The Mythic Base and Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”
It can be argued that much of what makes Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart tick is rooted in the common conception of death as a finality. However, death in this story is a product of the protagonist's madness; therefore, it is impossible to provide a proper analysis without first establishing the degree of his mental instability. Not only does his madness bring about death, but it also allows for rebirth, entirely subverting the base mythic understanding of death as an undefeatable inevitability.
The story is narrated from the perspective of an unnamed man seeking to murder another unnamed character because the latter has an “Evil Eye.” The stalking, the murder, and the concealment of the body are all presented by this unreliable narrator who constantly claims that he is, in fact, not insane:
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. 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 (Poe, 1966, 981).
As if murder and the sundering of a body are not in themselves acts of madness (clinical or otherwise), the precision with which he performs those acts serves as a defense mechanism for his sanity because he claims that a mad person would not have thought of such "wise precautions." Arthur Robinson (1965), a former professor of English at the University of Rhode Island, noted that “no objective setting is provided; so completely subjective is the narration that few or no points of alignment with the external world remain” (377). It is unclear who the protagonist or the murdered man are; thus there is no rational explanation as to why the murder takes place – in fact, the only motivation is the supernatural or metaphorical eye that so deeply bothers the narrator.
Brett Zimmerman (1992), professor emeritus at the University of York, writes on how accurately Poe depicted the symptoms and the state of mind of a paranoid schizophrenic and points out that the vast majority of schizophrenics "suffer from auditory hallucinations” (40). The narrator makes the point that his supposed madness or ill state only caused him to have heightened senses, so much so that he could hear the man’s heart beat from a distance:
[T]here 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 (Poe, 1966, 980).
An enchanting quality is ascribed to the heart which seems to hypnotize and force the narrator into the act of murder, but even after the act, “the murder, instead of freeing the narrator, is shown to heighten his agony and intensify his delusions” (Gargano, 1963, 179). By telling the story from the perspective of a deluded man, Poe manages to build an atmosphere of uncertainty and dark gravity. As Benjamin F. Fisher (2002), a Duke University PhD alum who specializes in American and Victorian studies, points out, “[Poe] realized at the outset of his career that Gothicism was eminently compatible with psychological plausibility in literature” (78). What is more, the borders between that which stems from a deranged psyche and that which is overtly fantastical (or Gothic) are erased. Thus, it becomes difficult to truly decipher the final sentence of the story: “It is the beating of his hideous heart!” (Poe, 1966, 982). An occurrence rationally explained only by the narrator’s madness leaves open the possibility that something supernatural took place: it introduces the potential for rebirth.
The connection to the Gothic nature of the text is perhaps best expressed through the thematization of death. Obviously, a story is not considered Gothic simply for having death as a central theme. Rather, “an atmosphere conducive to anxieties in the protagonist” (Fisher, 2002, 75) grew to become the central idea behind many Gothic stories, and death figures as the ultimate trigger of anxiety and anxious thought.
Understanding the narrator's underlying lack of sanity is important for the theme of death because it is this very madness that causes death and, in a slightly different way, causes the eventual rebirth. The story's frightening conclusion draws power from the idea of death being overcome, an act that was rarely achieved even by mythical figures.
At the core of Poe’s tale is the common conception of death as a finality and an inevitability. Regardless of what one believes happens after death, it still marks the end of a life (or, at the very least, one form of said life). In Greek mythology, few (if any) descriptions exist of Hades' appearance as a humanoid god. Even Thanatos, who was later used by the psychiatrist and psyhoanalyst Carl G. Jung for the symbolization of the death drive, figures as a minor character in the breadth of the Greek mythos. Naturally, one wonders why that is; death is, after all, an unavoidable fact of reality, a destiny to which all that is born and that lives must succumb to. It could be argued that the scarcity of descriptions stems from the negative conception of death as the end of natural life. Worshipping a fertility god(dess) is one thing, but to devote time and thought to Hades, or Death, must have been seen as a bad omen in antiquity. Death as a concept has retained this aura of unease and inevitability (and certainly had it in Poe’s time). This is precisely why a potential escape from death creates such an enticing end to this story.
Myths where an individual (godlike or human) conquers death are few and far between; Hades remains inescapable for all but a few heroes, such as Heracles. This mythical truth serves as a basis for the impact of Poe’s story (or of any story that thematizes a death overturned). The idea that nothing can overcome death has been ingrained into the common consciousness of humanity. All empires crumble, all people, no matter how rich or powerful, eventually perish: “For you are dust, and you will return to dust” (Christian Standard Bible, 2022, Genesis 3:19). However, the unnamed man in Poe's story does not seem to turn to dust. Even when entirely disassembled, his heart finds a way to beat; perhaps such rebirth is only possible when narrated by a madman.
In much the same way as mythical storytelling serves as the foundation for certain trappings of literary practice, language, and storytelling, it has also affected cultural consciousness. Ever since the myths of old, humanity has been taught that the act of escaping death is the ultimate sin against nature, whether it be governed by gods, one God, or wayward natural laws. The Tell-Tale Heart draws from that legacy in order to create a true moment of horror - even a deranged man knows that a heart forcefully stopped should not tell any more tales.
Christian Standard Bible. (2022). Bible.com. https://www.bible.com/bible/1713/GEN.3.CSB
Fisher, B. F. (2002). Poe and the Gothic tradition. In The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. (pp. 72-91). Cambridge University Press.
Gargano, J. W. (1963). The question of Poe’s narrators. College English, 25(3), 177–181. https://doi.org/10.2307/373684
Poe, E. A. (1966). The tell-tale heart. In Complete stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe (pp. 979-982). Doubleday.
Robinson, E. A. (1965). Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 19(4), 369–378. https://doi.org/10.2307/2932876
Zimmerman, B. (1992). “"Moral insanity” or paranoid schizophrenia: Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, 25(2), 39–48. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24780617
Cover figure: The Tell-Tale Heart Book Cover. [Digital Illustration]. Mysticbooks.org. Retrieved from: https://mysticbooks.org/book/the-tell-tale-heart
Figure 1: Clarke, H. (1919). The Tell-Tale Heart. [Illustration]. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Clarke-TellTaleHeart.jpeg
Figure 2: Chovin, J. A. (n.d). Dance of death: death and the hermit. [Etching]. JSTOR. Retrieved from: https://jstor.org/stable/community.24887963
Figure 3: Barry, J. (circa 1792-1808). Satan, Sin and Death. [Etching on Paper]. Tate. Retrieved from: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/barry-satan-sin-and-death-t06578
Figure 4: Beham, S. (1545). Hercules capturing Cerberus. [Engraving]. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hercules_capturing_Cerberus.jpg