Edgar Allen Poe published Metzengerstein, his first short story, in 1832. It was a Gothic tale of the supernatural which both used and satirized traditional German Gothic horror elements. It’s a story of prophecy, overcoming death, and pride. Two houses in Hungary have been pitted against each other – the Metzengersteins and the Berlifitzings. A prophecy puts the new young Baron of the Metzengerstein’s on edge. It states that the mortal Metzengersteins will defeat the immortal Berlifitzings, posing an interesting question that is explored through the text – does triumph in life trump triumph in death? Or, is immortality, no matter the means, what leads to the true victor?
While the Berlifitzing’s estate is set on fire, killing their ruler, Metzengerstein cannot forget the fact that, though he is the victor, his life will pass while Berlifitzing will live on. Whether this prophecy means immortality through remembrance, rebirth, or even, as the story mentions at the beginning, metempsychosis (or if it even has merit at all), it does not matter to the Baron Metzengerstein. His own mortality looms over him day-to-day. When Berlifitzing seems to be reincarnated as a horse, appearing mysteriously in the Metzengerstein stables, the Baron becomes obsessed. He rides out on it nearly every day, failing to interact or communicate with his servants, friends, or family, and seemingly goes insane. This insanity leads to his death – the Metzengerstein estate is set on fire and as the Baron returns riding his horse, he rides directly into the flames. It is possible that the horse, a supposedly reincarnated Berlifitzing, took revenge upon the Baron, but it is also possible that the Baron’s insanity led him to the act himself.
This concept of mortality salience leading to insanity, and the idea of the superiority of any form of immortality over life itself, is an interesting one to explore. Yet, I don’t find that it was explored in a wholly worthwhile way. His language in this story is picturesque but dull and unexciting; his use of symbols is either too on-the-nose or, if being used as a satire of the style, not applicable or satirical in this time period. And the exploration of the theme itself was done at a very surface level, having been done far better before and since. Metzengerstein works more as an interesting insight into Edgar Allen Poe’s early works, but unless you are reading it for that historical value, I don’t see much merit in checking it out.
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