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The Tell Tale Heart

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The Tell Tale Heart

“The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843) by Edgar Allan Poe is a classically unsettling story. It is narrated by a madman who decides to kill the old man he lives with because he can't stand the gaze of the man's strange eye. However, after committing the crime, the narrator becomes convinced he can hear the old man's heart beating and gives away the location of the body. First published in a literary magazine called The Pioneer, the short story is now one of Poe’s best-known works, showcasing his signature gothic style.

The Tell-Tale Heart Summary

An unnamed person narrates Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” He begins the story by informing the reader that he was and is terribly nervous, but he is not mad. He claims to have had a disease that sharpened all of his senses, but particularly his sense of hearing. He tells the reader that he will tell a story and that his ability to tell this story calmly is proof of his sanity.

Edgar Allan Poe never specifies if the narrator is a man or woman, but the person is generally assumed to be male.

The narrator describes how one day, inexplicably, he had the idea to kill an old man who lives with him. The old man has a bad eye that looks to the narrator like a vulture’s eye, and it disturbs him so much that he feels he must kill the man to rid himself of the horror of that gaze.

For a week, the narrator enters the old man’s room every night around midnight. He enters very slowly so as not to disturb the man and lets in a single ray of lantern light to see if the man’s eye is open. His eyes are always closed, however, and the narrator cannot bring himself to kill the man without the provoking gaze of the “vulture eye.”

On the eighth night, the old man wakes when the narrator opens the door. He cries out, asking who is there. The narrator waits patiently until the man is quiet again, but he knows that the old man isn’t sleeping, that he is lying there in terror, trying to convince himself that the sound he heard was innocent. Finally, the narrator releases a ray of light from his lantern, and it falls on the eye that so frightens him.

The sound of a beating heart slowly begins to fill the narrator’s head. He believes it is the old man’s heart that he hears, and he listens as it beats faster and faster, imagining the old man’s terror growing. The beating becomes so loud that the narrator fears that the sound will wake the neighbors, and he knows he must kill the man. Finally, the beating slows and stops, and he knows the old man is dead.

The Tell-Tale Heart, The beating heart is a key symbol, StudySmarterThe narrator hears a beating heart as he kills the old man and again later when the old man is already dead. Pixabay.

The narrator then describes dismembering the old man’s corpse in order to hide the body under the floor planks. When he has finished, the police arrive, alerted by the old man’s death cry.

The narrator, confident in his ability to conceal his crime, invites the officers in and shows them around the whole house, explaining that the old man is away in the country. However, as he takes them into the old man’s room, he begins to hear the dreaded sound of the beating heart.

The narrator is sure that the sound is the murdered man’s heart from below the floorboards, and he is also convinced that the police officers can hear it too. Driven into a panic, he confesses to the crime and reveals the location of the old man’s body.

The Tell-Tale Heart Themes

Some key themes in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" are madness, guilt, and time.

Madness

Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded — with what caution — with what foresight — with what dissimulation I went to work!"

The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” spends a great deal of time trying to convince his reader that he is not, in fact, mad. The evidence that he relies on is mainly his calm, calculated approach to the crime. He plans the event very carefully and patiently, to such an extreme that it seems to negate his claim to sanity. He describes spending an entire hour each night opening the old man’s door, for example—not to mention the irrationality of killing the man because of his eye.

Ultimately, the narrator’s madness, and his inability to identify that madness, causes him to admit to his crime.

Guilt

Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! — no, no! They heard! — they suspected! — they knew! — they were making a mockery of my horror! — this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision!"

Poe’s narrator does not appear to feel remorse for his crime. He suggests that all the fault for his actions lies in the man’s eye. Because of this, the narrator had no choice but to kill him. He even recounts his story with pride, explaining how cunningly he carried out the crime. However, his panic and sudden confession at the end of the story could be interpreted as the appearance of the narrator’s unconscious guilt. He cannot stand the pressure of knowing he killed the old man.

It's interesting to note that the concept of the unconscious was not widely discussed until Sigmund Freud popularized the term in 1893, fifty years after "The Tell-Tale Heart" was published in 1843. Freud argued that the unconscious was made up of thoughts, feelings, impulses, and desires that take place outside of our conscious control. Do you think that Poe was (unconsciously, perhaps), using these ideas about the unconscious well before Freud and others began to study them? Or is this interpretation of the heartbeat as the narrator's subconscious guilt too modern an interpretation?

Time

Upon the eighth night I was more than usually cautious in opening the door. A watch’s minute hand moves more quickly than did mine."

Throughout Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, the narrator is obsessed with time. He specifies exactly how many days he spends planning to kill the old man, the hour at which he visits his room every night, the amount of time he spends opening the door so as not to disturb the man, and the hour at which the crime is concluded. There are also numerous references to clocks and watches, as well as the sound of the beating heart, which could be viewed as another way to measure the passage of time.

The Tell-Tale Heart, a clock and a references to time, StudySmarterTIme is a reoccurring theme in "The Tell-Tale Heart." Pixabay.

Why do you think the narrator is so fixated on time in the story? What could this symbolize or reveal?

The Tell-Tale Heart Symbolism

There are two key symbols in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story: the old man’s eye and the beating heart.

The Eye

One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture — a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold."

The old man’s eye is an important symbol in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The narrator claims that the disturbing gaze of this eye is the reason for his crime. The eye’s pale blue, filmy appearance suggests that the old man is blind, or at least that his vision is impaired, which could symbolize the narrator’s own madness and twisted view of the world. It could also refer to the narrator’s fear that the old man can see things about him that others cannot.

The Tell-Tale Heart, The old man's eye is described as a vulture's eye, StudySmarterThe old man's "vulture eye" causes the narrator to murder him. Pixabay.

The eye is also repeatedly referred to as a “vulture eye,” and the narrator feels significantly threatened by the old man’s gaze. Because vultures prey on things that are dead or dying, the threat the narrator feels could indicate his own looming sickness.

The Heart

Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant."

In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the beating heart that the narrator hears is symbolic of his guilt. A heart generally symbolizes the essence of a person, perhaps their truest emotions or deepest desires. The heart in “The Tell-Tale Heart” also reveals things; it tells tales, so to speak. It reveals the old man’s terror and, later, the narrator’s guilt.

The Tell-Tale Heart Setting

“The Tell-Tale Heart” is set in an old house where the narrator and old man apparently live. The only room that is described is the old man’s bedroom, a very dark room entered through a door with creaky hinges. The house is located somewhere close enough to neighbors who can hear the old man cry out, but inside the home, the two characters seem to be completely isolated.

It is also important to note that the reader does not know where the narrator is as he tells the story. The narrator describes the action in the past tense, ending with the confession of his crime. Therefore, it's possible that the narrator is telling the story from a jail cell or another undisclosed location.

The Tell-Tale Heart Characters

  • The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” informs us that he is very nervous right at the start of the story. His anxiety and madness permeate the text, making it at times confusing or difficult to understand. The story is a monologue in the first person delivered by the unnamed narrator as he attempts to convince the reader of his sanity. The effect, however, is much the opposite.

  • The old man is described very little by the narrator. He is apparently kind and perhaps wealthy. The narrator states that the old man has never treated him poorly, nor does he wish to kill him for his money. His only crime, and notable feature, is his strange eye.

  • The three police officers are the only other characters to appear in the story. They are apparently friendly and do not suspect the narrator’s guilt until he confesses.

The Tell-Tale Heart - Key Takeaways

  • “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe and was published in 1843.
  • “The Tell-Tale Heart” is narrated in the first person by an unnamed madman as he tries to convince the reader of his sanity by describing the murder he has committed.
  • Some key themes in “The Tell-Tale Heart” include guilt, madness, and time.
  • Some key symbols in “The Tell-Tale Heart” include the old man’s strange eye and the beating heart.
  • “The Tell-Tale Heart” has very few characters: the narrator, the old man, and three police officers who visit the house after the murder has been committed.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Tell Tale Heart

“The Tell-Tale Heart” is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe that is narrated by a madman describing the murder he has committed.

Like much of Poe’s work, “The Tell-Tale Heart” has a frightening, creepy mood that is created by its setting in a dark house, the subject of murder, and the unsettled ravings of the narrator.

“The Tell-Tale Heart” was published in 1843.

Throughout “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator’s tone is frantic and agitated. He is anxiously trying to convince the reader of his sanity but doing so in a frenzy of madness.

“The Tell-Tale Heart” is narrated in the first person by an unnamed narrator.

Final The Tell Tale Heart Quiz

Question

Who wrote “The Tell-Tale Heart?”

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Answer

Edgar Allan Poe

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When was “The Tell-Tale Heart” published?

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Answer

1843

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Question

Which is NOT an important theme in “The Tell-Tale Heart?”

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Answer

Love

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Question

Why does the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” decide he must kill the old man?

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Answer

Because he is so disturbed by the old man’s strange eye

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What point of view is “The Tell-Tale Heart?”

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Answer

“The Tell-Tale Heart” has a first person point of view.

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Where is “The Tell-Tale Heart” set?

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Answer

In an old house

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Why does the narrator confess to the murder at the end of “The Tell-Tale Heart?”

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Because he is convinced that he and the police officers can hear the old man’s heart beating under the floorboards

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At what time each night does the narrator visit the old man?

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Answer

At midnight

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For how many nights does the narrator visit the old man before killing him?

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He visits every night for seven nights and kills the old man on the eighth.

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Question

What does the beating heat reveal in “The Tell-Tale Heart?”


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Answer

It reveals the old man’s terror and, later, the narrator’s guilt.

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