The-Tell-Tale-Heart

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The Tell-Tale
Heart
Study Guide by Course Hero
What's Inside
"The Tell-Tale Heart" uses the present tense when the narrator
addresses the audience and then shifts to the past tense when
he retells his story.
j Book Basics ................................................................................................. 1
ABOUT THE TITLE
The title of this story, "The Tell-Tale Heart," has two closely
d In Context ..................................................................................................... 1
a Author Biography ..................................................................................... 2
h Characters .................................................................................................. 3
related meanings. First, it refers to the heart of the murdered
man, which the narrator hears beneath the floorboards.
Second, it refers to the narrator's own emotion, which betrays
him.
k Plot Summary ............................................................................................. 6
c Plot Analysis ............................................................................................... 7
d In Context
g Quotes ......................................................................................................... 12
l Symbols ...................................................................................................... 14
Gothic Literature
m Themes ....................................................................................................... 14
Gothic literature emerged in the late 18th century with the
e Suggested Reading .............................................................................. 16
publication of the 1764 novel Castle of Otranto, written by the
English novelist Horace Walpole. It is part of a larger Gothic
movement that included architecture and art. The Castle of
j Book Basics
Otranto features many of the characteristics that would come
to characterize the entire genre: a focus on the past, intense
emotion, and irrationality. Gothic literature quickly became a
AUTHOR
trend, one that was so common by the time Poe was writing
Edgar Allan Poe
that people were parodying it.
YEAR PUBLISHED
Gothic works often featured old buildings such as medieval
1843
castles as their settings. These locales held hidden
passageways, considerable history, and secrets—often family
GENRE
secrets. Gothic literature accented mystery and the
Horror
supernatural. Though he did set some of his stories in alien and
PERSPECTIVE AND NARRATOR
"The Tell-Tale Heart" is told by an unreliable first-person
narrator. At times the narrator addresses an unidentified
audience directly, shifting briefly into second person.
TENSE
exotic locations, as in "The Cask of Amontillado," Poe also
modernized the Gothic story by setting a number of his stories
in urban settings and by focusing on psychological states.
Gothic literature carried in it the seeds of later popular genres:
science fiction, horror, and detective fiction. Poe was
instrumental in initiating each of these genres.
The Tell-Tale Heart Study Guide
The American Short Story
Author Biography 2
financial problems as well as his unstable family history.
However, as the Edgar Allen Poe Society in Baltimore,
Maryland, points out, analyses of Poe's mental state are a
In English the novel became a distinct literary form in the 18th
matter of pure speculation, and although Poe has been the
century; the short story followed about a century later when
subject of numerous biographies, many details about both his
there was a large enough pool of readers with disposable
outer and inner life remain vague. Various biographers have
income, printing had become sufficiently cheap that stories
characterized him as everything from angelic (for example,
could shift from oral to written form, and magazines had
John Henry Ingram's glowing Edgar Allan Poe: His Life, Letter
emerged as a marketplace for story writers.
and Opinions, first published in 1880) to downright devilish
People began to publish magazines in the United States as
early as the 1740s, but these were local and short lived. In the
1780s magazines became more regular, and in the 19th century
(Rufus Griswold's obituary of Poe, which the Edgar Allen Poe
Society characterizes as "surprisingly vituperative"). Perhaps
fittingly, the truth remains largely a mystery.
they exploded into a diverse and competitive medium. Poe
played an active role in this market by publishing many stories
of his own, publishing others' works as editor of the Southern
a Author Biography
Literary Messenger, and writing essays that laid out the "rules"
of the short story: readers should be able to finish a story in
Edgar Allan Poe lived a brief, complicated, and intense life that
one sitting; writers should strive for unity of effect—a cohesive
actively shaped him to write dramatic, melancholy, and
mood or ambience—beginning with the story's first line, and
obsessive works. Born in Boston on January 19, 1809, he was
nothing should detract from the story's design; and stories
the second of three children. His parents—both
should be imaginative, creative, and original, but they should
actors—separated when Poe was very young, and he stayed
always tell the truth about human nature.
with his mother, Elizabeth Arnold Poe. Elizabeth died of illness
in December 1811. Poe's father, David, died that same month,
Poe's Life and Psychology
Some elements of Poe's life and psychology provide useful
perspectives on his work. For example, while all Gothic fiction
and most horror fiction focuses on death and suffering, Poe
suffered more losses than many writers working in these
genres. Both of Poe's birth parents died in December 1811,
when he was not yet three years old. The day his mother died
Poe was left alone in the house overnight with her corpse and
his baby sister until an adult found them the next day. When
Poe was taken in and raised by John and Frances Allan, he
was separated from his older brother and younger sister.
Nevertheless, Poe's brother, Henry, became a role model for
him. Poe imitated his writing style, named characters after him,
and even incorporated his name into one of his pen names
(Henri Le Rennet). Poe's foster mother, Frances Allen, also
died when Poe was still young, and his wife, Virginia, died when
she was just 25.
Scholars have attempted to diagnose Poe across time, reading
the state of his psyche based on his writing, his actions, and
the reports of those who knew him. His ongoing depression
and heavy drinking may have been due in part to his lifelong
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also of illness.
A wealthy matron named Frances Allan had taken an interest
in Elizabeth Poe and in Edgar; the boy struck her as charming
and intelligent. After Elizabeth died, Allan convinced her
prosperous merchant husband, John, that the couple should
take Edgar in and raise him in their Virginia home. Poe started
school in the United States but soon was sent to England,
where he studied for five years. In 1826 Poe entered the
University of Virginia. He left after only a year of classes in part
due to his drinking but primarily because of some gambling
debts he'd run up while trying to support himself, which John
Allan refused to pay. Despite this early departure the University
of Virginia's Raven Society keeps Poe's room in his honor. In
1827 Poe joined the army. He rose to the rank of sergeant
major and entered the United States Military Academy in West
Point, New York, as an officer candidate in 1830. He was
dismissed without graduating when he intentionally broke the
rules after Allan refused to give consent for Poe to resign from
the Academy.
After writing poetry for many years, Poe published Tamerlane,
and Other Poems in 1828, followed the next year by Al Aaraaf,
Tamerlane, and Minor Poems. Neither collection earned Poe
The Tell-Tale Heart Study Guide
Characters 3
much money or critical attention. After leaving the military
Poe was a founding father of several fiction genres. Poe's 1841
academy Poe dedicated himself to writing full time. He moved
"Murders in the Rue Morgue" is considered the first modern
several times, often to take editorships or writing positions at
mystery story. It introduces his detective Auguste Dupin, who
various magazines. In 1831 he published a third volume of
would appear in other stories such as "The Purloined Letter"
poetry, followed by several short stories. He was hired as a
(1844), which influenced later writers such as Sir Arthur Conan
staff writer and critic at the Southern Literary Messenger in
Doyle. Stories such as "The Black Cat" (1843), "The Pit and the
Virginia in August 1835 but was fired a month later for drinking.
Pendulum" (1842), and "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846), as
He was rehired the following month. By December he'd been
well as many others, pioneered the modern horror story,
named editor. He published some of his fiction as well as
especially the psychological horror story. Poe even contributed
dozens of reviews, and he became known for his criticism. A
to the birth of science fiction by writing stories about trips to
year after he started at the literary magazine, Poe, now 27,
the moon ("The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall,"
married his 13-year-old cousin Virginia.
1835) and stories set in a future where transatlantic air travel
was common ("Mellonta Tauta," 1849).
Starting in 1838 withThe Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Poe
published a series of stories and poems that established him
Poe's artistic successes were darkened by personal trials and
as a master of American literature. Though his earliest poems
tragedies. He lost his wife to tuberculosis in 1847. After that
didn't win him much praise, later works such as "The Raven"
time Poe's alcoholism and depression got worse. Fittingly
(1845), "The Bells," and "Annabel Lee" (published
Poe's death was somewhat mysterious. On October 3, 1849,
posthumously) broke new poetic ground. These poems and his
he was found in a street, badly dressed, delirious, and unable
theories of composition helped to develop modern
to move. He died four days later. The death certificate listed
perspectives on the aesthetic value of poetry and short fiction.
"phrenitis, or swelling of the brain" as the cause of death.
Theories about what happened to Poe in his last days include
In an 1846 essay called "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe
rabies, complications from alcohol, and a brain tumor. His last
said "unity of impression" was essential to a story's power; he
words were reportedly "Lord, help my poor soul."
believed in constructing stories progressively with an almost
"mathematical" precision to produce a "vivid effect." Poe's
comments helped shape the short story into the distinct
artistic genre it is today. He certainly managed this unified
h Characters
impression in "The Tell-Tale Heart," even though he
synthesized several sources in creating it. Poe combined the
common belief in the evil eye (a curse cast with a malevolent
Narrator
glare) with a popular account of a period murder published in
pamphlet form in 1830, and he may have drawn from a brief
This narrator is never fully characterized. Poe never gives us
piece by Dickens that similarly describes a killer placing his
his name or tells what his relationship to the old man was. The
chair over the placement of a buried body.
two men are close enough that the narrator sees him every
"The Tell-Tale Heart" was made into a silent film in 1928; after
this came live-action and animated versions. It's been
performed on stage, both as a play and as a dramatic
monologue, and on the radio. Audio and comic book versions
have been produced; even an episode of the children's series
SpongeBob SquarePants was based on the story. "The TellTale Heart" (and other works by Poe) helped create the
contemporary school of "psychological realism," which focuses
on the honest depiction of characters' feelings, thoughts, and
personality traits. Poe's story paved the way for later authors
such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky to continue the practice of
exploring an individual psyche intimately.
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day for the week before he kills him, greeting him heartily every
morning; and they are close enough that the narrator can
intrude into the old man's bedroom nightly without having to
sneak into the house. It is possible they are members of the
same family, or that the narrator is the old man's servant, but
readers never learn. They know only that he is passionate,
unbalanced, and—if they trust his story—a murderer.
The Tell-Tale Heart Study Guide
Old Man
Like the narrator the old man is incompletely
characterized—intentionally so. The narrator mentions he has
gold and that he has an unnatural and filmy blue eye like a
vulture's, but neither he nor Poe mention the old man's name.
The old man is a passive character. He is rich and seems to
have some authority, but he does little in the story besides sit
in bed, open his eye, and cry out.
Neighbor
The neighbor, who never actually appears in the story, hears
the old man shriek in the night. Suspecting foul play the
neighbor contacts the police to lodge a report.
Police
Three police officers come to investigate the report of a
scream. The officers, who appear in the final few paragraphs
of the story, are not differentiated and don't speak. Thanks to
the narrator's calm and welcoming manner, they are at first
convinced of his innocence, or so he says. Eventually, however,
the narrator confesses to them.
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Characters 4
The Tell-Tale Heart Study Guide
Characters 5
Character Map
Old Man
Wealthy; possessor
of the Evil Eye
Murderer
Narrator
Violent; seemingly insane
Confesses
to murder
Neighbor
Hears the old man's screams
Main Character
Other Major Character
Minor Character
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Police
Calls
Respond to call
The Tell-Tale Heart Study Guide
Full Character List
Plot Summary 6
believe he has to kill an older man, who is rich and who the
narrator says he loved. He doesn't offer a reason for killing the
older man, but he does mention the man has one blue eye that
Character
Description
is very disturbing: "the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a
film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold."
Narrator
The unnamed and unbalanced narrator is a
confessed killer who tells the story of his
own crime.
The narrator addresses the reader directly again and defends
his sanity by describing his careful preparation, sneaking into
the man's room at midnight for seven nights in a row, carrying a
Old Man
The story's victim, an old man with one
unnaturally blue eye, has an indeterminate
relationship with the narrator, his killer.
lantern he'd fixed so no light could get out. He cannot kill the
old man, however, because it isn't the man he wants to kill but
his "Evil Eye." Each morning after having snuck in the night
before, the narrator greets the old man by name. When the
Neighbor
The neighbor, who never actually appears
in the story, hears the old man's death cry
and calls the police.
narrator sneaks in on the eighth night, the old man sits up in
bed and cries out, asking who is there. The narrator doesn't
answer. He hears the old man sitting up in bed, listening for
Police
Three police officers come to investigate
the report of a scream, and the narrator
eventually confesses to them. The officers,
who appear in the final few paragraphs of
the story, are not differentiated and don't
speak.
him. Eventually the narrator hears the old man give a terrified
moan.
The Murder
The narrator waits a long time. He doesn't hear the old man lie
k Plot Summary
down, but he eventually decides to risk opening the lantern a
crack. When he does, the slender beam of light shines directly
on the old man's terrifying blue eye, showing it and nothing
else. At that point the narrator starts hearing the old man's
Note on the Narrator's Gender
The narrator's gender is never identified as it is written in the
first person "I," so there are no gendered pronouns. For the
sake of readability, this study guide will refer to the narrator
using the male pronouns he, him, and his. The only clue that
suggests the narrator could be male is the line "You fancy me
mad. Madmen know nothing." Scholars and feminists, however,
continue to debate as to whether the narrator could be female.
heart beating. It makes him feel braver. He listens as the old
man's heart beats harder, faster, and louder, until the narrator
is sure it is so loud the neighbors can hear it. He opens the
lantern and surges into the room. The old man screams, but
then the narrator is on him, dumping him on the floor and
moving the bed on top of him. Eventually his heart stops
beating. The narrator is sure the old man is dead and his evil
blue eye won't bother him anymore.
Again as proof of his sanity, the narrator describes the pains
he went to in covering up his crime. The narrator dismembers
The Narrator's Introduction
the old man's body, cutting off the man's head, arms, and legs,
catching the blood in a basin, then carefully tearing up the
floorboards and hiding the pieces underneath. He gleefully
At the start of "The Tell-Tale Heart," the narrator admits he is
describes leaving no trace of evidence. Not long after he
nervous but denies he is mad; he claims his nervous condition
finishes at 4 a.m., there is a knock at the door. It is three police
has sharpened his senses, especially his hearing. As proof of
officers, who are responding to the neighbor's complaint that
his sanity, he suggests that the audience observe how calmly
he'd heard a scream. The officers ask to search the premises.
he tells his story.
The narrator smiles and lets them in, sure there is nothing for
At some unidentified time in the past, the narrator comes to
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them to see. He shows them around, then sets out chairs for
the police to sit in while they talk.
The Tell-Tale Heart Study Guide
The Confession
Plot Analysis 7
assume the narrator to be a man, some have argued it is a
woman. A similar ambiguity results from lack of information
about the old man: he apparently has some wealth and has a
The narrator sets his own chair directly above the place where
creepy, filmy blue eye, but otherwise readers know nothing
he hid the dismembered corpse. At first he is relaxed while
about him or his relationship to the narrator.
they talk, chatting "singularly at ease." Then his ears begin to
ring, and he wishes the officers would leave. Eventually he
It seems likely that the narrator is completely unbalanced. The
realizes his ears aren't ringing. He is hearing the old man's
greatest evidence of this is when he says there's no reason for
heart beating. It gets louder and louder, but the policemen
him to have hated the old man: the man had done nothing
don't seem to hear it.
wrong and done nothing to him. Further evidence of his
fractured mental health is evidenced in the way the narrator's
The narrator tries to distract the policemen. He argues with
obsession shifts. He focuses first on the old man's disturbing
them, raises his voice, and moves his chair to make noise. The
blue eye, and then on the beating heart. The narrator's story
beating heart keeps getting louder. He becomes frantic,
creates ambiguity; could a heart beat after death, or is it
asking, "Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!—no, no!
merely the narrator's guilt?
They heard!" He describes how they keep smiling at him, just to
torture him, as the heartbeat gets louder and louder.
The narrator eventually snaps. He screams out his guilt and
The Supernatural
tells the police where to find the body.
Setting aside the narrator's mental state, evidence of
supernatural forces exists. Consider, for example, the way the
c Plot Analysis
light from the lantern strikes the old man's eye and nothing
else. Evidence that the story is purely natural is actually harder
to find. The entire story is markedly strange, from the fact that
the old man doesn't notice his intruder for seven nights in a
The Narrator and the Narrative
row to the way the police come in and sit down for a chat at 4
a.m. It is possible, but extremely unlikely, that either the
Gothic literature often uses a complicated narrative structure.
narrator fooled them completely and they are dodging their
It is common for stories to be told through found manuscripts,
other duties, or they really do suspect him and are toying with
incomplete manuscripts, overheard stories, and other devices.
him. The story has a drifting, dreamlike (or nightmare-like)
The unnamed narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" fits well in this
quality, which is heightened by the fact that no one in the story
tradition. Poe gives no context for the start of the story, though
is given a name but rather a generic type (the old man, the
since the narrator ends the story by exposing the body of a
neighbor, the police). And descriptions are intense and
man he killed, he is most likely in jail for murder and talking to
extreme, adding to the nightmarish quality: the old man's eye
someone from within his cell.
isn't just odd it is the "eye of a vulture" and has a film over it;
the old man's bedroom isn't just dark it is as "black as pitch";
However, Poe never makes clear why the narrator feels
and so on.
compelled to retell this incriminating story, who this listener is,
or even if the listener actually exists. (Most readers would
probably assume that anyone crazy enough to dismember a
It Was All a Dream
body and then hear the heart still beating is crazy enough to
tell his story to an imaginary listener.) Thus "The Tell-Tale
When the police enter, the narrator says the scream the
Heart" offers a classic example of an unreliable narrator. Even
neighbor heard was his own, in a dream. This, along with the
though the narrator is very specific at times (such as when he
aforementioned dreamlike quality of the whole story, suggests
tells how many nights he crept into the old man's room, or how
another reading: the narrator actually dreamed the whole
the lantern lit just the eye), readers can't trust what he says.
killing. That doesn't resolve the question of his sanity—he'd still
The narrator's sex isn't clearly indicated either; though many
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have to be insane to think he hears a heart beating after death
The Tell-Tale Heart Study Guide
or confess to a murder he didn't commit—but it changes the
nature of the events and the narrator's response to them.
What Is and Isn't Here
Ultimately Poe makes it impossible to determine any of these
interpretations as definitive, and that may be the point. Poe's
theories and methods for creating the ideal short story can be
found in "The Tell-Tale Heart." For a better understanding of
Poe's technique, it is essential to understand both what is
present in his story and what is missing. What's included in this
story is the entire narrative from the narrator's point of view. It
tells what is important to him from his perspective. Poe's 1846
essay "The Philosophy of Composition" focuses on poetry but
argues for a few principles that apply well here: making an
artistic work the right length (no longer than a reader can read
in one sitting) and producing a unified effect, especially a
unified emotional impact. Poe also mentions how central tone
is in a literary work.
What he doesn't mention there, or include in this story, are a
number of things common to other works of fiction. For
example, this story lacks a traditional denouement, that stage
after the climax when the author resolves various plot threads.
Instead, this story ends with the narrator's explosive
confession to the police. Since the story also lacks character
names or a real motive for the killing, the result is that the story
hinges on the tension created by the narrator's emotion and
tone, which creates the unified effect Poe argues for in his
essay. That also means, though, that he does not push a
specific meaning or lesson for this work. Poe's work went
against a popular form of writing in the 18th and 19th centuries
called didactic fiction—a type of fiction used to teach children
morals and lessons. Rather, Poe's work uses the emotional
effect of the narrative as an end in itself. This choice aligns
Poe's work not just with genre fiction, which is often dismissed
as mere entertainment, but with Aestheticism, the 19th-century
movement that championed art for art's sake.
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Plot Analysis 8
The Tell-Tale Heart Study Guide
Plot Analysis 9
Plot Diagram
Climax
5
Rising Action
Falling Action
4
3
6
2
7
1
Resolution
Introduction
Falling Action
Introduction
6. Police respond to a call; the narrator invites them in.
1. The narrator decides he must kill the old man.
Resolution
Rising Action
7. The narrator hears the dead man's heartbeat and confesses.
2. For seven nights the narrator enters the old man's room.
3. On the eighth night the narrator sneaks into the room.
4. The old man's heart beats faster and faster.
Climax
5. The narrator kills the old man.
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The Tell-Tale Heart Study Guide
Plot Analysis 10
Timeline of Events
19th century
The narrator decides he must kill the old man.
Nightly
Every night for a week he sneaks into the old man's
bedroom at midnight.
Midnight
On the eighth night, the old man wakes up and cries out.
An hour later
The narrator opens his lantern, and it shines on the old
man's evil eye.
Minutes later
The old man's heart pounds louder and louder.
Minutes later
The narrator kills the old man.
Same night
The narrator dismembers the body and hides the pieces.
4 a.m.
The police arrive, alerted by a neighbor who heard the
old man scream.
Minutes later
The narrator invites them in and shows them around.
Minutes later
As they talk he hears the old man's heart beat again.
Minutes later
The beating heart gets louder and louder, until it drives
the narrator crazy.
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The Tell-Tale Heart Study Guide
Minutes later
The narrator snaps and screams his confession to the
police.
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Plot Analysis 11
The Tell-Tale Heart Study Guide
g Quotes
"TRUE!—nervous—very, very
Quotes 12
caution—with what foresight—with
what dissimulation I went to work!"
— Narrator
dreadfully nervous I had been and
am; but why will you say that I am
mad?"
This further establishes the narrator's unreliability as well as
the highly dubious nature of his sanity. His character remains
consistent: he congratulates himself on his wisdom, claiming to
have a better grasp on reality than his listener (or the old man).
— Narrator
He makes a virtue out of his ability to deceive, and specifically
to fool the old man. He also attempts to control the narrative:
This opening line from the unnamed narrator establishes his
unreliable nature right away: this is someone who other people
are calling crazy. This is also someone who thinks he knows
the narrator tells the reader what the point is. This
foreshadows his attempt to guide the police officers in the
story's final paragraphs.
better than others, as evident in the distinction he makes
between being "very nervous" and crazy. The narrator's direct
address also pulls at readers, engaging them in uncommon
"And this I did for seven long
ways. Is it the reader who the narrator suspects of thinking him
nights—every night just at
mad? Why?
"It is impossible to say how first
the idea entered my brain; but
once conceived, it haunted me day
and night."
midnight—but I found the eye
always closed; and so it was
impossible to do the work; for it
was not the old man who vexed
me, but his Evil Eye."
— Narrator
— Narrator
This statement further demonstrates the narrator's obsessive
This line from the unnamed narrator explains his obsessive
nature since he sneaks into the room seven nights in a row,
fixation on the old man. It is, if one can believe the narrator,
always right at midnight. His chosen hour (midnight) aligns his
causeless. However, as the verb haunted indicates, like a curse
insane actions with elements of the Gothic. This is a dark ritual
or ghost in a Gothic story the narrator's thought—specifically,
that feels supernatural.
the thought of killing the old man—keeps returning.
It also emphasizes the narrator's claim that he hates the old
man due to his "Evil Eye," which is traditionally believed to be a
"Now this is the point. You fancy
source of a supernatural curse.
me mad. Madmen know nothing.
But you should have seen me. You
"I knew what the old man felt, and
should have seen how wisely I
pitied him, although I chuckled at
proceeded—with what
heart."
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The Tell-Tale Heart Study Guide
— Narrator
Quotes 13
However, the old man does not say something like "John, is
that you?" or ask for anyone else by name. He seems
This line performs multiple functions. It is another example of
the narrator claiming to know what others are thinking or
completely unaware of who could be in his room, which helps
unhinge the story from the realities of daily life.
feeling. This level of egotism is part of the narrator's madness
and contributes to it. His emotions are also in conflict here, as
they are in other places, with pity and amusement at war.
Finally the term at heart foreshadows what will happen with the
old man's heart later in the story.
"It was open—wide, wide
open—and I grew furious as I
"If still you think me mad, you will
think so no longer when I describe
the wise precautions I took for the
concealment of the body."
— Narrator
gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect
distinctness—all a dull blue, with a
hideous veil over it that chilled the
very marrow in my bones; but I
could see nothing else of the old
This line further documents the narrator's madness, which
takes several forms. Most simply, the narrator addresses the
reader again, reading—and misreading—his thoughts. He sees
as wisdom what is a kind of criminal pragmatism (hiding the
body). This line also shows how doubt gnaws at the narrator
because he feels the need to explain and justify himself.
man's face or person: for I had
directed the ray as if by instinct,
precisely upon the damned spot."
— Narrator
"I smiled—for what had I to fear?"
— Narrator
This brief statement shows how completely the narrator
misunderstands his situation (and his world). It strikes a note of
This is one of the striking lines that might suggest an unnatural
situational irony, where expectation and reality clash, as the
or supernatural element to the story. The description of the
narrator clearly has a lot to fear.
eye could be a product of the narrator's unbalanced psyche.
However, the image of being able to see the eye but nothing
else suggests a dreamlike inversion of power, where the old
man in bed sees all and the intruder almost nothing.
"Almighty God!—no, no! They
heard!—they suspected!—they
"Who's there?"
— Old Man
This is the only thing the old man says in the story. It is a simple
knew!—they were making a
mockery of my horror!—this I
thought, and this I think."
— Narrator
line, but it radically complicates the story. The narrator
regularly speaks to the old man every morning, and so the two
must be close, even intimate, like members of the same family.
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This line demonstrates the fragmentation of the narrator's
mind. Though he started the story by arguing nothing was
The Tell-Tale Heart Study Guide
Symbols 14
wrong with him and his senses were much more acute than
is the old man's eye. The eighth night, the old man opens his
other people's, he here asserts the policemen can hear the
eye and the narrator opens his lantern—and the actions that
sound of the beating heart and are pretending they can't just to
follow "cast light" on the narrator's mad and murderous nature.
cause him pain.
""Villains!" I shrieked, "dissemble
The Heart
no more! I admit the deed!—tear
up the planks! here, here!—It is the
As the eye represents intelligence, the heart represents
beating of his hideous heart!""
emotion. The inclusion of both symbols in the story creates a
war between reason and emotion. The narrator emphasizes his
own reasoned, meticulous plotting, focusing on his ingenuity in
— Narrator
executing and covering up his crime. However, it is passion
that drives the narrator to kill the old man (whose eye can be
This is the final line in the story. It brings the story to a sudden,
seen as representing intelligence) and passion that drives him
dramatic close. It also demonstrates the extent of the
to confess. In both cases this passion is symbolized by the
narrator's madness. Though he killed and dismembered an old
heart that beats impossibly loudly.
man due to his eye, it is the policemen, who are visiting to do
their duty, who are the villains. The old man's heart has told the
tale of his murder.
The House
l Symbols
By trying to hide the body of the murdered old man beneath
the floorboard, the narrator is symbolically trying to hide the
guilt of his crime in his subconscious. However, things
The Eye
repressed or hidden in the subconscious always return, leaking
into normal consciousness, as the dead but pounding heart
does in this story. The police can be seen as the voice of
conscience, and even though they never speak in the story the
Eyes represent perception, awareness, and truth. The narrator
narrator's own guilt reveals itself.
names the old man's eye as the reason he has to kill him, which
suggests he wants to be seen and known. Poe's references to
the eye as "evil" also suggest a commonly held belief in the
supernatural ability to cast a curse with a malevolent glare.
m Themes
There are other more specific resonances to the old man's
eye. The narrator calls it a vulture's eye. Since vultures are
scavengers that eat dead things, this eye signals how central
Mental Health
death is to the story. It also symbolizes the old man's authority.
(Critics who read the narrator as female read this authority as
specifically male. This idea of the "male gaze" is part of
Though the narrator clearly and repeatedly insists he is sane,
psychoanalytic theory.) Finally, just as the clicking insects
his actions, motivations, and words all demonstrate that he is
provide a distorted imitation of the old man's heart, so the
not. Before killing the old man the narrator signals his mental
narrator's lantern echoes the old man's eye. The first seven
imbalance by sneaking into the old man's room seven nights in
nights he sneaks into the bedroom the lantern is closed, and so
a row at exactly the same time. Moreover, his lack of any
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The Tell-Tale Heart Study Guide
Themes 15
actual motivation for his murderous animosity toward the old
outside, the narrator literally never leaves the house (or does
man, and the apparent delight he takes in executing his plan,
not mention leaving it). He is also confined with the old man,
point to his extreme emotional derangement.
first at close quarters with the living man, unable to escape the
man's eye, and then in the man's completely black chamber.
However, the coherence of the narrative voice pulls the reader
Finally the narrator is contained within a room where every
toward the opposite conclusion. The diction is intelligent and
noise magnifies his guilt, until he snaps and confesses. He
demonstrates thoughtfulness and insight. Until the explosive
makes the site of his greatest triumph into a kind of prison cell.
final line ("'Villains!' I shrieked, 'dissemble no more! I admit the
An argument could also be made that the narrator is trapped
deed!—tear up the planks!—here, here!—it is the beating of his
within his own psyche and so can never escape. In this he is
hideous heart!'"), the narrator seems to have complete control
like the dead man's pounding heart, which is confined first
of what he does and says. He shows awareness of his own
within the old man's body and then in its hiding place under the
psyche, and he shows empathy even when he's about to kill
floorboards.
the old man. On the eighth night he sneaks into the old man's
room, recognizes the old man's moan as the "stifled sound that
arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with
awe," and says he "knew the sound well."
Tension and Time
Just as many people have attempted to diagnose Poe across
the decades, many critics have attempted to pin down just
what to call this narrator's condition. The entry in the
Poe uses the marking of the passage of time to increase
Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature calls him egocentric,
tension. The narrator first counts the days and marks the time
"psychotic and sadomasochistic." Some have labeled him
at which he sneaks into the old man's room. The repeated days
"hysterical," while others have stopped at the more general
and the fact that he makes a point of always sneaking in at
labels of neurotic and obsessive.
midnight builds expectation.
Poe also uses small and specific details to build tension. On
the eighth night when the narrator enters the old man's room,
Guilt
he recognizes the old man is sitting up in bed listening and
mentions that he has done the same, listening to "death
watches in the wall." This is a reference to insects called
deathwatch beetles that make a regular clicking sound. During
The narrator doesn't express outright guilt for much of the
the period when Poe was writing, people thought hearing these
story. At first after the crime he says he is relaxed and has
insects meant someone in the house would die soon. The
nothing to fear, but he then "hears" the beating heart of the
beetles' sounds also heighten the story's sense of the
man he just killed. Here the double meaning of Poe's title
supernatural: since the narrator heard these sounds for some
comes into play: the narrator thinks he hears the heart of the
time it suggests that he is just acting out the old man's fate.
old man, telling the tale of his guilt, but what he really hears is
Poe builds on this reference in the following paragraphs, first
his own heart, pounding with guilt. His actions in the last five
by having the old man groan and then by explicitly stating
paragraphs of the story further suggest guilt, and then he
Death had entered the room. Deathwatch beetles also bore
confesses in the last line.
into wood; they penetrate places that should be solid, much
like the narrator penetrates the boundaries of the old man's
bedroom.
Confinement
Poe builds on this anticipation by introducing the sound of the
old man's heart. First this just seems to be evidence of the
narrator's overly acute senses, but then the heartbeat gets
The confined setting of the story serves to heighten its drama
faster and louder, carrying the narrator with it until he kills the
and emotion. Though the police enter the house from the
old man.
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The Tell-Tale Heart Study Guide
Once he's killed and dismembered the old man, the house is
silent for a time. When the police arrive, though, the narrator
once again hears and then feels a more powerful clock ticking:
the beating heart of the dead man. As the living heart carried
him from stillness to murder, the beating of the dead heart
carries the narrator into screaming self-incrimination.
e Suggested Reading
Bloomfield, Shelley Costa. The Everything Guide to Edgar Allan
Poe: The Life, Times, and Work of a Tormented Genius. Avon:
Adams, 2007. Print.
Giammarco, Erica. "Edgar Allan Poe: A Psychological Profile."
Personality and Individual Differences 54.1 (2013): 3-6. Web.
Shen, Dan. "Edgar Allan Poe's Aesthetic Theory, the Insanity
Debate, and the Ethically Oriented Dynamics of 'The Tell-Tale
Heart.'" Nineteenth Century Literature 63.3 (2008): 321-45.
Web.
Sova, Dawn. Critical Companion to Edgar Allan Poe: A Literary
Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2007.
Print.
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Suggested Reading 16
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