A Predicament

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"A Predicament"
Author Edgar Allan Poe
Original title "The Scythe of Time"
Language English
Genre(s) Humor/Satire
Media type short story

"A Predicament" is a humorous short story by Edgar Allan Poe, usually combined with its companion piece "How to Write a Blackwood Article." It was originally titled "The Scythe of Time".

Plot summary[edit]

The bizarre story follows a female narrator, Signora Psyche Zenobia. This is unusual for Poe, whose only other female voice is in the poem "Bridal Ballad". While walking through the city with her 5-inch-tall (130 mm) poodle Diana and 3-foot-tall (0.91 m) black servant Pompey, she is drawn to a large Gothic cathedral. As she makes her way into the steeple, she ponders life and the metaphor of surmounting stairs:

"...one step remained. One step! One little, little step! Upon one such little step in the great staircase of human life how vast a sum of human happiness or misery depends! I thought of myself, then of Pompey, and then of the mysterious and inexplicable destiny which surrounded us... I thought of my many false steps which have been taken and may be taken again."

At the steeple, Zenobia sees a small opening that she wishes to look through. Standing on Pompey's shoulders, she pushes her head through the opening and realizes she is in the face of a giant clock. As she gazes out at the city beyond, she soon finds that the sharp minute hand has begun to dig into her neck. Slowly, the minute hand decapitates her, which it will do for the remainder of the story. At one point, pressure against her neck causes her eye to fall and roll down into the gutter and then into the streets below. She is annoyed not so much that she has lost her eye but at "the insolent air of independence and contempt" it had while looking back at her. Her other eye follows soon thereafter.

"At twenty-five minutes past five in the afternoon, precisely," the clock has fully severed her head from her body. She does not express despair and is, in fact, glad to be rid of the "head which had occasioned... so much embarrassment." For a moment, Zenobia wonders which is the real Zenobia: her headless body or her severed head. Comically, the head then gives a heroic speech (unwritten in the story), which Zenobia's body cannot hear because it has no ears. Her narration continues, however, without her head, as she is now able to step down from her predicament.

Pompey, in fear, runs off, and Zenobia sees that her poodle has been eaten by a rat. "What now remains for the unhappy Signora Psyche Zenobia?" she asks in the last lines. "Alas - nothing! I have done."

How to Write a Blackwood Article[edit]

Blackwood's Magazine

The companion piece, "How to Write a Blackwood Article," is a satirical "how-to" essay on formulaic horror stories typically printed in the Scottish Blackwood's Magazine and others. The term "article", in Poe's time, also commonly referred to short stories rather than just non-fiction. In this mock essay, Poe stresses the need for elevating sensations in writing. The sensations should build up, it says, until the final moment, usually inevitable death. That final action, however, is unimportant compared to the build-up (case in point, Psyche Zenobia does not seem to die at the end of "A Predicament").

Zenobia herself is the narrator and main character of this essay in the city of Edina. She is told by her editor to kill herself and record the sensations. Poe may have intended this as a jab at women writers.[1]

It is unclear how much of this essay is meant to be sarcastic. The humor, however, is based on schadenfreude, pleasure garnered from another person's misfortune.[2]

Publication history[edit]

Originally paired together as "The Psyche Zenobia" and "The Scythe of Time," Poe first published these pieces in the American Museum based in Baltimore, Maryland in November 1838.[3] The names of the works as we currently know them were attached when they were published in Poe's collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in 1840.


"A Predicament" was adapted in 2000 for National Public Radio by the Radio Tales series, under the name "Edgar Allan Poe's Predicament".


  • Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. Checkmark Books, 2001.
  1. ^ Trieber, J. Marshall. "The Scornful Grin: A Study of Poesque Humor", from Poe Studies, vol. IV, no. 2, December 1971, p. 32.
  2. ^ Trieber, J. Marshall. "The Scornful Grin: A Study of Poesque Humor", from Poe Studies, vol. IV, no. 2, December 1971, p. 34.
  3. ^ Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001. p. 200