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The Tell-Tale

Heart
Study Guide by Course Hero

"The Tell-Tale Heart" uses the present tense when the narrator
What's Inside 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 related meanings. First, it refers to the heart of the murdered
man, which the narrator hears beneath the floorboards.
a Author Biography ..................................................................................... 2
Second, it refers to the narrator's own emotion, which betrays
h Characters .................................................................................................. 3 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
Otranto features many of the characteristics that would come
j Book Basics 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
exotic locations, as in "The Cask of Amontillado," Poe also
PERSPECTIVE AND NARRATOR
modernized the Gothic story by setting a number of his stories
"The Tell-Tale Heart" is told by an unreliable first-person
in urban settings and by focusing on psychological states.
narrator. At times the narrator addresses an unidentified
Gothic literature carried in it the seeds of later popular genres:
audience directly, shifting briefly into second person.
science fiction, horror, and detective fiction. Poe was
TENSE instrumental in initiating each of these genres.
The Tell-Tale Heart Study Guide Author Biography 2

financial problems as well as his unstable family history.


The American Short Story 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
(Rufus Griswold's obituary of Poe, which the Edgar Allen Poe
People began to publish magazines in the United States as
Society characterizes as "surprisingly vituperative"). Perhaps
early as the 1740s, but these were local and short lived. In the
fittingly, the truth remains largely a mystery.
1780s magazines became more regular, and in the 19th century
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,
also of illness.
Poe's Life and Psychology A wealthy matron named Frances Allan had taken an interest
in Elizabeth Poe and in Edgar; the boy struck her as charming
Some elements of Poe's life and psychology provide useful
and intelligent. After Elizabeth died, Allan convinced her
perspectives on his work. For example, while all Gothic fiction
prosperous merchant husband, John, that the couple should
and most horror fiction focuses on death and suffering, Poe
take Edgar in and raise him in their Virginia home. Poe started
suffered more losses than many writers working in these
school in the United States but soon was sent to England,
genres. Both of Poe's birth parents died in December 1811,
where he studied for five years. In 1826 Poe entered the
when he was not yet three years old. The day his mother died
University of Virginia. He left after only a year of classes in part
Poe was left alone in the house overnight with her corpse and
due to his drinking but primarily because of some gambling
his baby sister until an adult found them the next day. When
debts he'd run up while trying to support himself, which John
Poe was taken in and raised by John and Frances Allan, he
Allan refused to pay. Despite this early departure the University
was separated from his older brother and younger sister.
of Virginia's Raven Society keeps Poe's room in his honor. In
Nevertheless, Poe's brother, Henry, became a role model for
1827 Poe joined the army. He rose to the rank of sergeant
him. Poe imitated his writing style, named characters after him,
major and entered the United States Military Academy in West
and even incorporated his name into one of his pen names
Point, New York, as an officer candidate in 1830. He was
(Henri Le Rennet). Poe's foster mother, Frances Allen, also
dismissed without graduating when he intentionally broke the
died when Poe was still young, and his wife, Virginia, died when
rules after Allan refused to give consent for Poe to resign from
she was just 25.
the Academy.
Scholars have attempted to diagnose Poe across time, reading
After writing poetry for many years, Poe published Tamerlane,
the state of his psyche based on his writing, his actions, and
and Other Poems in 1828, followed the next year by Al Aaraaf,
the reports of those who knew him. His ongoing depression
Tamerlane, and Minor Poems. Neither collection earned Poe
and heavy drinking may have been due in part to his lifelong

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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

h Characters
comments helped shape the short story into the distinct
artistic genre it is today. He certainly managed this unified
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
day for the week before he kills him, greeting him heartily every
"The Tell-Tale Heart" was made into a silent film in 1928; after
morning; and they are close enough that the narrator can
this came live-action and animated versions. It's been
intrude into the old man's bedroom nightly without having to
performed on stage, both as a play and as a dramatic
sneak into the house. It is possible they are members of the
monologue, and on the radio. Audio and comic book versions
same family, or that the narrator is the old man's servant, but
have been produced; even an episode of the children's series
readers never learn. They know only that he is passionate,
SpongeBob SquarePants was based on the story. "The Tell-
unbalanced, and—if they trust his story—a murderer.
Tale 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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The Tell-Tale Heart Study Guide Characters 4

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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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 Police
Hears the old man's screams Calls Respond to call

Main Character

Other Major Character

Minor Character

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The Tell-Tale Heart Study Guide Plot Summary 6

believe he has to kill an older man, who is rich and who the
Full Character List 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."
The unnamed and unbalanced narrator is a
The narrator addresses the reader directly again and defends
Narrator confessed killer who tells the story of his
own crime. his sanity by describing his careful preparation, sneaking into
the man's room at midnight for seven nights in a row, carrying a
The story's victim, an old man with one lantern he'd fixed so no light could get out. He cannot kill the
Old Man unnaturally blue eye, has an indeterminate old man, however, because it isn't the man he wants to kill but
relationship with the narrator, his killer.
his "Evil Eye." Each morning after having snuck in the night
before, the narrator greets the old man by name. When the
The neighbor, who never actually appears narrator sneaks in on the eighth night, the old man sits up in
Neighbor in the story, hears the old man's death cry
and calls the police. bed and cries out, asking who is there. The narrator doesn't
answer. He hears the old man sitting up in bed, listening for
Three police officers come to investigate him. Eventually the narrator hears the old man give a terrified
the report of a scream, and the narrator moan.
eventually confesses to them. The officers,
Police
who appear in the final few paragraphs of
the story, are not differentiated and don't
speak. The Murder
The narrator waits a long time. He doesn't hear the old man lie
down, but he eventually decides to risk opening the lantern a
k Plot Summary 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 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
The narrator's gender is never identified as it is written in the
lantern and surges into the room. The old man screams, but
first person "I," so there are no gendered pronouns. For the
then the narrator is on him, dumping him on the floor and
sake of readability, this study guide will refer to the narrator
moving the bed on top of him. Eventually his heart stops
using the male pronouns he, him, and his. The only clue that
beating. The narrator is sure the old man is dead and his evil
suggests the narrator could be male is the line "You fancy me
blue eye won't bother him anymore.
mad. Madmen know nothing." Scholars and feminists, however,
continue to debate as to whether the narrator could be female.
Again as proof of his sanity, the narrator describes the pains
he went to in covering up his crime. The narrator dismembers
the old man's body, cutting off the man's head, arms, and legs,
The Narrator's Introduction 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
them to see. He shows them around, then sets out chairs for
At some unidentified time in the past, the narrator comes to
the police to sit in while they talk.

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The Tell-Tale Heart Study Guide Plot Analysis 7

assume the narrator to be a man, some have argued it is a


The Confession 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
have to be insane to think he hears a heart beating after death
The narrator's sex isn't clearly indicated either; though many

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The Tell-Tale Heart Study Guide Plot Analysis 8

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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The Tell-Tale Heart Study Guide Plot Analysis 9

Plot Diagram

Climax

Rising Action 4 Falling Action


6
3

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 Plot Analysis 11

Minutes later

The narrator snaps and screams his confession to the


police.

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The Tell-Tale Heart Study Guide Quotes 12

caution—with what foresight—with


g Quotes
what dissimulation I went to work!"
"TRUE!—nervous—very, very — Narrator
dreadfully nervous I had been and
am; but why will you say that I am This further establishes the narrator's unreliability as well as
the highly dubious nature of his sanity. His character remains
mad?" 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:
the narrator tells the reader what the point is. This
This opening line from the unnamed narrator establishes his
foreshadows his attempt to guide the police officers in the
unreliable nature right away: this is someone who other people
story's final paragraphs.
are calling crazy. This is also someone who thinks he knows
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?
midnight—but I found the eye
always closed; and so it was
"It is impossible to say how first
impossible to do the work; for it
the idea entered my brain; but
was not the old man who vexed
once conceived, it haunted me day
me, but his Evil Eye."
and night."
— 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
source of a supernatural curse.
"Now this is the point. You fancy
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 Quotes 13

— Narrator However, the old man does not say something like "John, is
that you?" or ask for anyone else by name. He seems
completely unaware of who could be in his room, which helps
This line performs multiple functions. It is another example of
unhinge the story from the realities of daily life.
the narrator claiming to know what others are thinking or
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. "If still you think me mad, you will
Finally the term at heart foreshadows what will happen with the
think so no longer when I describe
old man's heart later in the story.
the wise precautions I took for the
concealment of the body."
"It was open—wide, wide
open—and I grew furious as I — Narrator

gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect


This line further documents the narrator's madness, which
distinctness—all a dull blue, with a takes several forms. Most simply, the narrator addresses the

hideous veil over it that chilled the reader again, reading—and misreading—his thoughts. He sees
as wisdom what is a kind of criminal pragmatism (hiding the
very marrow in my bones; but I body). This line also shows how doubt gnaws at the narrator
because he feels the need to explain and justify himself.
could see nothing else of the old
man's face or person: for I had
directed the ray as if by instinct, "I smiled—for what had I to fear?"
precisely upon the damned spot." — Narrator

— 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
"Almighty God!—no, no! They
man in bed sees all and the intruder almost nothing.
heard!—they suspected!—they
knew!—they were making a
"Who's there?"
mockery of my horror!—this I
— Old Man thought, and this I think."

This is the only thing the old man says in the story. It is a simple — Narrator
line, but it radically complicates the story. The narrator
regularly speaks to the old man every morning, and so the two
This line demonstrates the fragmentation of the narrator's
must be close, even intimate, like members of the same family.
mind. Though he started the story by arguing nothing was

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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
emotion. The inclusion of both symbols in the story creates a
beating of his hideous heart!"" 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
repressed or hidden in the subconscious always return, leaking
The Eye 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 Suggested Reading 16

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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