Considering Poe’s ideas… Versions of reality Cleverness/ cunning Mortality Time
Versions of reality: ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ disrupts our perceptions of reality. As we discussed last lesson the deeper we delve into the depths of another persons reality we seek an understanding which may taint our judgment of that character.
As we consider the psychological aspects of our narrator something about him and the way he tells his story sparks our curiosity. We move with the narrator as he relays his version of events, we follow him through the maze of his mind and into his version of reality.
Consider this… Does the narrator’s version of events seem unique to you? Does the narrator seem inhuman to you? Is your perception built upon his actions or his narration? Do light and dark impact on the character’s version of reality? Could the story be a nightmare?
Examine… “It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but conceived, it haunted me day and night.” But what does sit mean?
The narrator’s obsession is such that his entire focus is so small as to be a single eye. If the narrator as thinking about a cure for cancer or similar we may see his obsession as a good thing. Here his version of reality can be considered dangerous to himself and others, namely the old man.
Examine… “For it was not the old man that vexed me, but his Evil Eye.” Using a proper noun for the eye gives it almost godlike powers. It seems that the narrator believes that the ‘vulture eye’ of the old man is inhabited by an evil spirit or similar.
Examine… “And it was the mournful influence of the unperceived shadow that caused him to feel- although he neither saw nor heard- to feel the presence of my head within the room.” Why is this quote interesting?
Well… This particular passage is interesting because the narrator is speaking for the old man. Throughout the events of the eighth night the narrator imagines the old man’s feelings, using his own experiences as a kind of template, something which allows the Narrator to indulge in a pre-murder empathy with him.
Cunning/ Cleverness… The main character promises us a tale of cunning and cleverness- at the onset of the story we doubt him (we may even feel cleverer than him) but by the end we have been caught in his web of intrigue.
Consider… Do you think the narrator is intelligent? If he is clever- why didn’t he find an alternate solution to murder? What does this say about his reasoning ability? Last lesson we discussed the narrator’s criteria for insanity- does this lack of reasoning prove or disprove his sanity? If he is clever and cunning, is his confession helping or hindering him?
In some ways the story is told with a calm detachment. There is control in the narrative (at least initially, later the narrator seems to get caught up in the excitement/horror of his own story). BUT… do we get the whole story?
NO! We don’t- we are given snippets of information. Look at the time indicators within the story we, the readers/audience, are only given the information the narrator wants to share or sees as important. “Hearken! and observe how healthily- how calmly I can tell you the whole story.”
Some comic relief… “And then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in!” Ok- so I know you have just read this and thought other things… go ahead laugh, snigger, get it out of your system. BUT this line is SO silly that it borders on the ridiculous- perhaps a sign of the narrator’s illness. More certainly it is a little comic relief by a talented writer lightening the mood- well done Poe.
“To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts.” Does this seem cunning? Clever? How can he be so sure that the Old Man doesn’t suspect anything- is this because of the narrator’s cunning or lack of it?
Home is where the heart is… Or is it? In this story Poe twists the perception of home (a place we hang our hats as well as our larger community) into a place of violence, death, disease, anguish and isolation.
Consider… What image do you have of the interior of the house? (Evidence) Is it scary? Why? Is a house home if you cannot trust the other people within its walls? Why doesn’t the narrator leave instead of killing the old man? Does the story give us any clues?
Examine… “And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it- oh so gently!” “And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber.” “And now a new anxiety seized me- the sound would be heard by a neighbour!”
Home can be an uncomfortable place when we fear some form of retribution- in this case he fears his neighbours. It could be very uncomfortable living with someone like the narrator nearby (thinking of the Old Man). The Old Man leaves his door unlocked, it means he either trusts the narrator or that he has no choice. If the narrator is awake until midnight, for an hour or so after and at day-break does he actually sleep at night?
Mortality… ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ is a really bad murder mystery, the kind where you know who did it, but can’t understand their motives. The story deals with the fear of death, with dying and the question of how one person can kill another.
Consider… Is the narrator scared of dying? Evidence? Is it significant that the narrator kills the old man with his own bed? Would substituting this weapon for another significantly change the story? What do you think the narrator plans to do after the story?
Examine… “I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.” “All in vain; because Death, in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim.” “Yes, he was stone, stone dead.”
Perhaps the old man is already ailing, certainly it appears that Death is nearby- a little ironic. Death seems to be personified. The narrator also comes to be Death with his own nemesis- the Evil Eye. The narrator is also the stalker. What makes the repetition of the word ‘stone’ important? It emphasises the fact that there would be no reviving him and that he was ready for burial. A reference to Medusa?
Tick Tock… This story is jam packed with references to time and clocks- perhaps we could even say that it is obsessed with time. Try tracking time through the story….
Consider… Are time and heartbeats connected? The events of the story occur over eight days. Is this significant? Why are we given this detail but not the month or year? How might the narrator have spent the first seven days? Do you think he sleeps?