The Tell-Tale Heart Summary

The Tell-Tale Heart summary

The unreliable narrator of this classic short story denies accusations that he is mad. He begins to tell a tale to prove his sanity. He recalls being inspired to kill the old man who he was living with and notes that he was made nervous by the man’s “evil eye.”

  • One night, the narrator slips into the old man’s bedroom, removes him from his bed, and drags the bed over his body to kill him. He cuts him into pieces and buries the body under the floorboards.

  • When the police come to question him, he is disturbed by the sound of the old man’s heart, which he perceives to be still beating beneath the floorboards. He is so disturbed that he confesses and tells the police where to find the body.


The Tell-Tale Heart cover image

‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ was first published in 1843 in the Boston Pioneer, and revised into its current form for an 1845 edition of The Broadway Journal. Like ‘‘The Black Cat,’’ it is a murder story told by the acknowledged killer himself. Here, however, the narrator’s stated purpose is not confession but the desire to prove his ‘‘sanity.’’

The dramatic monologue begins with the unnamed (and highly unreliable) first-person narrator issuing a challenge of sorts: ‘‘True!—nervous, very, very dreadful nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?’’ He declares at once that he suffers from a ‘‘disease,’’ but implies that because it has not dulled his senses, he cannot be called mad. The narrator points out that his mental disorder has actually caused his senses, especially his hearing, to become more acute. When he claims to have heard many things in heaven and hell, we realize, of course, that his super-human sensory experiences are delusions. But having posited (and immediately undercut) the first argument in his proof, the narrator turns to a second plank. The calm manner in which he will now tell us the whole story is in itself evidence of his sound mind.

The narrator says that he cannot recall when the idea of killing the old man ‘‘entered’’ his ‘‘brain.’’ He never discloses the exact nature of his relationship to the victim. The old man and his killer seem to live in the same house, and this would suggest a family bond of some kind, and, from here, a father-son relation with ample room for subconscious motives. But the narrator conspicuously omits direct confirmation that the old man is his father (or uncle, etc.), saying only that he loved his victim and that he did not covet the old man’s wealth. In mid-sentence, as if he just realized it (or made it up), the narrator declares that it was one of the old man’s eyes, a pale-blue, film-covered eye like that of a vulture, that he could not stand. As if jogging his own memory (or, again, making it up on the spot), the narrator further recollects that when this ‘‘evil eye’’ fell upon him, his blood ran cold.

The motive established, the narrator proceeds to recount the cunning deliberation, the caution, that he used in preparing to take the old man’s life, submitting it as evidence of his rationality. To allay any suspicions that his intended victim might have, the narrator greeted the old man each morning during the week before the crime with encouraging words, asking him about how he had slept the night before. But each midnight as the old man slept, the narrator carefully lifted the latch on his bedroom door, moved his head inside the room itself, and opened a lantern’s shutter so slightly that only a narrow beam of light pinpointed the ‘‘vulture’’ eye. For seven nights in a row, the deed could not be committed because the ‘‘accursed’’ eye was closed.

On the eighth night, however, an opportunity (to hear the killer tell it) arose. Moving as slowly as the hands of a clock, he opened the bedroom door and felt a sense of exhilaration at the thought that the old man did not even dream that a foul deed was afoot. Unable to suppress his glee, the narrator chuckled aloud, causing the old man to shift suddenly in his sleep, as if he were startled. But the narrator says that he was not concerned since the room was pitch black, its shutters closed tight against thieves. This time, he slipped his head in as usual, but when his thumb slipped on the lantern shutter, the sound caused the old man to spring up in his bed and to cry out ‘‘Who’s there.’’ The narrator does not take this to be a blunder on his part. Instead, he describes his delight in being able to read the old man’s mind. Laying back down, the old man groaned, and the narrator somehow knew that this was not an expression of pain or grief, but one of mortal terror, terror of the kind that he...

(The entire section is 1636 words.)

The Tell-Tale Heart Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This is a chilling tale of madness and murder. “True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am,” admits the narrator, “but why will you say that I am mad?” In a vain effort to prove his sanity by detailing how carefully he planned the gruesome deed, the narrator makes it abundantly clear from the first that he is dangerously deranged. Little is revealed about him, or about the old man that he kills. He did not hate the old man; indeed, he says he loved him. However, he had to kill him because he was tormented beyond distraction by the old man’s eye—“a pale blue eye, with a film over it.” In the first two paragraphs, the narrator draws the reader into the terrifying yet fascinating world of madness that has led him to murder.

Having decided to kill the old man, the narrator recalls with obvious pleasure how calculatingly he set about to do it. For seven successive nights, he slipped into the old man’s room just after midnight. He moved ever so slowly, first lifting the latch and then gradually insinuating himself into the room. Once inside, he would open his darkened lantern so that a single ray of light fell on his tormentor, that “vulture eye.” On each of those nights, however, the eye remained closed when the light fell on the old man’s face, and the narrator found it “impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye.” Although the old man possessed some wealth and was wary enough of robbers to have the shutters of his bed chamber nailed shut, the narrator insists that his victim suspected nothing. During the day, the narrator explains, he was kinder to the old man than ever before.

On the eighth night, the narrator was especially cautious, though almost ecstatic with feelings of power and triumph, certain that the old man knew nothing of what he was doing or planning to do. Reveling in the moment, he may well have laughed. At any rate, the old man startled in his bed. Moving steadily into the darkened bedroom, the narrator began to open the lantern, but his thumb slipped, and the old man cried out, asking who was there and sitting up in his bed. The narrator says that he did not move for more than an hour, for the room was pitch black; nor did the old man move. Finally, the old man groaned slightly, and the narrator knew that it was the sound of one overcome by deathly fear, for he too had experienced that terror deep in the night. “I knew what the old man felt,” he claims, “and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart.”

Slowly opening the lantern, the narrator found that its single ray fell directly on the vulture eye—“all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow of my bones.” No other part of the old man’s face was visible, but presently he heard “a low, dull, quick sound, much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.” He was sure it was the old man’s heart, and as the beat grew louder, he feared the sound might be heard by the neighbors. Enraged by the thought, he threw open the lantern, sprang into the room with a yell, dragged the old man to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over on him. He was shortly dead, and the heart beat no more. To conceal his crime, the narrator dismembered his victim and hid the corpse under the floor of the old man’s chamber. A tub caught all the blood. The murderer asks if a madman would have been so sagacious.

It was about 4:00 a.m. when he finished doing away with the body. Shortly thereafter, there was a knock on the door, and, sure that no one could discover what he had done, the narrator was not at all worried when three police officers explained that a neighbor had heard a scream and suspected foul play. The narrator answered that he had cried out because of a bad dream. The old man was away visiting friends, he said, but the police should search the house, see that nothing was taken, and be assured that all was well. As they finished their work, the narrator bade them to sit down a few minutes, placing his own chair over the planks that covered the old man’s remains. The pleasant conversation of the police convinced him that they suspected nothing. The officers seemed to be reluctant to leave, however, and the narrator began to feel uneasy. He then heard what sounded very much like the old man’s heart beating again, and he became very anxious, talking loudly and moving about the room, hoping that the police would not hear the heartbeat. “I foamed—I raved—I swore! I swung the chair on which I had been sitting, and grated it on the boards, but the noise arose over all and constantly increased.” He suddenly felt that the police knew, though they pretended to ignore him. In desperation, he admitted his crime and urged them to tear up the boards and uncover that “hideous heart.”

The Tell-Tale Heart Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

A man insists that he is not mad. In spite of being dreadfully nervous, he also insists that his senses, especially his hearing, have been heightened rather than destroyed. He claims that the calm and healthy way he will tell the following story is evidence of his sanity.

He admits that he cannot say when the idea to kill the old man had come into his mind. He says he had no reason, nor passion, for killing him; the old man had never harmed or insulted him. He did not want his money. He says he loved the old man. He thinks he killed him because of the old man’s eye, like the eye of a vulture, a pale blue eye that made the old man’s blood run cold.

The narrator says that he had never been kinder to the old man than he had been during the week before he killed him. He tells the following story: Before the murder, every night at midnight, he makes a small opening in the old man’s chamber door and puts a small closed lantern inside. Taking an hour to slowly place his head in the opening so he can see the old man, he opens the lantern, allowing the light to shine on the vulture eye. He does this for seven nights, but because the eye is always closed, he does not become enraged by it. In great detail, he praises himself for his cunning, asks his listener if a mad person could have been so clever as he, and even tells the listener that he or she would have laughed if they had seen how methodically he had opened the door and placed the lantern inside the old man’s chamber.

On the eighth night, he tells the listener, he once again puts the lantern inside the chamber, but this time his finger slips, making a noise that wakens the old man, who then cries out. For an hour, the narrator waits; then he hears a groan and recognizes it as the groan of mortal terror, a sound he, too, has made in the night. He slowly opens the crevice in the lantern until the light falls on the open vulture eye. Still he waits, knowing the old man’s terror must be extreme. He hears a sound like that of a watch inside cotton and thinks it is the beating of the old man’s terrified heart. Imagining that the sound is so loud it could be heard by a neighbor, he bursts inside the chamber, pulls the old man to the floor, and suffocates him with the bedding. He then cuts up the corpse and puts the body parts under the floor, replacing the boards so cleverly so that no one could ever see anything wrong.

Proud that a tub had caught all of the old man’s blood, he then cleans up the crime scene and prepares to go to bed when he hears a knock at the door. Three men who identify themselves as police tell him that neighbors had reported hearing a shriek in the night. He smiles and says it was his own shriek in a dream. He tells the officers that the old man is out, visiting in the country, then takes them through the house, leading them to the old man’s bedchamber. He brings in chairs for them to sit on, placing his own chair right over the spot where the corpse is hidden beneath the floorboards.

He answers the officers’ questions, cheerily, but then thinks he hears a ringing in his ears, which gets louder and more distinct. Finally, he thinks that the noise is not from within his ears but from beneath the flooring. He becomes more and more agitated, pacing, swearing, and grating his chair upon the floor over the body. He thinks the police can hear the sound also, and that they are pretending they do not, making a mockery of his own horror. Finally, he feels he must scream or die. He shrieks loudly, admitting the murder and insisting the officers pull up the planks to reveal the beating of the old man’s “hideous heart.”

The Tell-Tale Heart Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Poe is often thought to be the author of stories about mad persons and murders, but attention is seldom given to the psychological nature of the madness in his stories. “The Tell-Tale Heart,” one of his best-known stories about murderous madness, is also one of his most psychologically complex works. The story is told in the first-person voice by the killer, who has obviously been locked up in a prison or in an insane asylum for his crime. He begins by arguing that he is not mad and that the calm way he committed the crime and can now tell about it testify to his sanity.

The central problem of the story is the narrator’s motivation for killing the old man. He begins by assuring his listeners (and readers) that he loved the old man, that he did not want his gold, and that the old man had not abused him or insulted him. There was neither object nor passion for his crime; instead, it was the old man’s eye. He says that when the eye fell on him, his blood ran cold and that he made up his mind to kill the old man and rid himself of the eye forever. Because the narrator provides no explanation for his extreme aversion to the eye, the reader must try to understand the motivation for the crime, and thus for the story itself, in the only way possible—by paying careful attention to the details of the story and trying to determine what thematic relationship they have to one another.

To understand a Poe story, one must accept Poe’s central dictum that every element in the work must contribute to its central effect. The determination of those elements that have most relevance to the central effect of the story, and are thus true clues rather than mere irrelevant details, is the principle that governs the communication of all information—the principle of redundancy or repetition. Because the narrator who tells the story is a man obsessed, those things that obsess him are repeated throughout the story.

In addition to the motif or theme of the eye, which lies at the center of his obsession and thus is repeated throughout, another central theme of the story is the narrator’s identification with the old man. As he plots his crime by nightly placing his head inside the old man’s bedroom door, he says the old man sits up in his bed listening, just as he himself has done night after night. Moreover, he says that the old man’s groan is a sound he knows well, for many a night at midnight he has felt it rise up within himself. “I knew what the old man felt,” he says, “and pitied him.”

If the reader ties these two ideas together and listens to the sound of “eye” rather than sees it, it is possible to understand the narrator’s desire to rid himself of the “eye” as his desire to rid himself of “I”—that is, his own self or ego. Such a displacement of the image of an “eye” for that which it sounds like—the “I”—is not an uncommon “mistake” for the dreamlike nature of the narrator’s madness. In order to understand why the narrator might wish to destroy himself by destroying the old man—which he does succeed in doing by the end of the story—one can turn back to the motifs of time and the tell-tale heart, which also dominate the story.

Throughout the story, the narrator notes that the beat of the old man’s heart is like the ticking of a watch. Moreover, he says, he and the old man have both listened to the “death watches” (a kind of beetle that makes a ticking sound) in the wall at night. Finally, there is the theme of the tell-tale heart itself—a heart that tells a tale. Although in the surface plot of the story, the narrator thinks that it is the old man’s heart that “tells a tale” on him when the police come to check on a scream that has been reported to them, it is clear that it is his own heart he hears beating. On the psychological level of the story, however, the tale that the heart tells that so obsesses the narrator is the tale that every heart tells. That tale links the beating of the heart to the ticking of a clock, for every beat is a moment of time that brings one closer to death.

Once the narrator becomes obsessed with this inevitability, he becomes obsessed with the only way one can defeat the tale of time—that is, by destroying the self, or “I,” that is susceptible to time and thus death. Because the narrator cannot very well escape the time-bound death of self by killing the self, he must displace his desire to destroy the “I” by projecting it onto the “eye” of the old man with whom he identifies. Thus by destroying the “eye” he does, indirectly, succeed in destroying the “I.”

“The Tell-Tale Heart,” like many of Poe’s other tales, seems at first to be a simple story of madness; however, as Poe well knew, there is no such thing as “meaningless madness” in the short story. The madness of the narrator in this story is similar to the madness of other Poe characters who long to escape the curse of time and mortality but find they can do so only by a corresponding loss of the self—a goal they both seek with eagerness and try to avoid with terror.

The Tell-Tale Heart Summary

"The Tell-Tale Heart" is one of a number of Poe stories that focus on an obsessed protagonist/narrator. Indeed, what holds the story together...

(The entire section is 576 words.)