The Ethical Aspect of Disease: Poe’s “Morella” and Life

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Department of English, NTNU


Edgar Allan Poe’s obsession with the morbid and the death of beautiful women not only serves as the embodiment of the sources of melancholy, but also functions as the embodiment of the beautiful. Readings of Poe’s terror tales commonly emphasize the beauty that is beyond the realms of ordinary life and even human perception. These readings constitute what I call aesthetic readings of Poe’s works. This paper attempts to develop an alternative reading of Poe, which involves the ethical aspect of disease and the notion of life. I argue that many of Poe’s readers, however impressive their readings may be, understand “disease” in a negative way and hence might overlook the insights within Poe’s tales. While aesthetic readings celebrate Poe’s dark, destructive, morbid, and even nihilist style, an ethical reading of Poe intends to illustrate that disease can “liberate” an individual through the “transmutation of values” and leads to the affirmation of life. Life, in this sense, refers not to a particular individual life, but to that which is never completely specified and always indefinite. The tale “Morella” depicts a return to life—but that which returns is difference instead of identity, and that which returns brings a new mode ofliving. This new mode of living requires people to know life as such differently, to know what is in oneself as more-than-individual, to actively engage with vitality, and to eventually realize that life is impersonal and indefinite.