Poe’s Short Stories – “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843)

Summary
An unnamed narrator opens the story by addressing the
reader and claiming that he is nervous but not mad. He says that
he is going to tell a story in which he will defend his sanity yet
confess to having killed an old man. His motivation was neither
passion nor desire for money, but rather a fear of the man’s pale
blue eye. Again, he insists that he is not crazy because his cool
and measured actions, though criminal, are not those of a madman.
Every night, he went to the old man’s apartment and secretly observed
the man sleeping. In the morning, he would behave as if everything
were normal. After a week of this activity, the narrator decides,
somewhat randomly, that the time is right actually to kill the old
man.
When the narrator arrives late on the eighth night, though,
the old man wakes up and cries out. The narrator remains still,
stalking the old man as he sits awake and frightened. The narrator
understands how frightened the old man is, having also experienced
the lonely terrors of the night. Soon, the narrator hears a dull
pounding that he interprets as the old man’s terrified heartbeat.
Worried that a neighbor might hear the loud thumping, he attacks
and kills the old man. He then dismembers the body and hides the
pieces below the floorboards in the bedroom. He is careful not to
leave even a drop of blood on the floor. As he finishes his job,
a clock strikes the hour of four. At the same time, the narrator
hears a knock at the street door. The police have arrived, having
been called by a neighbor who heard the old man shriek. The narrator
is careful to be chatty and to appear normal. He leads the officers
all over the house without acting suspiciously. At the height of
his bravado, he even brings them into the old man’s bedroom to sit
down and talk at the scene of the crime. The policemen do not suspect
a thing. The narrator is comfortable until he starts to hear a low
thumping sound. He recognizes the low sound as the heart of the
old man, pounding away beneath the floorboards. He panics, believing
that the policemen must also hear the sound and know his guilt.
Driven mad by the idea that they are mocking his agony with their
pleasant chatter, he confesses to the crime and shrieks at the men
to rip up the floorboards.
Analysis
Poe uses his words economically in the “Tell-Tale Heart”—it
is one of his shortest stories—to provide a study of paranoia and
mental deterioration. Poe strips the story of excess detail as a
way to heighten the murderer’s obsession with specific and unadorned
entities: the old man’s eye, the heartbeat, and his own claim to
sanity. Poe’s economic style and pointed language thus contribute
to the narrative content, and perhaps this association of form and
content truly exemplifies paranoia. Even Poe himself, like the beating
heart, is complicit in the plot to catch the narrator in his evil
game.
As a study in paranoia, this story illuminates the psychological contradictions
that contribute to a murderous profile. For example, the narrator
admits, in the first sentence, to being dreadfully nervous, yet
he is unable to comprehend why he should be thought mad. He articulates
his self-defense against madness in terms of heightened sensory
capacity. Unlike the similarly nervous and hypersensitive Roderick
Usher in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” who admits that he feels
mentally unwell, the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” views his
hypersensitivity as proof of his sanity, not a symptom of madness.
This special knowledge enables the narrator to tell this tale in
a precise and complete manner, and he uses the stylistic tools of
narration for the purposes of his own sanity plea. However, what
makes this narrator mad—and most unlike Poe—is that he fails to
comprehend the coupling of narrative form and content. He masters
precise form, but he unwittingly lays out a tale of murder that
betrays the madness he wants to deny.
Another contradiction central to the story involves the
tension between the narrator’s capacities for love and hate. Poe
explores here a psychological mystery—that people sometimes harm
those whom they love or need in their lives. Poe examines this paradox half
a century before Sigmund Freud made it a leading concept in his theories
of the mind. Poe’s narrator loves the old man. He is not greedy
for the old man’s wealth, nor vengeful because of any slight. The
narrator thus eliminates motives that might normally inspire such
a violent murder. As he proclaims his own sanity, the narrator fixates
on the old man’s vulture-eye. He reduces the old man to the pale
blue of his eye in obsessive fashion. He wants to separate the man
from his “Evil Eye” so he can spare the man the burden of guilt that
he attributes to the eye itself. The narrator fails to see that
the eye is the “I” of the old man, an inherent part of his identity
that cannot be isolated as the narrator perversely imagines.
The murder of the old man illustrates the extent to which
the narrator separates the old man’s identity from his physical
eye. The narrator sees the eye as completely separate from the man,
and as a result, he is capable of murdering him while maintaining
that he loves him. The narrator’s desire to eradicate the man’s
eye motivates his murder, but the narrator does not acknowledge
that this act will end the man’s life. By dismembering his victim,
the narrator further deprives the old man of his humanity. The narrator
confirms his conception of the old man’s eye as separate from the
man by ending the man altogether and turning him into so many parts.
That strategy turns against him when his mind imagines other parts
of the old man’s body working against him.
The narrator’s newly heightened sensitivity to sound ultimately overcomes
him, as he proves unwilling or unable to distinguish between real
and imagined sounds. Because of his warped sense of reality, he
obsesses over the low beats of the man’s heart yet shows little
concern about the man’s shrieks, which are loud enough both to attract
a neighbor’s attention and to draw the police to the scene of the
crime. The police do not perform a traditional, judgmental role
in this story. Ironically, they aren’t terrifying agents of authority or
brutality. Poe’s interest is less in external forms of power than
in the power that pathologies of the mind can hold over an individual. The
narrator’s paranoia and guilt make it inevitable that he will give himself
away. The police arrive on the scene to give him the opportunity
to betray himself. The more the narrator proclaims his own cool
manner, the more he cannot escape the beating of his own heart,
which he mistakes for the beating of the old man’s heart. As he
confesses to the crime in the final sentence, he addresses the policemen
as “[v]illains,” indicating his inability to distinguish between
their real identity and his own villainy.