Sunday, June 26, 2011

Essay:The Unlikelihood of Murder in “The Tell-Tale Heart”

This is a paper I wrote for ENG 250 at Ohio University this past Spring Quarter. I wanted to post it for some friends to read and have no intention of researching this further. The page numbers go to a collection of Poe's works that I have, but you can ignore the numbers and just know that it all cites passages from Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart," and nothing more. Plagiarism is bad and naughty and I'd prefer that people not steal my shit, but that's the risk you run when posting online...and it's not like webpages I used to write for don't have the option of profiting from selling old articles that I wrote for them. Always read the fine print, kids.
The spaces between paragraphs don't mean different sections, but do differentiate between paragraphs...obviously.

The Unlikelihood of Murder in “The Tell-Tale Heart”

The narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” is unreliable at best and more curiously possibly not doing any of the actions that he discusses. Using the Psychoanalysis approach and details within the story a reading of the text can be provided that not only discredits the narrator’s version of the story, but questions the truth of the murder that appears to haunt him. Looking at lines within the text the murder of the old man can be read as a work of an over-active imagination, or a dream, in the mind of a caretaker driven mad by the silence and isolation of being alone in a large house for an extended period of time.

The narrator repeatedly draws attention to the idea of madness. He mentions heightened senses multiple times, but mostly focuses on his hearing abilities being elevated. If he has been alone in the house while the old man is away in the country then the silence could appear to deepen over time and improve his hearing when he is alone. This degree of quiet and solitude could be the cause of his madness. During the story he alternates between being nervous and being calm. For example: “. . .very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am. . .” (317), “how calmly I can tell you the whole story.” (317), and “I have told you that I am nervous: so I am.”(319) Just this alternating between calm and nerves can paint him as being unreliable when telling the story.

During the actual act of the murder several items do not quite make sense. “I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him.”(319): this is the only physical act of the murder in this scene and it appears more of an inconvenience rather than a murder weapon. A bed heavy enough to kill someone is probably not light enough for one man to pull over the other person even if they are elderly. The nature of the old man’s murder is called into question because the parallel between the narrator and old man is brought forward. Before the murder the narrator claims that he and the old man both wait unmoving for an hour after being startled by the lantern. These movements are parallel and the narrator begins to project his own fears upon what he believes is the old man, “His fears had been ever since growing upon him. He had been trying to fancy them causeless, but could not.” This quotation also projects the narrator’s descent into madness as something that increased over time, and can make his representation of the events possible inaccurate.

The investigators states that “A shriek had been heard by a neighbor during the night. . .”(320) to which the narrator responds “The shriek, I said, was my own in a dream. The old man, I mentioned, was absent in the country.”(320) In this section he reveals that he may have been dreaming and the old man may be away. To put an action with what the narrator’s possible dream and what the neighbors heard to the sequence of events that he believes led to the murder of the old man, “With a loud yell, I threw open the lantern and leaped into the room.” (319) Using these three quotes the reality of the events around what the narrator believes happened involving the old man is drawn into question. Since this raises so many questions another question can be brought in as to why he appears to encourage the investigators to stay and talk, especially in the room where he believes the murder happened. Perhaps if this all happened in a dream triggered by his madness of silence then perhaps he desires the officers to stay and talk to fill the silence, but also to show that nothing is wrong with the room. He cannot cope with what he believes he has done and the content of the dream makes him nervous as the heartbeat sound returns.

While talking to the officers in the last two paragraphs the narrator takes notice of the heart-like noise. He discusses the acts of gasping for breath, talking quickly, pacing, swearing, raving and then moving his chair around. His obviously agitated state as he describes hearing the sound is not noticed by the officers. In this reading it is possible that the sound is only in his head, being his own heartbeat, and the increase in volume coincides with him becoming more physically agitated--thus increasing the noise—or by him imagining the ranting and raving within his own head. If he is carrying out these nervous behaviors and the officers pay no mind to it, then there is something amiss with their observational skills and they should not be on any police force. But, more likely, the narrator is raging within his own head, as the panic increases, so does his pulse and the increase in audibility of his own heartbeat. This is why the officers do not hear it.

Between the shifting moods, heightened sense and oddly paralleled events within the narrative the actual act of murder can be called into question. The only truth in the narrator’s account may be that the old man was away in the country, the narrator is alone in the house for an extended period of time which causes him to have heightened senses and the scream that the neighbors heard was that of the narrator shrieking during a dream in which he killed the old man, or screamed while fantasizing about killing an old man who was not there. While looking at details of the narrative and the psychological state of the narrator the larger story as relayed by him can be called into question.

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