This week, for our last assignment before the final project is due, we had three short stories to read by Edgar Allan Poe: “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Black Cat”, and “The Cask of Amontillado.”
“The Tell-Tale Heart” is probably one of the first, if not the first, stories written by Edgar Allan Poe to which I was introduced. I remember in our library when I was a little girl we had a big book of Poe stories and I can see it in my mind’s eye even now. I believe on one side of the cover was a raven, naturally, but the other side had had an illustration of this yellow eye peeking through a sliver of doorway. The picture of the eye always fascinated me and, obviously drawing inspiration from the old man’s eye in “The Tell-Tale Heart”, that’s the story I flipped to most often. Plus, “The Tell-Tale Heart” was often allegorically used in T.V. shows I watched–most memorable being Boy Meets World. Even Stevens (classic Disney channel) also might have used it, but I definitely recall Boy Meets World.
Yet, no matter how much I was exposed to the story as a child, it’s always different to come back as an adult and read it with the tools of an English major. I even read it a year ago in undergrad, but this experience was still different, and also more enjoyable. (Though that may because this class is not “Writing About Literature”, but that’s a story for another time.)
One aspect that tied all of Poe’s stories together for me and made them easy to read was the use of 1st person. I am a huge advocate for first person: it’s the POV I most often choose to write in, and I also prefer reading it, too. I think almost that, for Poe’s time, it might have always been a radical decision to use that POV, but it worked. In “The Tell-Tale Heart”, when we’re nearing the end and the narrator’s thoughts begin racing as he “hears” the heart beat faster and faster, the sensations provoked would never have been as successful if written in 3rd person. (2nd person, possibly, but as we know, it’s a rarity.) I think a huge part of Poe’s writing is to convey the unsettling feeling of reading in 2nd person by using 1st person instead.
In the other two stories, “The Black Cat” and “The Cask of Amontillado” notice that we rarely know much about the narrators. For the most part we know gender, male, and maybe socioeconomic status, middle class? Upper-middle class? But rarely do we get names, in fact, I can only clearly remember a name being used in “The Cask of Amontillado” which was the narrator’s friend, Fortunato. Poe pushes and pulls, playing with sympathy for the narrator and sympathy for the victim.
“The Black Cat”, I think, had the most complex narrator. It’s not like he set out to be an animal abuser, he tried to like the cats, but then ended up destroying them. For what reason other than him being a psychopath, I’m not sure, but the conflict within the narrator is tangible. Really, who can come back after killing an animal? Usually that’s the first thing a character can do to lose a reader’s sympathy, but I was interested in how Poe so convincingly wrote the narrator’s remorse after cat number one. Obviously by the end he’d ruined his reputation, but in the time between the two cats–when the dust settled so to speak–he gained back a shred of humanity, and Poe really used it for all it was worth.
If I were so inclined, I think a comparison/contrast essay on “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” would be an interesting project. Alas, critical essays aren’t my niche. To be fair, neither are short stories really–I often have novel-length ideas (my excuse for being long-winded)–yet I’d rather try my hand at tried and true fiction for my final project. But if I had to write an essay, Poe would definitely be in my thesis.