The Role of the Narrator in “The Tell Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe
In “The Tell-Tale Heart” Edgar Allan Poe employs elements of horror that terrifies us as the readers, since we see a sign of realism in the character of the narrator and it is through the narrator’s madness that we become frightened. The narrator’s inner dialogue is the most important aspect of the story as it takes us into the mind of the narrator. Poe sets up this story around a man that claims to be sane, and is sane enough to write the story and record facts. The narrator’s denial is a crucial factor in this tale because he never considers that he is mad. He is driven by his madness and he thinks he is perfectly justified in his actions. The central symbol of the story is the heart that tells the tale and this symbol reflects with the main symbols of madness and fear, and relates with the image of the vulture eye. These symbols converge in the mind of the narrator and directs him to his destiny.
The narrator, who goes to great lengths to convince us that he is not mad, demonstrates rather that he is quite mad indeed: “Why WILL you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses, not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How then am I mad?” He admits that he has a “disease” that affects his hearing. We sense that what he hears from heaven, earth and hell, all comes from his own mind. Through this character, Poe demonstrates his belief that what goes on inside a human’s mind is contributory in creating that person’s outside reality. The narrator’s mind is controlled by fear, and this fear directs him to insanity. He desires fear and by the end of the tale, fear destroys him symbolically by making every moment a living hell. Fear also destroys him literally, for his confession at the end will lead to either death or life in prison.
The narrator is addicted to inner fear from which he creates his outer reality that eventually destroys him in the end. He says it is fear of the old man’s pale blue eye that makes him want to murder him. He is making this up as he realizes in any way to feed his addiction to fear. The narrator seems uncertain why he had to kill the old man, concluding that it is because of his pale blue eye. This can be considered an illogical and unconvincing conclusion. The narrator describes the eye: “One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture -- a pale blue eye with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me my blood ran cold, and . . . I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.”
The eye can be considered a symbol for the “I”, or the persona of the narrator. He is noticeably distressed and terrified that his fears and plans would be revealed. The eye, in a sense, is a representation of a view into the mind and soul of the narrator. The fact that the eye is constantly watching him becomes true in the end when the narrator reveals his own guilt. We can also perceive the eye as the conscience of the narrator. His fear leads him to destroy it instead of trying to correlate his desire with what his conscience suggests to be right. The irrationality of his mind leads him to believe that conveying fear to the old man would ultimately clear off his own fear. Poe uses the image of a vulture in order to signify the alienation of the murderer from his own incentive of feeding his own fear.
The murderer wants the old man to experience the fear of death because that is the actual fear that causes him pain. He says: “Death in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him and enveloped the victim.” What he is actually saying is that he himself is the victim, who is stalked by the shadow of death, and he is talking about his own fear. The reason “the vulture eye” torments him so is that it is his own eye (I) staring at him, an eye (I) that feeds on fear: “It was open, wide, wide open, and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness -- all a dull blue with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones.” He is furious at his inability to control his madness. Here we see how the narrator’s anxiety has pushed him to an extreme in this scene, a prelude to the old man’s murder. The anxiety is produced by the eye and only intensifies as the narrator thinks of it.
When he is about to kill the old man and hears him groan, the narrator recognizes “the groan of mortal terror.” This groan is as familiar as his own heartbeat. He’s admitting his own midnight terrors, and now he’s getting an indirect thrill out of the old man’s fear. He’s now feeding on another’s fear as well as his own. As the old man waits fearfully, knowing something is about to happen to him, the reader senses that the fear is worse than the deed itself. It is the anxiety and his planning onto his victim that feeds the murderer.
Nearly half way through the tale we come to the beating heart. We have learned not to trust the narrator, so must find him even less trustworthy now: “And now have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the senses?” The heart sounds he hears are his own rather than those of the old man. Even if the old man’s heart is pounding in fear, the narrator’s is pounding louder. He fools himself into feeling that he is calm, but his fear is at its manic height as he prepares for murder: “Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder, every instant. The old man's terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment! . . . I have told you that I am nervous: . . . the beating grew louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst. And now a new anxiety seized me -- the sound would be heard by a neighbor!” It is his own heart that seems about to burst. When we hear of his fear that the sound would be heard by a neighbor, we are certain of his irrationality. No real heart, no matter how loud it beats, could be heard through walls.
As we could have predicted, even killing the old man does not resolve the narrator's fear. At first he shows confidence that his crime cannot be detected, but he has no control over his own mad mind. Soon his old fears emerge, he begins to hear the beating heart which he madly assumes belongs to the dead man, and begins to fear that the police will figure out what he has done. He cannot stand the fear: “It was A LOW, DULL, QUICK SOUND -- MUCH SUCH A SOUND AS A WATCH MAKES WHEN ENVELOPED IN COTTON… They heard! -- they suspected! -- they KNEW! -- they were making a mockery of my horror! … anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die!--and now . . . hark! louder! louder! louder! LOUDER!” It is his own fear that he cannot stand. It is fear of this loud tell-tale beating of his own heart that causes the murderer to turn himself in. He has no control over his own irrational mind. It is not the dead man’s heart beating under the floor boards; it is the murderers own fearful heart, beating louder and louder, feeding his fear to the climactic moment when he surrenders to the police and hopes that this will at last kill that fearful eye (I) which torments him.
It is the heart of the narrator that tells the tale, thus the double meaning of the title becomes obvious. The narrator is doing the telling of the tale since the narrator feels the need to confess, and it is his heart of the old man that tells the true tale. Poe demonstrates that fear works best when it is confronted with the painful reality. The narrator of the story is a man just like any other man, and that supports the idea that we are never more frightened than when we face the truth of reality. The horror of the story comes from the knowledge that the narrator has created his own fear in his own mind.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Tell–Tale Heart. Elegant Ebooks, Web.
< http://www.ibiblio.org/ebooks/Poe/Tell-Tale_Heart.pdf >
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Wall, Brian. “Narrative Purpose and Legal Logic in The Tell-Tale Heart”. The Edgar Allan Poe Review. Vol. 14, No. 2: pp. 129-143. Penn State University Press. 2013. Web. 18 May 2014.
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