Poe: The Tell-Tale Heart

Harry Clarke (1919: Tales of Mystery and Imagination)

One afternoon in 6th grade, Miss Chapman sat us down and opened a book. From it, she read “The Tell-Tale Heart.” I don’t remember much else from 6th grade; I’m not even sure that Miss Chapman was the teacher’s name. But I remember that afternoon. Without a doubt, it’s my most vivid memory of grade school. I remembered that the students were silent and well-behaved. There was a few note passing, a little whispering from the back, and the boy who sat across the aisle from me spent the time balancing coins on their edges. But most of the students listened to the teacher. This was a treat! Having a story read to us. She was a good reader; she added the perfect intonations to all the words.

At least, that’s the way I remember it. Bias might’ve contorted the memory because this was an important event in my life. On that day, Miss Chapman introduced me to Edgar Allan Poe. No doubt, I knew who Poe was before this event. I probably had heard parts of “The Raven,” if not the entire poem. But this reading of “The Tell-Tale Heart” was my true introduction to the writer.

In the world of changing sensibilities, I wonder what modern parents would think of a teacher reading “The Tell-Tale Heart” to their children. I imagine objections, complaints to the school board, and a Facebook campaign against the teacher. “The Tell-Tale Heart” is the story not only of a brutal murder but also of a grisly dismemberment. We can’t subject our children to such images!

But I have always considered Miss Chapman’s reading of the “The Tell-Tale Heart” a critical turning point in my life. This was not only my introduction to Poe, but it was also my introduction to Classic literature. No doubt, there were stories and poems before this event, but for the first time, I understood that stories had layers and interpretations. I don’t think “The Tell-Tale Heart” isn’t Poe’s finest story, but it’s the perfect story to read to a 6th-grade class because it is his most assessable story.

True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been—and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had shaprened my scenes—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

The plot is straightforward. A servant, frightened by his employer’s vulture eye, decided he must kill the old man. For days, he plotted the murder and waited for his opportunity. When the time comes, he committed the crime. Once committed, he had the problem of concealing the body from the police. Since it’s important to let the story speak for itself, I’ll tell you no more about the plot. But the story is thrilling from the first line to the final revelation. In structure, short stories often have a lull between the climatic events, but “The Tell-Tale Heart” has no such pause.

In telling this story, Poe employs the literary device known as the unreliable narrator. This story feels like the quintessential example of unreliable narration. Who other than a madman would claim that he’s not mad? But the narrator makes that claim in the first sentence, and he repeats it several times throughout the story. At the same time, he describes his crime and its aftermath in a way that reveals his insanity. The more he tells us, the more we realize that he has serious and chronic mental health issues. It forced everything he says in doubt, including the description of the old man’s vulture-eye that motivated his crime. He’s delusional and psychotic. Why would we believe him?

Many of Poe’s stories have a supernatural element, but “The Tell-Tale Heart” does not. I suppose one interpretation of it gives it a supernatural level, but I doubt many people ascribe to that interpretation. Nor do I believe it was the way Poe wanted the story read. The crime, its motive, and its resolution are secular. That makes it one of Poe’s more frightening tale. This is the type of thing that happens every day. We read it in our headlines. It happened in Poe’s time; it happens in our own time. There’s nothing in the narration that gives this story a time. Maybe it happened two hundred years ago; maybe it happened yesterday.

I doubt that in 6th grade, I would’ve been able to explain why the story affected me so much, but even then, I understood much of what I had written here. I didn’t know the term unreliable narrator, but I did know that the narrator claim of sanity wasn’t to be trusted. I didn’t know the difference between the secular and the supernatural, but I knew the story felt real. It felt like something that could happen. And I didn’t understand the concept of a timeless story, but I knew this story could happen at any time in any place. In short, I got the story. Poe achieved his effect even with a 6th grader.

That’s what I mean about accessible. Many of Poe’s stories inspire frequent reading to mine for the deeper elements. Not “The Tell-Tale Heart.” It’s an experiment in unreliable narration, and that comes across loud and clear, even on the first reading.

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