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The Tell-Tale Heart

by Edgar Allan Poe

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"The Tell-Tale Heart"

Edgar Allan Poe

The following entry presents criticism of Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843). See also, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym Criticism and "The Fall of the House of Usher" Criticism. For information on Poe's complete career, see NCLC, Volumes 55, and 117.

Among the many strange and complex short stories of Poe, "The Tell-Tale Heart" has come to be known as one of the most mysterious and psychologically intriguing. Poe's preoccupations with death, with madness, and with troubled human relationships all find their culmination in this brief narrative. The murder of the old man and its aftermath, which form the center of the story, are told with dazzling clarity, a clarity that itself obscures the meaning of the act and calls into question the emotional stability of the unnamed narrator. The subjectivism of this story, the confusion of the line between reader and character within the narrative, and the use of language support the claim that Poe prefigures and indeed develops many of the tropes usually associated with more recent fiction.

Biographical Information

"The Tell-Tale Heart" was written and published during the most furiously productive phase of Poe's life, when he lived in Philadelphia with his young wife Virginia (a cousin) and her mother. During this period he was also editing the literary journal Burton 's Gentleman's Magazine, and in 1840 he had collected his previously published tales into Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, including the popular "The Fall of the House of Usher" and the grim "King Pest." Now in his forties, Poe had become a well-known writer of short fiction, even though his education was uneven (he left the University of Virginia during his first year) and he experienced constant financial struggles. Early works of poetry had been largely neglected by the literary scene, but five stories were published in the Philadelphia Sunday Courier in 1832. From that point onward, Poe's stories appeared in journals throughout the United States. Yet periodic setbacks in his fortunes (his wife's illness, continuing alienation from his uncle John Allen, who had raised him, and his inability to secure a stable source of income) triggered fits of depression, which Poe tended to aggravate by turning to alcohol. In the stories of this period, the mood of Poe's

works varies considerably, between the fantastic narrative of a sleep-walker in "Mesmeric Revelation," the strangely wrought "Life in Death" a study of the relationship between art and life, and the horrific portrayal of murder in "The Black Cat." The last story is one that is often linked to "The Tell-Tale Heart," as both have the form of a narrated confession of violence and murder without directly addressing the reason for the crime. These two stories mark Poe's increasing interest in and ability to portray the psychologically gruesome and the supernatural, as well as his return to poetry.

Plot and Major Characters

The sparse plot of "The Tell-Tale Heart" concerns the "murder aforethought" of an old man, who is never named nor described fully, by the narrator, who is also never identified. Its narration is clearly retrospective but otherwise unlocated; the circumstances of the confession of this crime are never described, and so it seems that the narrator is speaking directly and passionately to the reader. The sequence of events is simple enough: the narrator is disturbed by the eye of an old man; he complains that "one of his eyes resembled that of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it." The narrator decides to rid himself of this eye by killing the old man. This is accomplished after seven painstaking nights of creeping into the man's room in order to see if the offending eye is open. It is only on the eighth night that the old man opens his eyes, and the crime is committed. How the man is actually killed is not described in detail: the narrator merely says that he pulls "the heavy bed over him." This same night, he dismembers the body and hides it beneath the floorboards of the man's room. Soon after, three police officers, who also remain anonymous and characterless, arrive (presumably to investigate the terrified shriek of the old man). Although the narrator takes pride in his calm comportment toward the officers as they sit directly above the hiding-place of the old man's body, he discerns a noise, "a low, dull, quick sound" that he identifies as the heartbeat of the old man. In rage and desperation, convinced that the police officers also hear this noise and have detected his guilt, he confesses to the crime. At this point the narrative abruptly ends.

Major Themes

The slow and apparently reasonable beginning of the narrative gradually quickens toward its feverish conclusion; the language of the story, particularly the use of dashes to express the obscure connections of the tale and the repetitions that mark the emphatic denial of insanity, is one of its most striking features. The nineteenth-century concern with death and madness appear in many of Poe's stories, but in "The Tell-Tale Heart" these themes seem to have been distilled into an unparalleled intensity. The strange vacillation between bare narration (the reader is given no setting beyond the walls of the house, no history beyond the events of the plot, and no characterization at all beyond what may be gleaned from the narrator's excited tale) and the magnification of critical moments (the narrator's patient vigil at the door of the old man's room and the repetition of the heartbeat that provokes the narrator's confession). Indeed, as in dreams, the sense of time in the story is a distorted reflection of "ordinary" time; it is this strangeness, along with the terrible clarity of the narration and the vociferous protestations of sanity, that lead the reader to suspect the emotional health of the narrator. The confession is not an explanation, although it superficially appears to be one: the eye of the old man, which becomes an obsessive object of the narrator's attention. The internal tension of the narrator, which leads him to understand the terror of the old man and to anticipate the responses of his listener/reader, dramatically underscores the uncertain status of the narrative: as reality or hallucination, involving two persons or a single split subject, and the audience to which it is directed.

Critical Reception

One of Poe's most popular and anthologized stories, "The Tell-Tale Heart" is considered a stunning example of the deep connections between the Gothic tale and modern fiction, especially in its innovative use of the subjective narrative and its psychologically rich portrayal of a human situation that remains simultaneously strange and familiar in its intimacy. Poe's popularity in Europe, exemplified by Jacques Lacan's celebrated study of "The Purloined Letter", reflects his works' affinities with psychoanalytic tropes, such as the unconscious, repression, and the significance of the gaze. Many critics claim that the madness or dreamlike quality of the narrative is unambiguous, and have gone so far as to diagnose the narrator with paranoid schizophrenia, a medical definition unknown in Poe's age. The frequently cited obsession with time and mortality that inhabits Poe's writing is evident in "The Tell-Tale Heart" as well. This has led some recent scholars to argue that the narrator is struggling against his own death and in James W. Gargano's words "the tyranny of time," which he has projected onto the figure of the old man. The narrative has suggested to others, particularly Christopher Benfey, an internalized conflict between the need for interpersonal contact and the desire to protect oneself from the vulnerability that arises with such contact. The style of writing draws the reader into the narrative by appearing to transcribe directly the passionate confession of a fascinating if ultimately repulsive character. The combination of surrealism and immediacy that constitutes the peculiarity of the narrative disrupts simple or conventional interpretations. The psychological complexity of both the content and the form of "The Tell-Tale Heart" has continued to grip both the critical and popular imagination, and anticipates more recent fictional explorations into the concealed intricacy of the human condition.

James W. Gargano (essay date 1968)

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SOURCE: "The Theme of Time in 'The Tell-Tale Heart,'" Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. V, No. 4, Summer, 1968, pp. 378-82.

[In the essay that follows, Gargano argues that the primary conflict of the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" involves "the tyranny of time."]

The critic who wishes to read Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" as a mere horror story may be content to accept its incidents as unmotivated and mysterious. How, the critic may argue, can the story be rationally explained when the narrator himself is at a loss to account for the frenzy inspired in him by his victim's "evil eye?" The critic may further maintain that Poe deliberately establishes and enhances the mystery of his tale by having the murderer eschew all explanations for his deed: "Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man." The critic may conclude that Poe waives logical and realistic considerations and simply sets out to make his reader feel the terror that comes from observing the unfolding of an inexplicable crime.1

Yet, there are two irresistible reasons for believing that Poe's purpose in "The Tell-Tale Heart" goes beyond the concoction of horror and mystification. First of all, he has artfully complicated his tale by making the narrator's description of himself and his actions appear unreliable. Ironically, the protagonist attempts to prove in language that is wild and disordered that he is methodical, calm, and sane. In addition, though he persuades himself that he felt no "passion" against the old man, he talks frequently of his "fury," "anxiety," and "uncontrollable terror." Secondly, Poe has built into his tale a set of internally consistent symbols that are charged with meaning. The structure of the story contains so much arrangement that it becomes almost impossible to view the pattern and accumulated force of the symbols as accidental.

If we approach "The Tell-Tale Heart" without traditional blinders, I am convinced that it will reveal itself to be a well-organized and thoughtful work of art with a striking economy of images and symbols. I believe, however, that any serious analysis of the story must recognize a basic irony: that the narrator, though he does not understand his own character or actions, unconsciously provides all the clues necessary to a comprehension of them. Obviously, for all his acuteness and the "fine art" of his crime, Poe's protagonist increasingly demonstrates, with every vain denial, that he is mad. Moreover, in ascribing strangely revolting powers to someone outside himself, he reveals that his revulsion is a symptom of his own internal disorder. Finally, in focusing his violence against one man, he makes known that he is rebelling against the very terms on which life is granted to all men. In his rage against the nature of things, he resembles Prince Prospero, who immures himself in a castle fortified against death, and William Wilson, who tries one of the most amazing (and perhaps common) of all experiments—to repudiate a part of his own being.

An analysis of the symbolism of "The Tell-Tale Heart" will, I hope, identify the narrator's ultimate antagonist as the force that will inevitably cause him to resemble the old man with the appalling "eye of a vulture." His quarrel, then, is not with a ravaged individual but with Time, which on one level is symbolized by the omnipresent "watches" and on another by the "tell-tale" heart. The revelatory moments in the tale, thus, occur when both sets of symbols merge and when the old man, after death, becomes inseparable from his murderer.

As many of his works show, Poe was infatuated with puzzles, hoaxes, and ironies. It seems a bit incongruous, then, to insist that his horror tales be taken as straightforward and artless examples of American Gothicism. For Poe, human thought and motive were often the tricky means of leading men into self-created labyrinths. Such men devise their own confusions and intellectually refine them into a crooked but convincing rationale. But the unperceived logic of their well-thought-out schemes coerces them into self-exposure and destruction because fundamentally their inner turmoil cannot be resolved through the specious "organization" of their actions. Indeed, the planned actions themselves not only fail to be curative but betray the original delusions which inspired them. In a real sense, Poe's characters often trap themselves in the most elaborate of fine-spun hoaxes.

"The Tell-Tale Heart" is, technically speaking, a ruse perpetrated by the protagonist against himself. His ingenious concealment and ritualized rehearsal of his deed, apparently directed against the old man, are practiced upon himself. His cherished plot is an escape from self-knowledge into an absorbing and distracting action; yet, in his careful stalking of his enemy, he suggests the basis of his psychological insecurity. His "structured" violence draws him on to talk of his compulsive obsession with images and sounds that evoke the rhythm of time. Finally, he completes his own entrapment when his irrational preoccupation with these images and sounds breaks down the impressive order he has imposed upon his machinations.

Poe's major strategy in working out his design is to have the narrator attribute his own anguished feelings to his victim. Therefore, because of their "common" emotions, the murderer and the old man appear to be not only related but identical. The barrier between their individual beings begins to break down when the old man, hearing someone at his chamber door, springs up in bed and cries out. At that moment, the narrator offers a remarkably precise interpretation of his intended victim's state of mind: he declares that the old man "was still sitting up in bed listening—just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall." (My italics.) Poe effectively implies that the only emotions experienced by the old man are sensations that have afflicted the protagonist night after night. In short, the narrator may be said to feel for both men; he has, even before murdering the old man, entered into and completely preëmpted his life. What he does not see, however, is that in possessing another man's being, he is in turn assimilated and consumed by it.

Poe devotes a large part of his short tale to the narrator's analysis of the old man's agony as death approaches; ironically, however, the brilliant schemer unconsciously characterizes his own long-standing derangement: "Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it [a groan like the old man's] has welled up, from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me." Clearly, he can trace the gradual intensification of the old man's dread because he, too, has been subject to it. He, like the old man, has tried to dismiss this dread as "causeless," only to find it invading and filling his mind until he acknowledged all resistance to it as "vain." He knows, because he has already uttered them, the very words with which the suffering man tries to comfort himself in his extremity: "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.'"

It is significant, then, that the narrator sees the old man's responses to the menaces of the night as identical to his own. Indeed, the intended victim becomes a kind of surrogate for his persecutor, a projection of his most ingrained terrors. All his irrational hates and fears are embodied in the man he wishes to destroy. He wildly assumes that by ridding himself of the external symbol of his dementia he will be able to free himself from his psychic troubles.

But, as I have stated, the narrator's dream of freedom is illusory because the pervasive villain of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is Time itself. Heard from the "death watches" in the wall and seen in the waiting and expectant "eye of a vulture," it subtly, undermines the narrator's self-assurance. Indeed, he has become so obsessed by the sound of time that he hears it everywhere and in all things. There is a great deal of psychological meaning to be found in his feverish declaration: "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." Listening to the old man's groan, he even hears in it "the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul." For the narrator, all the sounds are inter-related and one; moreover, they have their source in a haunted and bewildered imagination.

Poe allows the main character's concern with the tyranny of time to betray itself through the nature and organization of his fictional details. First, the object of the narrator's crime is not so much an individual man, but an old man made revolting by time. In addition, the watches, which are obviously symbols of time, have become part of the narrator's consciousness and even lurk within the walls of his house. Climactically, the incessant beating of the old man's heart locates the cadence of time within the center of man's being. As if to leave no doubt about the primary connection between the heart and the watches, Poe has the protagonist speak of them as if they gave forth the same sounds: "there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man's heart." It requires no imaginative daring, then, to conclude that the "low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul" is also intimately related to the low, muffled sound of the cotton-enveloped watch. In short, when the narrator is betrayed by the still-beating heart of his dead victim, he is really betrayed by the triumphant din of time, which is the sum of all sounds, within and outside of man.

Expertly as Poe manages the "sound images" in "The Tell-Tale Heart," he displays equal skill in making the old man's "evil eye" the external counterpart of the hidden watches and the beating heart. To begin with, the eye's similarity to a vulture's suggests the predatoriness of "Father Time." Moreover, the relation of the eye to the theme of time is further shown by the sequence of events leading up to the murder. On the fateful night, the protagonist cannot go ahead with his crime until he has trained the rays of his lamp upon the eye; "Chilled [to] the very marrow in my bones" by the sight of "the damned spot," he becomes preternaturally sensitive to sound. In the still moment before he leaps upon and kills the old man, he tries to "maintain the ray upon the eye." It is then that the "hellish tattoo of the heart increased." The inextricable association of the eye and the heart (and by extension of the watches) is most effectively established once the old man is dead; the criminal now places his hand over the heart and, feeling no "pulsation," calmly asserts, "His eye would trouble me no more."

Of course, the narrator's intellectually flawless plot cannot overcome the subtle and radical forces that pursue him, for reason used for a foolish end is essentially unreasonable. Action, no matter how decisive and organized, dissipates into futility when it expends itself against eternal obstacles. The narrator naively persists in thinking that his foe is external and mortal when, in fact, he represents an immutable law of life. Consequently, no amount of intellectualized cunning will stop the old man's heart because, as the dénouement of the story proves, the old man's heart beats within the protagonist himself as well as in the walls and beneath the planks of the floor.

The major irony of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is that the narrator, like William Wilson, is crushed by, but never understands the meaning of, his experience. He does not know that his disgust at the old man's eye is merely a symptom of a more serious disease. Clearly revealed in his hallucinations, which are more "real" than his reasoning, this disease can be diagnosed as his refusal to accept himself as a creature caught in the temporal net. He cannot acknowledge the limitations that bind him to the earth and time, the limitations that wither, corrupt, and destroy. Like so many of his confrères in Poe's other tales, he wishes, essentially, to transcend his human limitations: one can almost imagine him echoing Ligeia's hope that "Man does not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will." Yet, perversely, the only means he can employ to attain his ends inevitably act as agents of doom.

His misguided intellect and the ingenious schemes it hatches set him more firmly on the path he strives to avoid. For a brief interval after he has committed his crime, he mistakenly imagines that he has gained security and inward peace by the "wise precautions" he has taken in disposing of the old man's corpse. It is not long, however, before his solid assurance disintegrates. Once again, the fantastic sound to which all sounds attune themselves begins its heart-like, watch-like rhythm: "the sound increased—what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound—much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton." (Poe's italics.) The narrator's reliance on his spurious and concocted order collapses as he shrieks out his confession to the police and helplessly and ignorantly submits to the ceaseless and measured flow of time.


1 There have been very few extended or illuminating critical analyses of "The Tell-Tale Heart." Most critics sum it up in a phrase or two, or, like William Bittner, Poe: A Biography (Boston, 1962) and Edward Wagenknecht, Edgar Allan Poe: The Man Behind the Mask (New York, 1963) seem to assume that the story is self-explanatory. One of Poe's best early critics, George Woodberry, formulistically refers to "The Tell-Tale Heart" as a "tale of conscience," Edgar Allan Poe (Boston, 1885), p. 186. In a fuller treatment of the story, Arthur Hobson Quinn mentions the "clock imagery" and the evil eye; he even declares that the effect of Poe's tale is heightened by the fact that the narrator "has himself suffered causeless terrors in the night," Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (New York, 1941), p. 394. Quinn, however, concerns himself with the "effect" rather than the meaning of Poe's work. Edward H. Davidson's insights into "The Tell-Tale Heart" are invariably interesting and perceptive. In Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge, 1957), he sees the narrator as someone who "commits a crime because of the excess of emotion over intelligence; [someone who] is impelled to give himself up and pay the death penalty because he may thereby return to selfhood or primal being" (p. 203). I agree with Davidson that the narrator is deluded and invites his own destruction, but I feel, finally, that Davidson does not consider the nuances of Poe's story in arriving at his statement of the theme (pp. 188-189). By far the best intensive study of Poe's tale is E. Arther Robinson's "Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart,'" Nineteenth-Century Fiction, XIX (March, 1965), 369-378. Although Robinson dwells on the "murderer's psychological identification with the man he kills," he does not significantly relate the Evil Eye and the omnipresent watches. Essentially, Robinson's brilliant essay is preoccupied with Poe's "slow-motion technique" and not with theme.

Further Reading

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Davis, Robert Con. "Lacan, Poe, and Narrative Repression." Modem Language Notes 98, No. 5 (December 1983): 983-1005.

Interprets "The Tell-Taie Heart" through Jacques Lacan's analysis of the gaze and the structure of repression.

Mcllvaine, Robert. "A Shakespearean Echo in 'The Tell-Tale Heart.' " American Notes and Queries 15, No. 3 (November 1976): 38-40.

Examines the connection between the narrator's description of his victim's eye as "the damned spot" and Lady Macbeth's exclamation following the murder of Duncan.

Pitcher, Edward W. "The Physiognomical Meaning of Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart.' " Studies in Short Fiction 16, No. 3 (Summer 1979): 231-33.

Argues that Poe's narrative enacts the splitting of one subject into two roles, and that the meaning of this drama can be interpreted according to the principles of physiognomical theory.

Reilly, John E. "The Lesser Death-Watch and 'The Tell-Tale Heart.' "American Transcendental Quarterly No. 2 (1969): 3-9.

Discusses the possibility that the lesser death-watch—an insect that makes a sound resembling the muffled ticking of a watch—is the source of the sound that drives the narrator to confess his crime.

Tucker, B. D. " 'The Tell-Tale Heart' and the 'Evil Eye.' " The Southern Literary Journal 13, No. 2 (Spring 1981): 92-98.

Studies the narrator's obsession with the eye of his victim, particularly as that obsession relates to the common superstition of a malignant and all-seeing power.

Additional coverage of Poe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Poetry Criticism, Vol. 1, Short Story Criticism, Vols. 1, 22, and 34, World Literature Criticism, 1500 to the Present, and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 3, 59, 73, 74.

Gita Rajan (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: "A Feminist Rereading of Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart,'" Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 24, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 283-300.

[In the following essay, Rajan contends that by using analytic tropes developed by Jacques Lacan and Helene Cixous, the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" can be identified as female.]


Some contemporary feminists and theorists argue that there is a difference between masculinist and feminist discourse in literary texts. French theorists like Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, and Hélène Cixous follow Jacques Lacan and psychoanalytic theory and trace the unconscious drives exhibited in the discourse of the text as repressed male/female desires. Even though these desires may be contradictory and conflicting, they reveal the position of the speaking subject (male or female) within the discourse of the text. The French scholars, in seeking the overlapping or androgynous places of discourse in the text, assert that males and females engage in differently gendered readings. Kristeva and Cixous argue that sexual identity (male or female) is a metaphysical construct outside the boundaries of the text, while gender identity is based upon cultural notions of maleness and femaleness evidenced in the text. Gender identity is more fluid than the former and makes room for the crucial concept of androgyny that is central to feminist readings in demolishing the rigid patriarchal notion of what is male/female. Androgyny deconstructs crippling binary oppositions of masculinity and femininity by allowing the speaking subject to occupy either or both positions.

While sexual identity, and, consequently, discrimination, feature prominently in masculinist readings, French theorists are radically shifting the very nature of the struggle of the sexes by focusing on gender-governed identity. Hence, a feminist reinterpretation of a narrative typically could argue that an unmarked narrator can be seen as female. Such a reading would displace a whole series of masculinist assumptions. In accordance with this approach, I will focus on Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," especially its narrator, and argue that the narrator is indeed female. Poe himself never indicates that the narrator is male; in fact, his text offers no gender markings. Readers have assumed that the narrator is male because a neutralized and unmarked term is generally granted to be male. This is a trap that the language of the tale innocuously lays before the reader. By positing a female narrator, I propose to dislodge the earlier, patriarchal notion of a male narrator for the story. I argue, instead, that a gender-marked rereading of this tale reveals the narrator's exploration of her female situation in a particular feminist discourse. My feminist reading of "The Tell-Tale Heart" profiles the identity of the narrator as filtered through Freud's, Lacan's, and Cixous's theories of narrativity.


Psychoanalysis partially bridges the gap between conscious and unconscious thought and language through dream theory. Freud argues that instinctual forces—eros and thanatos—manifest themselves through dreams, and that these forces coexist and continually contradict each other, being intertwined in pairs like love/hate, life/death, and passivity/aggression. However, Freud maintains that people manage to lead ordered lives because they sublimate these forces as desires in dreams through at least two specific mechanisms, "condensation" and "displacement." Freud builds his psychoanalytic theory on human sexuality and desire, seeing the male as superior, in possession of the phallus, i.e., power. A female is inferior for Freud because of her lack of the sexual organ to signify the phallus and the power it symbolizes. In short, Freud's definition of the male and female, locked into this privative power equation, automatically privileges the male and marginalizes the female.

Lacan, in his revision of Freudian theory, fastens upon three principles: desire (the phallus as power), condensation/displacement (the dream as a system of signs), and hierarchy (the male as superior, or possessing power through the penis: the female as inferior, or lacking power).1 Relying on Roman Jakobson's structural linguistics, he combines these three principles to establish a relationship between language per se and conscious/unconscious thought. Jakobson uses language as a model of signs to explain human thought and consequent behavior. A sign, for Jakobson, is a representation through language of the relationship between signifier (the physical sound of speech or the written mark on the page) and the signified (the invisible concept that this sound or mark represents). Jakobson's linguistic formulations reveal the doubleness of the sign and the fragility of the signifier (word) and signified (concept) relationship. In effect, he sees meaning emerging in discourse not through the relationship between signifier and signified but through the interaction of one signifier with another.

Jakobson maintains that language is constructed along two axes—the vertical/metaphoric and the horizontal/metonymic. Lacan's matches Jakobson's theory of language with Freud's theory of dreams, positing that dreams are structured along metaphoric and metonymic lines.2 Lac[a]n claims that the "rhetoric of the unconscious" is constructed on two main tropes—metaphor and metonymy. He equates condensation with metaphor because it is a process of selection, substituting one signifier/word for another. Displacement he sees as metonymy because it combines one signifier/word with another. For Lacan, unconscious desire, like language, is structured as a system of signs, articulated metaphorically and metonymically in dreamwork and considered as discourse. While in Freudian analysis the focus is on the excavation of the subject's behavior, in Lacan it shifts to language, tracing the path of desire as a sequential power transaction in the discourse of the text. Thus, Lacan reconstructs Freud's behavioral model into a seemingly less prejudiced linguistic one by emphasizing the arbitrariness and precariousness of language itself.

Further, according to Lacan, the metaphoric register represents the masculine through the "transcendental phallus," embodying the ultimate power of the signifier as a linguistic mark whose meaning is forever repressed (in the unconscious or the "text") and never attainable. Hence, every subject must engage in a constant metaphoric game of substitution in the attempt to grasp this final desire. In contrast, the metonymic is temporal and sequential; it propels the signifier forward in an attempt to recover the (unconscious) signified through narration. Significantly, Lacan claims that this reaching forward to achieve completeness is a mark of femininity, a feminine marker in discourse. Finally, Lacan concludes that even though language itself is symbolic, the symptom that prompts discourse is metonymie. Thus, the metonymic, feminine, "imaginary" register is the force that propels narrative.3

It is at this point that Lacan differs radically from Freud. While Freud assumes that language can completely appropriate and express thought, granting closure in the text, Lacan posits an inherent gap in this relationship, arguing for never-ending narrativity. For Lacan, the sign can never be complete or made whole because a signifier can only point to another signifier, resulting in an unending chain of signifiers we forever attempt to bridge through language and thought. Lacan connects language to thought as expressions of patterns of desire, motivated and propelled towards possessing the ultimate sign of power—the "transcendental signified," or phallus. Thus, the transcendental signified belongs in the metaphoric register, and the desire to possess it creates narrativity, which belongs to the metonymic register. Lacan strategically argues that the desire to possess the "transcendental phallus" is universal, both in males and females, and appears to collapse sexual difference. But this apparent egalitarianism, I argue, does not in fact work.

A masculinist reading of Poe's tale using Lacan's theory still supports the Freudian notion of the Oedipal myth. However, the Lacanian approach emphasizes sexual difference less than the Freudian approach does. Robert Con Davis analyzes Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" using Lacanian principles in "Lacan, Poe and Narrative Repression." He focuses on the latent and repressed levels of the text as a method of locating the nexus of power. Davis argues the act of gazing, whether the old man's or the narrator's, is a metaphoric power transaction between the subject and the object of the gaze. Using Freud's "Instincts and Their Vicissititudes," with its traditional patriarchal dichotomies of "subject/object, active/passive," Davis matches Freud's theme of the "gaze" with Lacan's theory of voyeurism to interpret Poe's tale.4 Davis highlights the "Evil Eye" as a predominant metaphor in Poe's tale that functions primarily through its power of the Gaze. Building on the theme of the gaze and voyeurism, Davis validates his masculinist reading by arguing that the old man and the narrator are indeed doubles, always already connected by the gaze. He sees both characters as having similar, almost paranoically sensitive hearing and sight, insomnia, and a preoccupation with death. The "eye" of the old man represents the Symbolic Law of the Father, or Lacan's version of Freud's Oedipal complex. Davis argues that in an attempt to escape paternal subjugation, the narrator engages in his own vindictive game of voyeurism. Davis sees the murder of the old man as a cruelly symbolic act of Oedipal mastery: "in choosing to heighten the old man's fear of death and kill him, the narrator controls—just as a voyeur sadistically controls—a situation like his own, as if the subject and object could be merged in a mirror phase of complete identification" (255). Davis even argues for a third voyeur in the figure of Death: "Death … had stalked with his black shadow … and enveloped the victim."5 This allows him to posit a typical Lacanian triangle, consisting of the old man, the narrator, and Death, and create a constant shift in the power of the gaze through the triple itinerary of the signifier.

Because Davis places the narrator and the old man in the "double" positions connected by the gaze, he sees the gaps in the gaze between the subject and object and the gazer and voyeur as forces that produce the narrative, propel the tale forward, and alternately manifest and repress the text. Based on a primarily metaphoric interpretation—the eye as the Symbolic Gaze of the Father—Davis argues for a male narrator who acts as voyeur and exhibitionist alternately. Davis neatly sums up the final scene of Poe's tale as clearly metaphoric by saying: "His [the narrator's] resistance to being seen points to a desire to escape subjugation absolutely and to choose death rather than to become passive while alive" (254). Significantly, Lacan's suggestion that the metonymic dimension of the text is female is absent in Davis's reading. Thus, even though Lacanian readings seem to open the door to feminist perspectives, they ultimately only nudge the door ajar.


Cixous's feminist approach to psychoanalytic interpretation and her notion of feminine writing provide a fruitful way of sabotaging the masculinist-biased reading of texts. Hence a rereading of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" with Cixous's paradigm offers an alternate gender-marked interpretation. She systematically interrogates existing critical presuppositions, deconstructs them, and advocates a three-step reinscription procedure.6 First, according to Cixous, one must recognize a latent masculinist prejudice in society, a hidden privileging of the male and marginalizing of the female. Next, one must consciously undo the basic slanting in favor of the male term over the female term at the very nodes of these seemingly logical oppositions, such as male/female, reason/feeling, culture/nature, etc. Patriarchy, by creating these oppositions, privileges the first term and lowers the status of the second, forcing the textual subject to occupy either of these positions and accept the power (or lack thereof) that goes along with it. This logic divides each term against itself and makes the whole system of binary (Western) thought rigidly prescriptive. The male, according to this system of thought, can have an identity and value only in juxtaposition to an inferior female signifier and vice versa. Also, in privileging one term over another, the first term sets the norm for the second. More important, oppositional thinking, which is characteristic of patriarchy, forbids a wholeness or a shared existence for any term, focusing on maleness or on femaleness instead of the androgyny that Cixous and other French feminists advocate.

Consequently, Cixous's final step is to combat this problem of division by embracing these oppositions and erasing their differences. This is the "pretext," or background, for the process of jouissance that Cixous advocates. The strategy behind jouissance is to discredit the notion of difference by going beyond the idea of constraining divisions, to explore instead the freedom of excess, a Utopian vision that subverts the male definition of desire. Patriarchy is based on a system of libidinal economy (a repression of desire both conscious and unconscious that creates meaning in a text). Cixous's jouissance demands a libidinal excess—additions of unconscious meanings through consciously constructed texts. The practical method behind this political feminist position is to create a multiplicity of meanings. In linguistic terms, jouissance creates an excess of signifiers, the freeplay of which will build several levels of meanings, all of which can be validated by the text. These meanings do not depend upon a series of repressed previous ones; they do not impoverish the meanings that come before them through a process of substitution but, instead, enhance each other through a process of addition. An example of this is the notion of androgyny which is central to some feminist readings. Instead of focusing on either male or female voice in the text, androgyny allows the same voice to be male and/or female in various parts of the text, allowing for numerous complementary interpretations.

Kristeva, in Desire and Language, and Cixous, in La Juene Née, argue that the concept of androgyny belongs to the realm of the "Imaginary," which, in Lacanian theory, is pre-Symbolic, or pre-Oedipal, and thus, is before the Law of the Father. While Cixous is explicit in calling this jouissance in the sense of the purely pleasurable state of excess, Kristeva connects jouissance to reproduction. However, they share this vision of Utopia, with no boundaries or barriers of any kind, a vision that is based on unlimited joy.7

The inherent danger in Kristeva's and Cixous's vision of Utopia is their marked privileging of the imaginative/poetic over the analytical/theoretical in feminist writing. Because of their emphasis on emotions rather than reason as the feminine mode, some patriarchal theorists do not treat feminist discourse seriously. Sentimentality is precisely the club that patriarchy holds over the woman to control and deem her inferior. However, there is a definite value in adopting Cixous's position of abundance in an effort to invalidate the rigid male parameters and explore the text with an expectation of plentitude and multiple meanings. It is essential to point out that Cixous's notion of jouissance as a pleasure principle is different from Lacan's notion of free space with an abundance of signifiers (or even Barthes's version of the "pleasures of the text"). The latter suggests a chasm with an abundance of repressed, free floating signifiers, while the former gathers up this abundance of signifiers to nourish and cherish separate multiple readings.

Cixous begins by questioning the validity of categories like male/female in both writing and reading texts. She sees these as gaps created by ideological differences propagated by a phallogocentric (phallus- and logos-oriented) interpretive community. Further, she argues that this kind of oppositional thinking is itself aggressive (very much like the male logic and body behind it), because one term in the couple comes into existence through the "death of the other." Cixous, in La Jeune Née asks, "Where is she?" (115) in a patriarchal binary thought system that creates divisions like "Activity/Passivity, Culture/Nature, Father/Mother, Head/Emotions, Logos/Pathos" (116) which is structured primarily on the male/female opposition. An effective way to allow both terms to exist is to ask for a gendered position that both males and females can occupy either jointly or individually within the texts, as speaking subjects. This is made possible through the notion of jouissance, which focuses on the speaking subject with a gendered (hence mobile) identity. Also, this deliberate exploration of multiple meanings would ceaselessly expose the hidden male agenda which is created to silence women.


I preface my rereading of Poe's tale with a Freudian analysis, much like that in Marie Bonaparte's Life of Poe.8 However, while Bonaparte's emphasizes the element of primal-scene voyeurism, mine sees the male narrator's retelling of his story/dream as a narration of a rite of passage. "The Tell-Tale Heart" begins by describing the narrator's feelings about taking care of an old man. The old man's disturbing stare upsets the narrator, who decides on an impulse to kill him. The rest of the tale focuses on the narrator's elaborate plan to murder him, and ends with the narrator's confession of the crime. The story has Poe's typical macabre atmosphere and deliberately contradictory syntactical style. By killing the old man, the narrator symbolically castrates him, eliminating him from the text, and hopes to escape subjugation. This allows him to step into the old man's position of unchallenged power. The act of murder reveals the condensed expression of his desire to usurp the old man's place and authority. Similarly, his swing between neurotic and hysteric utterances, repeatedly assuring the reader of his sanity, is an effort to displace the sense of fear that is incumbent upon possessing such authority. At the beginning of the tale, the narrator shelters the old man (love), but ends up murdering him (hate). The narrator's contradictory actions, in an effort to possess ultimate power, are the result of the intertwining of eros and thanatos. The narrator's final confession to the policemen (the substitute father figures) is a combination and sublimation of his desire for power and fear of castration as a challenge to his new power.

The standard Oedipal interpretation is explicit in the climactic bedroom scene that graphically reveals the simultaneous condensed and displaced desires of the narrator. The bed serves to feed the contradictory instinctual urges of eros and thanatos, satisfying the young man's passion while smothering him to death, granting the young man power while nullifying it in the old man. The narrator's imbalanced emotional utterances about being "driven" by the old man's "eye" are symptoms of the condensed desire that make him conceive his elaborate plan of shutting the old man's "Evil eye forever" (303). It is his attempt to usurp that very authority of the old man's surveillance. And the narrator's own deafening "heartbeat" prods him on, leading him from one event to the next in the narrative, revealing his efforts to escape the displaced sense of fear in letting this desire get out of control. While the eye (condensation) represents the narrator's problem through a sense of abstract desire, the heartbeat (displacement) serves as the significant, concrete sense of fear in dealing with this problem. This enables the tale to maintain its ambivalence between myth and reality, dream and nightmare, due to a coexisting tension between metaphor/condensation and metonymy/displacement throughout the narration. In this traditional Freudian analysis, the identity of narrator remains fixedly male.

However, my rereading of the tale includes both a masculinist and feminist approach to the narrator. Using Lacanian principles, I profile the narrator as "speaking subject," presenting the narrator first as male, then as female. Unlike Davis's reading, my masculinist rereading focuses on both the metaphoric and metonymic aspects of the text, moving away from an exclusive "Gaze"-oriented interpretation of manifest and repressed levels of discourse. I treat the eye as a metaphor of patriarchal scrutiny and social control, and the heart as metonymic device to subvert such control. The narrator admits his obsession in saying, "when it [the eye] 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" (305). The narrator explicitly reveals his anger at the old man's symbolic method of subjugation and expresses his consequent desire to annihilate the old man, thereby negating and usurping his power. Davis too, points this out by showing how the narrator first isolates the gaze, then inverts it, so that he can gaze at and subjugate the old man. The narrator retaliates against the "Evil Eye" by voyeuristically gazing at the sleeping man. Thus, the gaze moves from the old man to the narrator, symbolizing the shift of power between them. Lacan calls this mobility the "itinerary of the signifier" (171) to indicate the constant substitution maneuvers that the metaphoric register undertakes in its attempt to possess the ultimate object of desire—the transcendental signifier.9 Within Poe's tale, the "itinerary of the signifier" can be graphically traced along the "single thin ray" of light from the narrator's lantern that falls upon the "vulture eye … directed as if by instinct, precisely upon the damned spot" (306). Gaining new power through his reversal of the gaze makes the narrator heady, and he cries exultantly that the old man "was stone dead. His eye would trouble me no more" (306).

However, the "itinerary of the signifier," due to its constant process of substitution, does not allow power to rest with one gazer for a long period. The very nature of the gaze, as posited by both Freud and Lacan, is extremely volatile, temporary, and unpredictable. Consequently, in Poe's story the power of the gaze destabilizes the narrator, and it is for this reason that he breaks down and confesses to the mildly suspecting policemen. The police in Poe's tale are the literal representations of societal power, but they are also a metaphor for the Law of the Father in the unconscious. The policemen's gaze, thus, both literally and metaphorically represents the sanctioned authority that the narrator had just usurped from the old man. When they gaze at the narrator, they reverse the path of the gaze, once again throwing him back into the passive object position that is revealed by his hysterical and humiliating confession.

Equally crucial in a Lacanian analysis is the metonymic register, marked by the "heart" in Poe's tale. It exhibits a complicated displacement process working simultaneously on two manifest levels. At one level it represents the narrator's confused emotions, such that the narrator's passions and fears combine and clash, spurring the tale forward. The tale unfolds through the narrator's hysterical utterances, extreme passion (even though the narrator explicitly denies this at the beginning of his tale), obsessive desire, neurotic fears, and pathetic confession. At another level, it represents the physical pounding of the narrator's heart, giving him the energy to kill the old man. On the night of the assault, the narrator remarks: "Never, before that night, had I felt the extent of my own powers" (306). Notably, it is the narrator's fear of the imagined sound of the old man's heart, that overwhelming roar, that ultimately betrays him into confessing to the policemen. These two aspects of displacement embodied metonymically in the heart are fused in a strange manner, alternating between hearing and feeling throughout the tale, such that they keep plummeting the narrative onwards. Thus, the sounds in the tale moves rapidly from heartbeat to creaking doors, to muffled smothering sounds, to loud ticking watches, and finally pounds as unbearable noise in the narrator's head till he articulates his fear through the confused discourse of a hysterical confession.

There is also a third kind of displacement at the repressed level of the text. This is evidenced in the metonymic shift not only between one aspect of the heart to the other, but in a total shift from sound to sight at crucial points in the text. Thus, the metonymic register displaces the narrator's feelings throughout the text in various ways. A good example is the elaborate precautions that the narrator takes to direct a single ray of light in a darkened room on the old man's eye (sight). When the narrative has been raised to a fever pitch on the night of the murder, the narrator suddenly fumbles with the catch on the lantern and goes into a detailed description of sounds of "death watches," and crickets in "chimneys," effectively displacing reader attention. The displacement and metonymic tactics repressed in the narrative itself act as a marker for signaling the manifest displacement of the narrator's fears regarding his uncontrolled and unsanctioned actions. It is here that Lacan's notion of the "itinerary of signifiers" in the metonymic register serves him well. Metonymy, as both agent and trope, by constantly shifting, mediates between thought and language, showing both the instability of this relationship, and its inability to bridge the gap. At the textual level, it highlights the constant forward movement in an attempt to narrate through the rapid and confusing chain of events. It reveals the obsessively fragmented discourse of the narrator, in a painful effort to make meaning, and to make whole this relationship between thought and language. Thus, in my masculinist reading, by using the Lacanian paradigm of a male speaking subject, I reveal the problematic nature of language itself. When the narrator fails, one glimpses—with a strange pathos—the failure of language, too.

In contrast, my Lacanian feminist rereading of Poe's tale, identifying a female narrator, yields an interpretation that is the reverse of the Oedipal myth. Instead of a young man desiring the power symbolized by the Father, she is the daughter desiring her father. I will show that Lacan's innovativeness lies in the way he volatilizes the metaphoric and metonymic registers through his theory of the "itinerary of the signifier." Lacan suggests that sex roles as represented by linguistic tropes can be made less rigid. Hence sexual difference can be erased by energizing and mobilizing these linguistic tropes. Metaphor as a trope represents a pattern of desiring and desired where the object of desire is the transcendental, signified, or phallus. Metonymy would be the act of seeking and transacting this power through narrative. Thus, Lacan's strategy is to dislocate the fixity of sexual identity, or what he claims is gender identity, through the use of tropes as agents of desire. This would allow both men and women to possess the transcendental phallus, or its metaphoric power; but because of the temporary nature of this power, the very act of possession would be continually deferred and drawn out metonymically in narrative for both masculine and feminine subjects.

Within this framework, the narrator in Poe's tale can be posited as a female rather than a male who desires power. She stalks the old man and father figure for "seven long nights" and kills him in an attempt to escape the surveillance of his Evil Eye. The female narrator begins in the traditional feminine position of a nurturer. She takes him into her house and even remarks with dark irony after terrifying him with her nightly ritualistic voyeurism: "I went boldly into his chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him by his name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he had passed the night" (306). But she deeply resents the scrutiny of his eye, feeling abused and objectified by his paternal surveillance. Angered and humiliated by his gaze, she goes through the same maneuver that the male narrator does in reversing the path of this gaze. Unlike the male narrator, her primary desire is to rid herself of the male gaze, or domination. However, in traveling through the gaze's path, she substitutes the first desire for her need physically to possess the old man. In this context, the climactic scene in the bedroom, with its implied sexual overtones, supports a Lacanian feminist reading better than a Oedipal one. In that one moment of possession, she becomes the aggressor; she even assumes a male sexual posture, forcing the old man to receive her, almost raping him, so that "he shrieked once—once only" (305). The scene culminates with her smirk: "There was nothing to wash out—no stain of any kind—no blood spot whatsoever…. A tub caught it all" (305). In this one act, the female narrator captures both the masculine gaze and masculine role. Thus, in appropriating the male posture, she even refers to herself in explicitly masculine terms, claiming repeatedly, that her actions are not those of a "madman."

Yet, ironically, the very authority of her newfound power makes her more vulnerable, more of an object of desire by others. Metaphorically, she moves from the position of actively desiring that Lacan allows to both the male and female to the position of being passively desired, one that is traditionally only the female's. It is here that the Lacanian "itinerary of the signifier" betrays her. The movement between male/female roles is ultimately restrictive to the female. Unlike the male narrator who confesses for fear of castration, the female narrator is denied this option. Acknowledging her femininity, she stands before the policemen, stripped of her power in her traditional posture as female, passive, subservient, and accountable to the male gaze—and exposed in the eyes of the Law through the return of the repressed (murdered) father. She begins and ends in a stereotypically feminine posture, the nurturer who has returned to her quintessentially repressed object position.

My feminist rereading with metonymy as focal point again reveals the confined position of the female narrator. The heart as an allegory of metonymy displaces the narrator's fears and desires, working on the two levels already examined, making her obey the dictates of her confused emotions. Further, Poe's text, if reread as narrated by a female speaking subject, indicates that this desire and fear is more frequently associated with a female "voice" than it is with the male's. The female narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" focuses on evocations of space and emptiness, which are typical expressions of female consciousness. The narrator claims her fear was engulfing, making her feel as if "enveloped in cotton" (305), just like her "terrors" which "welled" up in her bosom, "deepening, with its dreadful echo" (304). Interestingly, Lacan's theory of metonymy as the motor of language supports the psychoanalytic view that links the female phobia of emptiness (as a primal corollary to lacking the phallus) with gaps in narrativity that make this tale seem discontinuous and disjointed.10 Thus, the narrator's confused recounting of her tale is a method of compensating for this emptiness, from the initial display of desire in her heart to the culminating betrayal of that desire, resulting in her agonizing confession.

This feminist investigation into the speaking subject, both male and female, unmasks the hidden male agenda; it also shows that a feminist rereading using only the Lacanian principles of psychoanalysis is problematic. As already shown, the female narrator's voluntary confession to the mildly suspecting policemen reveals her restricted position. As woman, she reoccupies her traditional role as a submissive, victimized object, offering herself up to be scrutinized once more by the male gaze. She can, finally, never aspire to usurp this power or be outside/above the Law of the Father. Ironically, even though a feminist rereading grants the female narrator a temporary masculine, active, subject posture, it undercuts this interpretation in returning her to a traditionally female position by superimposing a judicial and patriarchal closure. Such a feminist reading shows how clearly the female is boxed into a role, making both her sexual and gender identity rigid. A feminist rereading must go beyond the unmasking of such oppression; it must seek alternate positions for the female speaking subject.

Although Lacanian psychoanalysis first creates a division between male/female and then erases it under the guise of gender equalization, it seems to suggest that certain codes of behavior and discourse are allowable only to a male. Should a female dare to transgress, she will be punished by the Law of the Father. Consequently, the female narrator is permitted to desire the "metaphoric" phallus as power, but she can never aspire to possess it. And if she chooses to disobey this basic patriarchal dictum, not only will she fail but she must bear the moral consequences. In a feminist rereading of the ending of the tale, the female narrator's marginalization becomes explicit. What was successfully interpreted as a dramatization of the Oedipal myth for the male narrator turns to the harsh reality of oppression for the female narrator.

A feminist theorist must suspect that this development reveals Lacan's bias in adapting Freud's notion of manifest and repressed texts. At the manifest level, Lacan explicitly advocates sexual egalitarianism, but at the repressed (more influential) level he implicitly subverts it. My feminist rereading of the manifest text is as presented in the above analyses. Yet if one were to reread the repressed text, the Lacanian prejudice against the female would become obvious. I submit that the unconscious, or repressed text, through the pressure it exerts on the conscious or manifest text, shows that patriarchal morality condemns a woman for being aggressive, for desiring power, and ultimately punishes her for achieving this power even temporarily. Both male and female readers of Poe's story have tended to accept the Law of the Father, together with all its arbitrary presuppositions, and grant power only to the male. Thus, the status of the male narrator in Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" has remained stable. But if one wishes to transcend this phallogocentric prejudice, one must look elsewhere than Freud and Lacan.

To experience what Cixous explains as jouissance within Poe's text, we must erase the rigidity of metaphor (eye) and metonymy (heart) as separate categories. Instead, a gendered reading of Poe's tale would make the "eye" and the "heart" serve as metaphors and metonymies simultaneously, intermingling and creating multiple meanings. Quite accurately, Cixous's use of tropes can be called gendered, as they have greater maneuverability than Lacan's sexual tropes, which are clearly marked as metaphor/symbolic/male, and metonymy/imaginary/female. This strategy is Cixous's way of combating Lacan's notion of gender dissemination, which is actually based on a sexual paradigm. Lacan's position is invested with patriarchal biases such that the female term is violated and abused either at the conscious (manifest text) or unconscious (represed text) level. The "eye" as metaphor has yielded meaning to Poe's text, but reading it metonymically enriches the tale further. The "eye" is the virtual symptom of the female narrator's desire to gain power in a male dominated society. In this context, it energizes the sequence of events in the tale to climax in the narrator's confession. Since killing the old man does not grant her lasting power, she confesses to the policemen and, thus, recirculates her power. Paradoxically, in the confessional scene "she" adroitly forces the male gaze to expose the controlled violence of the patriarchy. Her aggression against the old man is an explicit assault on male domination. Her confession becomes her implicit critique of domination. For a feminist reader, this is gratifying, an expression of solidarity through her exposure of ideology. For a masculinist reader, it is one more reminder of rebellion against patriarchal oppression. Her confession reveals the latent fetters of bondage in a patriarchal ideology, and she rereverses the gaze of the policemen by letting it bounce off her objectified body by using the eye as a metonymic instrument. Here the gaze is just one more part in her plan to expose the system. She exchanges the virtual prison bars of the Father's Law for the actual ones of the penal system. Henceforth, she will covertly make her point on discrimination against women through the underlying irony of her tale.

Writhing under the policemen's scrutiny, she protests: "they were making a mockery of my horror! … But any thing was better than this agony … more tolerable than this derision" (306). This indicates that her first plan to usurp power from the old man had failed, and now she must adopt another, creating a new perspective for the final scene. Her confession, now read ironically and not as evidence of guilt, directs the gaze back into the metaphoric register. It activates her plan for the exposé. For a moment, between her first plan and the second one, the gaze falls on the metaphoric spectre of the Law. In this sense, the interweaving of metaphor and metonymy, as a slippage of tropes, allows for multiple readings that build on one another instead of repressing one meaning to manifest another. This is an example of the jouissance that Cixous advocates as a method of accretion.

Similarly, luxuriating in the jouissance of multiplicity, the "heart" can be moved from the metonymic to the metaphoric register. As a metaphor, it serves to foreground the tale as belonging to the romance genre, with all its associations of passion and fantasy. It also allows the tale to be read as wish fulfillment, a dream in which the narrator as melodramatic heroine becomes the cynosure in a male arena, the active speaking subject, instead of the fetishized object. She proudly declares: "I foamed—I raved—I swore" (307), as a way of explaining her frantic attempts to remain on center stage. This is an enactment of the stereotypical feminine posture. By obeying the dictates of her heart in committing the passionate crime (exaggerated, no doubt), she dramatizes her execrated position as woman. Now the female narrator emerges as the martyr through her confession, also a typical position for the female.

But when examining the text under the light of jouissance, the first step in reading is to expose such a patriarchal stereotyping. Yet the interweaving of the metaphoric and metonymic registers gives diverse readings. According to the metonymic register (eye), the female narrator is an active speaking subject who assumes a male gendered identity, but the metaphoric register (heart) forces her back into the archetypical female position of martyr. This slip between the metaphoric and metonymic registers is crucial to feminist writing because it reveals the androgyny created by jouissance. Moreover, gendered identity sheds a different light on the other characters in the tale, too. In the crucial, confessional scene, all the characters can be read androgynously. The literal keepers of the Law of the Father, the policemen observe passively while the female narrator is explosively active. She is the speaking subject, frantically pacing, vigorously thumping the furniture, and energetically talking. She is catapulted into her final ironic, yet male and active posture by "the beating of his heart!" (307, italics added). It is the old man's heart, dramatized like a damsel in distress, that vocalizes the narrator's confession. In the ironic conclusion of the tale, both the policemen and the old man remain static, while the female narrator adopts the dynamic and aggressive role, deliberately calling attention to the subservient status of all women. What needs to be emphasized here is the active androgynous narrator who can be contrasted to the passive males; her actions should not be mistaken for the actions for a stereotypical "hysterical" female. This erroneous stereotyping will, no doubt, create a neat niche for the female, but leave the male position in the discourse vacant. Thus, Cixous's brand of androgyny and multiple readings cancel out stereotypical sexual markings of the text.

Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" can indeed be read as the female narrator's own cry from "the soul when overcharged with awe" (304), a tale of escape, but escape into deliberate captivity so that she can articulate a female discourse. She experiments and functions in both the active and passive registers as a speaking subject and passive object. In this venture, her discourse becomes a painful tool of signifiying and defining herself within the confines of patriarchy. Through jouissance, interweaving metaphors and metonymies, constantly slipping between the tropes, defying libidinal economy, and creating an excess of signifiers, she inscribes an "other" discourse. This rewriting becomes possible through the complex pattern Of gendered tropes that are occupied by both male and female characters in the tale. It is this embracing, this gathering together, not only of the tropes, but also of the characters occupying these gendered tropes, that makes this tale a revelation of feminist rewriting as well as rereading.


1 Jacques Lacan, "L'Instance de la lettre dans l'inconscient," Ecrits I, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977). Lacan argues that metonymy is the "derailment of instinct … externally extended towards the desire of something else" (278).

2 Roman Jakobson, "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasie Disturbances," in Fundamentals of Language (The Hague: Mouton, 1956) 55-82. Lacan matches Saussure's linguistic model with Jakobson's to formulate the signifier/signified and metaphor/metonymy relationship (274).

3 See Jerry Ann Flieger, "The Purloined Punchline: Joke as Textual Paradigm," Contemporary Literary Criticism, ed. Robert Con Davis (New York: Longman, 1986) 277-94, who claims that a text through its intersubjectivity acts as a feminine symptom of inexhaustible desire. Toril Moi, in her introduction to Sexual/Textual Politics, discusses Lacan's theory of the "symbolic/metaphoric" and male vector as always coexisting with the "imaginary metonymic" and female vector in any discourse in an attempt to make meaning within the text. See Anthony Wilden, The Language of the Self (New York: Dell, 1975) 249-70, for a discussion of Lacan's symbolic/imaginary registers.

4 Robert Con Davis, "Lacan, Poe, and Narrative Repression," in Lacan and Narration: The Psychoanalytic Difference In Narrative Theory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1984). Davis argues that, according to Freud, the act of gazing represents the gazer's status as subject actively engaged in a pleasurable power game with the receiver of the gaze. In the object position, the receiver passively submits to the painful humiliation of the gazer's oppressive surveillance. By incorporating Lacan into Freud's theory, Davis shows that the "Gaze" is composed of three shifting positions of the subject's desire for the Other. Beginning with the gazer in a voyeuristic subject position, scrutinizing an exhibitionist as object, we move to a second, mirror-like stage, where the subject/object of the gaze are replicas of each other. In the final moment, positions are reversed when the (former subject and current) object returns the gaze. Like the ever-shifting signifiers in language, the gaze is also a never-ending game. Davis's Lacanian interpretation sees the gaze as a mark of desire for the Other that is revealed in the text through intersubjectivity and reciprocal looking. Thus the looker, by looking, loses some of his power through the gaze itself.

5 Edgar Allan Poe, The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Modern Library, 1965) 303; cited hereafter in the text.

6 Hélène Cixous, "An Imaginary Utopia," Sexual/Textual Politics, ed. Toril Moi (New York: Methuen, 1985) 102-27. Cixous's theoretical paradigm is based on Derrida's deconstructive poetics. This particular three-step reinscription is my synthesis of Cixous's position as expressed in "The Laugh of the Medusa," in New French Feminisms, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1980) 245-64, and in "Castration or Decapitation?" Signs 7 (1981):41-55.

7 For a more detailed discussion on the nature of patriarchal thought, the concept of sexual difference, and écriture feminine see Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, La Jeune Née (Paris: Union General d'Editions, 1975) 147; Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. Leon S. Roudiez, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Roudiez (New York: Columbia UP, 1980) 239-40; both cited hereafter in the text.

8 Marie Bonaparte, The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe (1949; London: Hogarth P, 1971).

9 Lacan, "L'Instance" 171.

10 Jacques Lacan, "Seminar XX" in Feminine Sexuality, ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jaqueline Rose (New York: Norton, 1982). For Lacan's discussion of women, see 48.

Brett Zimmerman (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: '"Moral Insanity' or Paranoid Schizophrenia: Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart,'" Mosaic, Vol. 25, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 39-48.

[In the essay that follows, Zimmerman analyzes the ways in which "The Tell-Tale Heart" anticipates the psychological concept of paranoid schizophrenia, and concludes that Poe belongs to that group of "modern artists who find in science not a threat but an ally."]

In our time, creative writers are expected to do their "homework," and consequently to find "modern" scientific accuracy in a literary text comes as no surprise. To discover similar scientific accuracy in a text from an early period is a different matter—one which involves not only questions about the sophistication of the artist but also about the sophistication of the science of his/her time. A case in point is Poe's short story of 1843, "The Tell-Tale Heart." Narrated in retrospect, Poe's confessional tale features a "mad" protagonist who recalls his grisly murder of an old man, his living companion, and who tries to explain the reasons for both this abominable act and his ultimate confession. My purpose in the following essay is to demonstrate the extent to which Poe's characterization of this narrator corresponds with current psychoanalytic profiles of the "paranoid schizophrenic" personality. Subsequently, my purpose is to consider the "science" of Poe's time in order to show how it "anticipates" current thinking and so provides the context for Poe's own acute insights into the nature, cause and consequences of this kind of mental illness.

… . .

According to current psychological theory, the "active" phase of paranoid schizophrenia is preceded by a "prodromal" phase during which premonitory symptoms occur, one of which is "superstitiousness" (DSM 195).1 In Poe's tale, what precipitated the narrator's insanity and the subsequent murder was his irrational obsession with the old man's so-called "Evil Eye." The narrator freely admits to his auditors that this was his primum mobile: "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" (88). Although it might be argued that the madman's comments about the "Evil Eye" constitute his rationalization about his decision to murder, the way he describes the object suggests that the "Eye" was indeed the thing which drove him to commit his atrocities. Although mad, he is not entirely an unreliable narrator, for what we should consider is the way his idée fixe, his superstition concerning the "Evil Eye," generated a kind of anxiety or "overwhelming stress" which, according to current theories, can lead to a full schizophrenic breakdown (Sue 441-42).

A major symptom of the active phase of schizophrenia involves hallucinations, and it is here that Poe critics have come closest to identifying the specific nature of the narrator's mental condition. For example, before she abandons herself to a Freudian interpretation, Marie Bonaparte refers to "auditory hallucinations of paranoia" (498). Similarly, in their anthology of short fiction, The Abnormal Personality Through Literature, Alan Stone and Sue Smart Stone include "The Tell-Tale Heart" in a chapter on psychotic symptoms—specifically, hallucinations. Closest to a more precise identification of the narrator's condition is John E. Reilly, who indeed describes the protagonist as a paranoid schizophrenic (5-6). To Reilly, the key index to the narrator's condition is his "hyperacusis," but it is at this point that his analysis falls short and the directions from current research become important.

According to modern researchers, paranoid schizophrenics often experience sensory perceptions that are not directly attributable to environmental stimuli. They also note that 74% of schizophrenics suffer from auditory hallucinations: they hear sounds that are not real to others (Sue 428). Usually these sensorial illusions involve voices which the victim perceives as originating outside his/her head, but occasionally "the auditory hallucinations are of sounds rather than voices" (DSM 189).

Poe's narrator insists that his "disease had sharpened [his] senses—not destroyed—not dulled them," and that "Above all was the sense of hearing acute." Yet when he goes on to add "I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell" (88), his absurdly grandiose claim encourages us to suspect related claims he makes regarding his auditory capacity. He explains, for example, that "there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton" (91). He interprets this sound as the beating of the old man's heart, but it would have been impossible for him to hear such a noise unless his ear were against the old man's chest. Some scholars argue, in turn, that the narrator was in fact hearing his own heart (Shelden 77; Hoffman 232; Howarth 11). While such an interpretation is possible, the narrator's claim to hear things in heaven, hell and the earth makes it more logical to conclude that the sound he heard was not the beating of his own heart, but rather was an auditory hallucination.

To Reilly, the cause of the sound was actually an insect called the "lesser death-watch," but he also admits that there are certain discrepancies in his theory: "Whereas the narrator heard the sound on two occasions during the night of the murder, the ticking of the lesser death-watch is said to continue for hours. Moreover, the narrator reports that the sound he heard increased in tempo just before the murder and grew in volume on both occasions, whereas the ticking of the lesser death-watch is uniformly faint" (5). Reilly then tries to account for the discrepancies by saying that the narrator's "subjective sense of time accelerated the regular ticking of the lesser death-watch" and its volume (7). Such a convoluted explanation is, however, entirely unnecessary if we view the protagonist as a paranoid schizophrenic. If we see him as suffering from auditory hallucinations, then we do not need to suggest any material source, whether insect or heart, for the sounds he claims to have heard—they originated inside his head.

The narrator, of course, insists that "the noise was not within my ears" (94), but such a disclaimer simply highlights another, the most common, symptom of schizophrenia—a lack of insight: "during the active phase of their disorder, schizophrenics are unable to recognize that their thinking is disturbed" (Sue 426). Although Poe's narrator admits to having some kind of sensorial disease, he is obviously unaware that it is in fact a mental aberration: "why will you say that I am mad?"; "You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me"; "have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over acuteness of the senses?"; "If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body" (88, 91, 92). One of the greatest sources of irony—and perhaps pathos—in the tale is the narrator's vehement insistence that he is sane, rather than insane.

The protagonist's inflated opinion of himself is also in keeping with the current view that a "common delusion among paranoid schizophrenics involves exaggerated grandiosity and self-importance" (Sue 439). Poe's narrator brags and boasts specifically of his brilliant circumspection in preparing to murder the old man: "You should have seen how wisely I proceeded—with what caution—with what foresight—with what dissimulation I went to work! … Never before that night, had I felt the extent of my own powers—of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph" (88-89). The narrator believes that he has engaged in what Thomas de Quincy thinks of as "the fine art of murder." He would agree with the facetious de Quincy that a murder can be a very meritorious performance—when committed by a man of superior powers.

Not only was the murder performed with circumspection and with finesse, but so was the disposal of the corpse; Poe's narrator believes that in hiding the evidence of his crime he had considered every possible contingency:

If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body.…

I then took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye—not even his—could have detected any thing wrong. There was nothing to wash out—no stain of any kind—no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all—ha! ha!


Then this narrator gloriosus boasts of the "enthusiasm of my confidence" and of "my perfect triumph."

Other symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia include shifts of mood (Sue 433-34), and Poe's madman exhibits these in a number of ways. When he begins his recall, he boasts of "how calmly I can tell you the whole story" (88), and indeed his recollection starts calmly enough. As soon as he begins to recall the alleged beating of the old man's heart, however, he becomes frenetic and he loses his composure: "The old man's terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment! … Yet, for some minutes longer I refrained and stood still. But the beating grew louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst. And now a new anxiety seized me—the sound would be heard by a neighbour! The old man's hour had come!" (92). As James W. Gargano has demonstrated, "there is often an aesthetic compatibility between [Poe's] narrators' hypertrophic language and their psychic derangement …" (166). In "The Tell-Tale Heart" Poe dramatizes the madman's shift from calmness to hysteria by the increased use of such rhetorical devices as repetition (diacope, epizeuxis, ploce), exclamations, emphatic utterances (italics), and the dash. After he confesses how he murdered the old man, Poe's narrator calms down again—until he relates how the police entered his house and the sound of the "heartbeat" recommenced, at which point he becomes one of the most hysterical, most frenzied narrators in all of Poe's fiction.

Associated with the narrator's mood alterations are other symptoms of schizophrenia, including the display of emotions that are at variance with the normal reaction to a given situation: "Schizophrenic patients may exhibit wild laughter or uncontrollable weeping that bears little relationship to current circumstances.…Schizophrenics may express the wrong emotions or may express them inappropriately" (Sue 433-34). Evidencing this trait, Poe's protagonist recalls with delight the artful way he performed the most hideous of crimes. He assumes, as well, that his audience shares similar emotions; relating his stealth and patience while putting his head into the old man's chamber, he explains: "Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! … To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea …" (89-90). Although he pitied his intended victim, he nevertheless "chuckled at heart." In addition, the care he displayed in avoiding blood stains is for him a great source of complacency and humor: "A tub had caught all—ha! ha!" (93).

Complications of schizophrenia include "violent acts" (DSM 191), and, of course, the murder of the old man is clearly the ultimate manifestation of such a tendency. Not all paranoid schizophrenics are homicidal maniacs, however; often if they are violent at all the violence is turned against themselves rather than others. Clearly, though, Poe's schizophrenic is the most dangerous kind: his violence is turned outward, and he originally had no intention of coming to harm himself.

Features of paranoid schizophrenia associated with violence include anxiety, anger and argumentativeness (DSM 197). The anxiety of Poe's narrator is something he admits to and, indeed, stresses at the outset: "True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am …" (88). Anger and argumentativeness are also evidenced in his response to the police: "I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations…. I foamed—I raved—I swore!" (94). Such symptoms constitute what is currently labeled "dysphoric mood" (DSM 190).

Unfortunately for Poe's paranoid schizophrenic, what finally proved his undoing is yet another symptom of his disease—delusions of persecution. Psychologists note that "deluded individuals believe that others are plotting against them, are talking about them, or are out to harm them in some way. They are constantly suspicious, and their interpretations of the behavior and motives of others are distorted" (Sue 438-39). When Poe's narrator invited the three officers in, he was at first certain that they suspected nothing; then his auditory hallucination began again, and eventually he became convinced that they could not fail to hear the sound which was tormenting him:

It grew louder—louder—louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!—no, no! They heard!—they suspected!—they knew!—they were making a mockery of my horror!—this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now—again!—hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!


Just as current researchers note the way paranoid schizophrenics might see a "friendly, smiling bus driver … as someone who is laughing at them derisively" (Sue 439), so the smiles of the police served only to convince Poe's narrator that they were conspiring against him—with the end result being his confession: " 'Villains!' I shrieked, 'dissemble no more! I admit the deed!' "

What especially recommends a view of the narrator as a paranoid schizophrenic is that it uncovers the most plausible reason why he confessed. Contrary to the explanations usually given, I would argue that Poe's madman revealed his crime not because of a guilty conscience, not because some "imp of the perverse" goaded him into confessing, not because he hates himself and really wanted to be caught—not because he has self-destructive tendencies, in other words—but because he suffers from delusions of persecution. He believed that the officers had discovered his crime, and he could not bear the thought that they were mocking him. As Reilly notes, "the narrator purged his rage by exposing what be believed was the hypocrisy of the police," and thus "self-incrimination" was merely the by-product (7).

The time span of "The Tell-Tale Heart"—from the time Poe's narrator began looking in on the old man every night at midnight, until the consummation of the murder, and even while he is confessing and insisting upon his sanity—corresponds nicely with the active phase of paranoid schizophrenia. According to psychiatrists, the active phase is of at least a week's duration and is characterized by the manifestation of psychotic symptoms (DSM 194). Poe's narrator had been suffering such symptoms for this same time period: he speaks of "the whole week before I killed him" (89), and when he mentions the "low, dull, quick sound" which he attributes to the old man's heart, he says that he "knew that sound well" (91). In other words, he had been experiencing his auditory hallucinations during the week before the murder, not just on the night of the crime.

It is one thing to apply twentieth-century psychology to Poe's tales, but it is quite another to account for the fact that Poe has given us a paranoid schizophrenic in the absence of twentieth-century psychology. In Poe's day the field of scientific psychology was relatively young, and schizophrenia did not even have a specific name; it was not until 1898 that Emil Kraepelin labeled the disease "Dementia Praecox," and it was given its modern name by Eugen Bleuler only in 1911. Thus, Poe portrayed a paranoid schizophrenic decades before nosologists labeled and separated that disease from other mental abnormalities.

Several explanations for this situation are possible. One is that Poe himself had experienced symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, and used these as the basis for his narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart." Another hypothesis is that Poe's portrait is purely a product of his imagination (and it is therefore a matter of coincidence that he portrayed what twentieth-century psychology calls a paranoid schizophrenic). The explanation I would like to advance and support, however, is that Poe acquired his knowledge of the symptoms by familiarizing himself with the scientific theories of his time.

The allusion to the phrenologist Spurzheim in "The Imp of the Perverse"; the references to the "moral treatment" of the insane in "Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether"; the review of Mrs. L. Miles's Phrenology in the Southern Literary Messenger—these and other references to coeval theories of psychology in Poe's works show that he was very much a student of mental diseases. He may have learned a great deal from his discussions with medical men like his acquaintance Pliny Earle (a physician who dealt extensively with the insane at asylums in both Pennsylvania and New York), but probably he gleaned information from literary sources as well.

I. M. Walker is only one of several scholars (Elizabeth Phillips, Allan Gardner Smith, Robert D. Jacobs) who insist that Poe was familiar with the works of the psychologists of his day: "With his passion for scientific fact and his interest in abnormal mental states, Poe would have been likely to turn to systems of contemporary psychology in the same way that modern writers have turned to Freud and Jung. Moreover, in Poe's day … information regarding both mental and physical diseases was readily available to the intelligent layman, not only in the original works of the scientists, but also in popular journals and encyclopaedias" (588). A specialized publication, the American Journal of Insanity, began appearing in 1844 (only a matter of months before the final publication of "The Tell-Tale Heart" in the Broadway Journal on 23 August 1845). As for books, Paige Matthey Bynum notes that "Between 1825 and 1838, the Philadelphia publishing house of Carey and Lea published almost twice as many medical books as those in any other category except fiction, and mental health was a staple concern in these works" (150). In the bibliography to The Analysis of Motives Smith lists many works on psychology which were extant in Poe's America—books in English that describe the various symptoms which characterize the abnormal mental state of his narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart."

Such descriptions are scattered, however. Because the science of psychology was in its infancy, there was much confusion and disagreement between medical men on how to classify and relate the symptoms of insanity. While twentieth-century students can find entire chapters devoted solely to schizophrenia in various manuals and textbooks, it is more difficult to find specific chapters which group only the features of this disease in the books by Poe's contemporaries—their categories were very broad and often vague.

Occasionally, however, we can find three or more of the symptoms listed together. One of the earlier texts available to Poe was John Haslam's Observations on Madness and Melancholy (1809). In a general chapter on insanity—"Symptoms of the Disease"—Haslam refers to suspiciousness (42) and later to auditory hallucinations and violence (69). In the next chapter he provides particular case studies. One of these. "Case XVI," concerns a man whose "temper was naturally violent, and he was easily provoked.…He would often appear to be holding conversations: but these conferences always terminated in a violent quarrel between the imaginary being and himself. He constantly supposed unfriendly people were placed in different parts of the house to torment and annoy him" (118-19). Here we have not only violence and argumentativeness, but also the two essential features of paranoid schizophrenia that modern psychologists have identified (DSM 197): delusions (of persecution) and the most common kind of auditory hallucination—that which involves voices.

Haslam's "Case XX" involves a woman who, like the male patient, evinced violent tendencies and delusions of persecution, in addition to mood shifts and optical and olfactory hallucinations: "At the first attack she was violent, but she soon became more calm. She conceived that the overseers of the parish, to which she belonged, meditated her destruction.…She fancied that a young man, for whom she had formerly entertained a partiality, but who had been dead some years, appeared frequently at her bed-side, in a state of putrefaction, which left an abominable stench in her room" (126-27). Haslam also notes that the woman began to suffer her mental affliction "shortly after the death of her husband." The likelihood that the demise of her spouse created the extreme stress which triggered her breakdown corresponds with the current view that a "psychosocial stressor" may trigger the active phase of schizophrenia (DSM 190).

In his Introduction to a recent edition of Haslam's work, Roy Porter observes that "Historians of psychiatry have credited Haslam with giving the first precise clinical accounts of … schizophrenia" (xxvii). Prior to the publication of "The Tell-Tale Heart," however, there were also other works which described the illness. In his Treatise on Insanity and Other Disorders Affecting the Mind (1837), for example, the American physician James Cowles Prichard records the case of a young man who suffered from what he calls "moral insanity":

He frequently changed his residence, but soon began to fancy himself the object of dislike to every person in the house of which he became the inmate…. On being questioned narrowly as to the ground of the persuasion expressed by him, that he was disliked by the family with which he then resided, he replied that he heard whispers uttered in distant apartments of the house indicative of malevolence and abhorrence. An observation was made to him that it was impossible for sounds so uttered to be heard by him. He then asked if the sense of hearing could not, by some physical change in the organ, be occasionally so increased in intensity as to become capable of affording distinct perception at an unusual distance.… This was the only instance of what might be termed hallucination discovered in the case after a minute scrutiny [by physicians].


Apparent in this case are delusions of persecution and voice hallucinations. The young man's query about the possibility of hearing sounds at great distances, furthermore, certainly recalls Poe's insane narrator. Finally, the patient's hypothesis that his disorder is physiological rather than mental also indicates that he too lacks insight into his true psychical condition—another symptom of paranoid schizophrenia.

Other works on abnormal mental states written during Poe's day that describe symptoms of schizophrenia include Isaac Ray's A Treatise on the Medical Jurisprudence of Insanity (1838), in which he cites Joseph Mason Cox's Practical Observations on Insanity (1804). In a chapter on "General Moral Mania" Ray quotes Cox's report of a certain variety of "maniacs" who

take violent antipathies, harbor unjust suspicions … are proud, conceited and ostentatious; easily excited … obstinately riveted to the most absurd opinions; prone to controversy … always the hero of their own tale, using … unnatural gesticulation, inordinate action…. On some occasions they suspect sinister intentions on the most trivial grounds; on others are a prey to fear and dread from the most ridiculous and imaginary sources.…If subjected to moral restraint, or a medical regimen, they yield with reluctance to the means proposed, and generally refuse and resist, on the ground that such means are unnecessary where no disease exists.…


The symptoms Cox describes correspond very closely to those current psychologists associate with paranoid schizophrenia, just as they also closely match those evinced by the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart": violence, delusions of persecution and of grandeur, mood shifts, nervousness, and a lack of insight into his own psychopathy.

Clearly, then, Poe and his contemporaries were describing paranoid schizophrenia, even if its symptoms were classified under the broad heading "Moral Insanity," which, as Norman Dain observes, "served as a catch-all for many forms of mental illness" in the early nineteenth century (73)—and which, as Bynum confirms, would indeed have been the way Poe's contemporaries would have diagnosed the condition of his narrator. Accordingly, although romanticists may like to see Poe as a tormented artist who wrote "The Tell-Tale Heart" to explore or to purge himself of his own psychotic or self-destructive tendencies, it seems better to regard him as a sophisticated writer who consulted scientific books and journals in an attempt to achieve accuracy and verisimilitude in his own works—the same Poe who familiarized himself with, for instance, the writings of Sir John Herschel, Thomas Dick and John P. Nichol for the astronomy in Eureka; and whose reviews of Washington Irving's Astoria and J. N. Reynolds's "South Sea Expedition" informed Pym. For Poe to consult psychology texts for the sake of scientific precision in "The Tell-Tale Heart" would have been typical of his standard practice.

In many ways, therefore, Poe is a precursor of modern artists who find in science not a threat but an ally, and the sophistication of his insights might encourage us to be more humble about our own sophistication. His insights might make us wonder whether the major contribution of twentieth-century psychology has taken the form of new knowledge or whether it consists instead in naming and classification, for it appears that Poe and his contemporaries knew a good deal about paranoid schizophrenia—even if they did not use this terminology.


1 The abbreviation refers to the standard reference work in the field of psychology—Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (see my first entry in Works Cited).

Works Cited

American Psychiatric Association. "Schizophrenia." Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 3rd ed, rev. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1987. 187-98.

Bonaparte, Marie. "The Tell-Tale Heart." The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation. Trans. John Rodker. 1949. New York: Humanities, 1971. 491-504.

Bynum, Paige Matthey. " ' Observe How Healthily—How Calmly I Can Tell You the Whole Story': Moral Insanity and Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart'." Literature and Science as Modes of Expression. Ed. Frederick Amrine. Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science 115. Boston: Kluwer, 1989. 141-52.

Dain, Norman. Concepts of Insanity in the United States, 1789-1865. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1964.

Gargano, James W. "The Question of Poe's Narrators." Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Robert Regan. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1967. 164-71.

Haslam, John. Observations on Madness and Melancholy. 2nd ed. London, 1809.

Hoffman, Daniel. "Grotesques and Arabesques." Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Garden City: Doubleday. 1972. 226-32.

Howarth, William L. Introduction. Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Poe's Tales: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1971. 1-22.

Jacobs, Robert D. "The Matrix." Poe: Journalist & Critic. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969. 3-34.

Phillips, Elizabeth. "Mere Household Events: The Metaphysics of Mania." Edgar Allan Poe: An American Imagination. Port Washington: Kennikat, 1979. 97-137.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Tell-Tale Heart." In vol. 5 of The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. James A. Harrison. 1902. New York: AMS, 1965. 88-94.

Porter, Roy. Introduction. Illustrations of Madness. By John Haslam. New York: Routledge, 1988. xi-lxiv.

Prichard, James Cowles. A Treatise on Insanity and Other Disorders Affecting the Mind. Philadelphia, 1837.

Ray, Isaac. A Treatise on the Medical Jurisprudence of Insanity. Boston, 1838.

Reilly, John E. "The Lesser Death-Watch and 'The Tell-Tale Heart'." American Transcendental Quarterly 2 (1969): 3-9.

Shelden, Pamela J. " 'True Originality': Poe's Manipulation of the Gothic Tradition." American Transcendental Quarterly 29.1 (1976): 75-80.

Smith, Allan Gardner. "Chapter Two: Edgar Allan Poe."The Analysis of Motives: Early American Psychology and Fiction. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1980. 38-75.

——. "The Psychological Context of Three Tales by Journal of American Studies 7.3 (1973): 279-92.

Stone, Alan A., and Sue Smart Stone. "Psychotic Symptoms." The Abnormal Personality Through Literature. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1966. 126-31.

Sue, David, Derald Sue, and Stanley Sue. Understanding Abnormal Behavior. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton, 1986. 425-45.

Walker, I. M. "The 'Legitimate Sources' of Terror in 'The Fall of the House of Usher'." Modern Language Review 61 (1966): 585-92.

Christopher Benfey (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: "Poe and the Unreadable: 'The Black Cat' and 'The Tell-Tale Heart,'" in New Essays on Poe's Major Tales, edited by Kenneth Silverman, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 27-44.

[In the following essay, Benfey studies Poe's exploration of "the unreadable in human relations," the opacity that separates one person from another, in the short stories "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart".]

Two fears should follow us through life. There is the fear that we shan't prove worthy in the eyes of someone who knows us at least as well as we know ourselves. That is the fear of God. And there is the fear of Man—the fear that men won't understand us and we shall be cut off from them.

—Robert Frost1

Poe aimed to puzzle his readers. Tale after tale begins or ends with an invitation to decode or decipher a peculiar sequence of events. Some of Poe's most memorable characters are themselves solvers of riddles—amateur scientists, private detectives, armchair philosophers who glorify in what Poe calls "that moral activity which disentangles."2 The modern-day Oedipus, according to Poe, "is fond of enigmas, of conundrums, of hieroglyphics; exhibiting in his solutions of each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension praeternatural" (528).

Poe's critics have tended to divide into two camps: on the one hand, those who claim to have keys to the puzzles, and on the other, those who find the puzzles impossible or unworthy of solution. In the first group one finds a wealth of extraordinary psychoanalytic readings of Poe—surely no other writer other than Freud himself has so engaged the psychoanalytic literary community, from Marie Bonaparte's pioneering reading of Poe to Lacan's famous interpretation of "The Purloined Letter" and the further commentary it inspired. In the first group one also finds psychologically astute—though not explicitly psychoanalytic—readers like the poet Richard Wilbur, who finds in Poe's tales representations of the ordinary phases of falling asleep.3

In the second group—the resistant readers—belong such dismissive critics as Harold Bloom, who claims to find Poe's prose literally unreadable. "Translation even into his own language," Bloom acidly remarks, "always benefits Poe."4 To this group also belong such historically minded critics as David Reynolds, for whom Poe's puzzles are interesting primarily as literary conventions, the sort of lure for the masses that Poe, writing at mid-nineteenth century for a magazine-reading public, had no choice but to employ.5

I do not propose to steer a middle course between these two camps, even if it were easy to say what such a course might be. My aim instead is to show how one kind of puzzle—perhaps not the most obvious or "crackable" kind—is at the heart of some of Poe's best known tales. This sort of puzzle concerns the ways in which people are themselves enigmas to one another: people (that is characters) both within the stories and on either side, so to speak (the author and the reader). Poe was an early student of the ways in which human beings have access, or are denied access, to the minds of other people. Twentieth-century philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin have devoted a good deal of attention to what has come to be called "the problem of other minds," trying to answer the arguments of skeptics who claim, for example, that we cannot know for certain that another person is in pain. Poe's tales, it seems to me, address such questions from oblique and unexpected angles. If figures from as divergent cultural and historical milieux as Poe and Freud can be invited into useful dialogue, the same could be said for Poe and Wittgenstein. (The latter, by the way, came of age in precisely the same turn-of-the-century Viennese culture as did Freud.)

Poe was fascinated by mind readers and unreadable faces, the twin fantasies of utter exposure and complete secrecy. His private eye Auguste Dupin is the preeminent example of the former. In a scene from "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Dupin astonishes the narrator by reading his mind, having boasted that "most men, in respect to himself, wore windows in their bosoms" (533). Dupin pulls off this feat by being extraordinarily attentive to psychological association, a process Poe relates to the solving of puzzling crimes. In "The Purloined Letter," Dupin retrieves the hidden letter by reproducing the mental calculations of the deceitful minister D. The devil, in the less familiar story "Bon-Bon," has kindred powers—he can even read the mind of a pet cat (a subject to which we will return).

Poe was equally interested, however, in the opposite phenomenon of the unknowable mind, the mind that remains, despite all attempts at access, ultimately mysterious. One of his best known tales, "The Man of the Crowd"—it drew commentary from Baudelaire as well as from the great modern critic Walter Benjamin—begins and ends by comparing certain people to the sort of book that "does not permit itself to be read":

Men die nightly in their beds, wringing the hands of ghostly confessors, and looking them piteously in the eyes—die with despair of heart and convulsion of throat, on account of the hideousness of mysteries which will not suffer themselves to be revealed. (506-7)

It is to this theme of the unreadable in human relations that my subtitle refers. It is not by accident that Poe should invite us to compare reading minds with reading books, or that his stories should involve both activities. He saw the most intimate relation between these two acts of reading, constantly drawing analogies between them. We will now turn to two such tales: "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat." We will also give some attention to a third text, a sort of hybrid of essay and tale entitled "The Imp of the Perverse."

These tales are not whodunits—we know right from the start who the murderer is. They are closer to the genre now called thrillers, where the crime itself and the psychology of the killer are more the focus than the question of who committed the crime. If there is a mystery in these tales, it is the mystery of motive: not who did it but why. Poe's fascination with the idea of a crime without a clear motive has proved to be one of his richest bequests to later writers, informing such works as Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, André Gide's Lafcadio's Adventures (Les Caves du Vatican), and Camus's The Stranger, all three of which test the idea that human freedom is most convincingly exhibited in an extreme and gratuitous act, specifically an act of murder with no obvious advantage to the murderer. Poe's interest in motiveless crime, however, had less to do with human freedom than with human knowledge. He was drawn to two ideas connected with it: one, the ways in which the murderer is a mystery to himself (a dominant idea in "The Black Cat"), and two, the related ways in which the murder results from some barrier to the killer's knowledge of other people (a major theme in "The Tell-Tale Heart").

"The Tell-Tale Heart" begins in medias res, in the midst of things. We seem to be overhearing a conversation—one that began before our arrival on the scene—between a murderer and his interlocutor. The identity of the latter is never specified; it could be a prison warden, a doctor in a madhouse, a newspaper reporter, a judge. The very indefiniteness makes it easy for the reader to imagine that the killer is speaking directly to him or her.

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. (792)

The first word is a concession—this speaker wants to communicate, to persuade. He thinks that by giving some ground ("granted I'm nervous"), he can win the battle ("but I'm not crazy").

Like other characters in Poe's tales (and to some degree, apparently, Poe himself), the narrator believes that certain diseases of the mind can actually sharpen mental acuity. In "Eleonora," for example, another half mad speaker tries to persuade us that he is sane: "Men have called me mad," he says, "but the question is not yet settled … whether all that is profound—does not spring from disease of thought—from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect" (638). And when the narrator of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" tries to explain Dupin's extraordinary powers, he remarks: "What I have described in the Frenchman was merely the result of an excited, or perhaps of a diseased intelligence" (533). If the speaker in "The Tell-Tale Heart" is willing to admit that he's the victim of a disease, madness he will not concede. Like much else in the tale, the nature of the disease remains unspecified, unless it is the general nervousness that he mentions.

He does make perfectly clear what madness is. It is the inability to communicate. His proof of his sanity will therefore be his ability to "tell … the whole story" [my emphasis]—the verb is crucial—"healthily" and "calmly." Sanity is equated in this character's mind with telling tales. He invites us to gauge how healthily and calmly he can recount the story of the murder.

It is an extraordinary opening, with its mad dashes and nervous, halting delivery. Among his "Marginalia" Poe has preserved a miniature essay on the expressive powers of the dash. Always attentive to punctuation, he was especially fond of the dash, with its suggestion of mental leaps and quick associations. "It represents," he wrote, "a second thought—an emendation."6 As our speaker begins his "calm" narrative, turning first to the question of motive, we are attuned to the contrasting rhythms of the dash, and we await its recurrence throughout the tale as a sort of trade mark of this speaker's style.

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but, once conceived, it haunted me day and night. 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! One of his eyes resembled that 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. (792)

Note how casually the speaker arrives at the eye as cause, as though he is casting about for the motive, and has just now thought of it—"I think it was his eye! yes, it was this!" [my emphasis] This is no ordinary eye, of course, but what exactly is so troubling about it? For one thing, it has "a film over it." There is something unseeing about it. When we look at someone "eye to eye" we feel in touch with the person, but this eye is blocked, filmed over. Richard Wilbur links this vulture eye with the vulture in Poe's early sonnet "To Science," in which Poe addresses the anti-imaginative spirit of science that changes "all things with the peering eyes":

Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?7

Wilbur wants to nudge us toward an allegorical reading of the tale, with the speaker-killer representing the imaginative faculty of the mind and the old man representing the scientific, rational side.

But let us stay within the terms of the story a bit longer, before trying to arrive at its "larger meaning." We are never told the exact relationship between the old man and his killer. We never learn their names, their jobs, what town they live in, or anything much else about them. We simply know that they live together in the same house.

For all the concision with which our speaker tells his tale, eliminating almost every detail that would help us place him in time and space, he goes on at elaborate length about things that might seem peripheral to the main plot of the story. Nearly a quarter of the narrative, for example, is devoted to the seven nights in which the narrator watches the old man sleep. Why such sustained attention to such undramatic behavior?

According to the narrator, this patient observation is meant to provide further and conclusive proof of his sanity. All his preparations—the opened door, closed lantern, and so on—are so deliberate (a key word in both "The Black Cat" and The Tell-Tale Heart") that no madman could have accomplished them.

Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded—with what caution—with what foresight—with what dissimulation I went to work! (792)

It is only in his account of the eighth and crucial night that Poe hints at the significance of this long rigmarole of door, lantern, and eye.

Never, before that night, had I felt the extent of my own powers—of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea; and perhaps he heard me; for he moved on the bed suddenly, as if startled. Now you may think that I drew back—but no. (793)

This is a crucial moment in the story. It shows how much the speaker's motivation has to do with secrecy, with keeping his thoughts hidden. (There is a remarkably similar moment of mute triumph in "The Black Cat": "The glee at my heart was too strong to be restrained. I burned to say if but one word, by way of triumph" [858].) He enters the old man's room night after night as a sort of ritual to establish this secrecy, this fact of human separateness.

And yet, for all his secrecy, our speaker claims to have access to the mind of the old man. His very privacy, his enclosedness, seem to allow him to see into the minds of other people.

Presently I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror. It was not a groan of pain or of grief—oh, no!—it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe. (794)

We may wonder how the speaker claims to know this. The answer, he tells us, is by analogy with his own experience and its expression:

I knew the sound well. 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. I say I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart. I knew that he had been lying awake ever since the first slight noise. (794)

This scene of mind reading continues a bit longer, as the killer claims to know the very words the victim is thinking:

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 has been trying to comfort himself with these suppositions: but he had found all in vain. (794)

It is only after this sustained scene of mind reading versus secrecy that the old man's eye opens, and the murder is accomplished. It is precisely the breach of secrecy, the penetrating-yet-veiled eye, that seems to motivate the murder.

Poe puts unmistakable emphasis on this claim to knowledge: "I say I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt…. I knew that he had been lying awake" [my emphasis]. It is precisely this claim to knowledge of another's mind, especially knowledge of another's feelings of pain, that has given rise to some of the most challenging philosophical reflections in our century. Wittgenstein, in a couple of classic passages in his Philosophical Investigations, defines the issues succinctly:

246. In what sense are my sensations private?—Well, only I can know whether I am really in pain: another person can only surmise it.—In one way this is wrong, and in another nonsense. If we are using the word "to know" as it is normally used (and how else are we to use it?), then other people very often know when I am in pain.—Yes, but all the same not with the certainty with which I know it myself!—It can't be said of me at all (except perhaps as a joke) that I know I am in pain. What is it supposed to mean—except perhaps that I am in pain?8

Wittgenstein, in his characteristically dialogical style, is challenging the skeptic's claim that we cannot "know" another's pain. Wittgenstein appeals to our ordinary use of language—"and how else are we to use it?"—as opposed to some special philosophical use, and argues that it's ridiculous to claim that we never can know that another is in pain. We know this—under ordinary circumstances (the stubbed toe, the woman in labor, the burst blister)—all the time. Wittgenstein, here and elsewhere, wants to cure us of our tendency to step outside our ordinary ways of living our lives, and our tendency to demand, for example, kinds of certainty that are inappropriate to our dealings with other people. (Poe seems to have something similar in mind when he insists that the events in "The Black Cat" are "ordinary.")

Poe's killers claim to have the very certainty challenged by Wittgenstein. They are always insisting on their special knowledge of others' minds, as though we had been challenging their knowledge: "I say I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt." The killer's claim, in "The Tell-Tale Heart," that he knows the man's feelings by analogy with his own—"I know that he feels x when he cries y because when I cry y I feel x"—is another of Wittgenstein's subjects:

302. If one has to imagine someone else's pain on the model of one's own, this is none too easy a thing to do: for I have to imagine pain which I do not feel on the model of the pain which I do feel. That is, what I have to do is not simply to make a transition in imagination from one place of pain to another. As, from pain in the hand to pain in the arm. For I am not to imagine that I feel pain in some region of his body. (Which would also be possible.)

Pain-behaviour can point to a painful place—but the subject of pain is the person who gives it expression.

Poe's killer makes oddly parallel claims: "I knew the sound well. Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom…. I say I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt." It does seem as though he is "imagining someone else's pain on the model of [his] own."

The skeptical view of ultimate human separateness ("We can never know for certain what another person is thinking or feeling") is intolerable to Poe's killers; their response is simply to deny it, even to the point of killing in order to prove their certainty. Rather than push the parallels between Poe and Wittgenstein further (perhaps we have already pushed them quite far enough), let us turn to another tale of murder and concealment, namely "The Black Cat." In comparing the two tales, especially their endings, we might find more to say about the two fears—of total exposure and total isolation—that Poe keeps giving voice to.

"The Black Cat" was first published later the same year, 1843, as "The Tell-Tale Heart." It resembles the earlier story in several obvious ways, as though Poe were digging deeper in a familiar vein. It too purports to be a killer's confession, and the murder victim is again a member of the killer's household. This killer is also eager to assure us of his sanity: "Yet, mad am I not—and very surely do I not dream." In both stories, furthermore, the police seem almost reluctant to pursue their investigations. The killers must insist on their guilt, even offer proof of it. In each case the discovery of the concealed body is the result of the killer's own obsessive need to reveal its hiding place.

The ways in which the two stories are told are quite distinct, however. One begins at the beginning ("From my infancy … I married early …") while the other begins in the midst of things. "The Tell-Tale Heart" purports to be a spoken narrative and much of its effect is achieved through the illusion of oral delivery. "The Black Cat," by contrast, presents itself from its opening sentence as a written narrative: "For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief." What is more, the first of the narrator's series of crimes is explicitly linked to this writing instrument:

I took from my waistcoat-pocket a pen-knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket! I blush, I burn, I shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity. [my emphasis] (851)

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but in this passage Poe skillfully conflates the two. The weapon here is a pen-knife, which was used to sharpen a quill pen. Poe wants us to divine a connection between violence and the act of writing. (Similarly in "The Imp of the Perverse" the murder instrument is a poisoned candle used for reading.) Significantly, the murderer doesn't blush, burn, and shudder while committing the crime, but while writing about it later.

The link of pens and pen-knives points to a larger contrast in these tales. For the more we read and reread them, the more we see that Poe is less interested in the commission of crimes than in the confession to them. These are not so much stories of crime and detection as of crime and confession. For Poe, crime itself is not intellectually compelling. The actual business of murder is hurried through in both tales under discussion. In Poe's fullest exploration of the motiveless crime, "The Imp of the Perverse," the crime takes up almost no space at all. We don't know till we are two-thirds of the way through the largely essaystic text that we're reading a crime story at all.

Poe's murderers are not so much obsessive killers as obsessive talkers. Afflicted with what Poe calls in "The Black Cat" "the spirit of PERVERSENESS," their perversity lies not in their need to kill but in their need to tell. Thus, "The Imp of the Perverse" ends with the murderer's sense of safety: He's safe, he tells himself, "if I be not fool enough to make open confession" (1225). This thought is his undoing. "I well, too well understood that, to think, in my situation, was to be lost" (1225-6).

Concealment is ultimately unbearable for these killers, for whom secrets are like bodies buried alive, imprisoned souls seeking freedom. Thus, in "The Imp of the Perverse":

For a moment, I experienced all the pangs of suffocation; I became blind, and deaf, and giddy; and then, some invisible fiend, I thought, struck me with his broad palm upon the back. The long-imprisoned secret burst forth from my soul.

Poe gives minute attention to the style of the released confession: "They say that I spoke with a distinct enunciation, but with marked emphasis and passionate hurry, as if in dread of interruption" (1226). Interruption would restore human separateness; these killers long for human transparency.

We have to consider other factors in making sense of the odd balance of crime and confession in these tales. Surely Poe had aesthetic reasons for minimizing the gore in his stories; as David Reynolds has pointed out, he wished to distance himself from popular practitioners of crime journalism, who relied on explicit horror to shock and titillate their readers.9 It is Poe's corresponding emphasis on the act of confession that needs explanation. "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Black Cat," and "The Imp" all record a confession—a perverse confession since the crimes would otherwise have been undetected. All three tales purport to be first-person narratives; they represent confessions within confessions—confessions to the second degree. These killers need to confess to the perverse act of having confessed. The fear of the criminals is not the fear of being caught, it is the fear of being cut off, of being misunderstood. Thus the narrator of "The Imp of the Perverse": "Had I not been thus prolix, you might either have misunderstood me altogether, or, with the rabble, have fancied me mad." Here, as in the other two tales, the claim to sanity is a response to the fear of being cut off from other people, of being "misunderstood altogether."

The speaker of "The Tell-Tale Heart," as we noted earlier, tells his story to convince his audience that he is not mad, not cut off from other people. The tale-telling heart is finally the narrator's own, for this is a tale about the need to communicate, the fear of being cut off, of becoming incommunicado. The narrator of "The Black Cat" writes: "Yet, mad am I not.… But to-morrow I die, and today I would unburthen my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly … a series of mere household events." Communication, for these speakers, is itself a kind of salvation.

With this fear of isolation in mind, we can begin to make sense of what drives these killers crazy. The features these men can't stand are uncannily inexpressive: the eye with the hideous "film" or "veil" over it; the missing eye of the cats; the black fur. Similarly, the meaning of the ever-present walls in these stories is easily decoded. They represent the fantasy of being immured in one's own body, with the voice suffocated inside, the tale-telling heart silenced. Poe is quite explicit in "The Black Cat" when he says that the wall "fell bodily."

What of the beds that recur in so many of Poe's tales? We see immediately the attraction of beds as the site of many interrelated activities: sleep and dreaming; making love and conceiving children; dying. It is astonishing how many of Poe's stories centrally involve beds and bedrooms. In "The Imp" the victim is murdered by a poisoned candle while reading in bed; a bed is the means of escape in the Rue Morgue murders; and there are many tales—"Ligeia" especially—in which a woman lies on her deathbed.

Beds figure more prominently still in "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat." In the earlier story the killer, after a week of watching the old man asleep in bed, uses the bed itself as a murder weapon. It is not clear exactly how this is done, and this very lack of clarity makes Poe's choice of the bed more emphatic; he's willing to sacrifice verisimilitude—why not a knife or a noose?—in order to stress the meanings associated with the bed. Here is the description of the murder:

He shrieked once—once only. In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him. I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done. But, for many minutes, the heart beat on with a muffled sound. This, however, did not vex me; it would not be heard through the wall. At length it ceased. The old man was dead. I removed the bed and examined the corpse. Yes, he was stone, stone dead. I placed my hand upon the heart and held it there many minutes. There was no pulsation. He was stone dead. His eye would trouble me no more. (795-6)

Again the wall is clearly enough a stand-in for the body: "it would not be heard through the wall." But the bed also seems closely related to the body—Poe even appears to be playing on the similar sounds of the two words. The link of bed and dead body is clear enough in the sentence: "I removed the bed and examined the corpse."

Why should the bed be the murder weapon? Why not something more keyed to the filmed and infuriating eye? The answer, I think, is that whereas the bed resumes meanings associated with the body and its dissolution, it also draws on meanings linked to sexuality. The relationship between killer and victim in "The Tell-Tale Heart" is never specified, but we are told that the killer "loved the old man." The relation between killer and victim is similarly oblique in "The Imp of the Perverse," though we learn, in passing, that the killer inherits the victim's money.

Only in "The Black Cat" are these themes of intimacy and violence explored. We find ourselves amid walls and beds again after the killer's perverse act of hanging his cat—after he has "hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offense." The following night the killer awakes to find "The curtains of my bed were in flames." When he returns to the ruins of the house he finds the following scene:

The walls, with one exception, had fallen in. This exception was found in a compartment wall, not very thick, which stood about the middle of the house, and against which had rested the head of my bed. (853)

A crowd has assembled around this wall: "I approached and saw, as if graven in bas relief upon the white surface, the figure of a gigantic cat." The word "graven" is a brilliant stroke, for this is the cat's grave as well as his engraved monument. Poe is again—as with the pen/pen-knife and the poisoned reading candle—associating the violence of writing with the violence he is describing. Similarly, the "head of the bed" reminds us of the relation between bed and body.

Many critics have seen in this tale a close link between the cat and the wife, but this seems to me to place too much emphasis on marriage for at least two reasons. First, Poe is interested more in the issue of access to other minds—"hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offense" [my emphasis]—and second, Poe is as interested in our access to the minds of cats as to the minds of people. (This is as good a place as any to acknowledge that I am leaving out two aspects of the narrative that are of obvious importance to a full reading of "The Black Cat" but are tangential to the themes of this essay: the issue of alcohol abuse and the issue of violence against women.)

The evidence for the second point lies in such essays as "Instinct vs Reason—A Black Cat," in which Poe speculates about the inner life of cats. After describing in some detail how his cat has mastered the art of opening the complicated latch of a door, he concludes that "The line which demarcates the instinct of the brute creation from the boasted reason of man, is, beyond doubt, of the most shadowy and unsatisfactory character" (477). Poe's meditations bear a surprising similarity to some of Wittgenstein's regarding the difference between animal thinking and that of humans. "Why can't a dog simulate pain?" asks Wittgenstein. "Is he too honest?" (250) Both writers speculate on how animals regard the future; Wittgenstein asks why we have difficulty imagining a hopeful animal ("And why not?" [174]), whereas Poe claims that the way his cat negotiates, step by step, the act of opening the latch demonstrates almost prophetic powers.

We are more interested, however, in the other focus of Poe's concern: our access to other (human) minds. "Unmotivated treachery, for the mere intent of injury, and self violence are," according to Allen Tate, "Poe's obsessive subjects."10 This seems to me partly an oversimplification and partly wrong. Poe's killers do have motives, but these motives remain concealed from the killers. In the space remaining in this essay, I want to specify the link in Poe's tales between the profession of love and the need to confess. Both arise from what Frost, in our epigraph, called "the fear of Man—the fear that men won't understand us and we shall be cut off from them."

We need to understand what the teller/killer of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is really telling us when he claims that "Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man." He is, despite himself, providing both object (or motive) and passion. It is precisely his love for the old man that makes him kill, just as the man's love for the cat—"hung it because I knew that it had loved me"—prompts the murder of the cat and, presumably, the wife as well. At this point I must acknowledge the work of the philosopher Stanley Cavell in relation to the nature of Shakespearean tragedy. In plays like Othello and King Lear Cavell finds a repeated pattern of what he calls "the avoidance of love." Tragedy results from the burden that Lear and Othello find imposed by the love of others. In some sketchy and speculative remarks about Poe's "The Black Cat" and "The Imp of the Perverse," Cavell invites us to look for "some relation between the wish to be loved and the fear of it."11

The man we encounter in "The Black Cat" seems (and I am not claiming this is necessarily Cavell's view) to find the devotion of others repulsive. When the second cat follows the narrator home, he finds that "its evident fondness for myself rather disgusted and annoyed."

With my aversion to this cat, however, its partiality for myself seemed to increase. It followed my footsteps with a pertinacity which it would be difficult to make the reader comprehend. Whenever 1 sat, it would crouch beneath my chair, or spring upon my knees, covering me with its loathsome caresses. (855)

Even in his dreams he finds the cat with him, and awakens "to find the hot breath of the thing upon my face, and its vast weight … incumbent eternally upon my heart!" Our suspicion that Poe wishes, with the word "incumbent," to remind us of the sexual attentions of the mythical incubus and its counterpart the succubus is confirmed in the sentence immediately following: "Beneath the pressure of torments such as these, the feeble remnant of the good within me succumbed."

It is another act of unbearable intimacy—when cat and wife insist on "accompanying" him into the cellar, and the cat follows him down "the steep stairs" so closely that it "exasperated me to madness" (856)—that incites the man to kill his two closest companions. We don't need Freud to point out the erotic connotations of steep stairs in dreams to feel that this man finds intimacy intolerable.

What Poe is giving voice to in these murders is the second fear Frost names: "the fear that we shan't prove worthy in the eyes of someone who knows us at least as well as we know ourselves." Frost calls this the fear of God, but it could as well be called the fear of Love. Here I am reminded of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke's extraordinary reading of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Rilke interprets this tale of another once-tender man who flees into intemperance as "the legend of a man who didn't want to be loved." The picture Rilke paints is remarkably like the speaker in "The Black Cat." Here is Poe:

From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition. My tenderness of heart was even so conspicuous as to make me the jest of my companions. I was especially fond of animals. (850)

And here is Rilke:

When he was a child, everyone in the house loved him. He grew up not knowing it could be any other way and got used to their tenderness, when he was a child.12

Both Poe's narrator and Rilke's prodigal come to find this intimacy unbearable. Rilke:

He wouldn't have been able to say it, but when he spent the whole day roaming around outside and didn't even want to have the dogs with him, it was because they too loved him; because in their eyes he could see observation and sympathy, expectation, concern; because in their presence too he couldn't do anything without giving pleasure or pain.

The son's flight is from what he perceives as the prison of love—the way it defines and confines us.

The dogs, in whom expectation had been growing all day long, ran through the hedges and drove you together into the one they recognized. And the house did the rest. Once you walked in to its full smell, most matters were already decided. A few details might still be changed; but on the whole you were already the person they thought you were; the person for whom they had long ago fashioned a life, out of his small past and their own desires; the creature belonging to them all, who stood day and night under the influence of their love.

Both Poe and Rilke (who would have known Poe's works through Baudelaire's essays and translations if through no more direct way) find in the very walls of the house and the eyes of pets the confining nature of domestic life, of what Poe calls "mere household events."

If there is salvation for Rilke's prodigal in learning to love, and in accepting, eventually, God's love, there is none for Poe's murderers. As Allen Tate remarked, "He has neither Purgatory nor Heaven."13 Poe's narratives can be read as cautionary tales—"Go thou and do otherwise"—but rightly read their warning is more complex. Poe seems, like Frost, to be saying: These fears are always with us—the fear of love and the fear of isolation. Taken to extremes, they both lead to disaster: One cat avoids us and is blinded, another cat follows us and is killed. To live life is to steer a dangerous course between these extremes and there is no point at which the current widens. To declare onself safe—as the imp of the perverse tempts us to do—is to be lost.


1 Robert Frost, "Introduction" to Edwin Arlington Robinson, King Jasper (New York: Scribner's, 1935), p. vi.

2Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), p. 528. All future page references to this edition are indicated in parentheses in the text.

3 Richard Wilbur, "The House of Poe," in Edgar Allan Poe: Modern Critical Views, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1985), pp. 51-69.

4 Harold Bloom, "Introduction," in Edgar Allan Poe, p. 8.

5 David S. Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (New York: Knopf, 1988), pp. 225-48.

6 Poe, Essays and Reviews, ed. G. R. Thompson (New York: Library of America, 1984), p. 1426.

7 Richard Wilbur, "Poe and the Art of Suggestion," in Critical Essays on Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987), p. 166.

8 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan, 1958). The numbers attached to this and later references to Wittgenstein refer not to pages but to numbered sections of the Investigations.

9 Reynolds remarks that "Poe … avoids repulsive accounts of violence or blood, shifting his attention to the crazed mind of the obsessed narrator. By removing us from the realm of horrid gore to that of diseased psychology, he rises above … tawdry sensationalism" (Beneath the American Renaissance, p. 232).

10 Allen Tate, "Our Cousin, Mr. Poe," in Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert Regan (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967), p. 46.

11 " Stanley Cavell, In Quest of the Ordinary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 137. See also Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 481-96.

12 Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, trans. Stephen Mitchell (New York: Random House, 1983), pp. 251-60.

13 Tate, "Our Cousin," p. 46.

Johann Pillai (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: "Death and Its Moments: The End of the Reader in History," Modern Language Notes, Vol. 112, No. 5, December, 1997, pp. 836-75.

[In the following essay, Pillai considers "The Tell-Tale Heart" as a text that expresses a complicity between the fictional narrator and the reader of the narrative, and a breach in the conventional border between literature and criticism; this breach results in what Pillai calls a narrative's "afterlife. "]

On its own account, historiography takes for granted the fact that it has become impossible to believe in this presence of the dead that has organized (or organizes) the experience of entire civilizations; and the fact too that it is nonetheless impossible "to get over it," to accept the loss of a living solidarity with what is gone, or to confirm an irreducible limit.

—Michel de Certeau1

All history, moreover, must more or less blindly encounter the problem of a transferential relation to the past whereby the processes at work in the object of study acquire their displaced analogues in the historian's account.

—Dominick LaCapra2

A historiographical paradox leads me, in what follows, to perform a reading of a "tale," a narrative which declares as such its fictiveness, in its relation to history, which it purports to transcend or slide past.3 It is not my intention here simply to identify or reconstruct the historical conditions under which the tale was produced, nor to relate it to the various times of its reception, nor again to describe its putative extratextual referents.4 My concern is rather with the temporal mode of "modernity"—by which I mean the contemporary readability, the presentness—of a text which has left its moment of origin and floats before a reader in any age, apparently with no strings attached; that is, with the historiographical relation between the narration of a fictional tale and the critical performance of reading it.5

This relation, in its most general terms, has two fundamental aspects. First, the understanding that a tale is a narration of events—real, ideal or imagined—and hence establishes, within its own temporality, logical, causal, figurative, and other kinds of relations between signs of objects, subjects, and events. The tale thus functions in itself as a story or history of "what it is about."6 A second aspect concerns the act of reading the tale, an act which simultaneously constitutes the tale as a history, and (in doing so) establishes itself in a metahistorical relation to the tale. The performance of reading thus takes as its point of origination the text of the tale which it has itself constituted as origin. The circularity of this relationship is the abyssal ground of what is commonly articulated as a battle between literary theory and literary history, or simply as crisis.7

To read the tale critically is to read in the mode of crisis, to participate in a hearing without a sentence being pronounced: for the tale demands that its reader recognize from the outset its status as fiction—and accordingly suspend, while reading, the arbitrarily estab lished conventions by which we are accustomed to distinguish between the conventions of reference, the levels of understanding termed "literal" and "figurative." It is precisely this elision of difference which enables both the mythopoeic distancing of the events referred to in the tale from a past "historical reality" and the historical realization of these events in the experiential time of the reader. The historical conditions of the tale, in short, are located in the present of its being told and heard—in its lived presentness to a reader in any age.8 And it is the hermeneutic relation of the narrative voice of the tale to the narrative voice of criticism that determines this paradoxical temporality; its articulation requires the reading, not only of a tale—Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" will serve as example—but also, in the space before and after the tale, the full and expressive silence which precedes the beginning and succeeds the end, of reading.


"The Tell-Tale Heart"—the title—is first of all, and by convention, an index, pointing to what the tale will be about. Simultaneously, however—it is here initially that the literal/figurative distinction must be suspended—it labels or names, confers an identity on the text it signifies9, and thus this text which confronts the reader can be, is, nothing but the heart itself, palpable and red—not read as a representation of a heart, but the very bodily organ responsible for circulation, the seat of emotion, of passion, of the affections. It is the organ which sustains life—and yet, paradoxically, a heart on its own seems to imply its own extraction from a body; it may produce no circulation, may or may not beat. Beyond what it is, too, lies the question of what it does, for this is a heart which tells a tale—a "tell-tale" heart; and by the same token an informing heart, a give-away, a tattler; a warning, betrayer, traitor. The tale it will tell is also—for such is also the function of a title to indicate—about the tell-tale heart; it is an organ which tells the story of itself. The narrative voice which tells the tale is no less the voice of the tale, both the subject and the object of its own narration.

This circular, abyssal self-mirroring—by which the tale names itself as an organ without a body,10 a fragment which tells a tale about a fragment which tells a tale—might appear on the surface to close it off from any attempt to situatè it within an external historicity. The first word of the text, however—"True!"—indicates otherwise; it situates what follows within the factual context of a (granted) past history:11

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?12

The apostrophe—and certainly the entire narration is an extended apostrophe—prosopopoeically gives face to its addressee, locates the time of narration in the present of the reader. Or rather, in the present of an implied reader, an invisible addressee who might, or who has already, diagnosed the narrator—"why will you say … ?" The dread and anxiety of the narrator reflect his (her?) being ill at ease, the victim of a dis-ease.13 But the question is taken up again: "How, then, am I mad?" How, indeed, are we to read this question? What reader could conclude at this point that the narrator is mad? These apostrophic questions, their implicit answers, serve to close the text off from the actual reader in another sense by insisting, counter-productively, that the narrator is not mad but has been, or will be, categorized as such regardless; the narrator's rationalizations attempt to breach—while simultaneously his denials reinforce—the virtual barrier of the disciplinary separation14 by which the reader maintains a sense of security (sane, empirical) in relation to the text, is able to demarcate the limits of the text as fiction. Thus, paradoxically, the typical reader of this text on the one hand takes the narrator at his word, believes that the tale describes the commission of a murder; while on the other hand is convinced of the insanity of the narrator, refusing to believe the latter's arguments in his own defense.15 To consider the narrative as "true!" in both respects—the rationalizations and the denials—would be to breach the demarcation between the perceived criminality and insanity of the events related in the fictional text, and the culturally constructed sanity and morality of the historical reality which the reader is living.

This typical, automatic response—which believes the narrator's description of events, but refuses to believe his evaluation of them—not only reflects a culturally determined delimitation of a madness/sanity boundary but also indicates a confusion of fiction and reality on the part of a reader who, missing altogether the nature of the tale's fictionality—which necessitates a suspension of these differences—arbitrarily reads some parts of the text literally, and treats others as metaphorical.16 To read the tale as a tale means to take its internal logic as simultaneously, and at all times, both literal and figurative, historical (in the sense of the perceptual, experiential reality it provides in the present of the reader) and fictional. Thus, for example, in reply to his own apostrophe, and as if to refute the purported diagnosis of madness, the narrator claims that the dis-ease "had sharpened my senses … not dulled them." By senses, initially, one assumes a reference to wits, mental faculties: he is mentally alert (sharp) and hence not mad. But the further qualification regarding his sense of hearing suggests that the narrator's claim to sanity is based on a certain sensory acuteness; a moment later, this is carried to the point of being supersensory: he hears all things in heaven and earth, and many in hell. There are no grounds for privileging these qualifications one over the other in terms of credibility; taken together in the res gestae they show state of mind, while simultaneously warning the reader not to mistake an extraordinary sense of hearing for madness—that is, not to misjudge the narrator.

For this is also a judicial or diagnostic hearing, at which the narrator makes his apology, and where the reader is instructed to hear fairly, to "Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story." The reader is invited to sharpen his or her senses, to hear what the narrator hears in heaven, earth and hell; in short, to become like the narrator on levels mental, sensory and supersensory, cross the boundary between history and fiction.17

In what follows, the nature of his boundary begins to be defined. The narrator establishes initially that the events under consideration have no identifiable motive—no cause or origin:

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. 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.

The "idea," which arises spontaneously, is ghostly and persistent, and of obscure purpose ("object") as well as origin. At its heart there is not passion, but love—the two assertions cancel each other out. Neither revenge nor desire is the motive, and yet there is one consistent characterization of the narrator's state of mind: he is "very, very dreadfully nervous." The fear, the dread of the narrator is projected, embodied, finds its expression, and is figured forth, in the image of the old man's eye:

I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled that 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 for ever.

These two consecutive passages reveal the predicament of presentness, the temporal mode of modernity which characterizes the tale, in that they stage the twofold and paradigmatic founding gesture of historiography—and then its negation: first, the positing of an (absence of) origin for the narrative which will follow, and the figuration of that archic absence as an alterity—"his eye," the eye of the other—which legitimates the narrated events; secondly, the eschatological projection, into the future, of the figured origin as the end and purpose of the narration, as an eschaton which legitimates it in retrospect; and finally, the proposed negation of this twofold gesture by the elimination of the eye, the very figure which defines and determines the historiographical operation of the narrator. "The Tell-Tale Heart" thus both affirms and denies its status as a narrative of historical events, and in this gesture establishes its modernity as a textual space both within and without history.18

The consequences of such a temporal paradox can only be unsettling for the act of reading, if we hearken to the complex relation betokened by the homophonic and homonymic play on eye/I, between the narrative I and the eye/I of the other, the old man.19 It is this singular eye/I which is simultaneously the narrating subject, the object of the narrative, and the origin and telic end of the narration. At stake in the death which is to come—on the level of sound, on the crucial level of hearing—is the (self-)elimination of the very "I" which speaks, of the narrative voice itself—and, by extension, since the reader is implicated in this eye/I persona in the act of reading and writing which retells the tale, in the act of hearing which replicates the narrator's disease: what is at stake is precisely the critical relation between fiction and history—the end of the reader.

The narrator's dread is hypostatized prosopopoeically in the eye: its resemblance to the eye of a carrion-eating bird suggests that death is imminent; its association with the gaze of the old man, that the death awaited is that of the narrative voice. Here too, perhaps, we have the first sign of the absent body of which the tell-tale heart posits itself as an organ and a metonymy—and yet, curiously, is not—that film which veils the pale blue eye of the old man: is it not the very film of death, the dimming vision of dying eyes? The narrator's blood runs cold, in a turn of phrase which both expresses his fear and dread, and foreshadows a killing in cold blood. It also suggests the cold temperature of a corpse and hence the consanguinity of the narrator and the old man. The narrative I decides "to rid myself of the eye of the other, for paronomastically that eye/I is his own; we shall see (for we are not only to "hearken," but to "observe") that the stakes are indeed high in exchanging glances with his, for it is our own eye/I which is implicated in the narrator's apostrophe:

Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded—with what caution—with what foresight—with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him.

In the first place, the narrator's initial apostrophe—"why will you say …"—is now qualified: "You fancy me mad." If this fancy is deluded, then the contemptuous "madmen know nothing" is a thrust at the reader ("you") as well as the narrator ("I"), for determining the limits of madness depends on the gaze of the reader, on our ability to see; twice we are told: "you should have seen.…" The reader's judicial gaze becomes a critical factor in the middle term of the convoluted enthymeme which governs the tale, and of which the major premise is that madmen know nothing. What will dispel the fancy of madness is our seeing now not only "how healthily—how calmly" the tale is told, but "how wisely" its events take place, and with what foresight—the ability to provide for, but also see into, the future. Indeed, the very nature of the event described as the murder of the old man by the narrator (" … I killed him") is thrown into question by the playful linguistic exchange between eye and I which establishes a scopic reciprocity between the two: the narrator's phrase "to take the life of the old man" suggests not simply killing, but substitution and resemblance—taking on his life.

It is this exchange which is revealed in the thanatoptic premeditation that follows:

And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it—oh, so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, 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! I moved it slowly, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man's sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha!—would a madman have been so wise as this? And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantem cautiously—oh, so cautiously—cautiously (for the hinges creaked)—I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye. And this I did for seven long nights—every night, just at midnight—but I found the eye always closed; and so it was impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye. And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he had passed the night. So you see, he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in upon him while he slept.

Here several structures of repetition combine. There is, first, a temporal movement, which becomes increasingly more' prtoise, and also more measured: "every night, about midnight … every night, just at midnight … every night, just at twelve…." The duration of events staged in the narrator's description of his movements—"oh, so gently! … slowly—very, very slowly … cautiously—oh, so cautiously …"—takes up the pace of his decision to kill the old man "by degrees—very gradually," his proceeding "with what caution." The metrical style of the narration is itself an indication of "how healthily—how calmly" the narrator can tell the whole story.

But there is another kind of repetition here, to which this temporal movement lends its measure. The narrator "opened" the door, "made an opening," put in a lantern "all closed, closed." He placed his head within the opening, and then "undid the lantern"—that is, opened it. For seven days, he could proceed no further, because he found "the eye always closed." There is also a contrapuntal movement of physical penetration and withdrawal here which echoes the mental penetration of the narrator when "the idea entered my brain";20 as the idea haunts the narrator, so he, by day and night, haunts the old man: "I put in a dark lantern … no light shone out … I thrust in my head … I thrust it in#x2026;" What, then, is the nature of the space—of the inside and outside—of these events? What is implied by the measure of the narrator's words, by the opening and closing they describe?

These characterizations establish, first, the interchangeability of head, lantern and chamber—even the apparently insignificant reference to creaking hinges connotes, by association, both the panel of the lantern and the door of the chamber—since knowledge of and in each is determined by optical perception; it is light which enables the narrator to see. The events described take place in a chamber, but the space of the chamber is coextensive with the space of the narrator's head, for these events are recounted in the light of his memory—perhaps his hallucination, perhaps his dream. This space is also coeval with the space of the text of the narration, and the physical space of the pages into which we, as readers, are looking—both through the narrator's eyes and as critical observers of the narrator. The optical thresholds—the door, the panel of the lantern—which mark the difference between inside and outside mark, no less, the separation between the eye/I of the reader and the eye/I of the narrator.

"His door," "the room," "the chamber," are architectural commonplaces, but a "chamber" is also the cameral seat of a judge conducting a hearing out of court. And chambers define the brain, the eye—and the heart: the upper cavities, or auricles, derive their name from the Latin word auris, or ear. We return, then, to the narrator's—and the judicious reader's—extraordinary sense of hearing: in the opening and closing, the in/out movement of the narrator's actions there must be heard a pulsing, systolic and diastolic: the textual heartbeat of a system of circulation.

The nature of this circulation does not appear to be bodily; indeed luxation from all physical contexts, or the positing of the body as absent, appears to be the very premise of the tale's title, and apart from a few disjecta membra—the narrator's hand which opens the door, his thumb which in a moment will slip on the metal fastening of the lantern—no physical features are given in the tale which would permit the identification of its narrator or characters. The two organs whose senses circumfuse the economy of the text are the ear (the sense of hearing) and the eye (the sense of sight). What circulates in the economy of the tell-tale heart and its reading—through the valvular opening and closing of doors and panels, through the ebb and flow of the narrator's movement and vision—is light, which enables the scopic exchange of the gaze, the eye; and conterminously—through the caesurae and hiatuses of the narrative voice, through the space between narrator and reader—its homologue, sound: the specular exchange of the subject, the I.

Thus are implicated, in the thin ray of light released by the narrator to enable vision, three gazes: not only the narrator's, and that of the old man,21 but the apostrophized reader's as well: "So you see, he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in upon him while he slept."22 It is in following the injunction to "Hearken! and observe, " in the critical acts of hearing and seeing, that the reciprocal nature of the relation between narrator and reader is realized; indeed, the very laugh he attributes to the reader—"you would have laughed …"—is expressed by the narrator himself in a singular exclamation: "Ha!" And when he asks, not altogether rhetorically, "would a madman have been so wise as this?" it must be remembered that one of the measures of wisdom is foresight.

Now presumably, taking the life of the old man, if we assume the traditional interpretation of this event as a murder, could be achieved easily enough while the old man is unconscious: we are told of the "old man's sleep:" that "he lay upon his bed," that the narrator "found the eye always closed," that "I looked in upon him while he slept." But the act which the narrator contemplates is not, cannot be murder, and it is precisely for this reason that when the eye is closed he finds it "impossible to do the work"—which will "rid myself of the eye/[I] for ever"—which entails a blinding and self-negating act of narrative and historiographical suicide.

What is in fact required for the narrator to proceed is the penetration by light of the old man's eye: it is necessary, for "death" to occur, that the old man's eye be open, able to see. It is this eye which vexes the narrator, afflicts him like a disease; for it is indeed a dis-ease, ultimately, by which the narrator is vexed: not a sickness as such, but the dread of a specular subject which refuses to die, an EVIL EYE/I, which, mirrored back in the gaze of the narrator, always declares: "I/EYE LIVE!"

These observations are all prefatory to the night of the central event of the tale, when the narrator makes his move:

Upon the eighth night I was more than usually cautious in opening the door. A watch's minute hand moves more quickly than did mine. Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers—of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea; and perhaps he heard me; for he moved on the bed suddenly, as if startled. Now you may think that I drew back—but no. His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness (for the shutters were close fastened, through fear of robbers), and so I knew that he could not see the opening of the door, and I kept pushing it on steadily, steadily.

I had my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb slipped upon the tin fastening, and the old man sprang up in the bed, crying out—"Who's there?"

In this controlled slowness of movement23 the narrator feels his powers, his sagacity—the wisdom of foresight—but his estimation of the old man is thrown into question when he assumes the latter will "not even … dream of my secret deeds or thoughts." Like a suspicion, a dream is—if not an intangible thought—a vision, a sight, a seeing during sleep; and at this very moment, the old man "moved on the bed suddenly, as if—"—as if, indeed, he is aware of the other's thoughts. Although the narrator tries to explain this in terms of his chuckle—"perhaps he heard me" (and let us not forget the narrator's own extraordinary sense of hearing)—he is able to know, remarkably, what the old man is dreaming. And whence that attribution of fear to the old man—"as if startled"? No sound, in fact, is made by the narrator; he merely chuckles "at heart," "fairly." Similarly, in a room with shutters "close fastened" like his lantern,24 the narrator is able to attribute "fear of robbers" to the old man, a fear which recalls his own dreadful nervousness. He also knows what the old man can see: "I knew that he could not see the opening of the door." As the "idea" enters the narrator's brain and he the room, as he knows the mind of the old man, so, now, his own "secret deeds or thoughts" appear to enter the old man's. The relation between the two is indeed puzzling, and the pressing question, the central problematic of the text, is that of the narrator's identity, which is posed suddenly, fearfully, by the old man: "Who's there?"

To this critical question the narrator makes no reply, but in what follows, the relation between narrator and old man is elaborated with surprising sympathy:

I kept quite still and said nothing. For a whole hour I did not move a muscle, and in the meantime I did not hear him lie down. He was still sitting up in the bed listening;—just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall.

Presently I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror. It was not a groan of pain or of grief—oh, no!—it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe. I knew the sound well. 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. I say I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart. 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 has been trying to comfort himself with these suppositions; but he had found all in vain.

The narrator keeps silent; and so must the old man, for despite the former's acute sense of hearing, he does not hear him lie down. And he knows that the old man is still sitting up, doing what he himself is best at: listening, "just as I have done." In this dreadful silence, punctuated by the ticking of death watches,25 a sound is heard; and the narrator identifies it with absolute certainty: "I knew it was the groan … I knew the sound well … I knew what the old man felt." And the reason (dreadfully nervous) he is able to identify this sound of "mortal terror" and "awe" is that at the same time that it emanates from the old man, just at midnight, it wells up "from my own bosom." The voice of the old man is thus doubled, in a "dreadful echo," in the narrator's own voice.26

The groan is "stifled"; it is no longer clear from which soul it emanates. The effect of this loss of breath, this unspeakable suffocation, is to increase "the terrors that distracted me"—and here the narrator's dis-traction suggests not merely lack of concentration, but a pulling asunder, a physical dismemberment; it also characterizes a mind torn in different directions, whence mental derangement, madness.27 Since as readers we too—even though no sound is actually uttered—have been privy to the singular laugh ("Ha!") of the narrator, we must take this matter under advisement; if and indeed the old man hears the narrator chuckle "at heart," then must his own hearing be likewise extraordinary.

We are told that, like the narrator's, the old man's fears have been "growing upon him." Like the narrator, the old man has been "trying to fancy them causeless …"28 and, simultaneously, in a repetition of the narrator's figuration of origin, fancying their causes: the wind, a mouse, a cricket. These fancies are not altogether aleatory—the "wind" carries in its connotations the breath of the narrator and of life; "mouse" is etymologically related to the "muscle" which the narrator does not move;29 and the sound made by the hinges of the lantern, that creak, not only means, in an archaic sense, to utter a vulturine croak, but also describes the strident sound of insects, the creak of crickets and refers, by extension, to a death watch—but, we are told, futile to indulge:

All in vain; because Death, in approaching him, had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim. And it was the mournful influence of the unperceived shadow that caused him to feel—although he neither saw nor heard—to feel the presence of my head within the room.

When I had waited a long time, very patiently, without hearing him lie down, I resolved to open a little—a very, very little crevice in the lantern. So I opened it—you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily—until, at length, a single, dim ray like the thread of the spider, shot from out the crevice and full upon the vulture eye.

The old man's attempts—to "fancy [his fears] causeless," and then to name and figure the origin of his fears—are to no avail because of the impending moment which will, in theory, negate cause and origin—the moment of Death. This is a moment neither seen nor heard, only felt—for Death stands without the narrative economy of light and sound marked by eye and ear, as its legitimating ground, as its origin and end; and within that economy, as an enveloping influence, a shadow which—unlike an optical shadow, a visible figure cast by the form of a body, interrupting light—must therefore appear unperceived, a figure personified. Death is thus behind and foregrounds every move of the narrative voice: as the narrator stalks the old man, so Death; as the narrator is preceded by a dark lantern, so Death, "his black shadow before him."

In the confusion of this approach, the antecedents of "his," "him" and the "victim" cannot be differentiated—for whose is the shadow? To whom does it appear? And who the victim? Indeed, as Death, old man and narrator become for a moment indistinguishable, the focus of the narration shifts—from the narrator's feelings to those of the old man as they are known and felt by the narrator. The Old Testament psalmist's dauntlessness in the valley of the shadow of death30 is ironically both gainsaid—in the awe and fear shadowing both narrator and old man—and affirmed, for if, as they dreadfully echo each other's voices, old man and narrator shadow each other, then Death is both the subject and object of the narrative action, both slayer and victim. The outcome of such a self-negation of death can only be a new subject within and without history, a subject which, in spite of itself—and terrifyingly to the reader whose commentary must in its execution echo and shadow the voice of the tale—declares, "I live!"

The narrator waits, "without hearing" and unable to see—as the old man, "neither saw nor heard"—and a crack is opened in the lantern. The crevice releases light; the narrator's eye opens; by this light he will see. His furtiveness—"stealthily, stealthily"—is transparent, for stealth refers to the practice of stealing, and the chamber is in darkness, the shutters drawn, through fear of robbers: as the narrator's fears are figured in the eye/I of the old man, so the latter's are answered in the eye/I of the narrator. As the lantern opens, enabling the narrator's vision, a ray of light is released like a spider's thread—the thread of Arachne, by which suicide is aborted into life.31 The gaze is a predatory act, light the medium of predation; and the vision of the gazing I is reciprocated by the sudden sight of the vulture eye:

It was open—wide, wide open—and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness—all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones; but 1 could see nothing else of the old man's face or person: for I had directed the ray as if by instinct precisely upon the damned spot.

Light enters the eye of the old man, but it is the narrator's gaze which is described. By neither madness nor passion is he seized, but dread of the veil videlicet, that hideous surface which marks the coincidence and refraction of his and the old man's gaze.32 The old man's "face or person" is invisible, for the focus, instinctive and inevitable, is on the subjectivity represented by the eye/I, the damned spot33 which marks the state and position—moral, mental, topographical, temporal—of the narrative I/eye relative to (across the disciplinary boundaries between the historical and the fictional, the literal and the figurative) the listener and observer; marks, in short, the beginning and the end of the tale, the critical state of the eye/I which is the very subject of the tale.

Two gazes hang in suspense on a thread of light; now, and in this long moment, the narrator becomes conscious of a sound, a rhythmic beat which has hitherto remained subliminal:

And now have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but overacuteness of the senses?—now, I say, there came to my ears, a low, dull, quick sound such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well too. It was the beating of the old man's heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.

As eye confronts eye, the tell-tale heart is heard within "The Tell-Tale Heart": it is a sound described and figured within—as an abyssal echo of—the sound of the narrator's own voice. And indeed, the narrator "knew that sound well too;" he admits a familiarity with the old man's heartbeat which one would have only with one's own.34

The effect of "the beating of the old man's heart" is thus that it—eliding the differences between the narrator's self and the other's—"increased my fury"; the heartbeat can only be compared to "the beating of a drum,"35 for what increases the narrator's fury is the resonance of the extraordinarily sensitive barrier responsible for his acuteness of hearing: a tympanic membrane stretched across the abyss between the voice of the tell-tale heart and its echo; an eardrum which reverberates in time to the measure of the heart's low/dull/quick sound.36 As the narrator's fury increases, the measure of tale-telling builds: less calm, more repetitive; less healthy, more strident.

But even yet I refrained and kept still. I scarcely breathed. I tried how steadily I could maintain the ray upon the eye. Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant. The old man's terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment!—do you mark me well? I have told you that I am nervous: so I am. And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror. Yet, for some minutes longer I refrained and stood still. But the beating grew louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst. And now a new anxiety seized me—the sound would be heard by a neighbour!

The narrator refrains,37 both movement and breath stifled. His gaze wavers; he attempts to keep the light steady; the palpitations increase. The ominous beating sound—one of many the narrator hears "in hell"—is also audible to the reader38—as the rhythmic repetition, "quicker and quicker, and louder and louder," of the tell-tale heart. And now, at the moment when their identities appear to have merged, a subtle distance is introduced in the reciprocal vision of the narrator and old man. Rather than declare his knowledge that "the old man's terror" was extreme, the narrator conjectures—the italics stress this—that it "must have been extreme." As the sound grows louder, he demands, "do you mark me well?"39 To mark is to hear, to hearken; it is also to delimit a boundary, differentiate: we are asked, in short, to recognize the "me" which speaks, to answer the old man's question, "Who's there?" And indeed, the "dreadful silence" recalls the "dreadful echo" of the shared groan—but the heartbeat, which the narrator "knew … well" a moment ago, has now become so strange. This sound, which but an instant past was likened to the soldier's stimulus to courage, now ironically causes "uncontrollable terror"; there is an emphatic shift from the old man's terror to the narrator's own, and a "new anxiety" seizes the narrator ("me").

Not that he may be heard by the old man, but that his preternatural sense of hearing may be shared by a neighbor. It is the possibility of a social intrusion, the intrusion of a third party in the narrator's private and specular vision40 that precipitates him into action:

The old man's hour had come! With a loud yell, I threw open the lantern and leaped into the room. He shrieked once—once only. In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him. I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done. But, for many minutes, the heart beat on with a muffled sound. This, however, did not vex me; it would not be heard through the wall. At length it ceased. The old man was dead. I removed the bed and examined the corpse. Yes, he was stone, stone dead. I placed my hand upon the heart and held it there many minutes. There was no pulsation. He was stone dead. His eye would trouble me no more.

What occurs here has a striking symmetry: both narrator and old man utter a cry—there is a yell, and also a shriek. The narrator underscores the singularity of the old man's shriek by doubling it in his repetition: "once—once only." And instead of throwing open the door, he throws open the lantern: coinciding with the yell and the shriek is a flash of light, a blinding moment of sight. There is, however, no detailed description of a murder, no sudden moment of death41—the crucial act of physical violence is glaringly and conspicuously omitted.

Eventually, as the narrator becomes calmer, the danger of the heart's being audible to a neighbor of extraordinary hearing decreases—until finally, after "many minutes," the heartbeat stops. The heavy bed—burden of sleep and dreams—is "removed" with no apparent effort, its plane a plane of reflection between the narrator and the old man—or metempsychosis—whose thoughts, dreams, and even pulses, seem to synchronize. The old man, we are told no less than thrice, is dead;42 the owner of the vulture eye has himself become carrion. Or so it would appear. For in the uncanny light of resemblance between narrator and old man, what certainty is there that "the heart" upon which he places his hand is not the narrator's own? that the "muffled sound" has not been the subsiding of his own heartbeat quickened by "uncontrollable terror"? And if from the narrator's own heart "no pulsation" can be felt, then who has died? whose voice speaks? what dread voice narrates the tale?

For if the narrator has, as he claims, rid himself of the I forever—"His eye/[I] would trouble me no more"—one would expect the narrative to end here. Yet (for reasons which will soon become clear) it does not, proceeding immediately to an explicit scene of physical dismemberment:

If you still think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs.

I then took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye—not even his—could have detected anything wrong. There was nothing to wash out—no stain of any kind—no bloodspot whatever. I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all—ha! ha!

The narrator has built part of his defense against the accusation of madness on his sagacity, and one of its measures is his ability to dissimulate. The body—a disarticulated head, arms and legs—is introduced briefly as corpus delicti before being concealed from human detection.43 No mention is made of the heart or its beat; and there is "no stain … no bloodspot," for suddenly humanized in death, the damned spot of the vulture eye can no longer be seen; the subjectivity represented by the old man's I has been incarnated, killed, dismembered and interred. It would seem that the narrator has put an end to "the terrors that distracted me"—and yet an acute sensibility might notice, sotto voce, an ominous doubling of that singular chuckle we heard earlier into almost an ironic laugh: "ha! ha!"

Some four hours have passed in dissimulation—"the night [has] waned"44—since midnight, when the groan of mortal terror was heard, and a knock at the door signals the neighbor's intrusion that the narrator had anxiously and fearfully anticipated:

When I had made an end of these labors, it was four o'clock—still dark as midnight. As the bell sounded the hour, there came a knocking at the street door. I went down to open it with a light heart,—for what had I now to fear?

There entered three men, who introduced themselves, with perfect suavity, as officers of the police. A shriek had been heard by a neighbour during the night; suspicion of foul play had been aroused; information had been lodged at the police office, and they (the officers) had been deputed to search the premises.

The appearance of the three policemen—identical in number, significantly, to the "three planks" under which the corpse is concealed—marks a sudden expansion of the events described by the narrator into a volume of social space. The focus on the old man's chamber has broadened to place it in perspective in "that old house"; the possibility of a neighbor, and now the "street door" and "police office," suggest encounters and sights in an organized world beyond darkness and closed shutters.45 The reason for this societal intervention in the narrator's world is that a sound has been overheard by a neighbor: not the hearbeat the narrator feared, but "a shriek"—and thus, curiously, not the voice of the narrator, who gave a "loud yell," but the voice of the old man:

I smiled,—for what had I to fear? I bade the gentlemen welcome. The shriek, I said, was my own in a dream. The old man, I mentioned, was absent in the country. I took my visitors all over the house. I bade them search—search well. I led them, at length, to his chamber. I showed them his treasures, secure, undisturbed. In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I brought chairs into the room, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues, while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim.

The narrator welcomes and disarms the officers with comparable suavity: with the old man absent in the country, only he himself could have been overheard.46 Confirming our suspicious, he claims the old man's shriek as his own; in the same breath he suggests that all that has occurred has occurred in a dream—a text produced in his own sleep. He then displays a surprising familiarity with the old man's treasures, confidently inviting the policemen to rest in the latter's own chamber, where his corpse is encrypted.47 And now, in an extraordinary moment, the narrator faces his inquisitors upon the very spot below which the body has been concealed, a scene which brings together simultaneously the entire series of reflections and refractions which have structured the text: narrator | old man; narrator | reader; eye | eye; I | I; self | other; sleep | waking; yell | shriek; inside | outside; presence | absence; dissimulation | truth; fiction | fact; figurative | literal; sanity | insanity; nervous | mad.

The bar ("|") which here represents the fold between these possibilities is in some cases a physical barrier—as when it stands for the heavy bed, with the narrator on top and the old man pressed below; or for the three planks of the floor, with the narrator seated above, and the old man dismembered below. It may be architectural or mechanical: the chamber or street door between inside and outside space, the window shutters or lantern panel on the hesitant threshold of darkness and light; physiological: the veil over the eye, the tympanum of the ear; psychological or philosophical: the line between dreams and consciousness, or truth and falsehood, fact and fiction, self and other. It may stand for rhetorical difference, such as that between a shriek and a yell; for an ideological or societal barrier between legitimate action and crime, or what is accepted as truth and what as metaphor; for historical distance, such as the hermeneutic space between the reader and the text; or for a limit of systematic thought, as in the case of disciplinary barriers drawn by the clinical or legal professions to separate health from sickness, or sanity from madness.

The number of policemen corresponds to the number of floor-boards below the narrator because they have the same function: although they are portrayed sitting and talking with the narrator, the three men are not physical characters; rather, they are figures of society, of the internalized law which separates the narrator from himself, separates what is superficial from what is latent, what exists within the limits of systematic thought from what is unthought, the social and historical self from absolute alterity. The three floorboards and the three men thus do not react; they simply mark a limit, social and psychological, the bar ("*") between self and other:

The officers were satisfied. My manner had convinced them. I was singularly at ease. They sat, and while I answered cheerily, they chatted familiar things. But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears: but still they sat and still chatted. The ringing became more distinct:—it continued and became more distinct: I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained definitiveness—until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears.

The narrator's singularity continues to draw attention to the absence of the old man, and his paleness and headache reveal his internal tension,48 which manifests itself psychologically and physiologically as a fancied "ringing in my ears." The sound becomes more distinct and yet more distant, as it is casually, almost accidentally, revealed to be a feeling whose source is, in fact, outside his ears; the effect of this tympanic tension between inside and outside is to stimulate the narrator to speak:

No doubt I now grew very pale;—but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased—and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick soundmuch such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath—and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly—more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations, but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observation of the men—but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed—I raved—I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased.

As the sound from within and without the narrator's ears increases, it is echoed and reflected in the increasing fluency, pitch, speed and intensity of his own narration. This voice—the voice of "The Tell-Tale Heart"—now describes its own collapse as the narrator is rapidly disarticulated into three uncontrollable, twitching fragments: first, his speech, which proceeds from his head: fluent, heightened, quick, vehement, high-pitched, foaming, raving, swearing. Second, his arms: gesticulating violently, swinging the chair. Finally, his legs: arising, furiously and excitedly "pac[ing] the floor to and fro with heavy strides." This disarticulation, this dis-traction (preceded by a gasp for breath), is an experience on the level of narrative voice, of what has been described by that voice and enacted as the physical dismemberment of the old man: "First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs."

Previously at pains to establish that it was not the voice of madness, the narrator's voice is now vehement,49 and the "I" paces the floor, foaming and raving. All that separates the dissevered parts of the narrative voice from the severed limbs of the old man is the thin bar ("*") of three floorboards—the bar which marks the limit between speech and silence; the bar at which the narrator must be heard:

It grew louder—louder—louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!—no, no! They heard!—they suspected—they knew! they were making a mockery of my horror!—this I thought, and this I think. But any thing was better than this agony! Any thing was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die!—and now—again!—hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!

The three men smile, as the narrator smiled a moment ago, and their smiles are hypocritical—grinning thespian masks.50 The narrator's despair—"Oh God! … Almighty God!—no, no!"—and agony come from the fear that what is concealed may be made known, that the three men's demeanor re-presents and mirrors, mocking and deriding, his own dissimulation. It is his suppression of knowledge of the old man which threatens to burst through; and silence would seem to be the wisest course. Yet, paradoxically, the narrator feels that there are only two options: "I must scream or die." This feeling seems inexplicable—the narrator has confessed no guilt, no remorse has been admitted, and the entire narration has been based on a justification of the sanity of his actions—until one recalls the moment of "death," when the narrator leaped into the room and confronted the old man. The reason for the policemen's visit soon afterwards was that "[a] shriek had been heard by a neighbour during the night"; there no mention is made of the narrator's "loud yell," and here no conclusion can be drawn but this: that the yell and the shriek sound as one voice. And that the narrator is closer to the truth than he admits when he claims that the shriek was his own in a dream.

The moment when the narrator must "scream or die" is now suspended on the brink of identity or difference: it is a moment of uncertainty suspended on the bar between narrator and old man, a wavering between the presence and absence of the old man's voice within the narrator's voice. The moment is resolved dramatically in the crisis of the narrator's final words, where a complex network of relationships is suddenly unravelled: the narrator ironically accuses the policemen of his own act of dissimulation, confesses his own commission of the deed, and calls for an unveiling or unmasking—a removal of the floorboards which will reveal the old man's presence. In the same punning breath, he calls on his listeners to hearken—"hear, hear!"—and distances himself from his own narration, from the voice of the "Tell-Tale Heart," by referring to it in the third person—"his heart." All of this happens without warning, in a sudden, bone-chilling, singular shriek—by which the yell of the narrative voice becomes possessed by its other, comes to its end in the I of the old man:

"Villains!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks!—here, here!—it is the beating of his hideous heart!"


Forgiven be the reader whose reason is stretched, whose blood runs cold, on hearing these last words. The end of the tale, the climactic shriek, plunges and recedes in a sudden void before the critical eye. A murder is committed; the killer possessed; a dead voice speaks through a living mouth. A death has occurred—a suicide; a disembodied voice speaks from beyond the grave. No murder may have taken place, no death—or else it may be a corpse's voice which shrieks at the end of the tale. The narrator has taken the old man's life; the narrator has disappeared; only the old man remains. Narrator and old man are the same—or are not the same at all. There neither is, nor ever was, an old man. Nothing has happened in the tale; or if it has, it was only a dream, the old man's or the narrator's. A second reading must recognize the voice of the narrator as that of the old man. What judgment can be passed, now that it is no longer clear that a crime has been committed, that any event within the space of narration has not been a hallucination, and no longer certain from the close of the tale what can be said of it when it began? What has happened in the tale, and what, in its reading, must be the end?

The narrator's shriek confronts the reader with a synesthetic image in light and sound. Striking our eye, impinging on our eardrums, is the homophonic imperative to "hear, hear!"—which is also a deixis, a pointing out in space—both here and here!—of the hideous site of the tell-tale heart. Visually, unspeakably, the image is the sight of a heart cut out from a body, and sole: beating, living, palpitating, red. The space of the end unfolds before us in mingled horror and vertiginous fascination, a moment not adequated by speech.51 Here, and in this space, reader and narrator share a present, for the latter's cries have brought the events of the narrative's past into the time of its reading: "and nowagain!hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!" The tale thus ends in the past of its narration and simultaneously in the present of its reading: now the reader must construct the sequel to the tale; now its consequences must by implication follow. These events, projecting forward beyond the end—on a literal level the charge of madness; arrest, questioning and confinement, perhaps—must then become the past, precede the tale's beginning, for the end of the tale has placed the reader in its narration's past, facing a future which is already a figment of the narrator's memory.

As the critical "I" stands on the brink of this temporal vortex, drawn inexorably down into the maelstrom's eye of narrative time, ghostly echoes and fleeting associations suggest a momentary diversion, a respite, in two of Poe's other tales. The narrator of "The Black Cat" speaks from a "felon's cell … for tomorrow I die and today I would unburden my soul"; it is in order to provide "a cause for my wearing these fetters and for tenanting this cell of the condemned" that the speaker in "The Imp of the Perverse" narrates.52 The incarceration of the "Tell-Tale Hearf"'s narrator is implicit in the denials of his own madness and in his final confession to officers of the law. In all three cases, the narration is an act of speech—suspended on the threshold between life and its radical other. Thus the "Cat" narrator is "consigned … to the hangman"; the "Imp" ends with a rhetorical question: "To-day I wear these chains, and am here! To-morrow I shall be fetterless!—but where!" Between the here of today and the where of tomorrow—when presumably the narrator will be damned, executed, or found to be mad—the difference is both spatial and temporal, marked by the physical and conceptual boundaries of the cell which both contains and compels the act of narration.

The "I" of "The Black Cat" confronts its other in the eye of a black cat: "I took from my waistcoat-pocket a penknife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket. I blush, I burn, I shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity…." Here two acts conjoin as one—the act of telling or penning the tale and the act of penknifing the eye/I of the other, (self-)mutilation or ommacide—in the atrocious performative of narration. The deed is consummated in a "death scene" where the cat is hanged, executed by the suspension of breath and speech; damnation physical and symbolic is then visited upon the narrator, in the form of flames which consume his worldly wealth and leave, at the head of his bed, a gigantic image in bas-relief of a hanged cat. A second, identical, one-eyed cat appears thereafter to vex him, marked in white fur upon its chest the gallows, a symbol of death and resurrection.53 When the narrator finally strikes, the blow of his axe is displaced from the cat (which vanishes) to his wife, whose corpse he walls up in the cellar. He is calm when the law arrives—"I scarcely knew what I uttered at all"—but as the officers are about to leave, the narrator raps on the wall with a cane, precisely on the spot where his wife is immured:

I was answered by a voice from within the tomb!—by a cry, at first muffled and broken, like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into one long, loud, and continuous scream, utterly anomalous and inhuman—a howl, a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph, such as might have arisen only out of hell, conjointly from the throats of the damned in their agony and of the demons that exult in the damnation…. Swooning, I staggered to the opposite wall…. In the next [instant] a dozen stout arms were toiling at the wall. It fell bodily. The corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore, stood erect before the eyes of the spectators. Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman.

The tale ends with the shriek of the narrator's alter ego—figured as the black cat and represented metonymically by a single I/eye and a mouth whose words are red and read. The voice which finally betrays the narrator of "The Black Cat" is his own, but in it a difference, a strangeness, has been introduced, "anomalous and inhuman," and in which the narrator cannot recognize himself. It is for this reason that the voice of the cat is described as at the same time the voice of the damned and the voice which exults in damning. Just as the "Tell-Tale Heart" ends in the old man's shriek, here the narrator will become the other, take on the life of the hanged black cat and in his turn be hanged.

In the premeditated murder of "The Imp of the Perverse," the relation of stalker to stalked is explicit, and not simply a relation of perpetrator to victim—"I am one of the many uncounted victims of the Imp of the Perverse," the narrator declares—but a complex of exchanges involved in the act of reading. Both the narrator and his victim read, prefiguring and implicating—"I need not vex you with impertinent details"—our own narrative. The brief "murder scene" thus describes not an act of violence, but the substitution of the narrator's light for the reader's, a pharmaceutical replacement of the air in the victim's ill-ventilated apartment by air of the narrator's own making:54

At length, in reading some French memoirs, I found an account of a nearly fatal illness that occurred to Madame Pilau, through the agency of a candle accidentally poisoned. I knew my victim's habit of reading in bed. I knew, too, that his apartment was narrow and ill-ventilated. But I need not vex you with impertinent details. I need not describe the easy artifices by which I substituted, in his bed-room candle-stand, a wax-light of my own making for the one which I there found. The next morning he was discovered dead in his bed….

Unsuspected, the narrator inherits his victim's estate and enjoys years of "absolute security"—until, at length, he comes to be haunted by a thought "like the ringing in our ears," a temptation to confess: "And now my own casual self-suggestion, that I might possibly be fool enough to confess the murder of which I had been guilty, confronted me, as if the very ghost of him whom I had murdered—and beckoned me on to death." The narration ends with the narrator's betrayal by his own voice, which breaks into social space out of a confinement here revealed to be psychological. The limits of containment are breached, and a shortage of breath, a gasp, a swoon, preludes the end:

I walked vigorously—faster—still faster—at length I ran. I felt a maddening desire to shriek aloud…. I still quickened my pace. I bounded like a madman…. At length the populace took the alarm, and pursued me. I felt then the consummation of my fate. Could I have torn out my tongue, I would have done it—but a rough voice resounded in my ears—a rougher grasp seized me by the shoulder. I turned—I gasped for breath. For a moment I experienced all the pangs of suffocation; I became blind, and deaf, and giddy; and then some invisible fiend, I thought, struck me with his broad palm upon the back. The long-imprisoned secret burst forth from my soul. They say I spoke with a distinct enunciation, but with marked emphasis and passionate hurry, as if in dread of interruption…. Having related all that was necessary for the fullest judicial conviction, I fell prostrate in a swoon….

The three tales taken together, "Imp," "Cat" and "Heart," present a composite narrative pattern in its several dimensions. On the simplest level, each tale is told by an unnamed narrator ("I"), and features a second character who is the narrator's figurative double or alter ego: the old man, the black cat, the victim who reads. The narrator's voice speaks to an implied reader (or engages in an internal monologue) initially in a self-justifying mode of confession, and describes a "murder" of the narrator's other. The dead other is then interred—under floorboards, behind a wall, as a "long-imprisoned secret" in the narrator's mind. Eventually, in a social space—policemen, the crowd in the street—the narrator is driven by an irrepressible urge to betray himself, and does so by a second narration within the tale, the other's voice: the cry of the black cat, the shriek and heartbeat of the old man, the narrator's own voice unknown to him—"they say I spoke with a distinct enunciation …"—in confession.55

Each narrative places in relief its own voice, as a radical alterity within this compelling moment of speech; the moment staged as a death scene is thus revealed to be a scene of recognition in which the subject and object of narration confront each other, exchange identities, and yield to difference. The relation enacted in each tale—between subject and object, or the act of narration and the acts described by narration—is grounded, strangely and irreducibly, in a quality, tendency, feeling or character, which the "Cat" narrator identifies as "the spirit of PERVERSENESS," and the "Imp" as "a paradoxical something:"

… one of the primitive impulses of the human heart—one of the indivisible primary faculties or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man[;] … a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such[;] … [an] unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself—to offer violence to its own nature….(" Cat," 225)

… an innate and primitive principle of human action, … a mobile without motive, a motive not motiviert. Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object; … through its promptings we act, for the reason that we should not…. ("Imp," 281)

These characterizations locate perversity, in its role as the founding and self-undermining ground of the tales' telling, within the compass of the fundamental trope of irony:56 the relation between narrator and old man appears in this context as a doubling within the sign "I" of the narrating subject—I = (self * other)—where the bar or veil separating self from other is a plane of infinite reflection between the subject and its self-perception as object, a crevice or space marking the disjunction between an I and an I which do not altogether see eye to eye.

This relation finds its paradigmatic moment in death; it is the play of irony in the narration of death which is staged in these three tales. The "death scene" in the "Tell-Tale Heart" should be the end of the narration, a moment where difference is erased and beyond which there is no further possibility of language. The moment appears, however, as a staging within the language of narration, of the end of narration—a staging in language of the impossibility of language. An irreducible difference is thus introduced—the veil which prevents recognition, the fine line between a shriek and a yell—even in Death, which becomes a sign. Death—where the bar of difference must disappear, and self and other become one—is prevented at the moment it occurs from being itself; it is recovered, absorbed, circumscribed by language and folded back on itself in the ironic doubling—(shriek * yell)—of the narrative voice.

The dissolution of language which must follow the moment of death is then enacted both in and as the language of narration: within the narration as a description of the dismemberment of the old man, and—doubling and repeating this dismemberment—as the narrator's voice, which itself becomes disarticulated in the act of narration. Even as it asserts its singularity, the narrator's voice doubles and folds in upon itself: the "corpse," the "body" described in the text is at same time doubled as the body of the text; it coincides physically with the textual space of its narration. What confronts the reader is the corpus of the old man: a textual avatar or embodiment of the old man's (dead, absent) voice as a presence in the narrator's, the sound of the tell-tale heart in the sound of "The Tell-Tale Heart."

It is a sound always stifled, like the beat of a watch muffled in cotton, because the temporality of the narrative voice—its yell—is caught on the threshold of an absolute moment of language, between screaming and dying, between narration and its impossibility. The space of the narrative, its duration, is doubled back upon itself and negated as the narrating subject collapses into its own object; as the "I" falls back from death into the abyssal voice of the other. The return of the dead occurs as a necessary event, of and in the language of the tale, for Death cannot signify itself without being other than itself, and it is this—the appearance of the end of language in the middle of language—which is reflected—"I live!"—in the gaze of the old man's evil eye.

This apparition, like a burst of dark laughter, confronts the reader across the chasm which falls between literature and criticism. The act of reading abolishes chance, for it draws the reader into an inevitable hermeneutic relation with alterity within the sign of Death: the recognition scene of narrator and old man is ultimately enacted between the I/eye of the narrator and the I/eye of the reader, as the transferential relation of the narrative voice of the tale to the narrative voice of criticism. The narrative I's gestures are doubled—perversely, allegorically57—by the critical I: in our act of quotation, which foregrounds the voice of the narrator; in the cutting, pasting and articulation of the "Tell-Tale Heart" within a narrative of criticism, which echoes the narrator's dismemberment of the old man; in the (deictic, exemplary) introduction of evidence to sustain the argument of criticism, which repeats the narrator's gesture of "hear, here!" Death—its sign—envelops the act of reading, wherein narrative I and critical I exchange glances across a bar which now appears as the space—linguistic, cultural, historical—between reader and text.

Between the text and the reader's eye, this space is physical: semiotically, it also represents a temporal distance within the sign of Death: the natural belatedness of criticism with respect to literature. The narrator of the "Tell-Tale Heart" decides to rid "[him]self of the eye/I of the old man, which is figured as the origin and eschatological end of the narrative: thus Death—the confrontation/recognition/murder/suicide of the narrator's other's I/eye—becomes present in the middle of narrative time as a sign whose full meaning would be the end of narrative time. The sign of Death is then ironically emptied of its meaning and folded back on itself in a fell resurrection, betraying itself in the duplicitous shriek of the old man. This fold, eliminating origin and end, precludes the possibility of narrative time, of plot and of the narrative's functioning as a history of what it is about. The text of the tale thus appears without history and floats before the reader in history—hermetic, masqued, closed in on itself; a disembodied voice, a veiled I. That it is cast adrift from its time of origin and present to a reader in any age accords it the temporal status of myth;58 the tale is paradigmatically modern, for it shares a present with any and every reader. As "primary text" the tale becomes the mythic point of origin which legitimates the historiographical operation of "secondary literature"—the figure of origin for the critical I.

The eye of the reader must then inevitably take up the gaze of the narrative I, perversely continue the life of the narrative in the strange voice of criticism, its after-life.59 The act of reading "The Tell-Tale Heart" stages a doubling of the reading subject across the bar of history—I (literature * criticism). Not because it describes the horror of historical events is it a tale of dread, but because it threatens the reader from across the chasm—threatens to breach the boundary between the I of fiction and the I of criticism. For if the text is an internal monologue, the critical eye penetrates into the mind of the narrator when reading; the act of reading is also a process by which the narrator's secret deeds or thoughts enter the mind of the reader.60 And if, again, the voice of the tale speaks from beyond the grave, its address throws into question the spatial and temporal location of the reader in relation to the "here!" from which it can be heard. What case can now be made for reading—betrayed, indicted, arraigned by its own voice?

Two lines of argument appear for the critical subject. The first is a "historicization" of the tale, where the frames of reference would be its conditions of production and reception. A recognition that the conditions of a text's production in the past, even as they shape the present of its reading, are reconstructed and themselves shaped by that reading, compels an understanding of the tale's present conditions of reception as prejudicial in reconstructing its past.61 From this per spective, the relation of the tale to the present centers not on its author or implied author, but on the occasional identities of the narrative I and its implied reader as they are determined for the space of a reading by the social and ideological contexts imposed by the actual reader on the subject positions they represent: homosexual, heterosexual, oedipal, biographical, feminist, marxist, postcolonial, etc.62 Armed with contemporary social and linguistic codes, preconceptions about madness, conventions of interpretation; and imposing and intruding ideologically on the tale, the reader—in the role of policeman or arbiter of social law—patrols its neighborhood, marking the borders or limits of its closure. Thus both the tale and its criticism are tethered to the specificity of the historical moment of reading: localized, politicized, historicized, explained.

The alternative critical path—precarious, partaking of the tale's paradoxical temporality—affirms the modernity of criticism as the mode of being of the tale in its afterlife. Here, in this dread undertaking, the imperative of criticism is to extend the life of literature beyond its natural end by sharing its present and generalizing it beyond the specificity of its own historical moment. A criticism founded on the primary myth of literature as its object must itself be granted the temporality of myth: the critical I takes the life of the narrative I, becomes both the subject and the object of its own narration. The primary mythopoeic gesture of modernity is thus given by the "death of the author" and the "disappearance of the subject"; a modern criticism acquires the ontological status of literature,63 and the reader—agent of history and historical agent—two apparently incompatible roles: critically demythologizing the tale by demonstrating the relevance of its myth to the present, and at the same time preserving the myth in the afterlife of the tale by refusing the present of criticism. This double gesture of literary theory, perverse in the extreme, is fundamental to history and its writing; it does not oppose itself to anything that would properly be called "literary history." The I of criticism, indeed, has no choice but to speak, gazing unblinkingly from a tale of history condemned always to be present, to be here—literature.


1 de Certeau, The Writing of History, 5.

2 LaCapra, History & Criticism, 11.

3 The tale, by its very formulation in a formal, fictional genre, appears to sidestep the epistemological question of what "reality" it refers to. I consider the determination of the tale's frame of reference to be a function of the performance of reading, following Jan Mukarovsky: "The change which the material relationship of the work—the sign—has undergone is thus simultaneously its weakening and strengthening. It is weakened in the sense that the work does not refer to the reality which it directly depicts, and strengthened in that the work of art as a sign acquires an indirect (figurative) tie with realities which are vitally important to the perceiver" (Mukarovsky, 74-90; Newton, 36). From this perspective, the language of the tale constructs and refers to a fictional world which assumes a certain reality for the reader in the present; the "realness" this fictional world appears to have will depend on the various factors which constitute the hermeneutic space between reader and text: social, cultural, linguistic, psychological, and so on.

4 On the internal and heuristic coherence of fictions, see Vaihinger, The Philosophy of As If. Necessary heuristic fictions, critical or readerly, include the assumptions that a text reflects the life of an author, a psychological state, or a social reality at the time it was written. These approaches tacitly imply that fiction in a pure state is impossible, since it requires the mediation of non-fiction; or that the language of fiction can only be understood if it is grounded in the (supposedly extratextual) ordinary language of non-fiction; in short, that fiction is always contaminated by something to which it is radically different, and yet on which it depends, and which appears in various formulations as "non-fiction," "ordinary language," "common sense," "truth," or "reality." More explicitly constructed are approaches to literature which read into a text from the past the moral or sociological concerns of "today," and which claim therefore to have demonstrated its universal, eternal, intrinsic or literary value—when what has in fact been demonstrated is its susceptibility to critical appropriation and ideological manipulation.

5 I use "modernity" here in the very specific sense that "[i]t designates more generally the problematical possibility of all literature's existing in the present, of being considered, or read, from a point of view that claims to share with it its own sense of a temporal present" (de Man, "Lyric and Modernity," 166). LaCapra's formulation of a "transferential relation to the past," which appears in the epigraph to this paper, is essentially a re-articulation in Freudian terms of one of the paradigmatic gestures of deconstruction: the repetition and continuation, within criticism, of the mode of being of its object, literature. LaCapra's sense of "displaced analogues" appears to correspond to de Man's concept of "allegories of reading." (See the latter's "Semiology and Rhetoric" and "Literary History and Literary Modernity.")

6 This is a broad interpretation of what M. H. Abrams terms the universe of a work of art: " … the work is taken to have a subject which, directly or deviously, is derived from existing things—to be about, or signify, or reflect something which either is, or bears some relation to, an objective state of affairs" (Abrams, 6). The notion that a text can be history or the converse trivializes neither term; the factors which establish a text's status as a narration of fact or fiction are not intrinsic to it; rather, they are the ideological, conventional limits placed on its possibilities of interpretation by the community of its interpreters. For a selection of views on the ethical and pragmatic necessities and consequences of limiting interpretive possibilities, see Levinson and Mailloux, Interpreting Law and Literature.

7 For broad-ranging studies of the constitutive aspects of metahistorical discourses, see de Certeau, The Writing of History, LaCapra, History & Criticism, Rancière, The Names of History, and White, Metahistory. Suggestive engagements in the long tradition of the theory-history debate are Jauss, "Literary History as a Challenge …" and de Man, "The Resistance to Theory." A detailed study of the concept of crisis can be found in de Man's "Criticism and Crisis," where he argues that "all true criticism occurs in the mode of crisis" (8).

8 Thus de Certeau: "On the one hand, writing plays the role of a burial rite, in the ethnological and quasi-religious meaning of the term; it exorcises death by inserting it into discourse. On the other hand, it possesses a symbolizing function; it allows a society to situate itself by giving itself a past through language, and it thus opens to the present a space of its own" (The Writing of History, 100).

9 See Valdes and Miller, Identity of the Literary Text, for a collection of diverse and thoughtful essays on the nature of textual identity. An overview of some of the assumptions involved in relatively broad definitions of textuality is provided by various authors in Veeser, The New Historicism, and the editor's closing essay in Reader-Response Criticism (Tompkins, 201-32).

10 On the need to "imaginatively construct the body," see Ortega y Gasset, "The Difficulty of Reading." The social implications of the organ without a body are explored in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus.

11 Our identification of the genre of the text has already constituted a judgment of its truth-value; this prejudice must be bracketed momentarily, for the space of our reading, if we are to reserve judgment on the narrator and examine the narration on its own terms.

12 The story is quoted in its entirety in this essay from Poe, Collected Works.

13 This is an archaic sense of the word, etymologically derived from Latin dis-(privative) + esse, to be. (The derivations here and throughout this paper are taken from The Compact Oxford English Dictionary and Webster's Deluxe Unabridged Dictionary, hereafter denoted OED/WUD.) My use of etymology here and elsewhere in this essay calls for some comment. The question of whether or not the author, Poe, intended the meanings which I attribute to his words is bracketed in this reading because my focus is on the relationship between the text and the reader in the present. This philological approach neither affirms nor denies the author's intention; it concerns itself rather with opening and enriching the possibilities of interpretation in the tale by following the echoes and resonances of its language. The role of the reader becomes more complex in consequence: the narrator's apostrophe may address a character who does not appear in the tale; or he may be talking to himself—in which case the reader overhears a mental conversation or internal monologue. To encompass these and other possibilities, I use the term "the reader" to refer to the subject position occupied by the narrator's listener, the position with which the actual reader enters into a (negative, positive or neutral) relation.

14 The modes of classification and principles of exclusion by which systematic thought—legal/penal, medical, and psychiatric—marks its own limit of separation from what it cannot think, are explored "archeologically" in Michel Foucault's Discipline & Punish, The Birth of the Clinic, and Madness and Civilization.

15 Most readers of this tale assume that the narrator describes an actual murder; see, for instance, Frank, on the Gothic "I" in "Neighbourhood Gothic …"; Witherington on the reader as voyeur in "The Accomplice …"; and the various readings derived from psychoanalytic theory: Davis, "Lacan, Poe, and Narrative Repression"; Rajan, "A Feminist Rereading …"; Sussman, "A Note on the Public and the Private…."

16 I use the word "arbitrary" here in Saussure's sense, to suggest not randomness or anarchy, but determination by (social) convention (Course in General Linguistics, 68-69, 73.) Most readers of "The Tell-Tale Heart," for example, assume that the narrative voice is male, although the narrator's gender is never specifically identified (see note 62 below). This assumption may be conditioned by a number of factors: knowledge of the author's sex, or of that of typical narrators in his oeuvre; the traditional, patriarchal treatment of narrators as male; or the attribution of an active role to a masculine protagonist. A recognition that such prejudices are conventions of reading reveals the strategies of closure employed by past generations of readers of the tale.

17 Here it is not simply a matter of empathizing with the narrator; listening to the voice of the text on its own terms involves a self-consciously critical act, the recognition that, as Hayden White remarks in a commentary on New Historicism, "one's philosophy of history is a function as much of the way one construes one's own special object of scholarly interest as it is of one's knowledge of 'history' itself' (White, "New Historicism," 302).

18 For still classic surveys of eschatological models of history, see Bultmann, History and Eschatology; Kermode, The Sense of an Ending; and Löwith, Meaning in History.

19 The I/eye homophony is discussed in terms of its relationship to intersubjectivity and the concept of the double in Halliburton's excellent book, Edgar Allan Poe. A Phenomenological View. Other related studies can be found in Hamel, "Un texte à deux voix"; and Williams, A World of Words. A detailed treatment of the I/eye subject in general can be found in Lombardo's Edgar Poe et la Modernité (esp. 7-69).

20 Joan Dayan, in two passing references to this tale, acknowledges that the heart which will beat under the floorboards "is of course the narrator's own" (144), and recognizes the "language of penetration" used here. She fails, however, to reconcile this with her assertion that "Poe turns the protracted attempt to look into the old man's bedroom in order to kill him into a most secret and transgressive act of love" (Fables of Mind, 225).

21 Etymologically, "suspicion" connotes mistrust, the act of looking askance; Latin suspicere: sub, up from under, + spicere, to look at (OED/WUD).

22 In similar fashion, the narrator's voice at daybreak becomes indistinguishable from the sound of the tell-tale heart—with its "hearty" tone and "courageousness" (Latin cor, heart [OED/WUD])—which speaks first to the old man, but ultimately to the reader.

23 The comparison of the narrator's hand to the minute hand of a watch does not merely or simply convey inordinate slowness of movement; it suggests, as well, the personification of time in and as the figure of the narrator. In this comparison converge, too, the ticking of the watch and the beating of the tell-tale heart with the temporality of the events described in the text and of the voice of narration, for metaleptically the "hand" is both that which writes and, by extension, the voice in which that hand narrates. The echo of a familiar expression also resonates in the text's title: a tell-tale is a mechanical device used for recording or indicating temporal measure; the tell-tale clock, for example, is a clock "with an attachment of some kind requiring attention at certain intervals, by which the vigilance of a watchman may be checked" (OED/WUD).

24 The narrator's "thin ray" of light cuts through the "thick darkness," evoking traditional metaphorical associations: optical perception (to see meaning to perceive or to understand) set against blindness or obscurity (incomprehension); or a transition from ignorance to knowledge.

25 The "death watches in the wall" point, on the one (minute) hand, to the narrator's association with time; and, on the other hand, to the relation of this temporality to death, a relation to ending which will find its articulation in the end of the tale. A death watch is also, however, a vigil kept by the dead or the dying or those who attend them; and both narrator and old man, by their wakefulness "night after night," are implicated in this act of seeing. On a third level—the most immediate sense of the word—a death watch is an insect which makes a sound like the ticking of a watch, and is considered superstitiously to be an omen of death.

26 Similarly, both narrator and old man share their vigil—"I knew that he had been lying awake"—and echo each other's dissimulation—"lying." And since a wake is a vigil or a death watch, it may be, in this dissimultation, that no death will occur—nor has, in the past which the tale describes.

27 Latin distrahere, to pull apart (OED/WUD).

28 The shifting tenses here—"Yes, he has been trying to comfort himself with these suppositions; but he had found all in vain"—indicate the temporal dilemma of the narrative voice, fluctuating between the past of the old man and the present of the narration, in which a third voice—the I/eye of the reader—is implicated, and where the old man yet lives.

29 The word "muscle" is derived from the Latin musculus, "little mouse," from the shape of certain muscles (OED/WUD).

30 The reference is to Psalms 23:4. The "shadow" may also be seen here as a Jungian, archetypal projection of the unknown self.

31 According to classical mythological accounts, the Lydian princess Arachne competed with the goddess Athena in a weaving contest, and proved herself superior. Made to feel guilt and shame for her pride, Arachne attempted to hang herself, but Athena prevented the suicide by turning her into a spider and the rope into a cobweb. Thus the moment when Arachne should cease to weave is transformed into a textual eternity where arachnids unceasingly (and to our knowledge, unknowingly) fabricate webs which are allegorical narrations of the original myth. For various versions of this myth, see Bulfinch, 91-93, and Graves, 98-99. Ovid's account is presented in prose and poetry respectively in Metamorphoses, trans. Innes, 134-38; and The Metamorphoses, trans. Gregory, VI. v. I. 145, 163-167.

32 Certainly the narrator grows "furious," a characterization which—ironizing his earlier denials—seems to indicate passion, madness, and the raging of a disease whose symptom is a fearful chill; but these indications are occasional rather than causal at this moment; and even the vexatious "dull blue" of the old man's eye serves here only to throw into relief the "sharpened" senses resulting from the narrator's disease.

33 This "spot," medically speaking, suggests a speck on the eye symptomatic of a disease; its damning implies judicial condemnation as well as, theologically, a consignment to hell—where the narrator hears many things. But telling, too, is the evocation of a moment when the somnambulous Lady Macbeth is able "to receive at once the benefit of sleep and do the effects of watching"—symptomatic, Shakespeare's Doctor of Physic admits, of a "disease beyond my practice." Indeed, the narrator's sympathy with the old man suggests the entire narration may be a somniloquy. That the narrative assumes the textuality of a dream envisioned by the narrator and pleads conversely, reciprocally—since the old man may indeed be dreaming of his secret deeds and thoughts—that the narrator himself is figured in the cycle of the old man's dream. In this context, it is doubtful whether knowledge—of secret deeds and thoughts, disclosed to the reader in the confidence of reading—can remain material in calling the narrator's power to account. Nor is it simply a matter of extenuating circumstances or diminished responsibility, for the "damned spot" here is not merely a physical object or location but a conceptual, alephic mark which signifies bloodstain, consanguinity, moral stain, state of mind, self-consciousness of guilt or fear—in short, the entire shifting network of relationships which surrounds and informs the eye/I.

Curiously, the intertextual relationship between "The Tell-Tale Heart" and Macbeth has not received any critical attention, although each text sheds some light on the other: thus, Poe's allusion to Act V, Scene I of the play suggests, among other things, a female protagonist, sleepwalking, accountability and guilt, the blood of a murder victim ("the old man") which spreads metaphorically into a stain on the conscience, and a complex relation between power and knowledge; or again, taking structural elements as an example, Lady Macbeth's taper is transformed into the "Heart" narrator's lantern, and the knocking she hears at the gate into the knocking he hears at the door when the policemen arrive (Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Macbeth, 115-18).

34 The narrator's refutation of his reader's judgment is here more pointed, having progressed from "you say …" to "you fancy …" to "you mistake …"; and while in the same glossing breath his sensibility is subtly characterized as overacute, this admission of excess also has a different ironic effect: to indicate that what is sensed and heard is of the order of the supersensory. The sound, both familiar and unfamiliar, which comes to the narrator's ears is dull, like the color of the old man's eye; and also quick, in contrast to the slowness of the narrator's actions. It is akin to the low stifled sound heard earlier—the groan of terror which arises from both the old man's and the narrator's bosom. Death has indeed "enveloped the victim," and here it is the watch—which figures not only the heartbeat, the life of the old man, but also the very temporality of the narrative voice, the historical life of the narrator whose hand moves slower than a minute hand—which is enveloped, stifled. The narrator's relation to the old man, simultaneously close and murderously distant, may be considered from a variety of perspectives, the most obvious being the homoerotic and the Oedipal.

35 The soldier's "courage" here recalls the bold and hearty tone in which the narrator addresses the old man at daybreak (cf. n.22).

36 Some depths of the eardrum are sounded in Jacques Derrida's "Tympan." Derridean "difference" and its variations suggest numerous critical frames within which the relation between narrator and old man may be situated. One such frame, which is not discussed here except by implication, is that which circumscribes the relation between an author—in this case, Poe—and his or her literary persona (the narrative "I"); some explorations of this frame are provided in Derrida, The Ear of the Other.

37 Etymologically, to "refrain" connotes the reining in of a (soldier's) horse: Latin refrenare, to bridle, from frenum, bridle (OED/WUD). This is one of several latent allusions to soldiering (cf. n.35, n.39, n.48; for their possible significance, see n.45).

38 The "tattoo" must be understood here not simply as a beat; it is also a stained inscription marking the surface, or outer limits of the (still absent) body.

39 This question also inserts itself into a continuing chain of associations: in addition to drawing attention to the "me" of the voice, mark evokes both "spot" and "tattoo"—as well as the quotidian connotation of marking the time, and the soldier's of marking time.

40 For a discussion of the broader implications of this intrusion, see Sussman, "A Note on the Public and the Private…."

41 It is, in fact, only by implication, by the suggestiveness of the word "heavy," that the critical tradition has assumed the old man is being pressed or held down by the bed. The narrator, in fact, smiles (as he earlier chuckled, and as we would have laughed to see), that the deed is so far done; it is not yet completed, and the heart actually continues to beat "for many minutes." Its sound is muffled, like that of the "watch … enveloped in cotton" and the "stifled sound" of the shared groan, suggesting—but only suggesting—that what is taking place is a suffocation, a pressing of the old man (so that, like the narrator, he can scarcely breathe) to death. For both narrator and old man have been likened to a timepiece: the former's hand to a minute-hand, the latter's heartbeat to a watch.

42 The narrator's turn of phrase—"I examined the corpse"—is clinical and unemotional in its detachment, reminding us for a moment of how lucidly, "how healthily—how calmly" he can tell his story.

43 Latin de (privative) + tegere; uncover (OED/WUD). Thus a "detective" is one who uncovers.

44 The narrator remarks that "the night waned," but there is no indication of any more light in the chamber than is provided by the lantern, for the shutters are, as always, "close fastened." Even at four in the morning it is as dark as at midnight—but when the narrator opens the door a few moments from now, he will do so with a "light" heart. The playful, contrasting juxtaposition of light and dark in this passage suggests that "darkness" and "night" can be understood in context not simply as physical phenomena, but as metaphors of truth (against the lightiheartedness of the narrator's dissimulation) or of the burden of conscience (made light of by his concealment of the corpse). On another level, the narrator's "light" heart ironically reflects the heaviness of the bed which he pulled over the old man.

45 The three men at the door are suave—their urbanity suggests a breadth of social experience—and as police they represent the force of order in the polis or city, a trinity of civil law. This legal intervention indicates one of many subtexts in the tale: its underlying interrogation of the efficacy of law. As the reference to the Old Testament (n.30), and later, the narrator's exclamations—"Oh God! [ … ] Almighty God!"—refer obliquely to divine law, so the scattered references to soldiers (see n.37) point to the possibility of martial law, one alternative when civil law has broken down.

46 The old man's absence "in the country" implies the narrator's presence in the city or polis.

47 The narrator's characterizations of his state of mind, however, seem to belie his confidence: enthusiasm, connoting daemonic possession; triumph, evoking Bacchic frenzy; and wild audacity—passion uncontrollable, madness, and distraction. Similarly, he projects his own tiredness onto the officers, inviting them to "rest from their fatigues," when in fact it is he who has been engaged in "labors" through the night.

48 The narrator is "at ease," a phrase which at first suggests relaxation, but then recalls his dis-ease—and the military drill command which describes a state less relaxed than standing "easy." His singularity continues to draw attention to the absence of the old man, and his pallor evokes the latter's "pale blue eye." We fancies hearing a sound (as we fancied him mad, and as the old man tried to fancy his fears causeless), a reminder of that "dreadful echo" resonating through the tale, and of the bell which "sounded the hour," coinciding with the policemen's knocking on the door and a hint that what the narrator is hearing may be imaginary.

49 The word vehement today means intense or severe, but derives from roots (Latin vehere, to carry, + mens, mind) meaning "carried out of one's mind" (OED/WUD).

50 Greek hupokrites, actor; from hupokrinein, to play a part (OED/WUD).

51 The narrative's play on the auditory imperative "hear" and the visual deixis "here" may be seen as the staging of a hiatus or disjunction between the mediation of representation and the immediacy of experience, or the sign and its referent. This moment marks an apocalyptic transition from the end of narrative time to the time of the reader, and finds its rhetorical and psychoanalytic analogues in the idea of the "sublime" and "ekphrasis." For expositions of these concepts, see Fry, "Longinus at Colonus"; Weiskel, "The Logic of Terror"; and Mitchell, "Ekphrasis and the Other."

52 Passages quoted here of "The Black Cat" and "The Imp of the Perverse" are taken from Poe, The Complete Illustrated Stories and Poems, 235-43 and 439-45, respectively.

53 The word "gallows" is derived from the Middle English galwe, cross or apparatus for hanging, from the Old English gealga (OED/WUD).

54 This substitution may be seen as a narrative parricide which constitutes and supplements the "structurality" of the narration. The various permutations and configurations of narrative pharmacology are explored in minute detail in Derrida's Dissemination.

55 The relation suggested here between the individual and society perhaps calls for a socio-historical analysis of the narrator in terms of what Michel Foucault calls the soul—"which, unlike the soul represented by Christian theology, is not born in sin and subject to punishment, but is born rather out of the methods of punishment, supervision and constraint. This real, non-corporal soul is not a substance; it is the element in which are articulated the effects of a certain type of power and the reference of a certain type of knowledge, the machinery by which the power relations give rise to a possible corpus of knowledge, and knowledge extends and reinforces the effects of this power" (Discipline and Punish, 29).

56 Hayden White characterizes the dialectical dilemma of historiographical irony as follows: "In Irony, figurative language folds back on itself and brings its own potentialities for distorting perception under question….The trope of Irony … provides a linguistic paradigm of a mode of thought which is radically self-critical with respect not only to a given characterization of the world of experience but also to the very effort to capture adequately the truth of things in language. It is, in short, a model of the linguistic protocol in which skepticism in thought and relativism in ethics are conventionally expressed" (Metahistory, 37-38). In a similar vein, Paul de Man, following Friedrich Schlegel, comments: "Irony divides the flow of temporal existence into a past that is pure mystification and a future that remains harassed forever by a relapse within the inauthentic. It can know this inauthenticity but can never overcome it. It can only restate and repeat it on an increasingly conscious level, but it remains endlessly caught in the impossibility of making this knowledge applicable to the empirical world. It dissolves in the narrowing spiral of a linguistic sign that becomes more and more remote from its meaning, and it can find no escape from this spiral" ("The Rhetoric of Temporality," 222).

57 I use "allegory" here in de Man's sense: "The meaning constituted by the allegorical sign can … consist only in the repetition (in the Kierkegaardian sense of the term) of a previous sign with which it can never coincide, since it is of the essence of this previous sign to be pure anteriority….[A]llegory designates primarily a distance in relation to its own origin, and, renouncing the nostalgia and the desire to coincide, it establishes its language in the void of this temporal difference. In so doing, it prevents the self from an illusory identification with the non-self, which is now fully, though painfully, recognized as a non-self ("The Rhetoric of Temporality," 207).

58 Here I am referring to Lévi-Strauss's general characterization of the time-frame of myth: " … a myth always refers to events alleged to have taken place in time….But what gives the myth an operative value is that the specific pattern described is everlasting: it explains the present and the past as well as the future [ … ] Whatever our ignorance of the language and the culture of the people where it originated, a myth is still felt as a myth by any reader throughout the world" ("The Structural Study of Myth," 84-86).

59 I take the supplementary relation between literature and criticism to be analogous to that quality of a text which Walter Benjamin calls "translatability"—by which the original text calls for translation as its mode of being in its afterlife. Thus "the language of a translation can—in fact, must—let itself go, so that it gives voice to the intentio of the original not as reproduction but as harmony, as a supplement to the language in which it expresses itself, as its own kind of intentio" ("The Task of the Translator," 79).

60 A general paradigm for a phenomenological approach to this relation between reader and text is outlined in Georges Poulet's analysis of "interior objects": "I am someone who happens to have as objects of his own thought, thoughts which are part of a book I am reading, and which are therefore the cogitations of another. They are the thoughts of another, and yet it is I who am their subject … Whenever I read, I mentally pronounce an I, and yet the I which I pronounce is not myself. This is true even when the hero of a novel is presented in the third person, and even when there is no hero and nothing but reflections or propositions: for as soon as something is presented as thought, there has to be a thinking subject with whom, at least for the time being, I identify, forgetting myself, alienated from myself … Reading, then, is the act in which the subjective principle which I call I, is modified in such a way that I no longer have the right, strictly speaking, to consider it as my I. I am on loan to another, and this other thinks, feels, suffers, and acts within me" ("Criticism and the Experience of Inferiority," 59-60).

61 This would be a pragmatic approach to criticism, prioritizing either the past or the present as the determining field of meaning and ignoring or refusing to engage the hermeneutical situation. Against this, Hans-Georg Gadamer suggests that "[t]he real meaning of a text as it addresses the interpreter does not just depend on the occasional factors which characterize the author and his original public. For it is also always co-determined by the historical situation of the interpreter and thus by the whole of the objective course of history….The meaning of a text surpasses its author not occasionally, but always. Thus understanding is not a reproductive procedure, but rather always a productive one….It suffices to say that one understands differently when one understands at all" (280). Similarly the present can only afford occasional closures, because it too is only a moment in the flow of history: "Indeed, it is even a question whether the special contemporaneity of the work of art does not consist precisely in this: that it stands open in a limitless way for ever new integrations. It may be that the creator of a work intends the particular public of his time, but the real being of a work is what it is able to say, and that stretches fundamentally out beyond every historical limitation" (Warheit und Methode, 96, translated and quoted in the "Editor's Introduction" to Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics, xxv and xxvi, respectively).

62 I regretfully employ these terms here in their most general (and perhaps unfashionable) senses and usages, acknowledging that each implies a wealth of diverse "isms" and approaches to texts which are outside the limited framework of this essay. Gita Rajan has remarked, to take one example, that the narrator's gender is never explicitly identified in the text; this could, of course, be the case even when the narrator asks, "would a madman have been so wise as this?" She then goes on to declare, in the absence of gender markings, "that the narrator is indeed female … I propose to dislodge the earlier, patriarchal notion of a male narrator for the story. I argue, instead, that a gender-marked rereading of this tale reveals the narrator's exploration of her female situation in a particular feminist discourse" (Rajan, "A Feminist Rereading …," 284). Predictably, Rajan, now occupying the subject position of the narrator, prepares to "take the life of the old man"—in this case, a "masculinist" reading of the tale by Robert Con Davis; and her reading of the tale becomes a somewhat formulaic allegory of the relation between her own feminist criticism and the tradition of masculinist criticism—an allegory which regretfully does not question its own status as such, or the tale as its own myth of origin.

63 This is a point of departure for studying the implications of Paul de Man's question: "Could we conceive of a literary history that would not truncate literature by putting us misleadingly into or outside it, that would be able to maintain the literary aporia throughout, account at the same time for the truth and the falsehood of the knowledge literature conveys about itself, distinguish rigorously between metaphorical and historical language, and account for literary modernity as well as for its historicity? Clearly, such a conception would imply a revision of the notion of history and, beyond that, of the notion of time on which our idea of history is based" ("Literary History and Literary Modernity," 164).

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Essays and Criticism


The Tell-Tale Heart, Edgar Allan Poe