To understand Edgar Allan Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart," it may be beneficial to first understand the historical context within which it appears. Gothic horror was much in vogue with the popular reading public of the mid-19th century. Indeed, Poe's short story was published a decade after another story about a madman was published on the other side of the world in Russia -- "Diary of a Madman," a tale which humorously recorded a Russian man's descent into madness. Such characters were popular on both sides of the world as a result of the immensely popular Romantic movement that had followed the Age of Enlightenment and given birth to such fascinatingly horrific creatures as Frankenstein's monster. While in Europe and on both sides of the world literary characters were failing to evince themselves as upright and sane citizens, something must have been happening to promote this change or cause this reflection to appear. Indeed, the Romantic Age was attempting to answer the big questions about death, religion, and the meaning of life that the old world had answered in the person of Christ -- but which the modern world had rejected beginning with the Protestant Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment. This paper will analyze Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart" from the viewpoint of historical criticism and show how it reflects Poe's own theological and philosophical views concerning death, the soul, and even religion.
Poe's own life was a sad, unfortunate mess that in many ways was a perfect mirror for his macabre tales. Born in Boston, Poe never ventured far from the East Coast and remained true to his roots (at least geographically if not ancestrally). His own family essentially abandoned him at a young age: his mother died when he was still new to the world -- and his father deserted them. Edgar Poe was adopted by a family named Allan, from whom he received the added surname and became known as Edgar Allan Poe. Life with the Allan's, however, was not the easiest, and his new father figure proved to be at variance with Edgar on several occasions. Nonetheless, from the Allans, Edgar did receive shelter and support until he was old enough to go out into the world. He made an attempt at University, but soon left for financial reason: Mr. Allan had promised Edgar a reasonable allowance, but Edgar squandered much of it in gambling. Next, Edgar made an attempt to enter the military and get away from the life that society seemed to demand: first, Edgar signed up by using a false name, and later, when he entered West Point he -- but he was never satisfied with the military way of life, and so he became convinced that the easiest way out was to commit an infraction and allow himself to be court-martialed (Quinn 174). Poe then decided to pursue his love of beauty of truth -- through fiction and poetry. And to be published and to have a readership, he was forced to give them what they wanted. And what the public demanded at this time was a reflection of society's moral decay through the genre of gothic fiction. Poe's own life at this time began to take an, in its way, the life of one of his stories: his young wife died and Poe became isolated. His death came shortly after being found on the streets in a state which can only be described as one in which the author appeared to be, like his characters, "out of his mind."
Poe's life, then, is in a sense reflected in his stories -- but his stories are also in a different reflections of society. For example, the new philosophy of America was being based on rationalism and the virtue of self-reliance. Whether these philosophies were adequate for man's needs is a question that may be answered elsewhere, but Poe appears to give his assessment of them through his characters. Poe addresses these philosophies ever so subtly in his gothic fiction -- and he seems to suggest that self-reliance is no real virtue at all, especially when you yourself are on the verge of going mad.
Thus, in his own way, Poe was advocating a kind of return to grace. For instance, the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart," objectively speaking acts as an attack on the philosophy of Self-Reliance: the narrator is not even a reliable source of information, let alone a source of sufficient strength to be able to overcome his defects -- but he exerts great energy to convince the reader that he is sane, rational, and quite capable. Indeed, we are to ignore the fact that rather than exercise restraint and self-control, he goes completely mad, murders the old man whose "eye" he finds oppressive, and then confesses to the police when he finds that he is being haunted by the mysterious sound of the beating heart (despite the fact that he has dismembered the old man and buried him beneath the floorboards). "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a story that is concerned with the question of reliability -- and even the narrator asks us to believe everything he says, for he is convinced that he has the Truth (and that he himself is reliable): "True!" is the very first word out of his mouth.
Reliability, the Soul, and the Necessity of Grace
Why is Poe's narrator so obviously wanting to show that he is reliable? And why does Poe so obviously show that he is anything but reliable? Poe himself is born into a world that, just as his father abandoned him, has abandoned Christianity in favor of rationalism and self-reliance. America itself was founded not on Christianity but on principles devised by Deists: in other words, they relied not on grace, as the Church did, but on men simply being "good." Poe shows us in "The Tell-Tale Heart" that simply because one thinks he is good does not mean that he is actually good or sane or self-reliant: indeed, the narrator shows us exactly that in his "mad" discourse. What the story even more deeply shows is that what is lacking in the man's worldview is an awareness of the old world belief that grace built upon nature. Without grace, which is received through the old world religion, the narrator is left with his own disturbed nature to fend for itself. There is no way for it to improve -- not with its own powers. Theo Kyziridis, a scholar of schizophrenia comes to the same conclusion when researching the ancients he states "If the head and body are to be well, you must begin by curing the soul" (Kyziridis 43).
Robert Spiller, another biographer of Poe, observed that the author lived in a time when "America was producing more real and alleged transcendental geniuses than maturely wrought poems or stories" (342) -- which implies that the wisdom needed to proceed towards any real semblance of truth or beauty was lacking in America. American was falling for the philosophy of self-reliance because it was immature -- it was a new country that had divorced itself from the old world theology. It had no Catholic roots, essentially -- unlike Europe. What Poe does is to point out this lack of maturity -- and he does it by depicting the state of the soul, which is where Kyziridis implies is the problem.
The eye represents a window to the soul, and the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is obsessed with the old man's "vulture-like eye." Because it shows on the soul, the narrator hates it -- it is something that he does not understand and cannot understand, because he has grown up under a philosophy of self-reliance: his soul may be without grace, but he does not want to know it -- and the old man's eye is a constant rebuke against him for that reason. Thus, since it rebukes him like a conscience, he calls it an "Evil Eye" -- and casts himself in the role of villain or anti-hero.
To kill the window to the soul, the narrator reasons that he must kill the eye -- which means he must kill the man. He plots his course of action very carefully and means to show how rational he is by executing his plot skillfully and meticulously. The problem is this: it is an insane plot. If the narrator wants to close the window to the soul, he fails to realize that he cannot do so by simply killing one man -- for the soul is in him -- and this we find out at the end of the story, when his soul literally forces him to confess. The narrator's lack of theology now dawns on the reader: having no sense of Christ or grace, he has shown an inability to deal with the soul and overcome his human nature. Thus, in his rejection of the God Who overcame Death, he ironically falls prey…