What kinds of conflict are present in Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the interpretation of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," it is essential that the reader understand that the action is filtered through the perception of the delusional narrator, who prefaces his tale,"Nervous--very nervous, dreadfully nervous I had been and am." Therefore, while for the psychotic narrator there are external conflicts with the old man's eye and with the police who seem to mock him with their casual conversation, all the conflicts revolve around his distorted sense of reality versus reality, and are, thus, internal.  These internal conflicts are psychological contradictions in the narrator:

  1. He loves the old man, but hates the "vulture eye." Long before Sigmund Freud's theory that one can kill whom he loves, Poe creates in this story a narrator who kills the beloved old man because his heightened visual sensitivity and obsession that reduces the man to an eye when it is opened.  For, it is only when the eye opens on the eighth day that the delusional narrator is capable of killing the old man:  "For it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye."
  2. After having disposed of the body, the narrator experiences a second conflict of his distorted sense of reality vs. reality when the policemen arrive. In his confidence the narrator brings the men into the very room in which the old man's body parts are hidden. While the "satisfied" officers "sat and still chatted" unaware of anything wrong, the narrator's delusional mind beset with paranoia and guilt, however,"hears" the beating of the old man's heart that grows louder and louder until the narrator feels that the chatter of the policemen mocks him and he confesses his crime:

Anything was more tolerable than this derision!  I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die!

"Villains!" I shrieked. " Dissemble no more! I admit the deed!...."

Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart" is truly a psychological narrative that examines the pathologies of a mind that is both paranoic and ridden with guilt.


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The Tell-Tale Heart

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