The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

The Tell-Tale Heart book cover
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How did the old man die in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

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Kelvin Brakus eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In "The Tell-Tale Heart," the old man is murdered by the narrator. This happens early in the story and the murder is premeditated, meaning that the narrator planned it.

The motivation for the murder is the belief that the old man has an "evil eye" which causes the narrator much distress. As a result, the narrator decides that he must murder the old man in order to rid himself of the evil eye.

Every night for seven nights, at around midnight, the narrator opens the old man's bedroom door and peers inside, gazing at the evil eye.

Finally, on the eighth night, the narrator storms into the room, takes hold of the old man and pulls down the bed over his body. Once the old man is dead, the narrator dismembers his corpse and buries it underneath the floorboards, to ensure that the murder is not detected.

The only problem, however, is that the narrator cannot escape the beating of the old man's heart. It is this sound which leads to the narrator's increased madness and his undoing.


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MaudlinStreet eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Simply put, the old man was killed by the narrator. The first line "True!—nervous—very, very nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?" alerts the reader that the speaker is clearly unreliable, and we are alerted to the fact that something unpleasant has occurred. Any act that would label someone as "mad" for having committed can't be good news. The narrator goes on to tell us that the murder was carefully planned beforehand, & it seems to have been sparked by one trivial physical trait: the cataract over the old man's eye. For an unknown reason, the old man’s cloudy, pale blue eye has incited madness in the narrator. He believes that only by killing the old man can he get rid of the eye’s overpowering malignant force.

Thus, he plans out his crime. For a whole week, he enters the old man's room at night, but the victim remains sleeping each time. The narrator cannot bring himself to kill the man without seeing that which drives him into madness, so he continues entering the room until the old man wakes. On the eighth night, he wakes up and cries ‘‘Who’s there?’’ The narrator does not respond, but instead waits silently for an hour. Eventually, the narrator shines his lamp on the old man’s eye. Heis overcome with madness 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.

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