The Tell-Tale Heart
Edgar Allan Poe
1843

It’s such an incredibly effective image. The heart of the murder victim still beating beneath the floorboards, pounding in the ears of the killer until he is driven to confess his crime. Poe’s device to explore the crippling and maddening power of guilt is not easily forgotten, and sticks with us as readers. Indeed, it sticks with us as a culture whether we’ve read the story ourselves our not, the heartbeat in the eardrums a lasting symbol of conscience.

“The Tell-Tale Heart” is one of Poe’s most famous works, and a classic of gothic literature. The narrator speaks of his fondness for the old man who shares his home, but is obsessed by the room-mate’s ‘vulture-like’ eye. He watches, he waits, he can’t shake that eye, and wonders about his own sanity – or, at least, the perception others have of his sanity. Indeed. much of the story is the killer’s insistence that he is not mad, that the calculation of the murder, the conscious and methodical approach he takes to it is proof that his mind is sound. But there it is, the thump beneath the floorboards where the old man’s body lies – the heart still beating, and loud. Conscience – the eye; conscience – the heartbeat. Can’t kill it. Can’t escape it.

Poe wasn’t a very popular guy. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Butler Yeats, Ralph Waldo Emerson – they didn’t much care for him, and considered his vulgar writing to be a reflection of his vulgar self. Upon his death, a notice in the paper read, “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.” Just a little farewell from ‘Ludwig’ – an editor and anthologist who devoted himself to destroying Poe’s reputation. But his literary influence is far-felt – horror, gothic, dark romanticism, science fiction, narrative verse: they are all touched by Edgar Allan Poe.

 

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