Never Bet the Devil Your Head is an 1841 short story written by Edgar Allan Poe. It tells the story of Toby Dammit, a man who has a habit of ending his sentences of conversations by making bets with the devil that involve offering his head. One day, when Toby and the narrator are crossing a covered bridge, he makes a bet that he can jump over it. Suddenly, the devil appears, agrees to the bet and wins Tobys head. The satirical story spoofs transcendentalism and makes fun of the cliche that every fiction narrative should have a moral. This essay is a biographical criticism of Never Bet the Devil Your Head.
Biographical criticism is a form of literary criticism whereby an authors biography is analyzed to highlight how the story of their life relates to their works of literature. According to Moreland & Rodriguez (206), it seems that there is a connection between every short story written by Edgar Allan Poe and his life. From the information provided in Never Bet the Devil Your Head, the reader can conclude that, just like Dammit, Poe was beaten up when he was a child. Also, in the course of the story, Toby and the narrator go through a number of conflicts, a notable one being person vs. self. The storys narrator informs the reader how he is always distressed by the way Toby is careless and the irresponsible manner in which he places bets. Toby and his family are presented as having suffered from poverty. When looking at Poes biography, it can be seen that his family too also suffered from extreme poverty, something that shows a relationship between his life and his fictional stories.
A critics review of the story portrays different aspects that the characterization does not meet the intended impact on the audience. As a result, the reader feels cheated in some of the storys timeline and themes as highlighted by the characters. An example is the satire against reasonable and convincing transcendentalism that is portrayed by the narrator. Initially, the Poe presents himself as a pompous moralizer that provided the audience with the perfect morals from the story. However, there is a tendency of Dammit ending his sentences with a bet; hence, providing the audience with a moral to learn from each sentence. Critics perception on the bets' on each sentence provides a different understanding of the character by showing an immoral and vulgar habit. As a matter of fact, the immoral behavior was discountenanced by the social values and forbidden in various communities. Consequently, the betting was not readily accepted by the society where the storys audience was targeted (Dern, 165).
Concerning the scene on the covered bridge, the plot falls onto different criticisms. Firstly, the scene is described as gloomy and dark but Dammit still has his good mood on making bets. Secondly, as he crosses the bridge with his friend, he decides to take a leap on the bridge and bets the devil his head if he fails to make the jump. According to Halliburton (131), the presence of an old man that provides a head start for Dammit does not make sense to the readers because he would not get into such a dumb idea. Moreover, he would not keep up with Dammits pace while running to make the leap. In this case, the narrator also wonders how an old man would entice Dammit into making the attempt.
After Tobby makes a bet with the devil for his head, a mysterious man appears from nowhere challenging him. This leads to Toby getting his head cut off, with the man taking it with him. This situation creates a conflict between him and the unknown man. The mysterious man then refuses to incur the costs for Tobys funeral, something that causes the narrator to have his body dug up and sold for meat to fund the burial. When Never Bet the Devil Your Head is starting, Poe lets known of his anger and dissatisfaction with literary critics for the inaccurate and dismissive manner in which they judge his work. This situation spurs him to write the story, in the process suggesting that the critics are dogs that need to be feed with canines meat. This meat could be symbolic of the fact that the author is providing them with a moral; which is what they actually want.
The short story utilizes first person omniscient narrative. Its narrator describes it from a wide range of views, considering that readers get to find out about Toby Dammits life too. The reader gets to learn that Dammit was from a man from a poverty-stricken family who enjoyed gambling. However, since he did not have any money, he instead resorted to betting on objects such as his head. Never Bet on Your Head would have taken a different dimension if it had been narrated from the point of view of another character. It is due to the narrator that readers get to learn about Tobys past and present life as well as his seemingly destructive behavior. They also get to find out what happens after Toby dies; something that would not have been known if the story was narrated using another point of view. Toby is presented as an arrogant individual who thinks too highly himself and sets limits that are way out of reach. His inflated ego caused him to misjudge a betting situation; something that results in his death. Perhaps what the reader learns from him is that a person should never bet on something he or she cannot afford to lose. Also, one should be careful what he or she wishes for as they might just end up losing much more than they bargained for. Something that the reader will notice is that the narrator neither has a name nor is he given a physical description. This situation presents him with a go-like figure in the course of the story.
Apart from the evident rubbishing of the moral tale and the sarcastic humor, Never Bet the Devil Your Head also takes a satirical sweep at transcendentalism. For instance, when Toby approaches the bridge, the narrator notices that he is in an uncharacteristic happy mood. There is a likelihood that he is suffering from the transcendentals, which is considered a disease. Also, when Toby loses his head, it is noted that he was not given a break from his terrible loss for long. Following his death, the narrator sends his funeral bill to be settled by the transcendentalists, only for them to decline. This situation causes Tobys body to be sold as dogs, a fate that probably fits someone who is suffering from the disease of the transcendentals. Edgar Allan Poe was probably referring to the transcendental notion of direct communication with God. If Toby can communicate with God, then it is also possible for him to talk to the devil. However, the results turn out to be both funny and disastrous. As a moral tale, Poes short story makes fun of transcendentalists, their literature, and popular writing in general (Hammond, 93).
The way Edgar Allan Poe uses words and tone creates a lot of suspense in a way that leaves readers with their mouths agape. A good example is found in Never Bet the Devil Your Head, Toby Dammit, who happens to be the main character, regularly makes some crazy bets. Each time he does that, the reader holds his or her breath expecting something bad to happen although it does not come to pass. When Tobys head is eventually cut off, it does not come as a surprise to the reader. All in all, Poe does not disappoint as he comes up with a clever plot twist. When the narrator finds out that he will not be refunded for incurring the expenses of Tobys funeral, he has him dug out and his corpse sold as meat for dogs. This is a rather excellent ending to the story by the author. Its moral that he was implying seemed obvious: a person should never place a bet that he or she does not intend to honor. At first, readers may be displeased that the moral of the story was too obvious. All in all, it is revealed that Toby eventually paid the bet, albeit posthumously, when his body was sold as dog meat.
One thing that Poe is known for is his numerous literary criticisms. Unlike the other writers of his time, he did not stick to a certain literary norm. He was something of a rebel who overstepped the boundaries of literature by giving Never Bet the Devil Your Head an obvious moral. He presented it as the title, which was the first line that the reader gets to see.
Dern, John A. "A Sense of Stile: Rhetoric in Edgar Allan Poe's Never Bet the Devil Your Head." The Edgar Allan Poe Review 14.2 (2013): 163-177.
Halliburton, David. Edgar Allen Poe: A Phenomenological View. Princeton University Press, 2015. Print.
Hammond, John R. An Edgar Allan Poe companion: a guide to the short stories, romances and essays. Springer, 2016. Print.
Moreland, Clark T., and Karime Rodriguez. "Never Bet the Devil Your Head: Fuseli's The Nightmare and Collapsing Masculinity in Poe's The Black Cat." The Edgar Allan Poe Review 16.2 (2015): 204-220.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Never Bet the Devil Your Head. Booklassic, 2015. Print.
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