Never Bet The Devil Your Head, a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe, in the first-person narrative, focuses profoundly on manifesting the challenge of writing a short story with a moral. The short story explores the themes of death, human vices, and the possibility of the existence of the devil, a theme that attacks the concept of transcendentalism. Correspondingly, the embodiment of these themes comes to bestow the story of Never Bet The Devil Your Head, with a satirical tale of a moral.
Never Bet The Devil Your Head — Summary
Never Bet The Devil Your Head begins with the narrator, in all probability the author himself, challenging the argument of the critics, specifically, the transcendentalists’ critics, that they are wrong in pointing out that the author has never published a story that contains a moral in it. In response to this argument, the narrator says that these critics are perpetually obsessed with unraveling hidden meanings in novels. Henceforth, the narrator wants to create a history wherein he will narrate a story that will definitely echo and highlight the moral of the story. Ironically, the title of the story becomes the precise moral of the story. Simply, the moral is literally, “Never Bet the Devil Your Head”.
Such a moral is manifested in the tale of the death of his “sad dog”, his friend, Toby. as readers, we don’t know for sure whether Toby is literally a dog or a human being. Nevertheless, the narration moves on to inform us that Toby is a character who is abundant with human vices. In fact, he is completely described and associated with these vices by the narrator. The narrator tells us that, Toby is not responsible for his vices but his mother is. Apparently, she is a left-handed mother whose hands were better to be “left unflogged” than beating her son to unlearn the vices. Hence, Toby has become like this. One of the vices that the narrator calls “ungentlemanly” is Toby’s gambling.
As the narrator tells us, Toby uses phrases as a form of wager to gamble. Since his mother also bestowed him with poverty as a vice, Toby was not able to gamble with money but used different phrases to ground his assertions in gambling. One such phrase that excites and sticks to Toby becomes, “I’ll bet the Devil my head”. For the narrator, a phrase like this is an immoral one. Therefore, he attempts to cleanse and discipline Toby several times. But like the idealist and free of spirit kind of a character Toby is, he never bends into the narrator’s moralistic values.
As the day passes, at one moment, Toby challenges the narrator, once again that he will bet his head to the devil if he can’t jump over the stile. At this particular moment, the narrator informs us of a mysterious black figure present with them. We don’t know yet for sure the whereabouts of this figure but only know that he is an old man. This man comes and challenges Toby to leap over the stile and the idealist who never stays on the ground, Toby attempts to jump over it and win the challenge.
Right after this, the narrator shows us that his friend has failed to succeed in his challenge and has been seriously injured. Moreover, we see that Toby is headless and the readers come to know that his head has been literally seized by the devil that appeared as the old man. The short story ends with the narrator and Toby’s friend burying or rather unearthing his body to sell it for dog meat, as the transcendentalists refuse to pay for the funeral.
Never Bet The Devil Your Head — Analysis
Poe in this short story brilliantly and cunningly attempts to take up the challenge of the so-called transcendentalists, who critique the author for never being able to succeed in writing a short story that embodies a moral tale. The voice of the narrator, presumably the author himself, satirically mocks the journals called “Dial” and Down-Easter”, which represents the transcendentalists, for their obsession over unraveling the hidden meanings in novels, specifically, the moral of the fiction. Hence, in response to this, Poe offers them a “sad history”, “a history about whose obvious moral there can be no question whatever, since he who runs may read it in the large capitals which form the title of the tale”. In other words, the moral of the short story, literally echoes the title of the same, Never Bet The Devil Your Head.
But the narrator puts forward the notion, “Mysteries force a man to think, and so injure his health”, as well. Such an idea clearly opposes any element of literariness. The above-proposed notion has been used here by the narrator to suggest the mystery around Mr. Dammit. However, the narrator is quick to define this mystery as “queer”. On one hand, the preoccupation of the philosophical school of transcendentalism to demonstrate and discern the moral ideas from the fiction, and on the other hand, a different perspective from the narrator to construct a literal language to oppose any metaphorical language that may provide any hidden meanings, are placed in contrast to each other. The existence of a figure of the devil, the old man in the short story, clearly manifests opposition to this school of thought that disbelieves in devils. Throughout the short story, with the focus on the life of Toby, such an engagement with contradictory notions is manifested in the form of satire.
Toby Dammit might be symbolic of the ideas of transcendentalism and whose character is portrayed based on his vices (a straightforward dig on transcendentalism), even though the narrator promises that his style of “design” is not “to vituperate my deceased friend”. He had become worse during the years and had grown to practice a habit of backing his idealist assertions by gambling. The unnamed narrator calls this an “ungentlemanly practice”. Toby used different forms of wagers but all of them were “expletive expressions” or “imaginative phrases”. One such phrase that pleases and sticks to Toby the most is, “I’ll bet the Devil my head”. As an “excessively parsimonious” idealist, Toby is convinced that this form of wager contains the least risk and in stressing such an argument of his friend, the narrator mockingly points out, “Had anyone taken him up, his head was small, and thus his loss would have been small too”. By this time, the opinions of the narrator on his friend come to be no more than insults as the readers move through the narration. At one particular moment, the unnamed narrator tricks his readers into assuming what seems like a virtuous quality of Toby to be nothing but another vice of the man.
In disciplining and obsessively fixating moralistic notions on Toby, the mocking tone of the narrator becomes more and more apparent. The narrator might be symbolic of embodying the ideas of morality, but as we move along the narration, his pretentious self-righteousness comes up to the surface making him an unreliable narrator. Such a trait of the narrator, who possibly reverts from the embodiment of socialistic or moralistic portrayal to the absence of them is highlighted and emphasized at the end of the short story, wherein he unearths Toby to sell him for “dog’s meat”.
Within such a perspective of the short story, an argument can be brought forth. That is the evidence of a manifestation and a challenge, at the same time, of a triad that consists of three conceptual ideas analyzed above: transcendentalist, literary and moralistic. A triad, similar to the one present in Jacques Lacan’s critical interpretation of Poe’s short story called The Purloined Letter. The short story, Never Bet The Devil Your Head, continuously subsumes into all these three concepts but at the same time, perpetually contradicts all three of them.
Never Bet The Devil Your Head — Themes
One of the themes widely brought forth in by Poe in his short story can be discerned to be the theme of death. The context of the short story focuses in the form of a first-person narrative, on the death of Toby Dammit. A repeated habit of using the phrase, “I’ll bet the Devil my head”, pushes Toby to the depths of death. The narration moves forward in a manner of expressing a fable with a moral but only this time, the moral of the story becomes a literal one. At first sight, the story does not contain any double meanings or any allegory, as opposed to the conventional fables. The phrase repeatedly uttered by Toby comes to be true in the face of the devil, who appears as an old man in this short story. An idealist, who does not believe in devils, is finally confronted by them and as a result the devil literally seizes the head of Toby leading him to death. Herein, the short story becomes more like a tale with a literal moral that warns the readers about death.
The theme of human vices is placed next to the theme of death. As the readers witnessed in the short story, Toby symbolizes the embodiments of human vices. Naturally, he leads an awful life that eventually pushes him to the brink of death. It is interesting to notice that, the author does not let Toby die quickly even after he loses his head. Such a satirical tragedy may evoke the human vices, represented by Toby, which kept growing rather than diminishing.
The most significant theme in this short story could be anti-transcendentalism. From the beginning to the end, the author critiques and challenges their conceptions. As we know, Toby who embodies immoral qualities represents the notions of transcendentalism. Such a characteristic is grounded in the fact that Toby’s phrases are “imaginative” and an idealist who continuously soars off the ground. At all times, constantly blurting out the phrase, “I’ll bet the Devil my head”, he does not believe that to be true but just an ideal way of expression.
Never Bet The Devil Your Head — Literary Devices
Never Bet The Devil Your Head can be considered an open-ended short story. Even though the challenge of this story is precisely clear in the title, Poe uses complex language to guide the readers through an interesting fable with plenty of literary devices. One of the open-ended arguments is the character of Toby. The readers till the end of the story are unsure whether Toby is a dog or a human being. Several words are used to refer to his character. For instance, he is introduced as “a sad dog” and his death as a “dog’s death”. At the end of the story as well, we witness Toby being unburied from the ground by his friend/narrator to sell him for “dog’s meat”.
The short story is abundant with satires. Poe, after all, is an author who is famous for his use of satires. The employment of satires knits the short story with humor and comedy that keeps the readers on the level of excitement and mystery. Moreover, significantly, the title of the short story echoes the subtitle of the story, “A Tale with A Moral”, satirically mocking the techniques of some of the critics who unravel the moral of the story, critics who “reserve the impression to be conveyed until the last moment”. In addition to this, the narrator’s incessant use of satire as a way of mocking helps the readers to show the true nature of the narrator, whose self-righteousness becomes just a facade.
The character of Toby is symbolic of the ideas of transcendentalism. Along these characteristic lines, Poe skillfully combines metaphorical language as well as literal language. Metaphorical language is highly elevated by the narrator’s use of puns and other literary devices that makes up his short story fiction.
Never Bet The Devil Your Head — Character Sketch
Narrator: In employing an unreliable narrator in his short story, Poe brilliantly succeeds in adding a mystery to the narration. The readers are made to go back and forth through a complicated and puzzling round of narration as a result of the unreliable narrator. Even though, the narrator embodies moralistic values, at the end of the story the readers are convinced that is not the truth.
Mr. Toby Dammit: as we have witnessed, Toby embodies the traits of human vices and is juxtaposed with the school of thought of transcendentalism. From challenging their ideas to eliminating them, Poe as an author wins at critiquing their notions within the character of Toby.