Commentary Notes from Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

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Stories of Edgar Allan Poe Commentary

It should be no surprise that this grotesque tale was written in late 1842 around the same time as 'The Black Cat," which also features a murderous narrator relating the circumstances that led up to his crime. In fact, both of these stories show close resemblance in theme and plot. "The Tell-Tale Heart" was published with the assistance of Massachusetts poet James Russell Lowell in his magazine, The Boston Pioneer in January of 1843. In comparison, "The Black Cat" was published in Philadelphia on August 19, 1843, later that same year. It is important to also note that "The Tell-Tale Heart" would be printed again with some minor changes in The Broadway Journal's August 23, 1845 edition, when Poe was residing with Virginia in New York City.

"The Tell-Tale Heart" utilizes storytelling techniques similar to "The Black Cat," as the action is filtered through the eyes of a delusional narrator. Just as one narrator fixates upon the old man's eye and determines to commit a conscious act of murder, the second narrator is obsessed with a cat that he cannot get rid of. The narrator prides himself on his careful planning and mastery at deceiving others. While he acts friendly towards the old man and the police, dark secrets are hidden deep inside of him. This leads to a false confidence, much like the man in "The Black Cat." Just as the narrator from "The Tell-Tale Heart" insists on seating the policemen in the very room where he had slain the old man just a few hours before, the other narrator knocks on the wall in the basement, proud of his own abilities at concealing his wife's body. Just as the old man's body was revealed to be beneath the floorboards at the narrator's own admission, the man's knocking on the wall caused the cat to meow from the other side, causing the policemen to tear the wall apart. In the first, the narrator admits his crime because of the loud beating of the heart, whereas in "The Black Cat," the narrator does not control the discovery of his crime. Rather, once the cat meows the course of events is quite beyond the man's control, and he is tormented by the knowledge that the cat still lives after all and he is to be executed for his wife's murder.

The narrator's fate in 'The Tell-Tale Heart" is unclear, although it is probable that he, too, faces execution or certainly some sort of hefty punishment for what he has done. Perhaps he has been committed to an insane asylum, which would explain his constant need to declare that he is not insane; he does not show remorse for his crime, but rather expresses a sense of glee that the old man was murdered, coupled with a new sense of defeat since the heartbeat sound continues to torment him. Its presence affirms the narrator's madness, that his fears are not of supernatural origin, but rather are internalized conditions within his own mind. The narrator's strict refusal to acknowledge this clearly reveals the unsolved problem at the real heart of the tale. It is probable that the heartbeat that the narrator hears all around him in the outside world, is in fact the beating of his very own heart. Thus, he projects internal struggles out into the world that is around him. He kills the old man, screams at the policemen, and begs for the heartbeat to stop, instead of trying to solve the real problem that is within himself. By blaming everything that is in the outside rather than what is within him, he is merely perpetuating this internal disease.

In contrast, the narrator of "The Black Cat" speaks with a bit more eloquence and understanding of events; he admits that he has a drinking problem that causes him to become violently angry. Rather than trying to deny personality flaws, he acknowledges them and lacks the wicked deceptiveness of the man from "The Tell-Tale Heart," for he does not intentionally deceive people, aside from the police. The cat becomes the object of his obsession, although he admits wistfully that he once cared about animals, showing a genuine desire to be a nicer person. He acknowledges these fits of anger, such as the one that caused him to slay his wife with an ax, but he nevertheless shows some remorse for what he has done. This character is more human, a man who admits he made mistakes and prepares to accept the punishment of death that is then waiting for him. He does not reassert his sanity again and again. A certain progression is thus evident from the earlier story; "The Tell-Tale Heart" shows an unresolved disease within the character's mind, while the narrator in "The Black Cat" states that he has flaws in his personality and takes responsibility for what he has done. That is not to say one should behave as he did, but one could at least understand his frustrations at seeing this black cat following him around everywhere, which led to his violent act of stabbing its eye and later plans to kill the cat. Interestingly, it is the eye of the old man that also causes the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" to eventually commit murder.

These two stories were written and published around the same time and follow a fairly similar format, although the second shows a dramatic progression and growth from the first story, which does not provide any real resolution. There, the narrator's malady is uncured, for he still hears the beating heart that he still refuses to recognize as his own. In "The Black Cat," however, the narrator resolves his inner conflict by confessing his crime to the reader and prepares to receive his execution on the following day. "The Tell-Tale Heart" thus provides a unique lens into the soul of a man that is lost within himself and offers important insight into the thought processes of someone who has fallen completely out of touch with reality. This tale delves deeply into the narrator's sickened mind, hidden beneath a friendly, external guise, and it boldly suggests that anyone can show a fake face in public, while still hiding much darker thoughts deep inside.

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