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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.
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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