“The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” by Edgar Allan Poe

HansPfaall

This is a cool short story by Poe that I would place in the science fiction genre. It’s the story of a man who decides to travel to the moon by means of hot air balloon. The bulk of the story is written as an epistle, a letter from Pfaall that was delivered to the city leaders in Rotterdam. But the genius of this story is that Poe also incorporates a satirical critique of the intellectual bourgeoisie as well as some great symbolism regarding the subconscious mind.

The first and most obvious clue that Poe is poking fun at the bourgeoisie is the names of the characters; for example, burgomaster Mynheer Superbus Von Underduk and Professor Rubadub. And then, at the beginning of his letter, Pfaall compares his trade of mending bellows (which are used to blow hot air in a forge) with the “hot air” emitted by the self-important politicians and business-persons of that time.

It is well known to most of my fellow-citizens, that for a period of forty years I continued to occupy the little square brick building, at the head of an alley called Sauerkraut, in which I resided until my disappearance. My ancestors have also resided therein time out of mind—they, as well as myself, steadily following the lucrative profession of mending of bellows;

There are many passages where Poe incorporates writing that comes across as very scientific. I cannot attest to the accuracy of the information, but it is presented in a very methodical and technical manner which aids the reader in suspending belief.

The gas to be formed from these latter materials is a gas never yet generated by any other person than myself—or at least never applied to this purpose. I can only venture to say here, that it is a constituent of azote, so long considered irreducible, and that its density is about 37.4 times less than that of hydrogen. It is tasteless, but not odorless; burns, when pure, with a greenish flame; and is instantaneously fatal to animal life.

For me, the most interesting aspect of this story is the symbolism depicting a shift in consciousness. The moon is a symbol of dreams, the imagination, lunacy, and so forth. So after Pfaall initially takes off, he experiences an abrupt shift in his consciousness.

I gasped convulsively for breath—a shudder resembling a fit of the ague agitated every nerve and muscle in my frame—I felt my eyes starting from their sockets—a horrible nausea overwhelmed me—and at length I lost all consciousness in a swoon.

As he continues his ascent, he passes through a cloud, which represents his entering into the realm of the subconscious, where lightning symbolizes flashes of imagination and insight while he gazes deep into the hidden and mystical regions of the psyche.

At twenty minutes before seven, the balloon entered a long series of dense cloud, which put me to great trouble, by damaging my condensing apparatus, and wetting me to the skin. This was, to be sure, a singular rencontre, for I had not believed it possible that a cloud of this nature could be sustained at so great an elevation. I thought it best, however, to throw out two five-pound pieces of ballast, reserving still a weight of one hundred and sixty-five pounds. Upon so doing, I soon rose above the difficulty, and perceived immediately, that I had obtained a great increase in my rate of ascent. In a few seconds after my leaving the cloud, a flash of vivid lightning shot from one end of it to the other, and caused it to kindle up, throughout its vast extent, like a mass of ignited charcoal. This, it must be remembered, was in the broad light of day. No fancy may picture the sublimity which might have been exhibited by a similar phenomenon taking place amid the darkness of the night. Hell itself might then have found a fitting image. Even as it was, my hair stood on end, while I gazed afar down within the yawning abysses, letting imagination descend, and stalk about in the strange vaulted halls, and ruddy gulfs, and red ghastly chasms of the hideous and unfathomable fire.

While this may not be Poe’s best work, and at times it plods along rather slowly, it is certainly worth reading. There are some interesting passages and moments of brilliance which makes it worthwhile.

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