So this little blog resulted from a last minute homework exercise in which my eldest child was asked to find a book with a cover that truly represented the mood and tone of the story inside. While we were looking I stumbled across my copy of Poe’s Selected Tales published by Oxford World’s Classics. The cover is an image by Harry Clarke, circa 1919 depicting the murder of the old man in the short story The Tell-Tale Heart – and it is certainly one that captures the essence of the story.
In summary, The Tell-Tale Heart is the first person narrative of a man confessing to the murder of an elderly gentleman. The account is detailed, meticulous, chilling – made more so by the measured tone in which the narrator speaks. Despite his many protestations at being completely sane, clearly our narrator and sanity are miles (if not solar systems) apart; and one of the most striking features of Clarke’s image is the way in which he has managed to portray this insanity.
The painting captures the exact moment at which the narrator pounces; the moment at which the elderly man shrieks ‘once – only once’. Having leapt from the darkness the murderer strikes out with his left hand, pressing down upon the face of a clearly startled elderly man. We can see from the image that the movement has been swift, deliberate and calculated. It is precise in its execution; pointed and determined.
The dreary glow of the lantern casts a dismal and gloomy mood over the scene and the absolute darkness of the shadows behind it represent the very deep, deep darkness of the tale itself. We know that these are the very shadows in which the narrator has been watching and waiting, biding his time until the moment is upon him.
That he does not look at the elderly man as he kills him, but instead chooses to stare across over his shoulder betray not only his arrogance and utter contempt for his victim, but also his disengagement from the act itself. He looks away not from guilt or shame, but as a challenge to us, the viewer, who having witnessed his crime now become complicit in it.
In looking at the picture we are being invited in to share the madness, to have a responsibility thrust upon us that we have neither sought nor asked for. It is a picture that truly speaks a thousand words – each one of them the absolute stuff of nightmare…