illustration of a human heart lying on black floorboards

The Tell-Tale Heart

by Edgar Allan Poe

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What is the author's message in the story "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

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Edgar Allan Poe explores the themes of guilt, madness, and delusion throughout his short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" and offers the reader a unique insight into the mind of a maniac who has a guilty conscience. The story is told by a narrator who believes that he is completely sane and attempts to prove his sanity by explaining his crime its effect on his mind in detail. Poe's creation of an unreliable narrator, who tells the reader that he loves the old man before killing him and chopping his body into pieces, emphasizes the effects of madness and delusion. The mentally unstable narrator proceeds to explain how he took extreme precaution to dismember the old man's body before the police suddenly arrived. In the narrator's mind, his actions are justified, and the fact that he takes certain precautions and calculated measures to hide the body proves his sanity.

During the narrator's conversation with the policemen, he once again demonstrates his insanity by experiencing auditory hallucinations that mimic a heartbeat. The criminal's auditory hallucinations are a result of his guilty conscience—they are essentially his own heart betraying him. The narrator once again reveals his madness by believing that the officers are mocking him and are aware of his crime. At the end of the story, the narrator can no longer suppress his guilty conscience, and he admits to his crime. Through the use of an unreliable narrator and erratic language, Poe provides an excellent illustration of insanity and the effects of a guilty conscience on a criminal. Poe's short story is essentially a psychological portrait of a mentally unstable murderer and explores the themes of delusion and guilt.

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The primary message author Edgar Allan Poe tries to communicate through "The Tell-Tale Heart" is that the human heart knows the truth and will always have a louder voice than the lies that are told to obscure it. This is demonstrated through the narrator's hallucination of his victim's heart beating loudly through the floorboards. Despite the fact that the narrator dismembered his victim, his guilt and madness drives his delusion that somehow the old man's heart is still beating and that it will soon announce his crime to the world. This can be seen as a metaphor for the narrator's own conscience, which ultimately results in his confession to the police.

Another strong message delivered through the text is the unreliability of human perspective. The narrator is so deeply entrenched in his delusional perspective that he confesses to murder in order to prove his sanity. He fails to recognize the possibility that his madness is what motivated his crime in the first place. The narrator's fervent belief in his victim's "evil eye" was enough to move him to murder, despite claiming to love the old man. He also reports hearing "many things in heaven and hell," which further illustrate's Poe's message that it is entirely possible for someone to create a nightmare through his or her own warped perspective when there is no objective reality behind it. In this sense, much of human suffering begins and ends in the mind.

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