A Story of Guilt

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William Morden
Professor Alina Patriche
ENC1102, Session 1
4 November 2011
The Tell-Tale Heart: A Story of Guilt
The Tell-Tale Heart is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe about an obsessive murderer and his strange delusions. It is presented in first-person with the killer himself the narrator. Though he has apparently begun the narrative in order to defend the question of his own sanity, his story offers more than a study of disturbed reasoning. He attempts to show that he is not crazy, and that he is fully justified in carrying out the murder of the old man. Though there is no apparent motive, the killer seems almost pressed to present one to his interrogators as if this might somehow help his case. He seems confused when he blurts out, “I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this!” (Poe) Yet, he commits himself to presenting the eye as evil in an attempt to justify his actions. The presumably secondary motive is not presented until much later. He says, “There came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.” This he attributes as the old man’s heart, and it is this beating, “hideous heart” that forces the killer into action both in committing the crime and admitting to the deed. (Poe) Though the killer had originated his plan to rid himself of the old man’s “evil eye”, it is the beating heart that compels him. (Poe) The heart, though presented as the victim’s, actually represents the killer’s evil plot to murder the old man and his final guilt and admission of the crime to police. It is the central focus of the narrative, though the careful craftsmanship of the author would distract the reader from this by attracting them to the frightful insight into the mind of a paranoid killer. Even though the killer claims that the beating heart belongs to his ill-fated victim, we can see, by the detail he gives to the heart’s cadence and the timing of its introduction into the story, that this heart is actually his own beating heart; a heart beating out of overwhelming fear, hatred, and guilt for committing such a gruesome crime; his very own, revealing, betraying, tell-tale heart. One cannot read this story without first seeing that the narrator seems very unreliable. First, he does not make any attempt to defend his innocence. The killer announces quite soon in the story, “I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever”. (Poe) The narration thus begins with the understanding that he is already proven to be guilty of the crime, and we see his utmost concern has become the defense of mental health. Second, the killer begins his defense with this single statement, “Hearken! And, observe how healthily -- how calmly I can tell you the whole story”. (Poe) This one phrase presents both the killer’s desire to portray himself as a sane individual, and one of the first uses of what turns out to be a common use of hyphens in this short story. Poe’s use of these hyphens helps to communicate the killer’s madness, fear, uneasiness, and uncertainty. “The language of the story, particularly the use of dashes to express the obscure connections of the tale and the repetitions that mark the emphatic denial of insanity, is one of its most striking features.” (Dewsbury 256) They assist the reader in coming to the conclusion that the narrator must be mad, and therefore an unreliable source as witness to the events that transpired. “From the very first sentence [the killer’s] madness is apparent through his desperate insistence upon his sanity; and the preliminaries of mental abnormality.” (Ward 240) Thirdly, he claims to have been completely in control of his faculties. He understood the limits of his senses, and that “the disease had sharpened [them] -- not destroyed -- not dulled them”. (Poe) The killer claims that he not only has heightened senses, but that he is also unbelievably patient and poised. “You should have seen how wisely I proceeded -- with what caution...
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