This month, I decided to highlight a story that is a universally celebrated and frequently discussed, as well as a seasonal favorite. For as short as it is, it surely packs a mean literary punch and leaves you thinking about it, long after you’ve finished reading it. So in the spirit of brevity, without further ado, allow me to introduce That’s Classic!’s Story of the Month for September 2010: “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe. (I have included a link to a full-text version of the story at the bottom of this post, so you can refresh your memory about the story!)
I think that at some point in our lives, each and every one of us has read this classic short story. In fact, I believe I read it in both junior high and high school. Which, to be perfectly honest, was too early for me to grasp the many layers–or at least what I think are the layers–of this story. Having dappled in flash fiction (also known as “sudden fiction” or a “short short story”), I can appreciate how difficult it is to set up a story, develop characters, and create a satisfying conclusion in 2,500 words or less. But to set up an interesting story, to develop dynamic characters, and to create a truly surprising yet satisfying conclusion in 2,500 words or less is admirable, and something to certainly study.
Normally at this point in one of my Story of the Month reviews, I would give a boiled-down plot summary of the story. But what do we truly know about the characters in this story, or even what’s really going on? There’s the protagonist, an unnamed man (actually, do we even know he’s male?), and the “old man” he…lives with? Cares for? Is related to? We’re never told the relationship between the main character and the old man. It’s one of the great mysteries of literature. But the even greater mystery is why readers don’t let that glaring point stand in the way of them accessibly reading the story!
Usually, when we read stories, we want to know: Who is the story about? Where does it take place? When does it take place? What are the circumstances? Why is that important, and why should we care? (In other words, why should I want to keep on reading?) And how is all this relevant to the meaning of the story? In the case of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” we know that there are only a few characters: the protagonist, the old man who for some reason trusts the protagonist, and a handful of police officers that have little more impact on the story than to indirectly make the protagonist go crazy (even more than he already was, but claimed not to be). We know that the story takes place in a building, perhaps a house where the old man and, presumably, the main character live. When the story takes place is not clear, but I would assume it is sometime around when the story was written or published (1843).
Even with all of those points unclear, the “what,” “why,” and “how” of the story are much more clear. The main character–who is also our narrator–sets up the circumstances of the story from the very beginning. He claims not to be mad, yet accuses us of thinking and calling him crazy. It reminds me of the ubiquitous college drunkard, who repeats over and over, “I’m not drunk. I swear I’m not drunk!” And, as we all know, that only asserts the fact that the person is, in fact, completely drunk. In a similar manner, the narrator adamantly defends his sanity in such a frantic manner that we can’t help but find him to be completely insane. He confesses to us right away, in a cool, removed sort of manner (but certainly not in a calm manner) about how he killed the old man, how he plotted for a week about killing him. But what I find more interesting than the “what” is the “why” and the “how.”
“Why do we want to keep reading?” is simple enough: the story is interesting. From the get-go, we like the idea of a crazed murderer telling us a story, especially about how he committed murder. We want to know what happens next. We want to know how the protagonist kills the old man. We know that he hates the old man’s blue, filmy eye (what he calls the “Evil Eye”), but what actually brings him to the moment of murder? Will he confess? Will he be caught? We know when we pick up the story that it is short, and that a lot will happen in a short amount of time (both in the time frame of the story and in the time it takes us to read the story), and we’re curious to see how Poe will (honestly) do anything worthwhile in such a short story. We trust that he will, we just want to see “how.”
How Poe wrote this story is really how we get that the narrator is crazy. More than the way the protagonist denies being mad, it is how Poe composed his sentences–as if they were coming straight out of the protagonist’s mouth–that shows us that the denials are clearly false. First on a more syntactical level, the length of sentences lends itself to the narrator’s sense of urgency and insanity. Poe writes short sentence after short sentence, build each one off the energy of the one that came before it. Then, just when the reader can’t keep up with the sheer velocity of the sentences, Poe throws in a long, grammatically-sound sentence, separated into phrases and clauses, bookended with commas. But instead of the occasional longer sentence slowing down the tone of the story, instead it shows the wandering and almost manically-detailed mind of the self-proclaimed murderer. The long sentences show us how intelligent the main character is, but the short ones (which extremely outnumber the long ones) reaffirm our assertion that he must be crazy to be so calculated to kill someone so close to him.
The other important “how is this all relevant?” is in what Poe chooses to focus on. If you were to print out “The Tell-Tale Heart” single-spaced on standard letter-sized paper, it would be less than two full pages. Most of those two pages is spent with the narrator standing in the doorway of the old man’s bedroom, carefully watching him sleep, waiting for the time when he’ll catch the old man’s Evil Eye open, and then when the narrator finally scares the old man, pushes the bed on top of him–thus killing him–and stashes the body in the floorboards. The time before the murder, when the main character is planning to kill the old man, is told quickly and is pretty much just glanced over. Once the murder is over, and the police arrive to investigate, the narrator resumes his quick-paced storytelling again. But it is the waiting, the agonizing waiting for that Evil Eye, and the ultimate destruction of that Eye that dominates the length and power of the story. It’s what shows us the true maniacal nature of our increasingly unreliable narrator…which is the most unnerving type of narrator to have. Because if we can’t trust him to tell us the truth about his nature (his sanity or, rather, his insanity), can we really trust anything of what he tells us?
Poe doesn’t give us very much information in this story, but what he does give us is full of answers, of layers of subtlety to sift through. We may not know who this narrator is, but we know what he’s like and what he’s capable of. We may not know his relationship to the old man, but we know what becomes of that relationship. We don’t really know where or when the story takes place, but that doesn’t matter. The dynamic quality of the story isn’t in the passage of time or the change of location. Actually, it’s in the sheer lack of movement in space or time. The “end” of the story happens only a few short hours after the murder, which begins almost at the beginning of the story. The end, which is ushered in by the arrival of the police officers, occurs literally in the very same room where the murder was committed. And that is necessary for Poe to be able to “end” the story, to give us the sense of “conclusion” that he does. Poe needed the place to stay the same, and for little time to pass, so that the main character has no time–other than the week of pre-mediation–to deal with the murder. Otherwise, the frantic pace of the story would be lost and there’d be no way to end the story in the same manner with which it began. Like a good piece of flash fiction, Poe remains consistent, while creating incredible amounts of change.
Now, lastly, to address the “tell-tale heart” itself. Without giving away the ending of the story, in case there are some of you out there who haven’t read the story yet, allow me to put a little bee in your bonnet: The story is told in such a way so that you believe the beating in the narrator’s ears, the loud drumbeats are that of the old man’s heart, both before and after the murder. But I propose that the rhythmic thumps are none other than the beating of the main character’s own heart, a way for him to share with us his own anxiety for the circumstances of the story. We’ve all felt that, the pulsing in our ears when adrenaline is coursing through our veins, for whatever reason, be it good or bad. Perhaps we could read into the “tell-tale heart” as being the narrator’s own heart, the “tell-tale” sign to the reader that the narrator is, in fact, mad, and that he is too far gone to ever realize it.
But I’d like to hear your opinions on the sounds the protagonist hears, and what you think they might mean or signal. And, if you still haven’t read the story, then please click here to read a full-text version of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” please click here. (Thanks to Literature.org for posting this story.)