Monday, October 26, 2009

Reader's Diary #538- Edgar Allan Poe: The Tell-Tale Heart

Edgar Allan Poe is the only author that I've read in entirety. But that was back in high school. I was a little nervous to reread him. You know what it's like revisiting something. Often it's nowhere near how good you remembered and you wish you hadn't. That was not the case this time. Turns out I love "The Tell-Tale Heart" as much as ever.

I'm also glad I reread it to clear up a possible misconception that I've had all this time: that the narrator confessed to a murder because he was driven mad from guilt. Isn't every high school student taught that? Now I'm not so sure.

Clearly the narrator is crazy. Declaring himself sane but suffering from a disease which heightens his senses, Poe has created an iconic unreliable narrator. The only thing we know for sure is that he clearly did murder an old man. While it wouldn't hold up in court, I'm of the mind that anyone who murders has gone crazy, at least temporarily. (Of course, I also think there are varying degrees of crazy. And I can't believe I have a psych degree and I'm even using the term crazy.) If you believe the rest of the lead up to the murder-- that he was driven to kill because he couldn't look at the old guy's cataract any longer-- you'd have to acknowledge that he was crazy before the crime. Therefore, he wasn't driven mad by guilt, he was mad long before the crime was even committed!

Plus (and again this his hard to argue effectively since he's an unreliable narrator), there's no sign of remorse at all. He discusses chopping off the man's arms, legs, and head as if talking about carving up a Christmas turkey. If he's feeling guilty, you'd think there'd be some sign of regret.

But don't you just love how powerfully Poe uses the unreliability to his narrator to his advantage?

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)


Allison said...

Poe is the only other author I have read fully as well. I just cracked into his completed works to reread the other day. They are like a cozy, blanket cape...his chaos upon the chaos cancels each other out, and somewhere in there I always find comfort.

Anonymous said...

I'm convinced Poe had OCD. I re-read that story a year ago or so and loved it all over again. It's timeless.

Rob Velella said...

You recognized a lot of the stuff I find great about "The Tell-Tale Heart." Even though it's an entertaining horror story read nationwide by 7th-to-9th graders, it's a great tale, has a decent amount of depth, and can still be debated. I asked a high school group if they really believed that the narrator murdered someone over a gross eyeball. They all agreed it couldn't possibly be the real reason. Read my post on it here, if you like.

To those who said they've read all of Poe's works, I'd love to hear opinions on his lesser-known comedies. I still find him funny, but my mind is still in the 19th century.

As far as the poster who suggested Poe had OCD, I wonder what evidence is seen for that? Sometimes people mistake his prose for autobiography; I swear, it's fiction!

Anonymous said...

Rob: Oh, I realize it's fiction! I have OCD, and I find Poe's thought process to be strangely familiar.

JoAnn said...

So glad this story stood the test of time for you! I read it earlier this year and still loved it.

I've got a couple contemporary stories from The Virago Book of Ghost Stories this week.

John Mutford said...

Allison: A friend of mine recently gave me a beautiful black leatherbound copy of the complete works. Looks all nice and gothic up there on the shelf.

Ferry Tales: I've heard that he was depressed and had a drinking problem, but I've not heard the OCD theory!

Rob: I enjoyed your take, that maybe he did have an overly acute senses. Interesting.

JoAnn: I should have known it would. That other classic, The Raven, has never grown old for me.

Rob Velella said...

Not to harp on it here but... how do we know Poe's thought process? The closest you can get is his essay "The Philosophy of Composition" - which is considered to be another of Poe's many hoaxes.

Poe's depression is highly debatable (considering the term is an anachronism). His drinking problem is also debatable, but there's no evidence at all that alcohol effected his writing (other than that it kept him from writing on occasion). And, of course, the big secret in Poe lore is that he was much more sober than is usually reported.

John Mutford said...

Rob: I'll let the Ferry Tales field the thought processes question.

As for the depression and alcoholism thing, asides from reading it somewhere once upon a time, I haven't given it much thought. Do I think some of an author's personality sinks into his/her work? Absolutely. But how that manifest itself could look a thousand different ways. I know, of course, that horror writers don't all have mental illnesses or sordid pasts or anything of the sort. Still, some might. Their biographies are no more or less interesting than any other human being, I'm sure.

Lisa said...

I have never actually "read" any Poe, although I have several of the stories on a CD for Halloween. But..I bought my son the complete works for Christmas. Maybe I'll have to borrow it. Maybe this week before Halloween. I'm sure he won't mind!

Teddy Rose said...

Wow, what a fun debate you have going on here. I also read a lot of Poe in high school. The first story being this one.

You have all convinced me that I need to re-visit myself.

I was able to get in a short story of sorts in today, a children's book:

John Mutford said...

Lisa: Yes, you definitely need to read at least one story for Halloween!

Teddy: Most of us seem to be introduced to Poe at high school. Glad he's in the canon!