There are two physical settings in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”: the house the narrator shares with the old man where the murder takes place and the location from which the narrator tells his story, presumably a prison or an asylum for the criminally insane. However, the most important setting for the story is within the obsessed mind of the narrator. The old man is hardly more than the evil eye that so infuriates the narrator, the source of his mysterious obsession.
The central question on which the story depends is, why does the narrator kill the old man? He says he has no personal animosity toward him, that he does not want his money, that the old man has not injured him in any way. In fact, he says he loves the old man. The only reason he can give is the evilness of the old man’s eye. Although some critics have suggested that the eye is the “evil eye” of superstition, which the narrator feels threatens him, there is no way to understand his motivation except to say the narrator must be mad. Still, the reader feels compelled to try to understand the method and meaning of the madness. For Poe, there is no meaningless madness in a short story.
The key to understanding the mysterious motivation in the story is Poe’s concept of a central idea or effect around which everything else coheres, like an obsession that can be identified on the principle of repetition. Thus, if the reader is alert to repetitions in the story,...
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