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Websters Collegiate Dictionary defines existentialism as a chiefly 20 th century philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centering on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for his acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad (407). Without question existentialism is extremely complicated and almost incomprehensible. However Katharena Eiermann defines existentialism in a more understandable manner. She says that existentialism has one major theme: a stress of individual existence and, consequently, on subjectivity, individual freedom, and choice (1). In The Tell-Tale Heart written by Edgar Allan Poe the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for his acts of free will become dreadfully clear. Poe manifests these existential philosophies in the clear illustration of the conscience, anguish, and ultimate absurdity of the narrator.
True! nervous very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease has sharpened my senses not destroyed not dulled them. Poe opens the story with these chilling words of the narrator who seems rational and acute of all his senses his conscience, above all else, highly tuned. How, then, am I mad?
says the narrator observe how healthily how calmly I can tell you the whole story. It is wildly evident by the chilling introduction that our narrator, although very in tune with his senses, is trying to convince himself of his sanity. But, alas From the very first sentence his madness is apparent through his desperate insistence upon his sanity (Lanzen-Harris, 310). But to the madman sanity is relative; after all, sanity is a conscious state of mind whereas insanity is, to all intents and purposes, a condition of the unconsciousness (Lanzen-Harris, 310).
The narrator continues to explain his mind and method, but still maintaining his sanity. It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived it haunted me day and night. His object, there was none. His passion, there was none. He says that is was the eye of the old man for whom he care dyes, it was this. The eye resembled that of a vulture a pale blue eye, with a film over it.
Whenever the eye came upon him, his blood ran cold. So he says, I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye for ever. It wasnt the man that he wanted to kill. But the eye that haunted him. Fyodor Dostoyevsky once said nothing is more seductive for a man than his freedom of conscience. But nothing is a greater cause of suffering (Eiermann).
The narrators unwillingness to embrace his true conscience and insanity will soon find Dostoyevsky's words prophetic. In addition to the clear illustration of our narrators conscience, Poe shows us that the narrators anguish is also a key factor in the story as well as the existential realm. Kierkegaard once said, it is the claim that anguish is the underlying, all pervasive, universal condition of human existence (Eiermann). Each evening the narrator would put his head through the doorway of the old mans bedroom to see if he could gaze upon the eye: to think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. He chuckles at the thought, but soon recalls the night that the old man woke when he opened the door: I had my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb slipped upon the tin fastening, and the old man sprang up in the bed, crying out Whos there? I kept quite still and said nothing.
For a whole hour I did not move a muscle, and in the meantime I did not hear him lie down. He was still sitting up in the bed listening just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the deathwatches in the wall. Presently I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror. It was not a groan of pain or of grief, no!
It was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe. I knew the sound well. Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me. I say I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him. The anguish of the old man as well as that of the narrator keeps the storyteller focused on the brutal task at hand.
He knows well the fear and anguish the old man must feel. The story-teller believes that killing the old man will free himself of the evil eye that invades his thoughts; but in actuality, the freedom he seeks will only complete his torture (Lanzen-Harris, 329). Frank Kafka once said My fear is my substance, and probably the best part of me, and it is within this realm of thought that we see the extinguishing of a life take place in The Tell-Tale Heart (Eiermann). In the conclusion of the story, we see the demise of the narrator and the ultimate absurdity that is its foundation. William J. Hackman defines absurdity to be the belief that there is something not reasonable, and people can not expect reason in anything (1).
Once the old mans life had been extinguished, the narrator went to work in order to hide his crime. Soon after dismembering the body and placing it under the floorboards of the house, the narrator heard a knocking at the front door: I went down to open it with a light hartford what did I have to fear? he says. To his surprise there were three police officers that had been called upon to investigate a shriek heard in the night. The caretaker led them to his chamber and invited them to sit and rest from their fatigues. After talking awhile the narrator felt himself getting pale and wished them gone.
As he continued to sit and talk, the narrator heard a sound: It was a low, dull quick sound much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. He believed the sound to be that of the old mans heart, but was it the sound of the dead mans heart or was it the hideous heart of the criminal himself which he hears? After convincing himself that the police officers were mocking him and pretending that the sound could not be heard, the narrator begins to blurt out and toss the chair in which he sat. When the police entered the room the narrators purpose was to lie about the scream that had been called to their attention, but unconsciously he told the truth and admitted to the crime (Lanzen-Harris, 310). Finally he blurts out Villains! Dissemble no more!
I admit the deed! Tear up the planks! here, here is the beating of his hideous heart! In the final words of the story we see that the evil which the caretaker had hoped to rid himself was in fact the terror that existed within him. When the narrator decided to rid himself of the evil eye he was in fact assuring his own destruction (Magill, 2314). The path the narrator took was so clear to him.
He felt that getting rid of the old man would free himself of the torture caused by the evil eye, but in actuality what appeared so clear a choice to him only ended in the absurd meaningless demise that is now his reality. The Tell-Tale Heart is a disturbing look into the mind of a madman. Through his state of conscience, his anguish, and absurdity, we see the extinguishing of a life which ended in the totality of the madness that existed within the narrator. His decision to free himself of the torture caused by the evil eye resulted in his ultimate demise.
But in the existential world we realize that there is no objective, rational basis for decisions (Eiermann). The words from another of Poe's stories hold true for the narrator of the story: In me didst thou existing in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself. (Magill) Eiermann, Katharena. Existentialism Home page. 1997. 19 Nov. 1998 web Hackman, William J. Nihilism and the Absurd Home page. 1997. 20 Nov. 1998 web Lanzen-Harris, Laurie ed.
Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism Vol. 1. Gale Research Co. Book Tower. Detroit Michigan, 1983. Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism Vol. 1.
The True Secret of His Power Alfred C. Ward. Gale Research Co. Book Tower. Detroit Michigan, 1983. Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism Vol. 1.
The Question of Poe's Narrators James W. Gargano. Gale Research Co. Book Tower. Detroit Michigan, 1983. Magill, Frank N.
Master plots II: Short Stories Series. Vol. 4. The Tell-Tale Heart Ronald W. Howard. Salem Press. Pasadena California, 1985.
Mish, Frederick C. Merriam Websters Collegiate Dictionary Tenth Edition. Merriam Webster, Inc. Springfield, Massachusetts, 1996. Modern Library. ed.
The Raven and The Monkeys Paw. The Tell-Tale Heart Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Random House, 1998. It was once said what has been hidden within the self will not stay concealed (Silverman, 208), and it is this reality that the narrator will soon find to pass. Bibliography:
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