- Published: November 23, 2021
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Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston. While he made many contributions to American letters, his most noteworthy is his stories of horror and mystery, some of which laid the groundwork for the detective short story. In addition, his poem “ The Raven” is one of the most commonly recognized in all of American literature. Poe never really knew his parents, both of whom were actors. His father, David, left home shortly after Edgar’s birth, and his mother, Elizabeth, died of tuberculosis when Edgar was three. He had two siblings, but they were sent to live in three different places. Poe ended up with John and Frances Allan. Poe’s relationship with Allan colored much of his early adulthood; Allan sent him to the University of Virginia, but he did not provide him with enough money to pay for his costs. Turning to gambling to scrape together funds, Poe ended up in debts. He then went to West Point, but only was there for a year, kicked out for mishandling responsibilities (“ Edgar Allan Poe”).
Then, Poe turned to writing as a full time career. He moved from New York City to Richmond, Philadelphia and Baltimore; in 1836, he married his cousin Virginia, who was either 13 or 14 (depending on the source) at the time – half his age. He then landed a job at the Southern Literary Messenger, serving as a critic. However, his caustic reviews and relationship with alcohol led to his fairly early exit there. Later, he published Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, which contained some of his most famed short stories, as well as his first detective story, “ The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” It was the publication of “ The Raven,” in 1845, that really put him on the map as a literary figure. When Virginia died, though, in 1847, his affairs took a turn for the worse. He could not manage his money well, and alcoholism took over him. He was found in a Baltimore gutter on October 3, 1849, and was hurried to Washington College Hospital. On October 7, he died. The cause has long been the subject of guesswork, ranging from epilepsy to alcoholism to even rabies and carbon monoxide poisoning (“ Edgar Allan Poe”).
“ The Tell-Tale Heart” first came out in 1843, in the very first issue of The Pioneer; it only brought Poe $10 (Silverman). It is the famous tale of a narrator who, all the while bent on convincing the reader of his own mental stability, also describes a homicide that he recently committed. The person that the narrator killed was an elderly man whose prime offense against the narrator was that he had a blind eye (or perhaps even just a cataract) that reminded the narrator of a vulture’s eye. The narrator worked in the elderly man’s house as some sort of servant, which gives the narrator plenty of opportunity to commit the crime – as well as to plan it out in detail. Night after night, the narrator comes to the door of the elderly man’s room; not until he sees the eye open, though, does he rush in and kill him, then swiftly chopping the body up and hiding it beneath the floor. The old man does scream in the process, which woke up a neighbor. The police show up, but by then the body has already been hidden. He tells them that the scream was his own, in a bad dream, and that the elderly man is out of town. The narrator is so confident in his successful plan that he invites the police in and sets chairs down on the floor, in the elderly man’s room, right over the spot where he hid the body. However, a ringing starts to build in the narrator’s ears that takes the form of the beating of the elderly man’s heart. He assumes that the policemen can also hear the sound and that they are simply toying with him, as they must surely know of his guilt already, from the sound. Eventually, though, the narrator can stand it no longer. The sound in his own mind forces him to jump up and confess, telling the officers where they will find the elderly man’s body.
This story may be the classic example of a tale told by an “ unreliable narrator” – one who tells a story in first or third person but whose perspective on the events is such that their telling cannot be taken as factual, or even reasonable (Wiehardt). What is reliable, when it comes to the narrator, is that he (or she) is extremely paranoid and devoted to his own ego. After all, the way in which the narrator interacts with the reader indicates his own fears about his reception, and the fact that an odd-looking eye would be a justifiable cause for murder shows a sociopathic relationship with the rest of society.
The story sets off in medias res, which is a Latin term that means “ in the middle of things.” In other words, there is not an exposition that sets the scene of the story; instead, the reader is plunged right into the plot with the narrator, who begins by insisting on his own sanity. This story takes the form of a conversation between the narrator and another person, perhaps a judge, or a police officer or even a reporter) (Benfey). Because of the confessional tone of the story, the narrator goes into considerable detail to explain not only what happened to the elderly man, but to give his own perspective on the motivations for the events. The story begins with the word “ True!” from the narrator (Poe), indicating that the narrator believes himself to be guilty. This unusual beginning to the tale also serves as an effective hook, yanking the reader into the action. There is no wasted language in this story; each word pulls the reader forward through the story. This squares with Poe’s own theories on the purpose of language in the short story (Quinn).
Intriguingly, the device that drives the plot is the narrator’s refusal to do anything that would help exonerate himself in the situation. Rather than try to claim some sort of insanity defense, the narrator insists that he is sane; in the process, he fully admits his own guilt for the situation. He says, “ Object there was none. Passion there was none” (Poe). The old man did not do anything to offend the narrator in any way. However, the notion of murder haunts the narrator “ day and night” (Poe). The “ over acuteness of the senses” (Poe) that the narrator reports, though, is evidence that the narrator is indeed insane. This is a topic that fascinates readers and viewers alike today, as the popularity of such shows as the Law & Order family and such movies as Shutter Island indicates. However, in the 1840’s, the notion that insanity could comprise a successful defense against imprisonment and execution was just beginning to enter the national discussion, and initially it was greeted with a firestorm of opposition (Silverman).
This elevated activity in the senses appears in other Poe stories as well. Roderick Usher (“ The Fall of the House of Usher”) also appears to have a similar condition. Given what happens in “ The Tell-Tale Heart,” though, it is unclear whether the narrator’s senses or imagination is what is working in overdrive. It could be that the narrator actually hears death watch beetles in the wall; it could also be that the narrator imagines all of the sounds. The vulture eye, which is the focus of the narrator’s wrath, is of particular interest in the story. The eye is typically used as a symbol for such ideas as the conscience, or the eye of God, or even the censure of a watchful society. If the elderly man is the narrator’s parent, then the symbolism of the eye refers to the effect of parental observation and scrutiny on the child. If the elderly man is the narrator’s employer, then the control of the employer over the employee is the target of wrath. In both instances, the watchful eye of society, which would later occur to Freud as the work of the superego, could also be the target of the narrator’s anger. Given the fact that the reader knows almost nothing about the relationship between the narrator and his victim, the veiled eye could also represent secrecy, and there could be something dwelling within the secret of the elderly man that might also have set the narrator off to murder. Because there is such a lack of explanation, though, it is more important to focus on what the narrator does tell us – that he has found a way to commit the perfect crime.
One reason for the enduring popularity of “ The Tell-Tale Heart” is that it communicates many of the fears that still amuse and interest audiences today. The unexplained murder has long been a staple of popular entertainment, whether one is reading Agatha Christie or tuning in to the latest episode of Criminal Minds. Seeing the deed from the point of view of the murderer is a different take, changing the focus from that of mystery to that of analysis of a tortured mind. The use of the unreliable narrator and the detail of the imagery make this story stand apart from much of Romantic literature: while the emphasis on the emotional experiences of the individual was an important part of that era, taking the time to give a murderer such careful analysis was a new sort of literature that would have pushed the standards of taste in its time, much as the episodes of Criminal Minds push the boundaries of tastes for many viewers in our own time. Because of the new ground it covers in literature, “ The Tell-Tale Heart” will continue to be a treasured masterpiece for decades to come.
Benfey, Christopher. “ Poe and the Unreadable: ‘ The Black Cat’ and ‘ The Tell-Tale Heart,’” from
New Essays on Poe’s Major Tales, Kenneth Silverman, ed. London: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Print.
“ Edgar Allan Poe.” Biography. com.
9443160? page= 2. Web.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “ The Tell-Tale Heart.”
Quinn, Arthur. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1998. Print.
Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York:
Harper Perennial, 1991. Print.
Wiehardt, Ginny. “ Unreliable Narrator.” Fiction Writing.
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