First published in 1843, “The Tell-Tale Heart” tells the tale of an unnamed narrator who has committed a murder and in describing how he carried out the act, tries to convince the readers of his sanity. He tries to draw the reader’s attention to his careful planning and calculations, as well his attention to detail as he executed his perfectly conceived plan of killing the blue-eyed old man. However, even though everything goes in his favor, his conscience betrays him, his guilt causing him to hear a ringing sound which he believes to be the dead man’s heartbeat, and thus, out of his fear, he confesses his crime.
This short story is considered a classic in Gothic fiction and is one of Poe’s most famous short stories. The most striking feature of this tale is that while the act of murder and the events occurring thereafter have been described in great detail, a lot of ambiguity exists on the other main aspects such as the characters and the relationship between them and the motive for the murder that drives the action in the story. This lack of details stands in great contrast to the specific way in which the events leading up to the murder have been narrated.
The Tell-Tale Heart | Summary
The story is written in the first person and from its very start, the narrator begins to convince the readers that he is perfectly sane, at the same time also conveying that he is suffering from a disease, most likely a mental disorder, that has caused his senses to heighten. He beseeches the readers to hear his story which shall prove to them that he is not mad, and is very well capable of behaving in a calm and calculated manner.
The narrator lives with an old man, who has ‘vulture-like’ blue eyes that made the narrator quite uncomfortable and distressed, so much so that he is compelled to plot the old man’s murder to get rid of them. Had it not been for those piercing eyes, which made his blood go cold, he would not have any other reason for harming the old man.
He insists that he was indeed not a mad man as can be perceived from the precision exercised by him in the execution of his plan. He took all possible steps to plan the perfect murder, watching the old man every night for seven days, with extreme cautiousness so as to not wake him up. He behaved in a super-friendly manner with him during the day so that no suspicion was aroused. However, despite his continuous attempt at shining the light on those “eyes”, he was unable to do so, finding them closed every night, which acted as a deterrent in the act he had planned.
Finally, on the eighth night, after being extra cautious than usual, he succeeds in his endeavors. The old man awakened on hearing the loud noise made by the lantern that slipped from the narrator’s hand and seemed to have a premonition of the dreadful fate that awaited him. Even though he tries to reassure himself that the noise meant nothing, it was futile and it appeared to the narrator that he had felt death looming over him.
After waiting for a long while for the old man to lie down so that he could kill him, the narrator finally decides to go ahead with his plan without any further ado. He very stealthily enters the old man’s room, focusing his full gaze on those much-despised eyes that troubled him no end. He could not see anything else in the darkness as the only light that was in the room was directed at those blue eyes. But, owing to his heightened senses, he could hear the old man’s thudding heartbeat the sound of which added to his fury and egged him to commit the murder. As the old man’s terror rose, his heartbeat also became louder which increased the narrator’s agitation and finally, in a quick movement, he dragged the old man to the floor, smothering him with the heavy bed until his heart stopped beating. The old man let out only a single shriek and the narrator was confident that it would not be heard by anybody.
Once he had made sure that he was dead, the narrator took the old man’s corpse to the bathtub where he dismembered each part and buried them separately under the boards of the flooring. He was very meticulous in cleaning up afterward and left no trace of the heinous crime behind him.
The next morning, the police came to enquire about the complaint made by a neighbor who, upon hearing the old man’s scream last night, suspected some foul play. Nevertheless, the narrator cleverly managed to lie his way out and roused any suspicions they might have had about him. He even took them to examine the old man’s bedroom so that they may assure themselves fully that no crime had been committed. His confidence filled him with immense enthusiasm and convinced by his ease and cheerful manner of talking to them, the officers were satisfied that nothing had happened.
However, just as he was triumphing in his victory of having got away with murder, all thanks to his alertness and heedful handling of every aspect, something strange happened. He found himself going pale and anxious, wishing that the officers left the house. Soon, he even started hearing a ringing sound, which continued to grow louder with each passing second, thereby making him more and more uneasy. The low, dull sound appeared to him like the sound of the dead old man’s heartbeat, the realization of which seemed to further agitate him to a point where everything, including the presence of the officers, seemed torturous and terrifying to him. Thus pricked by his guilty conscience, he decided to end the agony that was driving him crazy and he confessed his crime to the police.
The Tell-Tale Heart | Analysis
The story deals with the narrator’s paranoia, highlighted by his perverse scheme of murdering the man he lived with for the sole reason that his eyes bothered him. The manner in which the narrative flows is very engaging, with every word moving the story further and making the reader more and more hooked on to the action being depicted. It is written in a way that the reader can very well identify with the narrator, despite his twisted mind and the absence of any significant details about him. The story manages to grab the readers’ interest until the last word, keeping them on the edge throughout as they try to anticipate what happens next.
The writing style is completely in sync with the narrator’s personality and perfectly mirrors his emotions and thoughts- be it insistence, caution, terror or meticulousness.
The title “The Tell-Tale Heart” is quite apt and manages to give the reader a fair idea of what happens in the end. It can be inferred from the title that at some point or the other, the narrator, despite all the caution taken by him, is bound to be betrayed by his heart and will have to ultimately admit his crime.
Another notable aspect of this story is that, unlike other murderers, the narrator in this story is not trying to convince the readers of his innocence. Rather, his only aim is to prove his sanity. But ironically, in an attempt to prove that he is sane, he ends up admitting that he had in fact, conceived and committed the murder. The rationality he wants to display by describing his systematic actions and precision in executing the murder seems to further emphasize his irrationality and paranoia. The more he tries to prove that he is not mad, the more convinced is the reader of his insanity.
The Tell-Tale Heart | Edgar Allen Poe
One of the earliest writers of short stories in America, Edgar Allen Poe was a well-known writer, poet, editor, and literary critic of the Romantic Age. While he is quite popular for his poetry as well, he is most appreciated for his short stories, particularly mysteries, and especially the ones dealing with grotesque elements. Many of his well-liked works are Gothic and deal with the themes of death and its physical signs, decomposition, mourning, and the effects of these all on both the psyche as well as the body. His works are generally categorized into the Dark-Romanticism genre due to its focus on the irrational, the demonic, and grotesque.