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Taphephobia in Edgar Allan Poe's collection of gothic tales: a new historicist study of 19th century america's most prevalent fear

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par Salma LAYOUNI
Université de Sousse - Master 2013

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Republic of Tunisia

Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research University of Sousse

Faculty of Arts and Humanities


Taphephobia in Edgar Allan Poe's Collection of Gothic
Tales: A New Historicist Study of 19th Century America's
Most Prevalent Fear

A Thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the
Master of Arts Degree in English Literature

Candidate: Salma Layouni Supervisor: Dr. Edward Sklepowich

Academic Year:


I would like to express my special gratitude and thanks to my supervisor and mentor Dr Edward Sklepowich for his limitless encouragement and patience. I would like to thank him for his selfless dedication to my academic development. I owe my deepest gratitude to all my MA teachers who guided me throughout two years, providing me with a constant support and care.

Likewise, I would acknowledge my gratitude to my friend and teacher Mr. Mehrez Mzoughi for his endless love and support from secondary school until the present moment. Thank you for believing in me.

Finally, I would like to express my deepest gratefulness to my family. Words cannot express how grateful I am to my mother for all of the sacrifices that she has made in my behalf. Thank you for your prayers and for your support in the hard moments of my life.


This dissertation presents a new historicist study of the motif of taphephobia, or fear of premature burial, in Edgar Allan Poe's collection of gothic tales. The choice of new historicist theory, particularly Stephen Greenblatt and Louis Montrose's concepts, is a strategic choice to go beyond the critics' psychoanalytic analysis of the same motif, using mainly Sigmund Freud's theory of tripartite psyche. This paper offers a study of the different strategies used by the author to reflect the 19th century United States' rife phenomenon. The purpose of this study is to show how Poe's use of taphephobia reflects his society and era, showing an image of an obsessive United States controlled by the fear that reshapes the lifestyle of a whole nation. It also presents a reflection of the collapse of the religious dogma and faith and the rise of the belief in scientific approach. Hence, taphephobia is not studied as a psychological phenomenon but rather as a historical event. This dissertation offers a complete image of taphephobia through the literary analysis of Poe's tales. It clarifies the reasons behind the phenomenon through a parallel study of the characters' agony and the United States' public horror that leads to a number of precautions adapted by the whole society. The conclusion reached is that Poe uses literary representation of taphephobia to show how the obsession becomes the driving force behind the rise of whole industry and how the private events of death and burial become a national affair that necessitates the power of the law.

Keywords: New Historicism, intertextuality, historicity of the text and textuality of the history, anecdote, sublime, safety coffins, taphephobia.


Introduction 1

Chapter I: New historicism and Literature 5

1. New Historicism: Definition and Origins 5

2. The Influences of the Other Theories on New Historicism 6

2.1.Michel Foucault: The Godfather of New Historicism 6

2.2. Clifford Geertz: the bridge between Anthropology and New Historicism 9

2.3. The Marxist Influence 11

3. New Historicist Theorists and Concepts 13

3.1. Stephen Greenblatt: The Originator of New Historicism 13

3.2. The Theory of Intertextuality 16

3.3. Louis Montrose: the Key Pillar of New Historicism 17

4. New Historicism : Concluding Notes 19

Chapter 2: Historicity of Edgar Allan Poe's Tales 20

1. Taphephobia: : The Essence of Poe's Definition of Sublime 25
1.1. Representation of Female Characters: A Glimpse into Poe's Biography and Era


2. Edgar Allan Poe's Tales: An Encyclopedic World of Literature 33

2.1. The Choice of Taphephobia 33

2.2. The Use of Epigraphs : Another Strategy to Highlight the Universality of Poe's

Tales 40

2.3. Characters' Names : A Well Studied Choice 44

3. Edgar Allan Poe's Tales: Taphephobia as a Medical Concept 47

3.1. Edgar Allan Poe: An Artist with Scientific Mind 50

4. Edgar Allan Poe's Tales: Concluding Notes 53

Chapter 3: Taphephobia in Edgar Allan Poe's Gothic Tales : A Reflection of 19th

Century United States' Worst Nightmares 55

1. The Use of "Anecdote": A Strategic Concept to Record the Phenomenon 55

2. Taphephobia: The Nightmarish Reality 58

2.1. The Role of Newspapers: The Accusation of Medicine 59

2.2. Taphephobia and the Decortication of Religion 66

3. Adapted Precautions : A Reflection of an Obsessed Society 72

3.1. Putrefaction 73

3.2. Wills 74

3.3. The rise of Safety Coffins Industry 75

3.4. Bills 77

4. Concluding Notes 79

Conclusion 80

Works Cited 83

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