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Norman & Chibib 1

Jack Norman & Drew Chibib


APUSH/AP English Lang
11/13/15
Rationalism Versus Irrationalism

The esteemed literary works of Gothic Romanticism authors such as Edgar Allen Poe, an
influential Baltimore-based poet, utilized the motif of rationalism versus irrationalism in his
various works, The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat. As with most historical literature, the
motifs represented in his work reflected the events and issues of the time period. The
juxtaposition of rationalism and irrationalism applies to events that occurred as a result of the
rapid change and expansion brought on during the Antebellum era of United States history, with
the resurgence of slave labor and methods introduced to enforce its societal values, such as the
Chattel principle juxtaposing rational efforts to counteract the slave institution, such as the
Underground Railroad.
Edgar Allen Poes The Tell-Tale Heart, uses the motif of rationalism versus
irrationalism through the verse, You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should
have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded--with what caution--with what
foresight---with what dissimulation I went to work!(1). The narrators attempt to rationalize his
completely crazy and insane raving shows the clear juxtaposition between sane and addlebrained in his description and is a clear indicator of the use of rationalism by Poe. In contrast,
when the narrator is talking about the old man, I loved the old manI made up my mind to take
the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever Poe uses the irrational thought of
the narrator to show how unaware the narrator is of his own insanity(1). The bipolar nature of his

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actions demonstrate the irrationalism of the narrator by painting him in a crazed manner and
therefore developing the plot line of the story.
Another work of Edgar Allen Poe The Black Cat, demonstrates the gothic motif of
rationalism versus irrationalism in several instances throughout the short story, starting with My
immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a
series of mere household events is the narrators attempt to rationalize his brutal actions
undertaken throughout the story, including gouging out the eye of his own cat, mistreating
animals, and ultimately killing his wife(1). On the flip side, the narrator completely creates an
irrational event, One night, returning home...I fancied that the cat avoided my presence...he
inflicted a slight wound upon my hand with his teeth...The fury of a demon instantly possessed
me to show the irrationalism and quick to anger attitude of the narrator (1). Poe uses the motif
of rationalism versus irrationalism to create a truly mad character by showing his quick-to-angerwithout-remorse attitude.
The Antebellum period, also known as the Era of Good Feeling, was a time period that
brought on rapid reform and expansion of the United States. With the Industrial Revolution, new
inventions such as interchangeable parts allowed for an expeditious growth in Industry in the
north, because the lack of arable land led to an easy transfer to an industrial economy. In the
south however, the dependence on slave labor continued to rise, with the South producing
seventy-five percent of the worlds cotton. In order to maintain the continuity of the institution,
the South enforced the idea that the slaves were less than human, implementing harsh physical
punishments to instill fear and suffering into the institution. This principle that slaves were
property was known as the Chattel Principle, representing irrationalism in that the principle
directly contradicts the constitution by naming people property and thereby denying them their

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natural rights. In contradiction to the Chattel Principle, representing a rational aspect of


Antebellum society, the Underground Railroad, which was an influential abolitionist network
used to help smuggle slaves from the South to the North, represents the rationalism in the
antislavery movement, helping slaves escape the oppressive and harsh society and slave codes of
the South. As demonstrated in the art piece, the Chattel principle represents a dark, irrational
aspect of the nation, with darker colors in the south surrounding the image of slavery and the
production of cotton, whereas the Underground Railroad, represented by the railroad leading
from south to north, is depicted as giving off light, representing the rational aspect of Antebellum
society.
As is common throughout history, the literature and the ideas and motifs represented in it
reflect the societal dogmas and issues of the time period. In the case of the Antebellum era in the
United States, the presence of the inhumane institution of slavery resulted in attempts to fight it,
leading to the development of a motif of rationalism versus irrationalism in Gothic literature of
the time period, as evidenced by the internal struggles of the protagonists of Edgar Allan Poes
The Black Cat and Tell-tale Heart to find their sanity.

Works Cited

Poe, Edgar Allen. The Tell-Tale Heart (n.d.): n. pag. American English. American State Gov. Web.

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Poe, Edgar Allen. "The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe - Poestories.com."Poestories. Edgar Allen Poe, n.d.
Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
"History of the Southern United States." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.