What happens in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?
On the surface, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" appears to be a straightforward story about murder, and the guilt that stems from it. The narrator tells the story of his act, never really giving a reason for committing it beyond how disturbing he found the eye of the old man. He states that it was "a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold" (220). The narrator then describes the meticulous detail of his plan and how cautious and calculating he is throughout. Even after the act, he goes into great detail regarding the measures he took to conceal the body. Despite his caution, he is discovered as his guilt manifests itself into a confession at the very end of the tale, which is then told in retrospect.
A closer look, however, reveals what is truly going on within the tale. Through his focus on procedure and his tendency to connect his acts with mechanical time, the narrator reveals the reason for the murder and the mechanism of his confession. He spies on the old man over the course of the next eight nights. On the night he finally commits the act, he says "[a] watch's minute hand moves more quickly than did mine" while simply opening the door to the old man's room. Shortly after he compares the sound of the old man's heart to the sound "a watch makes when enveloped in cotton" (220, 221). Throughout the story there are many other references to mechanical time, and it becomes clear that while the narrator attempts to live and act according to what he views as normal, focusing on mechanical time, it is this extreme obsession with mechanical time that has caused his insanity.
The plot of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is fairly simple: the narrator develops an unnatural hatred of the eye of the old man with whom he shares his house; he concocts a plan to kill the old man, which he does; after he has cut up the body and hidden it under the floorboards of his house, the police come. They suspect nothing, but the narrator, consumed with the consciousness of his murder, hears the heart of the old man beating, which drives him in a final frenzy to confess to his crime.
What is “going on” in the story is a little different. The narrator tells the story of the murder presumably to demonstrate his sanity. The elaborate slowness of his pursuit of the old man, the dread he is able to engender in him, how cleverly he hides the body—all this is meant to be seen as proof of intelligence, not madness. Yet the narrator is clearly crazy. The “vulture eye” of the man perhaps triggered the murder, but what motivates the narrator is a more general sense of paranoia and a morbid fixation on the difference between life and death. His hearing of the heartbeat of the dead man is an expression of that paranoia, of course, but also a painful reminder that his own heart is still beating. The old man’s murder can be seen as an outward manifestation of the inward mental state of the narrator: as he says when the old man, alone in the dark, lets out a groan of terror: “I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart.”
Poe's "The Tell Tale Heart" is a short story about what happens when murder is committed and what happens in the mind of the murderer. It is a classic psychological story. The narrator is driven to his act of murder by an unstable mind and by the fact that man's cloudy blue eye constantly seemed to be staring at him. The narrator kills the old man, dismembers the corpse, then buries it beneath the floorboards in his house. The narrator suffers guilt, his conscience is toxic, and he cries out. When the police come to check out his house, they find nothing. Still, the narrator hears the rhythmic beating of the old man's heart until he can stand it no more. He admits the deed and screams for the floorboards to be torn up.