Meet the Undead
Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19th, 1809; he was an author, literary critic, poet, and editor, and was best known for his mystery tales and stories of the macabre and unnerving. He is considered to be one of the earliest practitioners of what we call the ‘short story,’ and he is also considered to be the father of the detective genre as well as the Gothic/horror genre. Poe was the first well-known American author to try and earn a living through writing alone, which unfortunately did not go so well. He died on October 7th, 1849.
The Writing on the Castle Walls
True!—nervous—very dreadfully nervous I had been, and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? pp. 1589
Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a piece of American Gothic fiction through and through; here in the very first few sentences we are already introduced to the possibility that our narrator is mad, and that he is somehow diseased and ill.
Our narrator goes on to tell us about how he is going to kill the old man that he lives with, the old man who takes care of him, and yet he has no reason for doing such a terrible deed. We have already begun to wonder about our narrator’s sanity, now we must fear for the life of the old man:
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but, once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye!—yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so, by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever. pp. 1589
This only reinforces the our acceptance of the idea of madness within our narrator; we can see no other explanation for this idea than that this young man has truly gone mad. Why else would he kill a man that he has no motive to kill–indeed, a man he outright claims to love? Once more we visit the Gothic themes of death and madness, and even touch upon the idea of evil with the focus on the eye, for an interesting mythological tidbit that Poe hints at here is the idea of an Evil Eye, more commonly seen in the Middle Eastern/Mediterranean countries, like Greece, Italy, Turkey. It was well known in ancient cultures, even dating all the way back to Babylon, Sumeria, and Assyria! The evil eye is believed to be able to cast misfortune, disease, and general bad luck upon whomever falls under its gaze. It’s generally attributed to lighter eyes, as those are more uncommon in the Middle Eastern/Mediterranean areas — so blue, more often than not, and green are the traditional colors. Thus the mad focus on the old man’s “pale blue eye.”
There are various protections against the Eye, such as saying “God bless!” or the like, as well as carrying charms like the Hand of Fatima (a hand shaped charm with an eye on the palm, usually all blue), or a nazar, usually found in Turkey, which are little disks of glass or ceramic, painted blue, with another disk shaped as an eye attached to it. They’re everywhere in Turkey, even today — sidewalks, walls, buildings, charms, jewelry, tattoos, etc.
Of course, sometimes the charms don’t work. Sometimes the only way to truly prevent against the evil eye is to destroy it, and there are stories of fathers plucking out an eye or both so as to not curse their families or friends and neighbors.
And it would seem that the evil of this old man’s eye has finally driven our narrator past the bounds of reality, and to the decision of committing a terrible act. He continues on to tell us of how he can hear the old man’s heart beating, “a low, dull, quick sound—much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton,” and that the sound “increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.” (1591) In this way we could see that his madness, though prompting him to murder, still retains a bit of conscience—guilt is beginning to eat at him as he looks upon the old man while he sleeps. And it rather it seems to excite him, even drive him further into the madness:
Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker, and louder and louder every instant. The old man’s terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment:—do you mark me well? I have told you that I am nervous:—so I am. And now, at the dead hour of night, and amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable wrath. Yet, for some minutes longer, I refrained and kept still. But the beating grew louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst! And now a new anxiety seized me—the sound would be heard by a neighbor! The old man’s hour had come! pp. 1591
It is shortly after this that our narrator kills the old man, dismembers him, and hides him beneath the floorboards of the bedroom. A several of Poe’s other works contain a corpse somehow interred within a house (such as “Black Cat” and “The Fall of the House of Usher”). This usually signifies some flawed part of the narrator that is not being acknowledged — in this case, our narrator being incapable of seeing the world clearly — as the house is usually a symbol for the narrator himself, and the corpse is the hidden flaw. This burial leads to our narrator’s downfall, as his paranoia, madness, and guilt get the better of him and the very same sound that led him to kill the old man when he did — that “low, dull, quick sound—much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton,” — begins to pound again, because the narrator has not dealt with his flaw, only hidden it. And he cannot see why the police officers who have come to the house, having bee alerted by a neighbor, cannot hear the heart beat. At first it is the signal to kill the old man, and then it becomes a torment that drives him to confess to the police.
“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks!—here, here!—it is the beating of his hideous heart!” pp. 1592
More information on “The Tell-Tale Heart” http://telltaleheart.info/