illustration of a human heart lying on black floorboards

The Tell-Tale Heart

by Edgar Allan Poe

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If "The Tell-Tale Heart" was a satire, what message might the author convey?

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Since the purpose of satire is to point out some flaw in the text's subject and, perhaps, inspire some change relative to that flaw, it seems possible that Poe is emphasizing the common fear of death and the lengths to which maintaining such an irrational fear can drive us. Many of us don't really like to consider our own deaths, and the narrator is no exception. When the old man's "vulture eye" begins to remind him of his own mortality, he desperately needs to get rid of it. The eye likely seems "veiled" because the old man has cataracts (a malady associated with old age, and those in old age are nearer to death), and the narrator's description of the eye further links it to death because vultures are associated with death as well.

The narrator insists, again and again, that he is not mad, but it becomes clearer and clearer to the reader that he very much is mad, or at least that he's been driven mad by his need to escape reminders of death. Therefore, since we can have no effect on our own mortality, and we cannot prevent death from "approaching" and casting "his black shadow" over us, it really does no good to dwell on it. In fact, it can do irreparable harm to us if we do.

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"The Tell-Tale Heart" has certain satirical elements, in the sense that it contains the satirical technique of irony. The story starts out with the speaker's repeated professions of sanity, followed by a very insane tale. Driven mad by his older roommate's eye, the speaker relates his very detailed plan for murdering the roommate in his sleep. This plan includes several trial runs, designed to accustom himself to the dark and to not arouse his roommate's suspicion. On the chosen night, the speaker is successful in smothering his roommate and hides his lifeless body beneath the floorboards in his room; however, a neighbor has heard sounds of a struggle and the police arrive to question him. The speaker almost brags about his coolness under pressure and the ease with which he fools the investigators until he begins to hear a muffled sound, almost like a heartbeat, under the floorboards. As the sound becomes seemingly louder and louder, the speaker loses his composure and eventually confesses to the crime.

One message the story could be conveying is the thought that "the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry." No matter how meticulously the speaker planned the murder of his roommate, it was ultimately his own conscience or lack of self control that led to his confession and arrest. 

Another potential message is the old adage that an insane person does not recognize that he or she is insane. The speaker starts by declaring repeatedly that he is not insane, and begs the reader to not judge him so. Then, he proceeds to tell a story of a sincerely insane man, driven mad by an insignificant physical oddity, who confesses to murder after hearing phantom sounds.

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What message or moral does "The Tell-Tale Heart" give to the readers?

Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" is an early example of a story with the message or moral "Murder will out." There have been thousands of such "perfect-crime" stories written ever since. Typically in such a story the protagonist commits a murder which is planned and executed so perfectly that he does not expect to be caught. But he overlooks one detail which gives him away to the police. In the case of "The Tell-Tale Heart," the narrator is caught because of his own nervousness and guilty conscience.

TRUE!—NERVOUS—VERY, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; 

This is only one of the myriad ways in which a murderer can get caught and punished. His guilt and nervousness cause him to imagine that he can hear the victim's heart beating so loudly that the investigating officers must be hearing it as well. He thinks they are playing cat-and-mouse with him, only pretending not to hear the beating heart. Finally he can stand the strain no longer; he breaks down and confesses.

“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks! here, here!—It is the beating of his hideous heart!”

Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat" is another perfect-crime story with the same message or moral that "Murder will out." The narrator murders his wife and conceals her body behind a thick wall. But he doesn't realize that he has inadvertently walled in his nemesis, a black cat, which attracts the attention of the investigating officers with its yowling. They break through the wall and discover a horrible scene.

The corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore, stood erect before the eyes of the spectators. Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled the monster up within the tomb!

The murderer had overlooked one minor detail in committing the perfect murder. These perfect-crime stories involving murder generally imply that there will always be something that will give the murderer away.

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What message or moral does "The Tell-Tale Heart" give to the readers?

In the end of Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart," readers should leave with one message or moral: that murder is wrong.

Given that a moral is the relating of behavior in regards to right and wrong, the speaker, alone, simply cannot come to terms with what he has done. That being said, while the beating is understood by the speaker as the heart of the old man, readers know that it is, instead, his own heart beating in his ears.

While the speaker does not come to understand that the sounds he is hearing is his conscious bearing down on him, the fact that he does not allow the police to leave without admitting to the murder of the old man speaks more profoundly to the morality lesson.

Therefore, it is not the typical moral story. The speaker does not come out of the story enlightened. More importantly, the reader does.


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How does the title, "The Tell-Tale Heart," relate to content or moral of Poe's story?

In his story, Edgar Allan Poe created the perfect symbolic meaning and central focus in the title, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The murderer is so plagued by his transgression that he becomes obsessed with the body he buried and begins to succumb to hallucinations. As such, the heart that he imagines still beating in the chest of the victim he buried under his floor boards.

The heart, however, does not only “tell” the police that the protagonist is guilty; it also tells the reader that he is mentally profoundly unhinged.

The first-person narrator keeps telling the reader that he is not “mad” and proceeds to explain the “wise” precautions he took, first for murdering an old man that did nothing beyond having a cataract eye to scare the protagonist, and second for concealing the murder.

His own guilty conscience, however, and one might even say what remains of his sanity, finally tells its tale in the form of a heart that beats only in his broken mind.


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