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According to Henry James, characters are only as interesting as their responses to

particular situations. The character s response in the two short stories I have chosen is the

reason I chose them. In Jack London s To Build A Fire and Edgar Allen Poe s The

Tell-Tale Heart the character s reaction to each situation leads the reader to read more to

find out what happens next. It is interesting to read a story and not be able to predict

what the character will do in a given situation because it captures the reader s interest and

spurs them on to read more. Along with the suspense, the character s reaction in each

situation in these two stories determines the outcome of the overall story. The character s

response to each relating situation builds on each other, creating a domino effect.

In the Tell-Tale Heart the main character is a crazed madman, who is also the

narrator of the story. He begins the story by trying to convince the reader he is not mad,

but nervous, very nervous. He tries to prove he is not mad by how clever he plans out the

murder of the old man he lives with. He decides he wants to murder the old man to rid

himself of the old man s pale blue vulture eye because it sends chills up and down his


You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen

me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded–with what

caution–with what foresight–with what dissimulation I went to work. I

was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed

him (Poe 62).

For eight nights he cleverly snuck into the old man s room with great caution to

not arouse the man. It took him hours to get into the room; he was very patient. Each


night he would go in he would undo the lantern just enough so that a single ray would fall

on the vulture eye. Every time the vulture eye was closed, thus he could not kill him

because he was not mad at the man, only his vulture eye. After the eighth night of his

carefully entering the old man s room he repeated the same process as in the past seven

nights. This night his vulture eye was opened. He opened the lantern and it made a noise

causing the old man to rouse. He and the old man, both awake, were still for an hour.

I kept quite still and said nothing. For a whole hour I did not move a

muscle, and in the meantime I did not hear him lie down. He was still

sitting up in the bed listening;–just as I have done, night after night,

harkening to the death watches in the wall (Poe 63).

He finally could not take the suspense any longer and he leaped upon the old man and

suffocated him with the bed. After he covered his evidence, including the body, under

three floor planks he smiled gaily thinking his deed was complete. Detectives came

investigating a noise heard by the neighbors during the night. He led them through the

house, even to the room he committed the murder in, and bade them to sit on the very

spot. The reader is led to believe that he has gotten away with murder. His acute senses

got the best of him. He still heard the ticking, beating of the old man s heart. He drove

himself to plead guilty to the murder.

The reader is amazed at how cleverly he had planned and schemed to commit the

murder and cover up, but fell apart because of his insanity, which is what drove him to

murder in the beginning. His decision that the problem was the man s eye was the wrong

speculation as he noticed it was over acuteness of his senses. And now have I not told

you that what you mistake for madness is but overacuteness of the senses?– (Poe 63)

In Jack London s To Build A Fire the main characters are a man traveling on

the Yukon trail to meet his friends, who had gone another route, and his dog. The man


neglected to be reasonable to realize or anticipate the danger he was putting himself in. He

was traveling in unfamiliar weather conditions at 50 degrees below zero with 80 odd

degrees of frost and with a dog as his only companion. He was quick and alert in the

things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significance (London 118). The man

poked fun at the old man s advice from Sulphur Creek; to him he felt he was a tough,

masculine and wise man. His decisions in situations seemed wise and cautious and were

always the best way to him.

Empty as the man s mind was of thoughts, he was keenly observant, and

he noticed the changes in the creek, the curves and bends and timber jams,

and always he sharply noticed where he placed his feet (London 120).

While traveling along the Yukon he was keenly aware of snow covered springs that ran

along under the snowy path and tried to shy away from them to avoid falling in them

which would leave him waist or body deep in freezing water. He almost slipped and fell in

once, leaving the reader in suspense and anticipation.

Things worsen as he keeps traveling on along the trail where more of those

covered springs are suspected. Making the dog to lead in front and keeping a watchful eye

were the only precautions he made to avoid other potential mishaps. By this point the

reader is aware of the man s macho attitude and only anticipates what will happen later in

the story. The reader can anticipate that something will definitely happen to this man. It

will either be that he freezes to death, he will suffer from severe frostbite, but still make it

to meet his friends, or he will fall into a covered spring and not be able to get out.

It finally happens, he falls into one of the snow covered springs. He falls in waist

deep, but is able to get himself out. He seems to have it all together when he finds himself

a place to build a fire and some tree limbs to start it with. The reader is relieved to know

that he has made it out and is on his way to safety. Then the narrator reveals that the


location he chose to build the fire and where he chose to get his tree limbs from was

underneath a snow covered tree which could dump all of its snow with any slight

movement. When the reader reads this he or she is aware that this man s battle is

downhill, but are challenged to read on to uncover what exactly happens to him. In the

end the man realized that the old man s advice from Sulphur Creek was right and that he

should have heeded it. You were right, old hoss; you were right, the man mumbled to

the old-timer of Sulphur Creek (London 128).

As I stated earlier the character s reaction to each situation encourages the reader

to read more and more, along with making the story build to a huge climax. Both of these

stories are great examples of this theme. If it were not for the madman in Tell-Tale

Heart strategically planning the murder of the old man and laying out the step-by-step

details of the event there would be no story. Also, if the man traveling the trail had not

been portrayed as wise and cautious and the scenery of the Yukon Trail had not been

painted so vivid in the readers mind the story would have had no meaning. Especially

when the man was walking around the water near the snow covered springs, the reader

would not have felt what the man felt when he surprisingly fell in the spring. The reader

could sense that he felt careless and ignorant at this mishap and even worse when he built

his fire under a snow covered tree. All of these descriptions of the character help us to

understand the character along with the detailed account of their thoughts and feelings.


Works Cited

London, Jack. To Build A Fire. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and

Drama (1995) : 117-129.

Poe, Edgar Allen. The Tell-Tale Heart. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry,

and Drama (1995) : 61-65.


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