• Edgar Allan Poe: His Tell-Tale Heart

    The heart is known, in literary terms, as the core part of one’s being. It’s where a person’s emotions and personality are stored. Most writers use the heart of a person to show the good that is within; however, one writer in particular is known for the darkness his characters emanate. This writer broke out from the pack to write some of the most horrific, terrifying tales known to American literature to date. Edgar Allan Poe wrote his stories to symbolize the darkness, rather than the light in people’s hearts. Through his stories, Poe tries to show that there is no such thing as a pure heart, and every one of them has darkness inside.

    How Poe’s life turned out was a contributing factor to how he saw the world. His life, as with the lives of other geniuses, was fraught with tragedy and hostility towards a world which did not care for him. Edgar Allan Poe was born January 19th, 1809 to actors David and Elizabeth Poe. Shortly after Edgar was born, his father abandoned the family. Within a year more tragedy struck the misfortunate Poe family and Elizabeth Poe died of consumption, one of the symptoms of tuberculosis. This left the Edgar, and his two elder siblings, Rosalie and Henry, orphaned. Even though Poe was too young to be traumatized by his mother’s death at the time, later deaths of loved ones would send him down a path of suffering most people would never have conceived. After his mother’s death, Edgar was sent to live with John and Frances Allan. As a sign of respect for his adoptive family, though they never formally adopted him, Edgar took the middle name of Allan. Edgar had a close relationship with his foster mother, but always fought with John Allan. This, in turn, was why Edgar joined the army. It was during this time he published his first book, “Tamerlane and Minor Poems”. This proved to be one of Edgar’s lighter stories. In fact, as each of his loved ones died, Edgar Allan Poe’s stories would continue to get darker and darker.

    While Poe was in the army, Frances Allan died. Her dying wish was for John and Edgar to reconcile their differences, and John got Poe into West Point. After arguments broke out over John Allan’s remarriage, Poe was disowned and he left West Point. He then moved to Baltimore to live with his aunt. It was then that Poe had heard that his brother, Henry, had died of tuberculosis as his mother had. This hit him hard, even though they were never close. That was what made it worse for Edgar. It was during this time period that he wrote what is probably his best known poem, “The Raven”, in memory of the ones he had lost through death. Even though he was never close to John Allan, his death caused Edgar to delve further into alcoholism and drug abuse. In 1935, Poe secretly married his young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He publicly married her a year later. Throughout his adult life, Edgar went between jobs at newspapers as a writer and editor. His problems with drinking caused him to lose many of these jobs, but whatever he wrote gained these papers readers so he kept on getting jobs. In 1947, Poe’s wife died of tuberculosis. It was during this time that Edgar wrote his most grisly horror tales, “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Pit and the Pendulum”. With the death of his wife, the alcoholism became worse and Poe used opium to excess. On October 7th, 1849 Edgar Allan Poe died in a hospital after being found in a gutter in an alley. His final words were “Lord help my poor soul”. He died at 40 years old. His obituary came out in the New York Daily Tribune on October 9th. It was said to be written by Edgar Allan Poe himself so that he could go out in a blaze of glory, rather than be besmirched by one of his rivals. “… in him literary art has lost one of its most brilliant but erratic stars… ‘After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well’”. The second passage represents Poe’s many grievances in his life. Poe entered the world as a child, and left as a man with a dark heart and with bitterness towards the real world.

    Poe did not have a plethora of influences besides the twisted thoughts that dwelled within his own mind. Such thoughts were probably the result of overindulgence to alcohol and opium. Were there other influences that gave Poe inspiration for his macabre writing? What affected his writing the most were the many deaths that had occurred during his life. Three of these deaths were brought about by the deadliest disease of the time period, Tuberculosis. His mother, his brother, and his wife were all ushered to their end by this grisly illness. With each death, Poe delved further into drug abuse and his resentment toward the world intensified to the point where he did not function well with other people. “…he had few or no friends.” With each death, his heart grew darker as well, and he would want to prove that the world was no better, if not worse, than him.

    Other influences came from where he was at the time he was writing his stories. He used the places he had been as the settings for his stories; however, this does not come close to comparing to the influence of death.
    In his early life Poe was afraid of death, and then as time went on he seemed to become more fascinated by it. Throughout his life, Poe was taunted by death. He used that to his advantage in his stories. In “The Raven”, Poe uses the bird, which represents death, to taunt the main character for eternity. The man asks the raven if he will ever be reunited with his lost love Lenore. “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore’.” The man continues to ask questions and gets the same answer from the bird. This drives him to insanity at the end of the story.

    Another instance in which Poe uses death to taunt the character is in the “Tell-Tale Heart.” After the protagonist kills the vulture-eyed man, the police come to investigate because a neighbor heard a scream. Before the police arrived, the main character had put the body under the floorboards. As he shows the police around, he starts hearing a strange noise that gets louder and louder. He assumes it is the heart of the man he killed. It drives him mad, so mad that he yells “I admit the deed!—tear up the planks!... it is the beating of his hideous heart!”

    While the other stories have been about the narrator being taunted by death, sometimes Poe uses the narrator to taunt its victim. This happened in “The Cask of Amontillado.” The narrator, Montresor, leads an enemy of his, Fortunato, to the catacombs of his house, luring him with a famous wine called Amontillado, with the intent of making the catacombs his burial chamber. Montresor leads Fortunato into a hole where he shackles him to the wall. Before Fortunato realizes what has happened, Montresor starts to build a bricked wall to seal the hole in which is Fortunato. “I laid the second tier, and the third, and the fourth; and then I heard a furious vibration of the chain.” Imagine watching a wall rising slowly up and knowing that if it is completely sealed; only death awaits. Imagine having death taunt a person brick by brick until it consumed you completely. That was the case with Fortunato, and maybe, in Poe’s own mind, the same fate awaited him as well.

    One other recurring element in a story by Edgar Allan Poe, is the embodiment of the house being one with the mind. What happens to the character that lives in the home coincides with what happens to the home itself. To further elaborate on this, notice “The Raven.” “…here I opened wide the door; Darkness there, and nothing more.” The narrator was in the outermost portion of his house. In relation to the mind this would represent how easy it would be to access the mind of the narrator. It also showed how little protected his mind was. Because the raven had easy access into the mind of the narrator, it made it easier to push his mind over the line of insanity.

    The best example of this writing style is “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Everything that Roderick Usher does or thinks is reflected onto his home. “Perhaps the eye of a scrutinizing observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall…” Roderick Usher’s mind was already cracking if you took the description of the house and transferred that description to Usher himself. It would take a giant blow to take out his mind completely. That blow happened when he saw that his sister was still alive. He had buried her knowing that she may not be dead. His guilt pushed his mind to the brink and when he died his mind completely broke, and the fissure spoken of earlier spread wider and wider whilst the house sunk into the lake below. Poe used the mind and the house together to give the reader better understanding of what that character is like. Some writers took this element of his stories and used it in their stories as well. One such writer was Stephen King.

    The Secret Window, written by Stephen King, was a book that was later made into a movie. Like Poe, King used Mort Rainey’s house to represent the mind. The movie played off that as well. At the beginning of the movie, the camera enters the house through the window and continues to pan through the house until it gets to the mirror. The viewer enters the story through the mirror and this represents entering the mind of Mort Rainey. Rainey, played by Johnny Depp, has multiple personalities though he does not realize it yet. When he realizes this, his mind is pushed beyond its limits and there is a scene where the house cracks and splits in two. This was taken from “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Mort had a personality that did what he was too afraid to do. This murderous persona was known as John Shooter. Unlike Mort, Shooter was willing to kill to get what he wanted and one could say he was another protagonist in the story. Shooter was the dark side of Rainey’s heart.
    Darkness does reside in every heart. Edgar Allan Poe did prove that. Knowing the way his life turned out, it is understandable why he would have such an outlook on the way the world was. He could not save those he loved, and he was deeply saddened by that. That may be why he turned to drugs to soothe his pain, which in turn led him down a path he could not come back from. Despite his outlook on life, Edgar Allan Poe did have a good heart. His love for those he lost, along with his substance abuse, affected how he reacted around people. His lamenting of those he wished to save may be better described with his poem, “A Dream Within a Dream”.

    “Take this kiss upon the brow
    And, in parting form you now,
    Thus much let me avow –
    You are not wrong, who deem
    That my days have been a dream;

    Yet if hope has flown away
    In night, or in a day,
    In a vision, or in none,
    Is it therefore the less gone?
    All that we see or seem
    Is but a dream within a dream.

    I stand amid the roar
    Of a surf-tormented shore,
    And I hold within my hand
    Grains of the golden sand --
    How few! yet how they creep
    Through my fingers to the deep,
    While I weep -- while I weep!
    O God! Can I not grasp
    Them with a tighter clasp?
    O God! Can I not save
    One from the pitiless wave?
    Is all that we see or seem
    But a dream within a dream?”