The Formuliac Narrators of Edgar Allan Poe




The respective narrators in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat are nameless characters around whom each story revolves. This is just as well, considering the fact that the two narrators are almost interchangeable. Both narrators are thematic symbols of the dark side of the human mind, which characterizes much of Poe’s works of horror. Each narrator moves through the action of his story virtually parallel to the other, in his struggles with irrational fear, innate perversity and obsessive mental fixations. Although Poe does insert a few added dramatic elements into the story of The Black Cat, these elements pull the two characters closer together, instead of pushing them apart. The reader can still easily see each man follow the same path through his narration: he becomes consumed by his irrational fear, then obsesses over the object which is the manifestation of this fear, which then pushes him to violence against those associated with the obsession. Poe brings the reader full circle, using similar language and actions within both plots, taking both narrators to the height of their madness and seeming triumph, which in the end, is their undoing.
Both stories are narrated through the distorted eyes of a character that has been driven to madness on some level or another. Each narrator begins his respective story by defending his sanity through a twisted sort of rationalization. The narrator of The Tell-Tale Heart addresses question of his sanity twice in the first paragraph: asking once of the reader, “why will you say that I am mad?” and then again asking, “How, then, am I mad (p277)?” His defense lies in “how healthily – how calmly [he] can tell [the reader] the whole story.” This is the same rationale that the narrator of The Black Cat follows in his defense of his sanity.
Just as the narrator of The Tell-Tale Heart presents his personal account of the events in the story as healthy and calm, the Black Cat narrator presents “plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events (p320).” Although he hopes for “some intellect [that] may be found which will reduce [his] phantasm to the common-place,” the Black Cat narrator still states, “mad am I not (p320).” This element of the supernatural is one in area where the two narrators diverge a bit. However, as the two stories progress, this difference is used as a balancing agent that allows the characterizations of the narrators to parallel one another within the action of their respective stories.
Both narrators are on the verge of complete madness, waiting for that certain element to push them over the edge. In the first part of the story, the reader learns that the Black Cat narrator “was noted for the docility and humanity of [his] disposition (p320) in the past. It is indicated that he was at one point, a seemingly happy man. There is no indication of such a past in the life of the Tell-Tale narrator. His murderous intentions “to take the life of the old man (p277)” are made clear in the second paragraph of the story. Thus, Poe added elements of the supernatural to he plot of The Black Cat. It is left unclear as to whether or not there are actually two cats in the story, or if the original cat, which Poe so aptly named after the Roman god of the Underworld and judge of the dead, Pluto, has come back from the dead in retribution. The narrator’s wife’s talk about superstitions involving witches and the eerie gallow-shaped white marking on the black cat are also elements that add to the narrator’s eventual snap into madness, and what push him to the same violence as the Tell-Tale narrator.
This violence is brought on by an irrational fear that both narrators posses. Both the Tell-Tale and the Black Cat narrators refer to their states of mind as a sort of disease. Their individual fears manifest themselves in sensual hypersensitivity, which lead them to be affected in extreme ways by their surroundings. The Tell-Tale narrator says that the “disease had sharpened [his] senses – not destroyed – not dulled them (p277).” His sense of hearing being the most acute, he hears “all things in