The use of an unreliable first-person narrator in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" serves a number of crucial functions. By telling this story from the viewpoint of a deranged major character, Poe provides us with insight into that character's motivation in committing murder as well as his purpose in relating it to the reader, justifies the "open-ended" resolution of the story's plot, and above all, intensifies the dramatic impact of his tale. True, "The Tell-Tale Heart" could have been recounted from an alternative perspective, that of an omniscient third-person narrator, for example. But, as will be brought out in this brief study, had the author chosen this course, character motivation would not have been as sharply etched as it is, the plot's unusual form would have proven confusing, and the dramatic power of the tale would have been diminished.
There can be little doubt that the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is unreliable, and is, in fact, deranged. In the very first sentence of the work, the speaker confesses that he is "dreadfully nervous" and even allows that he has a "disease." He apparently suffers from some form of paranoia or persecution complex. But whatever diagnosis that the reader makes of Poe's narrator, it is plain that the chief character of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is, in fact, mentally imbalanced. It is not merely that he commits a murder without a rational motive that convinces the reader of this. Instead, it is that by telling of the crime from a first-person point of view, the reader is forced to notice the vast internal contradictions that push Poe's narrator forward. At one point, the speaker claims that he pities old man his "mortal terror," but then immediately adds "although I chuckled at heart." At another pivotal point in story, the main character examines the old man's corpse thoroughly. He is convinced and, in turn convinces the reader, that the old man is "stone dead." Yet he will later act under the belief that the old man's heart still beats. What is clear, then, is that as the reader "listens" to the narrator, he is hearing the words of a madman.
The particular standpoint from which the "Tell-Tale Heart" is told provides the reader with insight into the major character's motivation in carrying out the murder and in telling us about it. Significantly, in the first sentence the narrator says that he "had been and am" nervous. This means that he was insane at the time the events that he describes took place and in the "present," the time of the story's narration. No object or passion stood behind the chief character's heinous deed. He allows that he even "loved" the old man. Later the narrator speaks of the "mortal "terror" that has "many a night, just at midnight...it has welled up from my own bosom." The reason for the crime lies exclusively in the narrator's disturbed mind.
The narrative persona of "The Tell-Tale Heart" seems to have a hidden agenda in conveying his story to the reader. His purpose in laying open the details of his crime is to convince the reader of his sanity. When he points the reader's attention toward "how calmly I can tell you the whole story," his aim is to demonstrate a mental soundness that he seems to believe must present within him since he has been able to enact a complicated murder with a diligent eye for detail. This hidden agenda comes across unmistakably when the narrator states: "If you think me mad, you will not longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body." The fact that an account of a gruesome dismemberment follows undercuts the narrator's aim of convincing us that he is sane. In a sense, the narration of the tale is a part of the crime itself.
Poe's use of an unreliable first-person point of view, also offers a basis for the resolution of the story and its open-ended form. The murderer's scheme unravels when a deputation of police come to the old man's house after a neighbor hears the sole scream that the victim issues. Ironically, the murderer during his carefully wrought crime has dismissed the scream altogether and, instead, has focused entirely on the sound of the beating...
(The entire section is 1692 words.)