A few weeks ago I wrote a post about eyes in art and only realized afterward that I’d missed an opportunity to talk about my favorite Edgar Allan Poe story, the one that was my first introduction to Poe: The Tell-Tale Heart. My first encounter with it was the animated film narrated by James Mason, which I saw on TV, and it terrified me. I also loved it and went to the library and checked out a book of Poe’s stories the next day, so don’t let anyone tell you TV is a bad influence, kids, especially if they’re the sort of people who think you shouldn’t be reading stories about death and murder and drug use and incest—which is exactly what you’ll find in Poe’s works.
The title of The Tell-Tale Heart is, of course, misleading. Only the nameless narrator hears the heart so it doesn’t really give anything away, but I’m getting ahead of the story. One of Poe’s main sources for The Tell-Tale Heart was Daniel Webster’s prosecution of John Francis Knapp, who was one of the killers of a wealthy man. In a courtroom speech Webster dramatically described the murder:
The face of the innocent sleeper was turned from the murderer, and the beams of the moon, resting on the gray locks of his aged temple, showed him where to strike. The fatal blow is given, and the victim passes, without a struggle or a motion, from the repose of sleep to the repose of death!
Webster then goes on at length about how a guilty conscience can’t stay quiet, inspiring Poe’s denouement, although Knapp was driven by greed while Poe’s narrator is driven by something else. He displaces his own internal torment onto an old man whom he lives with, and, in spite of the story’s emphasis on sound, what first sets off the narrator is what he sees:
I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees –very gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
And he looks in on the old man sleeping night after night, but each time the eye is closed. It’s only on the eighth night that the old man wakes up and sits up in bed, “listening; –just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall.” This is incredibly creepy. Deathwatch beetles, which chew through wood and can damage houses, communicate with a distinct six to eight clicks, and in folklore they’re harbingers of death. Some scholars think what the narrator may be hearing is actually a booklouse which keeps up a longer, steadier beat, but then we’re also talking about a guy who, right from the beginning, tells us, “I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell.” Just before the murder he hears the old man’s heart beating, “a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton,” which suggests maybe the old man was more hard-hearted than the narrator’s willing to let on, and he hears the beating get steadily louder. I think Poe makes it pretty clear that the only thing we can be sure of is that we can’t be sure of anything the narrator says. I’m not sure I even trust his confession.
It’s a fun story that starts quietly and builds to a devastatingly loud end, which is why it’s even better read out loud. Once on a Boy Scout camping trip I read it to my fellow Scouts around the campfire, but don’t let anyone tell you I’m a bad influence. Everyone really enjoyed it, even Blake who got so scared he shit himself, and people came over from other campsites to see what all the screaming was about. I really put my heart into it.