Text: Laurence Senelick, “Charles Dickens and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’,” Poe Studies, June 1973, Vol. VI, No. 1, 6:12-14


[page 12, column 2:]

Charles Dickens and “The Tell-Tale Heart”

Tufts University

Tracing literary provenance is a ticklish business. What one first assumes to be a straight forward descent turns into a tortuous bypath, and what at first glance seemed heinous plagiarism dwindles under scrutiny into pardonable similitude. When fashionable ideas are aired, it is not surprising that many inhale them. If Dickens and Poe wrote what amounts to the same story within a couple of years, is it more than coincidence?

When Dickens first devised Master Humphrey’s Clock as a loosely organized miscellany, he counted on public response to be overwhelmingly enthusiastic. But when readers became aware that the Clock was merely a flimsy framework and not a continuous story, their zeal slackened and the sales dropped accordingly. Nor can public taste be blamed in this instance: the fare which Dickens offered it was uncharacteristically bland. The first number elaborately wound up the mechanism whereby the giants in Guildhall were to while away the night by spinning yarns. The second number related one of those new Arabian Nights, a tedious Gothic romance set in the days of Good Queen Bess. The third number was to contain a facetious bit of dialblerie about a witch-finder named John Podgers.

But Dickens changed his mind; seeing the diminishing interest among subscribers, he decided to begin a longer narrative, a “little child-story” which was to become The Old Curiosity Shop. In the meantime, a shorter piece was required to fill the space left by the postponement of the witch-story. This stopgap was a brief tale which Dickens had undoubtedly written by March 8, 1840, when he mentioned it in a letter to John Forster. The following day he proposed to his publishers Chapman and Hall the replacement by “the story which Mr. Chapman calls ‘I was a lieutenant’ “ (1). On the same day he informed his illustrator George Cattermole of the decision:

. . . the story about John Podgers will stand over for some little time, and that short tale will occupy its place which you have already by you, and which treats of the assassination of a young gentleman under circumstances of peculiar aggravation. I shall be greatly obliged to you if you will rum your attention to this last morsel as the feature of No. 3, and still more so if you can stretch a point, with regard to time (which is of the last importance just now) and make a subject out of it, rather than find one in it. . . . The new No. I tale begins “ I held a Lieutenant’s commission in His Majesty’s Army, and served abroad in the Campaigns of 1677 and 1678.” It has at present no title. (Letters, II, 41-42)

What was this tale which Dickens seems so cavalier about that he neglects to title it? (It was eventually called “A Confession Found in a Prison in the Time of Charles the Second.”) Its narrator purports to be a retired campaigner “of a secret sullen distrustful nature” (2) under sentence of death when the story begins. Early in life he and his brother, whom he envied for his virtues, married [page 13:] two sisters, and the Lieutenant took an inordinate dislike to his sister-in-law, an antipathy which lasted to her death. “I was afraid of her, she haunted me, her fixed and steady look comes back upon me now like the memory of a dark dream and makes my blood run cold” (p. 32) . With his brother’s demise, the Lieutenant is made guardian of his four-year-old nephew. Gradually, he grows suspicious of the child — “I can scarcely fix the date when the feeling first came upon me,” — and finds it impossible to stare the boy down. He becomes unnerved by his ward’s “bright eyes” continually fixed on him. The idea of doing away with the young hopeful begins to obsess the Lieutenant “by slow degrees, presenting itself at first in dim shapes at a very great distance . . . — then drawing nearer and nearer and losing something of its horror and improbability — then coming to be part and parcel, nay nearly the whole sum and substance of my daily thought . . .” (p. 33) . He starts spying on the child, watching him in his bed, hovering about him in the garden. Finally, he carves a toy boat, entices the child to try it out in a deep pond, stealthily tracks him, and is about to push him in when the young victim wheels round. The look in his eyes unmans the Lieutenant, and in mindless panic he stabs the child with his sword, and that night buries him in fresh turf in the garden, within sight of his bedroom window. In the ensuing search for the missing heir, the murderer compulsively directs his men to reseed the turf, trampling again and again over the makeshift grave. But in the manner of literary homicides, his sleep is disturbed by nightmares of pursuit and the fear that the boy is not dead.

A few days later, two fellow officers arrive on a visit. “I felt that I could not bear to be out of sight of the place. It was a summer evening, and I bade my people take a chair and a flask of wine into the garden. Then I sat down with my chair upon the grave, and being assured that nobody could disturb it now, without my knowledge, tried to drink and talk” (p. 35). As the conversation turns to the possibility of the child’s having been murdered, two blood-hounds leap the wall and start snuffling in circles about the table, trying to tear away the chair-legs.

“In Heaven’s name move,’ said the one [officer] I knew, very earnestly, “or you will be torn to pieces.”

“Let them tear me limb from limb, I’ll never leave this place!” cried I. “Are dogs to hurry men to shameful death? Hew them down, cut them in pieces.”

“There is some foul mystery here!” cried the officer whom I did not know, drawing his sword. “In King Charles’ name assist me to secure this man.

They both set upon me and forced me away though I fought and bit and caught at them like a madman. After a struggle they got me quietly between them, and then, my God! I saw the angry dogs rearing at the earth and throwing it up into the air like water. (p. 36)

The Lieutenant is subsequently tried and condemned to death.

Dickens had played this strain before, most vividly in “A Madman’s Manuscript,” an interpolated tale in The Pickwick Papers. There, the narrator dilates on his obsession with hereditary madness, resulting in a paranoia that menaces his wife and brother-in-law. It is pertinent that the madman never performs either of his projected murders, but much of his overwrought narration is lavished [column 2:] on the planning of them and on the hue-and-cry that results when he reveals the unspeakable malice concealed beneath his facade of respectability. If the subject matter of “The Madman’s Manuscript” is beneath criticism except as fodder for Freudians, the style is injected with a kind of manic distortion that lends it excitement.

But except for the lurid themes of homicidal obsession and detection by animals, there is nothing so memorable about “A Confession Found in a Prison,” which comes across merely as a variation on the Wicked Uncle fable. It purports to be a personal narrative of the late seventeenth-century; yet Dickens makes no attempt to imitate Restoration style or even to characterize the narrator’s speech by any idiosyncratic touches. That he himself considered it no more than a pot-boiler is dear from the letter to Cattermole. “The assassination of a young gentleman under circumstances of peculiar aggravation” is a flippant way to refer to infanticide, as is the gustatory term “morsel.” Moreover, Dickens, who, even when rushed, took great pains with his instructions to his illustrators, disclaimed any worthwhile subject for depiction in the tale and left the decision to Cattermole’s discretion. (The resultant woodcut showed the moment when the hounds are snapping at the chair.) Evidently, Dickens was too involved in the new adventures of Nell and her grandfather to pay much heed to his filler.

When the first volume of Master Humphrey’s Clock appeared in the United States, it was reviewed in Graham’s Magazine by Edgar Allan Poe. Poe, as an off-again-on-again admirer of Dickens, lent close attention to the narratives in this collection. His critique began in a customarily picayune fashion, with a complaint about the title-page and a snide intimation that the desultory opening of the Clock was owing to temporary dementia on Dickens’ part.

We do not think it altogether impossible that the rumors in respect to the sanity of Mr. Dickens which were so prevalent during the publication of the first number of the work, had some slight — some very slight foundation in truth. By this, we mean merely to say that the mind of the author, at the time, might possibly have been struggling with some of those manifold and multiform aberration! by which the nobler order of genius is so frequently beset — but which are still so very far removed from disease (3).

The innuendo is all the more unpleasant for the smirking disclaimer. Eventually Poe’s nitpicking, ready to descry every mote in a rival’s eye, got around to the stories themselves. The Elizabethan romance and the John Podgers tale he dismissed as journalistic make-weights unworthy of Dickens’ talents; a journalist himself, Poe could fathom the expediencies that had called them into dim existence (4). But the murder story, which Dickens had barely bothered about titling, Poe pronounced “a paper of remarkable power, truly original in conception, and worked out with great ability” (p. 249) . High praise indeed, especially from the American Zoilus. Poe would go on to laud the concept of the Curiosity Shop and Little Nell in particular, perhaps seeing in her morbid and moribund virginity a type for his own ethereal heroines. (He loathed Cattermole’s apotheosis of Nell with the heavenly host, however.) But of the rest of the first volume of the Clock, only “A Confession Found in a Prison” received [page 14:] such favorable mention. Poe’s imagination was fundamentally literary; that is, he drew his inspiration less from life than from his reading, and this story may have been congenial to his idees fixes. He shared with Dickens the fascination with a hidden crime coming to light and with the growing compulsion to violence within a madman.

It is not certain when Poe wrote “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but he must have offered a finished manuscript to Henry T. Tuckerman sometime in December 1842, for we find James Russell Lowell writing to Poe on December 17, “Mr. Tuckerman . . . would not permit it in the ‘Miscellany’ and I was glad to get it for myself” (5). Not partaking of Tuckerman’s objections to ghastliness, Lowell published the tale in the first number of The Pioneer in January of the following year.

“The Tell-Tale Heart” belongs to one of Poe’s most fertile periods, a time when he was no longer swamped by editorial duties. If Dickens’ pot-boiler served as inspiration, Poe justified the borrowing by transmuting the earlier dross into gold. Although numerous details of both stories correspond, Poe pared away many of Dickens’ literary mannerisms and all of his sentiment. The victim is no longer a ringletted four-year-old heir, but a repulsive old man, thus changing the motivation from a stolen legacy to an irrational dislike and minimizing any manipulation of the reader’s sympathy with the victim. Indeed, Poe’s narrator is a supreme egoist, proud of his ingenuity and disclaiming any tinge of insanity, while Dickens’ Lieutenant is a shabby imposter, only too aware of his guilt and anxiously wallowing in remorse. Throughout Poe’s tale, the emphasis lies on the murderer’s psychology without any suggestion of the occult. Whereas the Dickensian nephew’s eye was a shimmering reflection of his mother’s ghost, chiding her morose brother-in-law the eye of Poe’s old man is pale blue with a film over it, a vulture’s eye owning no human kindred or affections. The amateurish spying of Dickens’ murderer becomes in Poe a prolonged ordeal, a nerve wracking which can only be relieved by the ultimate bloodshed. When the murderer places his chair over his victim’s grave, he does so in defiance of detection, not in abject fear of it. And although both writers reveal their murderers’ guilt at the climax of a growing frenzy, Dickens’ agents are gratuitous and melodramatic hounds, stagily bounding in at the last minute like the dog of Montargis. Poe intensifies the claustrophobic atmosphere by building up tension within his character’s mind, compelling him to reveal the hidden corpse himself.

Literary influence seldom admits of firmer proof than circumstantial evidence. Although it is not possible to ascertain absolutely that Poe drew consciously upon Dickens’ slight tale, the coincidences are strong, and in this case, in no way detract from Poe’s genius. If anything, the improvement of “The Tell-Tale Heart” over “A Confession Found in a Prison” bespeaks Poe’s great skill as a master of suspense, a greater skill in that genre than Dickens himself could boast in the eighteen-forties.



(1) The Letters of Charles Dickens, ed. Madeline House and Graham Storey, Pilgrim ed. (Oxford Univ. Press, 1965, 1969), II, 40. [column 2:]

(2) All quotations from Master Humphrey’s Clock are from the first edition (London, 1840), I, 32.

(3) Graham’s Magazine, 18 (May 1841), 248. The rumor referred to derived from Dickens facetiously extravagant behavior at the time of Victoria’s marriage to Albert.

(4) For a good survey of the fluctuating relationship between the two authors, see Gerald G. Grubb, “The Personal and Literary Relationships of Dickens and Poe,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 5 (1950), 1-22, 101-120, 209-212.

(5) Quoted in Hervey Allen, Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: George H. Doran, 1926), II, 548.


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