Text: Eliot Glassheim, “A Dogged Interpretation of ‘Never Bet the Devil Your Head’,” Poe Newsletter­, October 1969, Vol. II, No. 3, 2:44-45


[page 44, column 1:]

A Dogged Interpretation of
“Never Bet the Devil Your Head”

Augusta College

At the most literal level, “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” is the story of a man who habitually ends his sentences by offering to bet the devil his head that he can do this or that. One day, while he and the narrator are walking across a covered bridge, the devil appears, takes him at his word, and wins poor Toby Dammit’s head. The moral of the story is, naturally, “Never Bet the Devil Your Head.”

Taken at face value, the point of the tale is somewhat weak. The reader feels cheated if there is no more to it than that. But Poe anticipates the reader’s inclination toward depth in the narrator’s introductory sneer at the critical practice of “our more modern Scholiasts”: “Every fiction should have a moral; and what is more to the purpose, the critics have discovered that every fiction has. ” He proceeds to give examples of absurd over-readings by critics who are intent upon finding a moral: “These fellows demonstrate a hidden meaning in ‘The Antediluvians, ’ a parable in ‘Powhatan, ’ new views in ‘Cock Robin ’ and transcendentalism in ‘Hop O ’ My Thumb ’ “ (1). At the risk of being considered one of “these fellows,” I want to look further for the “hidden meaning” of this apparently frivolous tale.

There is, of course, a not too concealed attack on critics especially those of the Dial and Down-Easter — who prefer stories with moral lessons which can be summed up in didactic tag-lines. One can almost identify the voice [column 2:] of the first few paragraphs with that of Poe, the author, who has been accused of having “never written a moral tale.” Thus Poe, being an expert in other people’s genres, seems to be setting out to succeed in perfecting the moral fable form. Going his predecessors one better, Poe has properly announced his moral “in the large capitals which form the title of the tale,” whereas others, such as La Fontaine, waited to “the fag end of their fables” (IV, 215) to sneak in their messages.

The swipe at the Dial is broadened into a more general attack on the species of Transcendental Idealists. Thus the down-to-earth narrator, whose opinion it is that “mysteries force a man to think, and so injure his health,” characterizes Toby Dammit’s propensity for wagering and cursing simply as “queer.” But Coleridge, he says, would have called it “mystical, Mr. Kant pantheistical, Mr. Carlyle twistical, and Mr. Emerson hyperquizzitistical” (IV, 218). And just before poor Toby loses his head at the bridge, the narrator notices that he is afflicted with a bad case of “the transcendentals.”

The satire against transcendentalism which is delivered by the narrator is reasonable and convincing. But we must be careful, for the narrator is hardly presented as an admirable norm. Though at first he seems to be Poe’s voice in mocking didactic tales, the narrator shows himself to be an obtuse, pompous moralizer. In his expression of pique at Dammit’s stubborn habit of ending sentences with a challenge to bet, there is a sequence which reveals what the narrator means by morality: “The habit was an immoral one. . . . . It was a vulgar one. . . . . It was discountenanced by society. . . . . It was forbidden by act of Congress” (IV, 216). The rhetorical anti-climax is here used to expose the decreasingly tenable grounds of the narrator’s superiority to Toby Dammit. The first line of defense is morality, which swiftly breaks down into aristocratic taste and then middle-class mores, and finally rests secure on the bedrock of simple legality.

The descent from morality to legality in this passage is a miniature version of the way the reader’s attitude towards the narrator is manipulated throughout the story. In the first section, the discursive essay on critics who abandon the literal ground of stories, the narrator’s voice is both sensible and perhaps very close to Poe’s attitude. But in the second section, the narrator s exposition of the history of Toby Dammit’s “vices,” the point of sympathy begins to shift to Dammit, whose more natural responses mock the narrator’s self-righteousness. In the third part, the incident at the bridge, the narrator is annoyingly dense and cynical. Thus, when the tale ends, the reader is left with an unappetizing choice among the devil, a transcendentalist who has lost his head, and a man of the world who would sell his friend’s body “for dog’s meat.”

The problem of our progressive dislike for the narrator is closely related to the problem of how we are meant to take the tale. The narrator announces that “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” will be “a history about whose obvious moral there can be no question whatever” (IV, 214). And he convincingly attacks both the “mystical,” “pantheistical,” other-worldly transcendentalists and the “modern Scholiasts” who scurry after hidden meanings. From the beginning, then, the reader’s sympathies are manipulated towards accepting the tale at its simple face value. [page 45:]

But Poe is, as usual, one step ahead of the reader. In the course of having the narrator tell a straightforward moral tale, Poe inserts hidden clues for the Dupins among us to find. After off-handedly comparing himself with La Fontaine — who, as we remember, wrote animal fables — the narrator introduces his deceased friend, Toby Dammit: “He was a sad dog, it is true, and a dog’s death it was that he died” (IV, 215). This, we are sure, is merely an exaggerated way of speaking, a metaphor for the hardness of Dammit’s life and the severity of his death. But then there is also the disturbing ending of the tale in which the narrator cavalierly digs up his dead friend and sells him “for dog’s meat” (IV, 226). When we connect the first and last references to the narrator’s friend, we see that Toby Dammit is, in literal fact, a dog.

Since the narrator refers to Toby throughout as though he were a human being, we can easily be misled if we don ’t pay attention to the signs: The narrator catches Toby, then six months old, “gnawing a pack of cards.” At seven months “he was in the constant habit of catching and kissing the female babies.” At the age of a year, Toby Dammit “insisted upon wearing moustaches “ (IV, 216). This is quite simple and plausible for a “sad dog,” but unlikely for a child. When the narrator begins to imagine Toby’s thought processes he cuts himself short immediately. “But these are my own reflections,” he says, “and I am by no means sure that I am right in attributing them to him” (IV, 217). This refusal to project into Toby combines with the joke about Coleridge calling Toby “mystical” and Kant calling him “pantheistical” to suggest that Poe is commenting on man’s propensity to attribute human motives to nature. Furthermore, the narrator compares himself to St. Patrick, who is said to have awakened a toad “to a sense of his situation” (IV, 218). If the terms of the comparison be literally followed, then Toby Dammit can only be an animal; if he is an animal, then we see that the reference to La Fontaine in the introductory essay was not gratuitous or casual.

After finishing his lecture on the fallen state of Toby’s soul, the narrator tells us that for a few moments Toby “remained silent, merely looking me inquisitively in the face. But presently he threw his head to one side, and elevated his eyebrows to a great extent” (IV, 218). While this could certainly describe a person, it makes sense, I think, to picture a dog sitting benignly at his master’s feet, straining to comprehend what is wanted of him (2). Toby’s response to the sermon is presented by the narrator as a paraphrase, so that we wonder whether the narrator is not over-interpreting frisky barks as hostile replies. Toby’s most wounding insult, according to the narrator, is to ask him twice if his mother knows he’s out of the house. It would be a peculiar insult to throw at a man who reports the question in language such as “Was my maternal parent aware, in a word, of my absence from the domiciliary residence?” (IV, 219). But it is a reasonable question if we picture the narrator as a precocious child and Toby Dammit as his faithful dog.

When the two friends get to the bridge Toby is “excessively lively. . . . . Nothing would serve him but wriggling and skipping about under and over everything that came in his way” (IV, 220). Again, this description might fit a human being, but the “wriggling under” is [column 2:] more suitable for a dog. The narrator certainly relates to Toby as if he were a dog; when Toby wriggles and skips about the narrator isn ’t sure “whether to kick him or pity him.” Like a well-trained dog doing a trick, Toby obeys the devil’s command to jump over a stile on the bridge. He “set[s] off in a strong gallop,” but is decapitated by an overhead cross-bar and finally sold for dog’s meat by the narrator. The expression is ambiguous, but the use of the possessive yields an ambiguity in which “dog’s meat” may also mean meat of a dog, just as “a dog’s death” means the death of a dog.

Though I think there is sufficient evidence to establish Toby as a dog, the point of the story does not require that the case be conclusive. In fact, it is part of the anti-literal, anti-moralistic satiric strategy to suggest that Toby wags his tail without absolutely proving it. Depending on which mentality the reader favors, Toby can be seen as a transcendentalist, a simple dog, or an immoral person. For “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” is a rough sketch of the weaknesses in the Transcendental Idealist position (Toby), the materialist and literalist position (the devil), and the conventional social or moralistic position (the narrator). The “correct” position — that is, Poe’s position — is arrived at through destruction of the worst parts of the three other attitudes. As transcendentalists, we are likely to soar too high off the ground and “lose our heads.” As literalists, we are likely to narrow our vision to one meaning of a word, and thus destroy the possibility of pun, metaphor or multiple meanings As moralists, we tend not to recognize simple realities without the consuming desire to have them different from what they are. Though Poe’s positive position does not appear in this story, except of course as the attitude of satire and the method of verbal punning (3),  we can extrapolate from what he attacks. Thus Poe seems to be demanding a literalness which does not destroy metaphor, a morality which is superior to mores or legality, and a receptiveness to mysteries which exist but are, nevertheless, not transcendent.



(1)  The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York, 1902/1965), IV, 213-214.

(2)  Merely as a conjecture I would guess that Toby Dammit is the same “water-dog” who appears at his master’s feet in “Bon-Bon,” another Poe story in which the devil arrives to claim a soul. The devil in “Bon-Bon” is also dressed in a black outfit and he too wins his victim when an overhead iron lamp (like the bar in our story) hits a metaphysician in the head.

(3)  There is an astounding density of puns, both good and bad, in the story. I am grateful to George Arms of the University of New Mexico for pointing out to me the pun in the juxtaposition of the title and subtitle: “Never Bet the Devil Your Head/A Tale With a Moral.” There is obviously a suggested pun on the cliché “heads I win, tails you lose.” Other sayings which grow easily out of the verbal texture of the story: “A tale with a moral is like having a tail wag the dog”; “A turnstile is no less an impediment than Carlyle’s style”; “A dog’s best friend is his man”; “In the end, the tail (tale?) will be straightened out”; and “To be Toby Dammit is to be damnéd.”


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[S:1 - PSDR, 1969]