What is the theme of “The Tell-Tale Heart"?

Two major themes in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” are guilt and madness. The narrator is seemingly unable to cope with his guilt and eventually confesses everything to the police, ruining his “perfect crime.” The narrator’s sanity is also in question. His justifications for killing the old man and his actions throughout the story suggest that the narrator has, in fact, descended into madness.

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The inescapability of guilt is arguably the most important theme in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Try as he might, the unreliable narrator is never able to escape his guilty conscience, as manifested by the insistent sound of the beating heart beneath the floorboards.

This sound torments the narrator, making it impossible for him to avoid the consequences of his wicked actions. It is all too easy to commit such a crime; but it is much more difficult to live with the consequences. And the narrator cannot live with them, hence his confessing what he did to the police.

It could be pointed out, in contradiction to the above, that the narrator attempts to dissociate himself from his crime, claiming that the murder victim, the old man, was somehow responsible for his own death.

That's perfectly true, but blaming the old man can still be seen as a way of dealing with a guilty conscience, even if it means evading responsibility for what's happened. Just because we feel guilty about something, it doesn't necessarily mean that we'll come right out and confess our guilt. It's perfectly possible to deny what we've done while still being tormented by a guilty conscience, and that certainly seems to be the case here.

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One of the major themes in “The Tell-Tale Heart” is the effects of guilt or conscience and the descent into madness.  In the story, the narrator’s sanity is definitely in question.  He kills the old man because of his “evil eye” but then feels guilty about it.

The story depicts a rapid devolving of the narrator’s psyche.  At first he is very proud of himself, and considers himself very clever to have gotten away with the murder.  When the police arrive, he coolly tells them there is nothing wrong, then leads them into the old man’s room.

In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I brought chairs into the room, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues, while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim. (p. 6)

However, his confidence gets the better of him.  While he is in that room, his guilty conscience starts to bother him.  He begins to imagine that the old man’s heart is still beating.

But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears… (p. 6)

The ringing in his ears represents his conscience, and his growing mental instability.

It was a low, dull, quick sound—much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath—and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly—more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. (p. 6)

The narrator begins to act more and more erratically, arguing “about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations” (p. 6)

Ultimately, it becomes obvious that the narrator is losing his mind, and it might have been clear to the police all along—why else would they stay and talk about nothing?

“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks! here, here!—It is the beating of his hideous heart!” (p. 6)

 

Quotes from: http://www.enotes.com/tell-tale-heart-text

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"The Tell-Tale Heart" is what is generally called a perfect-crime story. In this extremely common genre a man or woman commits what he or she considers a perfect crime, usually a murder, but some little clue gives the murderer away. This formula was used in the old radio shows for many years, and then used in television shows. It was used repeatedly in "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" on television and later on the highly successful show "Columbo," starring Peter Falk. The theme of most perfect-crime stories is "There is no such thing as a perfect crime," or it might be stated as "Murder will out." Poe wrote several perfect-crime stories in which the murderer is caught because of something he overlooked, but he also wrote one perfect-crime story in which the murderer actually gets away with it. That was "The Cask of Amontillado." Editors in Poe's day would not accept a murder story in which the murderer was successful, but Poe was able to publish "The Cask of Amontillado" because he set it in a foreign country in the distant past. Anyway, the theme of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is "There is no such thing as a perfect crime."

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The thematic subject may be guilt, but the theme is that the human heart cannot endure the burden of guilt, especially in the case of murder. The guilty must confess somehow or be consumed by his/her conscience.

Hint: Whenever you are looking for the theme in a story, ask yourself, what idea about life comes to my mind after reading this story? Or, is there some kind of lesson learned by any of the characters? Usually, the theme can be applied to more than just the story.

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