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Poe's short fiction tends toward extremes—toward the grotesque and arabesque. This crowd-pleasing (or crowd-horrifying) content plays within carefully designed formal structures that complicate the act of reading and draw attention to "the reader," a figure of some interest to Poe's critical essays. I argue that the play between content and form in Poe, coupled with his ideas of readership, exposes a series of traps within many of his tales. Poe's stories draw the reader into an active role responsive to moral problems before shifting ground and rendering a moral response difficult, impossible, or paradoxical. Through the confessional mode in particular, Poe guides readers into positions that extend the work of the tale beyond the fictional realm, transmuting his stories into practical jokes or complex moral problems.
The visibility of these jokes and problems, however, and their deliberate layering into so many of Poe's works, suggest an author working to prepare his audience for a specific flavor of hoax. By blurring the boundaries of the short story, and perhaps even finding ways to undermine its shortness, Poe opens a relationship between himself, his "reader," and whatever human being happens to actually be holding a copy of his tales. Poe's famous "unity of effect" unfolds through the creation of a predictable, synthetic commonality between author, reader, and audience.