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Confession as Core: The Narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart”
In a very real sense, Edgar Allan Poe's story, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, relies absolutely on the device of its being related by the narrator. The actual plot of the story could certainly be told in another way, as a police officer could present the episode as an account of what ensued after having been summoned to investigate a cry heard by a neighbor. Such a point of view could, in fact, make for an equally chilling story, as the officer witnesses, in a very short time, the complete breakdown of the murderer. Then, it could have been written as seen from the eyes of the old man, to the point of his murder or, if Poe decided to take a more mystical path, even afterward. However, either of these possibilities would also make “The Tell-Tale Heart” a completely different story, because Poe's narrator's state of mind is the real center of the tale. Everything about this narrator and what he has to say is so striking that even the crime itself fades in comparison, because Poe's real story is of a restless insanity that cannot exist with itself.
This is revealed in the very beginning of the story, and with an honesty as frightening as the murder to follow. Although the narrator commences by insisting upon his own sanity – a device Poe had to know was inherently suspect – he then loses no time in calmly explaining that what he needs to do is utterly without reason or cause: “I loved the old man. He had never wronged me”. This is crucial to the tale, and could not be conveyed with anything like the same impact, were the story related by another. Moreover, and quite deliberately, the narrator absolutely establishes himself as a man both collected and insane, as he adamantly points to the eye of his victim as being the inescapable trigger for his scheme.
Then, the impact of the beating of the heart, which is the crux of the tale, would suffer drastically if related as a delusion by, for example, a narrating police officer. In this closing section, the madness of the narrator takes on literal shape because he is now removed from the practical reality he has been careful to relate earlier. After he kills the old man, in fact, the narrator again nearly rejoices in his “sanity”, which he perceives as the recognition of physical realities. This careful action of concealing the body is, in essence, the last connection to any kind of sanity the narrator will have, because the advent of the police changes everything. When the narrator hears the heart, he is completely within his own madness, which is in striking contrast to the easy-going presence of the police, who hear nothing because there is nothing to hear. The effect of this explosion of the madness, consequently, depends on the narrator's voice because only he can present the duality of being insane, and further tormented by what is actually occurring around him.
If “The Tell-Tale Heart” is essentially a very short story of the horror genre, it is nonetheless a classic example of how effective first-person narration can be, even in the most unlikely scenarios. Had Poe's narrator asserted from the beginning that he was insane, there would have been no real point to the tale. By having his hero claim to be perfectly sane, however, and by having him take the logical course of citing evidence of how rationally he behaves, Poe sets the stage for a kind of “mini” Greek drama in which the narrator is both villain and avenging angel. The narrative first- person is vital here, because the story is of as tortured a confession as can be extracted. That the confession, the core of the tale, is ripped out of the hero by himself is what truly gives “The Tell-Tale Heart” value as a story.