Fearlessness in Literature
One lifelong lesson taught to every child at a young age is that the only way to get over a fear is to face it; however, some fears are more real than just a monster lurking in the closet. For example, the protagonists in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, John Donne, and Susan Glaspell are all faced with scary situations for which they attempt to find courageous solutions. In Poe’s short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” one narrator overcomes his own dark side by committing a well-planned murder. In Donne’s poem, “Death Be Not Proud,” one valiant man challenges death itself by justifying his religious belief about the afterlife. In Glaspell’s play, Trifles, two independent women decide to take the fate of a woman’s life into their own hands by concealing evidence at a crime scene. Fearlessness is a trait common to the protagonists in all three cases. On the other hand, the main characters in each literary work exemplify this quality from extremely different perspectives: the short story, poem, and play all recount a story from individual, religious, and female points of view respectively.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” is a gothic story that depicts one bold psychopath’s careful homicide of an old man, specifically to face his inner terrors and defeat a frightening evil eye. The narrator—who is also the murderer, attempts to justify his actions by telling the reader the thought processes behind them. This is significant because by listening to his reasoning, the reader is able to comprehend the narrator’s obsession; not only is the eye chilling to look at, but it also serves as a representation of his own inner “evil I.” In order to eliminate his menacing personal demons, the paranoid narrator becomes obsessed with committing this crime. “Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever” (Poe 42). Although his actions are not morally sound, the narrator does demonstrate extreme bravery by confronting his apprehension towards the old man’s eye. Just minutes before committing the crime, the narrator states, “I have told you that I am nervous: so I am. An now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror” (Poe 44). Although he is terrified, he takes action anyway. This circumstance is highly distinctive and merely one individual account of defying a fear.
Similarly, the poem “Death Be Not Proud” features a brave religious soul’s confrontation with death itself. Because the narrator is so devout, he believes in the existence of an afterlife. He writes, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally” (Donne 13). In other words, once a person dies, their spirit then lives infinitely. By this reasoning, death leads to everlasting life, so it ultimately is not such a bad thing after all. He goes on to say, “And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die” (Donne 14). By asserting his beliefs, the narrator proudly stands up to death—a widely dreaded entity—and declares it should not be feared. By putting all of his faith in a holy body, Donne is able to overcome all uncertainty and live a courageous life. Overall, this poem represents facing a daunting fear from a religious point of view.
Finally, Trifles is a play in which two audacious women conceal murder evidence in order to take a stand against men, change the course of events, and save a friend’s life. When a wife murders her own husband, men are sent to uncover the crime. Ironically, it is their wives who not only solve the mystery, but also prevent them from finding any evidence at all. The ladies decide to do this because they feel blameworthy for leaving their friend alone in an abusive household.
MRS. HALE. I stayed away because it weren’t cheerful—and that’s why I ought to have come. (Glaspell 666)
Mrs. Hale’s guilt ultimately drives her decision to hide the evidence; she believes she could have prevented the murder if she would have visited her friend more often. Furthermore, women were not taken seriously during this time period. Therefore, the ladies were merely seen as a shadow of their husbands. By taking matters into their own hands, the wives claimed authority and took control of a situation in order to protect someone of their own gender. This decision is twice as dangerous and forbidding because it defies both their husbands and the law.
(The two women sit there not looking at one another, but as if peering into something and at the same time holding back. When they talk now it is in the manner of feeling their way over strange ground, as if afraid of what they are saying, but as if they cannot help saying it.) (Glaspell 668)
Although they were frightened of the possible repercussions, the female characters of this play supported each other through an overwhelming situation.
True fearlessness is measured by the way someone undertakes a challenge when faced with uncertainty. However, it is important to note how an act of bravery is not necessarily a responsible act. Overall, this common theme is significant because it both unifies and differentiates all the works. The protagonists in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Death Be Not Proud,” and Trifles are similar because they all take risks in order to overcome their fears. On the other hand, each brave character can be used to embody a different classification of the human race; “The Tell-Tale Heart” represents the unique perspective of a single person, “Death Be Not Proud” represents faith in the religious population, and Trifles represents the role of women in 19th century society. While the motives and ethics of each character’s act are questionable, it is impossible to overlook the amount of boldness required to commit such behaviors.