What’s Pulled from the Floorboards: Analysis of the Inspirations Given for and By Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’
As mysterious as Edgar Allan Poe may seem, one thing is for certain; he was not the first person in the world, nor was he the last. This, of course, is obvious, but means something great in terms of analysing his stories, such as his renowned “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Just as we can dissect the contents of the story, we can look into events and ideas that helped shape the story as it is today and also follow through on its influences in literature and the wider culture.
In his Dissertation, Mr. Abadli Farida briefly discusses how American Romanticism leaked into Gothic Romanticism, and eventually became American Gothic literature, which Poe picked up and helped popularize. Poe’s decision to pursue this style of writing, however, cannot easily be seen as completely random, especially when one looks back on Poe’s life.
Farida describes Poe’s life as “filled with tragedy and darkness.” Poe endured the death of his parents, his first wife, and then his second wife, and seemed to suffer from varying degrees of mental illness, ranging from depression to delirium, alcoholism, and poor general health for most of his life. Farida states that his protagonists are “usually some pretty disturbed people” and “reveal…a very fine line between sanity and insanity.” These characters can be seen as fictional incarnations of Poe’s unhealthy mind, and an objection to traditional admirable heroes as he puts out dark characters that better reflect some people’s’ realities. Recently, some critics have stated a point of view in which Poe is an artist detached from his insane characters. However, the abundant evidence of his struggle with mental illness and the repetitive insanity within his protagonists better suggests a more intimate connection between creator and creation.
In a much wider sense, one can look at the time in which Poe lived and was published; the 19th century. Martha Womack discusses the evil eye, a common trope both in real life and in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Womack discusses that references to the evil eye could be seen in Slavic folktales and the Muslim religion, and had been around for centuries. However, most people in the 19th century would have grown out of legitimizing the mysticism of this tale. Still inspired, though, Poe took this idea and created a physical manifestation of it, returning it’s power to instill fear in others. The outside world of Poe influenced him at all angles; Farida explains the shifting of America in the 19th century, describing the growth and change in America, as the west was quickly colonized and large cities started popping up in various states, where immigrants usually flocked. Farida states the the 19th century was riddled with corruption, especially in terms of wealth. If it was not the pessimism of his circumstance that led Poe to his style, it was the urgency to reflect the darkness of man.
Although what exactly in Poe’s life inspired his writing is up for debate, it is certain that “The Tell-Tale Heart” provides a prime example of an unparticular man’s cruel and irrational nature. The narrator is incredibly self indulgent and narcissistic, claiming his cleverness is proof of his sanity and proclaiming his confidence in the murder while reflecting on his visit by the police. In fact, in the story, it is neither the old man or the police that defeat him but he himself that proves to be his own advisory, his guilt leading him into a confession. Despite a popular interpretation of the heartbeat’s symbol of the man’s guilt, the narrator’s callousness and selfishness as the story is told is also to be noted. As Greg Edward discusses in the analysis of his critically-acclaimed web series, the narrator is not upset at all by his crime, and is more upset of people accusing him of being mad. Alas, to the narrator, the threat of losing face and dignity is more upsetting than the loss of another person’s life.
Interestingly, the heartbeat is not the only symbol of the man’s guilt. Some scholars interpret the eye that bothers the man so much as a symbol for his guilt as well. The clear blueness of the eye, almost looking like a mirror, is a reminder to the narrator of his evilness and desire for violence. Instead of trying to resolve this problem within him, he kills the man he loves, sacrificing the old man to rid himself of the guilt, only to be overwhelmed with the guilt of the murder. However, in the narration, this isn’t overtly said. It could be either that the unreliable narrator is hiding these thoughts in interest to his testimony of sanity, or he doesn’t know these thoughts are there at all. This brings up Freud’s theory of the subconscious and unconscious, which has been repeatedly used as a lense for literature such as “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Farida and Edwards both discuss in their analysis the Freudian perspective of the book; that the narrator kills the old man as a way to quell his innate human desire to gain power over a father figure.
The reason people can and are inspired to discuss elements of psychology in literature is because of tales like “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Without characters with mental illnesses, we would not be able to talk about mental illness in literature. In fact, NYU Langone Medical Center’s Tony Miksanek even joined the discussion, suggesting that the narrator’s “manic,” unnaturally repetitive and disoriented are signs of his mental illness, as well as his obsessive nature over the eye. Miksanek also discusses the psychological effect on the reader, stating the source of the terror is both the murder that is described and the state of the narrator’s mind. He discusses how Poe’s grip in time, tense, and reality in the story leave the readers vulnerable to feel frightened and powerless. He also concludes that the story is not just about the demise of the old man, but of the narrator himself. The old man physically dies in the story, however, one could argue the narrator finds a fate worse than death, the loss of his sanity which he is desperately, but futilely, trying to cling to.
Just as Poe has inspired discussion among readers even far past his own time and knowledge, Poe inspired other writers as well. Many authors have discussed the numerous parallels between the work of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Richard Kopley in particular discusses the similarities between “The Tell-Tale Heart” and Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” The novel “The Scarlet Letter” is not generally considered to be a piece of horror literature, but Kopley points to parallels such as old men with evil eyes, and subtlety of the ending in contradiction with the pushy and exciting pace scene through the rest of the texts. Although Hawthorne takes several liberties with these elements in his own work, Kopley argues an evident connection and implies the power of Poe’s themes to transcend genres and assert power in other forms of literature.
The effect of the world on Poe’s literature and likewise the effect of Poe’s literature on the world is a supreme example of a cycle of inspiration. The life, trends, and ideas in Poe’s world inspired his writing, which then inspired discussion among those who consumed it, as well as inspired other writers in their creations, which would subsequently inspire discussion among those consumers as well, and so on. This cycle of literary discussion illustrates a natural pattern in which humanity builds on top of each other as the history of man moves onward onto its imminent end.