The Tell-Tale Heart
|"The Tell-Tale Heart"|
The Pioneer, Vol. I, No. I, Drew and Scammell, Philadelphia, January, 1843
|Author||Edgar Allan Poe|
|Published in||The Pioneer|
|Publisher||James Russell Lowell|
|Media type||Print (periodical)|
|Publication date||January 1843|
"The Tell-Tale Heart" is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe first published in 1843. It is told by an unnamed narrator who endeavors to convince the reader of his sanity, while describing a murder he committed. (The victim was an old man with a filmy "vulture-eye", as the narrator calls it.) The murder is carefully calculated, and the murderer hides the body by dismembering it and hiding it under the floorboards. Ultimately the narrator's guilt manifests itself in the form of the sound—possibly hallucinatory—of the old man's heart still beating under the floorboards.
It is unclear what relationship, if any, the old man and his murderer share. The narrator denies having any feelings of hatred or resentment for the man. He states: 'I loved the old man! He had never wronged me! He had never given me insult!'. He also denies the assumption that he killed for greed: 'Object there was none.', 'For his gold I had no desire.' It has been suggested that the old man is a father figure, the narrator's landlord, or that the narrator works for the old man as a servant, and that perhaps his "vulture-eye" represents some sort of veiled secret, or power. The ambiguity and lack of details about the two main characters stand in stark contrast to the specific plot details leading up to the murder.
The story was first published in James Russell Lowell's The Pioneer in January 1843. "The Tell-Tale Heart" is widely considered a classic of the Gothic fiction genre and is one of Poe's most famous short stories.
"The Tell-Tale Heart" is a first-person narrative of an unnamed narrator who insists he is sane but suffering from a disease (nervousness) which causes "over-acuteness of the senses". The old man with whom he lives has a clouded, pale, blue "vulture-like" eye which so distresses the narrator that he plots to murder the old man, though the narrator states that he loves the old man, and hates only the eye. The narrator insists that his careful precision in committing the murder shows that he cannot possibly be insane. For seven nights, the narrator opens the door of the old man's room, in order to shine a sliver of light onto the "evil eye". However, the old man's vulture-eye is always closed, making it impossible to "do the work".
On the eighth night, the old man awakens after the narrator's hand slips and makes a noise, interrupting the narrator's nightly ritual. But the narrator does not draw back and, after some time, decides to open his lantern. A single thin ray of light shines out and lands precisely on the "evil eye", revealing that it is wide open. Hearing the old man's heart beating loudly and dangerously fast from terror, the narrator decides to strike, jumping out with a loud yell and smothering the old man with his own bed. The narrator then dismembers the body and conceals the pieces under the floorboards, making certain to hide all signs of the crime. Even so, the old man's scream during the night causes a neighbor to report to the police. The narrator invites the three arriving officers in to look around. He claims that the screams heard were his own in a nightmare and that the man is absent in the country. Confident that they will not find any evidence of the murder, the narrator brings chairs for them and they sit in the old man's room, on the very spot where the body is concealed, yet they suspect nothing, as the narrator has a pleasant and easy manner about him.
The narrator, however, begins to feel uncomfortable and notices a ringing in his ears. As the ringing grows louder, the narrator comes to the conclusion that it is the heartbeat of the old man coming from under the floorboards. The sound increases steadily, though the officers seem to pay no attention to it. Terrified by the violent beating of the heart, and convinced that the officers are aware of not only the heartbeat, but his guilt as well, the narrator breaks down and confesses. He tells them to tear up the floorboards to reveal the body.
"The Tell-Tale Heart" was first published in January 1843 in the inaugural issue of The Pioneer, a short-lived Boston magazine edited by James Russell Lowell. Poe was likely paid $10 for the story. Its original publication included an epigraph which quoted Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "A Psalm of Life". The story was slightly revised when republished in the August 23, 1845, edition of the Broadway Journal. This edition omitted Longfellow's poem because, Poe believed, it was plagiarized. "The Tell-Tale Heart" was reprinted several additional times during Poe's lifetime.
"The Tell-Tale Heart" uses an unreliable narrator. The exactness with which the narrator recounts murdering the old man, as if the stealthy way in which he executed the crime were evidence of his sanity, reveals his monomania and paranoia.
The narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is generally assumed to be male. However, some critics have suggested a woman may be narrating; no pronouns are used to clarify one way or the other. The story starts in medias res. The opening is an in-progress conversation between the narrator and another person who is not identified in any way. It is speculated that the narrator is confessing to a prison warden, judge, newspaper reporter, doctor or psychiatrist. This sparks the narrator's need to explain himself in great detail. What follows is a study of terror but, more specifically, the memory of terror as the narrator is relating events from the past. The first word of the story, "True!", is an admission of his guilt, as well as an assurance of reliability. This introduction also serves to immediately grab the reader's attention and pull him/her into the story. From there, every word contributes to the purpose of moving the story forward, possibly making "The Tell-Tale Heart" the best example of Poe's theories on a perfect short story.
The story is driven not by the narrator's insistence upon his innocence but by insistence on his sanity. This, however, is self-destructive because in attempting to prove his sanity he fully admits he is guilty of murder. His denial of insanity is based on his systematic actions and precision—a rational explanation for irrational behavior. This rationality, however, is undermined by his lack of motive ("Object there was none. Passion there was none."). Despite this, he says the idea of murder, "haunted me day and night". The story's final scene, however, is a result of the narrator's feelings of guilt. Like many characters in the Gothic tradition, his nerves dictate his true nature. Despite his best efforts at defending himself, the narrator's "over acuteness of the senses," which help him hear the heart beating beneath the floorboards, is actually evidence that he is truly mad. Readers during Poe's time would have been especially interested amidst the controversy over the insanity defense in the 1840s.
The narrator claims to have a disease which causes hypersensitivity in his senses. A similar motif is used for Roderick Usher in "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839) and in "The Colloquy of Monos and Una" (1841). It is unclear, however, if the narrator actually has very acute senses or if he is merely imagining things. If his condition is believed to be true, what he hears at the end of the story may not be the old man's heart but deathwatch beetles. The narrator first admits to hearing death-watches in the wall after startling the old man from his sleep. According to superstition, death-watches are a sign of impending death. One variety of deathwatch beetles raps its head against surfaces, presumably as part of a mating ritual, while others emit a ticking sound. Henry David Thoreau had suggested in 1838 that the deathwatch beetles sound similar to a heartbeat. The beating could even be the sound of the narrator's own heart in his nervousness. Alternatively, if the heart beating is really a product of the narrator's imagination, it is that uncontrolled imagination that leads to his own destruction.
The relationship between the old man and the narrator is ambiguous. Their names, occupations, and where they live are not given. In fact, that ambiguity and anonymity add to the tale as an ironic counter to the strict attention to detail in the plot. The narrator may be a servant of the old man's or, as is more often assumed, his son. In that case, the "vulture-eye" of the old man is symbolizing parental surveillance and possibly the paternal principles of right and wrong. The murder of the eye, then, is a removal of conscience. The eye may also represent secrecy, again playing on the lack of detail about the old man or the narrator. Only when the eye is finally found open on the final night, penetrating the veil of secrecy, is the murder carried out. Regardless, their relationship is incidental; the focus of the story is the perverse scheme to commit the perfect crime.
Former United States Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur has suggested that the tale is an allegorical representation of Poe's poem "To Science". The poem shows the struggle between imagination and science. In "The Tell-Tale Heart," the old man represents the scientific rational mind while the narrator is the imaginative.
- The earliest acknowledged adaptation of "The Tell-Tale Heart" was in a 1928 silent film of the same name directed by Leon Shamroy and starring Otto Matieson as "The Insane", William Herford as "The Old Man" with Charles Darvas and Hans Fuerberg as "Detectives". It stayed faithful to the original tale, though future television and film adaptations often expanded the short story to full-length feature films.
- The earliest known "talkie" adaptation was a 1934 version filmed at the Blattner Studios, Elstree, by Clifton-Hurst Productions, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and starring Norman Dryden. This version was 55 minutes in length.
- A 1941 live-action adaptation starred Joseph Schildkraut and was the directorial debut of Jules Dassin.
- A 1953 animated short film produced by United Productions of America and narrated by James Mason is included among the list of films preserved in the United States National Film Registry.
- Also in 1953, a "Variation" on "The Tell-Tale Heart" entitled "Sleep No More," by Gaines and Feldstein, appeared.
- In 1956, an adaptation of the "The Tell-Tale Heart" was written by William Templeton for the NBC Matinee Theatre and aired on the 6th November 1956.
- A 1960 film adaptation, The Tell-Tale Heart, adds a love triangle to the story.
- A 1971 film adaptation directed by Steve Carver, and starring Sam Jaffe as the old man.
- The film Nightmares from the Mind of Poe (2006) adapts "The Tell-Tale Heart" along with "The Cask of Amontillado", "The Premature Burial" and "The Raven".
- The Radio Tales series produced the drama The Tell-Tale Heart for National Public Radio. The story was performed by Winifred Phillips along with music composed by her.
- The Canadian radio program Nightfall presented an adaptation on August 1, 1980.
- A 2009 thriller film, Tell-Tale, produced by Ridley Scott and Tony Scott, credits Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" as the basis for the story of a man being haunted by his donor's memories, after a heart transplant.
- In the 1972 film An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe, four of Poe's short stories are recited by Vincent Price in front of a live audience, including "The Tell-Tale Heart".
- Another adaption was by Steven Berkoff in 1991, and was broadcast on British television. This adaptation was originally presented on British TV as part of the acclaimed series "Without Walls". This version was later broadcast in the United States on the cable channel BRAVO as part of the Texaco Performing Arts series.
- A musical adaptation performed by The Alan Parsons Project was released on their 1976 debut album, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, and was later covered by Slough Feg for their 2010 album, The Animal Spirits.
- Another musical adaptation, entitled "Dark Chilling Heartbeat", was performed by Deceased on their 2000 album Supernatural Addiction.
- Yet another musical adaptation was done by The Insane Clown Posse on their album The Riddle Box, entitled "Ol' Evil Eye", which covers the story of a young man determined to kill "old man Wille on the hilltop" because of his grotesque left eye, and is interspersed with samples from an audio recording of a reading of the original short story.
- Radio personality Glenn Beck narrated a 15-minute audio version, with music and sound effects, which he plays on the radio each Halloween.
- Ryan Connolly's 2012 short film, TELL, was inspired and loosely based upon the short story.
- Poe's Tell-Tale Heart: The Game, is a mobile game adaptation in which players enact the protagonist's actions to recreate Poe's story on Google Play and Apple iOS.
- V.H. Belvadi's 2012 short film, Telltale, credits Poe's "The Tell-tale Heart" as its inspiration and borrows several lines as a nod to the original work.
- Paul Simon, before his fame as half of Simon & Garfunkel, wrote (as Jerry Landis) a song titled "Tell Tale Heart." It is about a man whose heart's "beat-beat-beat" reveals that he still pines for his former lover, although both of them are now in new relationships.
- Due to the ambiguity surrounding the identity of the story's narrator, that character's sex cannot be known for certain. However, for ease of description masculine pronouns are used in this article.
- Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991. ISBN 0-06-092331-8, p. 201.
- Moss, Sidney P. Poe's Literary Battles: The Critic in the Context of His Literary Milieu. Southern Illinois University Press, 1969. p. 151
- ""The Tales of Edgar Allan Poe" (index)". eapoe.org. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. September 30, 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-05.
- Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York City: Checkmark Books, 2001: 234. ISBN 0-8160-4161-X
- Benfey, Christopher. "Poe and the Unreadable: 'The Black Cat' and 'The Tell-Tale Heart'", collected in New Essays on Poe's Major Tales, Kenneth Silverman, ed. Cambridge University Press, 1993. ISBN 978-0-521-42243-7, p. 30.
- Cleman, John. "Irresistible Impulses: Edgar Allan Poe and the Insanity Defense", collected in Bloom's BioCritiques: Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2002. ISBN 0-7910-6173-6, p. 70.
- Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8018-5730-9. p. 394
- Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. Cooper Square Press, 1992. p. 101. ISBN 0-8154-1038-7
- Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. p. 394. ISBN 0-8018-5730-9
- Robinson, E. Arthur. "Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart'" from Twentieth Century Interpretations of Poe's Tales, edited by William L. Howarth. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1971, p. 94.
- Fisher, Benjamin Franklin. "Poe and the Gothic Tradition," from The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Kevin J. Hayes. Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-521-79727-6, p. 87.
- Cleman, Bloom's BioCritiques, p. 66.
- Reilly, John E. "The Lesser Death-Watch and "'The Tell-Tale Heart'," collected in The American Transcendental Quarterly. Second quarter, 1969.
- Robison, E. Arthur. "Thoreau and the Deathwatch in Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart'," collected in Poe Studies, vol. IV, no. 1. June 1971. pp. 14-16
- Eddings, Dennis W. "Theme and Parody in 'The Raven'", collected in Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, edited by Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV. Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1990. ISBN 0-9616449-2-3, p. 213.
- Benfey, New Essays, p. 32.
- Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972. ISBN 0-8071-2321-8. p. 223.
- Benfey, New Essays, p. 33.
- Kennedy, J. Gerald. Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing. Yale University Press, 1987. p. 132. ISBN 0-300-03773-2
- Benfey, New Essays, pp. 31-32.
- The Telltale Heart (1928) at the Internet Movie Database
- "IMDb Title Search: The Tell-Tale Heart". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2007-09-01.
- The Tell-Tale Heart (1934) at the Internet Movie Database
- The Tell-Tale Heart (1941) at the Internet Movie Database
- The Tell-Tale Heart (1953/I) at the Internet Movie Database.
- "Sleep No More," by Bill Gaines and Ed Feldstein, Shock SuspenStories, April 1953.
- The Tell-Tale Heart (1960) at the Internet Movie Database.
- The Tell-Tale Heart (1971) at the Internet Movie Database.
- Tell-Tale (2009) at the Internet Movie Database.
- Telltale (2012) at the Internet Movie Database.
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- "The Poe Museum" - Full text of The Tell-Tale Heart
- "The Tell-Tale Heart" - Full text of the first printing, from the Pioneer, 1843
- Mid-Twentieth century radio adaptations of "The Tell-Tale Heart"
- "The Tell-Tale Heart" study guide and teaching guide - themes, analysis, quotes, teacher resources
- "The Tell-Tale Heart" animation - Award winning 2010 animated movie, teacher resources, student games
- 20 LibriVox audiorecordings, read by various readers