What is the relationship between the narrator and the old man in "The Tell-tale Heart"? My English teacher is convinced that the narrator is the old man's servant, but her explanation why is not very clear, so I'm not so sure. What do you think?

The exact relationship between the narrator and the old man is never explicitly stated or revealed in the short story. One cannot confirm or refute that the narrator is the old man's servant, and their ambiguous relationship is open to interpretation. However, one could argue that the narrator is not a servant and more than likely a relative of the old man based on several pieces of evidence.

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In Poe's classic short story "The Tell-Tale Heart ," the unreliable narrator never explicitly states his relationship with the old man, which is open to interpretation. While one could argue that the narrator is the old man's servant, it seems more likely that he is related to him in...

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In Poe's classic short story "The Tell-Tale Heart," the unreliable narrator never explicitly states his relationship with the old man, which is open to interpretation. While one could argue that the narrator is the old man's servant, it seems more likely that he is related to him in some capacity. The fact that the narrator states that he "loved" the old man suggests a familial relationship. It would be rather odd for a servant to make this affectionate statement and seems more appropriate coming from a family member. The reader also recognizes the significant age difference between the narrator and his victim and understands that they have been living with each other for an extended period of time. Given this evidence, one could argue that the narrator is a younger relative of the old man and is acting as his trusted caretaker.

The primary evidence which suggests that the narrator is related to the old man is revealed when the narrator says, "For his gold I had no desire" (Poe, 3). By stating that he does not desire the old man's gold, the narrator suggests that there will be an opportunity for him to inherit the gold in the future. In order for the narrator to inherit the gold, he would have to be a son, nephew, or grandson of the old man, which are all likely possibilities. There is also the implication that the old man would not trust his gold around a servant and would feel more comfortable in the house with a relative. The fact that the narrator only refers to his victim as the old man further complicates matters and contributes to the ambiguity of their relationship. The most accurate conclusion is that the narrator is the old man's grandson or nephew, who is acting as his caretaker.

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I agree with the other commenter that there is simply no evidence to support the claim that the narrator is the servant of the old man he murders. There is no evidence to deny it either, but I think there is a likelier possibility: that the old man is actually the narrator's father. It is, of course, possible that the pair are simply roommates, but if this is the case, why wouldn't the narrator just leave and find a different place to live with another roommate?

The fact that the narrator calls this other person "old man" signifies their difference in age, and "old man" is often a slang term for a person's father. Further, the narrator says,

Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire.

The narrator's love for the old man makes easy sense if the narrator is the old man's son. Further, the narrator says the old man has never wronged him or insulted him. This makes it sound like their relationship has been of some duration. Finally, the narrator says that he has no desire for the man's gold. Perhaps he anticipates that someone might accuse him of killing the old man so that he would inherit the man's property, and he would likely inherit it were he the old man's son; however, he rules this out as a motive too.

There is no hard and fast evidence to support any claim regarding the relationship between the old man and the narrator beyond the fact that they are roommates. However, I think it is quite possible that the narrator is the son of the old man based on the evidence I've included here.

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The narrator does say that he loves the old man.

Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never
given me insult. (p. 4)

However, the narrator is not quite sane.  He may have liked his roommate's company, but he killed him all the same.

There is no evidence that the narrator is the old man’s servant, other than the fact that the old man had gold. 

For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. (p. 4)

This does not imply that the narrator was his servant.  They seem to be roommates.  The old man seems somewhat afraid of the narrator, and if he was his servant wouldn’t he have fired him?

I had my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb slipped upon the tin fastening, and the old man sprang up in bed, crying out—“Who's there?” (p. 4)

I think if he had a servant in the house, he would have reacted differently.  He might have called his servant, for example, or asked if it was him and ordered him out.

When the police come, the narrator does not introduce himself as a servant.  He says that the old man is not there, but that does not imply that he works for the old man

The old man, I mentioned, was absent in the country. I took my visitors all over the house. I bade them search—search well. I led them, at length, to his chamber. I showed them his treasures, secure, undisturbed. (ch 6)

It is fine to propose theories and look for evidence to support them.  There is no evidence to suggest that the narrator was not his servant, perhaps, but there is also none to suggest that he was.

 

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