A reading of a classic horror story
‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ is a Gothic novel in miniature. All of the elements of the Gothic novel are here: the subterranean secret, the Gothic space (scaled down from a full-blown castle to a single room), the gruesome crime – even the hovering between the supernatural and the psychological. In just five pages, it’s as if Edgar Allan Poe has scaled down the eighteenth-century Gothic novel into a story of just a few thousand words. But what makes this story so unsettling? Closer analysis reveals that ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ centres on that most troubling of things: the motiveless murder. You can read the story here.
First, a brief summary of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’. An unnamed narrator confesses that he has murdered an old man, apparently because of the old man’s ‘Evil Eye’ which drove the narrator to kill him. He then describes how he crept into the old man’s bedroom while he slept and stabbed him, dragging the corpse away and dismembering it, so as to conceal his crime. He goes to some lengths to cover up all trace of the murder – he even caught his victim’s blood in a tub, so that none was spilt anywhere – and then he takes up three of the floorboards of the chamber, and conceals his victim’s body underneath. But no sooner has he concealed the body than there’s a knock at the door: it’s the police, having been called out by a neighbour who heard a shriek during the night. The narrator lets the police officers in to search the premises, and tells them a lie about the old man being away in the country. He keeps his calm while showing them around, until they go and sit down in the room below which the victim’s body is concealed. The narrator and the police officers talk, but gradually the narrator begins to hear a ringing in his ears, a noise that becomes louder and more insistent. He believes that it is the beating of the dead man’s heart, taunting him from beyond the grave. Eventually, he can’t stand it any more, and tells the police to tear up the floorboards, the sound of the old man’s beating heart driving him to confess his crime.
The narrator of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ is clearly unstable, as the end of the story reveals, but his mental state is questionable right from the start, as the jerky syntax of his narrative suggests:
True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but 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? Hearken! and observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
The multiple dashes, the unusual syntactical arrangement, the exclamation and question marks: all suggest someone who is, at the very least, excitable. His repeated protestations that he is sane and merely subject to ‘over acuteness of the senses’ don’t fully convince: there is too much in his manner (to say nothing of his baseless murder of the old man) to suggest otherwise.
And indeed, what makes ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ especially chilling – and here we might draw a parallel with another of Poe’s best-known tales, ‘The Black Cat’ – is that the killer freely confesses that his murder of the old man was a motiveless crime:
I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees – very gradually – I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
Murder is never justified, but it is sometimes understandable when a person has been driven to extremes and isn’t thinking clearly. But Poe’s narrator didn’t even kill the old man for something as cynical as financial gain. Even his proffered motive – the old man’s ‘Evil Eye’ – is weak. He has to convince himself that that was why he did it, after the fact: ‘I think it was his eye! yes, it was this!’ (our emphasis). One can imagine a police detective doing a double-take in the interview room. ‘You think it was his eye?’ This alone makes it clear that we are dealing with an unhinged mind, somebody who, to borrow from Bob Dylan, ‘killed for no reason’. Motiveless murderers are often the most unsettling. Consider the ‘motiveless malignity’ of Iago, perhaps Shakespeare’s finest villain, who offers a number of potential motives for wanting to destroy the lives of Othello and Desdemona, and in doing so reveals that he very probably doesn’t have a real motive – other than wishing to cause trouble for the hell of it.
But Othello is not Poe’s main Shakespearean intertext for ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’. Closer analysis of the story reveals that an important precursor-text to ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, and probable influence on Poe, is William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Both texts centre on the murder of an ‘old man’; in both cases, the murderer is driven to feel guilt over his crime by being ‘haunted’ by his victim from beyond the grave (Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth, the old man’s beating heart in Poe’s story); both Macbeth and Poe’s narrator show signs of being at least a little mentally unstable; in both texts, the murder of the victim is followed by a knocking at the door.
But what makes Poe’s tale especially effective is the way he employs doubling to suggest that it is perfectly natural that the narrator should be paranoid about the sound coming from the floorboards. For before he had murdered the old man, the narrator had imagined his victim ‘trying to comfort himself’ when he heard a noise outside his bedroom:
I knew that he had been lying awake ever since the first slight noise, when he had turned in the bed. His fears had been ever since growing upon him. He had been trying to fancy them causeless, but could not. He had been saying to himself – ‘It is nothing but the wind in the chimney – it is only a mouse crossing the floor,’ or ‘It is merely a cricket which has made a single chirp.’ Yes, he had been trying to comfort himself with these suppositions: but he had found all in vain. All in vain; because Death, in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim.
But of course this is really the narrator projecting his own unease around sounds; and it thus foreshadows his later paranoia over the supposed sound coming from under the floorboards – the sound that will drive him to confess to his crime.
But along with the ‘motiveless’ nature of the narrator’s crime, the other aspect of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ which makes it such a powerful analysis of the nature of crime and guilt is the slight ambiguity hovering over that sound which taunts the narrator at the end of the story. It seems most likely that the sound exists only in his head, since the policemen are apparently oblivious to it as they continue to chat away calmly to the narrator. (This is the one real weak point in Poe’s story: once they’ve searched the premises they appear to hang around to make small talk with the narrator. Haven’t they got more important things to do? Unless the narrator isn’t as calm at this point as he believes, and they suspect foul play and are trying to get him to reveal something incriminating…) But we cannot be entirely sure. Even if the sound is supernatural in origin – and Poe was obviously a master of the supernatural, as several of his other best stories attest – it may be that his victim is making his ghostly heartbeat heard only to the narrator, burrowing away deep within his mind. But on balance we’re tempted to think that Poe, along with Dickens around the same time (compare the studied analysis of the murderer Jonas Chuzzlewit’s mind as he flees the scene), is pioneering a new kind of approach to the ‘ghost story’ here – one in which the ‘ghost’ is no more than a hallucination or phantom of the character’s mind. Although such ambiguity had been used to good effect by Shakespeare, in the ghost story it is Poe, in such stories as ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, who used this ambiguous plot detail to offer a deeper, more unsettling analysis of the nature of conscience.
Image: Illustration of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ by Harry Clarke, circa 1919, via Wikimedia Commons.