Few authors have incorporated short stories as tools for sharpening the reader’s analytical skills while scaring them with succinct portrayals of human behavior. Writers tend to incorporate words and scenarios that ignite objective thoughts in the author’s mind enabling readers to learn about their own feelings in regards to the extremes of human behavior. The extremes tackled in such stories tend to have a connection with an expression of animal instincts such as murder. Two short stories that illustrate this theme even though in two different perspectives are Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” The scenarios in which in which animalistic instincts are portrayed in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “To Build a Fire” vary greatly. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator murders a different person while in “To Build a Fire,” the narrator puts himself in a critical situation that leads to his death.
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Both short stories involve characters that are perverse in different extremes. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator appears wrecked in a way that any reader can sympathize for him. He appears uneasy, (“very dreadfully nervous”), paranoid and mentally unstable. The character is not capable of noting the existent difference between “unreal” and “real” and he lives as a lone ranger. He does not seem to have any friends and probably has insomnia. His murderous thoughts are evident because “he exposes his animalistic motives and he does not find it strange” (Poe (a) 15). His fright is so extreme, to an extent that he fails to share his name. Miquel notes that “he narrates to the readers his actions and motives but refuses to make any physically identifiable characteristics” (125). Notably, he expects readers know his ambitions, but he does not want them to locate him. His nervousness and mental instability is expressed in some of his reckless statements, for instance, “You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing” (Poe (b) 3). In “To Build a Fire,” the narrator seems stable and confident in himself. He identifies himself as Chinook, a word that signifies a newcomer. However, he has a different explanation behind his perverse thoughts. The problem with Chinook is that he is “without imagination” (London (b) 3). This implies that he is “quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significance” (London (b) 3). His murderous thoughts are slightly hidden. He does not mention anything that associates him to the subject of murder. However, he is aware that it is extremely cold, but he does not think beyond that. Even though it is cold, the winter environment in the arctic does not arouse thoughts of the frailty of his life.
In both short stories, the character’s animalistic and murderous motives manifest as a result of their own selfish interests. However, the specific interests that serve as their motivation differ in ultimate goals. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the character seeks satisfaction in eliminating an individual that he dislikes. He considers his ambitions unshakable. The character holds nothing against a certain old man a part from his eye which he describes as horrible. According to the character, the eye is “pale blue, with a film over it” (Poe (b) 2). He hates the eye to an extent of scheming to kill him so that he can be free. In “To Build a Fire,” the character wants to reach partying boys at a mining camp on Henderson Creek without considering the state of the surrounding environment. Seals notes that “Chinook feels he should get to the boys so that he can have a good time by lighting a nice warm fire, having some bacon and throwing onto his biscuits” (Seals 1530). He does not show concern over his appearance as his chin appears crusted over with an orange brown beard that is soaked in tobacco juice and frozen spit.
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Considering the titles of the stories, they all have implications of pervasive thoughts and mysterious maneuvers even though expressed differently. The authors portray both stories as tales so as to create an obsessive focus on the preceding events. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the author describes the state of a heart beating while telling the hidden tales of the narrator. Tales are usually stories which can be narrated out of real or unreal experiences (Poe (a) 18). Generally, writers of tales have a motive of keeping reading attentive. Consequently, they tend to make tremendous exaggerations to achieve their goal. The heart of the old man in this story starts beating on the eight night as he notices something strange in his residence. According to Miquel, “it starts by telling a tale of fear which affects his moods by making him angry and pushes him to execute the animalistic act” (124). In another instance, the author mentions a heartbeat after the death of the old man. The hidden guilt in the narrator projects from the heart of a murdered man in narrating the main character’s tale entailing shameful feelings (Poe (a) 10). The title describes the heart as a place of deep and true feelings. On the other hand, in the title “To Build a Fire,” sounds poetic. The first two words of the title evoke a thought of an activity that is unfinished (Reesman 34). The title is framed in the form of a tale to evoke a suspicious feeling in regards to the following events. Reeseman notes that “the unfinished aspect creates a sense of longing for fire in the readers’ minds” (34). Ultimately, the story ends with an unfilled yearning for a fire. The longing is shattered with the narrator’s struggle to save himself, after which he ends up dead.
Furthermore, the tones embraced by the authors of the short stories are similar, even though portrayed differently, but they all work with an intention of conveying the common thematic expectations. The narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” embraces arrogance and excitement. According to Poe (a), “his arrogance is manifested in his belief of rightfulness while his excitement in evident in his mentally unstable state” (8). His tone in the first section of the story makes the readers believe that he is mad. The madness is evident is his obsession and paranoia. He describes the scenario of murder that he committed in exciting manner. In giving his explanations, he strives to prove to the readers that he is normal. However, all his utterances tend to depict him as an individual who has lost his mind. In describing his thoughts over the victim, he denotes, “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” (Poe (b) 4). However, he says he must kill him for his evil eyes. The excitement in the narrator’s voice is evident in the description of the way he executed his mission. He states, “Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly-very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man’s sleep” (Poe (b) 4). His excitement is expressed in the use of exclamation marks such as “Ha!” and other uneven sentences. Conversely, “To Build a Fire,” portrays the excitement and arrogant tone in a delusional manner by revealing the narrator’s chronic lack of awareness that is exemplified in the entire story. According to Seals “the tone of excitement is elucidated in the incapability of the narrator to differentiate states in his mental and physical framework in relation to the environment” (1530). In his excitement, he appears deluded to his dilemma. He is even blindfolded by his excitement to point of portraying disinterested curiosity. “He wondered whether the toes were warm or numb. He moved them inside the moccasins and decided that they were numbed” (London (b) 7). Seemingly, he continues to be in desperate plight but still excited over his probable ultimate goal. This character shows arrogance in believing in only his ideologies by planning for a dangerous journey while knowing that his survival is threatened. Reesman notes that “Chinook ignored the warnings of a Sulphur Creek who cautioned him not to travel in the cold” (47). The character’s arrogance is also manifested in the reluctance of his dog to venture out into the cold. He compares himself to the forces of nature by thinking that he can survive in temperatures that go past the extremes of human existence. Consequently, he ends up losing his life.
The beauty of short stories is in the fact that authors can embrace different aspects when expressing the portrayal of animalistic instincts in human beings. Diverse aspects can be engraved in various literary devices that the author deems fit. Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and London’s “To Build a Fire” use pervasive extremes of characters, selfishness of characters, titles of the stories and tones of excitement and arrogance in revealing the endeavors perpetrated by animalistic instincts. There are many people who take a reconnection with animal instincts as a means through which they can remain strong in the mollycoddling forces of the modern-day world. The two short stories give different extremes through which readers can sharpen their analytical skills in the portrayal of pervasive extents of human nature.
- London (a), Jack. To Build a Fire. South Carolina: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2009.
- London (b), Jack. To Build a Fire. Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, 2013, 1-10.
- Miquel, Marta. Who watches over whom in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart “Ageing and the fictionalization of a national allegory. Odisea, 11, 2010, 123-136.
- Poe (a), Edgar. The Tell-Tale Heart. eNotes, 2011, 1-23. Pdf.
- Poe (b), Edgar. The Tell-Tale Heart. Elegant Books, 1843, 1-8.
- Reesman, Jeanne. “Never Travel Alone”: Naturalism, Jack London, and the White Silence. American Literary Realism, 29, 2, 2007, 33-49.
- Seals, Jason, ““Some Cosmic Secret”: The Speculative Fiction of Jack London. Theses and Dissertations, 2017, 1530.