Most people wouldn’t refer to Edgar Allan Poe as a Surrealist writer, and they would be correct, but only chronologically. Dying in 1849, Poe was older than the official Surrealist movement by about six decades. Nonetheless, though, Poe utilized many of the same tools and concepts that the Surrealists did. The importance of the mind is one of these concepts, and Poe described roughly ideas that Sigmund Freud would further articulate later on. In fact, the Surrealists looked at the Victorian author as a prophet-like figure. André Breton even called him a ”Surrealist in adventure.”
Some people, like myself, believe that the human psyche contains certain ideas that are universal. These concepts appeal to every one of us and include fantasy-themes, character archetypes, and the monomyth. Writers can tap into these universal ideas in order to appeal to the essence of our own minds, helping us understand the author’s meaning and identify with him.
Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart is not a fountain of fantasy-themes like J.R.R Tolkien’s or George Lucas’ stories, however one theme stands out almost immediately. The theme of love and hate. The age-old idea that the two emotions are polar opposites, like fire and ice. When you love something completely, there is no hate.
The story begins with our narrator telling us how nervous and sane (of course) he is, and he begins his story about how he just murdered an old man he claims to have loved.
“It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees – very gradually – I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.”
“I was never kinder to the man than during the whole week before I killed him.”
Poe swears to have loved this man, and yet he murdered him. He is exploring the complex interconnectedness and similarities of the emotions of love and hate. In this way he is in fact rejecting the universal theme of love and hate. For the author, love and hate aren’t necessarily opposites but are indeed intimately connected, perhaps in what Freud would later call the subconscious. I don’t need to remind anyone of Poe’s emotional instability, and maybe being out of touch with these universal ideas led him to further drift away from reality.
*I wanted to on focus on the theme of love and hate, however Poe dips into a few other themes, and since I couldn’t find a place for them, I’ll mention them here. We can first look at his use of the theme of “day and night”. At daybreak, he walks in and asks the man how he slept; and night he stalks the man and eventually kills him. He also the “fire-and-ice” theme mentioned when he says his blood ran cold, and when he says that the man was “stone” when he checked to make sure he was dead. Lastly, Poe writes,
“…All in vain; because Death, in approaching him, had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim.”
He mentions the archetype of death, personifies it, and that appeals to the audience because it’s an idea that every one of us has thought of. The color black is used to represent the idea of death, nothingness, evil, and the shadow may represent the subconscious part of the killer’s mind that drove him to kill the man.