The Tell-Tale Heart

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

"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 pale blue "vulture-eye", as the narrator calls it. The narrator emphasizes the careful calculation of the murder, attempting the perfect crime, complete with dismembering the body in the bathtub and hiding it under the floorboards. Ultimately, the narrator's actions 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 hatred 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 have speculated 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 a first-person narrative told by an unnamed narrator. Despite insisting that they are sane, the narrator suffers 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 they plot to murder the old man, despite also insisting that the narrator loves the old man and has never felt wronged by him. The narrator is insistent that this careful precision in committing the murder proves that they cannot possibly be insane. For seven nights, the narrator opens the door of the old man's room 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 they decide to strike. They jump into the room and the old man shrieks once before he is killed. The narrator then dismembers the body and conceals the pieces under the floorboards, ensuring 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 their own in a nightmare and that the old 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 their ears. As the ringing grows louder, the narrator concludes that it is the heartbeat of the old man coming from under the floorboards. The sound increases steadily to the narrator, though the officers do not seem to hear it. Terrified by the violent beating of the heart and convinced that the officers are aware of not only the heartbeat but also 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 that quoted Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "A Psalm of Life."[2] The story was slightly revised when republished on August 23, 1845, edition of the Broadway Journal. That edition omitted Longfellow's poem because Poe believed it was plagiarized.[2] "The Tell-Tale Heart" was reprinted several more 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] One author, Paige Bynum, asserts that Poe wrote the narrator in a way that "allows the reader to identify with the narrator".[5]

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.[6] The story starts in medias res, opening 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.[7] In any case, the narrator tells the story in great detail.[8] What follows is a study of terror but, more specifically, the memory of terror as the narrator is retelling events from the past.[9] The first word of the story, "True!", is an admission of their guilt, as well as an assurance of reliability.[7] This introduction also serves to gain the reader's attention.[10] Every word contributes to the purpose of moving the story forward, exemplifying Poe's theories about the writing of short stories.[11]

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.[12] Their denial of insanity is based on their systematic actions and their precision, as they provide a rational explanation for irrational behavior.[8] 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."[12] 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."[13]

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 helps them hear the heart beating beneath the floorboards, is evidence that they are truly mad.[14] 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 them of the act. "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.[13] Poe's contemporaries may well have been reminded of the controversy over the insanity defense in the 1840s.[15] The confession can be due to a concept called "Illusion of transparency". According to the "Encyclopedia of Social Psychology", "Poe’s character falsely believes that some police officers can sense his guilt and anxiety over a crime he has committed, a fear that ultimately gets the best of him and causes him to give himself up unnecessarily".[16]

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).[17] 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.[17] Henry David Thoreau observed in an 1838 article that deathwatch beetles make sounds similar to a heartbeat.[18] The discrepancy with this theory is that the deathwatch beetles make a “uniformly faint” ticking sound that would have kept at a consistent pace but as the narrator drew closer to the old man the sound got more rapid and louder which would not have been a result of the beetles.[19] The beating could even be the sound of the narrator's own heart. Alternatively, if the beating is a product of the narrator's imagination, it is that uncontrolled imagination that leads to their own destruction.[20]

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.[21] The hallucinations do not need to derive from a specific source other than one's head, which is another indication that the narrator is suffering from such a psychological disorder.[19]

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.[22] 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 removal of conscience.[23] 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.[24]

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.[25]



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  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. ^ Bynum, P.M. (1989) “Observe How Healthily – How Calmly I Can Tell You the Whole Story”: Moral Insanity and Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’. In: Amrine F. (eds) Literature and Science as Modes of Expression. Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol 115. Springer, Dordrecht.
  6. ^ a b Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York City: Checkmark Books, 2001: 234. ISBN 0-8160-4161-X
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8018-5730-9. p. 394
  10. ^ Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. Cooper Square Press, 1992. p. 101. ISBN 0-8154-1038-7
  11. ^ Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. p. 394. ISBN 0-8018-5730-9
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ a b Robinson, E. Arthur (1965). "Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"". University of California Press. 19 (4): 369–378. doi:10.2307/2932876. JSTOR 2932876.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ Cleman, Bloom's BioCritiques, p. 66.
  16. ^ Baumeister, Roy F.; Vohs, Kathleen D. (2007). Encyclopedia of Social Psychology. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications, Inc. p. 458. ISBN 9781412916707. ISBN 9781452265681
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  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ 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 24780617.
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  23. ^ Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972. ISBN 0-8071-2321-8, p. 223.
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  29. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-05-18. Retrieved 2015-05-01.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
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  33. ^ Traciy Reyes. "'The Murder Pact': Lifetime Movie, Also Known As 'Tell-Tale Lies', Airs Tonight Featuring Music By Lindsey Stirling". Retrieved 2016-01-16.
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