The Reflection of the Soul in Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart”
Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” appeared a decade after Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman” in Russia and twenty years before Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, whose protagonist essentially become the archetypal anti-hero of modern literature. Between the American and the Russian is the whole continent of Europe, and it stands to reason that while on both sides of the continent literary characters were “going mad,” something on the continent must have been happening to promote this change. This paper will analyze Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” and show how it reflects (through character, symbol, and irony) the mania of the Romantic/Enlightenment Age in which it was rooted.
Poe’s own life is as full of melancholy and darkness as his many tales and poems. Born in Boston, Poe’s life kept mainly to the Eastern Coast (he died in Baltimore). His mother died when he was still at a young age — and his father had abandoned the Poe family. Edgar was taken in by the Allan’s, who had their own problems (which caused some friction between Edgar and his foster-father), but did for a time provide a roof over his head. He made an attempt at University, but had to leave for reason of lack of funds (Edgar had received an allowance but had also run up a number of debts). He made an attempt at military, first under a false name, then under his real name at West Point — but again, he did not fit in well and absolved to leave through court martial (Meyers 32; Hecker 54). Poe then attempted to earn his way in the world solely by means of publishing. For this reason he felt compelled to pander to the tastes of the reading public — which were Gothic, Romantic, and inclined to the macabre. Poe gave them what they wanted. And when his own very young wife died, Poe himself seemed to withdraw into a world of madness (he was found just before his death raving on the streets).
Poe’s life seems in a sense to be reflected in his stories — but his stories are also in a different sense reflections of society, which was going to pieces all around him (Napoleon had attempted to conquer the world, the poets had attempted to Romanticize the Word, and Utopia was becoming an increasingly sought after dream). The morality of the old world (in which truth was associated with reason, the intellect, and universals) was being dismantled by the morality of the new world, naturalism, and empiricism. Rousseau embodied the new philosophy — self-will was the new ideal; not selflessness.
Accordingly, writers were addressing this phenomenon on both sides of Europe (where these ideas essentially were born). Hawthorne reflected the essential nature of man in his stories (at around the same time Poe was reflecting mankind in a much more gothic manner). Hawthorne exposed the Lie at the heart of Puritanism. Gogol and Dostoevsky on the other side of Europe (in Russia) were exposing the Lie at the heart of Romanticism. Notes from Underground is a novel in which the anti-hero embodies all the premises of Naturalism, yet rejects such a philosophy in view of its inevitable consequences, which he himself reveals through his actions.
Poe, likewise, is born into a world that has rejected its Christian and scholastic roots in favor of a Protestant and skeptical view of life and God. The forefathers were Deists, building a country not on Christ but on principles that could only work so long as men remained good. As Poe reveals in “Tell-Tale Heart,” just because one’s mind works (or, in other words, is principled) doesn’t mean his soul is in order. When the soul dies, the mind begins to unravel — just as Shakespeare showed in Macbeth. Poe shows as much in his gothic horror tale. And as Plato himself proposed: “If the head and body are to be well, you must begin by curing the soul” (Kyziridis 43).
Furthermore, changes in society were rapidly occurring, generating a kind of split in the psyche of men around the world. Societies were becoming increasingly more “modern” — industry was changing the face of nature — nature which had just decades before been upheld as the Light in the darkness. That light was now being disintegrated by the railroad, by manufacturing, by corporations which were even then showing signs of dominance. Even the old world mores that had developed out of the old world religion were being eschewed now that the old world religion had been rejected. Religious liberty was giving way to irreligion and irreligion was giving way to manmade forms of control whether through the strictures of secret society or vice. As Robert Spiller notes, “Poe wrote at a time when America was producing more real and alleged transcendental geniuses than maturely wrought poems or stories” (342). The desire was there, but the steps were not. Despite all, the 19th century was seeing an overthrow of reason and philosophy and was finding itself hard-pressed to fill the void. The gothic was one way of satisfying the public: it reflected the horror taking place under the veneer of polite society. It also pointed to the reality that horror is what happens when man forgets his place in the universe. And that place, as Poe pointed out, had something to do with the soul of man.
The window to the soul is the eye (as Shakespeare tells us), and it is the old man’s “vulture-like eye” that consumes the narrator of the “Tell-Tale Heart.” Either the eye reveals to the narrator the symbol of something awful and hideous in the soul of the old man, or he fears the eye sees into his own soul and he is afraid of what it will find there — namely that he himself is corrupt. In any case, he calls it an “Evil Eye” — but one must note that it is evil not for any reason that the narrator can name but only because it seems like the eye of a bird of prey. In other words, the window to the soul is a reminder of death — and the narrator responds by attempting to kill death.
The narrator is also obsessed with Truth. “True!” is the first word out of the narrator’s mouth as he begins the story. He means to show that he is, of course, not insane but quite the reverse — rational and clear-minded. To a degree he is. But where it is revealed that he is neither is when he puts into action his plan of murder — not of the old man — but of the “Evil Eye” — the window to the soul and the truth of the mystery of man. The narrator’s insanity is revealed in the fact that he wants to kill death, which he finds represented in the old man’s vision.
Of course, one cannot kill death. But the old world believed that death could be overcome through Christ. The new world, having rejected Christ in favor of a Deity, could still yearn for Life after Death, but it no longer had a way to achieve it — for Resurrection was a promise given precisely by Christ. Poe’s America was essentially split down the middle: on the one hand it wanted to believe in the promises of Christ and on the other it wanted to assure itself of life everlasting on its own terms, which were simply natural. Of supernatural grace, it wanted none.
Thus we see the madness develop in Poe’s characters — and in “Tell-Tale Heart” no less. Poe attempts to explain the actions of the narrator by appealing to the motive of Shakespeare’s Iago, which another poet identified as “motiveless malignancy” (Ruhl), but we may suspect that Poe’s narrator is truly concerned more with the meaning of the symbol of the eye than with revenge (which is accordingly an obsession of Iago).
The symbol of the eye, of course, is one that is reoccurring throughout Poe’s many tales. Like the probing eye of the old man in “Tell-Tale Heart,” the very house of Usher has eyes: “vacant eye-like windows” (1st par.) that admit no light and cast no intelligence — only a sense of foreboding and dread. For the narrator the House is both a window into the soul of Roderick and a reflection of the schizophrenia from which Roderick appears to suffer.
“The Black Cat” similarly speaks of the symbol of “the eye.” Just as “Tell-Tale Heart” and “Fall of the House of Usher” do, it also plays upon the motif of burial. Here, however, it is not the absence of conscience that horrifies, nor the existence of conscience that petrifies, but the representation of conscience that terrorizes. That representation is in the black cat itself — the one time friend of the narrator. But after the narrator’s “fall” from grace into alcoholism, the cat appears to show no interest in the narrator. Feeling slighted and guilty, the narrator plucks out the eyes of the cat. Again, the eye serves as the symbol of the window into the soul — only here it is not the soul of the cat that the eye sees, but the soul of the narrator. By plucking out the eyes of the cat, he attempts to ease his conscience. Instead, all he does is awaken perversity in his soul.
The symbol of the eye in “Tell-Tale Heart,” however, is literally killed — but the irony is that the narrator’s “sanity,” which he has insisted upon is now called into question as he goes on hearing the beating of the dead man’s heart as the inspectors idly chat in the drawing room, under whose floor the narrator has buried the dismembered corpse. By attempting to kill the death he saw in the man’s eye, the narrator loses his grip on reality. The reality which he attempted to assert with his own contrivances ends up undoing him by playing upon his “sensitivity” and causing him to confess his own guilt — a guilt which he was unconsciously made aware by the old man’s eye in the first place. That guilt was understood by the old world as Original Sin and it had an answer in Christ. The new “modern” world of Poe and his narrator has no answer for it and even would go so far as to refuse it — but the actions of the narrator, in his refusal to admit what the eye sees, ends up admitting it himself when he kills the eye and cannot bear the guilt of what he has done. Of course, he admits no guilt consciously and goes on insisting that he is sane — but the facts remain and his soul is exposed for what it is. The ironic twist is nailed home for the reader when the narrator, who would otherwise go unsuspected of foul play, tears up the floorboards in an effort to cease the beating heart. The heart of the old man is, of course, not beating: it is, instead, the heart of the narrator. It is his heart that is the Tell-Tale Heart — and it is telling the tale of his crime: that is the ultimate irony of Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” and, essentially, almost all of his tales of gothic horror — from “The Cask of Amontillado” to the “The Black Cat.”
In conclusion, pride goes before the fall — and the narrator’s pride is seen in every word, thus establishing his relation to the angel who fell through pride, as Milton relates in Paradise Lost. Milton detailed this spiritual fall just as the new world was beginning its own spiritual fall from grace — literally, from the grace of the old world religion. That fall is perfectly reflected in the madness of literary characters on both sides of Europe — and in Poe’s tales no less than in Gogol’s or Dostoevsky’s. The 19th century saw an obsession with sin and madness, guilt and confession that no amount of Naturalism could cure. Poe presented one of the darker mysteries of mankind — the madness of mind and soul when avenues to grace are lost.
Hecker, William J. Private Perry and Mister Poe: The West Point Poems. Louisiana State University Press, 2005. Print.
Kyziridis, Theo. “Notes on the History of Schizophrenia.” German Journal of Psychiatry, 2005. Web. 7 Aug 2011.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. NY: Cooper Square Press,
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Black Cat.” Web. 11 Nov 2011.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Web. 11 Nov 2011.
Ruhl, Sarah. “Six Small Thoughts on Fornes, the Problem of Intention, and Willfulness.” Theatre Topics 11.2 Sept 2001: 187-204. Print.
Spiller, Robert. Literary History of the United States. NY: MacMillan, 1973. Print.
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