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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." See also "The Cask of Amontillado" Criticism and "The Fall of the House of Usher" Criticism.

This trademark horror tale shows Poe at the height of his imaginative and artistic powers, with its boldly original story line, exquisitely rendered form, and psychological complexity. The simple 2,200-word first-person narrative is the confession by a murderer to a grisly but apparently motiveless crime. The protagonist's madness is obvious from the beginning, but in his retelling of the story, the line between truth and hallucination is left blurred, disarming the reader and making the events in a madman's imagination seem chillingly real. In his discussions of the short story form, Poe insisted that each element of a story contribute to its total effect, and "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a perfect demonstration of this injunction. Every carefully crafted nuance of the tale contributes to its overall unity, from the narrator's protestations about his sanity in the opening lines to his confession in the last; the stylistic device of repeated phrases echoing the obsessiveness of the narrator's mind; and the interwoven symbolism creating a frighteningly charged effect.

The story's date of composition is uncertain, but there is evidence to believe it was written in mid-1842 shortly after Poe, then living in Philadelphia, suffered his third heart attack. In late 1842 Poe sent the tale off to the magazine Boston Miscellany for possible publication. It was rejected by editor Henry T. Tuckerman with the comment, "If Mr. Poe would condescend to furnish more quiet articles, he would be a most desirable correspondent." Poe turned the story over to his friend James Russell Lowell, who paid the financially strapped, unemployed author $10 and published it in the January 1843 issue of his monthly magazine, The Pioneer. The source of the story seems to have been Daniel Webster's description of an actual murder in Massachusetts in 1830, but, as critics have pointed out, Poe may also have found inspiration for the tale in horror stories by Charles Dickens and Edward Bulwer Lytton, William Shakespeare's Macbeth, and the circumstances of his own life.

Plot and Major Characters

The tale opens with the narrator insisting that he is not mad, avowing that his calm telling of the story that follows is confirmation of his sanity. He explains that he decided to take the life of an old man whom he loved and whose house he shared. The only reason he had for doing so was that the man's pale blue eye, which was veiled by a thin white film and "resembled that of a vulture," tormented him, and he had to rid himself of the "Evil Eye" forever.

After again declaring his sanity, the narrator proceeds to recount the details of the crime. Every night for seven nights, he says, he had stolen into the old man's room at midnight holding a closed lantern. Each night he would very slowly unlatch the lantern slightly and shine a single ray of light onto the man's closed eye. As he enters the room on the eighth night, however, the old man stirs, then calls out, thinking he has heard a sound. The narrator shines the light on the old man's eye as usual, but this time finds it wide open. He begins to hear the beating of a heart and, fearing the sound might be heard by a neighbor, kills the old man by dragging him to the floor and pulling the heavy bed over him. He dismembers the corpse and hides it beneath the floorboards of the old man's room.

At four O'clock in the morning, the narrator continues, three policemen come asking to search the premises because cause a neighbor has reported a shriek coming from the house. The narrator invites the officers in, explaining that the noise came from himself as he dreamt. The old man, he tells them, is in the country. He brings chairs into the old man's room, placing his own seat on the very planks under which the victim lies buried. The officers are convinced there is no foul play, and sit around chatting amiably, but the narrator becomes increasingly agitated. He soon begins to hear a heart beating, much as he had just before he killed the old man. It grows louder and louder until he becomes convinced the policemen hear it too. They know of his crime, he thinks, and mock him. Unable to bear their derision and the sound of the beating heart, he springs up and, screaming, confesses his crime.

Major Themes

Most critics agree that there are two primary motifs in the story: the identification of the narrator with the man he kills and the psychological handling of time. The narrator says he understands his victim's terror just as he is about to murder him, and the beating heart he mistakes for the old man's may well be his own. Throughout the story the narrator is obsessed with time: the central image of the heart is associated with the ticking of a watch, the nightly visits take place precisely at midnight, and time seems to slow and almost stop as the murderer enters the old man's chamber. Another major theme is that of the eye, which some critics consider to have a double meaning, as the external "eye" of the old man is seen in contrast to the internal "I" of the narrator. Several commentators have pointed out that the symbolism in the work is highly structured and intertwined, so that the various themes—of death, time, nature, inner versus outer reality, the dream, the heart, and the eye—work together for accumulated effect. Other concerns by critics analyzing the story include Poe's influences in writing the story, the nature of the narrator's psychological disturbance, and the relationship between the narrator and the reader of the tale.

Critical Reception

Reaction to "The Tell-Tale Heart" upon its initial publication was mixed. The critic Horace Greeley commented in 1843 that the story was at once "strong and skillful" yet "overstrained and repulsive." Other reviewers found it "An article of thrilling interest" and "very wild and very readable." As a testament to its popularity, the sketch was reprinted in several magazines and newspapers in 1843 and 1845; however, it did not appear in a collection of stories during Poe's lifetime. It has been suggested that Poe's contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne admired and was influenced by the tale, and a little over a decade after Poe's death Fyodor Dostoevsky, writing a preface to Russian translations of "The Black Cat," "Devil in Belfry," and "The Tell-Tale Heart," praised the American writer's enormous talent and imagination. Over the next eighty years critics generally referred to the tale only in passing, sometimes admiringly and sometimes with distaste, when discussing Poe's other horror stories. Arthur Hobson Quinn's 1940 critical biography, however, which did much to bolster Poe's reputation as a serious writer, accorded the story slightly fuller treatment, asserting it to be "An almost perfect illustration of Poe's own theory of the short story, for every word contributes to the central effect." Later critics have agreed with that assessment, commenting on the story's unity of structure and economical yet powerful use of imagery. The tale has generated many different interpretations, from Marie Bonaparte's Freudian analysis, which sees the victim as a symbol of Poe's stepfather, to Gita Rajan's feminist reading, which views the protagonist as a woman. Perhaps because of its readability and the startling situation it describes, the tale has always enjoyed popular appeal, and ranks with "The Raven," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Fall of the House of Usher" not only as one of Poe's best-known works, but as one of the most familiar stories in American literature.

Marie Bonaparte (essay date 1949)

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SOURCE: "The Tell-Tale Heart," in The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation, Imago Publishing Company, 1949, pp. 491-504.

[In the following excerpt, Bonaparte offers a Freudian reading of "The Tell-Tale Heart, " asserting that the old man in the story resembles Poe 's stepfather, on whom the author sought to enact his Oedipal revenge.]

"True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?" begins the hero of "The Tell-Tale Heart"1 who, like his fellows in "The Black Cat" and "The Imp of the Perverse," writes from behind prison bars, where his crime has consigned him.

"The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. 1 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."

Thus the narrator—whom Poe evidently wishes to show as mad or, at least, the victim of the Imp of the Perverse—begins by denying his madness like the "logical" lunatic he is.

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

The nature of this obsessional thought will soon appear.

"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."

This strangely resembles the representation, by its opposite, of Poe's own relation to his foster-father, John Allan! But let us see the motive our narrator assigns for his deed.

"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."

This eye, filmed over, if only in part, permitting of dim or oblique vision, corresponds to an excised eye and so brings us back to the main motif in "The Black Cat." All in all, the old man must be killed for the same reason as the cats. Here, however, the murder is premeditated, as in "The Imp of the Perverse" where, again, the victim is the father; there, it was for gold but, here, to annihilate the filmed eye.

"You should have seen how wisely I proceeded—with what caution—with what foresight—with what dissimulation I went to work!"

For the father, indeed, is to be feared and needs a cautious approach!

"I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. 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. . . . I moved it slowly—very, 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. . . . And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern 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 . . . 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 we see the son clearly outwitting the father in caution and astuteness! Even as we watch him enter the room, each morn, with friendly greeting, we seem to see the small Edgar as he visited his waking "Pa", calling him by "name" and asking had he "passed the night well?" For so children must often do, compelled as they are to be affectionate and behave, though recent punishments may inspire quite different feelings.

"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 bed, crying out—'Who's there?'."

Thus the adversaries are opposed; the eyes of the son, in the dark, being fixed on the menaced father.

"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."

The old man's increasing terror is then described and the tale continues:

"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 . . . until, at length, a simple dim ray, like the thread of the spider, shot from out the crevice and fell full upon the vulture eye".

"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 I 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."

We are not told whether it is with his good or clouded eye that the old man perceives the ray which shoots into the dark room, nor is it ever made clear exactly how much he sees with his "vulture eye". Whatever the case, the ray, thin as a spider's thread, striking the offending eye, is responsible for an amazing reaction:

". . . have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over acuteness of the senses?"

he says, almost as though a paranoiac justifying his auditory hallucinations—and, continuing;

". . . 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."

The murderer, however, restrains himself and remains motionless, his ray still fixed on that eye, while the "hellish tattoo" of the old man's heart goes on increasing. Meanwhile, his own terror rises to "uncontrollable" heights, as . . .

". . . 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! 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."

The murderer then describes his "wise precautions" to conceal the body, as giving proof of his sound reason.

"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 blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all—ha! ha!"

Now, however, it is four a.m., and knocks are heard at the street door. "A shriek had been heard by a neighbour" and the police have appeared, to investigate.

The murderer, nevertheless, is wholly at ease. "The shriek," he said, was his own in a dream. "The old man . . . was absent in the country . . ." And now, worthy precursor of the murderer in "The Black Cat," (evidently written after "The Tell-Tale Heart"), he leads his visitors through the house and bids them search, and 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."

This anticipates the murderer in "The Black Cat," who raps on the cellar wall, both being reminiscent of those murderers who haunt the scene of their crime.

As might be expected, the victim, from the depths of his tomb, takes up the challenge. The statue on the Commander's tomb accepts the invitation of Don Juan and turns up at his feast. The walled-in cat shrieks out. And now the old man, whose heart beats so hellishly, also responds in his way.

'The officers were satisfied . . . They sat, and while I answered cheerily, they chatted of 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 . . . "

The ringing increases "—until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears". The auditory hallucination is thus re-established.

"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 sound—much 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 now the poor wretch makes ever more desperate efforts to drown the increasing noise. In vain he paces heavily to and fro, or grates his chair on the boards: the sound

"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!"

Whereupon, possessed by this illusion and no longer able to bear their derision, the murderer cries:

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

Such is "The Tell-Tale Heart," possibly the most shorn of trimmings of Poe's tales and thus, possibly, one that is nearest to our "Modern" taste. Among Poe's works, it stands like a faint precursor of that great parricidal epic which is Dostoievsky's2 opus.

It has been said3 that the composition of "The Tell-Tale Heart," to which Poe refers in a letter dated December 1842,4 was doubtless stimulated by his severe heart attack, towards the summer of that year, after returning from Saratoga Springs. Possibly, it was this—according to Hervey Allen, Poe's third serious heart attack since the first, in 1834-355—which furnished the adventitious cause for Poe's choice of just these anguished heart-beats to express the deep and buried complexes with which we shall now deal. The same device, also, was to serve him later, when his heart condition grew still worse, to express the weariness of living, in his poem "For Annie."6 This explanation, however, far from exhausts all that "The Tell-Tale Heart" reveals.

Actually, we know, difficult as it may be for our conscious mental processes to grasp, that the functions of organs are not represented, in the unconscious, in a manner proportionate to the vital importance of each. The heart-beat, for instance, is so vitally important that, if it stops, death ensues. One might, therefore, imagine that the heart's activity would be extensively reflected in the psyche. This is not, however, the case; the beating of the heart no more disturbs the unconscious than do the rhythmic movements of the thorax. Both belong to those vegetative activities of organic functions which ordinarily do not concern the psychic unconscious.

Should, however, some organic disturbance suddenly disturb one or other of these important organs—or a conversion neurosis of hysterical or hypochondriac origin—we are likely to find them become a main source of anxiety. When this happens, however, it is never due to the organ as such and its function, but to the libidinal charge which invests it. Such organs then represent, apart from their proper function, that of the whole organism's libidinal function, now largely "displaced" upon them. In psychoneurotic disturbances less severe than the complete narcissistic regression that determines hypochondria, the libidinally hyper-cathected and disturbed organ may even serve to express the subjects' object relations to other beings.

So with Poe's story of "The Tell-Tale Heart." As already noted, the murdered old man resembles John Allan in several ways, even to the symptom of the thudding heart. Did not his first attack of dropsy occur in England, in 1820: which illness, worsening with age, in 1834, ended his life? . . . His fear of the pounding heart in the murdered old man's breast thus, doubtless, directly derives from the oppressed, labouring and dropsical heart of the Scotch merchant. With that heart, as a result of buried complexes we shall study—and by that identification with the father habitual with sons—Poe later, and unconsciously, identified his own neurotic, alcoholic heart.

Yet the mere fact that John Allan suffered from dropsy does not account for the whole content of this anxietyfraught tale. To understand the deeper motives which inspire man to dream or artists to create, we must grasp, in their plenitude, all the primitive, vital instincts which throng the unconscious. . . .

[T]he child's sexual instincts awake much earlier than is deemed by adults. At an unbelievably early age, the child already possesses larval instinctual mechanisms which allow it to store up impressions of adult sex acts performed in its presence. That Poe, as a child, was present at such times, when sharing the room of his actress mother, the crime of the ape is almost certain testimony. For that very same crime, shrouded in London fog, those fogs among which Frances Allan acquired her mysterious illness, the "Man of the Crowd" is described as "Type and genius of deep crime." For, to the child, at a time when coitus seems purely sadistic, the sex attack on the mother is the prototype of all crime.

Even though, when the child is small, adults do not always conceal themselves in the sex act, a time comes when they protect themselves from its eyes by what they imagine the impenetrable barrier of dark, so vividly described in "The Tell-Tale Heart" as, "pitch"-like. This darkness is indeed the preferred setting for the coitus of civilised man, as though it were something disapproved by society.

Nevertheless, alert as they are, the child's sex instincts continue to perceive and record, though in the dark. What it saw earlier may contribute to this but, even without sight, hearing would suffice. For, in effect, coitus has its own sounds, rhythmic movements and precipitate breath, combined with an accelerated heart beat. And even though these heart-beats may be imperceptible from a distance, the panting which accompanies them and characterises the sex-act, is strangely audible to infant ears, straining to every sound in the still darkness.

Thus, it need not surprise us to find, in "The Tell-Tale Heart," reference to an almost supernatural acuteness of hearing. Doubtless, we have here the unconscious memory of nocturnal eavesdroppings when, in the night, "hellish" things were heard by the child:7 in other words, the father's sex attack on the mother. Similar unconscious memories are found at the root of many auditory hallucinations of paranoia.

The old man's heart-beat, that "hellish tattoo" which grew "quicker and quicker, and louder and louder", would thus be the heart's fanfare for the sex act: its assault on the woman and supremest pleasure. Whence, doubtless, in the tale, the furious crescendo of the heart-beats, twice repeated, which culminate first in the old man's death and, next, in the murderer's seizure and eventual death also. Thus, the talion law is satisfied twice; first by punishment of the mother's murderer and, then, by punishment of the slayer of that murderer.

In the last analysis, therefore, it is the Man of the Crowd—in this tale lying in the old man's bed—who thus receives just punishment. In the same way that, in neurotic symptoms, the repressed material finally emerges from the repressing process itself so, here, the sign of the crime, the clamouring heart in the sex act, reappears in this retributive punishment of the heart that thuds with the anguish of death.

Also, it is under the bed, in which his crime—the sex attack—was enacted, that the old man is stifled to death. Thus, the instrument of his crime, becomes that of his destruction.

The darkness again, black as pitch, where the old man—or the beating heart—sleeps, into which the hero spies and which is pierced by his lantern beam must, evidently, be interpreted as an echo of the intensity with which the child once wished to see through the dark. I knew a young man, whose memories of spying on his parent's sex acts reappeared, in analysis, in the shape of a dream where he saw himself, as a child, observing them through the diaphragm of his camera lens instead of eyes. Photography was very young in Poe's time and here, in "The Tell-Tale Heart," the lantern, instead, symbolises viewing. We know, in primitive concepts of vision, that it is not the illuminated object which sends rays to the eye, but the eye which projects its rays on the object. This primitive concept reappears here, implicit in this way of viewing through darkness by half-opening a lantern shutter as though an eyelid. Juxtaposing this element in the tale with its main motif, the heart-beat, we get some idea how much yearning, both visual and aural, must have remained in the child Poe, all through his life with the Allans, to go on responding to the sex-scene as he once knew it with his mother.

Nevertheless, our tale gives quite another reason why this father-figure must be destroyed by the son-figure. The narrator declares that he "loves the old man", who never had "wronged" him or "given him insult" while, as for his "gold", for that he had no desire: all which, in fact, represent the opposites, as we showed, of Edgar's relation to his "Pa", John Allan.8 There is a certain hyprocrisy here and this tale, in which we might expect the son's ambivalence to the father to appear is, primarily, a tale of hate. The reason alleged, however, for this hate, is remarkable: the old man is hated for his eye.

"I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it."

We shall not presume to affirm that, in this mention of the vulture, there is an incontestable allusion to the mother, though the vulture was a classic mother symbol of the Ancient Egyptians and though we find it, later, in the vulture phantasy of the child Leonardo da Vinci.9 But, what cannot be denied, is that the old man's eye establishes a direct connection with the eyes of the mother totem cats in "The Black Cat." True, a film over the eye does not invariably imply a total loss of vision but, in general it does or, at least, suggests it. In other words, like Wotan in Germanic mythology, the father in "The Tell-Tale Heart" is represented as blind in one eye, which is equivalent to being castrated.10

Clearly also, castrated for his crimes! For, as regards the mother, the father was indeed the prototype of all crime, as to the son. Was it not he who kept the son from the mother by wielding the threat of castration? Here, however, lies the rub! For, if it is the mother who, by her body, manifests to the son that the dread possibility of deprivation of the penis exists, in the last analysis it is the father—by whom or in whose interests the Œdipal prohibitions were instituted—who, from remotest time and the depths of the unconscious, threatens to castrate the son for his guilty desires. It is because the father has committed this crime against the son, that the latter repays him by castration in retribution of the crime for which the son would have been castrated; that of possessing the mother. Thus Zeus, when grown, castrated his father Kronos who, himself, had castrated Uranos, his father.

These are the two great, eternally human themes which underlie Poe's tale and confer such sovereign power on it. The two prime complexes, through which all humanity and every child must pass, are its marrow and substance. Here, the son's Œdipus wish for his father's death becomes effective; the father is struck down for the crime of possessing the mother and for inventing the curse of castration, first as a threat to the son, but more for effecting it. For it is the father whom the son generally considers responsible for the woman's castration, when he discovers she lacks the penis. Secure in memories of the parents' coitus, the child imagines that though the mother did not succumb to the father's sadistic attacks, nevertheless it cost her a wound which, like Amfortas's hurt, would go on eternally bleeding. The menstruation, of which the child, sooner or later, becomes aware, is the proof. Thus, for the great crime of bringing castration into the world when, without it, all created beings would be whole and entire, each of the parents, in his or her way, is responsible; the mother for having undergone the castration and the father for having inflicted it. That is why both must be punished. The cats are hanged or immured and the old man is stifled under his mattress. Both flaunt the emblem of their common crime: the cats have a gouged-out eye and the old man's eye has a film over it.

Here it seems pertinent to ask whether the old man in "The Tell-Tale Heart" is, in fact, blind in that eye? Poe does not say: he even seems to imply that, in spite of its covering film, it still retains sight for, as he says at the start of the tale: "Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold". Later, after the murder, when the dismembered body is buried under the floor, he once more tells us: "no human eye—not even his—could have detected any thing wrong". Thus, extreme acuity of vision is now attributed to that eye. There is some contradiction here for, if in Poe's unconscious the eye, though filmed, retained its vision, nevertheless it continued a blind eye, as in the Norse myth of Father Wotan.

We know, however, that contradictions in the manifest content of dreams or myths represent other, perfectly coherent thoughts, in the latent content. This contradiction then, as regards the eye, an eye that can see so well in spite of its blindness, must derive from the fact that, in this story, the father receives punishment for two distinct crimes; first, that of coitus with the mother and second, for its result, which led to castration, as the mother reveals. Yet, to effect castration, a weapon was needed and this was the penis, so that, to enact his deed, the father must still possess the penis, though he will later be punished by castration for it. The old man's eye that sees and is sightless would, thus, in this apparent contradiction, condense two successive aspects of the criminal father; first, when with his weapon the crime is committed and, then, when as punishment that weapon is cut off.11

There is a somewhat earlier tale by Poe where the father-castration motif appears far purer and death is not concomitant with castration. In "The Man that was Used Up,"12 Brigadier John A. B. C. Smith, in full possession of his strength and faculties, while engaged in a more than epic campaign against the savage Kickapoos and Bugaboos, is captured and submitted to almost every kind of mutilation. The narrator, meeting the general at a social gathering, is at first dazzled by his fine presence, beautiful voice and assured manner. The general, in particular, passes for a very lion with women. Nevertheless, it is whispered that some mystery surrounds him, the nature of which the narrator cannot discover. At his wits' ends, he seeks the truth at its source and, one fine morning, calls on our hero. Though the general is at his toilet, the visitor is shown in. As he enters, he stumbles over a nondescript bundle which emits the ghost of a voice. It is the general, in the state to which he is reduced when without the artificial limbs, organs and muscles, prodigies of modern invention, which remedy his many mutilations. The cardinal mutilation, however, is not mentioned, but we may well imagine it included, for the Kickapoos and Bugaboos who so generously relieved him of leg, arm, shoulders, pectoral muscles, scalp, teeth, eye, palate and seven-eights tongue, would surely not have left him the penis! The castration of prisoners, moreover, holds high place among tribes quite as savage as were the Kickapoos and Bugaboos!

Though the murderer in "The Tell-Tale Heart" also mutilated his victim by removing head, arms and legs before depositing him under the floor, what he "castrated" was but a corpse whereas the treatment to which General Smith is subjected is castration, in its pure symbolic form, and does not include death. For, though the castration motif (deprivation of the penis), is related to that of death (deprivation of existence), the two are not identical as this tale of "The Man That Was Used Up" shows.

Moreover, in this tale, we find echoes of Poe's army life and a time when his military superiors stood, for him, in the place of the Father he had left, in fleeing from John Allan.

Before we close this study of "The Tell-Tale Heart," let us seek to discern those features of the murdered old man, which would relate him to the child Edgar's successive fathers.

Poe's unconscious memories, as we saw, of the parents' coitus, dated from the time when, as an infant, he shared his mother's room on her tours with Mr. Placide. At that time his father was David Poe whom, doubtless, a lover was soon to replace, . . . Probably it was this lover from whom, primarily, derived the motif of the increasingly violent heartbeats. And the fact that, at last, when the man with the lantern bursts into the old man's room, he reveals himself by yelling and opening his lantern—slips which imply the wish to be revealed—may well re-echo another frequent occurrence; namely when the childish, jealous eavesdropper, with his cries or need to urinate, sought to interrupt the parents' intercourse because of the excitement communicated, or for other reasons.

All these impressions however, so precociously stored up, after Edgar's adoption were transferred en bloc to John Allan, a far more imposing father whose harshness laid an indelible mark on the growing child. It was certainly in this respectable, middle-class household, that the repression of his precociously early sexuality was forced upon Poe. This was the time when he was scourged by the castration-complex, whence our morality derives. Thus, the old man's film-clouded, vulture-like eye belongs, in fact, to John Allan. It was on him that the full force of the child's (Edipal rage and resentment must have been concentrated, given the fact that, dour and forbidding, he stood in the father's position to Poe, in addition to owning and, martyrising, his new mother. To us, the old man's heart-beats appear, at least, triply determined. If, firstly they represent the panting of coitus, overheard in the dark of fortuitous lodgings during his mother's life, its cardiac transposition must be determined by memories of the heart attacks experienced by his dropsical father John Allan which again, in reality, were echoed by the neurotic, alcoholic, heart of the son Edgar. Yet, these hearts ail because they are guilty of one and the same sin; that of desiring the mother. Their disease, like their precipitate heartbeats, to Poe's unconscious, expresses both the crime and the punishment.

The compulsion of the man with the lantern to open the old man's door, night after night, that he may watch him asleep and alone, in bed, surely also re-echoes some precise reminiscence of Poe's, as a child. And indeed, it is unlikely that John Allan, who disliked his wife's love of the orphan, would have permitted him to sleep in their room, even if ill, to please her. Besides, the Allans had a large comfortable house and slaves. It was to one of these, his black "Mammy", that Edgar would be entrusted and, with her, he would have slept.13

Perhaps through this negress, in "pitch"-black nights, nights as dark as her skin, the listening child may have reexperienced its responses to the parents' coitus,—which he could only hear in the dark—as the man with the lantern listens to the old man's heart. Nevertheless, the libido of this child, as Poe's life and tales both testify—for in neither do negresses play any part—was by then fixated on his foster mother, as white and pretty as his own, in accordance with the classic mechanism of the compulsion to repetition. It was on her room that, falling asleep, his childish desires must have converged at night, because he so loved and desired her, and because of his jealousy, too; all his yearning, in fact, to see what another was doing there.

That "other" was John Allan, whom the child would certainly suspect as guilty of similar attacks to those he remembered made on his mother. When the man with the lantern, night after night, feels urged to go and spy on the old man's bedroom, he doubtless only enacts what the child, kept by his nurse in his crib was, in his helplessness, prevented from doing. Though the image of the mother is here suppressed, as in "The Man of the Crowd," it is nevertheless for her, that the father has one eye blinded and then is killed.

It is the old man's death that is at stake in this Œdipal battle, where the mother is the prize. But the mother is eliminated from the story, and the old man appears alone in bed, as the small Edgar would doubtless have wished John Allan always to be. Apparently, the old man's solitary sleep re-echoes one of the phantasy-wishes of the small Edgar.

Yet, though the old man sleeps alone, his heart beats in Crescendos. Thus, he condenses in one being both the negation and affirmation of the father's coital activity, in the same way that his eye suggests both the presence and absence of the penis. Such modes of representation are natural to the unconscious, in which opposites exist side by side. Though conscious logic disapprove they, none the less, continue buried in our depths, as the dreams of the normal and the neurotic testify, as well as the myths to which humanity has given birth.


1 "The Tell-Tale Heart": The Pioneer, January, 1843; Broadway Journal, II, 7.

2 FREUD: Dostoevsky and Parricide. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 1945, 1-8: Dostojewski und die Vatertötung, 1928. Ges. Werke, Band XIV.

3 Hervey Allen, Israfel (New York, 1927), p. 567.

4 Lowell to Poe, Boston, December 17, 1842. (Virginia Edition, Vol. 17, p. 125.)

5Israfel, p. 540.

6 The moaning and groaning, The sighing and sobbing, Are quieted now, With that horrible throbbing At heart:—ah that horrible, Horrible throbbing! (Cf. pages 180-3.)

7 Cf. Henri Barbusse, l'Enfer, (Paris, Librairie Mondiale, 1908) where sexuality in general is equated with "hell".

8 Similarly, in "Thou Art the Man," ( Godey's Lady's Book, November, 1844), the poor hack-writer, so appropriately named Mr. Pennifeather, is as innocent as the new-born babe of the murder of his rich uncle, Mr. Shuttleworthy, whose heir he is. Only a double of the latter, a rogue ironically called Old Charley Good-fellow, who likewise belongs to the series of "Fathers", or hypocritical John Allans, could have been capable of so heinous a deed! Goodfellow succeeds in having the innocent nephew arrested and condemned to the gallows but, by a device typically Poe's, (the corpse of the victim rises to denounce his murderer from a case of wine), he is exposed and brought to justice. The murderer falls dead, while Pennifeather, released from prison, in all innocence enjoys the murdered man's fortune.

9 FREUD: Leonardo da Vinci: A Psycho-Sexual Study of an Infantile Reminiscence. Op. cit. page 382, note 4.

10 The Encyclopœdia Britannica, article Odin, tells us that, among ancient peoples, prisoners taken in war were often sacrificed to the "one-eyed old man". "The commonest method of sacrifice was by hanging the victim on a tree; and in the poem, "Hávamál," the god himself is represented as sacrificed in this way." There must be something more than coincidence in the fact that Wotan, the castrated father, should be hanged or, in other words, have his penis mockingly restored, in the same way as the Black Cat, a one-eyed monster like Wotan.

11 Yet another contradiction may be noted. The sound of the old man's heartbeats is likened to the ticking of a watch: a watch "enveloped in cotton", even. Now watches or the ticking of a watch (in contrast, as we shall see, with the imposing swing of a clock pendulum) are classic symbols, in the unconscious, for the female organ and the throbbings, in sexual excitement, of the tiny clitoris it conceals. Before the old man's heart-beats have swollen to the "hellish tattoo" of truly virile character, they thus begin to beat twice, muted as it were, and in feminine fashion. We therefore may have here another instance of a dualism similar to that of the film-covered eye which both sees and does not see or, in other words, which is at the same time ultra-virile and castrated.

12 "The Man that was Used Up. A Tale of the Late Bugaboo and Kickapoo Campaign": Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, August 1839; 1840; 1843; Broadway Journal, II, 5.

13 Cf. Israfel, p. 61, for a reference to this "Mammy".

Further Reading

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Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, 804 p.

Definitive biography of Poe, originally published in 1941. Includes background information and a brief analysis of "The Tell-Tale Heart."


Davidson, Edward. Poe: A Critical Study. Cambridge: Bellknap Press of Harvard University, 1957, 296 p.

Landmark study of Poe's place in American literature and the Romantic tradition that makes brief mention of "The Tell-Tale Heart."

Gargano, James W. "The Question of Poe's Narrators." College English XXV (1963): 178-80.

Discussion of several stories, including brief remarks on "The Tell-Tale Heart" urging that Poe's style should not be confused with that of the narrator of the tale.

Krappe, Edith S. "A Possible Source for Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart' and 'The Black Cat." American Literature XII (March 1940): 84-8.

Points out "striking parallels" between the two Poe stories and Charles Dickens's "The Clock Case: A Confession Found in Prison in the Time of Charles the Second."

May, Charles E. "The Short Fiction." In Edgar Allan Poe: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991, pp. 74-9.

Overview of "The Tell-Tale Heart" that explores the major themes and narrative method.

Pillai, Johann. "Death and Its Moments: The End of the Reader in History." Modern Language Notes, No. 112 (1997): 836-75.

Uses Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart" as an example to explore the relationship between the reader and the historically bound yet paradoxically "present" literary text.

Pollin, Burton R. "Bulwer Lytton and 'The Tell-Tale Heart'." American Notes and Queries IV (September 1965): 7-8.

Argues that British writer Edward Bulwer Lytton's story "Monos and Daimonas" is a source of "The Tell-Tale Heart."

Robinson, E. Arthur. "Thoreau and the Deathwatch in Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart'." Poe Studies 4, No. 1 (June 1971): 14-16.

Asserts that Poe's source for the deathwatch beetle in "The Tell-Tale Heart" may have been a journal entry, later published as an essay, by Henry David Thoreau.

Senelick, Laurence. "Charles Dickens and 'The Tell-Tale Heart'." Poe Studies 6, No. 1 (June 1973): 12-14.

Suggests that Charles Dickens's "A Confession Found in a Prison" was inspiration for "The Tell-Tale Heart."

Strickland, Edward. "Dickens's 'A Madman's Manuscript' and "The Tell-Tale Heart'." Poe Studies IX (1976): 22-3.

Contends that there are noteworthy correspondences between "The Tell-Tale Heart" and Charles Dickens's story "A Madman's Manuscript."

Additional coverage of Poe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 14; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1640-1865; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 3, 59, 73, 74; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors: Most-Studied Authors Module; DISCovering Authors: Poet's Module; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 1, 16, 55; Poetry Criticism,Vol. 1; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 1, 22; Something about the Author, Vol. 23; and World Literature Criticism,

Patrick F. Quinn (essay date 1957)

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SOURCE: "That Spectre in My Path," in The French Face of Edgar Poe, Southern Illinois University Press, 1957, pp. 216-56.

[In the following excerpt, Quinn considers the details Poe uses to convey the particular type of madness exhibited by the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart. "]

To read "The Man of the Crowd" in conjunction with "The Tell-Tale Heart" is to become aware immediately of a number of resemblances between them. In the latter story, too, there is an old man; only this time it is not he who is "The type and the genius of deep crime," but rather the narrator himself. The narrator is the criminal; the story is an account of his crime and its discovery. If the pursuer of the man of the crowd had grasped the significance of what he had witnessed, and, in the insane hope of circumventing his destiny, had killed the man he was following, then all the essentials of "The Tell-Tale Heart" would be present. For this story is one more exploration of the psychology of the bipartite soul.

Living alone with an old man, the criminal-hero develops a profound hatred for him. This hatred he cannot explain, but it seems to him that the eye of the old man is somehow the cause of it. He resolves to murder him, and for a week he goes to the door of his room every night at midnight. At last the victim is awakened by a chance noise made by the madman, who then opens the shutter of his lantern so that a beam of light falls on the hateful eye. Believing he hears the sound of his victim's heart, and alarmed lest this become so loud as to rouse a neighbor, he enters the room and kills his enemy. After making sure that the heart has stopped, he hides the corpse under the boards of the floor. Soon after, the police arrive, and in the conviction that his deed cannot be found out, he leads them to the very room in which it was committed. But soon the murderer begins to hear a recurrence of the heart beats, and convinced finally that the police can hear them too, he shrieks his confession of guilt: "Villains! . . . dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks!—here, here!—it is the beating of his hideous heart!"

What so brief a synopsis fails to clarify is the devices by which Poe makes this powerful story something more than a vivid melodrama. One device, although not of major importance, is the manner in which the insanity of the narrator is conveyed. When Baudelaire's translation of "The Tell-Tale Heart" first appeared in the French press he gave it a subtitle, "Plaidoyer d'un fou." He later suppressed the phrase, and rightly so, for the repeated and heated denials of insanity with which the story begins are wholly adequate indication of the mental state of the speaker. The cunning with which he went about his work was proof, for him, that he was not mad. But the cunning was far from perfect. Otherwise he would have had the foresight to oil the hinges of his dark lantern. That he should have neglected so essential a preparation refutes, on the level of his actions, what he too vehemently protests in his words.

But the engrossing interest this story has depends less on the general fact that the hero is mad than on the particular kind of madness that his case involves. What was the nature of his crime? He had no hatred for his victim. Quite the reverse: "I loved the old man." And so he casts about for a reason, a convincing motive: "I think it was his eye! 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." A simpler solution, but one which the criminal apparently did not consider, would have been to leave the house, a house of which we are told that only the two men lived there. That this solution did not occur to the murderer is one more indication of his mental derangement; but, more than this, it carries a suggestion of the strange relationship in which the two characters were involved. Thus the feelings of the old man when he awoke to discover his executioner at the door were feelings that the executioner could identify himself with:

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.

He carried a lantern but had no need of it. Without its aid he was able to see the old man as he lay on his bed, although the time was midnight and the room was "black as pitch with the thick darkness." He could see him well enough with the mind's eye, Poe is implying here; for the act of murder in this story took place on a psychological as well as a physical level, and the nature and meaning of the crime must be sought in the psychology of the hero rather than in the immediately visible external details of his actions.

The murderer identified himself with his victim: "I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart." But what he did not know was that through this crime he was unconsciously seeking his own death. The shuttered lantern in his hand chanced to symbolize the thing he hated, the pale blue eye of the old man, the eye with a film over it. Whenever that eye fell on him, his blood ran cold. Thus he used the lantern to project a beam of light that filled the old man with terror, and in this way executioner and victim exchanged experiences. But so closely had the madman identified himself with his adversary that the murder he committed also brought on his own death. With unwitting irony he later tells the police that the scream heard during the night was his own, "in a dream." Objectively, this is false, for the scream was uttered by the old man. But subjectively, in the unconscious merging of himself and his victim, that cry was his own. And then at the end of the story another sound is to be identified, the beating of the tell-tale heart. By an amazing stroke, Poe brings in a detail that makes the story, if taken on a literal, realistic plane, patently absurd; but which, if interpreted for its psychological significance, becomes a brilliant climax to the hidden drama that has been unfolding. The ever-louder heartbeats heard by the criminal, are they, as he says, the sound of the beating of the old man's heart, that old man whose corpse has been dismembered and concealed under the planking in the room? Certainly not—on the plane of realistic and objective fact. It is the "hideous heart" of the criminal himself which he hears. But if we remember that the criminal sought his own death in that of his victim, and that he had in effect become the man who now lies dead, then what he tells the police is true. His conscious purpose was to lie to them about the earlier scream, but then, unconsciously, he told the truth. Now, consciously, he attempts to tell the truth, and this time he is unconsciously in error. And inevitably so. For his consciousness, his very being, had become intrinsicate with that of the man he killed, and with the extinction of his victim the power to separate illusion from reality became extinct in him and his madness was complete.

E. Arthur Robinson (essay date 1965)

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SOURCE: "Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart'," in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 19, No. 4, March, 1965, pp. 369-78.

[In the following essay, Robinson discusses the principles of thematic repetition and variation of incident in "The Tell-Tale Heart" and demonstrates how the story's two major themesthe psychological handling of time and the narrator's identification with his victimare dramatized in Poe's other works.]

Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" consists of a monologue in which an accused murderer protests his sanity rather than his innocence. The point of view is the criminal's, but the tone is ironic in that his protestation of sanity produces an opposite effect upon the reader. From these two premises stem multiple levels of action in the story. The criminal, for example, appears obsessed with defending his psychic self at whatever cost, but actually his drive is self-destructive since successful defense upon either implied charge—of murder or of criminal insanity—automatically involves admission of guilt upon the other.

Specifically, the narrator bases his plea upon the assumption that madness is incompatible with systematic action, and as evidence of his capacity for the latter he relates how he has executed a horrible crime with rational precision. He reiterates this argument until it falls into a pattern: "If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for concealment of the body."1 At the same time he discloses a deep psychological confusion. Almost casually he admits lack of normal motivation: "Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man." Yet in spite of this affection he says that the idea of murder "haunted me day and night." Since such processes of reasoning tend to convict the speaker of madness, it does not seem out of keeping that he is driven to confession by "hearing" reverberations of the still-beating heart in the corpse he has dismembered, nor that he appears unaware of the irrationalities in his defense of rationality.

At first reading, the elements of "The Tell-Tale Heart" appear simple: the story itself is one of Poe's shortest; it contains only two main characters, both unnamed, and three indistinguishable police officers; even the setting of the narration is left unspecified. In the present study my object is to show that beneath its narrative flow the story illustrates the elaboration of design which Poe customarily sought, and also that it contains two of the major psychological themes dramatized in his longer works.

It is important to note that Poe's theory of art emphasizes development almost equally with unity of effect. There must be, he insists, "A repetition of purpose," a "dropping of the water upon the rock;"2 thus he calls heavily upon the artist's craftsmanship to devise thematic modifications of the "preconceived effect." A favorite image in his stories is that of arabesque ornamentation with repetitive design. In "The Tell-Tale Heart" one can distinguish several such recurring devices filling out the "design" of the tale, the most evident being what the narrator calls his "over acuteness of the senses." He incorporates this physical keenness into his plea of sanity: ". . . 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." He likens the sound of the old man's heart to the ticking of a watch "enveloped in cotton" and then fancies that its terrified beating may arouse the neighbors. His sensitivity to sight is equally disturbing, for it is the old man's eye, "A pale blue eye, with a film over it," which first vexed him and which he seeks to destroy. Similar though less extreme powers are ascribed to the old man. For example, the murderer congratulates himself that not even his victim could have detected anything wrong with the floor which has been replaced over the body, and earlier he imagines the old man, awakened by "The first slight noise," listening to determine whether the sound has come from an intruder or "The wind in the chimney." Variations such as these give the sensory details a thematic significance similar to that of the "Morbid acuteness of the senses" of Roderick Usher in "The Fall of the House of Usher" or the intensity with which the victim of the Inquisition hears, sees, and smells his approaching doom in "The Pit and the Pendulum."

These sensory data provide the foundation for an interesting psychological phenomenon in the story. As the characters listen in the darkness, intervals of strained attention are prolonged until the effect resembles that of slow motion. Thus for seven nights the madman enters the room so "very, very slowly" that it takes him an hour to get his head through the doorway; as he says, "A watch's minute-hand moves more quickly than did mine." When on the eighth might the old man is alarmed, "For a whole hour I did not move a muscle." Later he is roused to fury by the man's terror, but "even yet," he declares, "I refrained and kept still. I scarcely breathed." On different nights both men sit paralyzed in bed, listening for terrors real or imagined. After the murder is completed, "I placed my hand upon the heart and held it there many minutes." In the end it seems to his overstrained nerves that the police officers linger inordinately in the house, chatting and smiling, until he is driven frantic by their cheerful persistence.

This psychological process is important to "The Tell-Tale Heart" in two ways. First, reduplication of the device gives the story structural power. Poe here repeats a dominating impression at least seven times in a brief story. Several of the instances mentioned pertain to plot, but others function to emphasize the former and to provide aesthetic satisfaction. To use Poe's words, "by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale, its thesis, has been presented unblemished. . . ."3 Here Poe is speaking specifically of "skilfully-constructed tales," and the complementary aspects of technique described are first to omit extraneous material and second to combine incidents, tone, and style to develop the "pre-established design." In this manner, form and "idea" become one. The thematic repetition and variation of incident in "The Tell-Tale Heart" offer one of the clearest examples of this architectural principle of Poe's at work.

Second, this slow-motion technique intensifies the subjectivity of "The Tell-Tale Heart" beyond that attained by mere use of a narrator. In the psychological triad of stimulus, internal response, and action, the first and third elements are slighted and the middle stage is given exaggerated attention.4 In "The Tell-Tale Heart," stimulus in an objective sense scarcely exists at all. Only the man's eye motivates the murderer, and that almost wholly through his internal reaction to it. The action too, though decisive, is quickly over: "In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him." In contrast, the intermediate, subjective experience is prolonged to a point where psychologically it is beyond objective measurement. At first the intervals receive conventional description—an "hour," or "Many minutes"—but eventually such designations become meaningless and duration can be presented only in terms of the experience itself. Thus, in the conclusion of the story, the ringing in the madman's ears first is "Fancied," then later becomes "distinct," then is discovered to be so "definite" that it is erroneously accorded external actuality, and finally grows to such obsessive proportions that it drives the criminal into an emotional and physical frenzy. Of the objective duration of these stages no information is given; the experience simply "continued" until "At length" the narrator "Found" that its quality had changed.

Through such psychological handling of time Poe achieves in several of his most effective stories, including "The Tell-Tale Heart," two levels of chronological development which are at work simultaneously throughout the story. Typically, the action reaches its most intense point when the relation between the objective and subjective time sense falters or fails. At this point too the mental world of the subject is at its greatest danger of collapse. Thus we have the mental agony of the bound prisoner who loses all count of time as he alternately swoons and lives intensified existence while he observes the slowly descending pendulum. The narrator in "The Pit and the Pendulum" specifically refuses to accept responsibility for objective time-correlations: "There was another interval of insensibility; it was brief; for, upon again lapsing into life, there had been no perceptible descent in the pendulum. But it might have been long; for I knew there were demons who took note of my swoon, and who could have arrested the vibration at pleasure."5 These demons are his Inquistional persecutors, but more subjective "demons" are at work in the timeless terror and fascination of the mariner whirled around the abyss in "The Descent into the Maelström," or the powerless waiting of Usher for days after he first hears his sister stirring within the tomb. In each instance the objective world has been reduced to the microcosm of an individual's experience; his time sense fades under the pressure of emotional stress and physical paralysis.

Even when not literally present, paralysis often may be regarded as symbolic in Poe's stories. In The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), Pym's terrifying dreams in the hold of the ship represent physical and mental paralysis: "Had a thousand lives hung upon the movement of a limb or the utterance of a syllable, I could have neither stirred nor spoken. . . . I felt that my powers of body and mind were fast leaving me."6 Other examples are the "convolutions" of bonds about the narrator in "The Pit and the Pendulum," the death-grasp on the ring-bolt in "The Descent into the Maelström," the inaction of Roderick and (more literally) the catalepsy of Madeline Usher, and in part the supposed rationality of the madman in "The Tell-Tale Heart," which turns out to be subservience of his mental to his emotional nature. In most applications of the slow-motion technique in "The Tell-Tale Heart," three states of being are present concurrently: emotional tension, loss of mental grasp upon the actualities of the Situation, and inability to act or to act deliberately. Often these conditions both invite and postpone catastrophe, with the effect of focusing attention upon the intervening experience.

In the two years following publication of "The Tell-Tale Heart," Poe extended this timeless paralysis to fantasies of hypnosis lasting beyond death. "Mesmeric Revelation" (1844) contains speculations about the relation between sensory experience and eternity. In "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" (1845) the hypnotized subject is maintained for nearly seven months in a state of suspended "death" and undergoes instant dissolution when revived. His pleading for either life or death suggests that his internal condition had included awareness and suffering. Similarly the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" records: "Oh God! what could I do? I foamed—I raved—I swore!"—while all the time the police officers notice no foaming nor raving, for still they "chatted pleasantly, and smiled." His reaction is still essentially subjective, although he paces the room and grates his chair upon the boards above the beating heart. All these experiences move toward ultimate collapse, which is reached in "The Tell-Tale Heart" as it is for Usher and the hypnotized victims, while a last-moment reprieve is granted in "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Descent into the Maelström."

A second major theme in "The Tell-Tale Heart" is the murderer's psychological identification with the man he kills. Similar sensory details connect the two men. The vulture eye which the subject casts upon the narrator is duplicated in the "single dim ray" of the lantern that falls upon his own eye; like the unshuttered lantern, it is always one eye that is mentioned, never two. One man hears the creaking of the lantern hinge, the other the slipping of a finger upon the fastening. Both lie awake at midnight "hearkening to the death-watches in the wall." The loud yell of the murderer is echoed in the old man's shriek, which the narrator, as though with increasing clairvoyance, later tells the police was his own. Most of all the identity-is implied in the key psychological occurrence in the story—the madman's mistaking his own heartbeat for that of his victim, both before and after the murder.

These two psychological themes—the indefinite extension of subjective time and the psychic merging of killer and killed—are linked closely together in the story. This is illustrated in the narrator's commentary after he has awakened the old man by an incautious sound and each waits for the other to move:

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

Here the slow-motion technique is applied to both characters, with emphasis upon first their subjective experience and second the essential identity of that experience. The madman feels compelled to delay the murder until his subject is overcome by the same nameless fears that have possessed his own soul. The groan is an "echo" of these terrors within. The speaker has attempted a kind of catharsis by forcing his own inner horror to arise in his companion and then feeding his self-pity upon it. This pity cannot prevent the murder, which is a further attempt at exorcism. The final two sentences of the paragraph quoted explain why he believes that destruction is inevitable:

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.

The significance of these sentences becomes clearer when we consider how strikingly the over-all effect of time-extension in "The Tell-Tale Heart" resembles that produced in Poe's "The Colloquy of Monos and Una," published two years earlier. In Monos's account of dying and passing into eternity, he prefaces his final experience with a sensory acuteness similar to that experienced by the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart." "The senses were unusually active," Monos reports, "Though eccentrically so. . . ." As the five senses fade in death, they are not utterly lost but merge into a sixth—of simple duration:

Motion in the animal frame had fully ceased. No muscle quivered; no nerve thrilled; no artery throbbed. But there seems to have sprung up in the brain . . . a mental pendulous pulsation. . . . By its aid I measured the irregularities of the clock upon the mantel, and of the watches of the attendants. . . . And this—this keen, perfect, self-existing sentiment of duration . . . this sixth sense, upspringing from the ashes of the rest, was the first obvious and certain step of the intemporal soul upon the threshold of the temporal Eternity.7

Likewise the old man in "The Tell-Tale Heart" listens as though paralyzed, unable either to move or to hear anything that will dissolve his fears. This resembles Monos' sensory intensity and the cessation of "Motion in the animal frame." Also subjective time is prolonged, becomes partially divorced from objective measurement, and dominates it. The most significant similarity comes in the conclusion of the experience. The old man does not know it but he is undergoing the same dissolution as Monos. He waits in vain for his fear to subside because actually it is "Death" whose shadow is approaching him, and "it was the mournful influence of that shadow that caused him to feel" his destroyer within the room. Like Monos, beyond his normal senses he has arrived at a "sixth sense," which is at first duration and then death.

But if the old man is nearing death so too must be the narrator, who has felt the same "Mortal terror" in his own bosom. This similarity serves to unify the story. In Poe's tales, extreme sensitivity of the senses usually signalizes approaching death, as in the case of Monos and of Roderick Usher. This "over acuteness" in "The Tell-Tale Heart," however, pertains chiefly to the murderer, while death comes to the man with the "vulture eye." By making the narrator dramatize his feelings in the old man, Poe draws these two motifs together. We must remember, writes one commentator upon the story, "That the criminal sought his own death in that of his victim, and that he had in effect become the man who now lies dead."8 Symbolically this is true. The resurgence of the beating heart shows that the horrors within himself, which the criminal attempted to identify with the old man and thus destroy, still live. In the death of the old man he sought to kill a part of himself, but his "demons" could not be exorcised through murder, for he himself is their destined victim.

From this point of view, the theme of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is self-destruction through extreme subjectivity marked paradoxically by both an excess of sensitivity and temporal solipsism. How seriously Poe could take this relativity of time and experience is evident in the poetic philosophy of his Eureka (1849). There time is extended almost infinitely into the life-cycle of the universe, but that cycle itself is only one heartbeat of God, who is the ultimate subjectivity. Romantically, indeed, Poe goes even further in the conclusion to Eureka and sees individual man becoming God, enclosing reality within himself, and acting as his own creative agent. In this state, distinction between subjective and objective fades: "The sense of individual identity will be gradually merged in the general consciousness."9 Destruction then becomes self-destruction, the madman and his victim being aspects of the same universal identity. Death not only is self-willed but takes on some of the sanctity of creative and hence destructive Deity. The heartbeat of the red slayer and the slain merge in Poe's metaphysical speculations as well as in the denouement of a horror story.

This extreme subjectivity, moreover, leaves the ethical problem of "The Tell-Tale Heart" unresolved. In the opening paragraph of the story is foreshadowed an issue of good and evil connected with the speaker's madness: "I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?" To be dramatically functional such an issue must be related to the murder. The only outward motivation for the murder is irritation at the "vulture eye." It is the evil of the eye, not the old man (whom he "loved"), that the murderer can no longer live with, and to make sure that it is destroyed he will not kill the man while he is sleeping. What the "Evil Eye" represents that it so arouses the madman we do not know, but since he sees himself in his companion the result is self-knowledge. Vision becomes insight, the "Evil Eye" an evil "I," and the murdered man a victim sacrificed to a self-constituted deity. In this story, we have undeveloped hints of the self-abhorrence uncovered in "William Wilson" and "The Imp of the Perverse."

Poe also has left unresolved the story's ultimate degree of subjectivity. No objective setting is provided; so completely subjective is the narration that few or no points of alignment with the external world remain. From internal evidence, we assume the speaker to be mad, but whether his words constitute a defense before some criminal tribunal or the complete fantasy of a madman there is no way of ascertaining.10 The difference, however, is not material, for the subjective experience, however come by, is the story. Psychologically, the lengthening concentration upon internal states of being has divorced the murderer first from normal chronology and finally from relationship with the "Actual" world. The result, in Beach's words, is "disintegration of the psychological complex." The victim images himself as another and recoils from the vision. Seeing and seen eye become identical and must be destroyed.


1 "The Tell-Tale Heart," Works, ed. Clarence Edmund Stedman and George Edward Woodberry (New York, 1914), II, 70. Unless otherwise specified, all quotations from Poe are from this edition.

2 "Hawthorne's 'Tales'," Works, VII, 37.

3 "Twice-Told Tales," Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Edward H. Davidson (Boston, 1956), p. 448.

4 Joseph Warren Beach in The Twentieth-Century Novel (New York, 1932), p. 407, describes a similar effect in stream-of-consciousness writing: "The subjective element becomes noticeable in fiction, as in everyday psychology, when an interval occurs between the stimulus to action and the resulting act." In extreme application of this technique, he declares, "There is a tendency to exhaust the content of the moment presented, there is an infinite expansion of the moment," and he adds that the danger is that "There may come to pass a disintegration of the psychological complex, a divorce between motive and conduct" (p. 409). This is close to the state of Poe's narrator and murderer.

5Works, I, 241-242.

6Works, V, 38.

7Works, I, 120-121.

8 Patrick F. Quinn, The French Face of Edgar Poe (Carbondale, Illinois, 1957), p. 236. Quinn makes this identity the theme of the story, without describing the full sensory patterns upon which it is based.

9Works, IX, 164-169.

10 Despite lack of objective evidence, "The Tell-Tale Heart" bears much resemblance to a dream. The narrator acknowledges that the murdered man's shriek was such as occurs in dreams, and his memory of approaching the old man's bed upon eight successive midnights has the quality of a recurring nightmare. Poe frequently couples madness and dreaming, often with the variant "opium dreams," as in "Ligeia" and "The Fall of the House of Usher." "The Black Cat," a companion piece published the same year as "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843), opens with an explicit denial of both madness and dreaming. The introductory paragraph of "Eleonora" (1842) runs the complete course of madness—dreams—death—good and evil: "Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence: whether much that is glorious, whether all that is profound, does not spring from disease of thought—from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect. They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night. In their gray visions they obtain glimpses of eternity, and thrill, in awaking, to find that they have been upon the verge of the great secret. In snatches, they learn something of the wisdom which is of good, and more of the mere knowledge which is of evil" (Works, I, 96).

James W. Gargano (essay date 1968)

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SOURCE: "The Theme of Time in The Tell-Tale Heart'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 5, No. 4, Summer, 1968, pp. 378-82.

[In the following essay, Gargano analyzes the symbolism in "The Tell-Tale Heart" and contends that the images in the tale point to the fact that, unbeknownst to the narrator, his real foe is not Death, but 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 interrelated 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 soundmuch 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. Arthur 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.

John E. Reilly (essay date 1969)

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SOURCE: "The Lesser Death-Watch and 'The Tell-Tale Heart'," in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 2, Second Quarter, 1969, pp. 3-9.

[In the following essay, Reilly asserts that the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a paranoid schizophrenic who really hears the rapping of the death-watch insect (a species of beetle or louse which makes a noise that is said to presage death), which he mistakes for the beating of the old man's heart.]

Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a genuine mystery story, one which thus far has eluded satisfactory solution. The mystery surrounds the source of the sound which drove Poe's deranged narrator to murder an old man and subsequently to reveal both the crime and his own guilt to the police. The narrator himself believes the sound to have been the heart of his victim beating even after his dismembered body had been concealed beneath the floor boards of his bedchamber. Most commentators upon the tale identify the sound either as an hallucination or as the narrator's misapprehension of his own heart beat.1 Only one commentator feels that the sound was indeed that of the old man's heart, first heard in fact and then "pounding in the murderer's ears after the man was dead."2 Although any of these answers may seem to satisfy, they really only raise a still larger question, a crucial critical one involving the artistry of the tale itself. This larger question stems from the narrator's repeated insistence upon his acuteness of hearing. "The disease," he tells us of himself at the opening of the story, "had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute."3 "And have I not told you," he reiterates, "that what you mistake for madness is but over acuteness of the senses?" He describes what he heard or believes he heard, both before and after the murder, to have been "a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton."4 Moreover, he insists that this sound originated outside of him. It "came to my ears," he says before murdering the old man; "the noise was not within my ears," he insists as he describes himself sitting over the dismembered body chatting with the police. If in fact he heard something other than his own heart, then what was it? If he really heard nothing, if it was only an hallucination, then why did Poe, who advocated economy in the short story, dwell in this, one of his shortest stories, upon the apparently inconsequential detail of his narrator's acuteness of hearing?

It is possible, of course, that the narrator's acuteness is as much a delusion as the sound may have been an hallucination. If this is true, then the question of artistry is forestalled. For if Poe left us with a narrator whose reliability cannot be measured against what really transpired on the night of the murder, much can be said about "The Tell-Tale Heart," but little can be concluded.5 The purpose of the present paper is to demonstrate that much can be concluded because the narrator is reliable at least to the extent that there was present in the old house where the murder took place a watch-like sound resembling the one the narrator describes, a sound he misapprehended to have been the heart beat of the old man. The presence of this sound establishes the extent of the narrator's reliability and helps to identify the nature of his malady. Furthermore, the source of the sound not only enhances our recognition of the ironic dimension of the narrative, but it renders "The Tell-Tale Heart," as Arthur Hobson Quinn divined even in the absence of corroborative evidence, "An almost perfect illustration of Poe's own theory of the short story, for every word contributes to the central effect."6


Poe's narrator boasts that for seven nights preceding the murder, he had quietly edged into the old man's bedchamber just at midnight to peer at his sleeping victim with the aid of a lantern and that he had followed each surreptitious visit with a cheerful morning call. When he crept into the room on the eighth and fatal night, however, he fumbled with the tin fastening on his lantern. Startled by the sound, the old man sprang up and remained for an hour "sitting up in the bed listening," the narrator tells us, "just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall." It should be noted that it was not the old man who was listening to the death-watches, for he was trying to determine what made the noise produced by the tin fastening on the narrator's lantern, and the narrator imagines that the old man attributed the sound of the fastening to "a mouse crossing the floor" or "a cricket which has made a single chirp." It is the narrator, giving us a glimpse of himself alone in his own bedchamber, who has hearkened to the death-watches. Herein lies the source of the sound which the narrator believes to have been the heart beat of the old man.

Death-watches are insects which produce rapping sounds, sounds which superstition has held to presage the death of someone in the house where they are heard. There are two common varieties of the insect.7 The "greater" deathwatch, or Xestobium rufovillosum, is a wood boring beetle of the family Anobiidae. It has also been called Anobium tesselatum and Scarabaeus galeatus pulsator. The sound of the greater death-watch, presumably a mating call, is made by the rapping of its head upon whatever surface it is standing; and although it probably would go unnoticed against the background noise of waking hours, the rapping is sufficiently loud to be heard in the stillness of the night. The other insect, the "lesser" deathwatch, or Liposcelis divinatorius, is a louse-like psocid which thrives upon molds. It is commonly called Atropos divinatoria, but has also been called Pediculus pulsatorius and book louse. Much smaller than the bettle, the lesser deathwatch emits a faint ticking sound believed to be produced by means of stridulatory organs.8

On the basis of the sound described by Poe's narrator, the insect in "The Tell-Tale Heart" is the lesser rather than the greater death-watch. The rapping of the greater deathwatch bears little resemblance to the "low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton." The rapping of the greater death-watch resembles instead the drumming of a pencil in irregularly occurring episodes of six to eight beats. The sound of the lesser death-watch, on the other hand, is faint (and thereby appropriate to the narrator's acuteness of hearing), regular, and sustained over a period of hours. Most appropriately, however, it resembles the ticking of a watch, and it has often been described in precisely these terms. Among the "vulgar and common errors" which Sir Thomas Browne sought to dispel in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) is the melancholy superstition associated with "the noise of the Dead-watch, that is, the little clickling sound heard often in many rooms, somewhat resembling that of a Watch."9 Several decades later (1668), John Wilkins, Dean of Ripon, identified the "lesser" death-watch as an insect "of a long slender body, frequent about houses, making a noise like the minute of a Watch, by striking the bottom of his breast against his belly."10 Evidently unaware of the distinction between the "greater" and the "lesser," Benjamin Allen contributed an essay to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1698) in which he described the death-watch as a "beetle" which "makes a Noise resembling exactly that of a Watch."11 A more accurate observer than Allen, the Reverend William Derham, submitted two studies to the Philosophical Transactions (1701 and 1704) carefully distinguishing the sounds emitted by the "two sorts" of insect: "The [greater] Death-Watch beateth only about 7 or 8 strokes at a time, and quicker: but [the lesser] will beat some hours together, without intermission; and his strokes are more leisurely, and like the Beats of a Watch." They are "even as loud almost as the strongest Beats of a Pocket-Watch," Derham adds at the close of his first account; and in his second account, he alludes once more to their "regular clicking noises (like the Beats of a Pocket-Watch)."12 In Poe's own time, the resemblance was noted in the kind of popular and semi-popular scientific literature with which he was familiar. William Kirby and William Spence, for example, devote several pages of their Introduction to Entomology (London, 1828) to the lesser death-watch, "so called, because it emits a sound resembling the ticking of a watch, supposed to predict the death of some one of the family in the house in which it is heard."13 Similarly, two treatises by James Rennie, Insect Architecture and Insect Miscellanies, rehearse the superstition attached to the death-watch and describe its sound as "resembling the ticking of a watch."14 Originally published in England, Rennie's books were republished in Boston in the early 1830's as a part of the popular Library of Entertaining Knowledge.

There are, then, a number of sources from which Poe could have become acquainted with the sound of the lesser death-watch. Similarly, there were a number of precedents for his use of the death-watch in literature. For "The Tell-Tale Heart" by no means marked its debut. In the Spectator for March 8, 1711, Joseph Addison alluded to the death-watch in the course of depicting "an extravagant Cast of Mind" which in some ways curiously anticipates the morbid narrator of Poe's tale:

I know a Maiden Aunt, of a great Family, who is one of these Antiquated Sybils, that forebodes and prophesies from one end of the Year to the other. She is always seeing Apparitions, and hearing DeathWatches; and was the other Day almost frighted out of her Wits by the great House-Dog, that howled in the Stable at a time when she lay ill of the Tooth-ach. Such an extravagant Cast of Mind engages Multitudes of People, not only in impertinent Terrors, but in supernumerary Duties of Life, and arises from that Fear and Ignorance which are natural to the Soul of Man. The Horrour with which we entertain the Thoughts of Death (or indeed of any future Evil) and the Uncertainty of its Approach, fill a melancholy Mind with innumerable Apprehensions and Suspicions, and consequently dispose it to the Observation of such groundless Prodigies and Predictions. For as it is the chief Concern of Wise-Men, to retrench the Evils of Life by the Reasonings of Philosophy; it is the Employment of Fools, to multiply them by the Sentiments of Supersition.15

Among Addison's "Fools" is the bumpkin Grubbinol in John Gay's The Shepherd's Week (1714) who associates the sound of the death-watch with the demise of the fair damsel Blouzelind: "When Blouzelind expir'd, the weather's bell / Before the drooping flock toll'd forth her knell; / The solemn death-watch click'd the hour she dy'd, / And shrilling crickets in the chimney cry'd."16

Jonathan Swift (1725) prescribed a decisive antidote for both the death-watch and the effects of its supersitition:

The Third is an Insect we call a Wood-Worm,
That lies in old Wood like a Hare in her Form:
With Teeth or with Claws it will bite or will scratch,
And Chambermaids christen this Worm a DeathWatch:
Because like a Watch it always cries Click:
Then Woe be to those in the House who are sick:
For, as sure as a Gun they will give up the Ghost
If the Maggot cries Click when it scratches the Post.
But a Kettle of scalding hot Water injected,
Infallibly cures the Timber affected;
The Omen is broke, the Danger is over;
The Maggot will dye, and the Sick will recover.


Oliver Goldsmith's Citizen of the World (December 17, 1760) reported the conversation of a splenetic English acquaintance whose melancholy deepened at the sound of the death-watch:

"I sate silent for some minutes, and soon perceiving the ticking of my watch beginning to grow noisy and troublesome, I quickly placed it out of hearing; and strove to resume my serenity. But the watchman soon gave me a second alarm. I had scarcely recovered from this, when my peace was assaulted by the wind at my window; and when that ceased to blow, I listened for death-watches in the wainscot. I now found my whole system discomposed, I strove to find a resource in philosophy and reason; but what could I oppose, or where direct my blow, when I could see no enemy to combat. I saw no misery approaching, nor knew any I had to fear, yet still I was miserable."18

Similarly, and in Poe's own time, John Keats warned his reader against the influence of the death-watch ("the beetle") upon melancholy: "Make not your rosary of yewberries, / Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be / Your mournful Psyche" ("Ode on Melancholy"). And after Poe, Twain's Tom Sawyer lay in his darkened room hearkening to sinister sounds, among which was the mournful message of the death-watch:

Everything was dismally still. By and by, out of the stillness, little, scarcely perceptible noises began to emphasize themselves. The ticking of the clock began to bring itself into notice. Old beams began to crack mysteriously. The stairs creaked faintly. Evidently spirits were abroad. A measured, muffled snore issued from Aunt Polly's chamber. And now the tiresome chirping of a cricket that no human ingenuity could locate, began. Next the ghastly ticking of a death-watch in the wall at the bed's head made Tom shudder—it meant that somebody's days were numbered.

(Chapter IX)19


Although the sound described by Poe's narrator resembles the ticking of the lesser death-watch, there are discrepancies. 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. These discrepancies, however, are neither liberties nor lapses on the part of Poe. They are, instead, an expression and a measure of his narrator's derangement.

All the evidence in the story points to the likelihood that the narrator is a victim of paranoid schizophrenia He is "very, very dreadfully nervous," fearful, anxious, moody, suspicious, and, of course, homicidally violent in his effort to preserve his well-being against what he believes to have been the threat of the old man's eye. Even more significant, "the disease" had "sharpened" his "senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute." One of the frequent symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia is perceptual disturbance, a disturbance often assuming the form of hyperesthesia, specifically the kind of hyperacusis suffered by Poe's narrator.20 Although the term paranoid schizophrenia is of recent coinage, the phenomenon of perceptual disturbance accompanying insanity was noted in Poe's time. In his Practical Observations on Insanity (Philadelphia, 1811), for example, Joseph Mason Cox included among the signs of approaching insanity "listening to fancied whispers or obscure noises" (p. 13), and he noted that some insane persons "are a prey to fear and dread from the most ridiculous and imaginary sources" (p. 15). Similarly, John Conolly, An Inquiry Concerning the Indications of Insanity (London, 1830), observed that among the "plainly legible" indications, "impairment of some of the senses is not uncommon; or an increased acuteness of sense, which is made a subject of boasting with the patient" (p. 463).21 A student of psychopathological disorders and perhaps even a sufferer himself at certain periods in his life, Poe did not need a formal introduction to the phenomenon of perceptual disturbance in order to invest his narrator with the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia.

The presence and absence of the sound during the night of the murder was not, then, a function of its source, the faint ticking of the lesser death-watch, but a function of the narrator's frame of mind which gave rise to hyperacusis. Significantly, on the two occasions when he heard the sound, but at no other point in the tale, the narrator's condition was one of extreme agitation, an agitation conveyed in the very texture of the prose. The narrator was calm when he edged into the bedchamber, and he remained calm for an "hour" even when his fumbling with the tin fastening on his lantern startled the old man. But his calm vanished when he saw the "dull blue" eye: "It was open—wide, wide open—and I grew furious as I gazed upon it." In the grip of this fury he heard the sound: "And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over acuteness 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." He then had to struggle to remain silent and to hold the ray of his lantern on the old man's 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 old man's hour had come!

Having purged his fury by killing the old man, the narrator regained his composure, and he ceased to hear the sound. Calmly and deliberately, he set about dismembering and concealing the corpse. Even when he received the police officers sent to investigate the old man's scream, he "was singularly at ease." But his ease left him as the officers lingered to chat in the very room where the corpse was concealed: "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 definiteness—until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears." The initial sound, the ringing, marked the onset of anxiety, and the ringing gave way to the ticking sound as hyperacusis once again developed. At that point the narrator's anxiety mounted to rage as he desperately tried to cope with the noise:

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 observations 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. 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 he had purged his fury by killing the old man, so the narrator purged his rage by exposing what he believed was the hypocrisy of the police. The result was self-incrimination.

The hyperacusis accompanying paranoid schizophrenia accounts for the apparent presence and absence of the ticking of the lesser death-watch, but it does not account for variations in the tempo and volume of the sound as the narrator perceived it. The sound "grew quicker" as the moment of the old man's death approached, whereas the tempo of the lesser death-watch is uniform. An explanation for this apparent discrepancy has already been suggested in an essay on "The Tell-Tale Heart" by E. Arthur Robinson.22 He notes (1) "two levels of chronological development" in the story, objective time or duration and "subjective time sense" or the narrator's consciousness of time, and (2) "the psychic merging of killer and killed," or the identification of the narrator with his victim. Although Professor Robinson's interest is in "the slowmotion technique" of the narrator's subjective time sense, a rapid-motion technique is equally possible, i.e., the narrator's subjective sense of time accelerated the regular ticking of the lesser death-watch. This acceleration occurred appropriately when, through identifying with his victim, the narrator imagined that terror had caused the old man's heart to beat faster: "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!" And just as the narrator's deranged subjectivity controlled the apparent tempo of the sound, so it controlled the volume of what was, in fact, a uniformly faint ticking, amplifying the sound as his agitation increased. The sound seemed to become so loud on the first occasion that the narrator feared a neighbor would hear it, and on the second occasion he was convinced that the police officers only pretended not to be aware.

Briefly, then, the faint ticking of the lesser death-watch was present in the old man's bedchamber throughout the night of the murder, but the narrator's perception of it was governed by the hyperacusis which occurred during his moments of extreme agitation. On both occasions when he heard the sound, his deranged imagination altered its volume and tempo and attributed its origin not to the insect but to the heart of the old man beating even after he had been murdered, dismembered, and concealed.


The identity of the lesser death-watch as the source of the sound which the narrator heard sheds light upon the strategy of "The Tell-Tale Heart" and the extent of Poe's achievement. The strategy is a classic example of irony, of the dramatic collision of appearance and reality. The reality is an unusual but perfectly natural situation: an old house infested by a common insect and occupied by two men, one old and evidently partially blind, the other insane. The appearance is the illusion of the situation created by the disturbed perceptions and deranged imagination of the narrator. What brings the story to life and renders it a species of mystery is that Poe chose to limit his readers' knowledge of the total situation, of both the appearance and the reality, to the report of the disordered consciousness. Hence, just as the strategy of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a classic example of irony, so it is also a classic example of the kind of unreliable narration through which the reader must penetrate to discover the truth.

One of Poe's achievements in "The Tell-Tale Heart" is the special use he made of the phenomenon of acute perception. Although they have been unable to identify what the narrator heard, several commentators upon "The Tell-Tale Heart" have noted similarities between his insistence upon his acuteness of hearing and the acute sensibilities of characters in other stories by Poe, especially "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839) and "The Colloquy of Monos and Una" (1841), both of which appeared in print before "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843). But there is a crucial difference. Roderick, we assume, heard and correctly identified the sound of Madeline struggling to escape from the vault "lying, at great depth," beneath the house of Usher. And there is no reason to doubt that Monos correctly apprehended the reports of his acute synesthetic sensibilities in the period immediately following his death. The narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart," however, heard the faint ticking of the death-watch but misinterpreted the sound, distorted its meaning into terms of his deranged image of the world. This more complex and dramatic use of perceptual anomaly represents an enlarging of the psychological dimension of Poe's fiction.

But an even greater achievement in "The Tell-Tale Heart" is the exquisite appropriateness of the lesser death-watch to what Poe would call the moral or allegorical dimension of his story. Much of Poe's fiction and poetry participates in the romantic complaint against Time, the lament that the spirit of man is the victim of corruption and death. In "The Tell-Tale Heart," the innocuous sound of an insect becomes a measure of time under the aspect of death, a kind of metaphor binding together three tokens of man's mortality: the process of nature, the beating of the human heart, and the ticking of a watch. And it is the agony of Poe's deranged and superstitious narrator to have hearkened to the sound, to have been driven to homicidal frenzy by a metaphor.


1 See, for example, Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe (New York, 1941), p. 394; N. Bryllion Fagin, The Histrionic Mr. Poe (Baltimore, 1949), pp. 204-205; Patrick F. Quinn, The French Face of Edgar Poe (Carbondale, Ill., 1957), pp. 232-236; Harry Levin, The Power of Blackness (New York, 1960), pp. 145-146; and E. Arthur Robinson, "Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart,'" Nineteenth-Century Fiction, XIX (March, 1965), 369-378.

2 Edward H. Davidson, Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge, Mass., 1957), pp. 189-190.

3 Passages quoted from the story are taken from The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York, 1902), V, 88-94.

4 This is the narrator's description of the sound, in the Harrison edition of The Complete Works, as he heard it just before the murder. The narrator uses slightly different wording, quoted later in this paper, to describe the sound as he heard it in the presence of the police. In the initial publication of "The Tell-Tale Heart," in James Russell Lowell's The Pioneer, I (January, 1843), 29-31, the narrator employs identical wording to describe the sound he heard on both occasions: "A low, dull, quick soundmuch such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. " Italics here, as in other passages in this paper taken from the story, are Poe's.

5 E. Arthur Robinson, for example, finds the narration "so completely subjective" there is "no way of ascertaining" whether the narrator's words "constitute a defense before some criminal tribunal or the complete fantasy of a madman" (pp. 377-378).

6 A. H. Quinn, p. 394.

7 I wish to acknowledge the assistance of Dr. Emmanuel I. Sillman, Professor of Biology, Duquesne University, on technical aspects of the entomology of the death-watch.

For recent accounts of the greater death-watch, see British Ministry of Technology, The Death-Watch Beetle, Forest Products Research Laboratory Leaflet No. 4 (revised April, 1963); and Norman E. Hickin, The Insect Factor in Wood Decay (London, 1963), p. 111. For recent literature on the lesser death-watch, see E. A. Back, "Psocids in Dwellings," Journal of Economic Entomology, XXXII (June, 1939), 419-423.

8 Among modem accounts of the ticking of the lesser death-watch, the most detailed is recorded in a controversy over the sound: Claude Morley, "Notes and Observations," The Entomologist, XLIII (1910), 31-32; and C. J. Gahan, "The Taps of the 'Death-Watch Beetle,'" The Entomologist, XLIII (1910), 84-87. I am especially indebted, however, to M. G. White of the Forest Products Research Laboratory of the British Ministry of Technology. In a letter to this author, Mr. White described oscillographic studies of the sound of the greater death-watch, showing that "each 'Tap' comprises 6 to 8 knocks of the frons delivered at intervals of about 105 milliseconds with a tendency to accelerate to a 90 millisecond interval toward the end." The sound of the lesser death-watch, Mr. White adds, "is a continuous ticking rather like a wrist watch and is said to go on for hours without a stop. The noise is much softer than that of Xestobium and is believed to be made by stridulatory organs."

9The Works of Sir Thomas Browne, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (Chicago, 1964), II, 150-151.

10 John Wilkins, An Essay Towards a Real Character, And a Philosophical Language (London, 1668), p. 127.

11 Benjamin Allen, "An Account of the Scarabaeus Galeatus Pulsator, or the Death-Watch; taken August. 1695," Philosophical Transactions, XX (1698), 376-378.

12 "A Letter from the Reverend Mr William Derham to the Publisher, concerning an Insect that is commonly called the Death-Watch," Philosophical Transactions, XXII (1701), 832-834; and William Derham, "A Supplement to the account of the Pediculus Pulsatorius, or Death-Watch," Philosophical Transactions, XXIV (1704), 1586-1594.

13 William Kirby and William Spence, An Introduction to Entomology (London, 1828), pp. 381-383.

14 James Rennie, Insect Architecture, in The Library of Entertaining Knowledge (Boston, 1830), IV, 304-305; and Insect Miscellanies, in The Library of Entertaining Knowledge (Boston, 1832), XII, 98-102.

15The Spectator, ed. Donald F. Bond (Oxford, 1965), I, 34.

16The Poetical Works of John Gay, ed. G. C. Faber (London, 1926), p. 49.

17The Poems of Jonathan Swift, ed. Harold Williams (Oxford, 1958), I, 351. The passage on the death-watch is taken from "Wood, an Insect," one of a series of Swift's poems attacking William Wood of "Wood's half-pence" fame.

18Collected Works of Oliver Goldsmith, ed. Arthur Friedman (Oxford, 1966), II, 367.

19 Other allusions to the death-watch in literature include Coleridge's Remorse (IV.i.12) in 1812; the 1842 version of Tennyson's "The May Queen" (line 21 of the Conclusion); and Tennyson's "Forlorn" (line 24) in 1889.

20 See, for example, Carney Landis, Varieties of Psychopathological Experience, ed. Fred A. Mettler (New York, 1964), especially pp. 90-96; The American Schizophrenia Foundation, What You Should Know About Schizophrenia (Ann Arbor, 1965), pp. 4-5; and Abram Hoffer and Humphry Osmond, "Some Psychological Consequences of Perceptual Disorder and Schizophrenia," International Journal of Neuropsychiatry, II (January-February, 1966), 1-19. In addition to presenting the results of their own research into the area of perceptual disturbance, Hoffer and Osmond cite a number of similar studies.

21 A professor of the practice of medicine at University College, London, when his Inquiry was published, Conolly later achieved renown for his work with the insane at Hanwell Asylum.

22 Robinson, passim.

John W. Canario (essay date 1970)

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SOURCE: "The Dream in 'The Tell-Tale Heart'," in English Language Notes, Vol. 7, No. 3, March, 1970, pp. 194-97.

[In the following essay, Canario argues that the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is the "deranged victim of a hallucinatory nightmare" about death.]

Hervey Allen observed in a footnote to Israfel that the logic of Poe's stones is "The mad rationalization of a dream."1 This observation is especially applicable to "The Tell-Tale Heart," which becomes fully understandable only when the narrator is recognized as the deranged victim of an hallucinatory nightmare.

Most commentators on the story have praised it either for its powerful evocation of terror or its artistically skillful revelation by degrees of the narrator as a homicidal maniac. Arthur Hobson Quinn's description of the story as "A study of terror" and "A companion piece to 'The Pit and the Pendulum'" exemplifies the first view.2 E. Arthur Robinson's close analysis of Poe's handling of two psychological themes in the story—"The indefinite extension of subjective time" and "The murderer's psychological identification with the man he kills"—illustrates the second view.3 Without denying the value of either of these widely held perspectives, I would like to suggest that Poe, on the most subtle level of his artistic aims, intended the tale of the narrator to be recognized finally as a madman's confession of a nightmare about death.

To understand the story as the relation of a dream, one must respond to suggestions of parallel situations and symbolic meanings in the action and imagery. That the narrator is reporting the events of a nightmare rather than actual happenings is not immediately discernible because the narrator himself is unable to separate fact from fancy. However, the hallucinatory nature of the events he relates becomes steadily clearer as he describes his victim and the circumstances of the supposed murder.

From the beginning of the story, the narrator's description of his relationship with the old man gradually gives rise to the suspicion that the old man is really an alter ego representing a side of the narrator toward which he feels ambivalent emotions of love and hate. This possibility is initially suggested by the narrator's statement that he loves the old man and by the fact that he lives in intimate association with him, but it is soon thereafter given more support by other developments. The narrator admits, for example, that he has experienced the same mortal terror as the old man, that he has groaned in the identical manner, and that he has undergone this experience again and again just at midnight, the time which he has chosen for his observations of the old man. Finally, the suspicion that the narrator and the old man are doubles becomes a certainty when the narrator complains of the loudness with which the old man's heart is beating. It is the increasing loudness of this beating heart, expressive of mounting emotion, that precipitates the narrator's leap upon his victim. Significantly, at this instant the murderer and the old man cry out simultaneously.

The discovery that the two characters are doubles raises the question as to what the narrator's desire to kill his alter ego means. The narrator announces very early in his confession that it is not the old man he wishes to do away with, but one of his eyes: "The eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it."4 The narrator's obsession with this eye soon makes it apparent that he fears it not simply because it is ugly, but because he sees it as an emblem of his own mortality. That the eye is a symbol of death is suggested by its resemblance to the eyes of a corpse, by the fact that it belongs to an old man, and by the narrator's association of it with a vulture.

The identification of the narrator and the old man as doubles establishes that the narrator's account of the manner in which he killed the old man must be the report of a dream: "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." In the symbolism of this dream, the old man can be seen to stand for the physical body of the dreamer, and the narrator to represent the mind and will of that body. Thus, the dream, which is hardly plausible as the description of a real murder, really objectifies the speaker's belief that he has destroyed his body and thereby escaped from death.

The narrator's elaborate preparations for the crime also establish that he is obsessed by a fear of death. His excessive concern with time ("it took me an hour," "seven long nights—every night just at midnight," "just at twelve," "A watch's minute hand moves more quickly than did mine," etc.) and his nightly visits to the room of the old man, during each of which he permitted only a single ray of light from his darkened lantern to shine upon his victim's face, are soon recognized as assisting in no practical way the accomplishment of the murder. On the other hand, these preparations, which are proudly held up by the narrator as evidences of his sanity, are really symbolic expressions of his insane conviction that he has indeed escaped from time and mortality through his own cunning.

The story ends with the narrator's anguished discovery that the old man's heart has resumed beating in thunderously loud pulsations, even after his body has been dismembered and stuffed under the floor. What is actually revealed is the narrator's sudden, horrified discovery, at the very moment when his exultation over his fantasy conquest of death is most intense, that he is still mortal. The narrator terminates his confession in mad ravings to three police officers who, having been attracted to the house by its occupant's scream in the night, are only waiting for conclusive evidence of the man's insanity before taking him into custody.


1 Hervey Allen, Israfel (New York, 1927), II, 567.

2 Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe, a Critical Biography (New York, 1941), p. 394.

3 E. Arthur Robinson, "Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart,'" Nineteenth-Century Fiction, XIX (March, 1965), 374.

4 Quotations from the story are from the text of the Broadway Journal, August 23, 1845, as reprinted in Eric W. Carlson, ed., Introduction to Poe, A Thematic Reader (Glenview, 111., 1967).

Daniel Hoffman (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: "Madness!," in Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, Doubleday and Company, 1972, pp. 226-32.

[In the following essay, Hoffman examines the motif of the eye in "The Tell-Tale Heart" and explores the relationship of the deranged narrator and his victim.]

There are no parents in the tales of Edgar Poe, nary a Mum nor a Dad. Instead all is symbol. And what does this total repression of both sonhood and parenthood signify but that to acknowledge such relationships is to venture into territory too dangerous, too terrifying, for specificity. Desire and hatred are alike insatiable and unallayed. But the terrible war of superego upon the id, the endless battle between conscience and impulse, the unsleeping enmity of the self and its Imp of the Perverse—these struggles are enacted and re-enacted in Poe's work, but always in disguise.

Take 'The Tell-Tale Heart,' surely one of his nearly perfect tales. It's only four pages long, a triumph of the art of economy:

How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

When a narrator commences in this vein, we know him to be mad already. But we also know his author to be sane. For with such precision to portray the methodicalness of a madman is the work not of a madman but of a man who truly understands what it is to be mad. Artistic control is the warrant of auctorial sanity. It is axiomatic in the psychiatric practice of our century that self-knowledge is a necessary condition for the therapeutic process. Never using the language of the modern diagnostician—which was unavailable to him in the first place, and which in any case he didn't need—Poe demonstrates the extent of his self-knowledge in his manipulation of symbolic objects and actions toward ends which his tales embody.

The events are few, the action brief. 'I' (in the story) believes himself sane because he is so calm, so methodical, so fully aware and in control of his purpose. Of course his knowledge of that purpose is limited, while his recital thereof endows the reader with a greater knowledge than his own. 'The disease,' he says right at the start, 'had sharpened my senses. . . . Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heavens and in the earth. I heard many things in hell.' Now of whom can this be said but a delusional person? At the same time, mad as he is, this narrator is the hero of sensibility. His heightened senses bring close both heaven and hell.

His plot is motiveless. '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 crime he is about to commit will be all the more terrible because apparently gratuitous. But let us not be lulled by this narrator's lack of admitted motive. He may have a motive—one which he cannot admit, even to himself.

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.

And a paragraph later he reiterates, 'It was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye.'

Nowhere does this narrator explain what relationship, if any, exists between him and the possessor of the Evil Eye. We do, however, learn from his tale that he and the old man live under the same roof—apparently alone together, for there's no evidence of anyone else's being in the house. Is the young man the old man's servant? Odd that he would not say so. Perhaps the youth is the old man's son. Quite natural that he should not say so. 'I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. . . . I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him.' Such the aggressive revulsion caused by the old man's Evil Eye!

What can this be all about? The Evil Eye is a belief as old and as dire as any in man's superstitious memory, and it usually signifies the attribution to another of a power wished for by the self. In this particular case there are other vibrations emanating from the vulture-like eye of the benign old man. Insofar as we have warrant—which I think we do—to take him as a father-figure, his Eye becomes the all-seeing surveillance of the child by the father, even by The Father. This surveillance is of course the origin of the child's conscience, the inculcation into his soul of the paternal principles of right and wrong. As such, the old man's eye becomes a ray to be feared. For if the boy deviate ever so little from the strict paths of rectitude, it will find him out.

Poe, in other tales, seems to be obsessed with the eye to the point of fetishism. In 'Ligeia' it is the lady's eyes which represent, to her husband, the total knowledge embodied in her person. By synecdoche the eyes become that which he worships. But the old man's eye is endowed with no such spiritual powers. Come to think of it, it is always referred to in the singular, as though he had but one. An old man with one all-seeing eye, an Evil Eye—from the plausible to the superstitious we pass in the text; perhaps further still to the mythical. One-eyed Odin, one-eyed because he sold his other for knowledge. Yet the knowledge in a father's (or a father-figure's) eye which a child most likely fears is the suspicion that he has been seen in a forbidden act, especially masturbation, or some other exercise of the libido. That above all seems to the young child to be forbidden, and therefore what an allseeing Eye would see. Yet this old man's ocular power is never so specified. What is specified, though, is the resemblance of his one eye to that of a vulture.

Vulture, vulture. Everywhere else in Poe's work, in Poe's mind, vulture is associated with TIME, and time is associated with our mortality, our confinement in a body. The vulture-like eye of an aged man is thus an insupportable reminder of the narrator's insufferable mortality. Could he but rid himself of its all-seeing scrutiny, he would then be free of his subjection to time.

All the more so if the father-figure in this tale be, in one of his aspects, a Father-Figure. As, to an infant, his own natural father doubtless is. As, to the baby Eddie, his foster-father may have been. Perhaps he had even a subliminal memory of his natural father, who so early deserted him, eye and all, to the hard knocks experience held in store. So, the evil in that Evil Eye is likely a mingling of the stern reproaches of conscience with the reminder of his own subjection to time, age, and death.

To murder the possessor of such an eye would be indeed to reverse their situations. In life, the old man seems to the narrator an absolute monarch, a personage whose power over him, however benignly exercised, is nonetheless immutable. Such exactly is the degree to which a murderer dominates his victim. And so it is that the narrator does not merely do the old man in. No, he stealthily approaches the sleeping old man, in the dead of night, and ever so craftily draws nearer, then plays upon his sleeping face a single ray from his lantern. A ray like the beam of an eye. This he does each night for a week—that very week in which he was never before so kind to him during the waking hours, when the old man had his eye working.

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 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.

This miscreant is full of the praise of his own sagacity, a terrible parody of the true sagacity of a Dupin or a Legrand. For what he takes to be ratiocination is in fact the irresistible operation of the principle of his own perversity, the urge to do secret deeds, have secret thoughts undetected by the otherwise ever-watchful eye of the old man. He is so pleased to have outwitted that eye that he chuckles—and the old man stirs, then cries 'Who's there?' The room is pitchy black, the shutters drawn for fear of robbers. Now the old man is sitting bolt upright in bed, 'listening;—just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall.'

The old man must have realized what was happening, what was about to happen, for

Presently I heard a slight grown . . . not 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 it well. I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart.

And then, breaking the darkness and the silence, he spots his ray directly 'upon the vulture eye.' 'Now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.' This is the sound, he says, of the old man's heartbeat.

Excited to a pitch of 'uncontrollable terror' by the drumbeat of his victim's heart, he gives a shout, flings wide the door of his lantern, and drags the old man to the floor. Then he suffocates him under the mattress. 'His eye would trouble me no more.'

Now, quickly, methodically, the murderer completes his work. 'First I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs.' Then he places all between the beams under the floorboards. These he deftly replaces so that no eye could detect a thing. He had made care to catch all the blood in a tub. 'Ha! ha!'

Death by suffocation—this is a recrudescence of the favorite mode of dying everywhere else in Edgar Poe's tales of the dying, the dead, and the doomed. Illness is invariably phthisis; what character draws untroubled breath? Such sufferings seem inevitable to the imagination of a writer whose memory is blighted by the consumption which carried off the three women he most loved. But there is yet another reason for the young man's choosing to suffocate the eye which he could not abide. As is true of dreamwork, the vengeance is meted out thrice: he extinguishes the eye, he suffocates the old man, he dismembers him. I think these three terrible acts are disguises of each other.

In its aspect of getting rid of the Evil Eye, this murder is a more intense and violent form of blinding. And the symbolic content of blinding has been self-evident since Oedipus inflicted it upon himself as a partial remission for what the lex talionis, more strictly applied, would have required. In striking the Evil Eye of the old man, the young madman strikes, symbolically, at his sexual power. Nor does this contradict the other significations I have suggested for the ocular member. As the source of conscience, of surveillance of the boy's sexual misdemeanors, and as the reminder of his subjection to his own body, the eye derives some of its powers from its linkage, in imagination, with potency.

But what has suffocation to do with this? Only that the inability to breathe is an equivalent of impotence, of sexual impotence. By inflicting this form of death on the old man, the youth is denying his elder's sexual power.

And cutting off the head, the arms, the legs? These amputations, too, are symbolic castrations.

The 'I' is nothing if not methodical. He leaves nothing to chance.

No sooner has he replaced the floorboards—it is now four O'clock—but there is a rapping at his door. Neighbors, hearing a scream, had called the police. He explains that the scream was his own, in a dream. Then—why does he do this?—he invites the police into the house, to search and see for themselves, saying that the old man was away in the country.

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.

At first all is well, but as they sit, and chat, his head begins to ache, he hears a ringing in his ears. It grows in volume, 'a low, dull, quick sound . . . as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. . . . hark! louder! louder! louder!

He could escape the Evil Eye, but not 'The beating of his hideous heart.'

Of course it was his own heart which the murderer heard beat. Would he have heard it, had not his Imp of the Perverse commanded that he lead the police to the very scene of the crime? Or was this Imp, whose impulse seems so inexplicable, his own conscience, inescapable as long as his own heart should beat, demanding punishment for the terrible crime he had wrought? Thus he is never free from the gaze of the old man's clear blue eye.

David Halliburton (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: "Tales: 'The Tell-Tale Heart'," in Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View, Princeton University Press, 1973, pp. 333-38.

[In the following essay, Halliburton draws attention to Poe's use of sound and his depiction of the narrator as both victimizer and victim in "The Tell-Tale Heart. "]

The moon in "Irene" watches the sleeper and worries about the harmful effects of an influence it does not recognize as its own. The first William Wilson watches his sleeper, the other Wilson, with full knowledge of the harm he intends, then fails to inflict it. The relation of the sleeper and the watcher in "The Tell-Tale Heart" is similar but more extreme. Here the watcher has no guardian role, as in the sleeper poems; unlike the first Wilson, he is not intimately involved with the sleeper, who means nothing to him. The defiant attitude of the second Wilson provides some slight justification for the behavior of the first; but even this is lacking in "The Tell-Tale Heart." The murderer's choice of victim is completely gratuitous. It is also completely conscious, for this first-person, to an even greater extent than Poe's other criminals, is a man who loves to wallow in his own mind. His theory about the old man's eye making his blood run cold satisfies that love. At the same time it provides a protection not unlike the one Egaeus provides for himself when he turns a big threatening object into a small manageable one. Drunk with his own shrewdness, the murderer expands verbally in all directions, as though by taking up all the space there is he could become the absolute of his own fiction, its center of motive and power. The murderer exists in a world of signs that he invents and that he wills himself to believe. This is not to say that he invents, for example, the old man's eye, which obviously exists independently of his perception of it. But it is the speaker who makes the eye exist as a sign. In contrast to other men who signify in order to connect and illuminate, this man signifies in order to separate and conceal. In explaining his behavior, he chooses points and details that protect him from dangerous confrontations with his inner self by making him appear not only sane but highly rational. His wall of rationality is, of course, transparent, for his arguments, proofs, and analyses are simply too "Technical" to be believed: "Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust [my head] in! I moved it slowly—very, 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?" This is no ordinary mystification but a self-mystification, in which the creator himself believes and of which he is therefore the victim.

Unlike the normal, responsible communicator, this speaker underlines his argument at its weakest point. One thing that will never persuade anyone of his rationality is the mere deliberateness of his bodily movements; yet this is precisely what he chooses to emphasize: "And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern 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." Unlike the responsible communicator, he dwells upon the obvious: "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." The rhythms of the narrator's speech express a peculiar will. It is not the will to certainty that we see in William Wilson, who is concerned to get things right, down to the last shade of meaning. The narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" exhibits a will to convince. If Wilson wants to know and be known, the murderer wants to believe and be believed. To convince his imaginary auditors is, of course, only part of the task; he must also convince himself. His insistence that the old man is dead is for his own benefit as much as for ours, and the same can be said of his insistence that he is sane. The rhythms of this man's speech are, in fact, doubly revealing, for while they show the strength of his will they also show (like the verbal repetitions in "The Pit and the Pendulum") the depths of his terror. There is nothing contradictory about being willful and assertive on the one hand while being fearful and defensive on the other. A man such as Poe describes asserts himself because of his fear. If he compels, it is because he is compulsive.

After so many "Manuscript" stories, here is a story told by a voice. Despite the lack of a specific auditor, as in "Tamerlane," the narrator's phrasing, diction, and punctuation are those of a man who speaks, or thinks he speaks, in the hearing of another. His opening remark has the quality of a spontaneous vocal reply: "True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?" The repeated addressing of a second-person in the opening section adds to the effect. The tale becomes a kind of hysterical conversation-poem dominated by a speaker whose voice rises from a middle register of argument to a top register of shouted confession. Such a speaker lives in an intensely acoustic space: life hinges literally on sound, or on silence, which is the temporary absence of sound and its imminent return. By this acoustic space consciousness is surrounded and returned to itself as the echoes of a voice are returned to a speaker by an encompassing wall. In such a space I hear the other even as I hear myself. I share his silence and his sounds, his consciousness and his fears, and can therefore interpret the design of my own:

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 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."

Sound afflicts the victimizer both inwardly and outwardly, in the realm of his consciousness and in the public realm of everyday reality. What causes him to speak out at last, declaring his crime and offering himself as a victim, is the illusion that the one has crossed over into the other. As the narrative progresses, the sound of the rhythm that the speaker hears inwardly advances (so he feels) from inner space to outer. This rhythm is introduced analogically: "A watch's minute hand moves more quickly than did mine." As the victimizer contemplates his victim the rhythm begins to assert its autonomy: ". . . 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." The process is a kind of one-sided reciprocity in which the victimizer feeds upon the terror he arouses, turning the object of his torture into the object with which he tortures himself: "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." The circuit of terror thus ends where it begins, in the victimizer. The victim's terror, which also deserves to be recognized, is a natural response to a danger from the outside. But the victimizer is reacting to a danger in himself, the victim serving as a mediator whose duty it is to heighten the murderer's consciousness of his own sensations. The victimizer acts upon the victim, finally, so as to become himself a victim.

Throughout the process the victimizer enjoys the poise of upright posture while the sleeper is stretched out flat in the classic posture of the one-who-is-acted-upon. When the speaker places the body beneath that horizontal wall that he calls a floor he takes the victimization as far as it will go, the victim being at once recumbent, dead, and buried. By this burial the victimizer attempts to architecturalize his relationship to the victim, to demonstrate with the solidity of matter that victimizer and victim are separate, when in fact they are inseparable.64 Each occupies a chamber he cannot leave. To the victim this chamber is a space of pure bondage. But the chamber confines the victimizer as much as it confines the victim. For the victim acts in the chamber so as to deprive himself of the power to act: by that same act which creates a chamber for his victim, the victimizer creates a chamber for himself. Victimization is a reciprocal state, and the chamber is its inevitable locale.

Having willed a separation between himself and his victim, the narrator must now, in order to become himself a victim, dissolve it. This is the function of the final emission of sound. Little by little the victimizer perceives that the sound which distresses him emanates from outside himself, unaware that it merely externalizes a desire in himself: "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 definiteness—until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears." The world of the victimizer-speaker has turned itself inside out. In the phase of temporary silence—of an acoustic space charged with withheld sound—he had been master, the proof of his mastery being his ability to extend time through his own slowness. As he loses control, the withheld sound releases itself and quickens: "It was a low, dull, quick soundmuch such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton." A rhythm growing steadily louder is the aural complement of velocity, which is complemented further by the staccato of the speaker's language: "I felt that I must scream or die! and now—again!—hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!"

Now the victimizer speaks for the first time so as to be heard by those in his presence: "'Villains!' I shrieked, 'dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks! here, here!—it is the beating of his hideous heart!'" In speaking, the murderer confesses and in confessing realizes his secret aim: to reveal himself as the victim he has always secretly been.


64 The close relationship of victim and victimizer is demonstrated by E. Arthur Robinson, "Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart,'" Nineteenth-Century Fiction, pp. 376-378.

Paul Witherington (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: "The Accomplice in 'The Tell-Tale Heart'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 22, No. 4, Fall, 1985, pp. 471-75.

[In the following essay, Witherington argues that the reader of "The Tell-Tale Heart, " seduced by the narrator into participating vicariously in his crime, is transformed into "An active voyeur" and "An accomplice after the fact" in the old man's murder.]

"Poe's narrator tells a plain and simple story, which leaves no doubt that he is mad," T. O. Mabbott says in his preface to "The Tell-Tale Heart."1 Most readers would agree, not only because the murder of an old man seems motiveless, but also because the narrator's confession comes across as calculated and heartless. Whereas "The Cask of Amontillado" offers witty dialogue and a romantic setting, inviting us into the story and thus eliciting our sympathy for the narrator in spite of our antipathy to the murder, "The Tell-Tale Heart" entombs us with the narrator's stark obsessions to which we react by shrouding ourselves with moral indignation and psychic detachment.

The story's plainness and simplicity, in fact, seem the means by which the narrator's madness is rendered transparent. Undistracted by context or extenuating circumstances, we focus our attention on his protestations of sanity, which of course fall apart with every "reason" he gives the listener, the "you" of the story who hears the confession. "Why will you say that I am mad?" the narrator asks (p. 792), explaining that his senses were not dulled but heightened during the horror; mania can't be madness, he argues unconvincingly. "Observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story," he says, proceeding to undercut both calmness and wholeness by his agitated and incomplete rendition. And his emphasis on murder as a rational process only underscores the barbarity of the act itself. Faced with these attractive ironies, Poe critics have institutionalized the narrator's madness and gone on to concentrate on either the dynamics of that mental state (how the narrator becomes both murderer and victim)2 or Poe's use of it to illustrate such ideas as passage to original Unity, or the frustrating of demon Time.3

This verdict of madness, however, comes less from the story itself than from our commonly held assumptions that all obsessive murderers are mad and that their madness is easily recognizable. If, on the other hand, we begin by assuming that anyone canny enough to carry out such a crime might be canny enough to disguise his own motives, and if we further assume that the narrator knows his listener's moral and rational position and thus makes his claims of mental health so absurd that they must fail to convince his audience, then we have a different story, though one quite faithful to Poe's other works where characters show no end to their duplicity, and where the lines between sanity and insanity blur in a nightmare atmosphere. To activate this reading, our attention must shift from the red herring of madness to the more subtle designs of the confession and the language by which the reader is induced, like one of M. Dupin's dupes, to select "odd" when he should have selected "even."

Pretending to share with the listener a universal concern for reason, the narrator seduces the listener by getting him to participate vicariously in the crime, an accomplice after the fact. He accomplishes this quickly and subtly in the third paragraph through the sense of sight: "You should have seen me" the narrator says and immediately repeats it: "You should have seen how wisely I proceeded—and with what caution—with what foresight—with what dissimulation I went to work!" (p. 792). Later in that same paragraph, he takes further advantage of the listener by assuming his sympathetic reaction to the scene where the murderer pokes his head into the old man's room: "Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in!" (p. 793). By these suggestive nudges, the auditor is transformed into an active voyeur. The narrator concludes that long third paragraph with another subtlety: "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" (p. 793). In this sentence, "see" takes on the sense of understanding, though it does so without entirely relinquishing its primary meaning which is returned to by the narrator's claim to have "looked in." Meanwhile, the listener has been maneuvered from thoughts of missed opportunity ("You should have seen") to the thoughts that he and the narrator presumably share ("So you see").

After the third paragraph, the listener, now assumed to be a silent accomplice, comes across as being somewhat timid but anxious for the deed to be done: "Now you may think that I drew back—but no" (p. 793). He is put in the position not only of encouraging the narrator's story but also of egging on the murderer. The listener is also chided for his deficiency in imagination while the narrator exhibits his own powers of metaphor: "So I opened it [the lantern]—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 fell upon the vulture eye." (p. 794). This technique of attempting to limit the listener's access to the story and then tantalizing him with its details resembles in its psychological awareness and ultimate effect the game Montresor plays with Fortunato, enticing him to go more deeply into the wine cellar by telling him he should leave.

Final references to the listener return to the innocuousness of the opening remarks: "Have I not told you?" and "Do you mark me well? I have told you." (p. 795). The narrator may be chiding the "you" for his inattentiveness. But by this stage of the story his intent seems more gloating than goading, a kind of "I told you so," for we suspect that the listener is deeply and emotionally involved in the tale. The narrator has in fact assumed this involvement, for the "you" references disappear after paragraph thirteen (though the listener resurfaces at the end, as we shall see). The "you" of "The Cask of Amontillado" appears only once, in the first paragraph, perhaps to show that the narrator is speaking to a close friend. But Poe's narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" needs a continuing listener, somewhat less than a character but somewhat more than a device, to prove his point that if anyone can be seduced by narrative, then it becomes difficult to separate those who take pleasure in committing and confessing crime from those who take pleasure in hearing about it.

The motif of the listener becoming an accomplice comes directly from late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century Gothic literature. The confession of a villain often blasts the innocent listener out of composure and security, as in Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and William Godwin's Caleb Williams. Borrowed effectively for American literature by Brockden Brown and Hawthorne, this technique features a diabolical contract in which the two figures become collaborators moving away from the extremes of their original positions.

Poe himself uses demonic collaboration variously in earlier stories. The narrator's outfitting of a pentagonal room appropriate for Ligeia's return, and his attempt to invoke her by calling her name at Rowena's deathbed indicate that he may be in league with the occultish Ligeia who herself "used" him earlier to read the poem which seems to have precipitated her death. And the narrator in "The Fall of the House of Usher" reads to Roderick the very story most calculated to excite him to the imagination (or reality) of the bizarre ending. The influential opinion of Jungian critics that Ligeia dramatizes the narrator's anima and Roderick the narrator's shadow, in fact supports this collaboration theory, all being one in the psyche. But by making the listener in "The Tell-Tale Heart" a voiceless yet clear presence, Poe effects some last minute twists which are not typical of Gothic literature, and which point instead toward a much more sophisticated esthetic.

Toward the end of the story the police arrive and the narrator gives himself away to them while sitting over the dismembered body of his victim. Conscience wins out, or the "narrator's compulsion to unmask and destroy himself by finally admitting the crime," as Edward H. Davidson puts it.4 In this mainstream interpretation, the police may be thought of as the murderer's super-ego, and the entire inner story a psychodrama of compulsions and counter compulsions.

Although the narrator may not have been in conscious control of the actual events, however, he seems to know exactly what he is doing in retelling them to the listener. By ignoring the listener toward the story's end, he encourages the listener to become more actively involved in the ending and thus to identify with the police officers who listened to the murderer's original confession. This reaction seems reasonable for the listener because after becoming involved symbolically as accomplice, he must feel the need to shuck off guilt by identifying with the accusers rather than the accused. He can imagine himself sitting with the officers around the murderer, awaiting the final outburst with considerable pleasure since he is already familiar with the details. He has been allowed a margin of safety, to eat his cake and then have it returned to him whole.

Here of course the narrator springs another trap, telling the listener that at the climax of his confession to the police, he cried out, calling them "Villains!" (p. 797). Though this counterattack is anticipated a few lines earlier by his reference to the "hypocritical smiles" of the officers, its intensity (the narrator's accusation of the police is the only part of the story rendered in quotation marks) must come as a shock to the listener who has put himself in their shoes. What may well have been simple projection in the inner story now becomes a more calculated and loaded indictment of the listener, as he is made to feel the full guilt of his vicarious fantasies. He's a villain for wanting to listen to the recreation of a tale of horror, and he's a naive hypocrite for imagining that he can do so with impunity.

The cry of "Villains!" remains also to haunt the perceptive reader who has also presumably played the game of accomplice and accuser, whose desire for a good story has kept him reading and whose conscience has brought him up short—provided of course he is capable of this kind of response. Poe's contemporaries may not have been, we assume from our experience with reflexive literature and our cultivated self-consciousness as readers. In Alain Robbe-Grillet's "The Secret Room," for example, an implied narrator views a painting of the aftermath of a vicious murder and then, apparently by his curiosity, causes the scene to run backward as if it were movie film so that the murder itself is reenacted. Thus the reader, who shares this desire to know what has happened, becomes accomplice to both the viewer and the murderer. But Poe too envisioned this kind of reader response. In his 1847 review of Hawthorne's tales for Godey's Lady's Book, Poe speaks of the reader's engagement as co-creator: "He feels and intensely enjoys the seeming novelty of the thought, enjoys it as really novel, as absolutely original with the writer—and himself They two, he fancies, have, alone of all men, thought thus. They two have, together, created this thing."5

Poe did not share Hawthorne's overly scrupulous concerns for the artist as one who observes life from a self-indulgent distance. But Poe certainly understood the demands audiences make on art: how the poet may be forced to write short stories in order to make a living, and how the gothic interests of readers often force writers to perversions of their craft. The relationship between murderer and victim is a two-way pull, as is the relationship between writer and reader. We are all accomplices, though some, by virtue of experience, are more aware of it.


1 Thomas Olive Mabbott (ed.), Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, Belknap Press, 1978), III, 789. All following quotations from this work will be indicated in the body of the text.

2 See for example Edward H. Davidson, Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, Belknap Press, 1966), pp. 189-190, and David Halliburton, Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973), pp. 333-338.

3 See for example Joseph J. Moldenhauer, "Murder as a Fine Art: Basic Connections Between Poe's Aesthetics, Psychology, and Moral Vision," Publications of the Modern Language Association, 83 (May 1968), 292-293, and E. Arthur Robinson, "Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart.'" Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 19 (March, 1965), 369-378.

4 Davidson, p. 190.

5 James T. Harrison (ed.), The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: AMS Press, 1965), XIII, 146.

Gita Rajan (essay date 1988)

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

[In the following essay, Rajan asserts that the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is female, and contends that a new, gender-marked rereading of the tale, as filtered through theories of narrativity inspired by Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, and Hélène Cixous, reveals "The narrator's exploration of her female situation in a particular feminist discourse. "]


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 Lacon 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 metonymic. 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 Poe8 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 new-found 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 (repressed 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 policei men 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 signifying 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 Aphasic 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 neverending 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.

Paige Matthey Bynum (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: "Observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story': Moral Insanity and Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart'," in Literature and Science as Modes of Expression, edited by Frederick Amrine, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989, pp. 141-52.

[In the following essay, Bynum asserts that Poe and his reading audience alike were familiar with the thencurrent debate about "Moral insanity" and points out that while readers of "The Tell-Tale Heart" are drawn into the mind of a deranged killer, they still identify with the terror of his victim because of their frame of reference outside the text.]

David R. Saliba has recently argued that Edgar Allan Poe's "structural omission of an objective viewpoint for the reader [in 'The Tell-Tale Heart'] forces the reader to experience the tale with no point of reference outside the framework of the story". "The reader", says Saliba, "is led through the story by the narrator with no sense of reality other than what the narrator has to say". This narrative technique forces the reader to identify with the narrator and to take the narrator's values as his own (pp. 142-43n). What Saliba fails to realize is that no one can read a text without an external sense of reality; all audiences bring to a work of literature some frame of reference that exists outside the text. And for Poe's audience in the 1840s, that frame of reference would have included a knowledge of a controversial new disease called 'moral insanity' and of the legal and philosophical dilemmas that surrounded its discovery. Poe's narrator in 'The Tell-Tale Heart' is a morally insane man, and Poe would have expected his readers to locate the symptoms of that condition in the language of his narration. Thus if we are to recover the meaning of the tale for Poe's audience, an audience that applauded 'The Tell-Tale Heart' at the same time that it shunned tales like 'Ligeia', 'William Wilson', and 'The Fall of the House of Usher'—indeed, if we are to assess the tale's significance for today's audience—we need to establish the medical history from which Poe drew.

We begin, then, with the 'father of American psychiatry', Benjamin Rush. In 1787, Rush was placed in charge of the insane at the Pennsylvania Hospital, and his work in this institution culminated in the first book on psychiatry by a native American, Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind (1812). In his introduction to two of the essays Rush included in Diseases of the Mind,1 E. T. Carlson explains how Rush developed a new theory of insanity based on associationism and faculty psychology. Following the Scottish school of mental philosophy, Rush posited nine basic capacities or "Faculties" in the human mind, grouping these nine faculties into three categories: the "passions" included the passions per se, the will, and faith or "The believing faculty"; the "intellectual faculties" encompassed the reason or understanding, imagination, and memory; and the "Moral faculties" included the moral faculty itself, conscience, and a sense of deity (Carlson, p. ix).2 Insanity had long been recognized as a disease affecting what Rush called the intellectual faculties. Where Rush broke with traditional psychiatric theory was in declaring that insanity did not necessarily involve a disorder of the intellect, that the moral faculties alone were capable of succumbing to disease (Carlson, p. x). Like Philippe Pinel in France, he realized that a form of insanity might occur which perverted the sense of moral responsibility necessary to deter crime. Thus in a normal individual, an innate moral sense could stave off the passions while the intellect calmly concluded the proper conduct. But if this moral sense, this power to distinguish between good and evil, were momentarily suspended, the opportunity for calm inquiry would be denied, and the individual's will would become committed to a criminal act before his reason could repudiate it (Rush, 1972, p. 1). He would then become the victim of an "irresistible impulse" forced upon the will "Through the instrumentality of the passions" (Rush, 1830, pp. 262; 355-57). In modern terminology, he would be emotionally disturbed.

Startling as it was, Rush's theory of "Moral derangement" received little attention in America before the 1830s. Then, in 1835, James Cowles Prichard published his classic discussion of the problem in Treatise on Insanity and Other Disorders Affecting the Mind. This work popularized the study of what Prichard termed "Moral insanity", making it, in the words of one historian, the "Focus of psychological studies and polemical arguments until the end of the century" (Carlson, p. xi). Following the leads of Pinel and Rush, Prichard restated and developed the body of theory which would eventually lead to the classification of psychopathic personalities. He posited a disease in which

the intellectual faculties appear to have sustained little or no injury, while the disorder is manifested principally or alone, in the state of the feelings, temper, or habits. In cases of this description the moral and active principles of the mind are strangely perverted and depraved; the power of self-government is lost or greatly impaired; and the individual is found to be incapable, not of talking or reasoning upon any subject proposed to him, for this he will often do with great shrewdness and volubility, but of conducting himself with decency and propriety. . . . His wishes and inclinations, his attachments, his likings and dislikings have all undergone a morbid change, and this change appears to be the originating cause, or to lie at the foundations of any disturbance which the understanding itself may seem to have sustained, and even in some instances to form throughout the sole manifestation of the disease (pp. 4-5).

A disturbance of the emotions could be both the cause and the "sole manifestation" of mental illness. The morally insane man might be rational, might realize that those around him would condemn his behavior, but he himself would not.

In the decade following the appearance of Prichard's study, the concept of moral insanity became the topic of political, social, and theological debate both at home and abroad. As Rush himself foresaw, any new theories which emphasized the power of man's emotions to determine his actions occasioned intense hostility when they conflicted with other, presumably more agreeable, ideas about human nature. Such theories were opposed on the grounds that they degraded the quality of man's spiritual life, and for the more pragmatic reason that they reduced the incentives for good behavior. But nowhere were the new theories on moral insanity argued more strenuously that in the courts. Prior to the work of men like Rush and Prichard, if a person pleaded insanity in a court of law, he was presumed to be either an idiot or a raving maniac. A review of press releases concerning these trials, and of verbatim trial reports, shows that judges, counsel, witnesses, and observers tended to use three major criteria to establish insanity: the accused had to be unable to recognize right from wrong; he had to be illogical and virtually witless at all times; and he had to reveal a violent disposition before committing his offense ('Homicidal Insanity', p. 279; Wharton, I, 162-72). John Haslam's discussion of the jurisprudence of insanity in Observations on Madness and Melancholy (1810) reveals that madness was considered to be, in Haslam's words, as opposed to "reason and good sense as light is to darkness"; in order to exempt a man from criminal responsibility, the defense had to establish that he was "Totally deprived of his understanding" and no more knew what he was doing "Than an infant, than a brute, or a wild beast" (Haslam, 1975, p. 31; see also Coventry, p. 136). A man who, like Poe's narrator in 'The Black Cat', became unaccountably brutal, set fire to his home, and violently murdered his wife could not be judged insane if he appeared 'normal' to witnesses at the time of the trial.3 And anyone who fled from the scene of a murder, or tried to hide the evidence, was legally sane because he was presumed to know right from wrong.

But the concept of moral insanity changed all this, and the legal dilemma posed by this new definition of madness was obvious. If God had so constituted men that their passions or impulses were not always governable by an intact reason, how could society punish them for indulging in these passions? As pleas of moral insanity became increasingly common, this question stymied a criminal court system established as an instrument of retribution rather than as an agency for determining mental health.4 A reaction was inevitable and almost immediate. Judges found themselves asserting that moral insanity was, in Baron Rolfe's words, "An extreme moral depravity not only perfectly consistent with legal responsibility, but such as legal responsibility is expressly invented to restrain" ('Baron Rolfe's Charge to the Jury', p. 214). Some of America's leading pre-Civil War psychiatrists—men like Isaac Ray, Samuel B. Woodward, and Amariah Brigham—wrote numerous treatises and periodical articles delineating the characteristics and supporting the pleas of criminals claiming moral insanity, but they faced serious opposition within their own profession almost from the outset, and by the late 1840s even some distinguished asylum superintendents began denying the existence of a 'moral' insanity.

The views of these skeptical physicians were generally more in keeping with public sentiment, and those medical men who supported an accused murderer's claim of insanity came under increasingly sharp attacks in the periodical press. The average man tended to suspect deception in defense pleas of insanity, and newspapers often fanned these feelings. Thus by the time Poe wrote 'The Tell-Tale Heart', such trials were major events. When William Freeman was tried for the stabbing murders of the prominent Van Nest family in New York, the counsel included John Van Buren for the prosecution and ex-governor William H. Seward for the defense. Papers across the country kept track as seventy-two witnesses were called to testify as to his sanity, including a whO's-who list of medical authorities, and Freeman himself, housed in a cage outside the courthouse, was the subject of "uncounted spectators" until he died of consumption in his cell almost eighteen months after his offense (The Trial of William Freeman, pp. 68-71, 79-80; Fosgate, pp. 409-14).5

Freeman and those like him were, to use the modern slang, "hot copy". The journals of the day devoted thousands of pages to analysis of them. Philosophical and literary societies debated the ethical and moral implications of decisions surrounding their cases. And writers like Poe—who was himself a trial reporter in the 1843 murder-byreason-of-moral-insanity trial of James Wood ('The Trial of James Wood', pp. 105-106)6—used them as models for some of their most disturbing creations.

One of these creations came to life in 'The Tell-Tale Heart'. Defendants in moral insanity trials were rarely allowed to speak in their own behalf, but Poe would let his character speak, and as he spoke, he would inadvertently let slip the very evidence which would establish him as morally insane.

The first thing we should notice about Poe's narrator is that his monologue is actually a long argument trying to establish not his innocence—he has already confessed to killing the old man—but rather his sanity. He builds this argument on the premise that insanity is irreconcilable with systematic action, and as evidence of his capacity for the latter, he explains how he has executed an atrocious crime with faultless precision. "This is the point", he tells us: "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!" (Poe, 1978, p. 792). A madman, he implies, would be out of control, would be profoundly illogical and not even recognize the implications of his actions. His art in planning and coolness in executing his crime prove that he has the lucidity, control, and subtle reason which only a sane man could possess.

Poe's narrator is, of course, relying upon the old criteria used to establish insanity. But it would have been difficult for an audience reading his words in 1843 not to call to mind the medical publications and trial reports filling the popular press with a new theory of insanity. If they knew enough about this new theory, they might even have recognized Poe's narrator as a fair representation of Prichard's morally insane man. Like the patients in Prichard's study, he is capable of reasoning "with great shrewdness and volubility", but "his attachments . . . have undergone a morbid change" (Prichard, pp. 4-5).

This is not to say that Poe's narrator is always rational. He may be able to carry out his crime with a cool precision, but as he himself explains, his determination to murder his old friend stems from an irrational fear of his eye:

Object, there was none. I loved the old man. 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.

Poe skillfully refrains from divulging exactly what the narrator fears, and his readers have consistently picked up the gauntlet and put forth their own theories. Robert Shulman believes that the filmed-over eye suggests that the old man is cut off from "insight into the ideal and the beautiful" and that the narrator's fear thus represents man's "psychological dread that existence is meaningless", or more specifically, is a reflection of Poe's feelings toward the stepfather who "called into question the meaning of [his] life" (pp. 259-60). Arthur Robinson argues that the feared "Evil Eye" is actually the "Evil I", that the narrator "images himself as another and recoils from the vision" (pp. 101-2). And in his introduction to 'The Tell-Tale Heart', T. O. Mabbott concludes that the tale is founded on the "popular superstition" of the Evil Eye and points out that Poe may even be suggesting that it really is the old man's eye which drives the otherwise sane narrator mad (Poe, 1978, p. 789). However we feel about these interpretations, we should perhaps realize that much of Poe's audience, and certainly Poe himself, would have been familiar with Rush's theory (1830, p. 173) that the insane were "For the most part easily terrified, or composed, by the eye of a man who possesses his reason". They would have surmized that Poe's narrator is terrified by, in Rush's words, "The mild and steady eye" of a sane man.7

But it is not the eye alone which brings about the final decision to take the old man's life. Rather, it is a peculiar sound, and to understand the medical significance of this sound, we must go back to the beginning of the tale. The narrator opens his defense by declaring that although he is "very, very dreadfully nervous", he is not mad (1978, p. 792). Poe's readers probably would have recognized his nervousness as one of the common predisposing causes of moral insanity. Certainly most physicians writing at the time of Poe's tale would have agreed with Samuel B. Woodward (p. 288) that moral insanity, unlike mere depravity, was always preceded or accompanied by "some diseased function of the organs, more or less intimately connected with the nerves". Rush had maintained that "All those states of the body . . . which are accompanied with preternatural irritability . . . dispose to vice" (1972, p. 20). But even if the audience was uncertain about the significance of the narrator's dreadful nervousness, they certainly would not have been uncertain about the significance of his next statement. This nervousness, or "disease", had "sharpened [his] senses", he tells us, "not destroyed—not dulled them", and "Above all was [his] sense of hearing acute" (1978, p. 792).

It would be difficult to think of a worse argument for sanity in 1843 than what Poe's narrator calls his "over acuteness of the senses" (1978, p. 795). Medical opinion at home and abroad had long held that "There is scarcely any symptom more frequently attendant upon maniacal . . . disorders than a defect, excess, or some kind of derangement in the faculty of hearing" (Reid, p. 190), and that it is frequently "noises in the ear, such as sounds made during the night in the chimney", and in particular, "The noises of clocks and of bells" (Sigmond, p. 589; 'On Impulsive Insanity', p. 620) which haunt the minds of these men.8 We should not be surprised then to learn that, as he stands over his intended victim, Poe's narrator hears "A low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton" (1978, p. 795). His assertion that "he knew that sound well, too" reminds us that he has also been hearing another sound—that of the deathwatches in the wall. "Night after night" he had listened to their ticking, telling himself that "it is nothing but the wind in the chimney", until the night when, "excited to uncontrollable terror" by the noise, he stalks his victim (1978, p. 796).

After the murder, the ticking sound returns, and the fear, outrage and paranoia it inspires increase until the seemingly rational murderer must confess his crime to the unsuspecting police. Even this confession would have been considered strong evidence of moral insanity. In a typical case from 1832, a man on trial for the murder of his son was found insane because he had "slaughtered his unoffending son to whom he should have been attached", and then confessed. One reporter explains:

The confession of the crime, I conceive, may be considered as an evidence of insanity of considerable weight. Not that every man who confesses a murder is to be considered insane, but, by this, taken along with other circumstances, as when the individual . . . attempts to give reasons for the propriety of his conduct, we have a strong indication . . . of the deranged condition of the intellect. . . . In short, it is so universal in such cases, that some very distinguished medical jurists consider this confession alone to be a significant test of insanity (Watson, 1832, p. 47).9

Observations such as this can be found throughout the trial reports of the 1830s and 40s, and while they may sound fairly obvious to today's readers, they contained new and fascinating information for Poe's. And this, of course, is the point. New medical theories were forcing upon Poe's audience questions of ethical moment and challenging their old ideas about the nature of man. It may even be that this audience, like most of the students I teach today, found the real terror in the story lay in identifying themselves not with the narrator, as Saliba suggests, but with the victim. It certainly would have been natural for Poe's 1843 readers to see themselves as the victims of the morally insane men discussed in the popular press, just as twentieth-century readers tend to associate themselves more with suffering families and felled presidents than with madmen who attack McDonald's and presidential assassins. In any case, Poe's narrator is maintaining a causal sequence—I can reason; therefore I am not insane—which Poe's audience had just discovered was false, so that it is not only the experiences the narrator reports that are unusual and problematic, but the report itself. "Observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story", he begins (1978, p. 792). But "calmly" could no longer be equated with "healthily". The narrator's explanation fails to coincide with his audience's knowledge, and the implication is that Poe intends to display this disagreement in order that the audience might experience and evaluate it. Far from being trapped inside the story, the audience would stand outside the narrative and use its knowledge of the current medical controversy to replace the speaker's version of events with a better one, or even to question the moral implications of such an argument.

The narrator tells them that he has suffocated an old man because of his eye. But to make such an argument is finally to flaunt your lack of motive, and indeed he begins his explanation by admitting that "object there was none." (1978, p. 792). Those readers who insist upon positing an external motive on the narrator's part, or an unconscious motive on Poe's, deny the story some of its power. Like the murder of the Van Nest family, this murder is all the more terrifying because it is gratuitous. The narrator's obsessions have no logical object in the manifest text, and the tension produced by his explaining at length something for which there is no satisfactory explanation took Poe's story to the heart of the vexing question of moral responsibility as it dramatized the increasingly problematic nature of the human personality.

For Poe's 1843 audience, the new medical science had done more than just drag Diana from her car; it had questioned the integrity of even the 'rational' mind. But what about today's audience? Clearly the medical sources Poe drew from are now outdated, and we no longer recognize Poe's medical allusions. But the deep-seated and not always clearly verbalized anxiety generated by the knowledge that men like Prichard and Rush imparted is still with us. What Poe's 1843 audience had learned—what his present audience is still struggling with—was that a murderous rage could be present in any man, could begin to manifest itself without motivation, and once manifest, could exert complete control. The will to do wrong was internally derived; it could no longer be referred to poisonous miasmatas, solipsism, alcohol, or intellectual indulgence. Even reason could provide no check on these murderous rages, since the most careful plans and meticulous arguments could be made to support the most vicious actions. This was, and is, the real terror of Poe's tale: that there is in man the potential for an inexplicable moral short-circuit that makes it impossible to find protection from the dangers that lay within our neighbors—and ourselves. It is to Poe's credit as an artist that he has given this terror an imaginative representation which has remained valid long after Prichard's theories have disappeared.


1 Rush originally published these essays in 1786. They were reprinted in Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind in 1812, where they went through five editions and numerous translations. In 1972, Brunner/Mazel reprinted them again as a separate volume, introduced by E. T. Carlson, entitled Two Essays on the Mind.

2 When combined with the notion that each faculty was connected to a particular area of the brain, Rush's theory gained widespread acceptance as phrenology. Poe was at one time an adherent to some of the ideas espoused by phrenology, but by the 1840s, his views were closer to the views of established medicine.

3 A case fitting this description actually exists. See 'John Ball's Case' (pp. 85-6). See also 'Ancient Case of Homicidal Insanity' (pp. 283-4), which gives the case of a man convicted for murdering his wife despite the fact that he felt she was one of the witches and wizards haunting him.

4 Thanks to the work of Pinel and the moral managers, public opinion regarding insanity was becoming more enlightened, and as public awareness increased, defense pleas of insanity became more common. There were only a few such cases before 1825, but by the late 1840s there were well over fifty.

5 For a good example of how newspapers reported on these trials, see the reports of the Freeman trial in the [New York] Evening Post, 19 March 1846, p. 1, col. 9, and the New York Tribune, 20 March 1846, p. 3, col. 1.

6 It is clear, however, that Poe knew something about moral insanity as early as 1837. In the first chapter of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1837), Pym compares Augustus's intoxication to that state of madness which "Frequently enables the victim to imitate the outward demeanor of one in perfect possession of his senses" (Poe, 1975, p. 50).

7 We should also remember that the fear-of-eyes theme runs throughout Poe's work of the 1830s and '40s and is not always associated with father-figures. Metzengerstein "Turn[s] pale and [shrinks] away from the rapid and searching expression of his [horse's] earnest and human-looking eye" (Poe, 1978, p. 28). The narrator of 'Ligeia' is at first attracted to and then terrified of the black orbs of his first love. And of course, the narrator of 'The Black Cat' impulsively cuts out the searching eye of his pet.

8 Both Sigmond and the author of 'On Impulsive Insanity' are quoting from an essay by "Dr. Baillarger" which won an award from the French Academy of Medicine for the best dissertation on psychological medicine in 1844 (Sigmond, p. 585). See also Rush's discussion of "uncommonly acute" hearing in Diseases of the Mind (1830, p. 143). John E. Reilly (pp. 5-6) has also noticed that the increased acuteness of the senses was thought to be a sign of insanity in Poe's time, but he fails to note that the ticking and, later, ringing sounds heard by Poe's narrator were singled out by Poe's contemporaries as common hallucinations among the insane. He believes the narrator actually hears the noise made by deathwatches in the wall, but resorts back to hallucination when he must explain why the ticking increases in tempo just before the murder.

9 Gunnar Bjurman points out (pp. 220ff) that one source for Poe's plot might have been Daniel Webster's 1830 pamphlet on the trial of John Francis Knapp. Webster describes a self-possessed murderer who, like Poe's narrator, "Feels [his crime] beating at his heart, rising into his throat, and demanding disclosure" (XI, 52-54). There is evidence that Poe knew about Webster's pamphlet, but it should be remembered that by 1843, Poe and his audience would have read many such pamphlets and reports. 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 (Kaser, pp. 72, 119-23).

Works Cited

'Ancient Case of Homicidal Insanity', Connecticut Courant, 15 November 1785, reprinted in American Journal of Insanity 3 (1847) pp. 283-4.

'Baron Rolfe's Charge to the Jury, in the case of the Boy Allnutt, who was tried at the Central Criminal 'ourt, for the Murder of his Grandfather, on the 15th Dec, 1847', Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental Pathology 1 (1848) pp. 193-216.

Bjurman, G.: Edgar Allan Poe: En Litteraturhistorisk Studie, Gleerup, Lund, 1916.

Carlson, E.: Introduction, B. Rush, Two Essays on the Mind, Brunner/Mazel, New York, 1972, pp. v-xii.

Coventry, C: 'Medical Jurisprudence of Insanity', American Journal of Insanity 1 (1844) pp. 134-44.

Fosgate, B.: 'Case of William Freeman, the Murderer of the Van Nest Family', American Journal of the Medical Sciences 28 (1847) pp. 409-14.

Haslam, J.: 'The Nature of Madness', in Madness and Morals: Ideas on Insanity in the Nineteenth Century (ed. by V. Skultans),Routledge and Kegan Paul, Boston, 1975, p. 31. (Excerpted from J. Haslam, Observations on Madness and Melancholy, Callow,London, 1810.)

'Homicidal Insanity, Case of Hadfield', American Journal of Insanity 3 (1847) pp. 277-82.

'John Ball's Case', New York City-Hall Recorder 2 (1817) pp. 85-6.

Kaser, D.: Messrs. Carey & Lea of Philadelphia: A Study in the History of the Booktrade, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1957.

'On Impulsive Insanity', Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental Pathology 1 (1848) pp. 609-22.

Poe, E.: 'Metzengerstein', in The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (ed. by T. O. Mabbott), Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, 1978, Vol. 2, pp. 15-31.

Poe, E.: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (ed. by H. Beaver), Penguin, Baltimore, 1975.

Poe, E.: 'The Tell-Tale Heart', in The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (ed. by T. O. Mabbott), Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, 1978, Vol. 3, pp. 789-99.

Prichard, J.: A Treatise on Insanity and Other Disorders Affecting the Mind, Sherwood, Gilbert, and Piper, London, 1835.

Reid, J.: Essays on Hypochondriasis and Other Nervous Affections,Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, London, 1823.

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

Robinson, A.: 'Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart'", in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Poe's Tales (ed. by W. Howarth), Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 1971, pp. 94-102.

Rush, B.: 'An Enquiry into The Influence of Physical Causes upon the Moral Faculty', in Two Essays on the Mind, Brunner/Mazel, New York, 1972, pp. 1-40.

Rush, B.: Medical Inquiries and Observations upon Diseases of the Mind, 4th edn., John Grigg, Philadelphia, 1830.

Saliba, D.: A Psychology of Fear: The Nightmare Formula of Edgar Allan Poe, Univ. Press of America, Lanham, 1980.

Shulman, R.: 'Poe and the Powers of the Mind', ELH 37 (1970) pp. 245-62.

Sigmond, G.: 'On Hallucinations', Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental Pathology 1 (1848) pp. 585-608.

'The Trial of James Wood', Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 52 (1843) pp. 105-6.

The Trial of William Freeman, for the Murder of John G. Van Nest, including the Evidence and the Arguments of Counsel, with the Decision of the Supreme Court Granting a New Trial, and an Account of the Death of the Prisoner, and of the Post-Mortem Examination of His Body by Amariah Brigham, M.D., and Others(reported by B. Hall), Derby, Miller & Co., Auburn, 1848.

Watson, A.: 'Three Medico-legal Cases of Homicide, in which Insanity was pleaded in Exculpation', Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal 38 (1832) pp. 45-58.

Webster, D.: Writings and Speeches, National Edition, 18 vols., Little Brown and Co., Boston, 1903.

Wharton, F.: A Treatise on Mental Unsoundness Embracing a General View of Psychological Law, 2 vols., Kay & Brother, Philadelphia, 1873.

Woodward, S.: 'Moral Insanity', Boston Medical and Surgical Journal 30 (1844) pp. 323-36.

Brett Zimmerman (essay date 1992)

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

[In the following essay, Zimmerman demonstrates that Poe's narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" displays characteristic signs of what was in Poe's day classified broadly as "Moral insanity" and today diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. Zimmerman also makes the case that Poe's sophisticated insight into his character's psychology suggests the author did considerable research into his protagonist's condition using scientific texts and journals in order to lend accuracy and verisimilitude to his tale.]

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 deathwatch" 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! (92-93)

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! (94)

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 byproduct (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 over-seers 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 immate. . . . 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]. (38)

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. . . . (172-73)

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 Poe." 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.

Richard Kopley (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: "Hawthorne's Transplanting and Transforming The Tell-Tale Heart'," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 2, Autumn, 1995, pp. 231-41.

[In the following excerpt, Kopley offers insights into the critical reception, principal themes, and structure of "The Tell-Tale Heart" as he argues that that Nathaniel Hawthorne, Poe's contemporary, used elements of the story in his novel The Scarlet Letter.]

Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The House of the Seven Gables (1851) has long been recognized as having an affinity with Edgar Allan Poe's tale "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), especially with regard to setting and characters;1 a reader may therefore wonder if Hawthorne's preceding novel, The Scarlet Letter (1850), also possesses an affinity with a Poe tale. In an early review of The Scarlet Letter (April 1, 1850), George Ripley noted several parallels between Hawthorne and Poe: "The same terrible excitement . . . the same minuteness of finish—the same slow and fatal accumulation of details, the same exquisite coolness of coloring, while everything creeps forward with irresistible certainty to a soul-harrowing climax." Then he qualified his observation, nothing Hawthorne's softening of the supernatural. But while he quoted amply from The Scarlet Letter, he did not go on to identify a specific related Poe tale.2 Yet Ripley's general observation may be taken as encouragement for a search for a correspondence between The Scarlet Letter and a work of fiction by Poe. Such a search is rewarded, for evidence suggests that even as Hawthorne may have rebuilt the House of Usher for The House of the Seven Gables, he also transplanted "The Tell-Tale Heart" for The Scarlet Letter.

Hawthorne certainly would have read "The Tell-Tale Heart"—it appeared in the first issue (January 1843) of James Russell Lowell's literary magazine, The Pioneer, published in Boston. Lowell had visited Hawthorne in Concord to solicit contributions for this magazine, and in the lead review in the first issue, Lowell favorably discussed Hawthorne's Historical Tales for Youth.3 The high regard for Poe's creative work that Hawthorne would have brought to his reading of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is clear from "The Hall of Fantasy," written in the fall of 1842 and published in the second issue of The Pioneer (February 1843): Hawthorne includes Poe in a select company of poets and writers in the "Hall of Fantasy" "For the sake of his imagination" (though he threatens him with "ejectment" for his criticism).4 Hawthorne would have been reminded of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" as he read that second issue of Lowell's magazine, for comments on Poe's tale appeared there in three reprinted reviews of The Pioneer's first issue. These comments were striking. In his New York Tribune review, Horace Greeley wrote with a mixture of admiration and distaste that "The Tell-Tale Heart" was "A strong and skilful, but to our minds overstrained and repulsive analysis of the feelings and promptings of an insane homicide." In a Boston Bay State Democrat review, a critic asserted that the tale was "An article of thrilling interest." And in his Brother Jonathan review, N. P. Willis remarked with unmixed admiration for Poe's tale that "Mr. Poe's contribution is very wild and very readable, and that is the only thing in the number that most people would read and remember."5 Hawthorne might later have been reminded of "The Tell-Tale Heart" by additional appearances of the work; the story was published in Philadelphia's United States Gazette and its Dollar Newspaper in 1843 and New York's Broadway Journal and Philadelphia's Spirit of the Times in 1845.6

In the years following the first publication of "The Tell-Tale Heart," Hawthorne maintained his high opinion of Poe's fiction and a lower one of his criticism. In a June 17, 1846 letter to Poe, initially concerning Mosses from an Old Manse (a copy of which he had directed to Poe), Hawthorne wrote, "I admire you rather as a writer of Tales, than as a critic upon them," and he went on to apply to Poe's tales two terms that Poe had applied to Hawthorne's tales in a May 1842 review: "Force" and "originality" ( CE 16:168).7 Hawthorne could well have had "The Tell-Tale Heart" in mind in late September 1849 as he "began work in earnest" on The Scarlet Letter* in any case he would soon have had an unexpected but compelling reason to recall the Poe tales he admired: on October 7, 1849, Poe died. And then followed the broad press consideration of Poe's life and work.9 Evidence for Hawthorne's use of Poe in his first novel is a pattern of parallels between "The Tell-Tale Heart" and The Scarlet Letter—parallels that suggest that in writing this classic novel, Hawthorne served as a "Tell-Tale Heart" surgeon, a literary Christiaan Barnard.

In Poe's story, for seven nights at "About midnight" a young man places his head inside the "chamber" of a sleeping "old man" with an "Evil Eye," and opens a lantern "cautiously (for the hinges creaked)" and shines it upon this "Evil Eye" (M 3:792-93). On the eighth night, the young man is "More than usually cautious in opening the door" of the room of the "old man," but the sound of the young man's chuckling startles his sleeping victim, who is therefore "lying awake" (M 3:793-94). The young man opens his lantern "stealthily" and shines it upon the "Evil Eye," then jumps into the room and kills the "old man" because of his "Evil Eye" and his loudly beating heart (M 3:794-95). In Hawthorne's novel, an "old man"10 with an "evil eye"—the physician Roger Chillingworth—seeks something "Far worse than death" (CE 1:196): the violation of the guilty heart of the adulterous young minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. In the critical tenth chapter of The Scarlet Letter, "The Leech and His Patient," Poe's story is approximated by Hawthorne's presentation of a related figurative event and a similarly related literal one. Initially, Hawthorne writes that Chillingworth, as he probes for Dimmesdale's secret, "groped along as stealthily, with as cautions a tread, and as wary an outlook, as a thief entering a chamber where a man lies only half asleep,—or, it may be, broad awake" (CE 1:130). Hawthorne adds, "In spite of his premeditated carefulness, the floor would now and then creak." And just as Poe's "old man" sensed "The unperceived shadow" of "Death" (M 3:794), so too, does Dimmesdale "become vaguely aware" of "The shadow of [Chillingworth's] presence" (CE 1:130). The figurative becomes literal when Chillingworth, this "old man" with an "evil eye," actually enters "At noonday" the room of the sleeping young man, lays "his hand upon [the minister's] bosom," "Thrust[s] aside the vestment," and discovers the scarlet letter on Dimmesdale's breast—the sign of the minister's secret guilt (CE 1:138). Chillingworth has trespassed, causing a spiritual exposure "Far worse than death." Poe's intruder had taken a life; Hawthorne's intruder thinks he has taken a soul.

In "The Tell-Tale Heart," after the murder of the old man, Poe's intruder "smiled gaily" (M 3:795), but soon thereafter, in great agony, confessed his deed (M 3:797). In The Scarlet Letter, after the violation of the minister, Hawthorne's intruder is in "ecstasy" (CE 1:138), and though Chillingworth does not acknowledge his guilt, Dimmesdale earlier asked the diabolical doctor a question that recalls the confession of the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart": "Why should a wretched man, guilty, we will say, of murder, prefer to keep the dead corpse buried in his own heart, rather than fling it forth at once, and let the universe take care of it!" (CE 1:132). And Dimmesdale does eventually, after great agony, confess his deed (CE 1:254-55).

In both Poe's story and Hawthorne's novel, the heart is tell-tale. The imagined, perhaps projected beating of the buried heart of the murdered old man provokes Poe's narrator's confession of murder (M 3:797); and the evident stigma, the "A" upon Dimmesdale's chest, emerging from the minister's "inmost heart" (CE 1:258-59), indicates his sin of adultery. In both works, a heart reveals the heart's secret.11

George Ripley's general comment may be applied specifically: Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" and Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter do both possess a "Terrible excitement," a "Minuteness of finish," a "slow and fatal accumulation of details," a "coolness of coloring," and a "soul-harrowing climax." But they share more than that. Poe's tale and Chapter 10 of Hawthorne's novel share language—"old man," "chamber," "creak," "shadow," "cautious," and "stealthily"—and the "old man" in both tale and novel possesses the "evil eye." Furthermore, "The Tell-Tale Heart" and the tenth chapter of The Scarlet Letter share a dramatic situation (anticipated figuratively, then rendered literally in that tenth chapter): at twelve O'clock, one man enters the room of another man, asleep or awakened, and assaults him, causing death or a violation thought worse than death. Also, tale and novel share the crucial theme of man's sinfulness, guilt, and need for confession. Significantly, Chapter 10 of The Scarlet Letter specifically mentions a tormented murderer's need to confess his crime. And in both "The Tell-Tale Heart" and The Scarlet Letter, a seemingly supernatural heart lays open man's sin. "For the sake of [Poe's] imagination"—and its sympathy with his own—Hawthorne evidently transplanted "The Tell-Tale Heart" to his greatest novel.

Yet, clearly, as Hawthorne transplanted Poe's great tale, he also transformed it. Again, Ripley's general comment may be applied specifically—Hawthorne did soften the supernatural of "The Tell-Tale Heart" in The Scarlet Letter. And he did much more. Hawthorne switched the young man and the old man—the former became the sleeper and the latter the intruder. He switched the time, as well—midnight became noon. He modified the motive of the intruder—the narrator's desire to alleviate his nameless terror became Chillingworth's desire to wreak vengeance on his wife's lover. And he modified the nature of the helpless victim—the terrified old man in "The Tell-Tale Heart" became the remorseful minister in The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne also refashioned the heart in Poe's story—the provocative heart of the old man in "The Tell-Tale Heart" became the object of the scrutiny of the Faustian old man in The Scarlet Letter.12 And Hawthorne adapted the murder in Poe's work to his own purpose, turning it into the violation of "The sanctity of a human heart" (CE 1:195)—a violation that he elsewhere considered the "Unpardonable Sin" ("Ethan Brand," CE 11:90, 94, 98-99). Unlike the sin of murder in Poe's story, this sin in Hawthorne's novel is never confessed.

Yet we see Dimmesdale confess his adultery and duplicity. And we see him triumphantly achieve salvation (CE 1:254-57), as we never do the tortured narrator of Poe's tale. Here is the essence of Hawthorne's transformation of "The Tell-Tale Heart": Poe's work concerns damnation; Hawthorne's novel, salvation.

Clearly, there is a biblical tenor to language in "The Tell-Tale Heart." For example, the narrator's claim that "I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth" (M 3:792) seems to suggest both Psalms 113:6 ("Who humbleth himself to behold the things that are in heaven, and in the earth!") and Phillipians 2:10 ("At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth"). The narrator's description of the old man's room as "black as pitch with the thick darkness" (M 3:793) may recall verses in Exodus and Deuteronomy in which God abides in "Thick darkness" (Exodus 20:21; Deuteronomy 4:11; 5:22). And the narrator's exclamation, "The old man's hour had come!" (M 3:795) seems to allude to John 13:1, "Jesus knew that his hour was come." However, Poe's use of these references is ironic, for the old man possesses the "Evil Eye." The mad narrator seems damned at the beginning of the story, having "heard many things in hell" (M 3:792), and the "Evil Eye" apparently recognizes his damnation. After all, when the narrator buries the dismembered body of the old man, he says "no human eye—not even his—could have detected anything wrong" (M 3:796). The recognition by the "Evil Eye" of the narrator's guilt presumably led to his horror of it. Tellingly, the story is actually structured around the "Evil Eye."

The story comprises two halves, each of them featuring nine paragraphs, with the second half reversing the order of phrase in the first. Together, the halves yield chiasmus—the pattern ABCDEEDCBA. Thus the beginning's "You fancy me mad" (M 3:792), is answered by the ending's "If you still think me mad" (M 3:796); "For a whole hour" (M 3:794) by "For some minutes" (M 3:795), "Mortal terror" ( M 3:794) by "uncontrollable terror" ( M 3:795), and so on into the heart of the story.13 At the close of the ninth paragraph, at the center of the symmetrical phrasing, is the central phrase of the tale, "damned spot" (M 3:795)—Poe's allusion to the evidence of Lady Macbeth's guilt (Macbeth 5.1.35)—an allusion employed here to refer to the condemning "Evil Eye" itself.14 The condemned narrator tries to relieve himself of his accuser by killing him, only to be further damned by the murder itself. His painful confession suggests momentary escape, but there is no evidence of redemption or salvation. The narrator is as damned at the tale's close as he had been as its beginning—indeed, if possible, even more so.

In contrast, Dimmesdale In The Scarlet Letter achieves salvation through his confession: "The minister stood with a flush of triumph in his face, as one who, in the crisis of acutest pain, had won a victory" (CE 1:255). He tells Hester Prynne that without his "Agonies"—the torturing Chillingworth and the public confession—he would have been "lost forever" (CE 1:257). The sinful Dimmesdale has encountered the "evil eye" that used to intimidate him (CE 1:136), and he has defied it ( CE 1:252-53), not by killing its possessor, but by acknowledging "God's eye" (CE 1:255). And in contrast to the "damned spot," the "Evil Eye" at the center of "The Tell-Tale Heart," "God's eye" is at the center of The Scarlet Letter.


1 Maurice Beebe, "The Fall of the House of Pyncheon," NCF 11 (1956), 1-17.

2 [George Ripley], review of The Scarlet Letter, in Hawthorne: The Critical Heritage, ed. J. Donald Crowley (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970), pp. 158-59. See also, for the quoted excerpts, Kenneth Walter Cameron, "Literary News in American Renaissance Newspapers (5)," ATQ 20 Supp. (1973): 18-19. For Ripley's mixed evaluation of Poe, see his January 19, 1850 review of The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Rufus Wilmot Griswold, in Edgar Allan Poe: The Critical Heritage, ed. I. M. Walker (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), pp. 333-36.

3 Lowell's visit to Hawthorne to obtain material for The Pioneer is mentioned in a letter from Maria White, Lowell's future wife, of October 4, 1842. See Stephan Loewentheil and Thomas Edsall, comps., The Poe Catalogue: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Stephan Loewentheil Collection of Edgar Allan Poe Material (Baltimore: The 19th Century Shop, 1992), p. 56. The attribution to Lowell of the review of Hawthorne's book in The Pioneer has been noted by Sculley Bradley in his Introduction to The Pioneer, A Literary Magazine (New York: Scholars' Fascimiles and Reprints, 1947), xxvii.

4 Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. William Charvat et al., 20 vols. to date (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1962- ), 10:636. Hereafter cited parenthetically as CE. The editors of the first Centenary Edition volume of Hawthorne's letters suggest that "The Hall of Fantasy" was "probably written in October or early November" of 1842 (CE 15:662n). Writing on January 4, 1843, about the imminent publication of "The Hall of Fantasy" in the second issue of The Pioneer, Hawthorne's wife Sophia acknowledged receipt of the first issue of that magazine ( CE 15:667)—the issue that included "The Tell-Tale Heart."

5 The second issue of The Pioneer also offered Poe's poem "Lenore"; the third featured Poe's essay "Notes upon English Verse" and Hawthorne's tale "The Birth-Mark." That Poe considered Lowell close to Hawthorne is evident from Poe's March 27, 1843 letter to Lowell requesting a piece by Hawthorne for the opening number of his planned journal, the Stylus. See Edgar Allan Poe, The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ward Ostrom, 2 vols. (1948; repr. with a supplement, New York: Gordian Press, 1966), 1: 232. Hawthorne never provided the piece. See CE 15:684. For the Lowell-Willis relationship in January 1843, see Edward L. Tucker, "James Russell Lowell and Robert Carter: The Pioneer and Fifty Letters from Lowell to Carter," Studies in the American Renaissance 1987, ed. Joel Myerson (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1987), pp. 201, 206, 208.

6 Edgar Allan Poe, Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1969-78), 3:791-92. Hereafter cited parenthetically as M. Also in 1845, Hawthorne published "P.'s Correspondence" (CE 10:361-80), a satire considered by Arlin Turner to suggest Poe (Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Biography [New York: Oxford, 1980], p. 159), but in which Poe apparently did not see himself. See Burton R. Pollin, ed., Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, 4 vols. to date (Boston: Twayne, 1981; New York: Gordian Press, 1985- ), 3:88-89.

7 For Poe's use of "Force" and "originality" in his May 1842 review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, see James A. Harrison, ed., The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 17 vols. (New York: AMS, 1979), 11:110-11. Hawthorne seems to have remembered Poe's November 1847 review of Twice-Told Tales and Mosses from an Old Manse. He wrote in his January 1851 "Preface" for Twice-Told Tales that "The book . . . if opened in the sunshine . . . is apt to look exceedingly like a volume of blank pages" (CE 9:5); Poe's review had recommended that Hawthorne "get a bottle of visible ink" (Complete Works 13:155). My thanks to Joseph J. Moldenhauer for this observation.

8 For the dating of Hawthorne's beginning to write The Scarlet Letter, see Larry J. Reynolds, "The Scarlet Letter and Revolutions Abroad," AL 57 (1985), 57.

9 For a compendium of four hundred press pieces on Poe after his death, see Burton R. Pollin, "A Posthumous Assessment: The 1849-1850 Periodical Press Response to Edgar Allan Poe," American Periodicals 2 (Fall 1992), 6-50. The journalistic treatments of Poe were sustained and encouraged by the publication of the first two volumes of The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, which appeared "About January 10, 1850"; see Joy Bayless, Rufus Wilmot Griswold: Poe's Literary Executor (Nashville: Vanderbilt Univ. Press, 1943), p. 175. See also Bayless, "Edgar Allan Poe," BAL 1 (1983), 124. The first volume, Tales, included "The Tell-Tale Heart." According to a February 4, 1850 letter to Horatio Bridge, Hawthorne completed The Scarlet Letter on February 3, 1850 ( CE 16:311). Hawthorne could have seen the two volumes before he completed his novel, but there is no conclusive evidence that he did. By mid-January 1850 he had doubtless already written the section of The Scarlet Letter most nearly related to "The Tell-Tale Heart," Chapter 10.

10 Chillingworth is insistently so characterized; see CE 1:129, 131, 137, 139, 141, 167, 169, 172, 174, 175, 179, 194, 195, 224, 229, 252, 253, 256, 260.

11 Another Poe work that might have reinforced for Hawthorne the idea of the revelatory heart is the "Marginalia" installment in the January 1848 issue of Graham's Magazine, which gave the title of the unwritable true autobiography as "My Heart Laid Bare" (Collected Writings 2:322-23). Poe writes that "The paper [of this autobiography] would shrivel and blaze at every touch of the fiery pen," Hawthorne that the falsely confessing Dimmesdale had expected his congregation to see "his wretched body shrivelled up before their eyes, by the burning wrath of the Almighty" (CE 1:143-44).

12 The Faust motif in The Scarlet Letter is ably treated by William Bysshe Stein in Hawthorne's FaustA Study of the Devil Archetype(Gainesville: Univ. of Florida Press, 1953), pp. 104-22, 163-64.

13 For a consideration of chiasmus in Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death," Eureka, "The Fall of the House of Usher," and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, see Max Nänny, "Chiastic Structures in Literature: Some Forms and Functions," in The Structure of Texts, ed. Udo Fries (Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 1987), pp. 83, 91-96. Nänny makes use of Charles O'Donnell's important essay, "From Earth to Ether: Poe's Flight into Space," PMLA 11 (1962), 89-90. See also David Ketterer's earlier treatment of O'Donnell and of plot symmetry in Pym in The Rationale of Deception in Poe (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 139-41, and my later discussion of verbal symmetry in Pym in "Poe's Pym-esque 'A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,'" Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, ed. Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV (Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 1990), pp. 170-71.

14 Another analysis of the Macbeth allusion in "The Tell-Tale Heart" is offered by Richard Wilbur in "Poe and the Art of Suggestion," University of Mississippi Studies in English ns 3 (1982), 6-9.

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The Tell-Tale Heart