Discuss the narrator’s warped sense of reality in "The Tell-Tale Heart."

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the first two paragraphs of "The Tell-Tale Heart," the dangerously deranged narrator draws the reader into the macabre, but somewhat fascinating madness he possesses:

True!  Nervous--very nervous, dreadfully nervous I had been and am.  But why will you say that I am mad?  The disease had sharpened my senses--not destroyed, not dulled them.

It is through this completely unreliable narrator that the reader views the terrifying tale of murder, and for this reason, the story is all the more chilling. 

With sadistic pleasure,the narrator recalls how he has planned the murder. For seven days he feels triumphant and powerful as he opens the door upon the old man who is unsuspecting of his "secret deeds."  On the eighth day, when the old man groans, the narrator describes his soul as "overcharged with awe."  So, he stealthily opens the door and this time his lantern falls upon "the vulture eye," which is what the narrator claims has been torturing him.  At the sight of the eye that offends him, the narrator becomes furious; he then hears what he mistakes as the old man's heart when it is probably his own.  As the heartbeat grows louder, the narrator becomes paranoiac, fearing that the neighbors will hear. So, he pounces upon the room, drags the old man to the floor, and pulls the heavy bed over him.

Again, his feelings of triumph surge, and he smiles at his deed.  With sang froid, then, the narrator describes his "perfect coolness" as he takes precautions for the hiding of the body.  After he has the body dismembered and hidden under the floorboards, the police appear.  With a sick bravado, the narrator escorts them into the very room where he has hidden the body.  Then, he again imagines the beating of the heart of the old man.

Oh God! would could I do?  I foamed--I raved--I swore!...but the noise arose over all and continually increased....They suspected!  They knew! They were making a mockery of my horror!

Again, the mad narrator projects his own feelings onto others as he accuses the police of dissembling. In his frenzy, he tells them to tear up the planks, revealing the beating heart that is surely his own.

kiwi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The narrator indicates to us the reader that he is insane, and yet he is convinced this is not the case. It is through the actions he describes that we assert he is not of sound mind, as the fact he is the first person narrator of the story means we have no other viewpoint to consider.

His actions such as telling us how 'calmly' he narrates events, and yet asserting by the end of the second paragraph that he is committed to murder, make us suspicious of his mental state -

'I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.'

The narrator then tells us how 'kind' he was to the old man, all the while observing him each night. He is proud of this bizarre behaviour which carries on for over a week.

After his agonising stalking of the poor old man, the narrator is pleased when he has finally killed him -

I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him. I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done.

The narrator believes that we will be impressed with his cleverness, without perceiving how barbaric his actions are-

If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs.

Finally, we understand that the narrator is 'betrayed' by the beating of the old man's heart concealed beneath the floorboards. He is tortured by the policemen 'mocking' him by ignoring the sounds of the heart - which are of course within his head-

Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!—no, no! They heard!—they suspected!—they knew!—they were making a mockery of my horror!-this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision!

The narrator thus reveals his warped outlook by believing that we will be as fascinated and impressed by his murderous actions as he is.