The Tell-Tale Heart.

Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. 

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story was originally published in 1843. 

Poe’s short story is written in the first person point of view, and an unnamed narrator takes us through how they decided to kill an old man. The unnamed narrator describes how they committed the murder, and the guilt they felt after the murder, all while they attempt to assure readers of their sanity. 

Poe’s story is unsettling as it is full of contradictions. The narrator has no reason to kill the old man, but does so because they are driven mad by his eye. Poe is purposely very vague. We do not know who the old man is in relation to the narrator, which leaves the story open to many interpretations. 

Is the narrator the old man’s son? Is the narrator related to the old man at all? Is the narrator a man or a woman? Is the narrator a caretaker? A servant? We don’t know. We don’t know anything about the narrator other than the fact that the narrator is driven mad by the old man’s glass eye. The narrator describes the eye as being like a “vulture’s eye” and the narrator is so tormented by this eye that they decide to act on their murderous thoughts. 

I’ve always interpreted this short story to be about how one can be haunted by their conscience. I would suggest that the story’s main theme is the idea of one being driven mad by guilt. 

The narrator kills the old man and disposes of his body by dismembering him and hiding him in the floorboards. The narrator cannot get away with murder because they are haunted by a thumping sound, a beating sound. The narrator is driven mad and prompted to confess by the sound of what they believe to be the old man’s beating heart, just as the narrator was once driven mad by the old man’s eye. 

The narrator is consumed by guilt, consumed by the idea that others can hear the heart too, and so ultimately, the narrator confesses their crime to the police, hence the title the tell-tale heart. 

Poe’s writing style is very intriguing, very gothic. He uses repetition and choppy sentences to pull readers in. The story is an enticing mix of matter of fact yet bizarre. The narrator is many things. The narrator is cold, calculated, and unflinching as they commit murder, but the narrator was driven to commit murder by an obsession with the old man’s glass eye. One must ask, why did the glass eye bother the narrator so much? Why would a glass eye bother someone so intently that they commit murder? One can ask if the eye represented something? Something that us readers are not privy to.

Poe’s short story begins in media res. This means that when the story begins, the plot is already in motion, so readers are immediately taken in by the narrator’s voice. “I loved the old man,” the narrator says, adding, “He had never wronged me.” (Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart, 1843.)

 The narrator is already speaking when the story begins, so immediately readers are tasked with attempting to understand the narrator. 

The story is written in the first person which means that we don’t learn anything about the old man beyond what the narrator tells us. The narrator states that they loved the old man, and that they really had no reason to dislike him or hurt him, but readers have no idea if this is true. The narrator also informs readers that they are sensitive and terribly nervous, and prone to hallucinations, so already we can say that this narrator is an unreliable one. 

If the narrator is of a very nervous disposition, then there is no way to know if one can trust that events happened the way that the narrator says they did. 

Sanity is brought up a lot in this short story. The narrator constantly wants to reassure readers that they are sane, but this talk of sanity is directly clashed against the narrator’s description of a cold and calculated murder. It’s very strange, because the narrator being driven to murder by a glass eye is irrational, but they carry out their plan to murder the old man without wavering. The narrator dismembers the body and hides it without flinching. These are not the actions of an extremely nervous person. 

The narrator’s nervous disposition is obvious again only after the murder has been committed. The body is hidden, and now the narrator is tormented by the sound of the old man’s beating heart. The heart, arguably, represents a guilty conscience. I think it is fair to say that the heart is not actually still beating, but the narrator is feeling so guilty about their actions that they believe they can hear the heartbeat. Seeing as it is October, one could interpret this short story as a ghost story and say that perhaps the heart is still beating and the old man is purposely haunting the narrator so that the narrator will confess. 

One could also examine the idea of power that exists in this story. While we don’t know who the characters are, one can assume that the old man is in a higher position than the narrator. The “vulture’s eye” is always watching, so the narrator wants to close the eye forever. 

The idea that the old man’s glass eye is always watching could lead one to believe that the old man was always critiquing the narrator, always making the narrator anxious about their actions, but we cannot know this for sure because the story begins when the old man is already dead. The fact that the old man’s heartbeat haunts the narrator and forces a confession demonstrates that the old man had power over the narrator even in death – that is of course if we are looking at this like a ghost story. 

If one does not look at this as a ghost story, but rather as a story about how a guilty conscience can be all consuming, it is not the old man who has power over the narrator in death after all. It is the narrator’s guilt that has the power, because that guilt gnawed away at the narrator so much that they believed they could hear the old man’s heart. The narrator’s guilt is their undoing. The narrator confesses to escape the sound of the heartbeat. One could ask if the narrator didn’t confess, would they have gotten away with it? One can imagine that the police cannot hear the heart, but the narrator’s guilt and paranoia makes them believe that they can, proving that the sound of the heartbeat is all in the narrator’s mind. 

One can ask, did the heartbeat drive the narrator mad? Or were they struggling with madness all along? Would a different point of view reveal more details? Of course, but I think the reason this story is so intriguing is because there is so much we don’t know, it is extremely vague, so it forces interest. 

I think that the narrator was driven mad by their own guilt, and had they not confessed, they may have gotten away with murder. I don’t think it is a ghost story, I don’t think that the heart is actually still beating, but I do think it is interesting to imagine it this way.

Have you read The Tell-Tale Heart? How do you interpret this story? 

Kate xo.

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