The unnamed narrator is the central character of this short story. He is aware of his craziness and crazy thoughts, yet he justifies them as healthy because he can still strategize and think smartly. He is hypersensitive to sounds and images and is very bothered by the old man's ugly eye. He is obsessively worried about it and decides to kill the man to close his eye forever. He manages to come up with a plan and one night ends up killing a man. But the guilt breaks him inside and he finally confesses his crime to the officers at the scene.
As in many Poe's other main characters, the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is unreliable. The narrative develops as the unnamed narrator reveals his crimes to the readers. Rather than being concerned about his crimes or the consequences of his actions, the narrator is obsessed with proving his sanity. He uses evidence of the methodical precision with which he did this murder. Nevertheless, these extremely detailed actions ironically confirm his insanity instead his sanity. The narrator says that he suffers from "nervousness" that forces "excessive sharpness of the senses". That's the only explanation he gives for his motives and obsession with the old man's eye.
Considering the fact that he’s a murderer maybe this is the reason why he doesn't share his name or any other identifying characteristic. He wants us to know what he did, but not who he is or where to find him. We actually have very little to go on in discussing his character, and we have to do a lot of research and reading between the lines to come up with possibilities.
Poe also doesn’t explicitly tell us whether the narrator is male or female. The only reason we feel comfortable calling the narrator "he" is due to these lines: "You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing." This isn't 100% proof that the narrator is male, so it's important to consider the possibility that the narrator is female.
Poe wrote a famous story called "The Imp of the Perverse" in which the narrator claims that people are driven to murder because of uncontrolled and perverse impulses, and most of Poe's works are focused on exploring this idea. So, we believe the narrator's claim that he wants to kill the old man was just to get rid of the evil eye. It would probably be more difficult to leave the old man (move out, find a new place), but killing him was the only way to escape his sight. Even under these circumstances, the narrator still seems abnormal and terrifying as he seems to enjoy spying on the old man eight nights before the murder, as we see in these lines:
"I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts."
If he wants to kill a man for "pragmatic" reasons, why does he go through such a complicated and gruesome process? And why does he feel such pleasure in planning everything? Can we attribute this to a perverse impulse? Could he merely be obsessed with "the devil"? Or must all "perverse" actions derive from a rational, valid reason? Such questions are raised by the narrator.
The narrator seems like he's completely hopeless. Can we imagine a scenario where he is fine? We know that he is tormented by the murder he committed, even though he claims to have enjoyed it.
Yet he is the one telling the story, perhaps out of some hope for redemption or some hope for a cure for what he sees as a physical ailment. In Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, the main character also kills an elderly person for unpredictable reasons, but still achieves some kind of happiness at the end of the book. Can we imagine any scenario where the narrator could find happiness and even love?
The Old Man
The old man is a person of great uncertainty. He seems to be on good terms with the narrator and is a good person. However, he has one ugly pale eye which creates a problem in the narrator's mind. He seems to be a quiet and lonely person and probably lives alone in his room which makes him an easy target for the narrator. So he ends up being mercilessly murdered in his own room. There seems to be no further knowledge of his character or social life as he dies without revealing much about his life.
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. 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 the 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?
Three police officers arrive at the scene of a murder to inquire about noise complaints. They are cheerful and do not suspect foul play when they meet the storyteller. As a matter of fact, they are easily fooled by the narrator's calm demeanor and end up chatting with him for a long time. Finally, the narrator shouts out his confession and they dig through the floor to find the old man's body parts.
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