‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ was first published in 1843 in the Boston Pioneer, and revised into its current form for an 1845 edition of The Broadway Journal. Like ‘‘The Black Cat,’’ it is a murder story told by the acknowledged killer himself. Here, however, the narrator’s stated purpose is not confession but the desire to prove his ‘‘sanity.’’
The dramatic monologue begins with the unnamed (and highly unreliable) first-person narrator issuing a challenge of sorts: ‘‘True!—nervous, very, very dreadful nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?’’ He declares at once that he suffers from a ‘‘disease,’’ but implies that because it has not dulled his senses, he cannot be called mad. The narrator points out that his mental disorder has actually caused his senses, especially his hearing, to become more acute. When he claims to have heard many things in heaven and hell, we realize, of course, that his super-human sensory experiences are delusions. But having posited (and immediately undercut) the first argument in his proof, the narrator turns to a second plank. The calm manner in which he will now tell us the whole story is in itself evidence of his sound mind.
The narrator says that he cannot recall when the idea of killing the old man ‘‘entered’’ his ‘‘brain.’’ He never discloses the exact nature of his relationship to the victim. The old man and his killer seem to live in the same house, and this would suggest a family bond of some kind, and, from here, a father-son relation with ample room for subconscious motives. But the narrator conspicuously omits direct confirmation that the old man is his father (or uncle, etc.), saying only that he loved his victim and that he did not covet the old man’s wealth. In mid-sentence, as if he just realized it (or made it up), the narrator declares that it was one of the old man’s eyes, a pale-blue, film-covered eye like that of a vulture, that he could not stand. As if jogging his own memory (or, again, making it up on the spot), the narrator further recollects that when this ‘‘evil eye’’ fell upon him, his blood ran cold.
The motive established, the narrator proceeds to recount the cunning deliberation, the caution, that he used in preparing to take the old man’s life, submitting it as evidence of his rationality. To allay any suspicions that his intended victim might have, the narrator greeted the old man each morning during the week before the crime with encouraging words, asking him about how he had slept the night before. But each midnight as the old man slept, the narrator carefully lifted the latch on his bedroom door, moved his head inside the room itself, and opened a lantern’s shutter so slightly that only a narrow beam of light pinpointed the ‘‘vulture’’ eye. For seven nights in a row, the deed could not be committed because the ‘‘accursed’’ eye was closed.
On the eighth night, however, an opportunity (to hear the killer tell it) arose. Moving as slowly as the hands of a clock, he opened the bedroom door and felt a sense of exhilaration at the thought that the old man did not even dream that a foul deed was afoot. Unable to suppress his glee, the narrator chuckled aloud, causing the old man to shift suddenly in his sleep, as if he were startled. But the narrator says that he was not concerned since the room was pitch black, its shutters closed tight against thieves. This time, he slipped his head in as usual, but when his thumb slipped on the lantern shutter, the sound caused the old man to spring up in his bed and to cry out ‘‘Who’s there.’’ The narrator does not take this to be a blunder on his part. Instead, he describes his delight in being able to read the old man’s mind. Laying back down, the old man groaned, and the narrator somehow knew that this was not an expression of pain or grief, but one of mortal terror, terror of the kind that he...
(The entire section is 1636 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
This is a chilling tale of madness and murder. “True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am,” admits the narrator, “but why will you say that I am mad?” In a vain effort to prove his sanity by detailing how carefully he planned the gruesome deed, the narrator makes it abundantly clear from the first that he is dangerously deranged. Little is revealed about him, or about the old man that he kills. He did not hate the old man; indeed, he says he loved him. However, he had to kill him because he was tormented beyond distraction by the old man’s eye—“a pale blue eye, with a film over it.” In the first two paragraphs, the narrator draws the reader into the terrifying yet fascinating world of madness that has led him to murder.
Having decided to kill the old man, the narrator recalls with obvious pleasure how calculatingly he set about to do it. For seven successive nights, he slipped into the old man’s room just after midnight. He moved ever so slowly, first lifting the latch and then gradually insinuating himself into the room. Once inside, he would open his darkened lantern so that a single ray of light fell on his tormentor, that “vulture eye.” On each of those nights, however, the eye remained closed when the light fell on the old man’s face, and the narrator found it “impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye.” Although the old man possessed some wealth and was wary enough of robbers to have the shutters of his bed chamber nailed shut, the narrator insists that his victim suspected nothing. During the day, the narrator explains, he was kinder to the old man than ever before.
On the eighth night, the narrator was especially cautious, though almost ecstatic with feelings of power and triumph, certain that the old man knew nothing of what he was doing or planning to do. Reveling in the moment, he may well have laughed. At any rate, the old man startled in his bed. Moving steadily into the darkened bedroom, the narrator began to open the lantern, but his thumb slipped, and the old man cried out, asking who was there and sitting up in his bed. The narrator says that he did...
(The entire section is 892 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
A man insists that he is not mad. In spite of being dreadfully nervous, he also insists that his senses, especially his hearing, have been heightened rather than destroyed. He claims that the calm and healthy way he will tell the following story is evidence of his sanity.
He admits that he cannot say when the idea to kill the old man had come into his mind. He says he had no reason, nor passion, for killing him; the old man had never harmed or insulted him. He did not want his money. He says he loved the old man. He thinks he killed him because of the old man’s eye, like the eye of a vulture, a pale blue eye that made the old man’s blood run cold.
The narrator says that he had never been kinder to the old man than he had been during the week before he killed him. He tells the following story: Before the murder, every night at midnight, he makes a small opening in the old man’s chamber door and puts a small closed lantern inside. Taking an hour to slowly place his head in the opening so he can see the old man, he opens the lantern, allowing the light to shine on the vulture eye. He does this for seven nights, but because the eye is always closed, he does not become enraged by it. In great detail, he praises himself for his cunning, asks his listener if a mad person could have been so clever as he, and even tells the listener that he or she would have laughed if they had seen how methodically he had opened the door and placed the lantern inside the old man’s chamber.
On the eighth night, he tells the listener, he once again puts the lantern inside the chamber, but this time his finger slips, making a noise that wakens the old man, who then cries out. For an hour, the narrator...
(The entire section is 702 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Poe is often thought to be the author of stories about mad persons and murders, but attention is seldom given to the psychological nature of the madness in his stories. “The Tell-Tale Heart,” one of his best-known stories about murderous madness, is also one of his most psychologically complex works. The story is told in the first-person voice by the killer, who has obviously been locked up in a prison or in an insane asylum for his crime. He begins by arguing that he is not mad and that the calm way he committed the crime and can now tell about it testify to his sanity.
The central problem of the story is the narrator’s motivation for killing the old man. He begins by assuring his listeners (and readers) that he...
(The entire section is 945 words.)