Today, Edgar A. Poe would have been 208 years old. His birthday gift to readers is stories that just keep on giving.
Have you ever heard “Little Red Riding Hood” or “The Three Little Pigs” told from the wolf’s point of view? If you think that’s amusing, try this one: “The Tell-Tale Heart” from the detectives’ point of view. It will knock your socks off.
This, of course, is the famous Poe story in which a man murders his employer in the night, says he hears the dead man’s heart beating, and ends up frantically tearing up the floor and revealing the dead body. Though the narrator assures us he is sane, he manages to convince everyone who reads the story that he is crazy. But he doesn’t convince the police.
It was four o’clock in the morning when they arrived at the young man’s house. “A shriek had been heard by a neighbor during the night; suspicion of foul play had been aroused; information had been lodged at the police office, and they (the officers) had been deputed to search the premises.” The man tells the police that it was he who shrieked—in a dream—and that the old man was out of town.
He tells us that he was calm and smiling. “In the enthusiasm of my confidence,” he says, he brought chairs into the bedroom and invited the police to sit down. What, we may wonder, did this enthusiasm of his confidence look like to the police? He says that they were satisfied, that his manner had convinced them. Ya think? He says that they sat there and “chatted of familiar things.” At four o’clock in the morning, on a murder investigation, the police were just chatting? No, the police were stringing him along, keeping him talking. It’s what police do.
And it worked. The man grew pale and “wished them gone.” It is now that he says he heard noises. Or rather, implies it. In a world-class bit of weasel wording he says, “I fancied I heard a ringing in my ears.” Fancied? As in pretended? Later he says, “I found that the ringing was not within my ears.” This is Poe at his weaselliest. The words suggest that the man thought the sounds were real, but what they literally say is: there wasn’t any ringing.
Meanwhile, he started talking freely, quickly, loudly, and vehemently. He stood up and “argued about trifles.” He paced to and fro “as if” excited to fury—another sly clue: he wasn’t excited to fury, just acting as if he were. Next he says, “I foamed—I raved—I swore!” He swung his chair and grated it on the floor.
As he rants on about the noises, check the reaction of the police: “And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled.” Here is the most important datum in the story, slipped in amid all the hysteria so we don’t recognize its import. A suspect was screaming and swearing and swinging a chair, and the police sat there and smiled? It can only mean one thing: they didn’t buy his mad act, and they were just giving him rope.
Again, it worked—for here comes another point that readers overlook. We think, as the narrator means us to think, that the supposed noises drove him to reveal the body. It wasn’t the noises, it was the policemen’s disbelief.
They heard!—they suspected!—they knew!—they were making a mockery of my horror!—this I thought, and this I think…. Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! … “Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed!”
He reveals the body saying, “It is the beating of his hideous heart!” Which is to say he doesn’t give up on his mad act. How can he when it’s his only hope of escaping the gallows? His story itself is part of the act. He swears he’s sane but speaks maniacally, the better to convince us he’s crazy. Clever, but something many of us would think of. Whether his story convinced a jury we will never know. At the time Poe wrote the story, insanity pleas were the talk of the country, with a new definition of insanity leading to highly controversial acquittals.
What is most interesting to me is not the narrator’s sneakiness, but Poe’s. What we believe is a “tale of terror” is secretly a murder mystery, with clues that allow us to deduce the truth. Poe plays tricks like these in many of his stories, including—without a doubt—many we haven’t yet discovered.
Happy Birthday Edgar A. Poe
Susan Amper, author of How to Write About Edgar Allan Poe, still mourns the loss of her Nancy Drew collection.