"The Tell-Tale Heart" is a short story by American writer Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1843. It is relayed by an unnamed narrator who endeavors to convince the reader of his sanity while simultaneously describing a murder he committed. The victim was an old man with a filmy "vulture-eye", as the narrator calls it. The narrator emphasizes the careful calculation of the murder, and he hides the body by dismembering it, and hiding it under the floorboards. Ultimately, the narrator's feelings of guilt, or a mental disturbance, result in him hearing a thumping sound, which he interprets as the dead man's beating heart.
The story was first published in James Russell Lowell's The Pioneer in January 1843. "The Tell-Tale Heart" is widely considered a classic of the Gothic fiction genre and is one of Poe's most famous short stories.
It is unclear what relationship, if any, the old man and his murderer share. The narrator denies having any feelings of hatred or resentment for the man who had, he says, never wronged him. He also denies that he killed for greed. The specific motivation for murder (aside from the narrator's dislike of the old man's eye), the relationship between narrator and old man, and other details are left unclear.
It has been speculated that the old man is a father figure, the narrator's landlord, or that the narrator works for the old man as a servant, and that perhaps his "vulture-eye" represents some sort of veiled secret, or power. The ambiguity and lack of details about the two main characters stand in stark contrast to the specific plot details leading up to the murder.
|"The Tell-Tale Heart"|
The Pioneer, Vol. I, No. I, Drew and Scammell, Philadelphia, January, 1843
|Author||Edgar Allan Poe|
|Genre(s)||Horror, Gothic Literature|
|Published in||The Pioneer|
|Publisher||James Russell Lowell|
|Media type||Print (periodical)|
|Publication date||January 1843|
"The Tell-Tale Heart" is a first-person narrative of an unnamed narrator, who insists he is sane but is suffering from a disease (nervousness) which causes "over-acuteness of the senses". Due to the ambiguity surrounding the identity of the story's narrator, the narrator's gender cannot be known for certain. However, for ease of description, masculine pronouns are used in this article.
The old man with whom he lives has a clouded, pale, blue "vulture-like" eye, which distresses the narrator so much that he plots to murder the old man, despite also insisting that he loves the old man. The narrator insists that his careful precision in committing the murder proves that he cannot possibly be insane. For seven nights, the narrator opens the door of the old man's room in order to shine a sliver of light onto the "evil eye". However, the old man's vulture-eye is always closed, making it impossible to "do the work".
On the eighth night, the old man awakens after the narrator's hand slips and makes a noise, interrupting the narrator's nightly ritual. But the narrator does not draw back and, after some time, decides to open his lantern. A single thin ray of light shines out and lands precisely on the "evil eye", revealing that it is wide open. Hearing the old man's heart beating loudly and dangerously fast from terror, the narrator decides to strike, jumping out with a loud yell and smothering the old man with his own bed. The narrator then dismembers the body and conceals the pieces under the floorboards, and ensures the concealment of all signs of the crime. Even so, the old man's scream during the night causes a neighbor to report to the police, who the narrator invites in to look around. He claims that the screams heard were his own in a nightmare and that the man is absent in the country. Confident that they will not find any evidence of the murder, the narrator brings chairs for them and they sit in the old man's room, on the very spot where the body is concealed, and suspect nothing, as the narrator has a pleasant and easy manner about him.
The narrator begins to feel uncomfortable and notices a ringing in his ears. As the ringing grows louder, the narrator comes to the conclusion that it is the heartbeat of the old man coming from under the floorboards. The sound increases steadily, though the officers seem to pay no attention to it. Terrified by the violent beating of the heart, and convinced that the officers are aware not only of the heartbeat, but also of his guilt, the narrator breaks down and confesses, telling them to tear up the floorboards to reveal the remains of the old man's body.
"The Tell-Tale Heart" was first published in January 1843 in the inaugural issue of The Pioneer: A Literary and Critical Magazine, a short-lived Boston magazine edited by James Russell Lowell and Robert Carter who were listed as the "proprietors" on the front cover. The magazine was published in Boston by Leland and Whiting and in Philadelphia by Drew and Scammell.
Poe was likely paid $10 for the story. Its original publication included an epigraph which quoted Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "A Psalm of Life". The story was slightly revised when republished in the August 23, 1845, edition of the Broadway Journal. This edition omitted Longfellow's poem because Poe believed it was plagiarized. "The Tell-Tale Heart" was reprinted several additional times during Poe's lifetime.
"The Tell-Tale Heart" uses an unreliable narrator. The exactness with which the narrator recounts murdering the old man, as if the stealthy way in which he executed the crime were evidence of his sanity, reveals his monomania and paranoia. The focus of the story is the perverse scheme to commit the perfect crime.
The narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is generally assumed to be male. However, some critics have suggested a woman may be narrating; no pronouns are used to clarify one way or the other. The story starts in medias res. The story opens with a conversation already in progress between the narrator and another person who is not identified in any way. It has been speculated that the narrator is confessing to a prison warden, a judge, a reporter, a doctor or (anachronistically) a psychiatrist. In any case, the narrator explains himself in great detail. What follows is a study of terror but, more specifically, the memory of terror, as the narrator is relating events from the past. The first word of the story, "True!", is an admission of his guilt, as well as an assurance of reliability. This introduction also serves to gain the reader's attention. Every word contributes to the purpose of moving the story forward, exemplifying Poe's theories about the writing of short stories.
The story is driven not by the narrator's insistence upon his "innocence", but by his insistence on his sanity. This, however, is self-destructive, because in attempting to prove his sanity he fully admits that he is guilty of murder. His denial of insanity is based on his systematic actions and his precision, as he provides a rational explanation for irrational behavior. This rationality, however, is undermined by his lack of motive ("Object there was none. Passion there was none."). Despite this, he says, the idea of murder "haunted me day and night."
The story's final scene shows the result of the narrator's feelings of guilt. Like many characters in Gothic fiction, he allows his nerves to dictate his nature. Despite his best efforts at defending himself, his "over acuteness of the senses", which help him hear the heart beating beneath the floorboards, is evidence that he is truly mad. Poe's contemporaries may well have been reminded of the controversy over the insanity defense in the 1840s.
The narrator claims to have a disease that causes hypersensitivity. A similar motif is used for Roderick Usher in "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839) and in "The Colloquy of Monos and Una" (1841). It is unclear, however, if the narrator actually has very acute senses, or if he is merely imagining things. If his condition is believed to be true, what he hears at the end of the story may not be the old man's heart but deathwatch beetles. The narrator first admits to hearing beetles in the wall after startling the old man from his sleep. According to superstition, deathwatch beetles are a sign of impending death. One variety of deathwatch beetle raps its head against surfaces, presumably as part of a mating ritual, while others emit ticking sounds. Henry David Thoreau observed in an 1838 article that deathwatch beetles make sounds similar to a heartbeat. The beating could even be the sound of the narrator's own heart. Alternatively, if the beating is really a product of the narrator's imagination, it is that uncontrolled imagination that leads to his own destruction.
It is also possible that the narrator has paranoid schizophrenia. Paranoid schizophrenics very often experience auditory hallucinations. These auditory hallucinations are more often voices but can also be sounds.
The relationship between the old man and the narrator is ambiguous. Their names, occupations, and places of residence are not given, contrasting with the strict attention to detail in the plot. The narrator may be a servant of the old man's or, as is more often assumed, his son. In that case, the "vulture-eye" of the old man as a father figure may symbolize parental surveillance, or the paternal principles of right and wrong. The murder of the eye, then, is a removal of conscience. The eye may also represent secrecy: only when the eye is found open on the final night, penetrating the veil of secrecy, is the murder carried out.
Richard Wilbur has suggested that the tale is an allegorical representation of Poe's poem "To Science", which depicts a struggle between imagination and science. In "The Tell-Tale Heart", the old man may thus represent the scientific and rational mind, while the narrator may stand for the imaginative.