Black Hearted: Comparing the Narrators of Two Poe Stories
by Eric R.
"The Black Cat: and "The Telltale Heart" are both horror stories by renowned author Edgar Allen Poe. At a first glance, the stories seem similar. Both feature a gruesome murder. In both cases, the perpetrator of the murder gets caught. But the two stories differ in a deeper way--the nature of the narrators who tell them. For although the narrators of "The Black Cat" and "The Telltale Heart" seem similar on the surface, they have fundamental differences: how they view their crimes and their states of mind.
The narrators of these two stories share many similarities. For example, both murder somebody close in a brutal way: the narrator of "The Black Cat" kills his wife with an axe to the head and the narrator of "The Telltale Heart" kills the old man by smothering him under a bed. Furthermore, both murder somebody whom they have no grievances with: the narrator of "The Black Cat" kills his wife while trying to kill a cat, while the narrator of "The Telltale Heart" says "I loved the old man. He had never wronged me." A third similarity is that both flaunt their crimes: one knocks on the wall where he has hid the body and the other places a chair over the body and sits on it. A fourth one is that each meets his doom because of a sound in the structure of the house: the cat in "The Black Cat" howls from within the wall, while the narrator of "The Telltale Heart" hears a sound in the floor. Finally, the last similarity between the two is that both ultimately pay for their crimes with their lives.
However, underneath these superficial similarities, the two narrators have several differences. First, the narrator of "The Black Cat" feels guilt, and knows that what he does is wrong, while the narrator of "The Telltale Heart" revels in his achievement. For example, when talking about his motives, the narrator of "The Black Cat" says "Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile ... action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?" In this passage he clearly demonstrates his knowledge of right and wrong. In fact, he even implies that his actions are "vile", meaning he not only knows he shouldn’t do it, he feels repulsed by his own actions. He commits his actions, paradoxically, not because he thinks he should, but because he knows he shouldn’t. By contrast, the narrator of "The Telltale Heart" celebrates what he has achieved. For example, when talking about how he killed the man, he says, "I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done." Unlike the narrator of The Black Cat, this narrator enjoys committing his crime, feeling happy about what he has accomplished, saying, "I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph". In these two stories, the same crime conceals two different mindsets.
The two narrators also differ in their sanity. Specificallly, the narrator of "The Black Cat" thinks rationally, while the narrator of "The Telltale Heart" is insane. One can plainly see the latter narrator’s insanity when he talks in the beginning about his acuteness of hearing. He says, "I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?" A sane person does not hear things from heaven and hell. That he thinks he can hear supernatural sounds shows that the narrator has lost touch with reality. Furthermore, he seems to think that sane people should hear sounds from heaven and hell, which further shows his insanity. His actions while killing the man also show his insanity. For example, when he begins spying on the man, he says "It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this?" No sane person would either stick his head in so slowly, or misjudge time so severely that he thought he did. In addition, he seems to see this action as wise. By contrast, the narrator of The Black Cat thinks sanely. For example, in the introduction to his narrative, he says, "Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place—some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own." Unlike the other narrator, he believes in a mundane explanation to the events that happened, and seeks a rational explanation. Though he implies that he does not think logically, these words actually strengthen the case for his sanity; insane people are often unaware of their insanity. Furthermore, he later says while describing the image of the hangman’s noose on the wall, "I am above the weakness of seeking to establish a sequence of cause and effect, between the disaster and the atrocity." This sentence shows that he thinks logically, knowing that connecting the two events by cause and effect is irrational, as a cat dying has no effect on whether a house burns down or not; such events are totally unrelated. He even states that making such a connection shows weakness. However, his mental awareness fails to help him in the end, but only makes him painfully aware of his impending death.
The narrators of "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-tale Heart" differ in two ways: their sanity and their outlook on their crimes. Since people usually consider sanity and a moral compass as beneficial traits, one would expect that the narrator of "The Black Cat" has an advantage over the other. Ironically though, these characteristics seem to only hurt him. He is unable to escape his fate or remain innocent, instead gaining only a glum awareness of his death and a sense of self-loathing from his awareness. On the other hand, these troubles do not burden the other narrator. He goes to his death in triumph, with a clear conscience. Perhaps the phrase "Ignorance is Bliss" has some merit to it after all.
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