Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" depicts an individual’s descent into madness driven by his obsession with the deformed eye of an old man with whom he apparently lives. Poe, whose stories frequently involved such forms of murderous insanity as appear in "The Tell-Tale Heart," wastes no time providing a picture of the mental state of his narrator. The story’s very first line suggests the nature of the individual, almost certainly an adult male, who vividly describes his state of mind as he begins his tale:
“True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute.”
Right from the start, the reader is made aware that the narrator experiences an extremely heightened state of mental awareness, and that he is aware that his demeanor and the actions he is about to describe would normally be perceived as ‘madness’ absent the context he is about to provide. The story that follows, as related by the narrator, involves his growing anxiety regarding one of the old man’s eyes:
“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.”
As "The Tell-Tale Heart" progresses, the narrator’s obsession with the old man’s eye and the sense that he can hear his intended victim’s heart beating in his chest fills him with dread and increasing determination to kill his housemate. Poe’s narrator is a murderer, but the entire basis of the story, and of its title, is less the eye, significant though it is in driving the narrator’s thoughts and actions, than the old man’s heart:
“It was the beating of the old man’s heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of the drum stimulates the soldier into courage.”
The story’s climax, the revelation by the narrator that he has murdered the old man and concealed his dismembered body beneath the floorboards, is driven by his previously referenced acute hearing. He is convinced in the presence of the police that the old man’s heart continues to beat, and it is this sound that compels him to confess his deed. What Poe’s story tells the reader about the narrator is that he is murderously insane, but that his compulsion to confess indicates an inner sense of guilt that serves to support his insistent claims that he is not, in fact, mad. He obviously cannot actually hear the beating of a dead man’s heart, but he convinces himself that he can because his conscience will not allow him to live with what he has done.