Death is a subject that has fascinated many authors for a very long time. Edgar Allan Poe is one of the writers that best depicts stories which uncover mysterious circumstances surrounding death. He is a master storyteller when it comes to the macabre and the bizarre methods of killing victims. He is obsessed with characters who carefully plan their assassinations and cover up their murders. However there is more to his work than blood, gore, and murder.
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There is a common denominator in most of his major works. His central character is overwhelmed with guilt, and fear. It is guilt that results from wicked thoughts, and evil desires. In “The Tell-Tale Heart”, Edgar Allan Poe shows through the narrator’s confession, the internal conflict that rages within him and it is this internal conflict that drives him to prove that there is nothing wrong with him.
The central theme of the story is the internal conflict that is eating up the narrator from within. He was a troubled man and it can be argued that he was bothered by what he was feeling and thinking because it suggested that there is something wrong in him.
This is seen in the opening statements when he said: “True! Neverous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but wy will you say that I am mad?” (Poe, 1843, p1). He tries to justify his actions, and show that he is not a bad person. Most importantly, he tries to show that he is not a mad man. In order to prove this, he uses different methods which show he is a sane man. He desperately tries to explain his rationale.
It was the inner conflict that drives the main character to acts of obsession. This is what he said: “You should have seen how wisely I proceeded — with what caution — with what foresight, with what dissimulation, I went to work!” (Poe, 1843, p.1). It is this inner conflict that drives him to achieve the perfect murder.
He develops a method to kill the old man using fear. Though he says he is a good man, the diabolical method he invents speaks for itself, showing once more the blackness of his heart. His wickedness is seen in his cunning. He is able to kill the old man without making use of any weapon.
The inner conflict of the character may be observed though his struggle to remain calm. This can be seen when he smiled at the man after killing him. Any other normal person would have had some feeling of remorse at the sight of such terror, but this does not happen with our character. He does not show any signs of weakness, but his mind and body will unravel soon. He would begin to imagine things and it would prove to be his undoing.
His inner conflict torments him and so he has to mask his inner weakness with a haughty demeanor. Thus, the narrator is not only filled with hate and bitterness, he is also filled with pride.
He says that that there is no better way to show the world that he is a genius than by beating the detectives at their own game. He brings them so close to the dead body, but at the same time he makes sure they will never know that they are so near. He was trying to convince himself that he is good by using his skill in lying. When the investigators come, he says that the old man is not at home, and that he is on a journey.
At first the narrator tries to prove his invincibility and that nothing can bring him down. Despite having a perfect plan, the narrator is overcome by guilt. ” To reveal inchoate feelings of self-doubt and guilt ” this is what one commentator is the trademark of Edgar Allan Poe but he shows it through the actions and the madness of the narrator (Bloom, p.40) It is guilt that excites him.
It is guilt that makes him so sensitive to his surroundings: sounds become louder, and louder until he imagines he can hear the old man’s heartbeats, despite him being dead. According to one commentary this is the consequence of guilt to his senses: “With his faculties keyed up beyond the mental register, he believes he hears the old man’s heart beating, first when he is alive, and finally when he is dead” (Quinn & Rosenheim, p.394). Guilt becomes the ally of the victim.
The end of the story reveals “that this is a guilty narrator” (Sova, p.173). This is a tormented He is not only guilty, he also demonstrated that he was suffering from an “extreme form of guilt” (Burt, p.199).
His guilt makes him hear imaginary sounds. He hears the heartbeats of the dead old man. Even if the old man had been alive, this could not have been possible, yet the narrator says he hears the heartbeats from underneath his feet. Finally he can not contain the agony, and he confesses everything to the police officers. Guilt is indeed his undoing.
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a story that showcases he internal conflict that exists within the heart of the narrator, and how guilt becomes his undoing. It is this inner torment that drives him to prove that he is sane and that he is good and thus drives him to lie, and even to prove that he was justified by killing the old man.
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This internal conflict drives him to plan the perfect murder. He does not realize that he cannot outsmart guilt and in the end it is the only thing that brings him to jail. His guilt is a terrible force in his heart that he cannot suppress and which drives him to madness. Guilt becomes the ally of the old man, and of the police officers who are able to catch the murderer only thanks to his guilty conscience.
Bloom, H. Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Chelsea House, 2006.
Burt, D. The Literary 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Novelists, Playwrights And Poets of All Time. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2009.
Quinn, A. & Shawn R. A Critical Biography of Edgar Allan Poe. MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Sova, D. Critical Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2007.