A rather old genre, a murder mystery seemed to have worn out its welcome long before the XIX century. However, the audience needed more bread and circuses, which meant that the genre of who-done-it stories was to be changed once again. And there was no one who could update the genre of detective better than the father of thriller himself – Edgar Allan Poe. Thus, “The Tell Tale Heart” marked the second birth of detective stories.
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On the surface, one can argue that in his inimitable manner, Poe offers the readers a cautious warning about the trap of lies, and that, no matter how well lies are concealed, the truth will finally reveal itself. However, going a bit further, one must admit that the crime of the leading character was not discovered by the police; nor did another Sherlock Holmes ripped the veil off the mystery – quite on the contrary, the policemen were completely unsuspicious up until to the point when the quote-unquote “protagonist” disclosed the truth.
Therefore, one might take the idea of lies and truth a bit further and conclude that Poe’s key point was that it is the liar who finally reveals himself. While the motifs for the criminal to confess can vary from insanity to being disgustingly vain, the point is that a criminal makes the first step towards solving the mystery of his crime.
One might argue, however, that Poe did not focus on the issue of crime and punishment; as a matter of fact, not all critics agree that the leading character should be viewed as a negative one.
According to the existing evidence, some critics suggest that the whole story is, actually, a self-defense speech: “It has been customary to see that tale as a confession, but it becomes clear that the narrator has already confessed to the murder of the old man who was his former living companion. The tale, then, is not so much a confession as a defense” (Zimmerman 143). Thus, the idea that a criminal or a liar feels the urge to reveal his crime is stated explicitly in the novel.
The leading character of the story can hardly be viewed as a protagonist. While the readers see him as a man who has been put through a lot of suffering (Sova 174), it is still very hard to relate to the leading character.
However, the question is, why relating to the lead in “The Tell Tale Heart” is so difficult. It is not that the readers have never experienced irrational hatred – on the contrary, this emotion is rather common, for our senses often run ahead of our thinking process, and we form an opinion about a person before we actually realize why we love or hate this person out of a sudden.
Rather, it is the fear that they can possibly be so overfilled with hatred that it will turn them into psychotic killers makes the obstacle between the audience and the lead.
Being able to restrain our instincts and emotions is what puts humane into a human being; and seeing a portrayal of a person who has crossed the border of humane or has never had the element of humanity in him must make the audience feel disturbed. It is clear that the leading character cannot be considered a protagonist; he is rather a curious study on a psychotic twist in human nature.
With that said, it is clear that even the murder of the old man with his petrifying eye cannot set the leading character to rest – on the contrary, he cannot get a hold of himself until he finally confesses in the murder: “I felt that I must scream or die! and now – again! – hark! louder! louder! louder!” (Poe 3). As a result, the relief follows: “’Villains!’ I shrieked, ‘dissemble no more! I admit the deed! – tear up the planks! here, here! – It is the beating of his hideous heart!’” (Poe 3).
Hence, the hypothesis stated above proves – Poe has shown that the committed crime or even a lie becomes a burden so heavy for one to carry that the liar feels a desperate urge to have someone reveal him. Unless the villain had never told the police officers about his crime, the pounding of the heart would have been haunting him until the day he died – not too long, given the suffering that the leading character would have had to go through.
In his weird, gloomy manner that, quite frankly, scares even modern readers out of their wits, Poe makes the moral of the story very clear: it is so out of human nature to murder other people that the criminal’s mind starts turning against its owner and giving clues for the rest of the people to detect and catch the villain. Rather solid, though, doubtlessly gloomy, the message is conveyed and received very successfully. The tell tale heart has been avenged once again.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Tell-Tale Heart. PDF file. n. d. 1–3. Print.
Sova, Dawn B. Critical Companion to Edgar Allan Poe: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York, NY: Infobase Publishing, 2007. Print.
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Zimmerman, Brett. “Frantic Forensic Oratory: Poe’s ‘the Tell-Tale Heart.’” Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Stories. Harold Bloom (Ed.). New York, NY: Infobase Publishing, 2009. Print.