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The Tell-Tale Heart | Discussion Questions 41 - 50

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How does the symbol of the house as the psyche contribute to the overall effect of "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

In "The Tell-Tale Heart" the house can be understood as the concrete representation of the human psyche. The narrator and the old man are both trapped in the house, or trapped in the mind of the narrator. Poe gives the irrational mind shape in the form of the house, and in doing so achieves two important things: first, he gives the psyche a concrete representation where he can experiment with notions of the mind, mainly truth, knowledge, the self, and emotions. Second, by comparing the house to the human psyche, Poe is able to abandon reason and indulge in the irrational mind.

Why might Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" have been and continue to be adapted into various forms in pop culture since its publication in 1843?

Edgar Allan Poe is among the most studied authors in the American education system, and his influence is deeply felt in pop culture, from film to video games. While Poe's work is marked by conventions of the literary movements of his time, his work continues to live in the American consciousness in a way that his contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne's, work does not. One potential explanation is that his work is not concerned with moral righteousness as was Hawthorne's. Rather, his work aimed to give an experience to the reader, one that resonated in the imagination and engaged the emotions. While social mores and religious dogma evolve over time, the emotional terrain of the human psyche has not changed since the publication of Poe's works.

Why might Poe have included an epigraph from a Longfellow poem in the original publication of "The Tell-Tale Heart" in The Pioneer?

When first published in The Pioneer Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" began with an epigraph from a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem called "A Psalm of Life." The epigraph reads as follows: "Art is long and Time is fleeting,/And our hearts, though stout and brave,/Still, like muffled drums, are beating/Funeral marches to the grave." On the surface Poe's story "The Tell-Tale Heart" echoes these lines, most notably when the narrator likens the beating of the old man's heart to a drum march. But there is perhaps something deeper about the nature of art that Poe is suggesting about his own work through Longfellow's words. "Art is long and Time is fleeting": these lines call the reader to memento mori, or "remember death." Perhaps Poe is asserting his work as his legacy. Art is long and will last long after he marches to the grave.

What is the narrator's tragic flaw in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

Though a tragic flaw is conventionally a trait reserved for heroic characters in literature, the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" can be said to have a tragic flaw: his acute senses. The narrator prides himself on this and uses it to defend his sanity, yet it is ultimately his undoing. The narrator can perceive the mental state of the old man, can hear the man's heart beating, and can hold perfectly still so as not to make a sound, yet in the end no matter how elevated his senses he can't control his emotions. In fact it was his acute hearing that led him to buckle under the weight of his guilt, suggesting that this very supernatural power was his tragic flaw.

How does Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" reflect the controversy of his time concerned with the insanity defense?

A few years before Poe published "The Tell-Tale Heart" there was disagreement about the validity of the insanity defense in a court of law. This historical context sheds new light on what might motivate the narrator to tell the tale the way he does. He says at the outset that they think he is crazy yet decides to make a case for the opposite. However, if he is not sane he might be unable to make that distinction. He plainly states that he was not after the old man's money or any kind of revenge. However, if the auditors of this story are a jury, judge, or prosecutor, it might benefit the narrator to deny his insanity while simultaneously proving it through his bizarre account of the murder.

Which qualities of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" create layered meanings?

On first read "The Tell-Tale Heart" seems simply a story of a madman who has committed a murder and then made a confession under the pressure of guilt; however, there are many different potential interpretations. Poe expertly layers meaning in his stories. In "The Tell-Tale Heart" Poe makes the suggestion that the old man and the narrator are one in the same by relying on Gothic tropes; he also draws on contemporary concerns about the validity of the insanity defense to suggest that the narrator may be faking his mental illness. While one of these interpretations requires the reader to abandon reason and believe the characters as doppelgängers, the other interpretation requires the reader to interpret the events of the story literally. This layered writing forces the reader to engage with the story in a way a didactic piece cannot.

What parallel can be drawn between Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" and his sonnet "To Science"?

Edgar Allan Poe's sonnet "To Science" discusses the restrictions that scientific inquiry places on the imagination. The speaker of the poem calls science a "Vulture, whose wings are dull realities." Of course in "The Tell-Tale Heart" the narrator calls the old man's eye a vulture eye, and the eye comes to symbolize rational truth, knowing, and intellect. In "To Science" the speaker wishes science would leave the poet to "his wanderings/To seek for treasure in the jeweled skies." In other words the speaker of the poem wants to live in the realm of imagination, free from the physical laws that govern reality. The battle between the old man and the narrator, the eye and the heart, in "The Tell-Tale Heart" mirrors the conflict of Poe's poem; the narrator wishes to destroy the vulture eye (e.g., the eye of science) so that imagination can prevail. Indeed, in Poe's works he often introduces the supernatural and the fantastic at the expense of scientific reality.

What evidence is provided that the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" is male?

Despite the widespread assumption that the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a male, there are in fact no gendered pronouns in the story. However, the narrator does refer to "madmen": "You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing." Perhaps one reason for this interpretation is that Poe's stories nearly always feature a male protagonist and rarely feature female characters at all; nonetheless there is no direct evidence in "The Tell-Tale Heart" to confirm that the narrator is male. However, if the reader believes that the narrator and the old man are two parts of the same psyche, then there might be a more convincing case to be made that the narrator, as a part of the old man, is indeed male, though this case would rest on the assumption that the psyche is gendered at all.

What evidence is there that the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" is female?

Because the gender of the narrator is not indicated, this narrator could be, as some critics have argued, a woman. If the narrator is female, then the narrator's role and action in the story may become clearer. The narrator enters the old man's room every morning because she is a caretaker, a daughter, or a nurse—a role for women almost exclusively during this time period. The uncomfortable watchfulness of the old man's eye comes to symbolize a domineering male authority from which duty or occupation will not allow the narrator to escape. Finally the narrator's emotionally explosive style may indicate hysteria, a mental illness attributed almost exclusively to emotional women at the time. Freud theorized that hysteria occurred when a subject was not allowed to mature into a fully realized sexual being—a situation that may be true if this female narrator is trapped in her role as caretaker without an outlet for her own growth and maturity. Freud also acknowledged the existence of a male hysteria, which might indicate a conflict between the narrator's male and female attributes, as Poe explores in "The Fall of the House of Usher," if the narrator and the old man are two parts of the same person: one female and one male.

What parallels are there between Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart,""published in 1983, and his short story "The Cask of Amontillado," which was published three years later?

"The Cask of Amontillado" was published three years after Poe's wildly successful "The Tell-Tale Heart." While the second story is longer than the first, there are striking similarities between the two stories. They both feature only main characters, though other characters are suggested and alluded to; they are both first-person accounts of a crime committed that are delivered in the form of a dramatic monologue. The narrator in both stories reveals himself to be mentally unstable and to have committed a crime without just cause. Beyond the similarities in plot points and characterization, these two stories showcase Poe's ability to create tension through point of view and to explore the darkest parts of the human psyche.

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