Friday, January 11, 2013

Notes on Poe, I

The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings

The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings 

"And 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 madness of the narrator is evident from the moment he claims that he is not mad. "The Tell-Tale Heart" is an economical tale only four pages in length; yet it packs a lot of emotion into its small size. He claims that his own calmness is proof he is not mad when moments later he refers to a court case where calmness was evidence of madness.  The clarity of the prose is striking, and just as he claims he is not mad the narrator also claims the old man did nothing to cause him to kill him. He had no passion, no objection, he loved the old man; "I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him."  Yet upon reflection it was the old man's eye. "One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture--a pale blue eye, with a film over it. When ever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold;".
  There is more in this very short story, layers of details with each word important when attempting to understand it. The evil eye is a terror that was traditionally associated with the devil or the power to inflict pain or injury. Reaction to this leads the narrator onward relentlessly to the denouement. Yet the real terror is in the aftermath of his crime when, his heightened senses lead him to an unexpected end.
 Edgar Allan Poe, in this tale and in "The Black Cat" and others presents narrators that are unhinged by their actions, unaware of their own real feelings and those of the people around them. They interpret their own perversity as a form a sagacity and are methodical in their madness. The stories are filled with symbolism, and the perversity seems to be in spite of the will of the narrator. It is as if an "imp of the perverse" made him do the crime. Just so, Poe has another tale that dwells on that very character. Here we see Poe the master of the human conscience telling tales that lay bare the result when conscience is not present or ignored until it is too late; until its beating or other sign demands that it be heard.


CHE said...

very well said. I sense the same underlying perversity in another one of Poe's classic short stories, The Fall of The House of Usher. Here the narrator is not the perpetrator but both he and his friend have their misgivings which they willfully ignore. It's not as overt as Tell-tale Heart but Poe does deal with the same kind of people here.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. Your observation is interesting and the increase in subtlety in Usher may be Poe's maturation as a writer. Too bad his tales were not appreciated by contemporary audiences.