Why does the narrator confess at the end of Edgar Allen Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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His protestations aside – “TRUE!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? . . . How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story” – the narrator of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Tell-Tale Heart is clearly mentally disturbed.  Beyond these opening qualifications regarding his mental state, the narrator’s obsession with the old man’s eye, described in frightening detail (“One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold . . .”) provides an early indication that his emotional well-being has been seriously jeopardized, and that his judgment may be impaired.  That, combined with Poe’s reputation and body of work, are all the clues we need to suggest that the “protagonist” of The Tell-Tale Heart is anything but sane.  His act of cold-blooded murder, also meticulously described, along with the actions taken to conceal the old man’s remains, are entirely consistent with that of a mentally disturbed individual, especially when the motive for that murder, the otherwise benevolent old man’s eye, is factored into the equation.  The narrator makes a point of noting his fondness for the old man’s nature (“I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult”), but proceeds to describe his obsession with that eye, and how he planned and executed the murder solely for the purpose of being rid of that eye. 

Basically, we are, by the end of the story, given sufficient information regarding the narrator’s state of mind to conclude that his mental state is seriously impaired.  Given the suggestion of “criminal insanity,” then, anything that follows need not necessarily constitute rationalism from a conventional point of view.  The narrator confesses to his crime because he is convinced that he can hear the beating of the old man’s heart beneath the floor boards where he had concealed the evidence of his crime, and that the visiting police officers must also hear it – a mistaken notion borne of the narrator’s psychopathy, as evident in the following passage, in which he describes his growing anxiety at the constant beating from beneath the floor:

“Yet the sound increased—and what could I do? 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. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations, but the noise steadily increased.”

The narrator’s mental instability is proving his undoing, as his conscience has him convinced that the heart is, indeed, beating and giving away his secret.  The increasing sound to which he alone is privy exists solely in his mind, of course, but is sufficient to compel his exclamation of guilt: “I admit the deed!—tear up the planks!—here, here!—it is the beating of his hideous heart!”  The narrator confesses because he is insane, and because he is convinced that inexplicable events have conspired against him and forced his revelation of murder.

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udonbutterfly's profile pic

udonbutterfly | Student, College Freshman | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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The narrator confesses at the end of the story because he is suffering from guilt that just will not subside. What leads him to this is the beating heart. The care taker thinks the beating heart belongs to the old man that he has just murdered. He believes that the sound of the beating heart is so loud that eventually the officers will be able to tell that the beating heart belongs to the man that he just murdered. The caretakers begins to panic as his lies seem to now are now becoming shaky and the beating of the heart is become more rapid and louder which drives him into even more of a panic. It got to the point where he thought the cops knew what he did and where only playing along with him to laugh and mock him

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. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer!

In reality the beating heart was probably his own heart beat in response to his guilt.

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