9 October 2012
American Gothic Fiction and “The Tell Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe American Gothic Fiction is a subgenre of Gothic Fiction. Elements specific to American Gothic include: rational vs. irrational, puritanism, guilt, ghosts, monsters, and domestic abjection. American Gothic is often free of castles and objects which allude to a civilized history. Differentiating between horror and terror is important in the study of these texts. American Gothic fiction stemmed from Romanticism, which dealt with such emotions as awe, horror and terror, and apprehension. Modern Gothic writers such as Stephen King have credited Edgar Allan Poe with creating the mood and atmosphere that was developed into what we know now as modern horror. Edgar Allan Poe began writing in the Gothic style and used his troubled past as a sort of basis as to why his works deal with such “macabre” aspects of the human mind. Edgar Allan Poe exemplified Gothic literature and at the same time redefined the genre as a whole. Poe’s Gothic style broke from traditional Gothic themes of true horror of certain events and became more focused on the psychological aspects of the characters. Poe became intent on explore the decay of the mental status of his characters and how each often descended into pure madness. In the short story “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the narrator, with the first word “True!” has already confessed to murder of the old man he has spied on. Sanity, a key factor in this piece, escapes the narrator as he not only feverously tried to prove he is sane, but completely disregards the notion of his innocence. By trying to prove his sanity, he in turn incidentally proves his guilt. He also constantly refers to the old man’s “evil eye” as a separate being. He cannot stand the sight nor the mere thought of it and is determined to kill the eye. He even goes so far as to assure the reader that he has no problem with the man himself, just the eye. The narrator’s attempt to separate the man from his “evil eye”, his attempt to prove he is not sane, and the beating of the man’s severed heart all lead the reader to infer that the narrator is insane. Throughout the story the narrator is particularly nice to the old man and even states that he has no problem with him. However when night falls the narrator would sneak into the man’s room with a watchful guard on the man’s eye. The eye remains closed and the narrator leaves. This happens constantly until the eighth night. When the narrator wakes the man that night, the eye opens. He constantly refers to the eye as being the source of his agony and his anger. When Poe does this, he creates an atmosphere of insanity. By separating a part of the old man and giving it a characteristic of being human all itself, the reader cannot reason as to why he does this and why he wants to kill the eye. His frantic behavior as he begins to kill the eye suggests that he has no control over emotions or reasoning. From the very first word in this narrative, the reader is given a clue as to the narrators distorted state of mind. “True!” is shout as to almost admit to the crime before he has even began to explain himself thus foreshadowing his confession to the police later in the story. The narrator stresses the idea that he was in full control of his emotions and was cool under pressure from the eye. However, by constantly stressing this idea, his erratic and manic behavior only furthers the idea that his plea of sanity is but a ruse. Whenever we as humans try to convince ourselves that our actions are just, we repeat constantly that is so. The narrator is constantly telling the reader that his actions were just and that he is sane. However as time passes, this becomes less of an attempt to convince the reader, but to convince himself. He begins to realize that his efforts on convincing the reader as in vain and tries to create a sort of “out” to relieve himself of the responsibility for the murder. This is an impossibility for him and after the burial of the body, his conscious begins to take over and the false reasoning fades and truth consumes him to the point of his confession. After the murder, he, as he explained, buried the body underneath his floor very calmly and believed he was free from the man’s wrath. However during his interrogation by the police, a beating ensues. This beating can be seen as one of two explanations. It can be taken as the literal heartbeat of the old man, as he did dismember him and bury the heart under the floor. However the most logical explanation of the beating is the proverbial “ticking time bomb” of his sanity. As he is questioned the beating, or ringing as it is described, is quiet and low. As time passes, the beating gets louder and louder. This beating is said to represent the progression of the narrator’s sanity. He begins to lose control of his thoughts and actions and, in a fit of madness, rips up the floor and shows the body to the police confessing that he is the murderer. The beating heart is a representation of sanity. Once the heart was buried the narrator believed he was free only to realize that no matter what he did with the body, it would always follow him. This constant harassment is too much for the narrator to bear. Poe’s narrator from the very first word “True!” has sealed his fate. The reader sees that by this first word the narrator has committed this act and has lost control. When he tries to separate the eye from the man, it is almost as if the narrator believes the eye is the man. This is another sign of his impending insanity. In the article "Irresistible Impulses: Edgar Allan Poe and the Insanity Defense", John Cleman writes “His denial of insanity is based on his systematic actions and precision—a rational explanation for irrational behavior.” The constant reminders of his perceived sanity to the reader and ultimately himself prove that he is concealing the fact he has lost his mind a fact he never truly deals with. Finally, the beating of the severed heart is the final “nail in the coffin” for his sanity. The beating is a representation of his expedited transition to conceived sanity to pure acknowledgeable insanity. It is a reminder that no matter how much we try to conceal truth and reason, our conscious will always rule in the end.
Cleman, John. "Irresistible Impulses: Edgar Allan Poe and the Insanity Defense", collected in Bloom's BioCritiques: Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2002. ISBN 0-7910-6173-6, p. 70