Poe's the Tell-Tale Heart

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Washington University in St Louis]On: 07 October 2014, At: 19:27Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH,UK

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    Poe's the Tell-Tale HeartHollie Pritchard aa University of Louisiana , LafayettePublished online: 30 Mar 2010.

    To cite this article: Hollie Pritchard (2003) Poe's the Tell-Tale Heart, The Explicator,61:3, 144-147, DOI: 10.1080/00144940309597787

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  • 2. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1978), 38, 115, 158, 235; and for example, see Jacques Lacan, The Seminar: Book I: Freuds Papers on Technique. 1953-1954, ed. Jacques- Alain Miller, trans. John Forrester (New York and London: Norton, 1991). 177.

    3. Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lmanian Psychoanalysis (London and New York: Routledge, 1996). 38.

    4. Hegel, Phenomenology, $178-5 196. See G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirt, trans. A. V. Miller, with analysis and foreword by J. N. Findlay (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 1 11-19,

    5. See Mark Poster, Exisfenrial Marxism in Postwar France: From Sartre to Althusser (Prince- ton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1975), 3-35.

    6. Alexandre Kojkve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel [1947], assembled Raymond Que- neau, ed. Allan Bloom, translated by James H. Nichols, Jr. (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1980). 6.

    7. Cynthia Chase, Desire and Identification, in Feminism and Psychoanalysis, ed. Richard Feldstein and Judith Roof (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1989). 65-83 (69).

    8. Jean Hippolyte, Studies on Marx and Hegel 119551, trans. John ONeill (London: Heine- mann, 1969).

    9. Jean Hippolyte, Genesis and Structure c$ Hegels Phenomenology of Spirit [ 19461, trans. Samuel Cherniak and John Heckman (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1974), 160.

    10. Hyppolite, Genesis and Structure 164. I I . Jacques Lacan, The Seminar Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller,

    12. The Seminar Book 111 9G92, 171-76, 180. 13. Evans 38. 14. Darian Leader, Why Do Women Write More Letters Than They Post: (London and Boston:

    Faber, 1996) 3 4 . 15. Leader5. 16. Leader 6 7 . 17. Table Talk 75, n. I . 18. The Seminar Book 111 239.

    trans. Russell Grigg (London: Routledge, 1993). 172.

    PWS THE TELL-TALE HEART

    Edgar Allan Poes short story The Tell-Tale Heart provides an engaging premise-the murder of a beloved old man by his housemate-and provokes readers into an exploration of the true motivation for that crime. The narrator makes reference to the disease that had sharpened [his] senses but remains firm in his question, [Wlhy will you say that I am mad? (Poe 303). The actions of the narrator, combined with his insistence that he is not mad, lead readers to determine that he must suffer from some psychological disor- der; however, it has been suggested that it is not the idea but the form of his madness that is of importance to the story (Quinn 234). Upon close examina- tion, a sadomasochistic element emerges, although, as one critic points out, it is a sadomasochism made acceptable to a mass readership by the elimination of any ostensible sexual element (Symons 210). Imbedded in the tale is the psychological journey of an egocentric who derives pleasure from cruelty.

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  • Although Poe remains covert in any presentation of sexual analogy, the narrator begins [the tale] with language of penetration (Dayan 225). He speaks of the murder as a conceived idea that entered his brain (Poe 303). This sexually charged language continues as the narrator describes the ritual that preceded the murder: And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head I . . .) I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! (303). In addition to the language, the setting of the ritual and murder, a bedroom, only furthers the notion that this is a psycho- sexual tale. Finally, the narrator confesses, I loved the old man (303). Inter- estingly, a dichotomy is created between the narrators love for and his desire to kill the old man.

    Indeed, the narrator exists as a bipolar being, divided by his love for and desire to kill the same man. As Wilhelm Stekel noted over seventy years ago, it is this coupling of love and hate [that] forms the basis for sadomasochism (2:408). Congruous with the idea that the sadist suffers from a fixed idea (2:408), the eye becomes the narrators obsession (Symons 21 I) , for what the narrator hates about his victim is his eye. What links sadomasochism to obses- sion is the compulsion to repetition (2:408), which manifests in the story as a voyeuristic tendency, for seven long nights, to look in upon [the man] while he slept (Poe 303). Further suggestion for a sadomasochistic reading emerges from Stekels comments that the sadist strives for a total annihila- tion of the object, and every sadist is a murderer (Stekel 2:407). The nar- rator seems proud of carrying out his crime. He brags about how healthily- how calmly [he] can tell you the whole story (Poe 303). It is this egocentrism from which the pleasure in cruelty [is] manifested by civilized man (Stekel 1 :28). Since cruelty requires the consciousness of cruelty, joy in anothers hurt, delight in a sense of power over anothers life ( I :27), it is not surpris- ing that the narrator admits that he could scarcely contain [his] feelings of triumph (Poe 304), and although he knew what the old man felt, he chuck- led at heart (304). He further admits that the night of the murder led him to, for the first time, feel the extent of [his] own powers (304). The narrator not only receives pleasure from the act of murder itself, but also from the obses- sive ritual that precedes the murder.

    Sigmund Freud observed that a sadist is simultaneously a masochist (qtd. in Weinberg and Kame1 30). Poes narrator discovers truth in the notion that every pain contains in itself the possibility of a pleasurable sensation (30). Because the narrator experiences a merging of himself and his victim (Quinn 236). it can he inferred that he also experiences the pain that he inflicts. As Patrick Quinn points out, the narrator admits, I know what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart (235), yet despite this empathy, he cames out the crime. Quinn offers the example of the lantern as a symbol for the mans eye to explain the merging of the characters (235). He

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  • maintains that the narrator used the lantern to project a beam of light that filled the old man with terror, and in this way executioner and victim exchanged experiences (235). Indeed, the narrator later tells the police that the scream heard during the night was his own, in a dream (236). Although the scream is the old mans, the narrator seems unable to separate himself from the victim. This idea solidifies when one recognizes that the beating heart that the narrator hears in the end is not his victims, but his own. Because it is apparent that he experiences a collapse into oneness (Dayan 144) with his victim and that he finds pleasure in his deed-he smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done (Poe 305), one may infer that the pleasure he feels is not only for inflicting pain but for receiving it as well.

    As the criminal sits and answers the officers question cheerily, pleasure fades, and he begins to talk more freely to get rid of the feeling (306). He becomes convinced that officers who chatted pleasantly, and smiled (306) were making a mockery of [his] horror (306). Fittingly, he views the offi- cers as sadists taking pleasure in his pain. What readers witness is the cul- mination of the narrators psychological journey. It is said that death wish- es are a source of the consciousness of guilt (Stekel 1:26) and that the phenomenon of pleasure in pain leads [. . .] persons [. . . to] accuse them- selves unwarrantably of most serious crimes, in order to receive the punish- ment dictated by the unconscious (2:161). The criminal does not have to confess because the officers were satisfied [. . .] he had convinced them (Poe 306). Yet, his heart cannot take it, so he admit[s] the deed (306), thus self-inflicting his punishment.

    Egocentrism is at the heart of sadomasochism: men want to feel like they are better than they are (Stekel 1:7). Perhaps this explains why the narrator goes into such detail about how perfect his crime is. He comments, You should have seen how wisely I proceeded-with what caution-with what foresight (Poe 303). However, in the end, he cannot accept that he gets away with the deed. Perhaps his confession represents a sadomasochists return to reality after this excursion into the fantastic (Stekel 1:21). Certainly, as every delight craves eternity (1 :4), it makes perfect sense that the narrator would speak his deeds-he must tell his tale so that it can be immortalized in ink. Knowing that his story will live on is the final step that the narrator must take to receive pleasure from his cruelty.

    -HOLLIE PRITCHARD, Universiry of Louisiana, Lafayette

    WORKS CITED

    Dayan, Joan. Fables of Mind. New York: Oxford UP, 1987. Poe, Edgar Allan. The Collected Tales and Poems of Edgar Poe. New York: Random House, 1992. Quinn, Patrick F. The French Face of Edgar Poe. New York: Southern Illinois UP, 1957.

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  • Stekel, Wilhelm, ed. Sadism und Musochism: The Psychology ofHatred und Cruelty. 2 Vols. New

    Symons, Julian. The Tell-Tale Heart: The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Harper

    Weinberg. Thomas. and G . W. Levi Kamel, eds. S & M: Studies in Sadoma.rorhism. New York:

    York: Liveright, 1929.

    & Row. 1978.

    Prometheus, 1983.

    Dickenss OLIVER TWIST

    In the chapter Why Is Fagin Hanged and Why Isnt Pip Prosecuted, in his provocative Can Jane E y e Be Happy? More Puzzles in Classic Fiction (1997). John Sutherland questions the contextual accuracy of Fagins execu- tion in Charles Dickeiiss Oliver Twist. As Sutherland argues, Fagin is cer- tainly a conniving petty thief, yet none of his actions, in the context of the mid-I830s, are hanging crimes (54). During that period in England, which is when the novel must be set to justify its overt attack on the 1834 New Poor Law, murder was virtually the only crime for which capital punishment was exacted (Sutherland 54). Because Fagin is not a murderer, he is fully justified in asking the prison guard near the novels conclusion, What right have they to butcher me? (Dickens 435). Although Sutherlands impeccable contextual scholarship seemingly uncovers a historical inaccuracy in Oliver Twist, he overlooks a subtle component of the novel that, to a certain degree, legitimizes Fagins sentence.

    Throughout Oliver Twist there exists an underlying criminal code of honor among the thieves in Fagins circle. The code, the unspoken rule that requires a criminal who is apprehended to remain silent about ongoing criminal activ- ity, not only creates the illusion of the proverbial honor among thieves, but more important, it ensures the continued accumulation of stolen goods by those criminals who remain free. Fagin is the codes most ardent supporter; he holds those who adhere to the code in high regard and severely punishes those who breach it. Most significantly, he also abides by it as he refuses to defend himself at his trial. In doing so, he unknowingly implicates himself in Nancys murder.

    Fagin first alludes to the code of honor shortly following Olivers arrival in London. In this episode, Fagin explicitly states his reverence for his former criminal colleagues who abided by the code of honor; their silence allows Fagin to acquire his valuable jewels: Clever dogs! Clever dogs! Staunch to the last! Never told the old parson where they were. Never peached upon old Fagin! [. . .] Fine fellows! Fine fellows! (65). Whereas those who abide by the code win Fagins admiration, severe penalties await those who fail to

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