In the short-story "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allen Poe, what is problematic about the narrator's plan to kill the old man?  I need this ASAP.

2 Answers | Add Yours

billdelaney's profile pic

William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

The biggest problem the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" faces is the same one that virtually any murderer must deal with: he wants to avoid being caught and punished for his crime. It is easy enough to kill somebody but very hard to get away with it. As in "The Tell-Tale Heart," the police are sure to come around asking questions. Typically in these "perfect-crime" stories, the murderer plans to hide the body and then tell everybody, including the police if they inquire, that the victim is away on a trip or a visit. The absence of the victim has to be accounted for if there is a close connection between the perpetrator and the man or woman he kills. And the perpetrator has to have nerves of steel. In Poe's story there is such a close connection. The narrator lives with the old man and apparently inherits all his property. The details of the murder are dramatic, but the real problem is to dispose of the body and to account for the old man's absence. The narrator takes considerable pains to dismember the corpse and hide it.

First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs....I then took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye—not even his—could have detected any thing wrong. There was nothing to wash out—no stain of any kind—no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all—ha! ha!

This seems like only a temporary expedient. The dismembered body will decay and create a disgusting lingering odor, such as William Faulkner describes in "A Rose for Emily." But the narrator must hope to keep the body hidden under the flooring at least until he gets rid of the police. He is not squeamish, so he won't mind retrieving the body parts from under the flooring and disposing of them by chopping them up into even smaller pieces and removing them from the premises in stages.

There are many "perfect-crime" stories in which the major problem is not in committing the killing but in getting rid of the incriminating corpse. One good story is John Collier's "Home for Christmas." Collier wrote several stories in which a murderer buries a corpse in his basement and then covers the whole area with fresh cement. This would take care of the smell and could keep the body hidden for decades. The only other problem would be to invent a plausible explanation for the victim's prolonged absence. Most "perfect-crime" stories, like Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat" are foiled because some unforeseen clue leads to the discovery of the corpus delicti. And the moral of most of these stories is "Murder will out," or "There is no such thing as a perfect murder."

Anyone who plans to write a "perfect-crime" story must consider the problem of getting rid of the body and accounting for the victim's prolonged absence. The actual murder is relatively simple. It can be done with a gun, a knife, poison, strangulation, drowning, or in many other ways. But that dead body is a terrible burden. As long as it remains on the premises it is a potential death sentence, whereas it is extremely difficult to transport a human body away from the murder scene and perhaps bury it somewhere in the woods. It is probably a good idea not to murder people--and that is undoubtedly the message contained in the majority of "perfect-crime" stories.

Sources:
thanatassa's profile pic

thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

The first obvious problem is that killing people is morally wrong. The arguments the narrator puts forward justifying his decision show just how mentally disturbed and disconnected from reality he actually is. In many ways, the record of the narrator's steps in making the decision form a perfect record of the disintegration of his mind.

The narrator tells us from the outset his reasons for the murder:

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! 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.

The first problem we see here is that the narrator thinks there is something evil or malevolent about the old man's eye, which was pale blue and covered with a film. A sane person would simply note that one should not kill someone for having blue eyes. The film on the eye, which seems mysterious and ominous to the insane narrator, is actually an ordinary effect of aging. 

For the narrator, the next problem was that he he wanted to kill the old man in his sleep but while his eye was open, because in his disturbed mental state, he believed wanted to kill the eye, not the old man himself. This caused a problem, because the old man, as most people, did not sleep with his eye open. Finally, he solves the problem by casting a narrow beam of light on the eye, leaving the rest of the old man in darkness. Next ensues a second problem, a worry that the neighbors might hear him (which, in fact, they do, leading the police to visit). 

His third problem is hiding the body, which is solved by placing it under the floorboards. The final problem is that the narrator is haunted by guilt, and imagines that he can hear the dead man's heart beating, which the narrator solves by revealing the body's hiding place to the police. 

Sources:

We’ve answered 318,928 questions. We can answer yours, too.

Ask a question