The Tell-Tale Heart

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"The Tell-Tale Heart"
The Pioneer Poe 1843 cover 2.jpg
The Pioneer, Vol. I, No. I, Drew and Scammell, Philadelphia, January, 1843
AuthorEdgar Allan Poe
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Genre(s)Horror
Short story
Published inThe Pioneer
Publication typePeriodical
PublisherJames Russell Lowell
Media typePrint (periodical)
Publication dateJanuary 1843
 
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"The Tell-Tale Heart"
The Pioneer Poe 1843 cover 2.jpg
The Pioneer, Vol. I, No. I, Drew and Scammell, Philadelphia, January, 1843
AuthorEdgar Allan Poe
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Genre(s)Horror
Short story
Published inThe Pioneer
Publication typePeriodical
PublisherJames Russell Lowell
Media typePrint (periodical)
Publication dateJanuary 1843

"The Tell-Tale Heart" is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe first published in 1843. It is told by an unnamed narrator who endeavors to convince the reader of his sanity, while describing a murder he committed. (The victim was an old man with a blind "vulture eye", as the narrator calls it.) The murder is carefully calculated, and the murderer hides the body by dismembering it and hiding it under the floorboards. Ultimately the narrator's guilt manifests itself in an auditory hallucination: The narrator hears the man's heart is still beating under the floorboards.

It is unclear what relationship, if any, the old man and his murderer share. The narrator denies having any feelings of hatred or resentment for the man. He tells us: 'I loved the old man! He had never wronged me! He had never given me insult!'. He also denies the assumption that he killed for greed: 'Object? There was none.'... 'For his gold, I had no desire!' It has been suggested that the old man is a father figure, the narrator's landlord, or that the narrator works for the old man as a servant, and that perhaps his "vulture eye" represents some sort of veiled secret, or power. The ambiguity and lack of details about the two main characters stand in stark contrast to the specific plot details leading up to the murder.

The story was first published in James Russell Lowell's The Pioneer in January 1843. "The Tell-Tale Heart" is widely considered a classic of the Gothic fiction genre and is one of Poe's most famous short stories.

Contents

Plot summary

Illustration by Harry Clarke, 1919

"The Tell-Tale Heart" is a first-person narrative of an unnamed narrator[1] who insists he is sane but suffering from a disease (nervousness) which causes "over-acuteness of the senses". The old man with whom he lives has a clouded, pale, blue "vulture-like" eye which so distresses the narrator that he plots to murder the old man, though the narrator states that he loves the old man, and hates only the eye. The narrator insists that his careful precision in committing the murder shows that he cannot possibly be insane. For seven nights, the narrator opens the door of the old man's room, a process which takes him a full hour. However, the old man's vulture eye is always closed, making it impossible to "do the work".

On the eighth night, the old man awakens and sits up in his own bed while the narrator performs his nightly ritual. The narrator does not draw back and, after some time, decides to open his lantern. A single ray of light shines out and lands precisely on the old man's eye, revealing that it is wide open. Hearing the old man's heart beating unusually and dangerously fast from terror, the narrator decides to strike, jumping out with a loud yell and smothering the old man with his own bed. The narrator dismembers the body and conceals the pieces under the floorboards, making certain to hide all signs of the crime. Even so, the old man's scream during the night causes a neighbor to report to the police. The narrator invites the three arriving officers in to look around. He claims that the screams heard were his own in a nightmare and that the man is absent in the country. Confident that they will not find any evidence of the murder, the narrator brings chairs for them and they sit in the old man's room, on the very spot where the body is concealed, yet they suspect nothing, as the narrator has a pleasant and easy manner about him. The narrator, however, begins to feel uncomfortable and notices a ringing in his ears. As the ringing grows louder, the narrator comes to the conclusion that it is the heartbeat of the old man coming from under the floorboards. The sound increases steadily, though the officers seem to pay no attention to it. Shocked by the constant beating of the heart and a feeling that not only are the officers aware of the sound, but that they also suspect him, the narrator confesses to killing the old man and tells them to tear up the floorboards to reveal the body.

Publication history

"The Tell-Tale Heart" in The Pioneer: A Literary and Critical Magazine, page 29

"The Tell-Tale Heart" was first published in January 1843 in the inaugural issue of The Pioneer, a short-lived Boston magazine edited by James Russell Lowell. Poe was likely paid only $10 for the story.[2] Its original publication included an epigraph which quoted Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "A Psalm of Life".[3] The story was slightly revised when republished in the August 23, 1845, edition of the Broadway Journal. This edition omitted Longfellow's poem because, Poe believed, it was plagiarized.[3] "The Tell-Tale Heart" was reprinted several additional times during Poe's lifetime.[4]

Analysis

"The Tell-Tale Heart" uses an unreliable narrator. The exactness with which the narrator recounts murdering the old man, as if his stealthy way of executing the crime is evidence of his sanity, reveals his monomania and paranoia.

The narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is generally assumed to be male. However, some critics have suggested a woman may be narrating; no pronouns are used to clarify one way or the other.[5] The story starts in medias res, in the middle of the event. The opening is an in-progress conversation between the narrator and another person who is not identified in any way. It is speculated that the narrator is confessing to a prison warden, judge, newspaper reporter, doctor or psychiatrist.[6] This sparks the narrator's need to explain himself in great detail.[7] What follows is a study of terror but, more specifically, the memory of terror as the narrator is relating events from the past.[8] The first word of the story, "True!", is an admission of his guilt.[6] This introduction also serves to immediately grab the reader's attention and pull him/her into the story.[9] From there, every word contributes to the purpose of moving the story forward, possibly making "The Tell-Tale Heart" the best example of Poe's theories on a perfect short story.[10]

The story is driven not by the narrator's insistence upon his innocence but by insistence on his sanity. This, however, is self-destructive because in attempting to prove his sanity he fully admits he is guilty of murder.[11] His denial of insanity is based on his systematic actions and precision—a rational explanation for irrational behavior.[7] This rationality, however, is undermined by his lack of motivation ("Object there was none. Passion there was none."). Despite this, he says the idea of murder, "haunted me day and night".[11] The story's final scene, however, is a result of the narrator's feelings of guilt. Like many characters in the Gothic tradition, his nerves dictate his true nature. Despite his best efforts at defending himself, the narrator's "over acuteness of the senses," which help him hear the heart beating in the floorboards, is actually evidence that he is truly mad.[12] Readers during Poe's time would have been especially interested amidst the controversy over the insanity defense in the 1840s.[13]

The narrator claims to have a disease which causes hypersensitivity in his senses. A similar motif is used for Roderick Usher in "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839) and in "The Colloquy of Monos and Una" (1841).[14] It is unclear, however, if the narrator actually has very acute senses or if he is merely imagining things. If his condition is believed to be true, what he hears at the end of the story may not be the old man's heart but death watch beetles. The narrator first admits to hearing death watches in the wall after startling the old man from his sleep. According to superstition, death watches are a sign of impending death. One variety of death watch beetles raps its head against surfaces, presumably as part of a mating ritual, while others emit a ticking sound.[14] Henry David Thoreau had suggested in 1838 that the death watch beetles sound similar to a heartbeat.[15] Alternatively, if the heart beating is really a product of the narrator's imagination, it is that uncontrolled imagination that leads to his own destruction.[16]

The relationship between the old man and the narrator is ambiguous. Their names, occupations, and where they live are not given. In fact, that ambiguity and anonymity add to the tale as an ironic counter to the strict attention to detail in the plot.[17] The narrator may be a servant of the old man's or, as is more often assumed, his son. In that case, the "vulture" eye of the old man is symbolizing parental surveillance and possibly the paternal principles of right and wrong. The murder of the eye, then, is a removal of conscience.[18] The eye may also represent secrecy, again playing on the lack of detail about the old man or the narrator. Only when the eye is finally found open on the final night, penetrating the veil of secrecy, is the murder carried out.[19] Regardless, their relationship is incidental; the focus of the story is the perverse scheme to commit the perfect crime.[20]

Former United States Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur has suggested that the tale is an allegorical representation of Poe's poem "To Science". The poem shows the struggle between imagination and science. In "The Tell-Tale Heart," the old man represents the scientific rational mind while the narrator is the imaginative.[21]

Adaptations

References

  1. ^ Due to the ambiguity surrounding the identity of the story's narrator, that character's sex cannot be known for certain. However, for ease of description masculine pronouns are used in this article.
  2. ^ Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991. ISBN 0-06-092331-8, p. 201.
  3. ^ a b Moss, Sidney P. Poe's Literary Battles: The Critic in the Context of His Literary Milieu. Southern Illinois University Press, 1969. p. 151
  4. ^ ""The Tales of Edgar Allan Poe" (index)". eapoe.org. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. September 30, 2007. http://www.eapoe.org/works/tales/index.htm. Retrieved 2007-11-05. 
  5. ^ a b Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York City: Checkmark Books, 2001: 234. ISBN 0-8160-4161-X
  6. ^ a b Benfey, Christopher. "Poe and the Unreadable: 'The Black Cat' and 'The Tell-Tale Heart'", collected in New Essays on Poe's Major Tales, Kenneth Silverman, ed. Cambridge University Press, 1993. ISBN 978-0-521-42243-7, p. 30.
  7. ^ a b Cleman, John. "Irresistible Impulses: Edgar Allan Poe and the Insanity Defense", collected in Bloom's BioCritiques: Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2002. ISBN 0-7910-6173-6, p. 70.
  8. ^ Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8018-5730-9. p. 394
  9. ^ Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. Cooper Square Press, 1992. p. 101. ISBN 0-8154-1038-7
  10. ^ Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. p. 394. ISBN 0-8018-5730-9
  11. ^ a b Robinson, E. Arthur. "Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart'" from Twentieth Century Interpretations of Poe's Tales, edited by William L. Howarth. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1971, p. 94.
  12. ^ Fisher, Benjamin Franklin. "Poe and the Gothic Tradition," from The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Kevin J. Hayes. Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-521-79727-6, p. 87.
  13. ^ Cleman, Bloom's BioCritiques, p. 66.
  14. ^ a b Reilly, John E. "The Lesser Death-Watch and "'The Tell-Tale Heart'," collected in The American Transcendental Quarterly. Second quarter, 1969.
  15. ^ Robison, E. Arthur. "Thoreau and the Deathwatch in Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart'," collected in Poe Studies, vol. IV, no. 1. June 1971. pp. 14-16
  16. ^ Eddings, Dennis W. "Theme and Parody in 'The Raven'", collected in Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, edited by Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV. Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1990. ISBN 0-9616449-2-3, p. 213.
  17. ^ Benfey, New Essays, p. 32.
  18. ^ Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972. ISBN 0-8071-2321-8. p. 223.
  19. ^ Benfey, New Essays, p. 33.
  20. ^ Kennedy, J. Gerald. Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing. Yale University Press, 1987. p. 132. ISBN 0-300-03773-2
  21. ^ Benfey, New Essays, pp. 31-32.
  22. ^ The Telltale Heart (1928) at the Internet Movie Database
  23. ^ "IMDb Title Search: The Tell-Tale Heart". Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/find?s=tt&q=The+Tell-Tale+Heart. Retrieved 2007-09-01. 
  24. ^ The Tell-Tale Heart (1941) at the Internet Movie Database
  25. ^ The Tell-Tale Heart (1953/I) at the Internet Movie Database.
  26. ^ "Sleep No More," by Bill Gaines and Ed Feldstein, Shock SuspenStories, April 1953.
  27. ^ The Tell-Tale Heart (1960) at the Internet Movie Database.
  28. ^ The Tell-Tale Heart (1971) at the Internet Movie Database.
  29. ^ Tell-Tale (2009) at the Internet Movie Database.
  30. ^ Telltale (2012) at the Internet Movie Database.

External links