Poe's theory of short fiction, derived primarily from A. W. Schlegel's Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, is, as Gerhard Hoffmann has pointed out, based on the concept of unity as the fundamental principle of existence. As a result, for Poe, the purpose of literature is not to mirror the external world but to create a self-contained realm of reality that corresponds to the basic human desire for total unity.
From his first reference to Schlegel's concept of "totality of interest," in 1836 Poe argued that whereas in long works one may be pleased with particular passages, in short pieces, the pleasure results from the perception of the oneness, the uniqueness, the overall unity of the piece--on the adaptation of all the constituent parts. For Poe "plot" is not merely a series of sequential events to arouse suspense, but rather overall pattern, design, or unity. Only pattern, not realistic cause-and-effect, can make the separate elements of the work meaningful. Moreover, Poe insists that only when the reader has an awareness of the "end" of the work, that is, the overall pattern, will seemingly trivial elements become relevant and therefore meaningful.
There is little doubt that Poe was always more interested in the work's pattern, structure, conventions, and techniques than its reference to the external world or its social or psychological theme. Because the meaning of the work for Poe was its technique, he thematizes narrative conventions issues in many of his stories, often making the creation and interpretation of the work's unity its central thematic "truth." Although Poe's formalism and emphasis on the work's effect on the reader once alienated him from critics, postmodernist interest in form has made his theories more acceptable. Critics who once complained that "The Philosophy of Composition" coldly manipulated the reader toward a preexistent effect now realize that for Poe the overall design was not a preestablished intention in the mind of the writer before the work's composition, but rather that the pattern of the work was discovered in the working out of tentative intentions.
Poe's theory of the tale derives from a generic mix of such conventions as the ritualized structure of drama, the metaphoric unity of lyric poetry, the verisimilitude of the eighteenth-century novel, the unifying point of view of the eighteenth-century essay, the projective technique of the gothic romance, and the spatial form of painting. Poe's notion of short fiction as a picture is particularly important, as Robert Jacobs reminds us, for to see narrative as a painting is to see it as a design in space rather than a movement in time with the emphasis on overall pattern equivalent to thematic design.
Poe's argument in the famous 1842 Hawthorne review is straightforward: Although unity is the most important characteristic of the literary work, unity can only be achieved in a work that the reader can hold in the mind all at once. After the poem, traditionally the highest of high literary art, Poe says, the short tale has the greatest potential for being unified in the way the poem is. The effect of the tale is synonymous with its overall pattern or design, which is also synonymous with its theme or idea. Form and meaning emerge from the unity of the themes of the story.
Poe carries his concern with unity of effect even further in "The Philosophy of Composition," asserting the importance of beginning with the end of the work, the possibility of which is what transforms reality into narrative discourse. A narrative, by its very nature, cannot be told until the events which it takes as its subject matter have already occurred. Therefore the "end" of the events, both in terms of their actual termination and in terms of the purpose to which the narrator binds them, is the beginning of the discourse. The only narrative the reader gets is that which is already discourse, already ended as an event, so that there is nothing left for it but to move toward its end in an aesthetic, eventless way, by means of tone, metaphor, and all the other artificial conventions of fictional discourse. Consequently, it is inevitable that events in narrative will be motivated or determined by demands of the discourse, demands that do not necessarily have anything to do with psychological or phenomenological motivation of the narrated events in the real world.