The Caul by Russell Banks – short story review

“The Caul” follows Edgar Allan Poe (yes, THE Edgar Allan Poe) for a few short while as he takes part in a reading and visits the grave of his mother. The reading is of “The Raven.” In the story, Banks makes note that Poe is sober, not overly thrilled with the trappings of his celebrity, and somewhat fixated on his mother. At the beginning of the story, is set up that he blames himself for it, or was blamed by others for his mother’s death and simply held onto it and allowed it to fester and grow within. I don’t think it would be a huge leap to say that Banks might be hinting that part of Poe’s obsession with the macabre, guilty consciences and young, dead women stem from the death of his young mother.

But the story isn’t really about that. First, I think it’s important to note what a “caul” is. The primary definition is:

1. a part of the amnion sometimes covering the head of a child at birth.
and Banks uses “caul” at one point in the story in such a manner, as Poe is visiting the grave of his mother and remarks on how the world around him disappears, as if his head is encased in a caul. This, of course, could be expanded to how Poe is largely blind to the outside world as a whole, being so fully consumed by thoughts and guilts over his dead mother. Which is really the focus, not his mother, but Edgar’s remaining fascination and focus of her. While his mother is a constant presence in the story, Edgar can’t remember what she looks like. His mother as a person, as who she was, no longer exists. Instead, his mother exists as a knot of anxieties.
The other important and repeating subject of the story is “The Raven.” The title of the story is a short stone’s throw from “caw,” or the sound a raven makes. “The Raven” is a tale of fixation (or undying love, or some middle ground, depending on how you want to view it) with a young man lamenting for his lost Lenore when a raven shows up, perches itself in his room, and the narrator will never again see his lost Lenore.  Reading Banks’ story, I think the jump from the poem being about a lost love to a lost mother is a small one, and it may even hint at some of the unhealthier aspects of Poe’s fascination.

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