The Analysis of the Narrator in Poe’s Short Story “The Tell-Tale Heart”
The history of American literature would not be complete without its prominent representative, the creator of visionary works, both poetic and prose, Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s fevered imagination gave birth to literary works of high emotional power and the deep paranoiac despair. The writer’s literary heritage includes comparatively small number of work, but he, in fact, was the inventor of the detective and horror genres. A distinguishing feature in many of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories is the concept of a nemesis appearing as a doppelganger, the term mentioned by Steven Carter in his journal article Alexander’s Bitter Tears (343). A doppelganger is a ghost twin or double of another character in the story or, usually, murderers and the victims are doppelgangers. In Poe’s stories the protagonist equates closely with the antagonist and vice versa. Thus the narrator of The Tell Tale Heart identifies with his victim, the old man:
Presently I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror. It was not a groan of pain or of grief — oh, no! — it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when over-charged with awe. I knew that sound well. Many a night, just from my own bosom, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me.
Christopher Benfey’s, while discussing the “twin fantasies of utter exposure and complete secrecy” in Poe’s work, implies a causal relation between the two, particularly in “The Tell Tale Heart” where the narrator, “for all his secrecy … claims to have access to the mind of the old man. His very privacy, his enclosedness, seems to allow him to see into the minds of other people”. (33)
In The Tell Tale Heart an unnamed narrator opens the tale by addressing the reader. This short story provides utterly revealing portrait of the main character – narrator. In its essence it is the monologue of unnamed narrator, in the course of which he unveils his inmost fears and dreams, which have some flavor of insanity. In fact, Poe’s protagonist refutes his madness bluntly:
TRUE! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why WILL you say that I am mad? 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. I heard many things in hell. How then am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily, how calmly, I can tell you the whole story.
The narrator’s story sounds very lifelike from the very beginning and the reader conceives everything through the senses of the narrator. “The Tell-Tale Heart” is highly individualized narrative that suggests only one man’s perspective of the story. But there are no doubts that the perspective is by no means author’s, for splitting between the author and narrator is quite evident. First of all, it is the type of discourse used in the story – emotional exclamations, abrupt sentences, questions. Poe masterfully describes the psychological drama of the narrator. He helps us understand that the loquacious murderer has been tormented by the nightmarish fears he attributes to his victim:
For a whole hour I did not move a muscle, and in the meantime I did not hear him lie down. He was still sitting up in the bed, listening; just as I have done night after night hearkening to the death watches in the wall.
This is one of the shortest stories, which provides a study of paranoia and mental deterioration. Poe deprives the story of abundance of details with the purpose to enlarge the murderer’s obsession with specific moments: the heartbeat, old man’s eye, and his own claim to sanity.
The narrator of The Tell Tale Heart views his hypersensitivity as an evidence of his sanity, but not a symptom of madness. This particular comprehension allows the narrator to tell this story in a precise manner. Nevertheless, what makes the narrator mad is his inability to apprehend the combination of narrative form and its content. He presents his story in appropriate form, but he involuntarily reveals a tale of murder that gives away the madness he tries to deny.
Another contradiction pertained to the main character personality is the tight relation between his capacities for love and hate. Here the reader observes a psychological mystery, people sometimes may hurt those whom they need or love. The narrator loves the old man. He is not covetous of the old man’s wealth, nor vindictive because of any disrespect:
I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire.
In this way the narrator eliminates the possible motives that might inspire this violent crime. The narrator concentrates on the old man’s vulture-eye. He brings the old man down to the pale blue of his eye. He wants to free him from his “evil eye” and in this way spare the man the load of fault attributed to the eye itself. The narrator fails to see that the eye is an inherent part of man’s identity that cannot be isolated as the narrator perversely imagines.
I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture — a pale blue eye with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me my blood ran cold, and so by degrees, very gradually, I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye for ever.
The narrator perceives the eye as absolutely separate part of the man that is why, it becomes possible to him to murder the old man while being convinced that he loves him. The narrator can not understand that this act will put the end to the man’s life. The act of dismembering the victim, leads the narrator to the deprivation of the old man of his humanity. But this strategy does not seem to work for the narrator as his mind believes other parts of the old man’s body act against him. As soon as he gets rid of the eye his freshly sharpened sensitivity to sounds overcomes him. His distorted sense of reality makes him obsessed with the quiet beats of the man’s heart.
And now have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the senses? now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart. It increased my fury as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.
The narrator’s paranoia and guilt make up the background for his inevitable surrender. The police appear on the scene to give him the opportunity to betray himself.
“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! — here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!”
In the end, when the narrator hears the beating of his own heart and confuses it with that of the dead man, it becomes obvious that this ‘murder’ is virtually a feebly masked suicide.
Benfey, Chritopher. Poe and the Unreadable: `The Black Cat’ and `The Tell-Tale Heart.” New Essays on Poe’s Major Tales. Ed. Silverman, Kenneth. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.
Carter, Steven. “Alexander’s Bitter Tears” Journal of European Studies, Vol. 29, 1999:343
Gargano, James W. “The Question of Poe’s Narrators”. College English, Vol. 25, no. 3 (December 1963): 177-81.
Levine, Stuart and Susan, editors. The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe: An Annotated Edition. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Tell-Tale Heart, The Online Literature Library, 09 Oct. 2005. http://www.literature.org/authors/poe-edgar-allan/tell-tale-heart.html