How does Edgar Allan Poe's life connect to "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

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Edgar Allan Poe encountered the deaths of close loved ones at an early age. Poe’s mother died when he was only three years old, and his father left Poe and his siblings. As a consequence, the children were taken in by different families. Edgar was taken in by John and...

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Edgar Allan Poe encountered the deaths of close loved ones at an early age. Poe’s mother died when he was only three years old, and his father left Poe and his siblings. As a consequence, the children were taken in by different families. Edgar was taken in by John and Frances Allan. Although he came to love Frances, he apparently had a difficult time with her husband. The Allans never formally adopted Poe, but he took their last name as his middle name. Frances died in 1829, when Poe was 20. With the death of his foster mother, Poe felt another major loss in his life. He was also somewhat estranged from his foster father by that time, as John Allan did not approve of his chosen profession as a writer.

It seems as if as a result of all the losses he suffered, much of Poe’s writing reflects some level of obsession with the morbid. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” for instance, the narrator seems to be unstable, which results in his committing murder. Initially, the narrator denies that he is mad. Nevertheless, it is clear from the frenzied tone of the poem that the speaker is increasingly in a state of chaos and frenzy.

The narrator tells us that he “loved the old man,” but the old man’s “pale blue eye, with a film over it” resembled that of a vulture and made his blood run cold “whenever it fell upon” him. Thus, the narrator says,

I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

What is interesting about “The Tell-Tale Heart is that the speaker takes the life of “the old man.” The reader could infer that this relationship between an older man and younger one is Poe’s projection of his relationship with the two fathers in his life, both of whom disappointed him. His father left his family to be cared for by strangers, and his foster father was cold and distant. In “The Tell-Tale Heart, perhaps the poet figuratively kills these father figures even though he "loved the old man."

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The narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" has a fundamental fear of mortality. We can gather this from such evidence as when he describes the old man "still sitting up in the bed listening;—just as [the narrator] has done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall." Further, when he hears the old man groan, a sound of "mortal terror," he recognizes this as well because he has lived it, too. He says, "Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me." He knows just how the old man feels because he, too, has spent time awake, sure that death was coming for him.

Poe, meanwhile, lost many people in his life, even when he was a child: he watched his mother die when he was just a toddler, and his adopted mother of sorts, Mrs. Allan, the mother of a close friend from school with whom he was also very close, and later even his wife all died. It is possible, though difficult to prove, that all of this death made Poe very conscious of his own mortality and perhaps somewhat fearful of death's inevitability: he did, after all, write about the subject quite a bit.  

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I seriously doubt that Edgar Allan Poe based any of the events of "The Tell-Tale Heart" on his own personal experiences. Poe may have had his mental demons, but he was apparently never involved in any murder scheme. Some critics believe that the story evolved from Poe's own "unbalanced" mental state.

His literary executor, R. W. Griswold, wrote a libelous obituary in the New York Tribune vilifying him as mentally depraved. Even as late as 1924, critic Alfred C. Ward, writing about ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ in Aspects of the Modern Short Story: English and American argued that Poe ‘‘had ever before him the aberrations of his own troubled mind—doubtfully poised at all times, perhaps, and almost certainly subject to more or less frequent periods of disorder: consequently, it was probably more nearly normal, for him, to picture the abnormal than to depict the average.’’

Most critics disagree with the above comments, however, and declare that Poe had none of the unstable characteristics shown by his most famous creations. One critic did see a connection between his two characters (Fortunato and Montresor) in "The Cask of Amontillado."

The Poe biographer William Bittner claims that the two characters in the story "are two sides of the same man Edgar Poe as he saw himself while drinking.’’ 

Most likely, as other critics have pointed out, ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ was "basically self-explanatory" or a ‘‘tale of conscience."

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