I was in the mood for a short story so I took my Complete Tales and Poems tome from the shelf and scanned the table of contents. “The Sphinx” immediately caught my attention since I had never read it before and it was very short in length.
This is a very interesting story that deals with how perspective affects the way we interpret symbols and omens. It also touches on how what we read influences our perception of the world around us. This is heady stuff and it is a testament to Poe’s genius that he can address these topics in the span of a three-and-a-half-page story.
The story begins with the protagonist explaining that he been staying with a relative in upstate New York while the city was in the throes of a cholera epidemic. As news is regularly reported about the deaths of friends, he begins to succumb to the effects of the books he is reading.
His endeavors to arouse me from the condition of abnormal gloom into which I had fallen, were frustrated, in great measure, by certain volume which I had found in his library. These were of a character to force into germination whatever seeds of hereditary superstition lay latent in my bosom. I had been reading these books without his knowledge, and thus he was often at a loss to account for the forcible impressions which had been made upon my fancy.
While sitting and gazing out the window, the person sees a gigantic creature moving down the side of a mountain. The monster has scaly metallic wings, a Death’s Head upon its chest, and long mandibles. He directs his relative’s attention to the mountainside, but the relative does not see anything. This causes the protagonist to wonder whether this is an omen of his impending death or a sign that he is slipping into the realm of insanity.
I was now immeasurably alarmed, for I considered the vision either as an omen of my death, or, worse, as the forerunner to an attack of mania.
When he describes the creature in detail to his host, the host realizes what it was that the protagonist saw. He takes a book from the shelf and switches seats with the protagonist, then opens the book to the section that describes the monster.
“But for your exceeding minuteness,” he said, “in describing the monster, I might never have had it in my power to demonstrate to you what it was. In the first place, let me read you a school-boy account of the genus Sphinx, of the family Crepuscularia, of the order Lepidoptera, of the class of Insecta—or insects.”
It is then revealed that the person had viewed an insect climbing on a strand of spider web directly in front of his eye. For me, this is the key to the story. It is one’s perspective, as well as proximity, that influences how one views symbols and omens around us. When we interact with symbols, it is our perspectives, our understanding, and our closeness to the thing in view that allows us to interpret it in our own unique manner. A thing that for one person is nothing more than an insect, a mere genus, becomes for another person a symbol representative of something far greater. Perspective is everything when it comes to interpreting the world around us.
The more I think about this story, the more fascinating I find it. I’m certain that I will read it again. I encourage you to give it a read also. I feel it is just as good as any other of Poe’s more well-known works. Enjoy, and happy reading!