Compendium of Horror, Fear, and the Grotesque

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A Short Reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”


Poe speaks often about his view that truly “good” fiction must be short in order for it to be comprehended in a single reading. He was not fond of long works of fiction because he believed that literature must impress the reader by capturing his attention and keeping it. He called this way of holding the reader’s attention a “unity of effect.” The most probable reason for Poe’s attraction to short fiction was that he wrote for popular magazines of his time. And for economic reasons, stories in magazines had to be short. So Poe was interested in devising a formula for writing short fiction quickly and as effectively as possible.

“The Tell-Tale Heart” is a perfect example of a short work of fiction that immediately grabs the reader’s attention and keeps it focused: “TRUE! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why WILL you say that I am mad?” His first sentence speaks directly to the reader through the main character of the story. The main character protests his sanity so much that you might start to think that either he's nuts or perhaps he's got something really unique and important to share with you. In any case, Poe's technique definitely holds your attention coming into the story.

So now you’re hooked by Poe’s ploy and hopefully you are curious enough to want to find out what this character is raving about. You soon discover that the guy has, for no apparent reason, an obsession with the “pale blue eye” of an older guy living in the same house. The main character never bothers to tell you what his relationship is to this older guy, but he does say that he never had a problem with the guy: “I loved the old man. He had never wronged me.” But for some unexplained reason he has a problem with the old man’s eye.

The main character then goes to great lengths to explain how stealthily and brilliantly he stalked the old man until he finally suffocates him with a mattress. Then he explains meticulously how he dismembered the old man's body and buried it beneath the floor boards leaving no signs of blood or of a struggle. But the police show up at his door later, presumably because the neighbors heard a scream, and the main character invites them in. He even places his chair on the floorboards that cover the corpse.

Poe talked about what he called “The Imp of the Perverse.” He described it as an impulse within each of us that suddenly makes us want to do something perverse or even life-threatening; for example, the sudden impulse to jump when you look over the side of a cliff—or the impulse to strangle your own infant when you hear it crying. The main character in “The Tell-Tale Heart” demonstrates Poe’s “imp of the perverse” when he invites the police into his house. His overconfidence in his perfectly logical and “sane” mind causes him to act on impulse and ultimately confess to the murder.

What a weird and puzzling tale! Why would Poe want to capture our attention to tell us a story about some whacked out dude who ends up killing some guy for no reason and then confessing his crime to the cops? Well, we know that Poe succeeded in keeping our attention, but do we dare ask if this oddly disturbing tale actually means anything? Let’s do.

I know that some of you are not terribly interested in literature, so I’ll try to keep it short. The study of literature is similar to the work of an archeologist. You start by looking at the surface and the immediate surroundings, and then you start to dig. As you dig, you begin to uncover objects that reveal something about the history of a tribe or an entire civilization.

With literature you start by looking at what is called the “surface meaning”; what the words and syntax and storyline tell you is happening. We’ve already seen what the surface meaning tells us in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” But there are deeper levels of meaning that offer a richer experience and are not readily apparent until you start digging. When you analyze literature there are a number of "literary techniques" you can look for to see if you can get a better understanding of what the author is trying to convey. Examples of these techniques are metaphor, imagery, irony, and symbolism. For a complete list of these techniques, see "A Glossary of Rhetorical Terms with Examples."

Let's just look at how Poe employs symbolism in "The Tell-Tale Heart." One of the deeper levels of this story reveals some interesting symbols (just like those objects discovered during an archeological dig). The “pale blue eye” symbolizes something. The sound of the beating heart represents something else. Let's take the old man's eye as an example of Poe's use of symbolism. Hoffman says the old man's eye is a symbol of  the "evil eye" from an older mythology:

The Evil Eye is a belief…in man’s superstitious memory…and it usually signifies the attribution to another of a power wished for by the self….[We can take the old man to represent the main character’s father-figure whose] Eye becomes the all-seeing surveillance of the child by the father, even by The Father. This surveillance is of course the origin of the child’s conscience, the inculcation into his soul of the paternal principles of right and wrong. As such, the old man’s eye becomes a ray to be feared. For if the boy deviate ever so little from the strict paths of rectitude, it will find him out [Daniel Hoffman, Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972), p. 223].

The deeper meaning here is a psychological one. The eye is a symbol Poe uses to show another level of meaning within the story. In this case, Freud’s psychology (the "oedipal complex") can be used to decode that psychological meaning. Metaphor is another literary technique that Poe uses to offer you yet another deep meaning. If, for example you know what Poe's “poetics” is (poetics means his theory of literature), you can understand the story as a metaphor for how a short story is properly constructed. We know that Poe theorized that “unity of effect” is necessary to make a story work. And we know that he theorized that a short story is the correct vehicle to carry out this emotional effect on the reader. So this level of meaning reveals Poe’s poetics in actual practice.

There are countless ways to approach a work of literature and countless ways to explain what you find when you dig deeper than the surface level. I hope I’ve given you a quick and easy way to look at other works of fiction to find meaning or substance beyond the surface storyline. Maybe just think of literature as the ocean. You can sail along the surface and enjoy the sunshine, or you can learn to explore the depths for a rich variety of life or buried treasures.