The Imp of the Perverse
The Imp of the Perverse is a metaphor for the urge to do exactly the wrong thing in a given situation for the sole reason that it is possible for wrong to be done. The impulse is compared to an imp (a small demon) which leads an otherwise decent person into mischief, and occasionally to their death.
Poe’s short stories
We have a task before us which must be speedily performed. We know that it will be ruinous to make delay. The most important crisis of our life calls, trumpet-tongued, for immediate energy and action. ... It must, it shall be undertaken to-day, and yet we put it off until to-morrow, and why? There is no answer, except that we feel perverse, using the word with no comprehension of the principle. ... [Then] The clock strikes, and is the knell of our welfare. At the same time, it is the chanticleer-note to the ghost that has so long overawed us. It flies—disappears—we are free. The old energy returns. We will labor now. Alas, it is too late!
Poe explores this impulse through several of his fictional characters, such as the narrators in "The Black Cat" and in "The Tell-Tale Heart", and includes hints of it in multiple other tales of his.
- The Imp of the Perverse is also exemplified in "Le Mauvais Vitrier" ("The Bad Glazier"), a prose poem by Charles Baudelaire.
- The concept also figures prominently in the motives of Jack Shaftoe, a swashbuckling protagonist in Neal Stephenson's trilogy The Baroque Cycle:
But here was a rare opportunity for stupidity even more flagrant and glorious.
Now, Bob, who'd been observing Jack carefully for many years, had observed that when these moments arrived, Jack was almost invariably possessed by something that Bob had heard about in Church called the Imp of the Perverse. Bob was convinced that the Imp of the Perverse rode invisibly on Jack's shoulder whispering bad ideas into his ear, and that the only counterbalance was Bob himself, standing alongsides counseling good sense, prudence, caution, and other Puritan virtues.
But Bob was in England.— from Quicksilver
- Eric Berne saw what he called the "demon" in the self as the (vocalisation of) a primitive id impulse, citing the instance of a stockbroker who at the key moment "heard a demonic whisper telling him: 'Don't sell, buy'. He abandoned his carefully planned campaign, and lost his entire capital - 'Ha, ha,' he said".
- Poe, Edgar Allan (1845). "The Imp Of The Perverse - Edgar Allan Poe". kingkong.demon.co.uk. Retrieved 3 September 2012.
- Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. New York: Cooper Square Press, 1992: 58. ISBN 0-8154-1038-7
- Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001: 113. ISBN 0-8160-4161-X
- Eric Berne, What Do You Say After You Say Hello? (1974) p. 135 and p. 274
- "The Imp of the Perverse" by Edgar Allan Poe