The Imp of the Perverse  

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"Examine these similar actions as we will, we shall find them resulting solely from the spirit of the Perverse. We perpetrate them because we feel that we should not. Beyond or behind this there is no intelligible principle; and we might, indeed, deem this perverseness a direct instigation of the Arch-Fiend, were it not occasionally known to operate in furtherance of good." --"The Imp of the Perverse"

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

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.


The phrase was coined by Edgar Allan Poe in his short story "The Imp of the Perverse" (1845).

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, the narrators in "The Black Cat".


The Imp of the Perverse is also exemplified in "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

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Imp of the Perverse" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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