How can we always trust a narrator to be credible in stories we read? Are we to assume that the words we read are always truth? If characters are able to lie to one another, the narrator could also have the ability to fib to the reader, or at the very least give a sense of false hyperbole to a situation. In the case of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart”, is our narrator capable of telling the story of his late night plight with complete objectivity?
The story begins with the narrator immediately stating that he isn’t mad, but rather a disease has “sharpened his senses—not destroyed—not dulled” and that “Above all was the sense of hearing acute”. In my experiences, if the first thing somebody says to you is that they are not crazy, they are probably crazy. Without delay we are presented with doubt upon whether or not our narrator is fit to tell the story of his night in the old man’s room. In my opinion, within the first two paragraphs, you have no reason to doubt he is crazy.
Again, he refutes his insanity saying, “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! ”. The first three paragraphs are almost completely exclusive to trying to deny that his murder was the most masterful plan ever created. When our storyteller begins to give us the play by play of his devious act, he arrogantly speaks about how stealthily he moved, and just how perfect his plan worked.
Now we know he goes into another mindset when he sees the old man’s evil eye (which by modern accounts is most likely a simple cataract on the man’s eye). He talks about opening his lantern as small as can be, just the smallest glimmer of light gazing upon the man’s “vulture eye”. In nights past, he had tried to kill the old man, but because he didn’t actually hate the old man himself, he needed motivation. This, to me, is another sign of his mental instability, proving again he may not be telling the story as it actually happened.
After he murders the old man, our narrator reminds us that he heard the old man’s heart beat until the moment he passed. There is speculation that it was all in his mind, he was guilty during the act, and then felt the impending pressure while the officers of the law. Another rumor is that he actually did have some form of mystical acute sense, and that the old man’s ghost was haunting him. In any event, his instability to keep calm in front of the police officers shows that once again he’s not quite “all there”.
After reading the entire story, I’m left with a feeling that the narrator has had some previous issues outside of his main issue of the old man’s eye. He constantly babbles about how he isn’t insane, and how he’s actually more of a genius than crazy. Although the story written from his point of view is the only way I see it being written, one can’t help but wonder if having an omniscient “security camera” narrator would be the most objective way to see what actually happened.