Hearts That Tell No Tales

It was a Tuesday morning in April over twenty years ago, and I had just given a literary assembly at Bear Creek High School. The specific date, time, and place will become relevant later in this essay. No looking ahead, please. As I drove from Bear Creek to my next assembly twenty miles away, I was thinking about the enthusiastic response that my topic had elicited from those students.


My topic had been Edgar Allan Poe. The English department at my university in North Carolina had granted me a sabbatical and then two consecutive leaves of absence to travel the country bringing programs on great authors to thousands of elementary, middle, and high school students in nineteen states. Although I also spoke on Shakespeare, Dickens, and Twain, it is Poe and Poe alone whom the students crave.


You could have heard that proverbial pin drop when I “quothed” The Raven to the students that morning. I then launched into the litany of beautiful young women whose horrible deaths from consumption Poe witnessed. The students again fell silent when I told them that the cause of death for these unfortunate women was always officially listed as “drowning” because consumption so weakened (consumed) their lungs that they ultimately drowned in their own blood. 


I also pointed out that women’s handkerchiefs in Poe’s day always had one of three designs embroidered on them: cherries, strawberries, or roses. Since all three were bright red, they helped disguise the fact that these doomed young ladies were coughing up blood. I taught them that this is why Poe is our only author who invariably foreshadows death through the symbol of the color red -- rather than black.


It is indeed the blood, the violence, the sadism, and the grotesque characters in Poe which captivate most teenagers. And it is also the fact that Poe gives no facile explanation or motivation for the brutality within his stories that resonates with students. Such ambiguity can be found in his most frequently anthologized work -- The Tell-Tale Heart -- which is also, I discovered, the all-time favorite of students. 


The story first appeared in Boston in an 1843 issue of Pioneer Magazine -- and guess what? The idea for the tale seems to have been borrowed (can you say “stolen”?) from a short story by ... wait for it… Charles Dickens entitled “A Confession Found in a Prison in the Time of Charles II.” You just knew I’d drag Dickens in, no matter from how far I had to fetch him!


In any case, this story of a man who brutally murders for no apparent reason (but perhaps an aversion to the victim’s eye) has entranced readers and critics for 150 years. As with Iago’s unexplained hatred for Othello in Shakespeare’s play, there seems to be a lack of compelling motive for such viciousness. As far as explaining the cause of his hatred, the murderer makes clear that it could never be explained: “Object, there was none. Passion, there was none. For his gold, I had no desire.” A few Poe scholars have tried to unravel the complex mystery of the narrator’s mind by resorting to psycho-babble. One Freudian critic of the 1960’s proclaimed: “He seems to be paranoid schizophrenic with delusions of persecution accompanied by hostility and aggressiveness.” Oh, that helps...


But I think my high school audience loves Poe because he purposefully leaves the motive a mystery. Teenagers are very attuned to the fact that the world often makes no sense, that the chaos and violence within them (hormonal and otherwise) is a perfect reflection of the bizarre, confusing world outside of them.


And so now I reveal that the date of my Poe assembly was April 13, 1999, and that Bear Creek High is in a Denver suburb, and that as I traveled to my other assembly at 11:15 a.m. I passed a road sign for “Columbine High School” off to the right, and that the date was exactly one week to the hour before the Columbine massacre.I still shudder to think of that drive I made.


In many ways, the Columbine tragedy was prompted by the same motiveless horror as in The Tell-Tale Heart. We still have no idea why Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris gunned down and killed 13 helpless fellow students and faculty, wounded 24 others, and then committed suicide. It was an act impossible to predict, impossible to prevent, and in spite of the millions of words it has occasioned — including the ones you are currently reading — impossible to make intelligible. And in literature, the writings of Edgar Allan Poe will always represent the limits of the rational as well as the unlimited dark mystery which lurks within each of our hearts: no, not “tell-tale” hearts, but, far more horrifying, hearts that tell nothing at all until -- as at Columbine -- it is far too late.

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