Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the author moves away from the typical Gothic writer’s fascination with remote and eerie locations; in fact, the story’s setting is so nondescript that Poe does not even tell us where it is. We know only that it is a house, set on a densely-populated street, in a reasonably urban area boasting a police force. And the most dangerous villains can be, not just wild-eyed madmen or escaped convicts, but people whom one would never give a second look. What makes this story so terrifying, then, is not the creepiness of the setting but the normalcy of it.
As our story opens, Poe’s unnamed narrator has decided to get rid of an older man with whom he lives; whether it is his employer, his uncle, his grandfather, we do not know. There is no reason for this decision, except for the fact that the narrator suddenly takes a violent dislike to the way the old man looks at him. The narrator asserts that the old man has “the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it.” A vulture, of course, is a bird of prey; and if anyone is predatory in this story, it is certainly not the old man, but the narrator. Nonetheless, the narrator kills him and hides the body under the floor boards.
By linking the narrator to the victim through the motif of the predatory eye, Poe now moves on to the crux of the story. The murderer feels no shame for his deed; outwardly, when the police come, he is the very picture of calm. But the last thing of which the narrator was conscious before the old man died was the victim’s beating heart, and now, with the authorities in the room, the narrator begins to hear the beating heart again.
Obviously, what he hears—or rather senses—is his own beating heart; despite the fact that he is not conscious of feeling nervous, his body is exhibiting all the symptoms of terror and his mind is displacing them onto the dead man. In his delusional state, he confesses his deed to the startled police so they will pull up the floorboards and put a stop to “the beating of [the victim’s] hideous heart.” Ironically, of course, in those days preceding insanity pleas, the perpetrator’s confession will have the secondary effect of putting an end to the beating of his own heart as well.
In choosing a setting of domestic normalcy for stories such as “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Edgar Allan Poe revolutionized the Gothic horror genre. No longer did horror writers have to set our stories in abandoned monasteries, haunted houses, or gloomy castles; Poe demonstrated that true horror comes not from our environment but from within ourselves.
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