In Edgar Poe's story,The Tell-Tale Heart, the main character seems like a deranged individual. He says "a watch's hand moves more quickly than did mine." What do you think he means by this this? Why does he constantly refer to the "watch" ?
Point out other areas of the text where Poe uses words to emphasize his feelings. How is the theme reflected in this short story; does it relate to the conflict? How does Poe's writing style draws the reader into his world?
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If the narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” seems like “a deranged individual,” it is probably because he is. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” one could suggest that Poe’s narrator “doth protest too much.” The opening line “The Tell-Tale Heart” begins with an excited plea to be taken seriously and not to be considered deranged:
“True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease has sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them. . .How, then, am I mad? Hearken! And observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story.”
With this opening, the narrator intends to demonstrate through his acute sense of hearing and through the meticulousness of his actions that he cannot possibly be anything other than perfectly sane. His story, however, forces the reader, of course, to conclude otherwise. It is that very meticulousness that serves to undermine his own argument with regard to his state of mind. When he suggests that, in the preparation for carrying out the murder of the old man with the deformed eye – the source of the narrator’s growing madness – he exercises extraordinary restraint and discipline, moving so slowly when opening the door to the old man’s bedroom so as not to risk awakening his intended victim, and stating that “a watch’s minute hand moves more quickly than did mine,” he is emphasizing the deliberateness of his planning and conduct, and thereby strengthening – he believes – the argument for his sanity. That he is, however, criminally insane is the reason for this obsession with time and with watches in particular. When Poe was alive, and for many years after his death, watches were relatively loud; not in the sense of making a loud sound, but the movement of the hands was accompanied by an audible clicking sound that one could hear if he or she held the watch close to his or her face and listened. The narrator’s madness is not only exemplified in his approach to the old man and his “Evil Eye,” the eye that resembled that of a vulture, “a pale blue eye, with a film over it,” but in the acuteness of his hearing. In fact, it is that sharpened sense to which he refers in the beginning and that becomes his undoing. When visited by the police, who are responding to reports of a frightening shriek from the narrator’s home, his imagination begins to slowly get the better of him when he becomes convinced he is hearing a constant, repetitive thumping or clicking or, as Poe suggests,
“. . .It was a low, dull, quick sound – much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.”
The narrator continuously refers to watches for two reasons: the sound that represents both the passage of time (i.e., the movement of the hands) and the beating of the now-dead old man’s heart – the “tell-tale heart.” As the repetitive sound becomes gradually louder, the narrator begins to recognize its significance: it is the beating of the old man’s heart, the sound emanating from under the floorboards, where the narrator concealed the remains of his victim.
Poe uses words continuously to emphasize his character’s feelings, such as when the narrator describes the effects on him of the old man’s eye: “Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold . . .” Similarly, the narrator’s state of mind is evident in his description of the effort and planning he invested in the old man’s murder, such as when he describes the process whereby he monitored the old man’s status each night by easing open the door to this intended victim’s bedroom and peering in:
“. . .I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, so that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in.”
Throughout “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Poe uses language designed to illuminate the narrator’s troubled mental state and the degree to which the narrator attempts to refute the obvious: that he is insane.
Poe’s writing style, as exemplified in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and other of his stories is clearly intended to discomfit the reader and to draw us into his distorted world. Overlapping themes, for instance, the acuteness of the narrator’s senses in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and that of Roderick Usher in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” or the homicidal madness of the narrators in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat,” both of whom are ultimately undone by sound, both real and imagined. Whether it is the old man’s “evil eye” or the large black cat with the bizarre patch of fur on its chest that assumes the appearance of a gallows, Poe’s narrator’s are driven to extreme and violent actions that foretell their ultimate demise.
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