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

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Why are the characters not fully developed in "The Tell-Tale Heart"? Are they supposed to be real characters, or are they simply talking heads that Poe is using to develop ideas?

In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the characters outside of the narrator are not fully developed in order to form opposition to the narrator. They serve not as real, round characters, but catalysts for the narrator’s crazed actions. The policemen become talking heads that Poe uses to develop the ideas of increased paranoia and delusion.

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Besides the narrator, the characters in “The Tell-Tale Heart”—the old man and the policemen—are not fully developed. Instead, they are flat, two-dimensional personalities that serve as outside forces that supposedly affect the narrator’s psyche and motivate his actions. Poe uses these secondary characters to contrast the narrator and to appear foreign and abhorrent to him. Most importantly, these undeveloped characters fuel the narrator’s paranoia.

The old man is not meant to be a real character. He is introduced by the narrator with little detail:

I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. 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.

The reader deduces that the narrator perhaps lives with an elderly and wealthy man as a caretaker; the old man seems harmless and innocent. Nonetheless, the narrator’s obsession with the old man’s eye hints at the old man’s possibly evilness, which is never proven. In fact, through the course of the story, the reader realizes that the mentally unstable narrator may be imagining the old man’s evil and projecting his own evil nature on the old man.

The reader lacks connection to and identification with the old man because he is not portrayed as a fully developed character. Poe shows glimpses of him as a pitiful victim being stalked: “The old man sprang up in bed, crying out—"Who's there?” The only extended description of the old man’s possible thoughts is the following:

he had been lying awake ever since the first slight noise, when he had turned in the bed. His fears had been ever since growing upon him. He had been trying to fancy them causeless, but could not. He had been saying to himself—"It is nothing but the wind in the chimney—it is only a mouse crossing the floor," or "It is merely a cricket which has made a single chirp." Yes, he had been trying to comfort himself with these suppositions

Here, Poe evokes sympathy for the scared old man but withholds any other characterization of him outside of bed; therefore, the reader feels only limited sympathy for old man, which leaves more attention to the narrator and his point of view. Poe uses the old man’s eye and heart as synecdoche to present the entire character.

Later, the policemen are even less developed and less real. They ultimately become talking heads or disembodied voices. Poe never describes them individually, but as

three men, who introduced themselves, with perfect suavity, as officers of the police.

The narrator addresses their presence only collectively, never as distinct, separate people. He refers to them as “they (the officers),” “gentlemen,” and “my visitors.” Their “suavity” or synchronized polished manner make them seem like an impersonal, unified enemy group in opposition to the individual, soon-to-be unhinged narrator. Audaciously sitting with them at the crime scene, he notes

They sat, and while I answered cheerily, they chatted of familiar things. But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone.

They essentially become a wall of talking heads, tedious people who are seen only shoulder and above and who talking incessantly but say nothing of substance. The narrator becomes increasingly paranoid as their voices seem to amplify and match the imagined heartbeat emanating from the floorboards:

It grew louder—louder—louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!—no, no! They heard!—they suspected!—they knew!—they were making a mockery of my horror!

Are the policemen simply testing the narrator and waiting for him to break? Or is the narrator’s confession inevitable whether or not the policemen were present? Is the narrator not only paranoid but also deluded? Are the heartbeats a delusion that only the narrator can hear?

As with the old man, the reader feels little connection with the policemen; in fact, even though the narrator is guilty, the reader sees everything through his point of view only and cannot help but feel more connected to him.

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