"The Tell-Tale Heart" is a short Gothic story written by Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1843. The story is written from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who tries to persuade his readers of his sanity, while at the same time he's describing the murder he has committed. His prey was an old man with a pale blue "vulture eye". The narrator stresses the detailed calculation of the murder, the attempt at the perfect crime, finished with dismembering the body in the bathtub and hiding it under the floorboards. Finally, the narrator's actions result in a pounding sound, which the narrator interprets as the heartbeat of a dead man.
The story was first published in "The Pioneer" written by the American poet James Russell Lowell in January 1843. The story is often considered a Gothic classic and is, along with "The Cask of Amontillado", one of Poe's most famous short stories. It was believed that Poe was paid 10 $ for this story. It was originally published along with an epigraph that quoted Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem called "The Psalm of Life". The story was slightly revised when it was republished in the August 23, 1845, edition of the Broadway Journal. That edition overlooked Longfellow's poem as Poe believed it was plagiarism and due to the fact that "The Tell-Tale Heart" was republished several times during Poe's lifetime.
The specific motivation for the murder (other than the narrator's hatred of the old man's eye), the relationship between the narrator and the old man, the narrator's gender, and other details are left unclear. The narrator denies that he had any feelings of hatred or resentment towards the man who, it is said, "never did harm" to the narrator. The narrator also denies that he killed him out of greed.
Critics have assumed that the old man represents the narrator's landlord or even a father figure, or maybe that the narrator worked for the old man as his servant, and that the old man's "vulture eye" represents some sort of power or a hidden secret. The ambiguity and lack of detail about the two main characters contrast with the concrete details of the plot leading up to the murder.
"The Tell-Tale Heart" uses an unreliable narrator. The accuracy with which the narrator recounts the murder of the old man as if the secret way in which they committed the crime was proof of their sanity, reveals their monomania and paranoia. The focus of the story is a perverse plan to commit the perfect crime. Paige Bynum, one of the well known authors argues that Poe created a character of the narrator in order to "allow the reader to identify with the narrator."
Also, most assume that the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" is to be male. However, some critics share the opinion that the narrator may be a woman, but no pronouns are used in the story to clarify this mistery.
The story begins in medias res. The opening of the story starts with a conversation between the narrator and another person about whom we have no information. It has been believed that the narrator is maybe confessing and telling his story to a judge, a prison warden, a psychiatrist or a reporter. In any case, he tells the story with lots of details, but it is all the memory of terror as the narrator tells what happened, the events of the past.
The first word of the story, "Truth!", is an acknowledgment of his guilt and a guarantee of trustworthiness. This introduction has one goal - to gain the reader's attention. Each word contributes to the purpose of moving the story forward, illustrating Poe's theories on short story writing.
The story is driven not by the narrator's insistence on their "innocence," but by his insistence on his sanity. This, however, is self-destructive, because in trying to prove his sanity, he fully admits that he's guilty of murder. His denial of insanity is based on his systematic procedures and precision, as he provides a rational explanation for irrational behavior. This rationality is undermined by the narrator's lack of motive because he says: "Object there was none. Passion there was none." But despite this, the narrator says that the idea of murder "haunted me day and night". It is difficult to fully understand the narrator's true emotions towards the blue-eyed man because of this contradiction.
The last scene of the story shows the result of the narrator's guilt. Like many characters in Gothic fiction, they allow their nerves to dictate their nature. Despite his best efforts to defend his actions, his excessive acuteness of the senses, which helps him hear the heartbeat under the floor, is proof that he is indeed crazy.
The narrator's guilt can be seen when the narrator admitted to the police that the old man's body was under the boards. Although the old man was dead, the dead man's body and heart seemed to still haunt the narrator and condemn them for the act. Poe's contemporaries may have been reminded of the controversy surrounding the insanity defense in the 1840s. The confession may be due to a concept called the "Illusion of Transparency". According to the "Encyclopedia of Social Psychology", the author's narrator falsely believes that police officers who came to his house at the reported suspicion of crime can sense the guilt over the crime he has committed as well a a fear that eventually gets the best of him and makes him surrender unnecessarily.
The narrator claims to have a disease that causes hypersensitivity. A similar motif was used for Roderick Usher in "The Fall of the House of Usher" and in "The Colloquy of Monos and Una". It is unclear, however, if the narrator actually has very keen senses or if this is just imagined. Also, there is a possibility that he has paranoid schizophrenia. Paranoid schizophrenics very often experience auditory hallucinations. These auditory hallucinations are more often voices, but they can also be sounds. Hallucinations do not have to come from a specific source other than one's head, which is another demonstration that the narrator suffers from such a psychological disorder.
Richard Wilbur has suggested that the story is an allegorical representation of Poe's sonnet "To Science", which describes the struggle between imagination and science. In "The Tell-Tale Heart", the old man can thus represent the scientific and rational mind, while the narrator can represent the imagination
Poe is often considered a "Southern Gothic" author or an author whose work deals with issues and concerns surrounding slavery and the history of slavery in the southern United States. Poe was actually born in Boston, Massachusetts, but moved south in his youth and spent a lot of time there. He died in 1849 and slavery was legal in the US throughout his life.
Toni Morrison wrote the book "Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination". In it, she argues that many of Poe's stories, most notably "The Black Cat," are part of the Southern Gothic tradition because they express concerns about the institution of slavery, albeit in a veiled, hidden, or coded way.
Does "Tell-Tale" fall into this category? is it possible that the narrator is a slave and the old man is his owner? While white people aren't the only people with blue eyes, for the sake of argument, let's assume he's white. This is the only plot point in the story and the only detail we are given about the physical appearance of any character. If the narrator is a slave, this blue eye might look at him with an expression of possession, dominance, and perhaps even disgust. To kill the old man would be to eradicate the old man's sense of superiority.
This interpretation would also explain the narrator's nervousness. As a slave, this sensitive guy could be exposed to all kinds of horrors and would live in fear. This might also explain why the narrator took so much pleasure in violating a man's privacy and the sanctity of his bedroom - as a slave he would have very little privacy.
Unlike "The Black Cat," this story doesn't quite fit into the Southern Gothic genre, but it's not out of place to ask this question: If the narrator is a slave and the old man is his master, would that change the way you feel about the narrator and/or the old man?
Genre: Gothic fiction
Setting: the house where the narrator lives with the old man
Point of view and Narrator: first-person point of view; the unnamed narrator
Tone and Mood: creepy, scary
Protagonist and Antagonist: the narrator is both antagonist and protagonist
Major conflict: the narrator kills the old man because he doesn't like the look of his eye
Climax: the climax of the story is when the narrator kills the old man
Ending: the narrator confesses the murder of the old man to the police officers
Symbols and Metaphors
The old man's eye - in this short story, the narrator is obsessed with the old man's eye. He calls it "the eye of a vulture". Whenever the old man looks at him, the narrator becomes fearful and feels chills. This eye is eventually the reason of the narrator's murder. This is why the eye is considered a symbol of evil.
The beating heart - another great symbol in this story is the beating heart, which represents the narrator's conscience. After killing the old man, the narrator begins to hear the dead man's heart beating loudly. This ever-louder noise causes a man to feel guilty, and as a result, he lifts the boards and confesses his crime.
The watch - the narrator mentions the "watch" four times in the story. A clock is a visual and auditory display of time. The clock keeps track of time and tells stories about time. Time can also be said to observe death, ahead of it in the distance. Each tick of the clock symbolizes moving closer to the inevitable death that all humans face. Poe subtly represents this in the story that mentions the clock for the first time: "A watch's minute hand moves more quickly than did mine".
The old man's heart also serves a watch. And he watches and counts down the time until the man's death (first paragraph). Then the heart/watch becomes a kind of zombie (second pass). It resurrects itself so that it can tell about the time (death) it observed, in a way taking time from the narrator.
Lantern - when looking at the old man, the narrator tries to keep most of the light hidden and allows only one ray of light to escape. So, the lantern is his weapon against the evil eye. This is what we see on the eighth night - the lamp and the eye fixed on the eyes. It also suggests that sometimes the light hides in the darkest places.
Bed - the bed in the story is totally opposite of what beds should be. The narrator violates all bedroom etiquette, exploiting the sleeper's vulnerability. We are less vulnerable when we're in bed, and the fact that we can fall asleep means that we feel safe. Poe uses the bed as a weapon so, narrator suffocates the old man with the bed. And since the bed is a murder weapon, it is to believe that the old man's bedroom is his burial place.