The Tell-Tale Heart Questions and Answers
by Edgar Allan Poe

The Tell-Tale Heart book cover
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What is the theme for  "The Tell-Tale Heart?"

Two major themes in Edgar Allen 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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litteacher8 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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)


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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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aim94 | Student

The major theme that Edgar Allan Poe highlights in his narrative "The Tell-Tale Heart" is of  mental health. Secondary, to this theme he also portrays the themes of depression and guilt as well. The narrator in the story begins with, "true! --nervous --very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? " and constantly repeats throughout the story that he is not a 'madman' but in fact he is very smart. He believes he has planned out the 'perfect crime'. To begin with , the narrators claim that he is not a madman repeatedly points out that he is not in the right state of mind and something is amiss. Moreover, when he moves on to explain that he has planned to murder the oldman and the reason being for it that the mans diseased eye bothered him provides further evidence that he is mentally disturbed. The narrator commits his perfect crime and remarks , "If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body" and goes on to explain how he cut up the the body and hid it underneath the floor boards. He seems very proud of his work which is very highly unlikely to be expected from a sane man.

In fact, he succeeds in convincing the police officers that show up to his door that there was nothing to be worried about and it was a false alarm that their was any trouble at the premises. However, the guilt in him of committing the murder with  him not being in his right state of mind, he eventually confesses to his crime. This can be observed when apparently he is delusional of hearing the dead mans heart beat and its sound echo through the floor.

cperry1991 | Student

Poe explores two basic things in his short story "The Tell-Tale Heart," which are guilt and the descent into madness. From the very beginning of the story the narrator is already on that journey into madness although he hasn't quite reached his destination until he actually kills the older gentleman. At the beginning of the story the narrator is obsessed about the older gentleman's bad eye and he wholeheartedly proclaims his sanity from the very first line. He states, "True!--Nervous--very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?" This first line could be seen as foreshadowing of the events to come and it plays into the theme of the narrator's descent into madness. On a level he had already started to lose his sanity from the very beginning. Something else that speaks to the narrator's madness is the reason behind killing the older gentleman. He murdered him over something so trivial as a bad eye. The other dominant theme that Poe highlights in his story is guilt. After the narrator has committed the deed of murder by smothering the old man with his own bed he dismembers the body and places the pieces under the floor boards. Eventually the cops come because they get complaints of noises. The narrator brings them in and shows them around and not until they're sitting in the old man's room chatting does the guilt really set in. He starts hearing the beating of what he believes to be the old man's heart and as the police are talking among themselves the heart beats keep getting louder. This clearly is a representation of his own guilt. He's committed a murder and his conscience won't let him get away with it. The heart beating could have been all in his head. It could have been his own heart beating in the way that a person's heart usually beats when he or she gets nervous. Poe's two main themes of guilt and descent into madness are very well handled in this story and they are themes that he uses consistently throughout his works.

user5841259 | Student


gh-noran-15 | Student

human heart cannot endure the burden of guilt this is theme 1 on the story tell tale heart cause in our story the narrator coudnt handle killing and he started imagining heart beat sounds that are not real cause the man is dead  and this show how human beings cant handle killing cause guilt will take place in his life and this guilt will put him on jail, and this theme is universal and also based on the story which make the theme right.

(: "A guilty conscience can get the best of a person".  This is supported by the resolution of the story where the narrator confesses to killing the old man. We know he has a guilty conscience because he can still hear the old man's heart beating even after he is dead.) from e-notes to support my answer i guess.

theme 2: dont judge people by the outer cover. when poe judged the old man by his volture eye this made him make a horrible kind of crime while he said that he never made fun of him or mocked him . but he judged him by the outer cover he made a crime and he is going to jail and guilt gonna stay with him forever , so dont you ever judge someone by the outer cover.

gh-noran-15 | Student

we can say don't judge people by the outer cover . ex:when poe judge the man by his volture eye so he decided to kill him.

and (when the officers judge that poe is innocent by the outer cover)not sure of the one between parantheses

joannvac | Student

One theme is : "A guilty conscience can get the best of a person".  This is supported by the resolution of the story where the narrator confesses to killing the old man. We know he has a guilty conscience because he can still hear the old man's heart beating even after he is dead.

atticus-finch | Student

The theme, or moral, to this story is everyone has guilt. It can also be that someone can do something completeley horrendous and have no reason for it."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."

lindsaylax | Student

The theme of Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Tell Tale Heart" would most definitly be guilt of the narrator. The story is about a mad man who, after killing the old man he watches over, hears an interminable heartbeat and releases his overwhelming sense of guilt by shouting his confession to the police. The human heart cannon stand the burden of guilt, especially in the case of murder. Guilty people must confess somehow or be consumed by their own conscience. 

stanleyyang01 | Student


The answer was giult because he liked the old man and didn't want to hurt him at all but he hated his eye, when he figured that the only way to get rid of the eye was to kill the old man he didn't hesitate. after he was finish of his job, he was free of the eye but the old man he figured was dead. Then the police came and he got nervous and blurted things out.









doctorlion | Student

Love and Hate.

The narrator confesses his love for the old man whom he then violently murders and dismembers. The narrator reveals his madness by attempting to separate the person of the old man, whom he loves, from the old man's evil eye,which triggers the narrator's hatred. This delusional separation enables the narrator to remain unaware of the paradox of claiming to have loved his victim.

And Guilt.


sophiacozzo | Student

the theme of the story is that people have a wicked/bad side- another self- that can make people commit evil acts that have no apperent/ obvious motive!!! hope it helps!!

mazelog | Student

Guilt is by far the best answer

chi-teach | Student

The theme is guilt.  The major symbol is the beating heart.  Poe chooses a heartbeat because it is human and maddengly persistant.