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bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" is one of the most famous--and macabre--short stories in all literature, and it helped to define its author as one of the founding fathers of the horror, detective and science fiction genres. The story tells the tale of a mentally disturbed man who kills the old man with whom he lives and then dismembers the body. The murderer is the very unreliable narrator: He repeatedly tells the reader that he is completely sane--

"... but why will you say that I am mad?"

--but he claims that though he "loves the old man," he has no specific reason for killing him (not for money or power) except for the old man's evil eye.

"... yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever."

But after killing the man and burying his body parts below his living room floor, the killer's conscience becomes overwhelmed by what he believes to be the old man's heart beat, loudly pounding from beneath the floor. The crime is not so perfect: Police come to investigate, and the beating of the heart becomes deafening--at least to the killer:

     Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!—no, no! They heard!—they suspected!—they knew!—they were making a mockery of my horror!--this I thought, and this I think... I felt that I must scream or die! and now—again!—hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!
     “Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks! here, here!—It is the beating of his hideous heart!”

The story explores the psychological aspects of its narrator and the fine lines between sanity and insanity, and innocence and guilt.