He was familiar with this periodical and indebted to its pages for other inspirations.

The first version of Poe’s story must have been in Graham’s hands at least two months before it appeared in his magazine, issued about June 15, 1845. The other version differs so much that I suspect it was rewritten from memory for its second printing. In the Broadway Journal, August 9, 1845, Poe said, “Mr. Robert Hamilton [of Boston] is getting ready ‘The May-Flower’ of which we have seen some specimen sheets.” Poe’s tale appeared in that annual later in the year. [page 1219:]


(A) Graham’s Magazine for July 1845 (27[incorrectly numbered 28]:1-3; (B) The May-Flower for 1846, pp. 11-22; (C) Works (1850), I, 353-359.

Griswold, whose text we print, shows one variant from The May-Flower (B) which I think auctorial.


In the consideration of the faculties and impulses — of the prima mobilia of the human soul, the phrenologists have failed to make room for a propensity which, although obviously existing as a radical, primitive, irreducible sentiment, has been equally overlooked by all{a} the moralists who have preceded them. In the pure arrogance of the reason, we have all overlooked it. We have suffered its existence to escape our senses, solely through want of belief — of faith; — whether it be faith in Revelation, or faith in the Kabbala.{b} (1) {cc}The idea of it has never{cc} occurred to us, simply because of its{d} supererogation. We saw no need {ee}of the impulse — for the propensity.{ee} We could not perceive its necessity. We could not understand, that is to say, we could not have understood, had the notion of this primum mobile ever obtruded {ff}itself; — we could not have understood{ff} in what manner it might be made to further the objects of humanity, either temporal or eternal. It cannot be denied that {gg}phrenology and, in great measure, all metaphysicianism have{gg} been concocted à priori. The intellectual or logical man, rather than the understanding or observant man, set himself to imagine designs — to dictate purposes to God. Having thus fathomed,{h} to his satisfaction, the intentions of Jehovah, out of these intentions he built{i} his innumerable systems of mind. In the matter of phrenology, for example, we first determined, naturally enough, that it was the design of the{j} Deity that man should eat. We then assigned to man an organ of alimentiveness, and this organ is the scourge with{k} [page 1220:] which the{l} Deity compels {mm}man, will-I nill-I, into eating.{mm} Secondly,{n} having settled it to be God’s will that man should continue his species, we discovered an organ of amativeness, forthwith. And so with combativeness, with ideality, with causality, with constructiveness, — so, in short, with every organ, whether representing a propensity, a moral sentiment, or a faculty of the pure intellect. And in these arrangements of the principia of human action, the Spurzheimites,(2) whether right or wrong, in part, or upon the whole, have but followed, in principle, the footsteps of their predecessors; deducing and establishing every thing from the preconceived destiny of man, and upon the ground of the objects{o} of his Creator.

It would have been {pp}wiser, it would have been safer to classify, (if classify we must,){pp} upon the basis of what man usually or occasionally did, and was always occasionally doing, rather than upon the basis of what we took it for granted the Deity intended him to do. If we cannot comprehend God in his visible works, how then in his inconceivable thoughts, that call the works into being? If we cannot understand him in his objective creatures, how then in his substantive moods and phases of creation?

Induction, à posteriori, would have brought phrenology to admit, as an innate and primitive principle of human action, a paradoxical something, which{q} we may call {rr}perverseness, for want of a more characteristic term.{rr} In the sense I intend, it is, in fact, a mobile without motive, a motive not motivirt. Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms; we may so far modify the proposition as to say, that through its promptings we act, for the reason that we should not. In theory, no reason can be more unreasonable; but, in fact,{s} there is none more{t} strong. With certain minds, under certain conditions,{u} it becomes absolutely irresistible. I am not more certain{v} that I breathe, than that the assurance{w} of [page 1221:] the wrong or error{x} of any{y} action is often the one unconquerable force which impels us, and alone impels us to its prosecution. Nor will this overwhelming tendency to do wrong for the wrong’s sake, admit of analysis, or resolution into ulterior elements. It is a radical, a primitive impulse — elementary. It will be said, I am aware, that when we persist in acts because we feel{z} we should not persist in them, our conduct is but a modification of that which ordinarily springs from the combativeness{a}, of phrenology. But a glance will show the fallacy of this idea. The phrenological combativeness has for its essence, the necessity of self-defence. It is our safeguard against injury. Its principle regards our well-being; and thus the desire to be well,{a′} is{b} excited simultaneously with {cc}its development. It follows, that the desire to be well must be excited simultaneously with{cc} any principle which shall be merely a modification of combativeness, but in the case of that something which I term perverseness,{d} the desire to be well is not only not{e} aroused, but a strongly antagonistical sentiment exists.{f}

An appeal to one’s own heart is, after all, the best reply to the sophistry just noticed. No one who trustingly consults {gg}and thoroughly questions{gg} his own soul, will be disposed to deny the entire radicalness of the propensity in question. It is not more incomprehensible than distinctive{h} There lives no man who at some period{h′} has not been tormented, for example, by an earnest desire to tantalize a listener by circumlocution. The speaker{i} is aware that he displeases; he has every intention to please; he is usually curt, precise, and clear; the most laconic and luminous language is struggling for utterance upon his tongue; it is only with difficulty that he restrains himself from giving it flow; he dreads and deprecates the anger of him whom he addresses; yet,{j} the thought strikes him, [page 1222:] that{k} by certain involutions and parentheses, this{l} anger may be engendered. That single thought is enough. The impulse increases to a wish, the wish to a desire, the desire to an uncontrollable longing, and the longing, {mm}(to the deep regret and mortification of the speaker, and{mm} in defiance of all consequences,) is indulged.

We{n} have a task before us which must be speedily performed. We know that it will be ruinous to make delay. The most important crisis of our life calls, trumpet-tongued,(3) for immediate energy and action. We glow, we are consumed with eagerness to commence the work, {oo}with the anticipation of whose glorious result our whole souls are on fire.{oo} It must, it shall be undertaken to-day, and yet we put it off until to-morrow; and why? There is no answer, except that we feel perverse, using{p} the word with no comprehension of the principle. To-morrow arrives, and with it a more impatient anxiety to do our duty, but with this very increase of anxiety arrives, also, a nameless, a positively fearful because unfathomable, craving for delay. This craving gathers strength as the moments fly. The last hour for action is at hand. We tremble with the violence of the conflict within us, — of the definite with the indefinite — of the substance with the shadow. But, if the contest have proceeded thus far, it is the shadow which prevails, — we struggle in vain. The clock strikes, and is the knell of our welfare. At{q} the same time, it{r} is the chanticleer-note to the ghost{s} that has so long overawed us. It flies — it disappears — we are free.(4) The old energy returns. We will labor now. Alas, it is too late!

We{t} stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss — we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the {uu}danger. Unaccountably{uu} we remain. By slow degrees our sickness, and dizziness, and horror, become merged in a cloud of unnameable feeling.(5) By gradations, still more imperceptible, this cloud assumes shape, as did the vapor from the bottle out of which arose the genius [page 1223:] in the Arabian Nights.(6) But out of this our cloud upon{v} the precipice’s edge, there grows into palpability, a shape, far more terrible than any genius, or any demon of a tale, and yet it is but a thought,{w} although {xx}a fearful one, and{xx} one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height. And this fall — this rustling annihilation — for the very reason that it involves that one most ghastly and loathsome of all the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination — {yy}for this very cause{yy} do we now the most vividly{z} desire it. And because our reason violently{a} deters us from the brink therefore, do we the more impetuously{b} approach it. There is no passion in nature{cc} so demoniacally impatient,{cc} as that{d} of him, who shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a plunge. To indulge{e} for a moment, in any attempt at thought, is to be inevitably lost; for reflection but urges us to forbear, and therefore it is, I say, that we cannot. If there be no friendly arm to check us, or if we fail in a sudden effort to prostrate{f} ourselves backward from the abyss,{g} we plunge, and are destroyed.

Examine these and similar actions as we will, we shall find them resulting solely from the spirit of the Perverse. We perpetrate them merely because we feel that we should not. Beyond or behind this, there is no {hh}intelligible principle: and we might, indeed, deem this perverseness{hh} a direct instigation of the {ii}arch-fiend, were it not occasionally known to operate in furtherance of good.{ii}

I have said{j} thus much, that {kk}in some measure I may answer your question{kk} — that I may explain to you why I am here — that I may assign {ll}to you something that shall have at least the faint aspect of a [page 1224:] cause{ll} for my wearing these fetters, and for{m} my{n} tenanting this cell of the condemned. Had I not been thus prolix, you might either have misunderstood me altogether, or, with the rabble, have{o} fancied me mad. {pp}As it is, you will easily perceive that I am one of the many uncounted victims of the Imp of the Perverse.{pp}

It is impossible that any deed could have been wrought with a{q} more thorough deliberation. For weeks, for months, I pondered upon the means of the murder. I rejected a thousand schemes, because their accomplishment involved a chance of detection. At length, in reading some French memoirs, I found an account of a nearly fatal illness that occurred to Madame Pilau, through the agency of a candle accidentally poisoned.(7) The idea struck my fancy at once. I knew my victim’s habit of reading in bed. I knew, too, that his apartment was narrow and ill-ventilated. But I need not vex you with impertinent details. I need not describe the easy artifices by which I substituted, in his bed-room{r} candlestand, a wax-light of my own making, for the one which I there found. The next morning he was discovered{s} dead in his bed, and the coroner’s{t} verdict was, — “Death by the visitation of God.”

Having inherited his estate, all went well{u} with me for years. The idea of detection never {vv}once entered my brain.{vv} Of the remains of the fatal taper, I had myself carefully {ww}disposed. I had left no{ww} shadow of a clue by which it would be possible to convict, or even to suspect me of the crime. It is inconceivable how rich a sentiment of satisfaction arose in my bosom as I reflected upon my absolute{x} security. For a very long period of time, I {yy}was accustomed to revel{yy} in this sentiment. It afforded me{z} more real delight than all the mere worldly advantages accruing from my sin. But there{a} arrived at length an epoch, from which the{b} pleasurable feeling{c} grew, by scarcely perceptible gradations, into a haunting and harassing {dd}thought. It{dd} harassed because it haunted. I could scarcely get rid [page 1225:] of it for an instant. It is quite a common thing to be thus annoyed with{e} the ringing in our ears, or rather in our{f} memories, of the burthen{g} of some{h} ordinary song, or some unimpressive snatches from an opera. Nor will we be less tormented if{i} the song in itself be good, or the opera air meritorious. In this manner, at last, I would perpetually catch{j} myself pondering upon my{k} security, and{l} repeating, in a low, under-tone, the {mm}phrase, “I am safe.”{mm}

One day, whilst{n} sauntering along{o} the streets, I arrested myself in the act of murmuring, half aloud, these customary syllables. In a fit of petulance,{p} I re-modelled them thus: — “I am safe — I am safe — {qq}yes — if I be not fool enough to make open confession!”{qq}

No sooner had I spoken{r} these words, than I felt an icy chill creep to my heart. I had had{s} some experience in these{t} fits of perversity, {uu}(whose nature I have been at some trouble to explain,){uu} and I remembered well,{v} that in no {ww}instance, I had{ww} successfully resisted their attacks. And now my own casual self-suggestion, that I might possibly be{x} fool enough {yy}to confess the murder of which I had been guilty,{yy} confronted me, as if the very ghost of him whom{z} I had murdered — and beckoned me on to death.

At first, I made an{a} effort to shake off this nightmare of the soul. I{b} walked vigorously — faster — still {cc}faster — at length I ran.{cc} I felt a maddening{d} desire to shriek aloud. Every succeeding wave of thought overwhelmed me with new terror, for, alas! {ee}I well, too [page 1226:] well understood that, to think, in my situation, was to be lost.{e} I still quickened my pace.{f} I bounded like a madman through the crowded thoroughfares. At length,{g} the populace took the{h} alarm, and pursued me.{i} I felt then{j} the consummation of my fate. Could I have torn out my tongue, I would have done it — but a rough voice{k} resounded in my ears — a{l} rougher grasp seized me by the shoulder{m} — I turned — I gasped for breath. For a moment, I experienced all the pangs of suffocation; I became blind, and deaf, and giddy;(8) and {nn}then, some invisible fiend, I thought, struck me with his broad{nn} palm upon the back.(9) The{o} long-imprisoned secret burst forth from my soul.(10)

They say that I spoke with a{p} distinct enunciation, but with marked{q} emphasis and passionate hurry, as if in dread of interruption before concluding the brief but pregnant sentences that consigned me to the hangman and to hell.

{rr}Having related all that was necessary for the fullest judicial conviction, I fell prostrate in a swoon.

But why shall I say more? To-day I wear these chains, and am here. To-morrow I shall be fetterless! — but where?{rr}



[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 1219:]

a  Omitted (A)

b  inner teachings of the spirit. (A)

cc . . . cc  Its idea has not (A)

d  its seeming (A, B)

ee . . . ee  for the propensity in question. (A)

f  itself — (A)

gg . . . gg  all metaphysicianism has (A); phrenology, and in a great measure, all metaphysicianism, (C) repunctuated to follow B

h  fathomed (C) comma added from B

i  reared (A)

j  Omitted (A)

k  by (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 1220:]

l  Omitted (A)

mm . . . mm  man to his food. (A)

n  Again, (A)

o  objects (A)

pp . . . pp  safer — if classify we must — to classify (A)

q  which, for want of a better term, (A)

rr . . . rr  Perverseness. (A)

s  reality (A)

t  so (A)

u  circumstances, (A)

v  sure (A)

w  conviction (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 1221:]

x  impolicy (A)

y  an (A)

z  feel that (A)

a  Combativeness (A)

a′  well, (C) comma deleted to follow A, B

b  must be (A)

cc . . . cc  Omitted (A)

d  Perverseness, (A)

e  not (A)

f  prevails. (A)

gg . . . gg  Omitted (A)

h  distinct. (A)

h′  period, (C) comma deleted to follow B

i  speaker, in such case, (A)

j  yet a shadow seems to flit across the brain, and suddenly (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 1222:]

k  strikes him, that / strikes that, (A)

l  Omitted (A)

mm . . . mm  Omitted (A) [no parentheses in A]

n  Again: — We (A)

oo . . . oo  and our whole souls are on fire with anticipation of the glorious result. (A)

p  employing (A)

q  welfare. At / welfare, but at (A)

r  Omitted (A)

s  Thing (A)

t  And yet again: — We (A)

uu . . . uu  danger, and yet, unaccountably, (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 1223:]

v  on (A)

w  Thought, (A)

xx . . . xx  Omitted (A)

yy . . . yy  for this very cause (A)

z  impetuously (A)

a  most strenuously (A)

b  unhesitatingly (A)

cc . . . cc  of so demoniac an impatience (A)

d  the passion (A)

e  indulge even (A)

f  throw (A)

g  danger, and so out of its sight, (A)

hh . . . hh  principle that men, in their fleshly nature, can understand; and were it not occasionally known to operate in furtherance of good, we might deem the anomalous feeling (A)

ii . . . ii  Arch-fiend. (A)

j  premised (A)

kk . . . kk  I may be able, in some degree, to give an intelligible answer to your queries (A)

ll . . . ll  something like a reason (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 1224:]

m  Omitted (A)

n  Omitted (A)

o  you might have (A, B)

pp . . . pp  Omitted (A)

q  Omitted (A)

r  Omitted (A)

s  Omitted (A)

t  Omitted (A)

u  merrily (A)

vv . . . vv  obtruded itself. (A)

ww . . . ww  disposed, nor had I left the (A)

x  absolute (A)

yy . . . yy  reveled (A)

z  me, I believe, (A)

a  But there / There (A)

b  from which the / after which this (A)

c  feeling took to itself a new tone, and (A)

dd . . . dd  thought — a thought that (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 1225:]

e  by (A)

f  or rather in our / or (A)

g  burden (A)

h  an (A)

i  though (A)

j  find (A)

k  my impunity and (A)

l  and very frequently would catch myself (A)

mm . . . mm  phrases “I am safe — I am safe.” (A)

n  while (A)

o  listlessly about (A)

p  petulance at my indiscretion (A)

qq . . . qq  yes, if I do not prove fool enough to make open confession.” (A)

r  uttered (A)

s  had (long ago, during childhood) (A)

t  those (A)

uu . . . uu  whose nature I have been at so much trouble in explaining, (A)

v  well, omitted (A)

ww . . . ww  instance had I (A)

x  prove (A)

yy . . . yy  to make open confession — (A)

z  Omitted (A)

a  strong (A)

b  I whistled — I laughed aloud — I (A)

cc . . . cc  faster and still faster. At length I saw — or fancied that I saw — a vast and formless shadow that seemed to dog my footsteps, approaching me from behind, with a cat-like and stealthy pace. It was then that I ran. (A)

d  wild (A)

ee . . . ee  I understood too well that to think, in my condition, was to be undone. (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 1226:]

f  steps. (A)

g  At length, / But now (A)

h  Omitted (A)

i  me omitted (A)

j  I felt then / Then — then I felt (A)

k  voice from some member of the crowd now (A)

l  ears — a / ears, and a (A)

m  arm. (A)

nn . . . nn  at this instant it was no mortal hand, I knew, that struck me violently with a broad and massive (A)

o  At that blow the (A)

p  Omitted (A)

q  Omitted (A)

rr . . . rr  Omitted (A)


[page 1226, continued:]


Title:  Poe’s title has literally the same meaning as Lady Fullerton’s “spirit of reckless defiance” in the passage quoted in my introduction, but is an example of Poe’s imaginative mastery of phrase.

1.  The Kabbala (cabbala, cabala) is specifically an esoteric Hebraic theosophy based on Holy Writ and the Talmud. It was developed during the Middle Ages and transmitted orally for many generations. Poe used the term on several occasions to mean something highly abstruse.

2.  Spurzheimites were followers of Dr. Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, a German codiscoverer with Dr. Franz Josef Gall of the principles of phrenology. He came to the United States and died at Boston, November 10, 1832. Thomas Dunn English wrote his medical thesis on phrenological relations to medicine. Poe spoke [page 1227:] with much respect of phrenology in his earlier years; but, as what he says in the present story suggests, he came to distrust its validity. He removed an allusion to it from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and another from “The Black Cat.” He did, however, continue to use some of its special vocabulary, as did Walt Whitman. See “Poe and Phrenology,” by Edward Hungerford in American Literature, November 1930.

3.  For “trumpet-tongued” see Macbeth, I, vii, 19; the expression is also used in Politian, VI, 23 (see Mabbott, I, 293), and in the “Literati” sketch of Caroline Kirkland in Godey’s for August 1846.

4.  Many ghosts must return to their graves at cock-crow, before dawn, as is recounted in Hamlet, I, i, 147-156.

5.  Compare a passage on the fascination of precipices in Arthur Gordon Pym, chapter xxiv. [In connection with this paragraph, see “The Self-Destructive Fall: A Theme From Shakespeare used in Pym and ‘The Imp of the Perverse,’ ” by B. Pollin, Études Anglaises, T. XXIX, No. 2 (1976).]

6.  The bottle imp is in the “Story of the Fisherman,” one of the best known in the Arabian Nights. Compare also Poe’s poem “Alone,” lines 20-22, “And the cloud that took the forth / . . . Of a demon in my view.”

7.  The Madame Pilau Poe refers to appears in “An Oddity of the Seventeenth Century,” by Mrs. [Catherine] Gore, in the New Monthly Magazine, December 1839. The sketch states that this very ugly woman was “the privileged Mrs. Grundy of the French capital during the ascendancy of Cardinal Richelieu,” and after recounting some lively adventures, says “At eighty-six years of age Madame Pilau was near coming to an untimely end from lighting a taper at a poisoned candle, composed by some lackeys for the purpose of stupefying one of their comrades.” She only recovered because of a physician’s “prompt administration of an antidote.” George Lyman Kittredge, in Witchcraft (1929), p. 347, tells of a poisoned candle made by one Roland Jenks in 1579.

8.  Compare “Tamerlane,” line 57, “Rendered me mad and deaf and blind.”

9.  The supernatural blow recalls an incident in the Iliad, where Apollo disabled Patroclus. In Pope’s Iliad, XVI, 954, we read:

For lo! the God in dusky clouds enshrin’d,

Approaching, dealt a staggering blow behind.

To Poe’s earlier version of “The Imp of the Perverse” the original Greek, Iliad, XVI, 791-792, is even closer:

Στη δ οπηιθε, πληξεν τε μεταφρενον ενρεε τ ωμω

Χειρι καταπρηνει στρεφεοινηθεν δε οι οσσε

There is evidence in “A Reviewer Reviewed” that Poe remembered lines from Homer as late as 1849.

10.  Compare “The Tell-Tale Heart” at n. 13 and the excerpt (p. 790) from Webster’s speech referred to in that note.



[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 1217:]

*  New York Journal-American, August 23, 1944, quoted by permission.

  In the Broadway Journal, December 6, 1845, Poe quoted from a Princeton magazine, the Nassau Monthly for December 1845, a notice describing “The Imp of the Perverse” as “humbug philosophical.”

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 1218:]

  A connection between Poe’s story and Ellen Middleton was first pointed out in an anonymous volume, The Rambles and Reveries of an Art-Student in Europe (Philadelphia, 1855), p. 36.






[S:1 - TOM3T, 1978] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (The Imp of the Perverse)