Thursday, May 23, 2013

Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart

The Gothic short story The Tell-Tale Heart was written by Edgar Allan Poe. It was first published in 1843. 

True to Poe’s form, he draws the reader into this story by having the insane villain of the tale narrate what happened in his * own words. 

I first heard this poem as a child. One of my older sisters practiced parts of it for hours out loud. She was preparing for a dramatic interpretation that she was to present at school. I can still hear her emphasis on certain words:

“ I talked more quickly--more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased…”
“Oh, God, what could I do? I formed--I raved--I swore!”
“It grew louder--louder--louder! I swung the chair on which I had been sitting…”

This perverse narrator kills an old man who lives with him. ** 

At the beginning of the story and throughout, he professes he is not insane. But in the same breath, he openly admits he killed, and dismembered the old man, and hid his body under the floorboards in this man’s bedroom. In fact, he talks with pride about how he planned the perfect crime.

But in the end, his own guilt and madness trip him up. 

Thinking he has even effectively deceived the police, he escorts them into the old man’s room. Sitting upon the bed where he smothered his victim to death, he is confident he has presented himself with “a pleasant and easy manner.” 

But then he begins to feel uncomfortable, and he starts to hear a ringing in his ears. This sound becomes louder and louder.

Poe’s next plot twist is why this story is a classic. 

Spiraling further into unreality, the narrator becomes convinced that the ringing in his ears is actually his victim’s heartbeat beneath his feet, beating louder and louder. 

Thinking the police must hear these beats as well, he loses complete control. He confesses his crime and tears the floorboards up to reveal the body in pieces. 

The irony here is the police actually do not hear anything, it is all in the narrator's head.

Edgar Allan Poe
*  Poe never makes clear whether the narrator's character is a man or a woman.

** Poe is also vague about why the narrator kills the old man other than the fact he has a strange eye, that disturbs the narrator. Some speculate that the old man’s pupil-less eye actually represented a secret he could use against the main character.

Here is a link to the story.

The following is my favorite version of The Tell-Tale Heart. It is an animated seven-minute feature made in 1953 and narrated by the English actor James Mason. This short film is preserved in the United States National Film Registry.

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