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...
(The entire section is 892 words.)
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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...
(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 loved the old man, that he did not want his gold, and that the old man had not abused him or insulted him. There was neither object nor passion for his crime; instead, it was the old man’s eye. He says that when the eye fell on him, his blood ran cold and that he made up his mind to kill the old man and rid himself of the eye forever. Because the narrator provides no explanation for his extreme aversion to the eye, the reader must try to understand the motivation for the crime, and thus for the story itself, in the only way possible—by paying careful attention to the details of the story and trying to determine what thematic relationship they have to one another.
To understand a Poe story, one must accept Poe’s central...
(The entire section is 945 words.)
‘‘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...
(The entire section is 1636 words.)
"The Tell-Tale Heart" is one of a number of Poe stories that focus on an obsessed protagonist/narrator. Indeed, what holds the story together and holds the attention of the reader is the single-minded voice of the madman who, even as he denies his madness, tells a story that confirms it. Poe's use of a first-person narrator obsessively recounting a past event is an important element in his contribution to the short story form as a highly unified aesthetic entity.
Poe's theory that every element in a short prose story should contribute to its overall effect is exemplified by the fact that the protagonist/narrator is obsessively concerned with his irrational desire to kill the old man because of the old man's eye and by his rational method of proceeding. Poe's stories are often characterized by a psychological mania held in check by the rational control of the narrative structure of the story itself. The narrator insists that his logical plot to kill the old man and the calm way he tells the story are evidence of his sanity. This reflects Poe's primary narrative method.
(The entire section is 185 words.)
‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ begins with the famous line ‘‘True!—nervous—very, very nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?’’ The narrator insists that his disease has sharpened, not dulled, his senses. He tells the tale of how an old man who lives in his house has never wronged him. For an unknown reason, the old man’s cloudy, pale blue eye has incited madness in the narrator. Whenever the old man looks at him, his blood turns cold. Thus, he is determined to kill him to get rid of this curse.
Again, the narrator argues that he is not mad. He claims the fact that he has proceeded cautiously indicates that he is sane. For a whole week, he has snuck into the man’s room every night, but the victim has been sound asleep with his eyes closed each time. The narrator cannot bring himself to kill the man without seeing his ‘‘Evil Eye.’’ On the eighth night, however, the man springs up and cries ‘‘Who’s there?’’ In the dark room, the narrator waits silently for an hour. The man does not go back to sleep; instead, he gives out a slight groan, realizing that ‘‘Death’’ is approaching. Eventually, the narrator shines his lamp on the old man’s eye. The narrator immediately becomes furious at the ‘‘damned spot,’’ but he soon hears the beating of a heart so loud that he fears the neighbors will hear it. With a yell, he leaps into the room and kills the old man. Despite the murder, he...
(The entire section is 391 words.)