In "The Tell-Tale Heart," why does the narrator kill the old man?

In "The Tell-Tale Heart," the narrator admits that the reason he killed the old man was because of his pale blue eye. The unreliable narrator becomes preoccupied with the old man's vulture eye and is determined to rid himself of the evil eye by killing the old man. The reasoning behind the narrator's crime undermines his argument that he is sane and proves his mental instability.

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This is a straightforward question which even the narrator cannot answer with clarity. He isn't sure how the idea of murder first came to him and admits that he "loved the old man." The old man had never committed any transgressions against the narrator, and he didn't want the man's money.

The narrator seems to stumble upon his reasoning for murder almost by accident:

I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye for ever.

With the narrator's inclusion of thinking it was the eye that drove him to murder, followed by the exclamation, it seems that he is trying to convince himself of his motives. Of course, people don't murder others because of an odd-looking eye, so all of this together can only mean one thing: the narrator is not mentally stable.

Therefore, the real reason for murder is that these are the actions of an insane man. Although he tries to convince his audience from the first lines that he is sane, there is no support for sanity in his actions. In fact, his subconscious eventually catches up with him in the end, and he admits to the murder because he is convinced that the heart of the man he has dismembered beats loudly underneath the floor where he is hidden.

The narrator's unstable mental abilities are the ultimate source of his desire to murder a man whom he claims he loved.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on June 24, 2020
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In Poe's celebrated short story "The Tell-Tale Heart," the mentally deranged, unreliable narrator attempts to convince the audience that he is sane while he vividly describes how he murdered and dismembered an old man. The narrator admits that the old man's pale blue eye motivated him to commit the violent crime. The narrator describes the old man's eye as being evil and is preoccupied with the idea of destroying the "vulture" eye at all costs. Whenever the narrator sees the old man's evil eye, he becomes incensed with rage and his blood runs cold. The reasoning behind the narrator's motivation to kill the old man is perplexing and unsettling, and it completely undermines his argument that he is sane.

The audience recognizes that the narrator is mentally ill and that his argument involving the old man's pale eye is a ridiculous, irrational reason to commit murder. Nonetheless, the narrator is determined to prove his sanity by describing the careful precautions he took before executing the violent crime. The narrator proceeds to peek into the old man's room each night but is not able to commit the crime, because his eye is closed. On the eighth night, the narrator finally looks into the old man's evil eye and attacks him. After smothering the old man to death, the narrator dismembers his body and hides his remains underneath the floorboards. However, the narrator is not able to maintain his composure in front of the police and eventually admits to murdering the old man.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on June 24, 2020
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A very good question, and one which the narrator of the story cannot really answer, although it seems he has wrestled with it. Note that the narrator continually toys with, and then rejects, the idea that he is "mad," and that it is this "disease" that has led him to do what he has done. As a reader, we can determine that this is probably the case—after all, the narrator says there was no "object" to his killing of the old man, whom he loved, and he could not say when the thought first entered his mind. The only thing he can think is that the old man's pale, filmy, blue eye, which made him feel judged or unhappy whenever it landed upon him—he calls it the eye of a "vulture"—drove him to kill the old man. He couldn't stand being looked at by that terrible eye which made his "blood [run] cold," and eventually this preoccupation led him to murder the man, just so that he could escape the eye.

Ultimately, of course, he does not escape anything—the murder of the old man is only the beginning of the narrator's problems, as the story tells.

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As the narrator mentions, he has no explicit reason for killing the old man. No relationship between them is mentioned; he is possibly the old man's son or nephew, or a live-in caretaker. Of course, it must be remembered that the narrator is unreliable; despite his protestations to the contrary, he is clearly insane to some degree, and possibly also delusional (one interpretation is that he never killed the old man at all, and that is why there is no blood). In the opening, he states:

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this!
(Poe, "The Tell-Tale Heart")

The narrator is suffering from an extreme version of morbid irritation; he finds the presence of the old man's "vulture eye" intolerable, and instead of searching for other employment or other living circumstances, he decides that the only rational solution is to murder the old man, thus ridding himself of the "vulture eye." His focus is on the eye itself, as he is unable to kill the old man until the eye is open and visible. However, considering how unreliable he is, it is impossible to say that greed or some other justification is not responsible for his actions.

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