Edgar Allan Poe: Narration and Gothic Style in “The Tell-Tale Heart
The debate that Poe is fundamentally a bad or tasteless stylist appears to be rather superficial. It is ultimately based on the shaky and often unanalyzed assumption that Poe and his narrators are identical and that he must be held responsible for their actions; their characteristics and strong emotions are too often conceived as emanating from Poe himself. On the contrary, Poe’s narrators possess a character and consciousness distinct from those of their creator. These protagonists speak their own thoughts and are the victims of their own passions; Poe understands them far better than they can possibly understand themselves.
Part of the critical condescension towards Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories stems from impatience with what is described as his “cheap” Gothic style by W. H. Auden. Many critics refuse to accept Poe as a serious writer based on the vulgarity and “crude exaggerations” in his works. T.S. Elliot recognized Poe as having “the intellect of a highly gifted young person before puberty” (Brewer). However, the elements of Poe’s style, such as his narration, should be analyzed in terms of his larger artistic intentions. The total organization and completed form of a work tells more about the author’s sensibility than the reports or confessions from one of its characters. Auden claims that Poe simply uses his narrators to express his own demented mind, yet a close examination of Poe’s short stories clearly refutes this view.
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Poe often designs his tales to show his narrators’ limited comprehension of their own problems and states of mind; many of Poe’s stories clearly reveal an order of events establishing the narrator’s inadequacies, vastly centered around the character’s hubris. The structure of Poe’s stories compels realization that characters are more than the expressions of their narrators’ often disordered mentalities. Through the irony of his characters’ self-betrayal and through the development and arrangement of his dramatic actions, Poe suggests to his readers ideas never entertained by the narrators. Poe intends his readers to keep their powers of analysis and judgment alert; he does not want readers to be completely lost to the experience of the sensations being felt by his characters. The point of Poe’s technique is not to enable readers be caught up in strange or outrageous emotions, but to see these emotions and obsessions from a thoughtful perspective.
In “”The Tell-Tale Heart”” the cleavage between author and narrator is extremely apparent. The sharp exclamations, nervous questions, and broken sentences obviously present Poe’s conscious intention; the protagonist’s painful insistence in “”proving”” himself sane only serves to intensify the idea of his madness. Poe makes readers understand that the murderer has been tortured by the nightmarish terrors he attributes to his victim: “”He was sitting up in bed listening;-just as I have done, night after night, harkening to the death watches in the wall””; the narrator further interprets the old man’s groan in terms of his own persistent anguish: “”Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me.”” Poe, in allowing his narrator to unburden himself of his tale, skillfully engineers this story to show that he also lives in a haunted and eerie world of his own demented making. Poe knows what the narrator never suspects and what, by the controlled conditions of the tale, he is not meant to suspect-that the narrator is a victim of his own self-torturing obsessions. Poe manipulates the action that the murder, instead of freeing the narrator, is shown to heighten his agony and intensify his delusions. The clocks on the wall become the ominously beating heart of the old man, and the narrator’s self-control explodes into a frenzy that leads to self-betrayal. It is almost impossible to believe that Poe has no serious artistic motive in “”The Tell-Tale Heart,”” that he merely revels in horror and only inadvertently illuminates something profound within each tale. It is equally difficult to accept the view that Poe’s style should be attacked because of the blurted confession of his narrator.
Auden’s as well as many other critics viewpoint puts Poe in a negative light and belittles his short stories, yet the very works they criticize negate their ideas; “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat” prove to be prime examples of Poe excelling in the Gothic genre. Gothic-style writing is defined by using elements centered around “abnormal psychological behavior and a gloomy or threatening atmosphere” (Smith, 48). The instability of each narrator’s mentality gets developed through each story, staying true to the Gothic theme of passion taking precedence over rationality and reason. Each individual setting also reinforces Poe’s Gothic style, whether it be an undisclosed location allowing readers’ imaginations to run free, dark and winding catacombs that give readers an uneasy sense of foreboding, or a disturbing homemade tomb inside a cellar. “The Tell-Tale Heart” as well as “The Black Cat” show a narrator’s increasing level of chaos in their mind and a final breakdown revealing their madness. Both stories illustrate Poe’s grasp on applying Gothic elements to his work, as the tales slowly reveal characters’ insanity and the twisted actions that stem from their mental sickness. “The Cask of Amontillado” utilizes a nightmarish quality pervasive in Gothic literature, and continues an application of aspects related to an atmosphere of horror such as the ever-present murderous tones of Montresor, and the overall subject of death. Although critics disapprove of Poe’s writing, the way his tales are structured clearly displays his mature and more often than not disturbing use of the Gothic genre.
Evidence of Poe’s “”seriousness”” seems unquestionable in “”The Cask of Amontillado,”” a tale which W. H. Auden has criticized. Far from being his author’s mouthpiece, the narrator, Montresor, is one of the supreme examples in fiction of a deluded character who cannot glimpse the moral consequences of his plans. Poe’s sense of irony makes it clear that Montresor, the stalker of Fortunato, is both a compulsive and arrogant man; by committing a flawless crime against another, he really (much like the protagonist in “”The Tell-Tale Heart””) commits the worst of crimes against himself. His reasoned, “”cool”” intelligence weaves an intricate plot which, while apparently satisfying his revenge, robs him of humanity; His madness, he mistakes for genius. The vengeance meant for the victim rebounds upon Montresor himself-in killing Fortunato, the narrator unconsciously calls him the “”noble”” Fortunato and confesses that his own “”heart grew sick.”” Though Montresor attributes this sickness to “”the dampness of the catacombs,”” it is clear that his crime has begun to possess him. Fixated on revenge, Montresor reveals how truly sensitive and insecure he is as hearing that Fortunato disrespected him, and therefore his family, causes him to make gruesome and rash decisions. Readers see that, after fifty years, it remains the obsession of his life; the meaning of his existence resides in the tomb in which he has, symbolically, buried himself. In other words, Poe leaves little doubt that the narrator has violated his own mind and humanity, that the external act has had its destructive inner consequences.
The same artistic integrity and seriousness of purpose evident in “”The Cask of Amontillado”” can be discovered in “”The Black Cat.”” No matter what hidden meanings one may find in this story, it can hardly be denied that the nameless narrator does not speak for Poe. Whereas the narrator, at the beginning of his “”confession,”” admits that he cannot explain the events which overwhelmed him, Poe’s organization of his episodes provides an unmistakable clue to his protagonist’s mental deterioration. The tale has two distinct, almost parallel parts: in the first, the narrator’s inner moral collapse is presented; in the second part, the consequences of his violation precipitate an act of murder. Each section of the story deals with an ominous cat, a killing, and an expose of a “”crime.”” In the first section, the narrator’s house is consumed by fire after he has mutilated and subsequently hanged Pluto, his pet cat. Blindly, he refuses to grant any connection between his violence and the fire; yet the image of a hanged cat on the one remaining wall indicates that he will be haunted by his deed.
The figure of Pluto, seen by a crowd of neighbors, is symbolically both an accusation and an omen, a mystery to the spectators but an unmistakable sign to the reader. In the second section of “”The Black Cat,”” the reincarnated cat goads the narrator into the murder of his wife. As in “”The Tell-Tale Heart,”” and “”The Cask of Amontillado,”” the narrator cannot understand that his assault upon another person derives from his own moral sickness and unbalance. Much like the other narrators, he too seeks psychic release and freedom in a crime which completes his torture. To the end of his life, he is incapable of locating the origin of his evil and damnation within himself. A close analysis of “The Black Cat” exonerates Poe of the charge of merely sensational writing. The final frenzy of the narrator cannot be ridiculed as an example of Poe’s style. The mental breakdown of the shrieking criminal does not reflect a similar condition in the author. Poe proves himself to be a serious artist who explores the nuances of his characters with probing intelligence. He allows his narrator to revel and flounder into torment, but he sees beyond the torment to its causes.
Poe’s narrators should not be construed as his mouthpieces; instead they should be regarded as expressing their own peculiarly nightmarish visions. Poe is conscious of the abnormalities of his narrators and does not condone the ways they earnestly strive to justify themselves by. According to T.S. Eliot, “”Poe’s work seems to show nothing but ‘slipshod writing,’ ‘puerile thinking,’ and ‘haphazard experiments.’” Poe however has shown himself to be a sophisticated writer who expressed his feelings through his work without abusing the intention of narrators. Although more than sometimes cynical, and even sadistic, his tales provide the world with a view of a wide range of Gothic topics, such as death, murder, and madness.”