Credibility and authorial strategies in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Yellow Wallpaper”

00:00 Wed 10 Oct 2001. Updated: 23:25 07 Jan 2007
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I wrote this essay for my “American Short Story Classics” UC Berkeley course midterm. Its focus is on the subtle interplay between different authorial strategies for the establishment of plausibility.

The Gilman and Poe stories discussed in this essay deal with bizarre events that are made plausible to readers in ways that I will examine.

The concept of credibility as it applies to these stores is divisible as follows: whether we believe that the events occurred as reported by the narrators; that the narrators are telling the truth as they know it; that the narrators (and other characters) are real; and that the ‘realistic’ events in them happened. The last question is the most interesting, as it is layered beneath the text itself. Both stories deal with apparent madness, and in both of them we find it difficult to tease out ‘actual events’ from those that occur only in the wild imaginings of the narrators. The concept of ‘actual events’ is critical because none of the events are actual, but rather all are fictional. The fact that readers will be driven to distinguish between different levels of ‘reality’ is very important to both stories, in particular as a method of making the overall story more plausible.

Of the two, “The Tell-Tale Heart” is more straightforward. It leans heavily towards a reading that the narrator is mad, underscored by his frequent early denials.

How, then, am I mad? Hearken! And observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story
(Poe, p92)

Most revealing are his claims of universality.

If you still think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took … I cut off the head and the arms and the legs
(Poe, p95) .

These demonstrations of what he thinks is reasonable show clearly that he is mad. Nevertheless, the story makes you wonder. The character of the narrator is so believable, and his tale so compelling , that the reader is caught up in the telling. At least at first, we believe that he believes, even if the tale itself is dubious, and we then begin to separate his delusions from what ‘really’ occurred.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” takes the form of journal entries rather than an oral tale, and this alters its credibility. In “The Tell-Tale Hear” we are given only hints of how the narrator’s madness came to be, and he is too far gone by then to believe that his feelings are other than reasonable.

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;
(Poe, p92)

Gilman slowly develops the obsession of the narrator, beginning with suppressed resentment of her husband.

… I don’t care—there is something strange about the house—I can feel it.
I even said so to John one moonlight evening, but he said that what I felt was a draught, and shut the window.

He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.
(Gilman, p155)

Gilman weaves this in closely with examination of her surroundings, which always end up focusing on the wallpaper. The first section ends with a six-paragraph long description of it, including this particularly telling passage:

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough constantly to irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of (sic) contradictions.
(Gilman, p156)

This establishes her fixation early on and effectively foreshadows the course the narrator herself will take.

Both authors concentrate on making plausible the obsessions of the protagonists. Poe, in a much shorter work, succeeds primarily with voice and style.

You should have seen how wisely I proceeded—with what caution—with what foresight—with what dissimulation.

And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously—oh, so cautiously—cautiously (for the hinges creaked)—I undid it just so much that a single ray fell upon the vulture eye.
(Poe, p92)

Gilman builds her narrator’s disintegration more slowly, showing the obvious sublimation of her frustrations into her unhealthy fascination with the wallpaper.

There’s one comfort, the baby is well and happy, and does not have to occupy this nursery with the horrid wallpaper.
I never thought of it before, but it is lucky that John kept me here after all, I can stand it so much easier than a baby, you see.
There are things in that paper than nobody knows but me, or ever will.
(Gilman, p161)

Both stories involve sublimation/repression heavily, with Poe’s narrator breaking down and confessing under the weight of suppressed guilt.

The sublimation is in each case critical to the story, and could be argued to be the crux of the story. The authors have taken pains to make it credible that suppression of feeling could have the results described. This enhances plausibility overall, but also creates tension between different aspects of the stories—tension that ultimately reinforces that plausibility.

In both stories, the narrator’s obsession serves to render their subjective credibility (i.e. the degree to which it is credible that they believe what they are saying) more effective while undermining their objective credibility. In addition, they enhance the credibility of the characters’ madness. This disjunction is significant because it is what pushes us to divide the stories into different levels of reality. Convinced by the stories that the narrators are mad, we analyze them to distinguish the imagined from the real. Once we do that, we privilege the parts that we decide are real, and we readily believe that certain of the events in the story really happened—the murder of the old man and the spontaneous confession in Poe, the naked creeping and tearing at the wallpaper in Gilman.

These events are in themselves rather bizarre. By focusing our disbelief on the fact that the narrators cannot be trusted to fully know reality, the authors consolidate our belief in two other pillars of the stories: that the narrators are believable as characters, and that the events which are not clearly madness really did happen. In other words, our dismissal of the beating heart and of the creeping ladies in the wallpaper serve to heighten our credulity regarding the murder and, in both cases, the catastrophic breakdown of the narrators. Similarly, our drive to discern what events are ‘real’, as opposed to entirely in the minds of the narrators, cause us to accept the rest of the story as real. This is no small effect. A man murdering a housemate because of his eye and confessing because he heard the still-beating heart, or a perfectly respectable middle-class woman (married and sister to doctors, no less) going entirely mad because of wallpaper are not particularly believable events in themselves. Convincing readers of the plausibility of these events is a feat in itself, and accomplished so effectively in both of these stories that we take it for granted.

(1158 words)


Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

One Response to “Credibility and authorial strategies in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Yellow Wallpaper””

  1. manal Says:

    please i want to make aliterature reviwe for this essay can you send to my email the name of the writer of this essay and in wich article or magazine it is taken from
    please sed me this informations as quickly as you can please

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