illustration of a human heart lying on black floorboards

The Tell-Tale Heart

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Critical Overview

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During his lifetime, Poe’s greatest recognition came from France. Charles Baudelaire translated and commented on Poe’s stories in the 1850s. Baudelaire was a famous French writer in his own right, and his translations are considered by a few critics to be superior to Poe’s original prose. These translations popularized Poe in France bringing him wide fame and influence. In the later half of the nineteenth century, the psychological aspects of Poe’s writings influenced French Symbolist poets. In the United States, however, Poe was often criticized for his stories. Many writers thought that they were overly emotional and contained no good lessons or stories. Poe never made much money from his fiction, although he had limited success as a poet.

In the generations since his death, however, critics have come to fully appreciate Poe’s works. His poetry continues to be popular, and he is now regarded as an early master of the short story, particularly for his contributions to the detective and horror genres, of which ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ is a prime example. One of the reasons why he is so highly regarded is because his stories are open to so many different interpretations, a factor that was not appreciated in his day. Contemporary critics acknowledge that ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ can be read as a classic example of American Gothicism, a morality tale, a supernatural story, a criticism of rationalism, and a multi-level psychological narrative. The full dimension and nuances of this tale are explored in James Gargano’s ‘‘The Theme of Time in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’’’ Gargano proposes that ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ is more complicated than it might first appear because Poe laces the story with ‘‘internally consistent symbols that are charged with meaning’’ and because the narrator is unreliable, causing the reader to question the veracity of his story. E. Arthur Robinson explores the idea of the doppelganger in his essay ‘‘Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’’’ claiming that the narrator and the old man identify closely with each other and arguing that beneath the flow of the narration, ‘‘the story illustrates the elaboration of design which Poe customarily sought.’’

While two of Poe’s stories, ‘‘MS. Found in a Bottle’’ and ‘‘The Gold Bug’’ were critically well received, each winning a prize during Poe’s lifetime, ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ obtained no special recognition. Poe’s contemporaries accorded him respect as a talented poet, literary critic and fiction writer. Some of his works received a measure of popular success, particularly ‘‘The Raven,’’ his most well known poem, which was first published in 1845. However, temperamentally unpleasant and a chronic alcoholic, Poe did not handle his success well, alienating some of his potential supporters.

Some early critics saw the psychologically unbalanced state of his fictional characters as an extension of Poe’s own 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.’’ Other early critics considered stories such as ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ basically self-explanatory. One nineteenth century critic, George Woodberry, simply called it a ‘‘tale of conscience’’ in his 1885 study, Edgar Allan Poe.

Although ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ did not receive much recognition during the author’s lifetime, its status has gained steadily since his death. Now among one of his most widely read works, the tale adds to Poe’s reputation as an innovator of literary form, technique, and vision. Almost every important American writer since Poe shows signs of his influence, particularly those writing gothic fiction and grotesque satires and humor.

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