The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

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Based on the narrator's account of his thoughts and actions in the story "The Tell-Tale Heart," evaluate whether you think he is a guilty, evil murderer or an innocent man plagued by mental illness.

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Lawrence Rodman eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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There are several ways to look at this question, and a number of slants and contexts within the narration itself to inform your answer. The premise of the question seems a little "either/or" to me; it's reductive, in other words. In crime fiction, it’s unusual that the dirty deed is foretold in the first two paragraphs. Poe was among the innovators of detective fiction, though, so he was in advance of the formulae of various narrative conventions.

In film, a character’s mentality must be outlined more plainly; the comparison or contrasts between good versus evil must be stated in high relief. But there’s an ambiguity in this story that’s more sophisticated or "of depth" than it would be if it were acted out instead. Gothic literature is often concerned with a character’s inward being, often as manifested metaphorically, symbolized by wild settings, intense bad weather, or natural forces. The irrational is presented as awesome and shocking, but essentially as an external thing that creates bestial behaviors.

Here, murderous intent becomes the readers’ gateway or lead-in to the plot as it plays out. It’s comparably rarer, fictionally, to have the inward turmoil and struggles of a character presented as a monologue in what would be "real time." The murderer "reasonably" explains that he’s been driven to the act, and his questionable, contradictory logic flows from there. Since his thought processes and actions are appalling, this contrasts with his insistence that he’s being somehow hyper-rational even as he anticipates his listener’s reaction is of his guilt. “But why will you say that I’m mad?”

This twisted logic turns in on itself. He is innocent, if you accept that it’s the old man’s eye that constitutes the presence of evil. But, I’d hardly characterize him as a misguided "innocent." The murder was premeditated. His cluelessness to the bad karma he’s putting out into the world makes him what’s called an “unreliable narrator.” He is, therefore, perhaps, communicating the opposite of what he thinks he means.

To borrow another illustration from film, actors that specialize in villainy have pointed out that evil is in the eye of the beholder; everyone really sees themselves as the heroes in their storyline, as opposed to seeing themselves as morally in the wrong.

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