October 7, 1849--it was a cold, wet fall day, the same as any other in Baltimore. Children laughed in the streets while jumping in giant piles of leaves. Glancing into brightly lit shop windows at the wares inside, adults stroll down the cobblestone pathways. Yes, October 7, 1849, was a normal fall day just like the other days that had come before it. However, one motionless body that lay in a nearby alleyway changed that date forever. October 7, 1849, became a significant date when the body of one of the most influential writers of the American Romantic movement was discovered. He was a literary genius torn asunder by his self-destructive tendencies. Walking a cold, dark, and lonely path, this historic literary figure met death's icy grip under mysterious circumstances. Much like his death, Edgar Allan Poe's muses for his literary works were shrouded in mystery. Many of Poe's poems and short stories were written from first- person point of view and give a peculiar perspective to the readers. Why did Poe choose to write from first-person perspective rather than second or third-person in his short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart”?
Like many writers before him, Poe knew the potential effects of using first-person point of view would have on his readers. First-person perspective in Poe's short story is more efficient than second or third-person perspective because the reader has a deeper connection to the narrator, more familiarity with the setting, and is manipulated to think a certain way by the narrator.
Readers' connecting with the narrator of stories is very important when it comes to writing because it allows readers to enter the narrator's world, mind, and feelings. With first person-perspective, the narrator is up close and personal with readers. Poe knew this concept when he was constructing his short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” In the beginning of Poe's short story, the reader is introduced to an unreliable narrator. This narrator tries to convince readers that he is sane while his actions, words, and descriptions during the duration of the short story say otherwise. Now, why would Poe want readers to have a connection with an unreliable narrator? The answer is because it affects the reader's interpretation of the tale. For example, “Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded—with what caution—with what foresight—with what dissimulation I went to work”(37). The quote from the story is right after the narrator has killed the old man over how the old man's blue, glass eye appears to the narrator. Here, the narrator is trying to connect to his audience by trying to explain how sane, rational, and genius he is when in reality he is not. If the narrator addresses the reader directly and takes the reader into his confidence then that makes the reader want to try and dive deeper for a better understanding of the narrator. Therefore, the connection forges deeper between the narrator and reader.
Setting and surroundings have always been important aspects of short stories and novels alike. Setting can provide a safe, comforting atmosphere to a reader or a gut-wrenching, haunting nervousness that leaves readers rattled to their core. In the “Tell-Tale Heart,” the setting of the story is not clear-cut. Generally, in most cases of first-person point of view, the rich detail and explanation of the setting by the narrator gives the readers more familiarity with the setting. However, Poe has done the exact opposite in his tale. This lack of setting was done intentionally to intrigue readers. Humans, by nature, are curious creatures and the lack of a setting in Poe's short story gives readers the ability to come up with their own conclusions about when and where the story is taking place. Could the story have taken place in a prison? Was the narrator of this story confessing to somebody else before the guards hung him? There are endless questions that Poe has conjured in the reader's mind. Generally, readers feel that they can trust the narrators that tell them stories because there is an implied connection between narrators and readers. By making the reader question the narrator, Poe has allowed the reader to draw his own conclusions about the events in the story instead of only relying on the narrator. The lack of detail in the setting will cause confusion to the reader and allow the narrator to manipulate the reader into focusing on the narrator instead of the setting.
Right from the beginning, the narrator of the story tells the reader that he has killed a man over a glass eye that disturbs the narrator. In the first couple of lines, the reader already knows the ending to the story; therefore, what could compel the reader to continue reading when he already knows the outcome? The answer is pure, simple author manipulation. As mentioned before, humans are fascinated with the darker sides of the world, daily lives, and literature. Though the reader has already discovered the horrors of the tale in the first few paragraphs, somehow Poe manages to manipulate the reader into continuing the tale. How does Poe do it? Poe's invention of an insane narrator claiming to be sane motivates and captures the curiosity of unsuspecting readers. With the invention of such a narrator, readers want to continue the tale in hopes that the narrator will possibly go more into detail with why, how, and when he killed this beloved old man. The readers become thirsty for knowledge that only the narrator can supply. Poe was aware of this concept, and he used it to his advantage throughout his short story. For example, when the narrator of the story is talking about killing the old man, he says, “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! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture—a pale blue eye. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold, and so I made up my mind to take the life of the old man and rid myself of the eye forever” (37). The narrator plainly states that his victim has done nothing wrong and simply had to die because of the appearance of a false eye. This line manipulates the reader into questioning the trustworthiness of the statement. A normal person would not murder somebody else over a simple matter as a glass eye. However, the narrator tells the readers directly that there is no motive except for the eye. This type of manipulation leads the reader to believe that the narrator is lying. The reader already knows, from the beginning of the tale, that the narrator is unreliable; therefore, why should the reader believe the narrator about not having a true motive to kill the old man? Surely, the old man must have done something to the narrator to cause such a response, but the narrator reveals nothing of the sort, which leaves the reader hungry for more information.
Though the narrator of Poe's devious tale remains nameless, readers can draw their own conclusions about the identity of the mysterious voice that guides the story to its horrific end. Many of Poe's works are written from first person-perspective with nameless narrators that experience or commit horrific deeds. Some people speculate that the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and his other works is Poe himself. Was Poe simply writing from first-person to give readers more insight on his works, or was it something more complicated and personal? Did Poe's muse for this story come from a dream that foreshadowed his own death? Was the inspiration for this dark, devious, and demented tale a figment of Poe's imagination, or was he writing about his own life that was slowly ticking away?
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. Ed. X.J Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 11th ed. New York: Longman, 2010. 36-40.Print.