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Edgar Allan Poe The Tell-Tale Heart
Plot / Structure
The story’s plot presents us with a narrator who wants to convince us of his not being insane. He offers a story as proof. In the story, which is called the Tale-Tell Heart, the initial situation is one of a horrific act about to happen. The narrator hates an old man’s eye and decides to kill him so that his eye will stop looking at the narrator.
The narrator rehearses his plan to kill the old man very diligently. He goes to his room every night for a week, looking for a chance to execute his dirty plan. The sleeping man does not open his eye and the narrator is unable to kill him. The narrator’s problem is with the ‘eye’ of the old man and not with the man himself. Every night that he enters the old man’s room, he waits for the offending eye to open so that he could get rid of it by killing the person. The conflict within the narrator continues till he gets his chance.
One night, the narrator makes a noise while spying on the old man, who wakes up and opens his eye. A slight hint of complication in the plot, but soon enough the narrator gets his window of opportunity. Plot quickly heads to its climax. The narrator executes his murder plan. He kills the old man by pushing him under his own bed, cuts up the body and hides it under wooden flooring of the bedroom.
The narrator has been able to do a pretty clean job. No trace of his crime seems to be there. And now it’s suspense time. The Police, alerted by some neighbour who heard some noise at night, arrive to investigate. The narrator remains calm and collected. He gives them a guided tour of the house, and then invites them to hang out with him in the dead man's bedroom. Strangely enough, the narrator starts to hear a terrible noise, which gets louder and louder. He does not know what to do. The noise keeps on getting louder until the narrator is unable to take it anymore. The plot swiftly hurls into its denouement. The narrator is so desperate to stop the noise that he prefers to tell the cops to look under the floorboards. He believes his confession would stop the menacing noise. The plot concludes with the narrator identifying the ‘ringing’ sound that initially eludes him. He hears ‘a low, dull, quick sound – much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton’ and in the very last line concludes that the sound was ‘the beating of (the man's) hideous heart!’.
Narrative Point of View
The narrator in this story is the central person. Like other narrators in Poe’s stories, he is somewhat unreliable. We are unable to really conclude if he is telling us what really happened. In this story, the narrator is trying to establish that he is not insane. He offers his ability to exercise ‘dissimulation’ to mask his true feelings or intention as an evidence of his being sane. His dissimulation involves being nice to the old man, while hatching his plan to kill him for his eye.
The narrator also talks about his intensely powerful sense of hearing. He says that ‘he can hear all things in the heaven and in the earth (and) many things in hell’. This casts doubt on his ability to comprehend reality. Is he hearing sounds due to his insanity?
The narrative given to us in the story is one of an omniscient narrator. He tells us how the old man feels and what the old man is thinking. ‘Presently I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror. .. knew the sound well. Many a night … it has welled up from my own bosom’ is what he tells us. . As we can see, the narrator's peep into the man's head reflects his own experience.
The point of view described in the narrative is at times quite unreliable and yet very compelling. The narrator perhaps is unable to perceive or accurately remember the events. The horror that seeps out to hit us is chilling. The narrator is a human being who goes to extremes to kill an old man he otherwise loves just because he does not like his ‘pale blue eye, with a film over it’. Whether we put ourselves in the shoes of the narrator or his victim, the outcome is scary.
The story is set in a house. The story unfolds inside a random old house. Very few direct details are furnished. The house might be located in an urban neighbourhood, possibly in a high crime area, as a neighbour, who is able to hear the old man’s screams, alerts the cops who arrive promptly at four o’clock, just after the narrator has hidden the body.
The setting is made to fit the horror story by giving description of how the latch is turned open, how the narrator opens ‘very, very little crevice in the lantern’ inside the bedroom that’s ‘as black as pitch’ and, in the end, how the narrator took up ‘three planks from the flooring of the chamber’ to deposit the cut up remains of the old man.
Poe’s choice of words, syntax and structure are remarkable in this story as well. He uses precise words and tightly packed sentences to create the atmosphere and the setting in which the cold-blooded murder is going to take place. Just like the heartbeats of the old man that the narrator could hear because of his acute sense of hearing, some of the sentences in this story are short and fast-paced, yet impact us with a sense of finality.
Let’s look at what the narrator says about his motives to kill the old man: “Object there was none. Passion there was none. 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!".
His usage of longer sentences dramatizes horror. The effect is so sharp that readers might actually experience it when, for instance, the narrator says, "So I opened it – you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily – until, at length a simple dim ray, like the thread of the spider, shot from out the crevice and fell full upon the vulture eye".
The narrator comes across as a mental wreck. He is ‘very dreadfully nervous’, paranoid, and physically and mentally ill. He seems to be completely alone and alienated in the world. We wonder if he sleeps at all, turning latches at night and chatting with his would-be victim during day time.
He's also depicted as a perverse murderer, who kills an old man for no reason or rhyme. He says, "You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing" and that’s precisely what insane people often utter. They commit crimes because they are unable to control their impulses. However, it is difficult to really accept that he is mad. He is not able to carry the burden of the evil deed that he did and starts hearing noises. The situation is quite reminiscent of Shakespeare’s lady Macbeth and Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment’.
The character of the narrator again is one-dimensional. He is rather symbolic and anyone, absolutely anyone could step into shoes if the conflict within their mind becomes intense and remains unresolved.
The Old Man
The old man is even more of a mystery than the narrator. We get to see him only through the narrator's perspective. What we know about him is that he is wealthy and has blue eyes. In fact, his character is hardly developed. Anyone could meet his fate, whether it’s due to blue eyes or for some other characteristic. Horror does not choose its victims based on a set of criteria. It could just be anyone.
The neighbour plays a small but important role in the narrator's story. The narrator expresses fear that "a neighbour" will hear the old man's heart beating. Sure enough, the neighbour hears the scream and alerts the police.
The characters in this story are like scaffolding to foist the story on. Poe is all about setting, atmosphere and the horror.
The story is created on an underlying theme of purposeless murder that is committed by a person apparently without any reason. We learn how a ‘pale blue eye’ I enough to spark a murder. The narrator, the main character of the story, promises us a tale of cunning and cleverness to prove his sanity, and delivers. Home as a place of mindless violence is another theme that perhaps underlies the story. Or maybe an old man living alone and secluded in his house can hardly enjoy the safety of being in a house. It can become his graveyard.
Murder does not require any motive as such. Violence for the sake of violence can occur if a person goes mad or simply decides that some trait of someone is offensive to him. So true in today’s world as well!
The redeeming feature of the theme is that at the end the perpetrator is caught by the police, but life can’t be restored to the victim, in this case the old man.