The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

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How long does it take for the narrator to conceal the body?

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The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” frequently mentions time, particularly when informing the reader of how slowly and cautiously he proceeded. He says that he would open the old man’s door at about midnight but that he moved so slowly that it took him an hour until his head was entirely in the room. On the eighth night, he says, he was more cautious than usual, and a watch’s minute hand moves more quickly than he did. When the old man sat up in bed and called out, he kept quite still and “did not move a muscle” for a whole hour. When he had finally killed the old man, he held his hand on his heart for “many minutes.”

The narrator says that it was four o’clock by the time he had finished concealing the body. Therefore, if we accept his timings as accurate, it must have taken him between one and a little less than two hours to conceal it (starting at midnight, finishing at four, and allowing over two hours for the time spent waiting in the old man’s room, actually killing him, and checking for a heartbeat afterward).

The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” however, is exceptionally unreliable even by the standards of Poe’s narrators. When he tells us that it took an hour to move his head a few inches, this must surely be hyperbole. The fact is that we cannot reliably determine anything about the story, including how long it took or even whether it happened at all, since the man who continually assures the reader that he is not mad is, at any rate, far from being sufficiently sane for us to trust.

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