The Tell-Tale Heart (Penguin Little Black Classics) by Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe is one of those writers you feel you must have read at some point in your life, but they’ve just become so ingrained in our culture that you aren’t quite sure whether you actually did, or if you just know their writing from other media. Certainly this must be true of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, the first of the three short stories in this little book from the Penguin Little Black Classics Collection: it is referenced so often, with such a range of spoofs and rewrites, that we could probably all retell the main plot points of the narrative without ever having read the story. I may not have read much (or any) Poe up until this point, but it is impossible to miss how much of an influence he has had on the culture I live in. And so, one sunny day (because I didn’t want to read it just before I went to sleep), I sat down and read these short stories about mystery, madness, and death.
The first of the three is the very well-known ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’. As is often the case with well-known stories, I discovered that I actually didn’t know as much about it as I thought I did. In UK culture, and I would hazard a guess that this is a general rule in other cultures too, this story is generally cited as an exploration of guilt and its effects; ‘the heart under the floorboards’ is used as an allusion to something which serves to build up guilt. The reality, however, is that there is very little to do with guilt actually in the story. That most famous scene with the beating heart is all of one page: it is the planning and execution of the murder which takes the majority of the narrative. Written as a defense of his sanity by the unnamed murderer, the opening sentence is essentially the abstract for the rest of the story: ‘True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?’ (p.1) It is not guilt which causes him to confess, but the delusion that the policemen already know his crime and are mocking him. Instead of being a study of guilt, then, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ is actually a study of madness.
It might be coincidence, or good selection on the side of the Penguin Little Black Classics series editors, but this theme of madness runs throughout all three stories. The second story, ‘The House of the Fall of Usher’, is also a fairly well-known story, though not as engrained in culture as ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’. It deals with the madness of a family, in an eerily atmospheric mansion, and the repercussions of emotional trauma. The final story ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is, perhaps, the most tenuous link to madness, but I would argue that there are still traces of it being explored in the narrative. However, it is probably true that it deals more with themes of revenge than madness. (It is also, in my opinion, the weaker of the three stories.) I found the similarities between these three very different narratives intriguing, especially with regards to their major themes.
I’m not really one for ghost stories or horror stories, so I can’t say that I will necessarily be seeking out any more Poe. However, I am very glad that I did read these three short stories, if only to have a better understanding of why Poe has had such an influence on our culture. I will say that he is particularly skilled at building up mystery and intrigue; it is impossible to put down the book once you are engaged with a particular narrative, and the tone is something which sticks in your mind long after you have walked away. Overall, I would definitely recommend that you read ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ at the very least: it is a famous story for a reason, and was well worth the short amount of time it took to read.