December 2, 2008
Poe's Hideous Heart
"TRUE! --nervous --very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?" (Poe). The first words that escape the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart"are his plea to the audience that he is not mad, although one must question whether this statement can be honored. In fact, the narrator, who remains unnamed and otherwise uncharacterized, does nothing but disprove his statement. He admits to being nervous—nervous at the time of the murder and at the present—but most definitely not mad. As the story unfolds, it becomes more and more obvious that nervousness and madness may be one and the same.
Where could the origin of his madness be? It must be from the author—Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)—for it is impossible to assume an outsider could have impressed such a trait upon Poe who then passed it on to his characters.
Poe's madness began in his childhood, when his family was abandoned by his father and his mother died of tuberculosis, closely followed by the death of his brother. Poe's adoptive mother also died of tuberculosis while his adoptive father, following suit of his real father, abandoned him. Poe fell in love with his young cousin, who he married—who also died of tuberculosis. Examining the timeline of his life, it is safe to assume that he was driven to madness by abandonment and disease.
The symbolism of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is remarkable, although the symbols used are open completely to interpretation. The most important, however, are the vulture eye and the beating heart of the old man, the lantern the narrator carries, and the police that arrive to inspect the scream in the night. From the text, the reader can infer that the heart can be associated with tuberculosis: "Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant" (Poe). The heart's quickened beating shows Poe's anxiety upon realizing his love has fallen ill. The eye, similarly, can be associated with Poe's dying loves: ". . . for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye" (Poe). It is not the world around Poe that fascinates him, it is his loves: his mothers, his wife, and alcohol. The lantern is obviously to bring light to Poe's world, although the only thing that the light ever brings to him is the impending doom of consumption—the eye catches the lantern the night of the murder, although death still ensues. The police clearly represent the outside world, which Poe is trying to convince that he is completely fine, completely sane, and completely unaffected by the disease and the loss of his loves—which is all a flimsy façade. Thus, the final line: "'Villains!' I shrieked, 'dissemble no more! I admit the deed! --tear up the planks! here, here! --It is the beating of his hideous heart!'" (Poe). Poe was devastated by tuberculosis, the disease that tore his life apart, and was driven to madness by it. He also penned "The Raven," another result of his madness and the deaths caused by tuberculosis—a testimony to the public that the disease had driven him to the very limits of his sanity.
There is absolutely no dispute to the fact that Edgar Allan Poe was a literary genius, although his grasp on reality and his sanity are questionable. His symbolism and characterization are unmatched by any other author. Unfortunately, Poe was obviously mad to have created such hideous characters—but of course, what genius has ever been sane?