Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #23: The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Tell-Tale Heart." Pioneer, January 1843; Dollar Newspaper, 25 January 1843.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   9.00/10
My Rating:        10/10

"True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?"

Artwork by Virgil Finlay,
from Fantastic, Fall 1952

A man tells of a murder he has committed, attempting desperately to convince the listener of his sanity. The narrative is driven by a combination of character and plot, as the narrator's skewed judgement drives his actions. The main plot point--the narrator has killed a man--is quickly revealed, as Poe is interested in the teller more than he is in the tale.

The narration centres around the murderer's mental state, with emphasis on his heightened senses, and the detailing of the two major scenes: the murder itself and the police interrogation. Everything else is up for conjecture, and there is much conjecture to be sought. The narrator is more focused on the quieter, indistinguishable sounds, the heartbeats rather than the shrieks. This ends up being his eventual undoing, as he misinterprets ticking for the beating of the dead man's heart. The title emphasizes this, but it is ironic, as the heart is obviously silent, and cannot tell a tale, nor tattle tale (as was Poe's intention for the title). It is not the heart that tells, but the mind, the same mind that led the narrator to commit the horrible deed.

"The tell-Tale Heart" is among Poe's shortest stories, and its brevity is the result of the stripping of much detail. Poe also employs his own form of minimalism, and motive for the crime and the relationship between the killer and his victim are not directly revealed. As a result there is a good deal of work to be done by the reader in order to understand the relationship between murderer and victim, as well as the motive for the crime. Poe does sprinkle the test with hints for both, and over the years several interesting theories have been developed.

Many interpretations suggest the narrator is related to the "old man," either a son-father or nephew-uncle relationship. However, Poe inserts a few small clues to dissuade the interpretation that the two are related. We assume an age gap as the narrator refers to his victim as an old man. Beyond this, the relationship appears to be more business-like, somewhat formal as they live together and yet all of the old man's belongings are stored in his own room, and the narrator examines them without an emotional response, as though the objects are foreign to him. We are given the impression that the narrator owns the house, as it is he who answers the door when the police arrive, and it is he the police is interested in. He gives the investigators a tour of the house, accessing all of its rooms. The old man, then, is possibly a lodger. That his single room is filled with all his belongings, as mentioned above, we can assume the other rooms in the house are off limits to him, at least to a degree, or at least not in his possession as he would have his little trinkets all over the place, not just in the single room he occupies. Poe is also specific that the house is in the midst of an urban setting. This is an important point, since at the time houses along urban streets were built side-by-side, attached to one another. Poe reveals that it is a neighbour who calls the police, having heard noise. This tight-housed urban landscape is used in many of Poe's stories, notable "The Black Cat," whose geography is also integral to the story's plot.

Given these details, my interpretation of the story is that the men are unrelated, yet have been living together for some time, as there is an intimacy between them. "I loved the old man," says the narrator, and we have no reason to not believe this statement. The "old man" is used as a form of endearment, and is repeated each time without disdain. So why would this possible landlord want to murder a beloved old man whom, so he tells us, has no money or valuables, and whom he professes to love?

The narrator claims he wanted to destroy the old man's eye which he sees akin to that of a vulture. The narrator separates the eye from the man, so that he loves the man, but hates the eye. He is unable to harm the man, and it is the eye that he wishes to destroy. He is in this way excising himself from committing murder, as he is destroying an object and not a person. But why would he want to destroy this eye? It is "a pale blue eye, with a film over it," and every time the eye "fell upon" the narrator, his "blood ran cold." It is a creepy, ugly eye--the eye of a buzzard. The old man would watch the narrator, we suspect, and that look perhaps held a hint of judgement or disapproval, or simple wariness as the narrator has heightened senses and likely behaves daily with this defect. Perhaps there is no specific look given by the old man, but the narrator's heightened senses and paranoia may lead him to believe that there is. Described as a vulture's eye, we understand that a vulture is a scavenger, seeking carcasses rather than hunting and gathering, so that it is possible the narrator believed the old man was coveting his home or his belongings, as the old man in his advanced age had so little, and was forced to be content lodging in the home of this madman.

And so the conjecture can run on. Why Poe left us so little detail in this story is not problematic. He is interested in the character, his voice and the irony of his own undoing. Yet the food for thought left behind is of value to the reader, as we have such a short but rich text to appreciate.

For more of this week's Short Story Wednesday, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.


TracyK said...

I must have read this story long ago, but I should read it again. This has never been my favorite type of story but I may get more out of it now.

Casual Debris said...

Do you like the work of Poe? This one is really short & readily available online, so there is little to lose.

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