What is the external and internal conflict in the "Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe?

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favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The narrator has an internal conflict of which he seems consciously unaware.  He believes that his conflict is with the old man's "vulture" eye, for he says that he has no other motive to kill him.  He believes that it is the old man's heart that he hears, making a "low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton."  Even he, however, cannot provide us with an actual reason for murdering the old man other than that he must rid himself of the man's eye.  But why?  We get a few clues...

First, he describes the old man's eye as being like a vulture's.  Vultures are scavengers that feed on the carcasses of dead animals; therefore, they are often associated with death.  Next, he describes the eye has possessing a "film over it"; this sounds like cataracts, an ailment associated with the elderly.  Finally, the man is, as the narrator says multiple times, "old."  It seems that the narrator has identified several ways in which his victim might remind him of the fact that we all age and, more importantly, that we all die.  On the night he eventually kills the old man, he says that he hears the man make a "groan of mortal terror," and that he "knew the sound well" because on many nights, "it has welled up from [his] own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted [him]."  It seems, then, that what the narrator really fears is his own death, and the old man is a painful reminder of it.

It is not the old man's heart that he hears, sounding like a watch.  It is his own.  We realize this, though the narrator does not, because he hears it again after the old man is already dead and dismembered.  He hears "a low, dull, quick sound—much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton" as he speaks to the police.  It is his own heart that he hears, ticking away his limited time (the watch standing in as a symbol of mortality and the dwindling of what time the narrator has left).  His conflict is internal: he knows that he must someday die, but he longs to fight it.  

Kristen Lentz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" uses external and internal conflict to create suspense throughout the short story.

The internal conflict comes from the mind of the narrator of the story.  Extremely unreliable, the narrator reveals himself to be mentally unstable early on in the story.  He demands the reader take him seriously when he points out, "You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me."  The narrator's internal conflict is his struggle with his own mind.  He fancies that the odd eye of his old man roommate is evil and must be destroyed.  At the end of the story, the narrator's internal conflict consumes him, as he cannot stop hearing the "low, dull, quick sound—much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton."  His madness overcomes him, and his wild reaction exposes his misdeeds to the police.

The external conflict of the story is the narrator's conflict with the old man.  The old man remains seemingly unaware of the narrator's evil machinations and plans to murder him, and the narrator sneaks into his room each night to watch him.  Then the narrator pretends nothing is wrong the following day.  The external conflict reaches its climax in the moment that the narrator is tormented by the sound of the old man's heart and jumps into his room to smother him to death.

Poe's use of external and internal conflict creates the perfect combination of suspense and danger in "The Tell-Tale Heart."