Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, The Scrivener” are just two of the more interesting short stories written during the early times. Both are narrations of not only the characters but also reflect the situation happening during that time. It is considered as an expression of the authors on what they perceive on the surroundings. Also, it shows to us that the narrators’ feelings, emotions and personalities are greatly involved. As such, it is important for us to know the reliability or the lack thereof in their respective stories.
But before dwelling deeply in this statement, it is important for us to understand first the background of the stories. Knowing each would better equip us to further appreciate the essence of the stories.
The Tell-Tale Heart started with a man who is narrating what he did for several days. Although the person whom he is talking to is not clear, it can be gleaned that the narrator is confessing that he indeed committed the murder.
He is trying to profess that he is aware of what is happening in his surroundings but suffering from a disease. He described his disease as “the disease had sharpened my senses, not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth.” He described the old man with whom he lives with as a man with eyes that “resembled that of a vulture – a pale blue eye with a film over it” which bothers him that he plotted to kill him. For several days, he tried to master his deeds before he finally kills the old man. On the eighth night, he proceeded to kill the man with perfection, however, when he is about to kill him, he saw that the old man is still awake and shouted which was heard by some neighbors. The narrator proceeded to kill the man. After the killing, the narrator conceals the all the pieces of evidence. Hours after, there were police knocking in the house due to the report of the neighbor. The narrator innocently allowed them to go inside the house and searched for any indication of a crime. But the narrator perfectly concealed the body that the police never saw it. During a conversation with the police, the narrator starts to hear strange sounds which he thought were coming from the old man. At first, he disregarded the sound but it becomes louder that the authorities might also hear it. When he cannot anymore hold it, he finally confesses the killing of the old man and showed the body to the policemen.
Meanwhile, Melville’s “Bartleby, The Scrivener” is another interesting story. The narrator is a lawyer talking about his employees. A young man named Bartleby was hired to join Nippers and Turkey as the new scrivener. Nippers experiences indigestion in the morning while Turkey is always drunk. The lawyer hired Bartleby due to his calm looking which can equalize the working environment in the office. One day, Bartleby was asked by the lawyer to proofread a document that he made, however, Bartleby simply answered “I would prefer not to”. This answer amazed the lawyer and the other scriveners. The lawyer tried to inquire about Bartleby’s answer but the latter would only say “I would prefer not to”. The other scriveners got furious at Bartleby because they always proofread the documents which they did not do and also without any additional compensation. The lawyer got interested in Bartleby’s life, he then watches every Bartleby’s acts. He found out that Bartleby never leaves the office, even on weekends where the Wall Street is practically a ghost town. After some time, Bartleby almost have nothing to do in the office because he “would prefer not to”. However, something in the lawyer’s heart prompts him not to dismiss Bartleby even though the other scriveners object to it. The lawyer attempts for the last time to ask Bartleby to do his tasks but there is always that answer. Due to the number of people who got upset to the lawyer, he stayed away from work for a few days. However when he came back, he realized that Bartleby was in prison. The lawyer asks the jail guard to feed Bartleby and provide the necessities. After some time, the lawyer found out that Bartleby died he because he “preferred not to” be fed. The lawyer then heard rumors that Bartleby once worked in a Dead Letter Office.
Both stories involved a conflict between the goodness and the badness of the narrators. They are confronted with problems which should be addressed with proper caution. This is because whatever choice they make, it may be considered as right or wrong by the others. It is up to their ethical and moral perspective that will answer the problem. As such, there is created a dilemma to the narrators’ minds. If we take a deeper understanding in the nature of their characters, both narrators has a personal relations to the other characters in the story. In Tell-Tale Heart, the narrator lives with the old man. There is ascendancy between the narrator and the old man. This is exemplified in the phrase “one of his eyes resembled that of a vulture” which may be regarded as symbolizing parental surveillance or someone with authority over the narrator. Notwithstanding this personal relationship, the narrator proceeded to kill the man. As a result of this, the sanity of the narrator is being questioned. Why did the narrator killed the old man if he has a personal involvement with the latter? Is there anything that the old man did that prompted to its being killed by the narrator? It is unclear in the story whether the old man did something really bad to the narrator. The narrator is however not interested in the man’s wealth because he did not acquire anything from the old man’s house, rather, he mainly focused on killing the old man. As such, the intention of the narrator is a personal one and not for value. Another issue is the fact that the narrator tries to prove of his sanity. He is trying to convince the person whom the narrator is talking to that he is in his right mind when he did commit the murder. Although he is suffering from a disease, the only effect of this is his over-sensitivity of his senses. However, in the process of proving his sanity, he confesses that he indeed committed murder. This is an irony because how could a sane person admit something about committing a crime? This is notwithstanding that the narrator fully describe the details of the killing. Also, the narrator showed any indication of guilt towards the end of the story when he heard the sound coming from the old man which he only hears. Due to this occurrence, it can then be taken into consideration that the Poe’s narrator plays an important role in the story. Without him, it would be difficult to comprehend the entire story because the events revolve around him. This is as against the story in “Bartleby, The Scrivener”. In that story, although the narrator is the lawyer, the focus of the story is on Bartleby. The lawyer merely narrates what is happening to Bartleby. There is a focus on Bartleby: his personality, his antics, his attitude and his personal background. It is interesting to know the details of Bartleby which makes him always answer “I prefer not to”. So another question arises, why did Bartleby always answer this to any person he interacts with? It is unclear in the story about such answer but if we relate it to the author’s life, there seem to be a connection. Melville has always made a number of good novels until “Moby Dick”. This got a lot of criticisms because of its content and characters. The good novels represent the readers who want Melville to create better novels while Bartleby is Melville who “prefer not to”. In this line, we can safely assume that the lawyer-narrator can be dispensed with. The story can continue with the essence still intact due to the fact that the events revolve around Bartleby. The presence of the lawyer merely acts as an instrument to further illustrate the life of Bartleby.
Given the points mentioned above, it is thus important to note that the narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” constitute as an important character in the story and his reliability helps a lot in the flow of events. On the other hand, Melville’s “Bartleby, The Scrivener’s” narrator lawyer only plays a minor role in the story because it is Bartleby which is the central persona in the story. Lastly, it is emphasized that although the characters in the story involves personal relation with the other characters, it is important to determine their true and sincere intentions towards the others.
Melville, Herman. Bartleby The Scrivener. Kessinger Pub. Co., 2004
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart” ReadBookOnline.Net. April 10, 2008, <http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/803/>
Cite this Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville comparison
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