The Tell-Tale Heart

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"The Tell-Tale Heart"
The Pioneer Poe 1843 cover 2.jpg
The Pioneer, Vol. I, No. I, Drew and Scammell, Philadelphia, January, 1843
AuthorEdgar Allan Poe
CountryUnited States
Genre(s)Horror, Gothic Literature
Published inThe Pioneer
Publication typePeriodical
PublisherJames Russell Lowell
Media typePrint (periodical)
Publication dateJanuary 1843

"The Tell-Tale Heart" is a short story by American writer Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1843. It is related by an unnamed narrator who endeavors to convince the reader of the narrator’s sanity while simultaneously describing a murder the narrator committed. The victim was an old man with a filmy "vulture-eye", as the narrator calls it. The narrator emphasizes the careful calculation of the murder, attempting the perfect crime, complete with dismembering and hiding the body under the floorboards. Ultimately, the narrator's feelings result in hearing a thumping sound, which the narrator interprets as the dead man's beating heart.

The story was first published in James Russell Lowell's The Pioneer in January 1843. "The Tell-Tale Heart" is often considered a classic of the Gothic fiction genre and is one of Poe's best known short stories.

The specific motivation for murder (aside from the narrator's dislike of the old man's eye), the relationship between narrator and old man, the gender of the narrator, and other details are left unclear. The narrator denies having any feelings of hatred or resentment for the man who had, as stated, "never wronged" the narrator. The narrator also denies having killed for greed.

Critics argue that the old man could be 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 a veiled secret or power. The ambiguity and lack of details about the two main characters stand in contrast to the specific plot details leading up to the murder.

Plot summary[edit]

Illustration by Harry Clarke, 1919

"The Tell-Tale Heart" is told from a first-person narrative of an unnamed narrator, who insists on being sane, but is suffering from a disease (nervousness) which causes "over-acuteness of the senses".

The old man with whom the narrator lives has a clouded, pale, blue "vulture-like" eye, which distresses and manipulates the narrator so much that the narrator plots to murder the old man, despite also insisting that the narrator loves the old man. The narrator insists that this careful precision in committing the murder proves that the narrator 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", thus making the narrator go further into distress.

On the eighth night, the old man awakens after the narrator's hand slips and makes a noise, interrupting the narrator's nightly ritual. The narrator does not draw back and, after some time, decides to open the lantern. A single thin ray of light shines out and lands precisely on the "evil eye", revealing that it is wide open. The narrator hears the old man's heart beating, which only gets louder and louder. This increases the narrator’s anxiety to the point where 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, and ensures the concealment of all signs of the crime. Even so, the old man's scream during the night causes a neighbor to report to the police, who the narrator invites in to look around. The narrator claims that the scream heard was the narrator's 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. The chairs are placed on the very spot where the body is concealed; the police suspect nothing and the narrator has a pleasant and easy manner.

The narrator begins to feel uncomfortable and notices a ringing in the narrator's 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 to the narrator, 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 not only of the heartbeat but also of the narrator's guilt, the narrator breaks down and confesses. The narrator tells them to tear up the floorboards to reveal the remains of the old man's body.

Publication history[edit]

"The Tell-Tale Heart" in The Pioneer: A Literary and Critical Magazine, page 29

"The Tell-Tale Heart" was first published in January 1843 in the inaugural issue of The Pioneer: A Literary and Critical Magazine, a short-lived Boston magazine edited by James Russell Lowell and Robert Carter who were listed as the "proprietors" on the front cover. The magazine was published in Boston by Leland and Whiting and in Philadelphia by Drew and Scammell.

Poe was likely paid $10 for the story.[1] Its original publication included an epigraph which quoted Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "A Psalm of Life".[2] The story was slightly revised when republished in August 23, 1845, edition of the Broadway Journal. This edition omitted Longfellow's poem because Poe believed it was plagiarized.[2] "The Tell-Tale Heart" was reprinted several additional times during Poe's lifetime.[3]


"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 they executed the crime were evidence of their sanity, reveals their monomania and paranoia. The focus of the story is the perverse scheme to commit the perfect crime.[4]

The narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is generally assumed to be a male. However, some critics have suggested a woman may be narrating; no pronouns are used to clarify one way or the other.[5] The story starts in medias res. The story opens with a conversation already in progress between the narrator and another person who is not identified in any way. It has been speculated that the narrator is confessing to a prison warden, a judge, a reporter, a doctor or (anachronistically) a psychiatrist.[6] In any case, the narrator tells the story in great detail.[7] What follows is a study of terror but, more specifically, the memory of terror as the narrator is relating events from the past.[8] The first word of the story, "True!", is an admission of their guilt, as well as an assurance of reliability.[6] This introduction also serves to gain the reader's attention.[9] Every word contributes to the purpose of moving the story forward, exemplifying Poe's theories about the writing of short stories.[10]

The story is driven not by the narrator's insistence upon their "innocence", but by their insistence on their sanity. This, however, is self-destructive, because in attempting to prove their sanity, they fully admit that they are guilty of murder.[11] Their denial of insanity is based on their systematic actions and their precision, as they provide a rational explanation for irrational behavior.[7] This rationality, however, is undermined by their lack of motive ("Object there was none. Passion there was none."). Despite this, they say, the idea of murder "haunted me day and night."[11] It is difficult to fully understand the narrator's true emotions about the blue-eyed man because of this contradiction. It is said that "At the same time he disclosed a deep psychological confusion", referring to the narrator and the comment that "Object there was none. Passion there was none" and that the idea of murder "haunted me day and night." [12]

The story's final scene shows the result of the narrator's feelings of guilt. Like many characters in Gothic fiction, they allow their nerves to dictate their nature. Despite their best efforts at defending their actions, their "over-acuteness of the senses"; which help them hear the heart beating beneath the floorboards, is evidence that they are truly mad.[13] The guilt in the narrator can be seen when the narrator confessed to the police that the body of the old man was under the floorboards. Even though the old man was dead, the body and heart of the dead man still seemed to haunt the narrator and convict him of his deeds. "Since such processes of reasoning tend to convict the speaker of madness, it does not seem out of keeping that he is driven to confession", according to scholar Arthur Robinson.[14] Poe's contemporaries may well have been reminded of the controversy over the insanity defense in the 1840s.[15]

The narrator claims to have a disease that causes hypersensitivity. 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).[16] It is unclear, however, if the narrator actually has very acute senses, or if it is merely imagined. If this condition is believed to be true, what is heard at the end of the story may not be the old man's heart, but deathwatch beetles. The narrator first admits to hearing deathwatch beetles in the wall after startling the old man from his sleep. According to superstition, deathwatch beetles are a sign of impending death. One variety of deathwatch beetle raps its head against surfaces, presumably as part of a mating ritual, while others emit ticking sounds.[16] Henry David Thoreau observed in an 1838 article that deathwatch beetles make sounds similar to a heartbeat.[17] The beating could even be the sound of the narrator's own heart. Alternatively, if the beating is really a product of the narrator's imagination, it is that uncontrolled imagination that leads to their own destruction.[18]

It is also possible that the narrator has paranoid schizophrenia. Paranoid schizophrenics very often experience auditory hallucinations. These auditory hallucinations are more often voices, but can also be sounds.[19] This is of course a very modern view of the work; in Poe's era there was no such diagnosis, and Poe would not have been familiar with a set of symptoms as pertaining to any definite mental disease.

The relationship between the old man and the narrator is ambiguous. Their names, occupations, and places of residence are not given, contrasting with the strict attention to detail in the plot.[20] The narrator may be a servant of the old man's or, as is more often assumed, his child. In that case, the "vulture-eye" of the old man as a father figure may symbolize parental surveillance, or the paternal principles of right and wrong. The murder of the eye, then, is a removal of conscience.[21] The eye may also represent secrecy: only when the eye is found open on the final night, penetrating the veil of secrecy, is the murder carried out.[22]

Richard Wilbur suggested that the tale is an allegorical representation of Poe's poem "To Science", which depicts a struggle between imagination and science. In "The Tell-Tale Heart", the old man may thus represent the scientific and rational mind, while the narrator may stand for the imaginative.[23]



  1. ^ Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991. ISBN 0-06-092331-8, p. 201.
  2. ^ a b Moss, Sidney P. Poe's Literary Battles: The Critic in the Context of His Literary Milieu. Southern Illinois University Press, 1969. p. 151
  3. ^ ""The Tales of Edgar Allan Poe" (index)". The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. September 30, 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-05.
  4. ^ Kennedy, J. Gerald. Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing. Yale University Press, 1987. p. 132; ISBN 0-300-03773-2
  5. ^ a b Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York City: Checkmark Books, 2001: 234. ISBN 0-8160-4161-X
  6. ^ a b Benfey, Christopher. "Poe and the Unreadable: 'The Black Cat' and 'The Tell-Tale Heart'", in New Essays on Poe's Major Tales, Kenneth Silverman, ed. Cambridge University Press, 1993. ISBN 978-0-521-42243-7, p. 30.
  7. ^ a b Cleman, John. "Irresistible Impulses: Edgar Allan Poe and the Insanity Defense", in Bloom's BioCritiques: Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2002. ISBN 0-7910-6173-6, p. 70.
  8. ^ Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8018-5730-9. p. 394
  9. ^ Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. Cooper Square Press, 1992. p. 101. ISBN 0-8154-1038-7
  10. ^ Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. p. 394. ISBN 0-8018-5730-9
  11. ^ a b Robinson, E. Arthur. "Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart'" in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Poe's Tales, edited by William L. Howarth. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1971, p. 94.
  12. ^ Robinson, E. Arthur (1965). "Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"". University of California Press. 19 (4): 369–378. JSTOR 2932876.
  13. ^ Fisher, Benjamin Franklin. "Poe and the Gothic Tradition", in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Kevin J. Hayes. Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-521-79727-6, p. 87.
  14. ^ Robinson, E. Arthur (1965). "Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"". University of California Press. 19 (4): 369–378. JSTOR 2932876.
  15. ^ Cleman, Bloom's BioCritiques, p. 66.
  16. ^ a b Reilly, John E. "The Lesser Death-Watch and "'The Tell-Tale Heart' Archived December 18, 2009, at the Wayback Machine", in The American Transcendental Quarterly. Second Quarter, 1969.
  17. ^ Robison, E. Arthur. "Thoreau and the Deathwatch in Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart'", in Poe Studies, vol. IV, no. 1. June 1971. pp. 14-16
  18. ^ Eddings, Dennis W. "Theme and Parody in 'The Raven'", 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.
  19. ^ ZIMMERMAN, BRETT. “‘Moral Insanity’ or Paranoid Schizophrenia: Poe's ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, vol. 25, no. 2, 1992, pp. 39–48. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  20. ^ Benfey, New Essays, p. 32.
  21. ^ Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972. ISBN 0-8071-2321-8, p. 223.
  22. ^ Benfey, New Essays, p. 33.
  23. ^ Benfey, New Essays, pp. 31-32.
  24. ^ Workman, Christopher; Howarth, Troy (2016). Tome of Terror: Horror Films of the Silent Era. Midnight Marquee Press. p. 332. ISBN 978-1936168-68-2.
  25. ^ "IMDb Title Search: The Tell-Tale Heart". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2007-09-01.[unreliable source?]
  26. ^ "Sleep No More", by Bill Gaines and Ed Feldstein, Shock SuspenStories, April 1953.
  27. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-05-18. Retrieved 2015-05-01.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  28. ^ Malvern, Jack (23 October 2018). "Edgar Allen Poe's horror classic The Tell‑Tale Heart back from the dead after attic clear‑out". The Times. Retrieved 30 November 2018.
  29. ^ "Poe's Tell-Tale Heart:The Game - Android Apps on Google Play". Retrieved 2016-01-16.
  30. ^ Traciy Reyes. "'The Murder Pact': Lifetime Movie, Also Known As 'Tell-Tale Lies', Airs Tonight Featuring Music By Lindsey Stirling". Retrieved 2016-01-16.
  31. ^ Ribeiro, Troy (9 August 2018). "'Redrum: A Love Story': A rehash of skewed love stories (IANS Review, Rating: *1/2)". Business Standard. Retrieved 13 April 2020.
  32. ^ Malvern, Jack (23 October 2018). "Edgar Allen Poe's horror classic The Tell‑Tale Heart back from the dead after attic clear‑out". The Times.

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