Being a master craftsman of dark fictions, Edgar Allan Poe keeps his characters nameless in his most mysterious, complex and psychological tale “The Tell Tale Heart”. The story takes the reader to a world of horror and insanity. Even though the whole story is narrated in first person, nothing regarding the narrator is revealed in the story; however, he is indirectly characterized through his words and actions. The story has paved way for a lot of debates regarding the insanity and the reliability of the narrator’s personality. The narrator in the beginning of the story clearly states that he is not insane but his actions make the reader frown at his sanity. The story, written in first person, sounds to be a narration that directly affects the listener and Poe’s narrative techniques keep the reader tensed and horror-stricken throughout the story.
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The repetitive outbursts of the narrator throughout the story regarding his sanity make the reader to question his sanity. The narrator in the opening paragraph makes it very clear that the fact that he is nervous should not be taken for being mad or insane. For him, the malady has only “sharpened (his) senses –not destroyed –not dulled them”. He tries to restate that he is normal by boasting that he can tell a story so ‘calmly’ and ‘stealthily’. Ruffner, Courtney J., Jeff Grieneisen, and Harold Bloom(2002) deals in detail with the insanity of the narrator in “The Tell Tale Heart”. They identify that “Poe considered madness a purely intellectual entanglement”. Poe makes every effort in the story to present his narrator sane, credulous and as an intelligent genius. As Ruffner, Courtney J., Jeff Grieneisen, and Harold Bloom(2002) rightly puts it: “Poe uses rhetorical disclaimers to confuse this idea of insanity, and, in turn, manages to trick his readers into trusting the narrators” and even though the narrator in the tale tries to manipulate “the reader into trusting him, the pattern of insanity prevails throughout this tale”.( Intelligence: Genius or Insanity? Tracing Motifs in Poe’s Madness Tales. Bloom’s Bio Critiques: Edgar Allan Poe) The narrator tries to convince the listeners that he is quite sane and he wants to show that he is even cleverer than others by taking all the necessary precautions to cover up his cruel deed.
The way he boasts of his cunning preparations is evident when he exhorts the reader: “You should have seen how wisely I proceeded –with what caution –with what foresight –with what dissimulation I went to work!” The perseverance shown by the narrator in the execution of his plans, the way he dismembered the corpse into various parts by cutting away the arms and the legs, how he keeps away even a single blood stain from the pot and the way he receives the policemen quite innocently suggest that he was conscious of what he was doing. But there is no doubt that he was morally insane and so his actions can never be taken for granted: “Because the reader knows that the morally insane may have a perfectly normal intellect, the use of such evidence to propose sanity is vacuous, and such vacuity calls into question the very authority and reliability of the narrator”( Ruffner, Courtney J., Jeff Grieneisen, and Harold Bloom, 2002)
The narrator tries to rationalize the cruel deed that he has undertaken. But the reason that he offers for the murder is quite unconvincing and unreliable. Throughout the story one finds the words of the narrator quite contrary and disputing. For instance, he states that he loved the old man as he has not done him any wrong. He does not desire for the wealth or gold of the old man either. According to him, he killed the old man out of the single reason that he “had the eye of a vulture” that turned the narrator’s blood cold. This is again highlighted by the narrator when he confesses that he could not undertake the evil deed for seven long nights as the old man’s eyes were closed; he confides, “for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye”. Thus, the readers are expected to show sympathy for the narrator or rather he prepares his listeners to join him for the crime through his rationalization. This is very well echoed by Paul Witherington(1987) when he observes: “Pretending to share with the listener a universal concern for reason, the narrator seduces the listener by getting him to participate vicariously in the crime, an accomplice after the fact”( THE ACCOMPLICE IN ‘THE TELL-TALE Studies in Short Fiction 22.4 (Fall 1985)
The insanity of the narrator is associated with his inner feelings of hallucinations and notions of death. One is sure to grasp that the narrator suffers from some sort of psychological imbalance. As observed by Hollie Pritchard, “The actions of the narrator, combined with his insistence that he is not mad, lead readers to determine that he must suffer from some psychological disorder” (Pritchard, Hollie. Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart. Explicator; Spring 2003, Vol.61 Issue 3, p.1440. This is evident when he judges the groan of the old man as “the groan of mortal terror” which he has experienced many times. However, he feels sadistic pleasure in it and chuckles at his heart. His feeling of hallucination is made clear towards the end of the story when the reader finds him hearing the steady noise of the old man’s beating of the heart which the police men could not hear. His heart is at the verge of a breaking point and he can no longer suffer the mental and psychological agony that haunts him and this makes him cry: “I admit the deed!…It is the beating of his hideous heart!” Harold Bloom (1999) considers the story as “a breathless, frightening monologue of the disintegration of consciousness and conscience under the onslaught of obsession. In it we watch in horror as a man externalizes his madness to expel and conquer his obsession, only to destroy both an innocent victim and himself” (Bloom, Harold. “Plot Summary of “The Tell-Tale Heart”.” Bloom’s Major Short Story Writers: Edgar A. Poe (1999). There is no doubt that the narrator has disinherited his conscience and he is no better than a brute animal. He shows no feelings of remorse and is at ease with himself.
Poe’s use of literary devices like foreshadowing, irony and vivid symbolism makes the whole story rich; it helps to capture the attention of the reader and keep him in awe in the way the cold blooded murder is undertaken and executed. In the very first paragraph of the story itself, Poe foreshadows the plight of the central character where the narrator remarks: “Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and the earth. I heard many things in hell.” At the end of the story it is this sense of hearing acute that spoils all his effort to hide his actions. Similarly, symbolism plays a key role in adding to the tension and the horror atmosphere in the story. The heartbeat in the story acts as the greatest symbol.
Even though the narrator believes that it is the heart beat of the dead old man, a careful reading of the story convinces the reader that it was the narrator’s own which may have resulted from his inner prick of conscience and feelings of guilt. Repetition is very effectively employed by Poe to bring about an atmosphere of tension, horror and terror. Expressions like “I undid the lantern cautiously-oh, so cautiously –cautiously”, “It grew louder –louder –louder!”, “I moved it slowly –very, very slowly” etc add to the tensed mood of the reader and keeps him/her in suspense. The uses of apt similes, hyperbole and onomatopoeia have also contributed to the unity of the work. The old man’s eyes are being compared to the ‘eye of a vulture’ and his room “as black as pitch with the thick darkness’. Most of the actions undertaken by the narrator are ironic. The greatest irony in the story is that the narrator in the story does everything to conceal his cruel deed but in the end he confesses hid deed to the policemen.
Thus, Allan Poe’s short story “The Tell Tale Heart” is a violent representation of human relationships and the mysterious workings of the human mind. The whole story is centred on the main character- the narrator, and the old man proves himself to be a poor victim. Even the setting of the novel assumes secondary significance. The narrator’s insanity is of course resulted from his psychological disorders and mental agony. According to Harold Bloom, “the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” is pursued by the violence and agony of his madness as he tries and ultimately fails to project it outwards away from himself. As the destruction of the old man reflects upon the narrator, we watch in horror the splintering of the mind.”(Bloom, Harold. List of Characters in “The Tell Tale Heart”. Bloom’s Major Short Story Writers: Edgar Allan Poe, 1999: 44-45.). One is shocked and plunged in gloom after reading the story. The impact of the story is so powerful that even the reader may experience the agony that the narrator was in. As the title suggests the story takes one to the heart of the narrator, the old man and makes one to look inwardly into one’s own.
Ruffner, Courtney J., Jeff Grieneisen, and Harold Bloom. Intelligence: Genius or Insanity? Tracing Motifs in Poe’s Madness Tales. Bloom’s BioCritiques: Edgar Allan Poe (2002):43-63. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Roberts Memorial Library, Cochran, GA. 2008
Witherington, Paul. THE ACCOMPLICE IN ‘THE TELL-TALE Studies in Short Fiction 22.4 (Fall 1985): 471. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Roberts Memorial Library, Cochran, GA. 2008.
Bloom, Harold. “Plot Summary of “The Tell-Tale Heart”.” Bloom’s Major Short Story Writers: Edgar A. Poe (1999): 40-43. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. [Library name], [City], [State abbreviation]. Web.
Bloom, Harold. List of Characters in “The Tell Tale Heart”. Bloom’s Major Short Story Writers: Edgar Allan Poe, 1999: 44-45. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. [Library name], [City], [State abbreviation]. Web.
Pritchard, Hollie. Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart. Explicator; Spring 2003, Vol.61 Issue 3, p.144. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. [Library name], [City], [State abbreviation].